06 June 2013

Jackie Robinson for Libertarians

The baseball player Jackie Robinson was a Republican, one of the last prominent black figures to take the GOP "Party of Lincoln" rhetoric seriously, at a time when it still could be taken seriously. He endorsed Richard Nixon for President in 1960, before Nixon pandered to reactionaries and racists with the "Southern Strategy" that helped get him elected in 1968. This info isn't necessarily relevant to Matt Welch's review of the recent Robinson biopic 42 in the libertarian Reason magazine, but it may help set your mental stage. Welch is a big Robinson fan, less a fan of 42. That's because Welch objects to the film's emphasis, typical of modern tellings of the Robinson legend, on the hero's more-or-less passive resistance to the race-baiting of hostile players and fans during his first two seasons with the Brooklyn Dodger, as the first black player in modern Major League Baseball. As the legend goes, Dodgers GM Branch Rickey advised Robinson not to strike back at race-baiters during those first two years, fearing that fights would prove that the races couldn't play together. After that probationary period, Rickey gave Robinson the green light to deal with offenders as he pleased. Welch observes that Robinson earned the Most Valuable Player award the following season and really hit his stride as a competitor, but notes with regret that the 42 movie never gets to that point. In explaining his preference for a more confrontational Robinson, Welch can sound downright radical.

There is something inherently attractive about the narrative of successful nonviolent campaigns against white majoritarian tyranny. What monstrosity it exposes! What heroism it requires! But could it be that white audiences in particular enjoy and enhance that tale, even to the exclusion of less pacifist narratives, because it goes down more comfortably? Are we doing Jackie Robinson an injustice by portraying him more as saint than fighter?  
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I suspect that we still want Jackie Robinson to be noble, not furious, just as we would rather quarantine baseball desegregation to a single event in 1947 rather than examine how ballplayers were still excluded from hotels and restaurants, and subjected to soul-destroying racism, well into the 1960s. When your face is unlovely, it's always more fun to look at old photographs than the bathroom mirror.

When Welch praises Robinson and criticizes 42, is he writing as a libertarian? Not obviously. Libertarians can root for Robinson without reservation because no one forced baseball to integrate and libertarians generally abhor racial discrimination even if they scruple over how to do away with it. But I think there's something arguably libertarian in Welch's preference for the "furious" over the "noble" Robinson -- or at least something philosophically or emotionally related to libertarianism.

However much a libertarian may applaud voluntary integration, the initial moment may be uncomfortable in some way simply because integration usually comes with an unconditional demand that a newcomer be accepted simply for what he or she is. The Civil Rights era model of nonviolent agitation for integration, for which Robinson can be seen as a precursor, places the burden of unconditional acceptance perhaps more uncomfortably on some people, if only subtly, because it goes against what might be the libertarian ideal or integration or socialization in general. The later Robinson, at least as Welch perceives him, fits this inferred libertarian ideal more closely because, instead of passively demanding acceptance, he committed aggressively to earning his place. All the admiring epithets Welch applies to the later Robinson could be condensed into the favorite libertarian adjective, "competitive." This distinction can but shouldn't be overstated. I don't think Welch would say that Robinson was uncompetitive during those first two seasons -- he was Rookie of the Year in 1947. But Welch may think Robinson could have been even better in those early years, when he was closer to his physical peak -- due to segregation, he couldn't join the Majors until he was 28 -- if he had felt no need to suppress what Welch considers his most healthy competitive (or confrontational) impulses.

Sports are one thing, politics another, of course, and I don't think Welch means to repudiate the nonviolent protests of the Civil Rights years, when Robinson was trying to convince Martin Luther King to support Nixon rather than Kennedy. That is, I don't think he's saying King should have fought the way Robinson finally got to fight. But he is stating a preference for those who earn acceptance through performance -- including through confrontation if necessary -- over those who simply demand acceptance on general principles. Whether that preference has larger philosophical or political implications I leave for others to ponder.

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