The first thing that strikes you about their slap-fight — it’s not clever enough to be called an argument — is that neither one even knows what channel the other is on. Which is a shame, because a real conversation between these two smart, opposite-spectrum people might be useful, as opposed to the default-button insults they’ve traded, which are so empty, redundant and overworked that they leave your brain feeling like a dust bowl.
The white-lady conservative commentator took issue with a black NBA superstar’s liberal political views by attacking his intelligence and his message to kids, and told him to “shut up and dribble.” Really? When is the last time Ingraham refreshed her thought or material? As for James, his critique of Trumpism includes a platitudinal invocation of “the People,” and his chief retort to Ingraham is that she’s a minor celebrity compared to him and he refuses to shut up because, “I mean too much to society.” Honestly? Measurable narcissism is hardly a measure of social import.
Bill Russell or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would intellectually leg whip both of them.
James and Ingraham are capable of a more interesting conversation than they are showing, and you wish they would have it: Ingraham has invited him on her show, and it wouldn’t be beneath him to accept. It would be a heck of a prize fight, and they might even discover that they have a little more in common than they suspected. Ingraham is not some wilting vanilla creature of privilege, though she was educated at Dartmouth. Her mother was a waitress, and her grandparents were Polish immigrants. She’s a single working mother with three small children — a daughter she adopted from Guatemala and two sons from Russia. Whatever you think of her views, she knows what it is to be an outsider, and she’s got guts: she had to have them to break through the all-male shock jock culture of radio, and build an audience in the many millions, an audience James seems ignorant or dismissive of.
As for James, he is the son of a single working mother, a retail clerk who had him when she was a teenager. The circumstances of his childhood in Akron are well known (except to Ingraham, apparently): They had to move a dozen times when he was between the ages of 5 and 8 because their home was condemned, and James missed almost half of the fourth grade. Between the urgency of their problems and the immediacy of his talent, the NBA straight out of high school was the only option. “Being a mother — it’s the toughest job in the world,” James has said. “It’s tougher than being a professional athlete or being the president.”
You’d think a conservative would respect someone who has made upward of $400 million with just a high school degree. James personifies those most worthy ideals: self-made and self-taught. “The first time I stepped on an NBA court I became a businessman,” he once said. His self-commodification — Nike, Sprite, State Farm — is accompanied by a refusal to listen to marketers who tell prominent athletes to stand down from public activism for the sake of sales. Unlike so many athletes, he has never behaved as if social issues aren’t his concern. “I mean too much to too many kids who feel like they don’t have a way out, and they need someone to help lead them out of the situation they’re in,” he says, and if there’s ego in the statement, there’s also a lot that’s admirable.
One thing you notice in these brief dual biographies is that both Ingraham and James conquered the lurking question of the impossibility of an ambition. Both beat the professional odds. Both have taught themselves to summon composure under pressure, when it counts the most — as performers, they know something the rest of us don’t. How do we export that critical intelligence to the kids they both seem so concerned about?
James and Ingraham could have a whale of an interesting conversation about this, if they chose not to write each other off. They could start with a discussion of language, and the speech gulf between them: does Ingraham’s insistence on old school grammar really matter anymore as a projection of personal quality, and if so, why? James wouldn’t tolerate a sloppy pass, so why is he so imprecise and casual with his self-expression? Yet language evolves. It’s not a permanently fixed rule book. As Walt Whitman wrote, new worlds and circumstances require we put “creeds and schools in abeyance” and look for new language with which to understand each other.
Instead, we are locked in the tired old conversation that Ingraham went begging for in the first place: Why do so many people try to strip athletes of their basic citizenship and demand their silence? Ingraham insists on shut-upping athletes and other performers who try to be “political pundits.” But she should frankly admit what pundits are: just another breed of entertainer. Their main qualifications are tireless self-promotion, the stomach to advance by using other humans as convenient targets, and the willingness to build popularity by using animal sounds on their radio shows.
It would be a fascinating reversal if, instead of baiting and trading taunts, James went on her show and elevated the conversation. Ingraham prides herself on tough questions, and he could ask a couple of her: Why are pundits entitled to free speech, and other performers not? How does she, as a self-styled voice of common people, justify reserving “punditry” for an Ivy-educated political class, and acting as if athletes are so far beneath her? That position is either a failure of her intelligence, or a triumph of her performer’s brassiness. James should beat her at her own game. It would be an easy win, and a worthwhile one.
As Bill Russell once said, “If Shakespeare can compare all of life to a stage, maybe it’s not off to believe that part of the play can take place on a basketball court.”
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.