Monday 23 April 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: We can't sit on the fence any longer

LeBron James: ‘Hate has always existed in America. Yes, we know that, but Donald Trump just made it fashionable again’ Photo: Getty

Eamonn Sweeney

So which side are you on in the big fight? Both combatants normally compete in separate arenas. Both are at the very top of their own particular game. Neither is used to losing and neither likes it. And to spice things up further you've got the age-old racial connotations of a battle between a black man and a white man in America. There are going to be fireworks.

In the black corner is a man born into poverty and disadvantage, a man who never knew his father and whose mother got into scrapes with the law, a man who found himself in a society carefully and implacably rigged against people who look like him. Yet he rose to the top by merit alone, by combining an extraordinary natural talent with an enormous appetite for hard work.

Better still, this meteoric progress was characterised by a huge personal dignity and thoughtfulness. Though the man has been under intense media scrutiny since his teenage years, not the slightest whiff of impropriety has attached itself to his name. He is married to his high school sweetheart and his charitable foundation provides thousands of college scholarships. His name is LeBron James and he is the finest sportsman in America.

In the white corner is a man born into privilege, a man left a large fortune by his father. His family were not immune from scrapes with the law, said father having once been arrested while attending a Ku Klux Klan rally. This man found himself in a society rigged for the benefit of people like himself. The inherited money helped him profit through flashy real estate deals.

Yet his career has been characterised by a tendency to welsh on his debts, to get involved in the most dubious of schemes, to bully and brag and bluster and ensure that his name became a byword for sneaky dealing, unpleasantness and stupidity. His businesses have filed for bankruptcy half a dozen times. His charitable foundation was investigated by the state of New York for tax evasion and dodgy business practices before being shut down. His name is Donald Trump and he is the President of the United States.

You could hardly get two more different men. Or two more different characters. Yet last week their paths intersected after Trump weaselled out of wholeheartedly condemning neo-nazis whose march in Charlottesville, Virginia led to racial violence which ended with a young woman named Heather Heyer being murdered by one of their number. Even the mealy-mouthed mumble about "violence on both sides" the president delivered apparently had to be cajoled out of him by advisers.

Yet the following day it was the protesters against the march he singled out for being, "very, very violent," before noting that the ranks of the neo-nazis, who had chanted "Jews will not replace us" and the old Nazi slogan, "Blood and soil," included "some very fine people". Leading racist website The Daily Stormer declared, "No condemnation at all, really really good God bless him."

"Thank you President Trump for your honesty and courage," exulted former KKK grand wizard David Duke. They knew what their man was really saying.

Elsewhere, there was consternation and condemnation. The Trump presidency had excelled in being perpetually able to find new low points, but the failure of a leader to properly condemn the murder of a citizen engaged in political protest seemed a notable nadir. Four days after the killing Ms Heyer's name still hadn't been mentioned by the White House.

Condemnation was general, not just from the left and the centre but from the saner sections of the right. "Trump's failure of character emboldens America's far right," trumpeted The Economist while conservative commentator John Podhoretz shrewdly noted, "His instinct said: Do not attack the white supremacists. He basically let them off with a mild warning."

Yet one of the most telling responses came from James who on Tuesday tweeted, "Hate has always existed in America. Yes we know that but Donald Trump just made it fashionable again!," before saying at an event for his children's charity the same day, "The only way for us to get better as a society and for us to get better as people is love. And that's the only way we're going to be able to conquer something as one. It's not about the guy that's the so-called President of the United States . . . It's about us. It's about us looking in the mirror. Kids all the way up to adults. It's about all of us looking in the mirror and saying, 'What can we do better to help change?' And if we can all do that and give 100 per cent, then that's all you can ask for."

Considering the emotions of the time, that is a fine, measured and generous response from a decent man. Compare it with the frequent outbursts of Trump, a man whose officials say loses his temper, "If he thinks someone is lying to him, if he's caught by surprise, if someone criticises him, or if someone stops him from trying to do something or seeks to control him." It sounds like a description of a dangerous dog rather than a normal human being.

Maybe you're wondering why we should care about what happened in Charlottesville. It's a long way off, isn't it? Well, as John Donne said, "No man is an island/entire of itself/ . . . /Any man's death diminishes me/Because I am involved in mankind/And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls/It tolls for thee."

Only a very simple soul could fail to notice that American culture has a big effect on life in this country. If hate continues to be fashionable there, the ripples will reach us.

It is interesting that Trump has, to date, issued no rebuke to James whereas normally his reaction to critics is instantaneous and vicious. This is perhaps because the standing of sportsmen in American society makes James too big a foe for even the arch bully to insult with impunity.

What James says carries moral weight too because sport is perhaps the purest meritocracy in a society which has always paid lip service to the idea that anyone can come from anywhere and do anything. Perhaps only in sport and entertainment is this really possible. Men from LeBron James' background are extremely unlikely to become millionaires by the same means as Donald Trump. This cuts both ways. Your father can leave you as much money as he likes but that won't buy you a place in the NFL or the NBA, or in the Premier League, or an All-Ireland final for that matter.

Other African-American sportsmen have gone further than LeBron. Colin Kaepernick's season-long protest against the American national anthem has now earned him ostracism from the National Football League. Several less talented quarterbacks have been signed up while the former San Francisco 49ers star remains unsigned. Typically, Trump has taunted Kaepernick about this but others are taking up the torch. Michael Bennett, key member of the famous 'Legion of Boom' defensive unit at the Seattle Seahawks, has stayed on the bench for the anthem in the pre-season games. So did his ex-team-mate Marshawn Lynch, now at the Oakland Raiders.

We will see more of this. A society where racist violence is tacitly tolerated at the top can hardly expect total acquiescence from players in leagues where black players make up the majority. After Charlottesville the argument that the protests of Tommy Smith, John Carlos and Muhammad Ali were somehow more worthy of respect than Kaepernick's no longer holds water. It probably never did but it's easier to support protests once they've become part of history.

Making your mind up as things happen can be a bit more difficult. I got Trump wrong at first, thinking he was just a buffoon and the majority of his supporters merely ordinary conservatives. Now it's clear something more sinister is happening.

That means for one thing that the flying of the confederate flag, an ever-present emblem at white supremacist shindigs, by a minority of Cork supporters can no longer be defended as a bit of harmless crack. It was shameful to see it being flown at Croke Park in the week of Heather Heyer's death. There may not be any racist intent but, as a quick look at message boards and comments sections will show, some genuine racists are keen that the banner continues to wave at GAA matches.

Cork fans should consider how we might feel were an NBA team to regularly hoist banners celebrating the Black and Tans. Just for a laugh like. The game is up. Gather those confederate flags and burn the lot of them. I'll pay for the petrol.

It's also worth considering the implications of next weekend's big fight between an African-American and an Irishman who has told his opponent, "dance for me boy", appeared to refer to black boxers as "monkeys," made slavery-related jibes at a Brazilian opponent and aimed bigoted epithets at Hispanic opponents. I think we know which result the Charlottesville marchers and the guys who queued up on Breitbart, the media site being run once again by Trump's now ex-adviser Steve Bannon, to level racist abuse at LeBron, would consider a good one for the white man.

So which side are you on in the big fight?

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