Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Because For Some People It's All President Obama's Fault Until Something Good Happens...

Sports, War, and Politics from the Couch Potato Perspective

Don't get me wrong, I prefer President Obama to the Republican alternatives for 2012. And I realize that his taking credit for being the Action Hero who took out bin Laden increases his chances of being returned to office. But, at the risk of arming the President's enemies (some of whom are mine, too)... What is with our country's addiction to guilt and credit by association? President Obama did not kill bin Laden. Yes, he is the Commander in Chief. Yes, the execution was carried out by his order. But the Navy Seals did it.

On the other hand, I can see why the President gets credit. At least he was directly involved in the chain of command. There is some sense in which the old "body politic" metaphor holds, when the Head of State gives an order to be carried out by Foot Soldiers, as it were. But the celebration on the couches and in the stadia? Unless one has served in the military or has loved ones serving, I cannot understand the cheering, the drunken frat party hooting.

These are the times that I wish I studied sports and fan psychology more. Because it seems the couch potato is the proper metaphor here.

Sports fans as couch potatoes live vicariously through their sports heroes. The athletes' risks, leaps, triumphs, and humiliations are the couch potatoes' own. The fans in the bleachers and on their La-Z-Boys want to have in their own lives the feelings that they imagine athletes have: the agony and the ecstasy, as it were. Most important, they want their decisions to matter as much as Derek Jeter's or Peyton Manning's. They want to be the guy entrusted with the ball when there are only 2 seconds left in the game and someone has to shoot the three-pointer.

Ok. This is great. No problem. I am not against entertainment. No doubt, those who enjoy music, theater, dance,  and movies have the same feelings. We want King Lear's earth-shaking emotions, Ouisa Kittridge's revelations, Dave Chapelle's outrageous imagination, Michael Jackson's unequaled grace. The difference is that the sports world has become a metaphor not for the individual psyche but for political life. personally feel uplifted and inspired at a Dianne Reeves concert. The whole city is supposed to rejoice when the Heat wins. The whole country is supposed to rejoice when US Hockey beats Russia.

But, for me, the relationship between athlete, spectator, and city or nation is not a straight line, no matter how much we have been induced to think that way by the infotainment media. I understand ESPN doing it. Sports is their baby and they have to make it seem as important as possible. But to see so-called news channels behaving like ESPN? This makes no sense. There is no national unity. And the proof of this will be in how quickly whatever alleged unity comes from the killing of bin Laden evaporates.

I'm not precisely sure why we are all expected to be happy about this execution.
  1.  Did all of us participate in it? I can understand the Navy Seals or even the National Security Team celebrating. They were, more or less, directly involved. 
  2. Does it retroactively justify the illegal aspects of the War on Terror, freeing those who have been detained or even tortured without cause for a decade? (*Note that if "all is fair in love and war" then so is flying planes into buildings). 
  3. Does it do anything to address the political crisis we have in this country, the massive disagreement over the responsibilities of citizens and governments to each other, especially in the midst of a new age of robber barons?
I suppose we all need a break from such things. I suppose that sports provides that respite. But since the first Gulf War, we have also had military conflict as home entertainment. Isn't there something wrong with the transition of bloody war into the space where I view sports and play video games without having to see the consequence? I would venture to say there are at least two things: first, with the exception of rare cases in soccer, the outcome of sports matches is not a life-and-death matter. War always is. Second, just as with the athletic contest, when the euphoria of shared emotions wanes, as it must, all the petty team dynamics come back to the surface.

Until we decide what ethical principles are going to guide our relationships with each other and the rest of the world, both sports and war will be a momentary distraction before we return to the strange combination of apathy, impotence, and vicious indifference that characterize our unhappy relationships with each other and our country.