Tuesday, May 3, 2011

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.



  2. So I'll take a stab at the enumerated questions.
    1)Did all of us participate in it?
    Certainly not. But many people felt directly benefited by it. A man who sought to kill, to harm, to specifically terrorize New York and DC is no more. Many people (and I know that's nebulous) believe (as I do) that this man's death makes them (or me) safer. And that relief can be cause for celebration.
    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?
    Categorically no. The so-called War on Terror has been a travesty for American civil liberties and for the specific liberties of those detained. While some on the right have tried and will try to make that case, I do not agree. I celebrate this particular operation because it represents the triumph of intelligent use of force as opposed to massive shelling of innocent people. As an American who really despises funding the death of Iraqi civilians, this pleases me.
    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?
    Maybe. It is early to say what leverage the president may or may not have in wielding his agenda. But should it be expected that a military victory should change domestic affairs? Is that a reasonable expectation?
    The final phrase of this essay describing "the strange combination of apathy, impotence, and vicious indifference that characterize our unhappy relationships with each other and our country" seems particularly bleak.
    Are you moving towards nihilism???

  3. Thank you for the comments, oh favorite onomatopoetic sound effect.

    I cannot say that I feel nihilistic, but I do feel very disconnected and ineffective in shaping the direction of my country. And I do say it is mine, even if I do not like where it is headed. I suppose, in that sense, I take responsibility. My chosen role in changing that direction seems to be consciousness-raising, which seems to me to be a precondition for mobilization. Unless people know that something is harming them or harming others, they will not believe it should change.

    But the process of coordinating action is very daunting. I mean, it can be difficult to get agreement and cooperation from one's *spouse*. The entire country? I feel I'm not up to the task.

    Some of this may be the result of my profession, research and writing impose periods of isolation (hence this blog and my joy at receiving comments on it). But I also think that recent trends make this more than my personal problem.

    Anti-terrorism has meant that most major cities disallow and disperse mass demonstrations as potential threats to national security--while, at the same time, some municipalities allow *individuals* to bring handguns to Town Hall meetings with the President. What if I think the person with the handgun is the threat to my security? Or the police officer? Are those who feel that way not part of the nation that is to be secured?

    Under this counter-terror rubric, the great strikes and marches of the twentieth century would never have occurred. So I find it difficult to know how to effect change--certainly at the level of city, state, or nation. Voting alone has never been the only means of changing government policy. And even the vote has been diluted by the influx of unlimited corporate donations and lobbying (which seems to amount primarily to bribing).

    Taking on Washington (or City Hall) have always been difficult, but they just seem much more so now.

    With all that said, I am not a nihilist. I would love to hear from someone how to change the direction and priorities of government in this new, intensely restrictive environment.

    So far, I can only see change happening outside government, in neighborhood groups and church groups and tenants' or homeowners' associations. All of those things are great, but they seem to affect things that are not a part of official government or economics. And therefore, they are not enough.

    But I want to know, because I don't want to feel this way, and I don't think I should have to move or withhold taxes in order to evade complicity :) I'm one of those James Baldwin/Josephine Baker Negroes... my heart would always be here in the States and I'd feel guilty and connected even if I finally cashed in the ticket to Paris you so smartly quipped every black American should have.

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  5. Regarding your original post:

    I guess I don't know what you mean when you say "there is no national unity." If you mean Republicans and Democrats will not start agreeing more on issues, then obviously you're correct. I personally like the few moments where we can actually see people from all over the political spectrum come together and celebrate our collective victory as a nation.

    I don't really agree that these public displays of unity evaporating is proof that no such unity exists to begin with. Couldn't it be that Americans, while not unified on domestic issues (or many other ways), are still unified when it comes to "defeating" a common enemy? If this is the case, naturally, then, this unity would be more apparent when there has been a major development regarding said enemy (whether a good or a bad development). I don't personally feel that there's anything wrong with America being divided amongst ourselves, but united when dealing with our adversaries (or even the rest of the world). For my part, the past two days constitutes the only time so far that I would respond "Yes" if I were asked in a survey if I approve of the job President Obama is doing. Of course, I don't expect this state to last for too long (my answer will change fairly soon depending on what the other parts of his upcoming agenda are).

    Regarding your second comment:

    I don't have an answer to your question of how to change the direction/priorities of government. To be honest, if I had an answer, I probably wouldn't tell you, as you'd likely take it in the opposite of my preferred direction. :) I will say, being a small government, quasi-libertarian, that changing society through neighborhood associations and church groups is something that should be encouraged. In fact, that is actually what I would prefer: were the government not as intrusive, people would seek to bring about change in their neighborhood associations, etc... One person wouldn't find it nearly so difficult to effect change through such vehicles. Naturally, the scope of the change won't be nearly as large as, say, the federal government or society as a whole, but I believe it to be a very good thing that no one man can influence the country in too great a degree.

    Regarding your third comment:

    I agree completely that Obama deserves credit for this; as I said, for the first time I formally approve of the job he is doing. I'm not sure I agree, however, with your assertion that "especially" Obama gets blamed for everything that goes wrong in this country. From probably 2005 to 2009, I felt that Bush was blamed for everything that went wrong in this country on his watch, from rising gas prices to the Hurricane Katrina response, to, of course, the "Great Recession".

    While I do not personally lay blame on Obama for several of the things you mentioned, I nevertheless will not feel sorry for him when he gets criticized viciously for them. I don't want to turn this into a never-ending game where you attack one of my presidents, so I'll look the other way when my friends attack one of yours, but I recognize that it's an unfortunate reality of American political life that the opposition party will be relentless in its attacks. I don't think that will change with the next President.

  6. Thank you for your comments, Scott. I do want to note that the third post was not mine, but a criticism of my post that i was relaying from a friend of mine who claims to be computer illiterate.

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  8. A few other brief comments, Scott:

    1) Perhaps we can say that group differences appear to be "put to rest" -- but that would mean they are simply sleeping, right?

    2) Even on this moment, there is no agreement. Indeed, there was no unanimous agreement about 9/11, either. That's a make-believe story both Bush and Obama tell. It's a useful fiction, a great way to try to force people get in line with the loudest or the most numerous group, but it's still a fiction).

    3) If you were to sample the wide spectrum of internet responses, you would find many different viewpoints, even on this moment. The only way to call that unity is to say that those who differ from you are not American anymore.

    4) Forgive me for reminding you that you are a well-educated, middle-class, straight white male. For you, the foreign enemy is your *only* enemy. For those of us who don't share your demographic (and some who do), there is no sense that the only threats to my safety and well-being come from beyond the US. This is not merely paranoid fear, but things that happen every day such as date rape and police brutality. Victims of such violence, committed by fellow Americans, cannot usually rely on our own government to protect us and punish the guilty. But I guess we're not American.

    To be clear, foreign enemies do pose a threat to all. But some of us face internal threats, too. That doesn't mae me cheer for Al Quaeda, but it doesn't make me willing to overlook that internal forces can kill me too.

  9. comment 4 reposted:

    this is from AH:

    a response reposted from facebook:

    I'd just like to comment on the first part of your blog, that this is a navy seals victory and not a victory for Obama. While I agree we should be celebrating our troops who went in and risked their lives to bring bin Lauden to justice, we ...also need to recognize that Obama made this a priority to get it done and was in on at least some of the planning to get it done. If I use your sports analogy, a coach sits on the sideline and never makes a single play but no one argues that he or she is instrumental in the win. Secondly, the president, especially Obama, gets the blame for anything that goes wrong in this country. When the gulf spill happened, everyone was saying, why wasn't he doing something to fix it. Gas prices going up? Obama's fault. Economy still in the crapper? Obama's fault. So yes, this victory is an Obama victory.

  10. I think the pathology of party politics is designed to funnel people who would otherwise not identify with the country into one of two camps. It seems to me to be based very intentionally on a team sports model with each side constantly grooming champions to do battle in the sphere of what used to be ideas and is now the sphere of media representation.
    Hence you have aspirational models within the two parties (with all of their variations) in the hopes of appealing to as many citizens as possible.
    The connections between party politics, team sports, and other non-distinguishing distinctions (Coke/Pepsi, Verizon/Sprint, etc.) are pretty fascinating to me.

  11. I think this is exactly right. Your comment about "people who would otherwise not identify" speaks to what I meant when I am trying to get at when I say patriotic identification is weak, illusory, fleeting.

    Sphere of ideas vs. sphere of media representations is a wonderfully evocative distinction.

    And the politics as consumer brand thing with which you end. Yup. How have we ended up on the same page about this?