Written in 1835 when America was in its infancy, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America may still be the most insightful analysis of American values ever written. His observations on the behaviors and aspirations of the broad spectrum of Americans is remarkably precise. So much so, that we can use his observations about America circa 1836 to shed light on America circa 2019.
Despite our very recognizable national character, America also displays a tendency toward contradiction. We seem able to comfortably balance what appear to be opposite values in perfect equilibrium, such as our love for both theistic spiritualism and material acquisition. Of the latter Tocqueville says, “I know of no country, indeed, where the love of money has taken stronger hold of the affections of men, and where the profounder contempt is expressed for the theory of the permanent equality of property.” And yet, he observed in his American travels that “nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of condition among the people.” To Tocqueville, “general equality” is synonymous with democracy.
Our national character is often paradoxical.
This contrariness is playing out before our eyes. I’m referring to the international dustup between China and the NBA. If you haven’t been paying attention, China is a huge and wealthy nation whose people have fallen in love with American basketball. The NBA is a huge and wealthy American corporation which has been maneuvering for years to deliver its product to Asia and produce even greater wealth. A marriage made in capitalist heaven, right? What could possibly go wrong?
Here’s what. For weeks, the people of Hong Kong have taken to the streets demanding universal suffrage and other democratic reforms from their authoritarian government. The whole world was watching, including Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets, who as a private American citizen tweeted “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” The Chinese government, never having signed on to the notion of freedom of speech, responded by effectively shutting down the NBA in China. The Chinese people seem to be supportive of the roadblock their government has constructed, not that their opinion carries much weight.
What is most interesting and indicative of the contradictory nature of our country is the reaction of two well-known Americans, Adam Silver, Commissioner of the NBA, and LeBron James. You know who he is.
Silver, head of a multi-billion dollar American corporation about to forfeit many more billions, said, “I think as a values-based organization that I want to make it clear … that Daryl Morey is supported in terms of his ability to exercise his freedom of expression… There is no doubt, the economic impact is already clear … There have already been fairly dramatic consequences from that tweet, and I have read some of the media suggesting that we are not supporting Daryl Morey, but in fact we have… Members of the NBA community remain free to express their opinions and the league backs their right to do so… There are values that have been part of this league from its earliest days, and that includes free expression.”
In contrast, LeBron James, an employee of the NBA and not part of management, and an African-American whose people’s struggle for freedom in an unresponsive democracy is the central narrative of this country’s history, responded this way: “Yes, we do have freedom of speech. But at times there are ramifications for the negative that can happen when you’re not thinking about others, when you only think about yourself.”
Something tells me Mr. James had some personal plans for capitalizing on the Chinese love of basketball.
Martin Luther King may be weeping over James’s shameless betrayal of the universal struggle for freedom, but we should all be proud that America can still produce an Adam Silver who has bravely demonstrated there is still democracy in America.