Jeremy Lin: The Wrong Kind of Guy

USA Today tries to understand why what ought to be ordinary — success in America — has created a sensation in the media. After all, lots of players get recruited into the NBA without attracting this much attention. But Jeremy Lin’s story is different. The answer from the media is that the unusual attention arises from an obsession with race.  You see, not every valued NBA up-and-comer hails from Taiwanese parents in San Francisco.


“There’s this idea that it’s OK to stereotype Asians — just don’t with African-Americans or Latinos because you’ll get in trouble and you’ll get an aggressive response,” Kang says. “But somehow it’s OK to do that to the Asian-American community …

“You hear endless debates about: ‘How can this be happening? How can he be doing so well?'” Kang says.

But is it about racial obsession after all? And if so, whose racial obsession? Other factors are in play.

Why are people asking “how he can be doing so well,” as if he were a monkey playing Chopin, as if he’d broken every rule in the book?  To be sure, he has. Apart from being the wrong race, Jeremy Lin graduated from Harvard and is Christian — yes, a Christian — to boot, and you would suppose a man laboring under those handicaps would be almost as bad as a Mormon.

But what if those “rules” were wrong?

After all, most of Lin’s lifestyle attributes are — or were — predictors of success in former times. Back in the day, people would say, “no wonder he’s doing so well” — and not express astonishment. There was a time when people actually cited a devotion to learning, the lessons from their parents, and a belief in transcendence as part of the reason for their triumphs. People talked about reading by firelight, walking six miles to school to a one-room schoolhouse, or sweeping floors to earn flying lessons as the path to fortune.


Some months ago, in the wake of all the media hype about so-called Asian values and Tiger-mother upbringing, one old gentleman remarked to me: “Why should the media think that sort of thing is Chinese? A few generations ago, those values were accepted as the way things ought to be. It is only recently that believing in these things has become suspect.”

Maybe the real reason for the media’s discomfort is that Lin’s story uncomfortably suggests that these things still matter. The deep secret is that those attributes are still pluses, not minuses that afflict only the uncool and bigoted few.

To be sure, there are other persons who may have no families to speak of, who never went to school and may never have heard of the either God or the Devil — and still succeeded in their own way.  But maybe they succeeded in spite of these things and not because of them. Maybe all the role models the media loves to tout would have gone even further by breaking with the mold.

In the interview that follows, the host wonders whether Jeremy can teach his teammates to keep what money they will earn in the salad years.  Indeed they should, but they shouldn’t have needed the man from Harvard to tell them that. Maybe the Lin brouhaha is not about race at all but the uncovering of the wrong narrative. His life accidentally sticks a pin into all of the stereotypes and shibboleths of a society which, after years of styling itself as post-bigoted, stands revealed as blindly bigoted after all, in a politically correct way.


Maybe the way to avoid surprises in the future is to declare war on hyphens, those grammatical articles which join all manner of meaningless modifiers to individuals in ways which typecast them for political and narrative purposes. And then it will finally be possible to refer to the “Asian-American-Harvard-Graduate-Christian-whateverwhateverwhatever-Jeremy Lin” as simply Jeremy Lin.

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