Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on Moral Outrage

I am the least sporty person you’ll ever meet. I’ve never watched an entire football, hockey, soccer, or major league baseball game, ever. I took the kids to minor league games for the Camden Riversharks a couple times, and it was fun … ish. (I have, however, attended 5 professional golf tournaments and used to watch it on TV, which will strike true sports fans as incredibly perverse.) Whatever gene men, and some women, are born with that makes them passionate, mildly  interested, or even not-hostile to athletics, I didn’t get it.

I’m also, however, just shy of 6’5″ tall, and have been since my teen years. To say that I was pressured into playing basketball makes it sound like I was given an option. “You’re going to play basketball,” I was told. That was that. (I was actually almost happy when my knees went bad early in high school, since it meant I could quit.)

I really, truly sucked at it. My one saving attribute was that I was freakishly large for my age, so I played center and they always dragged me out for the tip-off. I made this as irritating as possible for the other guy by never jumping. All I had to do was reach up and swat the ball down-court, while some little dude leaped with all his might and flailed madly at empty air.

In an attempt to at least make an effort of the baskeball thing, I paid attention to professional basketball for a little while. The man of the hour was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and I can safely say he’s the only sports figure I ever admired. Partly because of his skill, partly because he was nearsighted (like me) and wore goofy eyewear (like I had to), and partly because he always seemed just a cut above everyone else in the sport: dignified, professional, admirable.

His later career has just reinforced that, as he’s written books, spoken eloquently on a wide range of issues, and turned in a great cameo in Airplane.

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Kareem is back in the new this week because he penned a remarkably candid and sane response to the entire Donald Sterling foofaraw. Coming on the heels of the remarks by rancher Cliven Bundy, racist comments from a basketball team owner pushed race back to the front burner of the American conversation.

Kareem’s comments were so sane and refreshing that they bear repeating:

Moral outrage is exhausting. And dangerous. The whole country has gotten a severe case of carpal tunnel syndrome from the newest popular sport of Extreme Finger Wagging. Not to mention the neck strain from Olympic tryouts for Morally Superior Head Shaking. All over the latest in a long line of rich white celebrities to come out of the racist closet.

And now the poor guy’s girlfriend (undoubtedly ex-girlfriend now) is on tape cajoling him into revealing his racism. Man, what a winding road she led him down to get all of that out. She was like a sexy nanny playing “pin the fried chicken on the Sambo.” She blindfolded him and spun him around until he was just blathering all sorts of incoherent racist sound bites that had the news media peeing themselves with glee.

They caught big game on a slow news day, so they put his head on a pike, dubbed him Lord of the Flies, and danced around him whooping.

So, if we’re all going to be outraged, let’s be outraged that we weren’t more outraged when his racism was first evident. Let’s be outraged that private conversations between people in an intimate relationship are recorded and publicly played. Let’s be outraged that whoever did the betraying will probably get a book deal, a sitcom, trade recipes with Hoda and Kathie Lee, and soon appear on Celebrity Apprentice and Dancing with the Stars.

He was discriminating against black and Hispanic families for years, preventing them from getting housing. It was public record. We did nothing. Suddenly he says he doesn’t want his girlfriend posing with Magic Johnson on Instagram and we bring out the torches and rope. Shouldn’t we have all called for his resignation back then?

Shouldn’t we be equally angered by the fact that his private, intimate conversation was taped and then leaked to the media? Didn’t we just call to task the NSA for intruding into American citizen’s privacy in such an un-American way?

There’s more, and you should really read it all, because he weaves several important points into his observations:

  • Why are we so gleefully pouncing on this, as well as on Cliven Bundy? My own belief is that we do it to burnish our credentials as right-thinking people by using the easily disliked for our Two Minute Hate. The media mints a new Emmanuel Goldstein a couple times a week now.
  • Where was everyone, including the NBA, when this guy was caught in blatantly illegal and racist practices, rather than just making unguarded comments?
  • Where’s the outrage over a person illegally recording someone, and betraying a trust by drawing him into making racist comments? If you listen to the tape, it’s pretty clear that Sterling was set-up. He could be set up because he believed these things, so it’s no excuse for what he said. As Kareem writes (because I damn well couldn’t):  “She was like a sexy nanny playing ‘pin the fried chicken on the Sambo.’”
  • Finally, Kareem sees Sterling as less of a problem than a symptom, and reminder that: “’Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.’ Instead of being content to punish Sterling and go back to sleep, we need to be inspired to vigilantly seek out, expose, and eliminate racism at its first signs.”

Racism is a difficult issue, because we’re at the hearts and minds stage now, and that kind of thing just takes time. We’re just not patient people, however. Civilization–particularly American civilization–just needs to keep working through its issues, and that’s not going to be accomplished by hectoring and routine media auto-da-fes. In fact, that approach probably harms progress, since the media–particularly now–is like a big blundering drunken bull stumbling about in a Faberge egg exhibit. They tear down more than they build up.

I’ve been guilty of it too. Disappointed to see some of my fellow conservatives hopping on the Bundy Bus, I gleefully ripped into his comments on “Tha Negro” in a post on this site. I have taken it down, since calling someone a racist is a cheap bit of rhetorical red meat that accomplishes nothing.

Too many of our responses to important issues are reactive and therapeutic. Kareem is mocking the idea of leaping on the latest moral outrage, since it’s usually little more than a distraction along the way to accomplishing something real. People get outraged and then doze back off until someone rings the rhetorical bell again and we have some new reason to get riled up.

Outrage is a sweet sweet drug, and we like to shoot up with it as often as possible. In the meantime, real issues–such as refusing to rent property to blacks because they “smell”–get lost in the shuffle. Until we get that tape, that Tweet, that media report we can share on Facebook, that controversy that allows us to display our socially acceptable views, we just kind of sleep through the day-to-day work of making the world a better place. And, you know, we really need to stop doing that.

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.