Benjamin Markovits | A Man for Half a Season · LRB 18 March 2022

As a child at Robert E. Lee elementary school (since renamed), I had to repeat the pledge of allegiance every morning before class. Rebelliously, I used to mouth the words. That’ll show ’em. What does Petey say at the end of The Birthday Party? ‘Stanley, don’t let them tell you what to do.’ Most families have a playlist of dinner table references, and ours included Chariots of Fire, A Man for All Seasons and an old Rolo ad that showed a man on a bus angrily explaining: ‘I cannot give you what I do not have. I have not got a Rolo.’ We were brought up to admire refuseniks.

In another political landscape, then, I might have been a Djokovic fan. Even a Kyrie Irving fan. People willing to take a stand on principle, at great personal cost: millions of dollars, childhood dreams, the day-to-day practice of a job they presumably love. Regardless of whether I know what the principle is, or believe in it. (It was announced yesterday that Djokovic will be allowed to play at the French Open; but he missed the Australian, isn’t playing at Indian Wells or Miami, and Wimbledon is one of the many tournaments still in the balance. Irving still can’t play home games for the Brooklyn Nets because of New York City’s vaccine mandate, though he is allowed to watch them maskless with all the other punters.)

Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire makes his stand on the sanctity of the Sabbath. It seems basically crazy to give up a chance at Olympic gold just because you don’t want to run on Sunday. Yet he holds his nerve and we’re supposed to respect him for it, even if I always preferred the Jewish guy, whose main problem is that he has to fight against England’s gentlemanly commitment to mediocrity.

The principle that costs Thomas More his life in A Man for All Seasons is similarly hard to get excited about. He won’t help Henry annul his marriage to his brother’s widow, because he doesn’t believe the king, on this matter, can overrule the pope. Robert Bolt, in my Vintage edition of the play, admits that he is ‘not a Catholic nor even in the meaningful sense of the word a Christian’. Which causes him some embarrassment: ‘Why do I take as my hero a man who brings about his own death because he can’t put his hand on an old black book and tell an ordinary lie?’

What Djokovic and Irving have refused to do is just as easy – to roll up their sleeves and hold out their arms. And the play has a lot to say about their predicament. ‘Well, Alice, what would you want me to do?’ More asks his wife. ‘Be ruled!’ she says, and More replies: ‘I neither could nor would rule my king. But there’s a little … little, area … where I must rule myself. It’s very little – less to him than a tennis court.’

By sticking to that area, he hopes to protect himself. The trick, so far as he sees it, is that he can refuse, but can’t give a reason for the refusal. Slowly the walls close in. The Act of Succession requires everyone to sign it; when More refuses, he’s imprisoned. But they can’t kill him unless they know why, and he sticks to his guns: ‘I insult no one. I will not take the oath. I will not tell you why I will not.’

Here’s what Djokovic said to the BBC last month: ‘Based on all the informations that I got I decided not to take the vaccine … as of today. I keep my mind open, because we are all trying to find collectively a best possible solution to end Covid.’

It’s interesting to watch people when they can’t say what they actually think. Some find it easier than others. More is very good at it. Cranmer tries to convince him that the right and wrong of the oath is ‘capable of question’, so he should choose a certainty over a doubt and follow his duty to his king. More replies: ‘Some men think the earth is round; others think it flat. It is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the king’s command make it round?’

As it happens, before he took this stand on vaccination, Kyrie Irving was probably most famous (outside basketball) for being a flat-earther, or at least pretending to be a flat-earther. It was sometimes hard to tell:

All I want to do is be able to have that open conversation. It was all an exploitation tactic. It literally spun the world – your guys’ world – it spun it into a frenzy and proved exactly what I thought it would do in terms of how all this works. It created a division, or, literally stand up there and let all these people throw tomatoes at me, or have somebody think I’m somehow a different intellectual person because I believe that the earth is flat and you think the world is round. It created exactly that.

Later, he clarified his position: ‘I do research on both sides . . . I’m not against anyone that thinks the earth is round. I’m not against anyone that thinks it’s flat. I just love hearing the debate.’ Though he also, jokingly, apologised to science teachers everywhere for making them ‘reteach their whole curriculum’.

Djokovic has taken a similar line on the vaccine:

You know no one in the whole process during Australian saga has asked me on my stance or on my opinion on vaccination, no one so I could not really express you know what I feel or where my stance is neither in the legal process neither outside. So it’s really unfortunate that there has been this kind of misconception and wrong conclusion that has been made around the world based upon something that I completely disagree with.

It isn’t totally clear what he disagrees with. The idea that he’s ‘against’ vaccination? Or the science in favour of it? Both Irving and Djokovic fall back on the freedom to choose, which includes the freedom More insists on – not to give reasons for their choice. ‘It’s not politics,’ Irving says. ‘It’s just about the freedom of what I want to do.’ Or as Djokovic puts it: ‘But I’ve always represented and always supported the freedom to choose what you put in your body. And for me that is essential, it’s really the principle of understanding what is right and what is wrong for you.’

Bolt, explaining why he wrote the play, talked about a certain sense of self, which religion used to provide: ‘But though few of us have anything in ourselves like an immortal soul which we regard as absolutely inviolable, yet most of us still feel something which we should, on the whole, prefer not to violate.’

I’ve never been a Djokovic fan. Or a Federer fan either, for that matter. I’d root for Nadal against both, and Murray against all of them. Kyrie Irving is a beautiful basketball player to watch, but I’ve always wanted him to lose. And I don’t understand why they won’t get the vaccine. There are reasonable arguments to be had about the justice and efficiency of mandates, but the calculation in their particular situations seems pretty simple: they’d be better off getting jabbed. Then again, I’d also be happy to run on Sunday, or let my boss get divorced.

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