Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: How #MeToo Can Help Right America's Wrongs in 2018

Illustration by Kyle Hilton

Sexism, racism and attacks on dissent made an ugly return in 2017, but the movement could make next year the "year of kicking ass rather than groping it," writes the NBA great and THR columnist.

Man, 2017 has been the Tommy Wiseau of the century. A whole year of our short stay on Earth has been hijacked by a cast of clueless characters so tone- and times-deaf that they’ve made America look like the national road company version of The Room (“You’re tearing me apart!”). These disaster artists are dominating not only politics but, worse, our pop culture, which acts as the prophetic entrails of our country’s cultural and social future. And right now, those are some pretty grim gizzards.

The end-of-year party theme for 2017 is 
the long overdue Abuse of Power for Idiots. Although producer-in-an-open-robe Harvey Weinstein and President Trump (“Make America Grope Again”) have diametrically opposed political views, they are united in their belief that power over others is a license, even a duty, to exploit them. That’s not the worst part. The worst part is uncovering how many people have been, and still are, complicit in enabling the abuse despite their glib denials. If you’re at all wondering if I’m referring to you, then yes, I am.

The year 2017 was like time-traveling back to the ’50s, an era when most Americans had blind faith in government, parents, religion and Big Business. Father knew best, both figuratively and literally. Women were fashionable accessories, college students were pennant-waving boosters of the status quo, blacks were keeping their heads down, gays were in denial or hiding. And everyone except Ban the Bomb bums and civil rights agitators were patriots. Those White Fathers in power had only our best interests at heart, and anyone who suggested otherwise was a communist sympathizer bent on destroying the American Way of Life.

A simple life for the simple-minded. If you think that sounded good, then yes, I am referring to you.

That docile, complacent Ghost of America Past that Trump and his GOP cronies are trying so desperately to conjure is, to the rest of us, the racist, misogynist, homophobic demon we are desperate to exorcise. They act without shame, supporting accused child molesters for the Senate, passing tax bills that they know benefit the rich over the poor or middle class, aggressively seeking to restrict the constitutional rights of minorities, women, immigrants and the LGBTQ community, all in the smarmy pursuit of personal political power over conscience or patriotism.

Trump is to American values what Bizzaro Superman is to reality: a twisted parody of all that Americans hold dear, a clownish court jester who lacks the intelligence, integrity and self-awareness to see, or care about, the damage he’s doing. According to The Washington Post, in his first 298 days, Trump made 1,628 false or misleading statements. Is the America of 2017 no longer demanding truth from elected officials? Is it just too much effort for us to do as Thomas Jefferson advised? “If ever you find yourself environed with difficulties and perplexing circumstances, out of which you are at a loss how to extricate yourself, do what is right, and be assured that that will extricate you the best out of the worst situations.” Well, this is the worst situation. Will we do what is right in 2018?

One bright ray of hope that we are capable of doing what is right has been demonstrated by the #MeToo movement. Pulling sexual predators out of the slimy shadows and thrusting them into the harsh, unrelenting light of public scrutiny has elevated the power of women against those who would diminish them. It has raised awareness among all men, even staunch supporters of women’s equality, who can undoubtedly recall a time or two when they acted or spoke to a woman in a way that was not appropriate. It has eliminated the typical male excuses from our social lexicon: “I was just kidding.” “Can’t you take a joke?” “You’re not even my type.” “You were coming on to me.” And all the other desperate and defensive phrases that need to be publicized so they will never be used again.

Another sign of American defiance in the face of political and social oppression is the mass protests by athletes, from high school to the pros. These protests fulfill Americans’ glorious past as a people determined to fight for what is right. From women’s suffrage to worker’s unions to civil rights to anti-war, Americans have used public protest to inform one another about injustices, at grave personal risk, in order to eliminate those injustices. Colin Kaepernick may be the face of such protests because he has been singled out for punishment by the NFL, but he has inspired dozens of players, coaches and owners in the NFL, NBA, WNBA and, to a lesser extent, the NHL and MLB. It is a joy to see so many embrace their responsibility as role models to kids and as members of the community.

The backlash already has begun. Women speaking out about harassment are called liars by celebrities and politicians. Sports organizations are trying to muzzle athletes from expressing themselves because they say sports is no place for political commentary. Yet they play the national anthem and have military displays that clearly express political opinion. Only the oppressed, mostly people of color who actually have reason to speak out, are being told to hold their tongues.

Silence breeds further oppression, so if we want 2018 to be the year of kicking ass rather than groping it, we will have to raise our voices for every group who faces injustice: people of color, women, immigrants, Muslims, the LGBTQ community and anyone else being marginalized by those in power who look at us with eyes, as W.B. Yeats wrote, “as blank and pitiless as the sun.”

I watched the incredibly moving viral video in which tearful middle schooler Keaton Jones recounts school bullies physically and emotionally harassing him and wonders why they do it. With a catch in his voice, he wonders what can be done about them. “Stay strong, I guess. It’ll probably get better one day,” he says unconvincingly, turning away from the camera as he weeps. Immediately, there was an outpouring of support from celebrities, politicians and athletes. I couldn’t help but think that’s where America is now, being bullied by some pretty ruthless villains. We can’t just hope things will get better one day, we have to make them better now. Together.

(Since the video was released, questions about Keaton’s parents’ racial views have been raised. That doesn’t make him being victimized less wrong or harrowing. Maybe that’s even more reason for us to rally around him, to show him the America we can make it.)

On HBO’s The Newsroom, anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) laments the America that has lost much of its greatness by describing the people we used to be when we were at our peak: “We stood up for what was right. We fought for moral reasons, we passed laws, struck down laws for moral reasons, we waged wars on poverty, not poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors. We put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chest. We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, and we cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy. ... We aspired to intelligence, we didn’t belittle it, it didn’t make us feel inferior. We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in our last election, and we didn’t scare so easy.”

Let’s make 2018 the year we don’t scare so easy and strive to become those people once again.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.