What Would Hammerin’ Hank Do?
If only Hank Aaron were still alive. When he died earlier this year, it was a loss not only for baseball, but for the United States of America. Courageously persevering through decades of racist abuse, including death threats as he closed in on Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record, he showed the world that, even with all of the inequalities and injustices that still plague the country, there is still great opportunity on American soil. Today is the forty-seventh anniversary of his historic achievement, number 715.
It would be wonderful if we could hear what Aaron, who achieved his great feat in an Atlanta Braves uniform, thought about Major League Baseball’s decision to move the All-Star Game out of Atlanta, in reaction to Georgia’s new voting law, which not only makes it harder for many people to vote, but even forbids giving water to people waiting in line at polling places. While the law is cynical and anti-democratic, it’s not clear which response is more likely to protect and expand voting rights, staying or leaving. It’s easy to praise MLB; it’s certainly emotionally satisfying to say, “Screw you,” to people you’re arguing with, and storm away. And I will always take Barack Obama’s opinions seriously, including his praise of the decision.
But I think Stacey Abrams has it right. It’s great for players and officials (and fans, for that matter) to speak up, but it’s disappointing that MLB has moved the game. I would be very surprised if playing the All-Star Game in Denver rather than Atlanta actually led to any relaxation of Georgia’s restrictions, let alone full repeal. It would be far better if, as the greatest players in the game came to Atlanta, any among them who wanted to stand up for voting rights went around the region, met with Georgians working hard to get the law repealed, and used their fame to shine further light on the injustice being done.
It’s been pointed out that the main reason Georgia Republicans passed this law was in reaction to upsets they’ve suffered in the last five months: Joe Biden narrowly carrying the state in November, followed by Democrats capturing both the state’s Senate seats in runoff elections in early January. It also happens that the day it became clear Georgia would have two new Democratic Senators was January 6 — the day a motley gang of extremists and insurrectionists, egged on by Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election being stolen from him, stormed the Capitol, leading to the death of a police officer and members of Congress running for their lives. It’s worth noting that neither of the two is enthusiastic about MLB’s decision. Raphael Warnock — the state’s first African American Senator — has called the decision “unfortunate,” while commending players who speak out against the new law. Jon Ossoff — the state’s first Jewish Senator — has come out strongly against the move, urging businesses who oppose the law to stop donating to Georgia Republicans, rather than taking business out of the state.
As is often the case when considering racism and repression, South Africa comes to mind. I can certainly believe that economic sanctions played some role in the fall of apartheid. But whatever role they played surely pales in comparison to that of Nelson Mandela, Stephen Biko, and countless other South Africans within their own country, who risked and in some cases lost their lives fighting for freedom. What’s more, Paul Simon probably did more good by recording with Ladysmith Black Mambazo in South Africa — violating a United Nations-supported boycott to do so — than he would have by remaining in the U.S. and being just another celebrity expressing indignation. Not only did Simon record songs with black South African singers, he brought them on tour, including to New York for an appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” giving many Americans their first exposure to African music. There’s more than one way to chip away at an oppressive system.
Taking international comparisons even further, we have U.S. foreign policy in the 1930s and 1940s (among many other time periods). In his 1949 book, The Vital Center, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. critiqued sentimentalists on both the left and the right, people who thought that if the United States withheld diplomatic recognition from governments they vehemently opposed — fascist regimes for one side, communist regimes for the other — those governments would fall. “The sentimental conservative, for example, would ‘show’ the USSR by withdrawing the American ambassador,” he wrote, “as if this gesture could have effect on anything except ourselves.” Meanwhile, “the sentimental liberal, who was asserting a few years ago the absurdity of non-recognition as an instrument of pressure when Coolidge and Hoover applied it to the USSR, now proposes to use this same weapon to strike down Franco or Peron.” Being willing to meet with someone you disapprove of doesn’t mean you won’t work against whatever bad things they’re doing. Indeed, the Washington-Moscow hotline came about in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, when the terror of narrowly escaping nuclear war showed both superpowers that they needed to speak to each other more often, not less, even as they remained fierce rivals.
We are in an age when millions of Americans hate each other’s guts. If blue America decides to boycott or demonize a portion of red America, the rest of red America will rally to defend it, and vice versa. If the vast majority of Americans realized how unfair and unnecessary Georgia’s restrictions on voting are, and how the fears that led to its enactment are rooted in lies, then a boycott of the state’s events and institutions might work. But that’s not the situation we’re in. Regardless of why so many Americans believe these particular untruths, we won’t change their minds by shunning them. They’ll just dig in their heels and become more recalcitrant. Better to go into a tense situation, draw attention to an injustice, and work to overturn it — or else support those who do — than to believe that half of us will come around to the other half’s way of thinking, if only we turn our backs long enough.