The Artest formerly known as…
What is in a name?
A rose by any other
Name would smell as sweet.
Mr. Shakespeare would, I hope, forgive me for manipulating a famous line from Romeo and Juliet into a haiku. The question, though, remains the same: what is in a name? Ron Artest’s recent name change raises this question afresh and places it alongside weighty (international) news matters, such as the fate of the Palestinian state, the euro (€) crisis, and what Lady Gaga’s latest hairstyle will be. (Note to readers: we will generally refer to the former Ron Artest as “Mr. Artest” in order to facilitate a flowing prose.)
Metta World Peace. Say that ten times fast. You thought I spoke lightly about international, eh? The former Mr. Artest is reaching for the heights of history with his new name as he attempts to inspire others to fraternity (in the gender-neutral sisterhood-brotherhood sense). According to the Los Angeles Times, “Metta is a Buddhist term that means loving kindness and friendliness toward others.” Indeed, Buddhism has been known (anecdotally) to reform people: the great Maurya king Ashoka (अशोक), whose lion symbol the Republic of India now proudly uses, supposedly converted to Buddhism after a horrific war. Let’s dig deeper into the name change and all the implications therein.
The connection to Ashoka is clear: Ashoka waged a brutal, fierce war in modern-day Odisha (former Orissa), India to enlarge his kingdom, while Artest was seen as crazy, unstable, and violent—due largely to his behavior at the “Malice at the Palace” in 2004. (Unfortunately, Yours Truly had watched that game until about 2 minutes before the end, when I turned it off due to the obvious game outcome. Little did I know that I would miss history live. But that’s neither here nor there.) Ashoka repented, turned to Buddhism, and devoted the remainder of his life—if the tablets conveniently created by his regime are to be trusted—to nonviolence and governance. Artest is due to appear on Dancing with the Stars, about as non-violent a show as is possible these days.
Artest, though, does not merely follow the pattern set by Ashoka. His name reminds the listener (or in this case, the reader) of World B. Free. Mr. Free did not necessarily advocate for world peace, though we shall give him the benefit of the doubt, but his name left no uncertainty about a deeper political message running through the era. Free joined the NBA in 1975, a red-letter year in decolonization as the Portuguese Empire crumbled and gave birth to the modern Portuguese state and the new countries of Mozambique, Angola, Cape Verde, São Tome and Principe, and Guinea-Bissau.†
1975, too, was the year of Francisco Franco’s death and the shift towards constitutional monarchism in Spain. Vietnam was united in 1975—but we’re not going to go there. Suffice it to say that World B. Free both tapped into and reflected the zeitgeist of the mid-1970s.
Which brings us back to Mr. Artest. Most Americans, even if they do not know Artest, remember Prince and his bizarre name change in the 1990s. That change, it emerged, came about due to a contract dispute between Prince and Warner Brothers. Immediate speculation about ulterior motives were somewhat put to rest by Artest’s payment of outstanding parking tickets. However, knowing the Los Angeles Lakers franchise and the fetish in the NBA to issue throwback jerseys, retro jerseys, pick-a-random-color-and-run-with-it jerseys, and even sillier combinations does inspire rumblings about the fact that many fans will be forced to shell out $$$ (not €€€, thank goodness!) for a new slick piece of synthetic sweat-resistant cloth.
Overall, we should applaud Mr. Artest for sending a strong political message. He’s very meta, you know. News agencies are abuzz now with news that Mahmoud Abbas has gone to the UN to petition for recognition of a Palestinian state. On his own side, critics of Mr. Abbas argue that recognition is merely symbolic. Who knows—perhaps Metta World Peace is influencing the peace process for the better. And, Mr. Artest would answer Shakespeare that what is in a name—especially the symbolic value—matters deeply.
†On a darker note, Indonesia, under the kleptocratic Suharto regime, invaded Portuguese Timor and occupied it until 2002. Additionally, bloody Cold War proxy wars in Angola and Mozambique killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions.