Michael Jordan, Elvis Presley, and the Intolerance of the Left

By Aaron Kliegman

Because of the coronavirus, the biggest sporting event we now have is a documentary miniseries on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls dominating professional basketball in the 1990s. But like everything else today, even “The Last Dance,” which ESPN is airing each Sunday from April 19 through May 17, cannot escape politics.

In the last episode, the documentary discussed Jordan’s famous line, “Republicans buy sneakers too.” Jordan made the remark during the 1990 US Senate race in North Carolina between Democratic challenger Harvey Gantt and incumbent Republican Jesse Helms.

“I don’t think that statement needs to be corrected because I said it in jest on a bus with [teammates],” Jordan explained. “It was thrown off the cuff. My mother asked to do a PSA for Harvey Gantt, and I said, ‘Look, Mom, I’m not speaking out of pocket about someone that I don’t know. But I will send a contribution to support him.’ Which is what I did.”

Jordan, who has always tried to stay out of politics, added that he never saw himself as an activist.

Jordan’s comments triggered a wave of ongoing debate among journalists and commentators (and self-appointed experts on social media) about whether Jordan should have spoken out more about politics and social issues as a player — and whether he should do so now.

Observing these debates, what’s interesting is the nearly universal praise for basketball’s current stars, especially LeBron James, for being politically active social justice warriors. Here we’re not talking about acts of charity — such as building schools or helping at-risk youth — but rather much less helpful, much more self-aggrandizing political actions — such as criticizing President Trump, endorsing Democratic politicians, and supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. And these voices nearly all agree that, regardless of one’s views on Jordan’s lack of political engagement, it would have been nice for Jordan to speak up more.

People aren’t praising modern athletes for discussing politics and supporting social causes in general, but rather for advocating left-wing issues specifically. Indeed, we assume that when athletes speak about political topics, they aren’t going to defend President Trump’s agenda.

The obvious implication here is that, in the age of Twitter and Instagram, when society almost expects athletes to be social justice warriors, silence is an endorsement of the status quo, the oppressive system that must be overhauled. Hence the criticism of Jordan for not speaking out — or at least journalists’ desires for him to expand beyond business and basketball. The situation is reminiscent of some people interpreting Elvis Presley’s silence about the Vietnam War as support for it.

Of course, silence does not necessarily mean acceptance. But to the political left, anything less than shouting and picket signs is selling out to “the system” or the status quo, whatever the object of its revolutionary furor and derision is.

The left sees those who do not want to overhaul our supposedly oppressive society — with its supposedly corrupt capitalism, systemic racism, and out-of-date traditions — with immediate, large-scale change as the conservative opposition.

This is partly because the left, which includes those who want athletes to become political activists, instinctively sees the negative — everything is wrong in society and must be corrected. So, liberals and progressives seek and offer systematic solutions to these problems, constantly dissatisfied with the normal, traditional ways in which people live, trying to master the formula of utopia. There isn’t much room for compromise; anyone not fully on board is an obstacle to progress.

The irony here is that the progressive left, which preaches tolerance and diversity, practices the exact opposite — namely, intolerance and robotic conformity of opinion. The radicalism we see on American universities across the country is a case in point. Leftist protesters shout down speakers with whom they disagree, especially conservatives, and campuses hold explicitly racist events targeting white people. We also see the Democratic Party increasingly creating litmus tests on abortion, effectively excommunicating pro-lifers. The list goes on. Perhaps most striking, America’s cultural institutions dominated by the left — the media, Hollywood, academia, and increasingly athletics — are hardly models of diversity. Try to think differently about controversial political issues and good luck surviving in the long run.

To be clear, Michael Jordan is no political conservative, but he is also not a social justice warrior. He is a businessman and the greatest basketball player ever to breathe, and that should be more than enough. But leftists would have him become an ardent political activist, alienating Republicans and conservatives who want to buy his sneakers.

Those who claim the mantle of tolerance should accept other opinions, not shut them out. But far-left progressives, who are becoming increasingly influential, don’t really care about tolerance; they care about power — and overhauling American society in the name of “progress.”

Aaron Kliegman is a freelance writer based in Virginia. Previously, he was a staff writer and news editor at the Washington Free Beacon, where he wrote analysis and commentary on foreign policy and national security. Aaron’s work has been published in a range of publications, and he has a master’s degree in international relations. Aaron is now writing regular columns for the Inner Circle as a contributor, and I am excited to have him on the Gingrich 360 team. — Newt