We Are All Realists Now

The NBA has Enes Kanter Freedom where it wants him—out of sight, out of mind, like the Uyghurs themselves.

An illustration of a dove with a prison cell cut out of it's chest, dropping an olive branch.
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

About the author: George Packer is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

​​​​​​Updated at 10:23 a.m. ET on February 17, 2022.

“Nobody cares about what’s happening to the Uyghurs,” Chamath Palihapitiya, a billionaire part owner of the Golden State Warriors, said last month on a podcast. “I’m telling you a very hard, ugly truth, okay. Of all the things I care about, yes, it is below my line.” Supply chains are above this venture capitalist’s line, but any concern for human rights abroad is a “luxury belief.” In a statement, the Warriors tried to disown Palihapitiya, who then tried to disown himself, with the transparently false self-criticism that public figures issue when their views get them in trouble. “In re-listening to this week’s podcast, I recognize that I come across as lacking empathy,” he said, betraying that his main concern was for his own image. “To be clear, my belief is that human rights matter, whether in China, the United States, or elsewhere. Full stop.”

Of course, Palihapitiya was telling the truth the first time. He doesn’t care about the Uyghurs. Nor does Golden State, which didn’t mention them in the team’s statement. Nor does the NBA, which avoids and even suppresses criticism of China because of the billions of dollars that the league makes from Chinese contracts. Nor do most NBA players, whose silence is bought by lucrative endorsement deals with companies doing business in China, including ones whose sportswear is made with cotton produced by Uyghur slave labor. Tucker Carlson likes to attack NBA stars such as LeBron James for speaking out about racial injustice in America while avoiding any mention of mass rape and torture in Xinjiang province. But Carlson doesn’t care about human rights, either, or he would stop mouthing Russian propaganda while the country’s dictator, Vladimir Putin, prepares to invade its democratic neighbor, Ukraine.

Ted Cruz and Mike Pompeo hammer China for its mistreatment of Uyghurs, but they also supported Trump-administration policies that kept desperate Muslim refugees out of this country; they champion democracy in Hong Kong, but they degrade it in the U.S. by challenging the results of the 2020 election. President Joe Biden and his aides often talk about putting human rights at the center of American foreign policy, but when this approach encountered its first real test last summer in Afghanistan, it failed. Other than banning the import of Chinese products made with forced Uyghur labor, and refusing to send an official delegation to the Beijing Olympics, the administration has done little to punish China for its brutal suppression of human rights in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong. The whole world has sent its athletes to celebrate a festival of youth and peace in the global capital of totalitarianism. And although these games must be the grimmest since 1972, if not 1936—ubiquitous surveillance, depopulated arenas, muzzled athletes, a hostage-video interview with a disappeared Chinese tennis player, that industrial backdrop of concrete cooling towers behind the freestyle-ski events—I’m still watching.

The field of human rights is littered with hypocrisy. No individual or organization possesses a scale of judgment that carefully matches the condemnation to the crime and then applies it consistently across a globe of oppression; personal and political biases always skew the calculation. Governments never separate human rights from national interests and domestic politics. Jimmy Carter, who first made human rights an explicit part of American foreign policy, criticized the Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos but had very little to say about the genocidal Khmer Rouge. Ronald Reagan preached freedom to people behind the Iron Curtain but cozied up to brutal military leaders in this hemisphere. Even if double standards weren’t routine, there’s the question of how much good external pressure ever does. For every success (South African apartheid fell in part because of foreign sanctions and international isolation), there have been many more disappointments (China after Tiananmen Square). Nonetheless, the idea that oppression abroad matters to Americans was a prominent feature of U.S. foreign policy through the last years of the Cold War and during the post–Cold War period, used or misused by every president from Carter and Reagan to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

But in the past decade or so, human rights have pretty much disappeared from our politics. Throughout the 9/11 wars, the grotesque contradiction between the rhetoric of freedom and the reality of tortured prisoners, civilian casualties, and grinding conflict corrupted the cause beyond remedy. After Iraq and Afghanistan, no president can send young men and women to war by invoking human rights. When Barack Obama refrained from punishing Bashar al-Assad of Syria for murdering thousands of innocent people with poison gas, there was no outcry from the general public. Privately, Obama told his aide Ben Rhodes that not even the 1994 Rwandan genocide merited a strong U.S. response. Without announcing a new era of foreign-policy “realism,” Obama brought it into being. Donald Trump made a point of showing utter indifference to the suffering of Syrians, Afghans, Chinese, or anyone else, and his callousness never cost him a thing.

With the eclipse of U.S. prestige and power, the decay of liberal democracy, and the rising appeal of authoritarian regimes, there’s no longer any mechanism—neither military force nor threat of sanctions and isolation, nor global pressure campaigns by civil-society groups—to make the world’s dictators hesitate before they throw people into concentration camps. What’s striking is how the demise of these mechanisms has soured Americans on the idea of human rights itself. Because we no longer think we can change the behavior of the world’s oppressors—because the cost of trying will be too high—we no longer think much about human rights at all. When they come up as a policy issue, we look for ways to justify doing nothing. We are all realists now.

It’s almost a given today that the welfare of unknown peoples like the Uyghurs in far-off places like Xinjiang province is none of our business. As a result, the mind stops seeking and absorbing news of them, and so, in a sense, they cease to exist. Their nonexistence stems from and reinforces the profound self-absorption into which Americans have sunk in the past decade. The recent Joe Rogan–Neil Young–Spotify outrage ginned up far more passion and interest than the fact that Russia is poised to extinguish the independent state of Ukraine. When Chamath Palihapitiya said that Americans should “take care of our own backyard” before pointing fingers at other countries, he was voicing a widespread belief.

LeBron James expressed it in 2019, when he rebuked the Houston Rockets’ general manager, Daryl Morey, for tweeting in support of prodemocracy demonstrators in Hong Kong. James argued that people in the NBA should keep quiet about China, that he and others didn’t know enough about Hong Kong to have an opinion on the Chinese government’s assault on the demonstrators. He said he’d speak out about “something that hits home for me,” about places and causes he knows; that is, American ones. If James had wanted to learn how the Chinese government snuffed out the remaining flickers of democracy in Hong Kong, he could have. But no one suffers reputational damage for saying, in effect, that oppressed people in China matter less than those in this country. Saying so can even be a kind of virtue signaling—the human-rights version of the old anti-foreign-aid line “Charity begins at home.”

The idea that solidarity with the oppressed here should naturally extend to the oppressed everywhere—an internationalist idea that long ago defined the left—has died, along with the global system in which the U.S. played an intermittent, usually two-faced, often incompetent, occasionally effective role as the self-proclaimed upholder of human rights as a universal value.

But instincts have a way of outlasting ideas. Within most Americans lies a buried feeling that they should care about the torment of the Uyghurs. If by some accident an account of torture in a Chinese reeducation camp forces itself on our attention, we’re troubled, as if we should be doing something about it; and if a public figure says that nobody cares, we denounce him—out of shame, because his indifference recalls our own. There’s no institutional mechanism for addressing human rights, no public discussion, no living idea—just an atavistic feeling that can sometimes be awakened.

Boston basketball players on the court with Freedom in the middle
Boston Celtics Enes Kanter Freedom (John W. McDonough/ Getty)

Into this empty space Enes Kanter Freedom comes barging with his big, aggressive strides. Born Enes Kanter and raised in Turkey, he was the NBA’s third draft choice in 2011 and has spent a decade bouncing around the league as a journeyman center. He told me the story of his awakening to human rights as a series of revelations. After he arrived in the U.S. in 2009 as a high-school basketball recruit, he heard a teammate criticize Obama. “Dude, what are you doing?” Kanter rebuked him. “They might put you in jail.” The teammate laughed: “This is America.” The first revelation was freedom of speech, and Kanter used it to criticize the repressive government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The regime pursued Kanter’s family, took their passports, imprisoned his father, and forced his parents to renounce their son; he hasn’t spoken to them in years. The Turkish government also went after Kanter himself—stripped his citizenship, put out an Interpol warrant for his arrest, and just missed snatching him in Indonesia. Kanter became more and more outspoken against the Erdoğan regime. As long as Turkey was his target, the NBA left him alone.

Last summer came the second revelation. Kanter recently told me that he was shooting hoops with Brooklyn kids and posing for pictures at one of the basketball camps he hosts around the country when a parent accosted him: “How can you call yourself a human-rights activist when your Muslim brothers and sisters are getting tortured and raped in Chinese concentration camps?” Kanter knew little about China’s mass oppression of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang province. He had focused his activism on the country he knew best. “I promise I’m going to get back to you,” he told the parent.

Kanter canceled the rest of the day’s events. He went back to his hotel, closed the curtains, lay down on his bed, took out his phone, and Googled Uyghurs. He stayed up most of the night reading. He woke up puffy-eyed and ashamed.

“Find me a concentration-camp survivor,” Kanter said to his manager. A Uyghur woman in Washington told him her story of gang rape and torture. She wept for half an hour. When Kanter asked what he could do to help her, she told him, “I am safe. There are millions of people suffering in those camps. Forget about me. Put your awareness on them.”

On October 20, just before the season opener of Kanter’s Boston Celtics against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, he released a video on social media. He stood against a blank white wall wearing a black T-shirt with an image of the Dalai Lama in prayer. (He wanted to speak about Tibet before Xinjiang so that people wouldn’t think he was just supporting fellow Muslims.) “Brutal dictator of China, Xi Jinping, I have a message for you and your henchmen,” he said, jabbing a finger at the camera. “Free Tibet. Free Tibet. Free Tibet.”

This is Kanter’s style of activism—it’s personal. He gets in a dictator’s face, nose to nose, chest to chest, as if Xi Jinping is a bully throwing cheap shots and committing flagrant fouls and everyone else is afraid to call him out. “Someone had to do it,” Kanter told me.

Twenty minutes before the Knicks game, in the visitors’ locker room, Kanter put on his wildly colorful new shoes, designed by a dissident Chinese artist, with the yellow, blue, and red of the Tibetan flag; a roaring lion; a man in flames; and the words FREE TIBET. His teammates were intrigued and confused—“What kind of shoes are those?”—but he had no time to explain. After warm-ups, Kanter was sitting on the bench when, he told me, two league officials—friends of his—approached. “Listen, man, your shoes have been getting lots of attention,” one of them said. “You have to take them off.”

Amid COVID and the social-justice protests of 2020, the league had encouraged self-expression, and NBA players had written various messages on their shoes in Sharpie: Black Lives Matter, Say Their Names, Wash Your Hands. Kanter, who spoke at a Black Lives Matter rally in Boston, was thrilled with the players’ new social awareness. But now two officials were pleading with him to change his shoes. (The NBA denies that league officials made this request.) Kanter was preparing for his U.S. citizenship test, and he reminded them of his First Amendment rights. “I don’t care if I’m fined,” he said.

“Not fined,” one of them said. “Banned.”

Kanter refused. “Go tell your boss I’m not taking my shoes off.” Their boss was the NBA’s commissioner, Adam Silver.

Kanter sat on the bench the entire first half. In the locker room at halftime, he checked his phone: It was swarming with messages. One of them, from his manager, informed him that Chinese media had stopped streaming the game. The Chinese ban on the Celtics would continue all year.

A senior official with the National Basketball Players Association, Kanter’s own union, kept calling and asking him not to wear anti-China shoes. “I talked about Turkey 10 years, not one phone call,” Kanter told me. “I talked about China one day, I’m getting phone calls every hour.” He told the union rep not to call again. When Kanter reached Adam Silver, they spoke for half an hour. Silver told him that he was free to say whatever he wanted with his shoes; nonetheless, at the end of the conversation, according to Kanter, Silver remarked, “Everyone knows it’s business.” Kanter took this to mean: You’re free to talk about China, but you, your team, and the NBA might face consequences.

On October 22, for the Celtics home opener against Toronto, Kanter wore red, black, and blue Free Uyghur shoes that also said, Stop Genocide Torture Rape Slave Labor. He turned the 2021–22 season into a running face-off with the world’s leading dictators and their enablers. One pair of shoes targeted Venezuela’s dictatorship; another featured a lineup of tyrants’ faces, including Kim Jong Un, Bashar al-Assad, and Mohammed bin Salman. Kanter even searched for an image to protest the Taliban’s abuse of women. He didn’t hesitate to use tactics that were provocative to the point of rudeness. Against the Lakers, he wore shoes that mocked LeBron James for kneeling to the gold of Xi Jinping (James, questioned by reporters, refused to be drawn). When the Celtics played the Charlotte Hornets, owned by Michael Jordan, Kanter wore red-spattered Nike Air Jordan 11s that declared, Made with Slave Labor. (Nike’s factories in China have been accused of using Uyghur forced labor.) On November 29, Kanter became an American citizen. He took the oath with a new name: Enes Kanter Freedom.

Freedom’s playing time dwindled to the lowest of his career; in some games, he didn’t even see action during “garbage time,” the last minutes of a blowout. He accused the Celtics of benching him for his anti-China activism; the Celtics pointed to his difficulties defending the pick-and-roll. Friends around the league advised him to enjoy the season because it was going to be his last. Freedom claims that he hasn’t been shunned by teammates, that he gets quiet support. Once, he told me, as he was getting ready to shoot a free throw, a Lakers player murmured: “Listen, man, what you’re doing is so brave, keep speaking up—but I can’t talk about it. These teams got us.” But some players asked him to unfollow them on social media, and not one has spoken out on his behalf. “Maybe they don’t know enough about it,” he told me. “But I feel like the fear of losing money, the fear of losing business, the fear of losing endorsement deals …” He didn’t complete the obvious thought. “And also, sometimes they do not care enough about what’s going on outside America.”

This indifference, and not the pervasive influence of Chinese contracts and sneaker endorsements, is the most interesting thing about the league’s unfriendly response to Freedom’s campaign for global human rights. Of course young players want to win lucrative deals while they can, but most people in the league don’t even experience a conflict between money and principle. The latter has disappeared. It’s as if Freedom is putting all that money in jeopardy for a self-indulgent whim—as if he’s taken a tactless interest in matters that don’t concern him.

His shoes match his views—both are unsubtle and unsparing. And the shoes can be more eloquent than the man. Freedom told me that he believes “pure human rights” have nothing to do with politics. “It should be separated,” he said. “I don’t even like politics.” This is naive: There’s a short, straight line connecting the behavior of American companies in China to U.S. foreign-policy decisions and how they’re exploited in domestic politics. Freedom is well within his rights to charge LeBron James with hypocrisy, but his illusion that human rights can be kept separate from politics has made him a mark for right-wing commentators such as Tucker Carlson, who baited him into telling his fellow NBA players, mostly Black Americans, to “stop criticizing the greatest nation in the world.”

Freedom plans to speak to the Conservative Political Action Committee later this month. He might intend to go as an advocate for “pure human rights,” but at CPAC he’ll identify himself with a political camp whose interest in human rights is utterly opportunistic. He’s entangled himself with Turkish politics as well, as a close associate of the exiled religious leader Fethullah Gülen, who has an extensive network of supporters inside Turkey. (Freedom was at Gülen’s heavily guarded compound in rural Pennsylvania on the night of the 2016 failed coup attempt in Turkey, which Erdoğan blamed on Gülen, and for which Gülen denied responsibility.)

A symbol as rough and blunt and improvised as a painted pair of sneakers, worn by an athlete in the brief interlude of his fame, is just what we should expect in a time when nobody cares about what’s happening to the Uyghurs. With no high-level debate to enter in this country, no established institution to join, nothing in which to fit his lonely campaign, Freedom has to figure it out by himself, one game at a time.

We spoke last week when he was in Brooklyn to play the Nets. The NBA’s trade deadline was just a few days off, and I asked if he thought the Celtics would try to unload him. “I don’t think they will,” Freedom said. “They will get a lot of backlash; they will be in a very uncomfortable situation. They’re hoping Let’s finish the year like this and see what happens.”

Freedom was having a busy week. During NBC’s prime-time Olympic broadcast (which he refused to watch), he appeared in an ad for free speech by FIRE—the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. A member of the Norwegian Parliament put his name up for the Nobel Peace Prize. Last Thursday, 30 Nobel laureates released a letter calling on the Celtics to stand with Freedom “on the right side of history” and not “to drop him as a player.”

Thursday was the trade deadline. In the late afternoon, the Celtics sent Freedom to the Houston Rockets—the team that had forced its general manager to retract his tweet in support of Hong Kong’s prodemocracy protesters in 2019. Within minutes the Rockets waived Freedom, and no other team picked him up. Now the NBA has him where it wants him—out of sight, out of mind, like the Uyghurs themselves. If Freedom, who’s already sacrificed his family and his career, is in it for the long haul, he’ll have to find some other way to make Americans care than by wearing painted sneakers.