Heard from an old friend a few nights ago. Name's Will. He's a hard-working Chattanoogan, an unforgettably generous family man and friend. Politically, he's fiercely independent, pledging allegiance, as he puts it, to neither Adam Smith nor Thomas Jefferson, but God.
And he's a sports fan. Last week, he was watching playoff baseball, but his mind was elsewhere.
"The NBA-China situation," he said.
Most of you know: Hong Kong is fighting for its life against China, prompting Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey to recently Tweet: "fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong."
Seven right and moral words.
China, a bastion of human rights abuses, howled. Reportedly tried to get him fired. Canceled games. Broke off business deals. Did all the things authoritarian nations do.
"Let's hope the incident with Morey and the Houston Rockets will teach other companies a lesson," wrote The China Daily. "The big Chinese market is open to the world, but those who challenge China's core interests and hurt Chinese people's feelings cannot make any profit from it."
Things got worse. The NBA — the most progressive of all the pro leagues — became a Little Beijing. The league that has openly fought against police brutality and for gay rights suddenly went mum, yellow-bellied and groveling. Fans were tossed from games for carrying pro-Hong-Kong signs. News conferences stifled. Superstars — et tu, Lebron? — apologized to China.
"Un-freaking-believiable," wrote The American Conservative's Rod Dreher. "This is the United States of America, not the Communist Party."
"China's authoritarianism is creeping into American life through corporate power," echoed the National Review's Michael Brendan Doughtery. "To hell with that."
Morey's Tweet is righteous. A woman or man ought to be able to express support for moral convictions without penalty or punishment. Neighbors may roll their eyes, but corporate and government power should stay in their own lanes.
We should wave the flag of democracy against Chinese repression?
"Many of those same flag-wavers for democracy have articulated the exact same opinion in the context of Colin Kaepernick's situation," he said.
According to Will, the way China and the NBA treated Morey mirrors the way (much of) America treated Kaepernick, whose anthem-kneeling-protest sparked fury from coast to coast.
"We say 'Yes, Colin, you have the right to protest in whatever way you choose, but we also have the right to keep you unemployed and cast you as a pariah in American society,'" Will said. "In so doing, we've essentially parroted Beijing's response and have unwittingly demonstrated the same cold smugness that the Chinese did."
Today, we rage against China — "To hell with that" — for silencing free speech and expression.
Yet America did the same thing against Kaepernick.
"If I'm going to stand for freedom, I have to be consistent in the application of its principles," he said. "I can't wag a finger at Kaepernick and simultaneously embrace Hong Kong. Freedom of expression should stretch us and make us all uncomfortable at times, as emotionally inconvenient as it may be."
Will's not a pro-Kap activist; he doesn't even agree with his kneeling protest. Yet he is humble and honest enough to spot this Kaepernick-Hong Kong double standard the hard way.
"I've been complicit in this," he said.
Many of us have in all kinds of ways. I, too, can become a Little Beijing. For all my shouts of diversity, how diverse am I in my collection of opinions? How big is the arena where I allow my political enemies to speak?
"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it," declared the English author and Voltaire biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall.
"As long as someone isn't doing something illegal or violating a religious principle that I hold as sacrosanct, I should afford them an extra-wide berth to express themselves," Will said. "I should guard against and be quick to smack down any smugness in any 'retribution' that comes Kaepernick's way, harboring schadenfreude and a 'well, he had it coming' mentality.'"
This is a mature, expansive, gutsy type of freedom. Always noble, such freedom seems even more precious and beautiful in our disordered world today.
Does such freedom exist in Chattanooga?
"Advocating for freedom is often uncomfortable, messy, dissonant and magnificent," he said. "You might sometimes wince at what you're defending and at other times it may cripple you financially, but ultimately we're all called to stand up for the marginalized and defend the oppressed, regardless of the consequences."
David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.