December 2020

The Last Dance and the Death of American Empire

The sooner we marshal our resources for repairing those social relationships that have been poisoned by centuries of imperial destruction and for reconstructing society on progressive terms, the better chance we have of navigating this storm.

The ESPN/Netflix docu-series, The Last Dance was released in late spring of the year 2020. The title comes from the Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson, who wrote “the last dance” on the chalkboard at the beginning of the 1997-98 season. Michael Jordan of course is the star player in the series, and Phil Jackson is the hero. These two personalities led the Bulls to six championships. The final championship year, the 1997-98 season, is the backdrop to the whole series. The Bulls General manager announced that the then five-time championship team would have one more season to play together, one last dance. That 1997-98 season is the through-line of the ten episode series, and Michael Jordan successfully led the Bulls to their sixth NBA trophy in June 1998 in the last episode. But this sports documentary is about much more than basketball—it is also a metaphor for our times.

The film is an exhilaratingly nostalgic trip for nineties basketball fans afforded amazing access into the soul of Michael, the genius of Phil Jackson, and the eccentricity which is Dennis Rodman, but The Last Dance’smessage is ultimately about the end of another empire—the United States of America. History has a way of crafting poetry for those that can hear its cadences. The details of the story of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls’ dynasty transcends the high drama of the sports story that was in the minds of the filmmakers. Michael Jordan and the Bulls’ story is the story of a triumphant post-cold war United States winning the world and decomposing at the same time. The 1990s were the last moment of a mass society hero untouched by social media with its fractured audiences and insulated bubbles. Michael Jordan has been criticized for his golf-swinging, cigar-smoking, high-stakes gambling, and his embrace of a capitalist attitude, but instead of moral condemnation, we would do well to dig into the docu-series with an ear towards the historical poetry to hear how the Bulls and America reached a peak before dismantling after its last dance.

Michael Jordan on the gold course. Photo via Essentially Sports.

The production of The Last Dance at this moment of climate collapse, white power extremism in the highest of offices, and the mayhem of a global pandemic reminds us of a world that we never said goodbye to because it slipped away quietly, until now. It was a troublesome liberal order that ended, full of domination, destruction, and wars. But it brought order and stability to the middle classes within the U.S. imperial orbit. The liberal order depended on overthrowing democracy abroad in Chile, Iran, Guatemala, Dominican Republic and scores of other countries. It combined settler colonialism with racial subjugation in prisons, schools, and the policed ghettos. It degraded and simplified the natural world and made poor people toil in humiliating and unhealthy workplaces. Violence underpinned the middle class play-land, but that same liberal world dangled the promise of progress and justice for all. The ten-episode series of nostalgia memorializes that moment by looking at its icons. It takes an uncritical view of the liberal order, but it also signals its finality—that is, the death of the illusion of a comfortable, slow but steady progress with homeownership, a “meaningful job,” and increasing “diversity.” The last dance does not offer a critique of this liberal imperial order, but the telling of 1990s history offers some psychological distance from that world—and that distance is necessary for letting go of the period’s illusions.

At the center of the film is Michael Jordan in his unabashed, competitive greatness. His dynasty with the Bulls surpassed the heights of Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird’s teams. His arrival in Chicago from the University of North Carolina in 1984 quickly transformed the Bulls from a third-rate team to an immediate attraction. The empty basketball arena filled up even in Jordan’s rookie year. Soon enough, he got his team into the playoffs and filled a generation of youngsters with the desire to “be like Mike.” With images of him flying through the air with his tongue dangling from his mouth, with a steady flow of photogenic double pump reverse layups, and an unnerving capacity to win in the last minute, Michael Jordan capitulated not only the Chicago Bulls, but the then struggling National Basketball Association to what it is today. By 1992, the league, which had been barely staying afloat financially was spreading its wings to eighty different countries.

Today’s multinational corporate NBA owes much of its success to Jordan’s ascendance, both on the court and in popular culture. Image via BallnRoll.

Fittingly, the story starts in the year of Jordan’s birth, 1963, a year that marks a new era. In that year, Dr. Martin Luther King helped lead the March on Washington, inaugurating a national legislative embrace of the Civil Rights Movement. In response to pressure from Black activists and President Lyndon Johnson, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act (1964), the Voting Rights Act (1965), and the Fair Housing Act (1968). These laws created new opportunities for Black Americans like Jordan and helped open doors that had been firmly shut against Black people working for a better future.

Yet the blowback was almost immediate. In 1968, the Johnson administration authorized the largest domestic mobilization of federal troops since the Civil War to put down nationwide uprisings bent on Black liberation—particularly in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination. It is the year of chaos at the Democratic National Convention, of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, and of the third major piece of civil rights legislation of the sixties. It was the year Richard Nixon got elected and a new conservatism gained momentum. The rightwing counterrevolution pushed back President Johnson’s Great Society initiatives and eventually went on to undermine FDR’s New Deal programs. The rightwing counterrevolution sought to undo the tectonic social changes brought forth by the Black freedom movement, the student movement, the counterculture, the anti-war movement, the American Indian movement, the feminist movement, the gay liberation movement, and the ecology movement. Some historians call the sixties a period of a second American Reconstruction and 1968 marks the end of progressive reconstruction. If the year of Jordan’s birth marked the beginning of a new era of equality, his early childhood saw the beginnings of a new post-reconstruction, counter-revolutionary order.

In the 1970s and 80s, a new political bargain emerged whereby American politics drifted rightward but it had to pay lip service to the progressive gains of the social movements. George Wallace’s outright racism was shot at, while Richard Nixon’s supposedly colorblind, “law and order” styled racism prevailed. Martin Luther King Jr.’s visionary radicalism was assassinated, but Ronald Reagan strategically decided to memorialize King’s passivism. Successive federal administrations pushed for “black capitalism” at the expense of Black civil rights. In short, a political and economic rollback was in effect, but the cultural changes wrought by the sixties proved irreversible.

Jordan’s early life witnessed one of the most pivotal years in U.S. history: 1968. Two assassinations, Dr. Martin Luther King in April and Robert F. Kennedy in June, proved a major turning point in the political landscape while Nixon’s racist response to the Black uprisings after King’s death gave birth to a new, more overtly white supremacist Republican Party. Photo via Wikimedia.

As an athletic Black boy growing up in North Carolina in the seventies, Michael Jordan could play sports with white boys and his sports career faced no racial limits. In this new environment of relative racial freedom, Jordan excelled thanks to a work ethic which would make Max Weber blush. Jordan’s college basketball teammate and future hall-of-famer, James Worthy, recalled how Michael routinely stayed after practice for hours challenging the older star player to scrimmage. Within weeks, the tireless freshman had adopted Worthy’s tricks and surpassed his skill. In Michael’s first years with the Chicago Bulls, he stayed in a modest home and abjured the cocaine, the booze, and the girls that subsumed the rest of the team’s energy. When the physically stronger Detroit Pistons defeated the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals, Michael Jordan renounced his post-season vacation and immediately undertook an intense regimen of body building. Jordan’s outstanding work ethic and his competitive nature led him to greatness, and it perfectly embodied the narrative of how capitalism triumphed over Soviet Communism on the world stage. As the Berlin Wall crumbled and the U.S. won the Cold War, Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls won three straight championships.

Nothing speaks to the consonance between post-cold war triumphalism and basketball like the 1992 Olympic basketball “Dream Team.” Normally, Olympic basketball players drew from non-professionals, but the global hegemon took the opportunity to show off its power and it easily acquired the gold medal by stacking the team with NBA stars, with Jordan at the head. Having won three championships in a row by June 1993, it seemed to some, as Harvard political scientist Francis Fukayama contemporaneously wrote about “the end of history,” that greatness had been established.

The embodiment of American triumphalism, the “Dream Team” seemed to inaugurate a new era of American global dominance. Photo via The Guardian.

But no basketball dynasty and no political empire is forever. One month later, in July, Michael Jordan’s father was murdered in North Carolina in a rest area near I-95. In October, Jordan retired from basketball though he physically and mentally was reaching his prime. Instead, he took up what was traditionally the all-American sport, baseball. Soon enough, thanks to his work ethic and natural abilities, he was on his way to the major leagues, except for a labor dispute. The workers at the all-American sport were on strike and even Jordan, the consummate capitalist, would not cross the picket line. Put another way, what Karl Marx had considered the primary contradiction of the capitalist system—that between workers and bosses—hindered Michael Jordan’s chance at excelling at the quintessential American pastime. The labor dispute led Jordan to return to the basketball court, the imperial sport for this new stage of U.S. empire.

Michael Jordan represented America’s “soft power” at its peak. Nike built its own empire upon Jordan’s branding. With his return to basketball, an American journalist gushed “all seemed right in the world, MJ is back.” According to Barack Obama, Michael Jordan had become the unofficial “ambassador for the United States overseas.” Fittingly, this soft power had a harder edge by its side. Jordan’s new father figure was his personal security guard and an ex-sergeant for the Chicago police.

As Jordan was returning to basketball and going on to win an additional three consecutive championships, the U.S. set up its newest systems of global domination. “Globalization” was the buzzword of the day as a catchphrase for the propagation of neoliberalism through international trade agreements like North American Free Trade Agreement implemented in 1994 and the World Trade Organization established in 1995. The stock market was then in a frenzy from a dot-com boom. Speculating with profits was the order of the day and Michael Jordan had a reputation for gambling on the golf course.

Jordan’s career intertwined with a shift in American imperialism from hard to soft power. With the simmering and ultimate end of the Cold War, the U.S. increasingly exerted global influence through multinational corporations like Nike and Warner Brothers. Image via Nike News.

This triumphalism disguised its eroding foundations. Generations of imperial overreach were already haunting the United States. As “blowback” from operations in Afghanistan, ex-proxy Osama bin Laden’s organization planted its first bomb on U.S. soil in 1993. In the aftermath of the 1960s and 70s U.S. wars in Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos), returning military veterans played key roles in establishing a white supremacist paramilitary underground bend on destroying the U.S. system. Through the 1980s white power paramilitary groups had raided federal arsenals, stashed weapons, set up training camps, and committed to war on the U.S. government. In 1995, one of the movement’s members, a veteran from the recent war on Iraq, detonated a bomb in Oklahoma City with casualties on U.S. soil larger than any single incident by that time minus the Pearl Harbor bombing, which was actually a U.S. colony at the time.

The blowback from American imperial ventures circuitously touched even the Chicago Bulls. The U.S. government had long been committed to sustaining puppet regimes in its Central American “backyard,” and in the eighties these dictatorships were challenged by revolutionary social movements in El Salvador and a socialist government in Nicaragua. President Reagan arranged a secret and illegal arms deal that transferred weapons from Iran to the Contras in Central America. In 1984, resistance groups in Lebanon—partly funded by Iran—bombed American facilities, took hostages, and killed American citizens. One of those citizens was Dr. Malcolm Kerr, a professor at the American University in Beirut and father of Chicago Bulls shooting guard, Steve Kerr.

The small and unremarkable, Steve Kerr, sunk a last-second, game-winning, three-point shot to win the 1997 NBA championship. That shot propelled the Chicago Bulls into their ‘last dance’ year of 1997-98 poised to win more championship trophies than any other team, just as the United States was presided over an imperial dominion larger than any other in world history. Bob Costas, the longtime announcer on NBC sports, commented that the end of the dynasty would come one of two ways, “by people in suits” or “on the [basketball] floor.” Sure enough, Jordan led the team to victory a final time. As it turned out, it was people in suits that ended the dynasty.

John Bolton, who would later serve in the Bush and Trump administrations, examines “hanging chads” as a member of the Bush legal team seeking to toss out votes for Al Gore. Photo via The Washington Post.

In American politics, the imperial decline was slower than it played out in the Chicago summer of 1998, but the political decline has a rough temporal correspondence with the end of Chicago’s dynastic decline. In the years following 1998, a cascade of events inexorably led to the sorry state of affairs in 2020. In 2000, the winning presidential candidate had famously declared that he did not want to be “policeman of the world” in a nod to popular sentiment against imperial ventures. More forebodingly, the presidential election that year was tainted with irregularities, especially in Florida, a state where the governor was the brother of the declared winner. A spurious Supreme Court ruling made partly by appointees of the winning candidate’s father finalized the election results. The controversial election destroyed the possibility of a serious response to global climate change offered by the Democratic nominee, Al Gore. The election of the neoconservative George W. Bush ushered in a whirlwind of measures that destroyed civil liberties (the Patriot Act), that gave free rein to enact “forever wars” (Authorization for the Use of Military Force), that established new federal policing agencies (Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)). Osama bin Laden strategized that by attacking the U.S., he would provoke imperial overreach and the empire’s implosion. Eight years after the fraudulent election, at the end of George W. Bush’s second term, the U.S. military was stuck in two quagmires and the economy had crashed.

The middle class was of course buffered from the unrest of a poorly governed society. The urban rebellions in the ensuing years mostly stayed in the ghettos as had stop-and-frisk policies. The water-poisoning in Flint, Michigan and on Lakota lands affected relatively few middle-class Americans. Veterans suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and trained in paramilitary cells bunkered in relatively isolated, poor rural areas. Epidemics of alcohol, crack cocaine, and methamphetamines generally preyed on the economically vulnerable. Hurricane Katrina broke open levees first onto the impoverished Ninth Ward of New Orleans in 2005 before spreading to the more affluent areas.

By 2020, that much-vaunted American middle class is now withering rapidly. Widespread unemployment has trickled up the social system. COVID-19 disproportionately affects Black, brown, and indigenous people and essential workers but it has obviously effected the totality of social relations. Hurricanes and fires hit the precarious proletariat especially hard, but they do force everyone to flee. Even Malibu and Marin are burning.

The National Guard rolling through the flooded city of New Orleans in armored vehicles after Hurricane Katrina revealed an empire in decline succumbing to its own jingoistic rhetoric. Photo via Britannica.

The docu-series comes as a balm to those sports fans suffering through 2020 without the usual amount of distraction from sports. It is a nostalgic look back to soothe the soul in weary times. The Last Dance is a narrative celebrating middle-class values, a capitalist ethos, and dynastic greatness, and Michael Jordan ends the film lamenting that it could not continue a little longer. He wanted a chance to play another season with the Bulls. Even decades after his retirement, he has not let go of the competitive spirit. He wistfully yearned for a seventh championship. Likewise, much of the middle class today looks backwards and wishes their old liberties could continue somehow.

Phil Jackson, though, offers another approach to coping. Though the General Manager had publicly declared he would break up the team, the Bulls’ owner privately offered coach Jackson the chance to keep the team together another year, but Jackson declined. “The energy,” he said, “just was not there.” After the 1997-98 season, Jackson brough the team together for a ceremony. He lit a fire in a garbage can and placed it in the center of a basketball court. He invited the players to grieve together. All the players contributed, solemnly reflecting on basketball, on comradery, and on life. Michael Jordan wrote a poem, read it aloud to his teammates, and threw it into the fire. Jackson knew to create space for grieving and to move on.

The Last Dance speaks not only to the 1990s, but to this very moment, and how we can move on from the past. Today, in the rapidly changing political landscape, being paralyzed by the past can be fatal. The expression one hears from many liberals, “I just cannot believe that Trump…,” is a symptom of lingering illusions—disbelief and denial are the first stage of grief. Then comes anger, bargaining, depression, and psychological acceptance of reality. Beyond the docu-series’ liberal bias, at least it brings to the fore the question of our relationship to the liberal order of the decaying American empire. The sooner we marshal our resources for repairing those social relationships that have been poisoned by centuries of imperial destruction and for reconstructing society on progressive terms, the better chance we have of navigating this storm. The Last Dance may help, perhaps subconsciously, a subset of society accept the sad reality we live in, and perhaps it can help draw our poetry from the future and not the past.

Joshua Fattal is a doctoral candidate in US history at NYU. His research focuses on social movements, intellectual history, and US empire. Fattal is the co-author of the memoir A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Detained in Iran, along with Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd, which details his time spent as a prisoner in Iran. He has published in news outlets including NYTimes, LATimes, Seattle Times. Follow him on twitter: @_Josh_Fattal_.

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