Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Unbearable Asianness of Jeremy Lin

[Note: when I began this blog in January 2009, I said in my first post that, despite a stated focus on medicine and health, I would reserve the right to talk about any other subject that caught my fancy, including basketball since I am a passionate fan of the game. Since then I've written an occasional spot on football but mostly in terms of an overlap with the health-related issue of concussions. Today, though, I'm simply indulging myself. In case you weren't aware of the Jeremy Lin craze that has, quite literally, swept the world, read on.]

Floyd Mayweather's tweet on Jeremy Lin's wildly improbable and meteoric rise to fame had about the same effect on the biggest feelgood sports story of the year as the arrival of an unloved Archie Bunker-type uncle at an unexpectedly joyous family reunion. Sure, you may be able to shrug it off and enjoy the rest of the party, but Archie's presence just puts enough of a damper on things that you'll always look back on the proceedings with a twinge of regret. It could have been perfect, you think, only it just slightly fell short. If your uncle hadn't come in and started talking about how the schvartze is taking over the country--good God, they've even got a schvartze President now! where will it end!--you might have had one of the greatest moments of your life.

That's really what Mayweather did to the Jeremy Lin party in which, improbably, sports fans of all stripes in the US, serious basketball fans across the world, and about a billion Chinese had been rocking for the past 10 days. Less than a month ago, even the most knowledgeable hoops mavens were unaware of his name; by the time he put the wraps on his fifth game as a starter, he had scored 136 points, the most points through the first five games ever by any player since the NBA/ABA merger in 1976. To give context, the person that Lin supplanted was Shaquille O'Neal.

Since Lin was an undrafted player who was offered a college athletic scholarship by precisely nobody, topping Shaq statistically in his first five starts represented something of an unanticipated development. And in a script that would normally be dreamt up only in the fantasyland of Hollywood, Jeremy Lin is a child of Christian Taiwanese parents, and the school at which he played without an athletic scholarship was Harvard. So when he led the dysfunctional Knicks to a win with 25 points, 5 boards, and 7 dimes against the Nets in his first extended playing time in the NBA, it seemed a cute curiosity. When he took his first career start against the Jazz the next game and led his team to victory with a 28/8, it became a mild sensation, especially since Carmelo Anthony, the team's superstar, was absent. By the time he got to the Lakers game last week, the President of the United States had taken notice and was following his exploits.

So when the prizefighter Mayweather called upon his inner tweet, out came the following observation: "Jeremy Lin is a good player but all the hype is because he's Asian. Black players do what he does every night and don't get the same praise." This wasn't Mayweather's first foray into observations on race. As part of some verbal sparring with Manny Pacquiao, Mayweather stated that when they met in the ring that "I'll take that motherfucker, make me some sushi roll and cook me some rice", which might have had a touch more zing had Pacquiao been Japanese and not Filipino. At least with his twitty tweet on Lin, he correctly identified him as merely "Asian" and didn't proffer a guess as to his precise nationality, nor suggest any food-related activities by which to honor his basketball contributions. Similarly, Jason Whitlock, a Fox Sports commentator, tried to dish cleverly on Lin's race while he was en route to a 38-point performance against the Lakers on national television by tweeting that "Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple inches of pain tonight". (Penis jokes. Clever!) Whitlock has since apologized.

It was perhaps inevitable that some sour grapes would add a slightly unpleasant flavor to the otherwise happily intoxicating story of Linsanity. Mayweather's remarks recall Isiah Thomas's assessment that if Larry Bird were black, he would have been regarded as "just another good guy". Bird himself did race relations in basketball no favors sometime later by saying that he didn't really care who guarded him, as long as that person wasn't white, since it disrespected his game. In other words, Bird was applying precisely the same logic of Thomas and Mayweather to the game of basketball. Race mattered, Martin Luther King Jr. be damned.

Of course, Mayweather's right about Lin: his vertical rise to fame and his widespread adoration is due in part to his being Chinese. And it's also true that black players haven't received the same level of praise. Hoops fanatics have been excited about the rookie phenom Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers, an unexpected bright spot in what has otherwise been a terrible draft class...and few casual fans are aware of this, and nowhere near the number who have heard Jeremy Lin's name. (Irving was a #1 draft pick, however, while Lin was a bench rider just intriguing enough to maintain the interests of a few teams, so the comparison isn't completely equivalent.)

Still, had Irving been a white kid, or even an Asian kid, it's safe to say that the story probably would have had wider circulation. But what's more telling is that Mayweather uses this fact to effectively sneer at Lin's accomplishments rather than celebrate them. Indeed, one could easily conclude that by being a Chinese American, Lin was himself the victim of a system that couldn't picture a guy looking like him--that is, someone Asian--as a point guard of an NBA team. Had he been black, maybe he would have had an easier chance of finding his way onto a roster. For it is obvious that he can play basketball, and play it well. This to me seems the crucial bit that Floyd Mayweather missed.

Several years ago, the sports journalist Jim Gray was engaged in a routine interview with Shaquille O'Neal about the Lakers' season during the finals in which they were about to be upended by a ferociously tough Detroit Pistons team. When asked to summarize the season in a word, O'Neal thoughtfully responded, "enigmatic". Gray, who apparently was flummoxed by the concept of a seven-foot black man displaying eloquence, then asked Shaq to spell it. Which, puckish grin on his face, The Big Aristotle proceeded to do. He would have been forgiven for crushing Gray to a pulp. (The Billy Rubin Blog staff, which had always regarded Shaq's career as a disappointment, became a fan of Shaq as a public figure, and remains one to this day.)

These are but a few examples of people making highly unfortunate judgements based almost exclusively on the complexion of one's skin, and the NBA is chock full of many more. But there is something perverse about boiling down Jeremy Lin's day in the sun to his facial features when the most important features are the points and assists he puts up each night, and whether those stats are accompanied by a W in the box score. Jeremy Lin's game will succeed in the long term if he keeps putting up those numbers--and it won't in the long run if he keeps posting such an appalling number of turnovers. (A good analysis of his actual game in addition to meditations on his race can be found here.)  For his sake and ours, we at the Rubin Blog hope that he'll continue to be judged not by the color of his skin, but the content of his basketball character.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Komen Update: Now It's Stem Cells

At least my corner of the Facebook world is abuzz with the news about Komen's severed relationship with Planned Parenthood. The news keeps rolling in, though, and multiple websites of both left and right have now posted that Komen is also removing funding from medical centers that also sponsor research on Embryonic Stem Cells. If I'm reading the news correctly, Komen is cutting off the funding simply because other researchers in the institution are doing ESC research. That must come as one hell of a shock to some bench or clinical researcher whose funding is being taken away because some PhD in a different building who has never even seen her does some totally unrelated science. Again, maybe I'm reading this wrong, and the story is changing rapidly.

Regardless, it removes the fig leaf that the Komen spokespeople used earlier this week indicating that the only reason why they pulled funding to Planned Parenthood is because they're under congressional investigation. That was always pretty flimsy, as the "investigation" could be better described as "a witch hunt by a zealot". Johns Hopkins University, however, is not under congressional investigation, and they're getting dinged $3.75 million collectively from Komen. It's now quite clear to anyone looking objectively that Komen has become a highly partisan political organization.

One friend of mine on Facebook who has no objections to Komen's new found policies has engaged in a back-and-forth about the rationale and implications of the move. Despite having two very strongly adversarial stands, we're getting through the discussion so far with generally polite verbal punch-counterpunches. When I posted the latest Komen news about the ESCs, the friend took a moment to point out this article from USA Today that suggests that Adult Stem Cell research is outpacing that of ESCs, so the argument may be settled on the scientific gridiron and not require the machina ex deus, so to speak, of religious objection. But I'm not so sure.

I heard a similar talk at Grand Rounds here a few months back, which is fine and may resolve the dispute. But the key word there is "may". Science often goes in all kinds of weird and unanticipated directions, and technologies that look pro...missing at first can be rapidly outpaced by advances in other areas. At the beginning of the 4th graf of the USA Today article closely, you'll see a big red warning sign: "[this] isn't a rigorous study". Pilot projects often look rosy, as anyone who remembers the hullabaloo surrounding gene therapy can easily recall. So I wouldn't put my chips on adult stem cells as being scientifically superior to embryonic cells just yet, and if ESC opponents are relying on the superiority of ASCs to settle the issue, what will they do if the research winds blow in a different direction? They can't have it both ways.

I don't deny that there must be ethical rules and regulations regarding biomedical research (if you've read these blog entries, I hope that you'll see I passionately care about such issues). The question is where one draws the lines and by what basis does the line-drawing occur. Though my comparison of many anti-abortion groups to Hezbollah may have seemed to be purely outrageous and deliberately provocative, it truly is an apt comparison, for like fundamentalist Islamists, fundamentalist Christians approach the world with a narrow literalism about scripture that is ultimately wildly hostile to a scientific worldview. The most obvious example of this is the Theory of Evolution, about which fundamentalists of every stripe from Des Moines to Dubai reject out of hand because it threatens their justifications for the social order (though, obviously, two different social orders there). Likewise, doing research on microscopic cells that no Christian even believed existed two centuries ago somehow rises to the level of demonizing the researchers as taking a life. To me, this is profound nonsense and becomes increasingly absurd with every new scientific advance in the field.

It's not yet possible, but it's not hard to conceive of a time where we could -artificially- create human embryos. What would the Pope, or Michelle Bachmann for that matter, say about this? Would this fall under the proscription of taking a life? We're already generating proto-viruses called "Virus-Like Particles" that allow us to work with these organisms in a Tinkertoy-like fashion. What if we could do the same with a human stem cell? What if the research on virus manipulation would allow us to make some kind of a "human-like particle"? It's not so terribly science-fiction to suppose this. Does this mean we should now halt all research that might even lead in that direction? I'm confident that both Muktada Al-Sadr as well as Pat Robertson think we should.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Those Not-So-Loveable Scamps At Susan Komen For The Cure

Anti-abortion advocates are cheering a big huzzah this week over the decision by the advocacy group Susan Komen For The Cure to cut its ties with Planned Parenthood. As noted here and here, the Komen folks aren't always the friendliest of sorts when it comes to organizations that want to use the word "cure" as part of their fundraising campaigns. Moreover, their single-minded advocacy of mammography as the critical piece in reducing breast cancer mortality may be misguided due to increasing amounts of scientific evidence indicating otherwise, for which their response appears to be to ignore it. So their kow-towing to groups by-and-large hostile to the idea of women's freedom is only a marginal surprise. The only question is how many women will now be willing to march in all those lovely pink-ribboned Breast Cancer Awareness Walks in the springtime. In Boston, where the Billy Rubin Blog makes its home, I'm suddenly dubious that we're going to see the same level of enthusiasm as in previous years.

Amanda Marcotte nicely dissects the Komen action in Slate here. She notes: "No matter how much anti-choicers wish otherwise, it's not feasible to create an approach to women's health that separates good girl concerns from bad girl concerns. For instance, many women land in gynecologist's offices seeking contraceptive services and cervical-cancer screenings, and doctors use that opportunity to teach the art of breast self-exam." Well written, indeed.

The episode reminds us here at Billy Rubin Central of an old yarn from our med school days. It was supplied by an OB/GYN resident from Romania who had lived--indeed, survived--through Nicolae Ceausescu's regime, which, for those whose history isn't up to snuff, can be tersely summed up as "less cuddly than Josef Stalin". Anyway, Dr. Resident OB/GYN was in med school during the regime, and saw some unimaginable things. What kind of things? Watching women die from septic abortions, for starters. As abortions were illegal in Romania, they were performed much as they were in the US before Roe v. Wade, often by back-alley butchers with little or no medical training in nowhere-near-aseptic conditions.

"I used to see it all the time," my resident told me in the middle of the night while we were on call. "These women would roll in with sepsis from a botched abortion all the time, and the police would find out, and they wouldn't allow us to treat them until they gave up the name of the person who performed the abortion. So we'd see women die all the time, refusing to implicate anyone. This was bread-and-butter in my medical school." It nearly made me vomit all those years ago, but perhaps this would be music to Rick Santorum's ears.

True, it's not quite the same as Komen's move, though the downstream consequence--let's call it the cut-off-their-breasts-to-spite-their-vaginas policy--may well be the same: a heap of discarded ta-tas and mounds of dead women.

If you wish to make a donation to Planned Parenthood shortly, consider doing it in the name of Karen Handel, Komen's Senior Vice President for Public Policy since April 2011. Handel, an anti-abortion crusader and former candidate for Governor of Georgia (state, not country, lest the Romania reference mix anyone up) was overtly opposed to Planned Parenthood during her run, and may have been one of the critical players in forming Komen's new policy.

Various hat-tips to Facebook friends, the Point of Law blog, Amanda Marcotte of Slate, and TBogg of FireDogLake.