August 7, 2012 § 25 Comments
This is may be one of the most significant Olympic Games in history but the story — why is it so important? — has yet to be told. Let’s tell it.
Gabby Douglas – winner of the individual all around gold medal in gymnastics, the team gold (as I write, she failed to medal in the balance beam, a ghastly apparatus, opening the field for Ali Raisman who went on to win a gold in the women’s floor exercise) and the first African American to reach this pinnacle of success — is the perfect way into this Olympic story about the (permanent?) dissolution of boundaries.
Douglas’ story has moved us. It has caused some confusion as well. At the heart of the confusion is the story that’s yet to be told about these Olympic Games. It’s a story of possibilities, of a better, brighter tomorrow. It’s what we’ve been waiting for — the humanity we long for: people of disparate backgrounds coming together to bring out the best that a person can physical do, regardless of race, ethnicity and religion.
The story about these Olympic Games is not about broken records and who won the most medals; it’s about the coming apart of rigid boundaries — nationalism, socioeconomic divisions, race and ethnicity; it’s about how these man-made constraints are dissolving, being replaced by cooperation and collaboration.
Social media has gone wild with Ms. Douglas. Congratulations and self-adulation, as Americans, abound. But there is something deeper happening on social media: on one end of the scale comments are paralyzed by the trivial, wondering about Douglas’ hair, for instance, as if this is important; on the other extreme there are questions about the media’s insistence that Gabby has two mothers, and one is white. Much of the social commentary is perplexed by the media privileging the whiteness of one mother, and in the same sentence suggesting that Gabby couldn’t have done it without this white Iowa mother. These comments remind me of something Cornel West once said (I’m paraphrasing): beware of the white liberal that believes that the African American needs the white savior.
Social media chatter, as it’s always destined, falls short. There is no analysis so we can’t go to the next level of the story, beyond the manufactured constraints that compel us to repeat what separates us, over and over, as if we can’t think beyond what’s served up as Reason.
Natalie Hawkins, Gabby’s mother, says that, “It’s true what they say, it takes a village to raise a child.” Ms. Hawkins opens her story by announcing her trust in love as a universal unifier, a way towards trust and collaboration. Yes. Love. That subject — and word — we never talk about (Kristof, in endless depictions of our soulless world, never raises the obvious subject). Yet, given what we face as a civilization, I feel we’re compelled to do so because it’s the only way to break down the man-made barriers that keep us down — and apart. Trusting love is Ms . Hawkins’ message — and the story of these Olympics.
Gabby was a very active child, to say the least, according to Ms. Hawkins. Gabby’s older sister suggested, to her mother, that she place Gabby in gymnastic classes. Ms. Hawkins agreed — and the rest is now history, two gold medals. It’s obvious that in this household, everyone has their shoulders to the wheel; that is to say, love and what accompanies it — cooperation, collaboration, empathy and honest dialog — are at the heart of the Hawkins family. The result is trust. Nothing supernatural here. I love you, that’s all, I need you. That’s it. The most frightening things to say to someone because it comes with vulnerability — and it has to be returned equally. Ms. Hawkins’ family, at a vulnerable time, relied on one another for answers, for direction. And Love and Trust opened their worlds to what was, at one point in their lives, hardly imaginable. It can be like this for all of us.
As she evolved and matured, Gabby’s ambitions could not be denied. Ms. Hawkins trusted that what she saw in her young child, which at the time was not a gold medal winner, (a long shot, given the odds of something like this ever happening), was true. Let me put it another way: a young mother who knew absolutely nothing about gymnastics, trusts what she sees, trusts her young daughter, the spirit in her talent. This is only possible when one firmly believes that love is a guiding principal: vulnerability, which is an obvious strength, compels us to turn to love because in love there has to be trust.
What happened next is significant because it’s an important — and dramatic — theme of the Olympic Games: Natalie Hawkins and Gabby sought out Liang Chow, from Beijing China, living in West Des Moines, Iowa, where, with his wife, Lewin Zhuang, opened Chow’s Gymnastics and Dance Institute in 1998. Chow is a former gymnast and personally coached Shawn Johnson to Olympic Gold in 2008.
Shawn Johnson, and now Ms. Hawkins and Gabby, placed their trust in Mr. Chow. They saw beyond ethnicity, beyond gender. But we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves. First, Ms. Hawkins had to see beyond her own sense of race, and trust whiteness, a white family living in a blue state, Iowa, that from Virginia Beach, Virginia, must have seemed like an ocean away.
Media and politicians, both, have constructed a Harry Potter-like narrative that keeps playing over and over; it’s simple: it’s always about good vs evil. But this is not true at all. Our existence is forever relegated to the gray areas of life, the not easily understood, where each one of us has to make moral decisions that require we examine our hearts and our minds. This is how we try to navigate our realities. For Ms. Hawkins, she had to read her heart, her daughter’s, and the Parton’s, too, to understand how to trust beyond the disabling mediated rhetoric so content on delivering the simplest denominator, good vs evil. Reality for Ms. Hawkins — and Ms. Parton and her family — is somewhere beyond black and white, good and evil. It’s more fluid, more consistent and virtuous. Hawkins and Parton, tell us in their story, that we live together, suffer together and that we can love someone that is completely different from who we are; we can even love enough to help the Other reach unimaginable dreams. Gabby Douglas is case in point. This is the true story — not the gold, though Gabby’s success is amazing, and it’s not Gabby’s hair, since it has nothing to do with anything, other then to suggest that many on social media insisting on the subject have somehow been relegated to the margins of society where reality tv, the Kardashians, and Dancing With Anyone are it.
In Des Moines, Iowa, loved by her mother, Natalie, Gabby Douglas lived with the love of the Partons, a different kind of love, and worked with and trusted a Chinese coach that she originally saw on television. This is the solution to our problems; this is what the Olympic Games are telling us: boundaries have been broken; and there are people willing to help us break down more barriers .
The great runner, Alberto Salazar , coached the gold medal winner and the silver medal winner in the ten thousand meters. Salazar was born in Cuba in 1958. He moved with his family to the US, migrating to Massachusetts. He’s best remembered, perhaps, for his New York Marathons in the early ’80s. Mo Farah, running for Great Britain, electrified the crowd winning the gold. Close behind, the American, Galen Rupp, won the silver, marking the first time, since Billy Mills won in Tokyo in 1964, that an American medalled. During the race, the NBC commentator wondered whether Farah and Rupp would run as a team, though from competing countries, to counterbalance the strong Ethiopians and Kenyans. They did and kept to the same Salazar strategy: the race is won in the last 100 yards. So we have a Cuban-American training a Somalian and an American — and the Somalian, having arrived in Great Britain at the age of 8, matured to be one of the country’s favorite athletes.
It’s not about what country I’m from, nor is it about the perceived constraints I think have been placed on me; it’s about dreaming, first, then finding a path, a journey that must begin with love and followed by empathy and cooperation. Then, and only then, will we find cooperation, such that each and every soul will be able to dream, plan and execute with the help of others; they, in turn, will achieve the same, in their own time, with their own prescriptions.
We’ve seen these blurring of boundaries throughout the Olympics: athletes from different countries, training in each other’s countries and sharing foreign coaches. Nationalism holds nothing in. The Olympics have become like much of what we buy: Made in fill in the blank. In essence, the Olympics are finally living up to their goal of bringing all of us together. The desire to win, to push towards — and in some cases beyond — our perceived capacities, have lead us to reach beyond man made boundaries. And if we look a little harder, we learn that these boundaries have, to date, been disabling. We win when boundaries dissolve.
The Gabby Douglas story is about breaking boundaries that, for years, have been disabling us. Salazar, Farah and Rupp show us the same. In literally every sport, in these games, the same can be found : it’s the new truth.
And this coming Thursday, the US Women’s Olympic Team, coached by Sweden’s legendary player, Pia Sundhage, will meet Japan. The US team got to the finals after beating Canada in what was a most dramatic game. Ten of the eleven Canadians, announced the NBC color commentator, play in the US. Who won that game? US Soccer? Soccer or fútbol as a universal equalizer? Can we continue to talk about winners and losers as if these happen in a vacuum held tightly by nationalism? Do we need to begin to speak about humanity’s role in fostering the love, trust, and patience we each know we require to forge ahead — and win medals?
The US Olympic (Dream) Basketball Team hasn’t had it so easy. Why? Because everywhere they turn, they bump up against other (foreign) NBA players. Nothing is the same anymore.
The Olympic Games are no longer about who wins the most medals. These games are about why some countries win more then others given the level of communication and dynamic interactions the most powerful nations enjoy with each other. The Olympic Games are offering a model for success that does not pit one against the other behind plastic barriers, rather, the games demonstrate that the cross-pollination — training, philosophies, education — truly enables each and every individual to work to her or his capacity. In this way, it truly is one person against another — not one country against another — in healthy competition, even in team sports. This is the Olympic hope. It has finally brought forth the importance of love, vulnerability and trust to the forefront. This level of collaboration and cooperation is the only antidote for our apparent decline; it’s a road, with visible success, that we can all travel. But we must all be willing to push boundaries back, be these geographic, institutional and national. Let’s call it, Gabby’s Model.
July 1, 2011 § Leave a Comment
It’s truly uncanny how popular, mainstream media willingly refuses to investigate what is really behind the accepted story, usually promoted by the likes of The New York Times, chronicler of the official story.
Here I’m talking about the NBA Lockout, which began last night. A student of mine that took my Media, Sports and Identity class (students are now always on the lookout for what’s behind the accepted version of stories), sent me an exclusive from Deadspin: How (And Why) An NBA Team Makes $7 Million Profit Look Like a $28 Million Loss. Deadspin has obtained the financial records of the New Jersey Nets. These records show how major corporations work:
The hustle: The first thing to do is toss out that $25 million loss, says Rodney Fort, a sports economist at the University of Michigan. That’s not a real loss. That’s house money. The Nets didn’t have to write any checks for $25 million. What that $25 million represents is the amount by which Nets owners reduced their tax obligation under something called a roster depreciation allowance, or RDA.
As my students learn in our course, mediated sports nurture today’s culture of spectacle; it is a culture more comfortable with illusion then reality. In The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry tells us that “People whose governing habit is the relinquishing of power, competence, and responsibility, and whose characteristic suffering is the anxiety of futility, make excellent spenders.” Thus, says Berry, “They are ideal consumers. By inducing in them little panics of boredom, powerlessness, sexual failure, mortality, paranoia, they can be made to buy (or vote for) virtually anything that is ‘attractively packaged.’”
Media is the tool that attractively packages the boredom, paranoia, powerlessness and sexual failure, as every commercial during any sporting event suggests, from Viagra to fast cars and blonds with beers tell us. It’s also, following Berry, how and why media — and mediated sports — engage in the attractive packaging that ensures we have blind faith in illusions.
The grand illusion is that NBA franchises are loosing money. This parallels the grand illusion orchestrated in Congress, namely that if tax breaks for “fat cats” are closed, this somehow won’t alleviate the debt and make us all, particularly those of us that are middle class and can read and write and fully understanding are dwindling presence in society feel a bit better.
Mitch McConnel (R-KY), for instance, who will not go along with the President and is opposed to any revamping of the health care system, has, of his 5 top contributors to his campaign, 2 health care companies, 2 energy companies (also opposed to alternative energy sources and ways to reduce dependencies on fossil fuels), a bank, of course, Citibank that cleaned money of Mexican drug cartels, and a marketing firm. The top 5 corporate supporters for McConnell are securities and investments, lawyers, health professionals, retirees and real estate. Who is he protecting?
These deceits are best mirrored in our professional sports where players are routinely viewed as chattel or cattle, machines that can be depreciated and are expendable, as we are. How many men do any of you know, between 50 and 60 that are today either unemployed or under employed? ”The culture of illusion, one of happy thoughts, manipulated emotions, and trust in the beneficence of power,” Chris Hedges tells us in Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (a text I will continue to cite over and over), “means we sing along with the chorus or are instantly disappeared from view like the losers on a reality show.”
Of course we fear being “instantly disappeared.” So it’s a lot better to go along with the coverage of the NBA lockout that suggests that somehow the poor owners are at a loss, the players greedy bastards making way too much money for shooting a ball. Some of this is true: there are far too many players making millions and warming the bench. There aren’t marque players on every team; every team is not in New York, L.A., or Miami and Houston. Fans understand that. But as we study the lockout and begin to see a long history where the player is merely a cog, a body, we begin to wonder, as David Shields does in his wonderful book, Body Politic: The Great American Sports Machine, “Who owns this body, this body of work?”
We no longer own the United States; we no longer own or direct the narrative — it is a singular narrative — we see on TV and in the press, the pop media; we no longer own our schools, our government, businesses; we no longer own the direction of the country; we don’t even own the direction of our lives. What’s left but illusion?
It’s best to let Hedges end this post:
Blind faith in illusions is our culture’s secular version of being born again. These illusions assure us that happiness and success is our birthright. They tell us that our catastrophic collapse is not permanent. They promise that pain and suffering can always be overcome by tapping into our hidden, inner strengths. They encourage us to bow down before the cult of the self. To confront these illusions, to puncture their mendacity by exposing the callousness and cruelty of the corporate state, signals a loss of faith. It is to become an apostate.
We are indeed apostates; we have been well thought out; we are simply witnesses to our apathy, to our allegiance to deceit. But in doing so, we are also holding hands with the destructors and deceivers. We are accomplices. We may never recover.
June 13, 2011 § 1 Comment
Going into the fourth-quarter of the 6th game of the NBA playoffs, Sunday night, June 12th, Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, looking a bit dazed, a microphone in his face, came to a conclusion — perhaps an epiphany that escaped him earlier in the series. He said, “We have to be mentally disciplined.”
Mental discipline, two such simple and easy words. Mental discipline. Games 5 and 6 of the NBA playoffs demonstrated that the Miami Heat have a long way to go before gaining mental discipline. Understanding mental discipline is the Heat’s journey into a darkness of their own making. But on Sunday night, they got a lesson in this necessity in sports and life from Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd and, let’s not forget, Jason Terry.
Swagger is easy, mental discipline is difficult. It comes by releasing yourself to your heart and soul; it comes from giving yourself to instincts, trusting them — and trusting that the diverse others around you are feeling the same thing, experiencing things as you are inside the enabling constraint, discipline.
In a fourth-quarter timeout, Terry said to Nowitzki, “Keep pushing. Remember ’06.” These are the tools of discipline; they involve knowledge of the self, leadership and an understanding of history. The Heat have no history; theirs is disparate, broken apart. They have histories. James, Wade and Bosh are individuals, not a cohesive whole. They looked lost when their eyes met, wondering who would drive to the hoop, who would take the next shot; who would lift them past the malaise. Their eyes told a story of confusion — and a lack of discipline. Sometimes, they confused defensive alignments. They were confused by the Maverick disciplined execution on defense and offense. In fact, the Mavericks gave the Heat a lesson on how defense is played in the NBA playoffs, particularly in the fourth-quarter in games 5 and 6. The Mavericks understood discipline and cohesion, where the Heat lived in chaos, as if children needing guidance. The Heat personified unknowing. The experienced adult won the NBA championship. Age beat brawn.
When LeBron James left Cleveland, a darkness followed. He was embraced by the Gordon Gekko-like president of the Heat, Pat Riley. The Heat organization — and James — believed that by buying talent, an empire that could win championships would be forged and make history ad infinitum. This is an age-old story, a false history, a misunderstanding of history. What happened to the Greeks? The Roman Empire — anyone hear of the Fall of the Roman Empire? Anyone hear of the Empire of Illusion when referring to the American decline? Somehow James and Riley thought that they could exist outside history. We mortals, unfortunately, cannot. We mortals tend to repeat the mistakes of history, rather then learn from them.
As I sat watching the Mavericks tutor the Heat, I thought about us, Americans; I thought about the state of us. I wondered, with an ironically named Corona (crown in Spanish) in hand, why hubris seems always to be the stalwart guide when what we need is a calm, slower and reasoned approach. We need discipline. It comes from understanding diversity, opening up to it. James ran into this notion when the diminutive J.J. Barea battled him for a rebound early in the game. Barea effectively boxed out James — a classic move young kids are taught as soon as the can shoot a basketball. The giant James forgot this, thinking that he could overwhelm tiny J.J. . What James didn’t know is that David and Goliath is always ongoing in history; it never ceases — rebels vs Gaddafi, the Egyptian Revolution, Rosa Parks.
Can two events happen simultaneously in time? Yes, of course, and they can. Death, for instance, is always ongoing and we, the living, experience those that have left us in different forms, different ways of being. This is undeniable. Historical events, personalities — is Gordon Gekko Iago? — even thoughts, all of which create causes, leave a residue that revisits us in time. Our recession is being compared to the Great Depression. In many areas — education, the environment, and definitely in foreign policy, President Obama is following the policies of George W. Bush. Tragically, Obama is following Bush on matters of race, too. We are fallible, and it’s because we are that self-interest — “Greed is Good” — wins out over historical truths and we become blind and repeat the mistakes of the past. This is destiny. This is also how and why empires are always destined to fall. The fall is already present in the creation. Understanding entropy might help here. Ice always melts. Systems fall apart. Humans fall apart, age. What lives must die.
LeBron James’ Gekko-like, Iago-like, dark decision of the soul to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers because management there couldn’t build an empire around him, is pregnant with decay. Decay is ongoing. While James must have felt that the Cavaliers were at their end, the end — the seed of decay and endings — now germinates in the Heat enterprise. It comes, first, in the form of fear and anxiety — the notion of ending a career without a title, which Bill Rhoden expresses so well in his post game article, “Two Veterans Finally Access an Elite Club.” Rhoden says that not reaching that NBA title ring is a “haunting gap” on the athlete’s psyche, his résumé. James’ move to Miami is the fear of this “haunting gap.” A fear such as this one can be debilitating, which is what we saw in James’ — and the Heat’s–performance once they reached game 5. They broke down. Even on television you could see the fear in James’ eyes. He was paralyzed, as was the rest of the team.
The fear in James’ eyes, we’ve seen before. We saw it in Tiger Woods’ comeback, for instance. We see it now in Obama’s second bid for the prime seat of power as he tries to “Win Back Wall St. Cash,” only, sadly, Wall St has never left the White House or politics, suggesting that it’s irrelevant who sits in the White House (Obama or Mitt Romney) since it’s Wall Street and the corporate class that run government, politicians their foils — a marked return to the Roman Empire of there ever was one.
The fear in James’ eyes is our very own, too. It is the exhausting, paralyzing fear we feel as we look around at the world. No matter how one may feel about the “evil empire,” Miami, and LeBron James, secretly, we wanted them to win. We wanted to see James victorious because in doing so, it would have meant that history doesn’t repeat itself; that history is not fraught with failures we repress and repeat; that even with our fallibility, we can somehow move forward and secure our luxurious futures by expending large amounts of capital to buy it. But, of course, this didn’t happen. The only hope left is that we might reflect on the meaning of this event in our lives, the meaning of the narrative of James and the Heat and the stalwart Mavericks (not surprisingly, the team is lead by an old German!).
What might we learn from this lesson? What we witnessed is who we are. And sometimes, like Ishmael on the Pequod, we get on the wrong ship and, well…
February 27, 2011 § 2 Comments
Anthony, Jeter and Wisconsin are metaphors for a culture that welcomes change and private pleasure, while accepting political passivity that is a consequence of how power is invented and disseminated, primarily through the corporate-government alliance that, by its very nature, challenges boundaries and limits — even the limits of resources.
Inverted totalitarianism … while exploiting the resources of the state, gains its dynamic by combining with other forms of power, such as evangelical religions, and most notably by encouraging a symbiotic relationship between traditional government and the system of ‘private’ governance represented by the modern business corporation. The result is not a system of codetermination by equal partners who retain their distinctive identities but rather a system that represents the political coming-of-age of corporate power. (also see here)
This relationship — corporate power and government — is obsessed with “control, expansion, superiority, and supremacy,” says Wolin. It is therefore natural that, given these changes that mean to displace “existing beliefs, practices, and expectations,” there will be those who will try to strike a blow against totalitarianism. These loud outcries, muffled by popular media — the voice and most vital instrument of the corporate state — are signs of a new age dominated not by national pride, but by branding and accounting practices, tools usually conforming to vituperative ideologies.
Our metaphor is the athlete’s body. In its limitations — duress and age, much like our own — its value is set and owned. The athlete’s body is his or her body of work, much like a teacher’s is or a pipe fitter’s or a government employee’s. But the athlete’s body inhabits another domain: it is a canvas for our fantasies, made more grandiose by media’s hyper-narrative that concentrates solely on the surface structure. “Who owns this body, this body of work?” asks David Shields in Body Politic: The Great American Sports Machine. As we fantasize and watch athletes perform, we are blind to the location of the athlete in our culture; we thus fail to see how far removed we our from our fantasies, yet we persist and acquiesce to the domination of media, sports and the corporation over our collective identity. This is how hope begins to whither.
The plight of Carmelo Anthony and Derek Jeter’s recent scolding, by Yankee co-owner Hank Steinbrenner, for being too busy building mansions rather than thinking about a World Series victory, sets the tone for our condition: collective bargaining is dead, or nearly so, thus athletes — union workers everywhere — have to find alternative ways to increase their value and protection; and in Jeter’s case, you’ll be returned to your place in the world if you style too loudly. At relatively high socioeconomic standings athletes are routinely humiliated and disciplined into positions of servitude — and if further challenges occur, the rules of the game are changed, as NBA Commissioner David Stern is doing by re-examining this new “dominance” by teams that can afford the highest payrolls in a league that perpetually losses money. The NBA Commissioner and the governors of Wisconsin and New Jersey are interchangeable proxies for the corporate state demanding a high degree of control over labor, as well as control over government policies that may be leveled against the corporation’s need to expand by any means necessary.
Inverted totalitarianism suggests that some corporations will dominate, others will not. So controlling labor is essential. Commissioner Stern faces this challenge. Players will build coalitions — the Heat, for instance, the Celtics, now the Knicks — and compel change from within, thus altering how the system functions. But the primary facility of a predatory corporate system is its ability to adjust, moving and changing to switch one piece of a limited pie for another. This is what we’re witnessing in sports writ large; it’s what we’re witnessing in states, such as Wisconsin and New Jersey . It’s a throwback to the plantation model.
The black athlete — and all professional athletes for that matter — is located in a culture that has yet to dispel the horror of slavery. The consequences of slavery still linger. As Wolin suggests, “…that close to a century after women won the vote, their equality remains contested; or that after nearly two centuries during which public schools became a reality, education is now being increasingly privatized.” In other words, while the public yearns for change, not much has changed. Athletes may earn 40 Million Dollars, as the title of William C. Rhodan’s seminal study suggests, but they are still slaves, their identities governed by a plantation model. And when athletes — union workers — gain some success, the rules are changed, once again ensuring that corporate power comes of age.
The black athlete that “threw punches we couldn’t throw,” writes Rhodan, “won races we couldn’t run,” represented “time-worn responsibility,” always “representing”, and our sense that, nationally, we were moving away from identity politics; however, upon closer examination, we come to realize nothing has changed. Salaries are high, living styles far better, judging from Derek Jeter’s 30, 875 square foot compound in the Davis Island section of Tampa, but corporate power has increased its dominance over a citizen’s inalienable rights, from the NBA to the NFL to Wisconsin. It’s an all out attack on labor and collective bargaining rights because resources are limited and the corporation can only stay alive by shifting its means, not creating something new and different that may challenge the status quo.
In the United States, we’re shutting down — unless we bring back the Civil Rights Movement. Citizens are asleep, even unconscious, lulled into a deep slumber — and indifference — by the likes of the Koch brothers, representing the largest bloc of oil and gas donors, exceeding even Exxon Mobil in donations to members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and politicians’ service to corporate dominance, best expressed by President Obama’s silence about Wisconsin (the community activist President never went to Wisconsin to show solidarity with working people), even with all his talk about human rights and change.
It’s an incredible world we have here — confusing, bifurcated and moving towards hopelessness, which occurs when education is gutted, dismantled and given to the elite so as to ensure continued corporate domination. Schools across the country, from kindergarten to the University, are being turned into clones of the corporate system, as suggested early on by Bill Readings in University in Ruins (1998), one of the first intellectuals to chronicle this shift in mission and perspective, and brought to a new interpretation by Chris Hedges in Empire of Illusion (2009), and now in his The Death of the Liberal Class (2010).
It’s an incredible world we have because, given the lessons of history, we are moving away from wisdom; rather, we are moving towards despair and annihilation and nothing short of a full out Civil Rights Movement can turn this around, otherwise, we will continue to experience rising food prices, rising fuel prices, poverty and disenfranchisement, war and violence as resources, controlled by very few hands, shrink.
Hedges is right:
The most ominous cultural divide lies between those who chase after these manufactured illusions, and those who are able to puncture the illusion and confront reality. More than the divide of race, class, or gender, more than rural or urban believer or nonbeliever, red state or blue state, our culture has been carved up into radically distinct, unbridgeable, and antagonistic entities that no longer speak the same language and cannot communicate. This is the divide between a literate, marginalized minority and those who have been consumed by an illiterate mass culture.
And since he is right, dead on, the only way to change this is to join Carmelo Anthony, and the like, and form coalitions, only these have to be formed, not with those that can slam dunk, rather they must be formed among us, the citizenry — the suffering in Wisconsin, Egypt and Libya, Newark, New Jersey, and the South Bronx. And we must form a new and collective Civil Rights Movement that takes as its cause enlightenment and the pursuit of wisdom because, after all, it’s the only path available to us that leads us to freedom with responsibility. Those that govern, it is obvious, are totally irresponsible and the evidence is indisputable — the mindless are leading the blind.
Pascal said that “Those who indulge in perversion tell those who are living normal lives that it is they who are deviating from what is natural. They think they are following a natural life themselves. They are like people on a ship who think it is those on shore who are moving away.” But we are moving away — from each other; and power is ever more concentrated. A new and invigorated Civil Rights Movement concentrated on challenging the stranglehold coming-of-age of corporate power has on our reality is our only way out.
August 15, 2010 § 8 Comments
In 1996, Sports Illustrated named Tiger Woods “Sportsman of the Year.” Senior writer Gary Smith suggested that Woods was the “Chosen One,” a special person who would forever banish racial prejudice from golf. Woods once said to a journalist that he should refer to him as “Cablinasian” — his mother, Kutilda, is Asian, one-half Thai, one-quarter Chinese, and one-quarter white; his father, Earl, a graduate of Kansas State University, who pursued a career in the Army as a Green Beret and experienced intense action in Vietnam, is one-half African American and one-quarter American Indian and one-quarter Asian. Woods was even named after a South Vietnamese lieutenant colonel, Vuong Dang “Tiger” Phong, a friend of his father’s, a man whose bravery earned him his nickname. Not unlike our President, Tiger Woods is an amalgam of America. He is our American. He represents who we are. We look to find our story in his image. But things change. And in these changes, we find a troubled Tiger Woods that resembles the rest of us, the state of America itself. Tiger Woods is the athlete of our times, the sign of our times.
What is confusing, following Tiger Woods’ worst tournament performance ever, is that we’re not sure what we’re seeing. We want to look — but we also want to turn away, the weight of disappointment and disillusionment is too much. Woods is man alone, besieged by personal demons. His “tiger” has been cut down. He is a wandering soul, Ishmael floating on an empty coffin in a vast ocean, no trace of the Pequod. We fear we’re navigating open waters as Ishmael does in Moby Dick, an American tale about shipping off on a narrative not of our own making, that doesn’t even consider ours. Woods — as we are — is trying to understand it all. The narrative fell from his hands; it’s now intertwined with the American story in a fine coil. Woods is the American story writ large. That’s why we’re watching. Woods is a mirror of America and in it we find that we have fallen. We’re staggering with Woods, tied for 36th place, 1under par after the second day at the foggy, wet greens of Whistling Straights. Into the fourth round, Woods is in 31st place, 3 under par. Nick Watney, leading the group on Sunday, is 13 under par. It’s an American drama.
The first such prognostication of an American future comprised of extreme, almost orgasmic highs and dark and ominous lows where bearings are hard to find comes to us from literature, Henry James‘ The American. In James’ hands, Christopher Newman is the epitome of America’s individualism, self-determination, and pragmatism. Newman has risen economically — and he thinks socially. He has risen above his station using the inherent possibilities emerging in this new American economy.
In the opening scene of the novel, we find Christopher Newman, “on a brilliant day in May, in the year 1868,” a “gentleman.” In America, Newman has done something unthinkable in old Europe: through hard work and determination — and a marketplace — he’s risen above his station. He has stripped himself of an old class and entered a new one. He hasn’t inherited anything; he’s worked for his wealth. He’s a salesman. And where we find this new American, in the opening scene, is in the Salon Carré, in the Museum of the Louvre.
Newman is a strong sexual presence — as is America (even with the heavy hands of Puritanism and Christian fundamentalism weighty on our backs), as is Woods, as are the heroes we genuflect to. (Brett Favre will play for the Vikings because he’s a man, and his heroic sense of self keeps our own in place at a time when we need it most. We need him to play, as badly as he needs to play.) Newman is reclining “at ease on the great circular divan” that occupies the center of the Salon Carré, “his head thrown back and his legs outstretched” and “staring at Murillo’s beautiful moon-borne Modonna in profound enjoyment of his posture.” James tells us that Newman, on the ottoman, “had taken serene possession of its softest spot.” It doesn’t get anymore sexual in James. Legs outstretched, head thrown back, a moon-borne Madonna and the possession of a sweet spot. Newman is taking it all in. The experience is about him, not the Louvre, not the art–him, solipsism so refined that it becomes aesthetically and morally attractive. James is keen on making sure we understand this. Newman’s “profound enjoyment” is “his posture,” nothing else. The art is secondary, a foil for his fantasy,which reigns supreme. From hubris this profound, only a great fall is possible. This is the American story: we expect our heroes to rise above it all but we want them to fall, and fall hard and fast. This is how we live today, frightened that we may fall, quickly and precipitously, into an abyss. As our heroes rise again, we’re then appeased, our anxieties forgotten for a moment — a momentary stay against the confusion. We want to see our heroes rise again — the “come back kid,” Bill Clinton filled this void; President Obama, of mixed race, black, and far from a promising candidate early on, beat all odds and became the leader of the most powerful nation in the world. Hollywood, here, can only follow; it can’t make this up. And in this story is the idealism we cherish: hard work and determination, self-realiance, manhood, the male coming to the rescue of the down and out. We need this story like no other.
Ideologies are manufactured narratives meant to conceal control; that is, the purpose of an ideology is to ensure servitude, not allegiance to the self, to one’s own journey. Christopher Newman is in Europe to take. He doesn’t even want the original art found in the Louvre, James tells us, but rather, he prefers the copy. We prefer the illusion — the illusion of knowing, the illusion of loving, the illusion of community, as Chris Hedges argues in Empire of Illusion.
Tiger Woods lived in a bubble of illusion. As Christopher Newman embarks on a harrowing moral journey of discovery, confused by his winner take all attitude that runs counter to an old, traidtional — and conservative — culture, Tiger Woods’ evolution left behind the powerful weight that human emotions can bring on one. When he was but two years old, he would sit for hours in a high-chair watching his father hit practice golf balls into a net. One day he climbed down from the high chair and picked up a plastic toy club and took a swing almost the mirror of his father’s. At the age of 3, he appeared on the Mike Douglas Show and putted effeciently against a respectable golfer, comedian Bob Hope. By the age of 5 he could hit golf balls with power and control. By the age of 6, he had scored two holes in one. And by the end of the 2005 season, Woods had won 10 tournaments (4 Masters, 2 US Opens, 2 British Opens, and 2 PGA tournaments) and 45 PGA tournaments despite playing in only 20 events a year. To get here, Woods’ parents sacrificed a lot, paying for teachers and green fees. The parents never pushed — Tiger was driven. He played competitive matches with his father. Earl took to distracting him, suddenly talking when he swung or jingling the change in his pocket as he prepared to putt. Earl even clapped his hands. Both father and son have said that this psychological testing helped Tiger learn to control his nerves and concentrate.
This training is not working now. The development of Tiger Woods, as is evident, left a gaping hole where emotions rule. Never has Tiger Woods needed to confront his identity in such harrowing depths. What he carries is beyond jingling change in his father’s pocket. In many ways, we’ve been fooled by the same psychological testing: we’ve been merely sailing along on the illusion that something is going on in the world — the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Africa — but nothing is off center here; we’ve been coasting along, much as Ishmael first does on the Pequod or Newman does as he sails away to Europe on the burgeoning American myth of endless growth and possibility, without centering, without an anchor on what is virtuous. Tiger Woods is the exemplar of this model; his narrative parallels our own in that our hyperindividualism has concealed the web of deceit that created the mess we’re in now — and with no light in sight.
Tiger Woods has controlled Golf’s narrative since the age of 21, when having turned professional just six months earlier, stunned the sports world when he did the seeming impossible by winning the prestigious Masters Tournament on his first try in 1997 by a record-setting 12 strokes, establishing a new tournament record with a score of 270. At the age of 21, Tiger Woods was already in the rarified endorsement league of Michael Jordan. This “Cablinasian” representative of the melting pot, out of nowhere, through the American rhetoric of will, determination and hard work, guided by the gentle hands of his parents, rose to prominence. And America sighed relief, a “Chosen One” was born and his mild manner, professional interviews, and mere grace and beauty made us feel secure. This is how sports and media work to channel our ideals back to us in reassuring ways.
But none of this is real, even as we watch Woods struggle in the fog of Whistling Straights. The only thing real about this chapter in our story is the fog and the delay of game. Nature, the world around us, is suggesting that we’re not in control and the control we thought we had has created our downward spiral — as happens on the Pequod and as happens to Christopher Newman. Tiger Woods’ attempt to redeem himself is our very own.
November 7, 2009 § Leave a Comment
for Ronni and her students at George Washington High School, “the Heights,” NY
for Mahnaz, who wants to know about Edward Said
and for the late Edward Said, who inspires
The morning after the New York Yankees’ historic 27th World Series win over the Philadelphia Phillies I received another email from my great friend, Ronni. She is the principal at the High School for Media and Communications, located on the first floor of the huge and beautiful George Washington High School, a public high school located in the Fort George neighborhood of the Washington Heights section of Manhattan in New York City, New York. Ronni writes that, “The kids told me that after the game they went down from their apartments onto the street to cheer and hug and set off firecrackers — don’t you love a neighborhood –”. Toilet paper — “the working man’s decoration,” Ronni calls it — hung from trees and street lights all over Washington Heights. She could hear the voices in the hallways of her high school filled with Dominican Pride (she wrote this just like I have it here) for Alex and Cano, and, yes, Pedro, too.
What Ronni experienced the morning after the Yankee victory is a celebration of arrival — Dominicans have arrived. This is Washington Heights, it’s homes, schools and wonderful restaurants and stores, all truly an acknowledgment that America is vital and different. Not but different, and. A new order is in store for us and we must pay attention, acknowledge it and name it, as Julia Alvarez, our “mother-sister” has, as Junot Díaz follows — the narratives of assimilation and change and identity. All this is Washington Heights, a warm, happening place, full of life and possibilities. Washington Heights is undeniably tomorrow.
Washington Heights School kids — and kids in Iowa and Colorado, Texas and Wyoming — heard an accented English on national television — their English. Hideki Matsui even used a translator during his post-game interview, after receiving M.V.P. honors. The hallways of George Washington High School were filled with the pride of citizenship defined by a wide-ranging diversity. This is America. It’s befitting and telling that this victory was won in New York, a city less of the United States, but more a city of the world — perhaps even the capital of the world. The morning after the Yankee victory, President Obama said that the world was back in balance because the Yankees had once again won the series. The statement befits New York, home of the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building and the memories of the World Trade Centers, re-captured during the 6th game by the Navy brass — they’d christened the USS New York made from parts from the Centers — sitting behind home plate alongside Mayor Bloomberg who had just narrowly (51%) won re-election (New Yorkers were not happy with his aggressive altering of the mayor’s term limits — democracy speaks). Baseball is about redemption, going home; it is inclusive, the future, which takes time and careful understanding to reach.
The original George Washington High School, which was operated by the New York City Department of Education, was built February 2, 1917. The school’s name derives from the Revolutionary War battle fought on the hill of the building site. The school was once an annex of Morris High School. George Washington High School was built and opened in 1919, and then moved into the current building at 549 Audubon Avenue in 1925. George Washington High School has had notable graduates — Jacob Javits, Maria Callas, Henry Kissinger, Alan Greenspan, Harry Belafonte, and, yes, Manny Ramírez, who did not graduate. Ronni’s office window opens to their famed and glorious baseball field harking dreams of future glory, and the Hudson River — the beautiful crossroads of the American experience always and forever evolving and redefining America in “the Heights.” Jews, Gentiles, Muslims, Caribbean, Black and White – the history of George Washington High School is the history of America and its metamorphosis into a place of hope at the northern edge of Manhattan. It reads like something Aaron Copland would have composed, full of the color of deep valleys and mountain tops reaching for the heavens. Washington Heights, history and the future unknown living side-by-side.
Citizenship evolves from hope. Citizenship is directly proportional to how open and tolerant a society is to difference. This is profoundly a definition of justice where, according to Noble Laureate Amartya Sen in The Idea of Justice,”human lives are then seen inclusively, taking note of the substantive freedoms that people enjoy, rather than ignoring everything other than the pleasures or utilities they end up having.” This, after all, is what we mean by diversity — tolerance for the Other that is not like us yet also completes us. This is the challenge of citizenship in the “new America” currently undergoing massive changes, a transcendence from a world power fixated on size and speed, to perhaps a more subtle nation that is more reflective, more inquisitive, and a bit more eager to open avenues for dialog where none have existed before. This is the hope.
It’s surprising, then, to read about the confusion that followed Mebrahtom Keflezighi’s New York City Marathon. “Should Keflezighi’s triumph count as an American victory?” asks Gina Kolata, writing for The New York Times. Mebrahthom, Meb he’s called, immigrated to the United States, from Eritrea, at the age of 2. He has been in the United States for 22 years and has completed his education here. How does one prove his or her “Americanness”? “The debate reveals what some academics say are common assumptions and stereotypes about race and sports and athletic achievement in the United States,” Kolata tells us. “Its dimensions, they add, go beyond the particulars of Keflezighi and bear on undercurrents of nationalism and racism that are not often voiced.” This is the American fear — the unstoppable nature of the changing face — and color — of America. On the one hand, we’ve invited the poor, the disenfranchised –”Give me your tired, your poor,Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”–but on the other end we’ve been involved in violent disorder against these same tired masses for at least a few centuries. The Americas were founded on violent disorder, in fact.
The American notion of citizenship has to first acknowledge this painful reality — we invite and harm simultaneously; we also reap the benefits of immigration, as we see in the graduates of George Washington High School. New York City is the testament that what has founded this country is an international community. “Restless, turbulent, unceasingly various, energetic, unsettling, resistant, and absorptive, New York today is what Paris was a hundred years ago, the capital of our time,” writes the late, great Edward Said in “Criticism and Exile.” “It may seem paradoxical and even willful to add that the city’s centrality is due to its eccentricity and the peculiar mix of its attributes, but I think that that is so,” Said continues.
Ronni closed one of her emails, saying, “A good day for Washington Heights — though I heard one of my students was stabbed last night. He’s okay though.” A few days later, we hear of the violence in Fort Hood, Texas, of a man who shot up an office in Orlando, Florida, and the ongoing human tragedies that are Iraq and Afghanistan that bring us to our knees and all we can do is weep. The weight of America’s lack of political imagination — and will — around issues pertaining to education and health care compels us to wonder how we might even begin to address citizenship when citizens’ voices are muffled, our inalienable rights squelched, human needs repressed? This, too, is America in this age of transition.
The New York Yankees, a model of capitalism — a capitalist victory — and Mebrahtom, a model of hope and perseverance in a vertical economy, are the crossroads of America’s future. Ronni, who grew up in the Bronx, as I did, though I too am an immigrant, naturalized in 1972, and her students in Washington Heights are the hope we’re looking for. Historically, Edward Said tells us that the “set of urban expatriate narratives has over time acquired an almost canonical status, as have the various museums, schools, universities, concert halls, opera houses, theatres, galleries, and dance companies that have earned New York its considerable status as a sort of permanent theatrical showplace — with, over time, less and less real contact with its earlier immigrant roots.”
The Yankee players, Mebrahtom and the students attending George Washington High School in the “new Heights” are citizens that are forcing us to adjust old to new, difference to the status quo. George Steinbrenner told Yankee manager Joe Gerardi that what would be better than a 27th World Series victory is a 28th. This can’t happen without Alex and Cano and Jeter and Mariano and Jorge and… Tomorrow’s America depends on how we open up the “and.” We can’t exist otherwise.
November 3, 2009 § 1 Comment
The other day I received an email from a dear friend. She said that she didn’t know why but that she was totally engaged in the Yankees vs the Phillies World Series. I feel the same and I haven’t watched a World Series for about 8 years. Why?
We both share the Bronx; we both spent our formative years there. I can remember driving past the old (now it’s the old) Yankee Stadium when I was a kid, my nose pressed against the window in awe. I can recall seeing Mickey Mantle, Roger Marris, Yogi Berra, and the one player I had an affinity for, Héctor López, who played left field. But I don’t think that Ronni, my great friend for 17 or so years, and I feel that we’re so engaged with this series because of our romantic memories of bygone years.
The Yankees, in this series, though “hated” by many non-New York fans, have captured the imagination of viewers because they represent hope for an established institution when so many of our institutions are crumbling. This is it — and it’s ironic : the Yankees inspire hope of a different kind; it is the hope that maybe we’re living an illusion and that we’ve not been lied to, cheated and deprecated as much as we think we have.
But the fact remains, sooner rather than later, the series with Phillie — an outstanding, beautiful team to watch — will be over and we’ll be again left with the reality we escape when we sit in and vicariously become the game. In an American world where the violence and vicious constraints of football dominate, we are enraptured by the hope of baseball: home is where we want to go; space is what we contemplate in the game; possibilities and chance are privileged, as are a deep sense of self-reliance. The game has boundaries that can be overcome, that in fact exist to make us better, unlike football that privileges brute strength, power, and the aggressive taking of territory at all costs — and this within manufactured time constraints. Football has become our lives; it enables us, the voyeurs, to invest our displeasure for our age in every down. Baseball, though, asks that we consider the world aesthetically, without time constraints; it asks that we meditate, converse and experience — even dream — of possibilities.
Football engages us at a completely different level. It’s vertical, as opposed to horizontal, which is how baseball is played. The increased violence in football, the injuries, the tension and the tremendous emotional swings we experience are a metaphor for our mediated lives. It’s not surprising, then, following this football mentality, we find in The New York Times criticism leveled at Al Gore for “profiteering” from his environmental advocacy. No single article has appeared criticizing the Bush Administration and its members from profiteering from Iraq — and they did. Our profiteering from desperate moments is what we do. For instance, within 2 months of the start of World War I, in August 1914, “Charles Schwab, president of Bethlehem Steel, one of the world’s largest arms merchants, took a profitable trip to London. There, he secured orders from the British government for millions of artillery shells, as well as ten 500-ton submarines. Though the construction of such foreign vessels broke the law, Bethlehem proceeded with it and the Wilson administration did not stop them. The company earned $61 million in 1916, more than its combined gross revenues for the previous eight years.”And, “By the time America declared war on Germany, Morgan was having a bang-up war of its own. The company had already loaned Britain and France $2.1 billion (around $30 billion by 2004 standards), and had cleared $30 million – around $425 million in 2004 dollars – in profit.” America’s financial empire grew from war.
This is American capitalism at its finest; we are expert at profiteering from death, depravity, violence and devastation. In this system, many are sacrificed. We even have the “sacrifice fly” and the “sacrifice bunt,” say, in baseball. In football, when a player is sacrificed, he ends up on the gurney on the way to x-rays or worse. At the top end of these couple of examples is the capitalist, the one individual or the few individuals that make extraordinary profits, even on the backs of poor families that send their loved ones to die. This is a vertical model; this is the football model — take by aggression by any means necessary. Some will suffer, but this is life, indeed.
In America, we have also held the practice, if not the belief, that we expect someone to be at the top, some to be victorious enough, powerful enough to generate production. In the Yankees’ case, the Steinbrenner family reigns supreme. Joe Gerardi, in my own recollection, aside from perhaps Joe Torre, have worked with George Steinbrenner in a manner that is reminiscent of the middle ages when the peasants and overseers knelt at the knees of the owner and were granted certain privileges in the fiefdom. In the case of Yankee managers and players, its salary, but perhaps much more so, it’s a chance to be in America’s fickle eye for a brief moment. This is where hope exists in our America today. It’s fleeting and in the Yankees in this series we see — and experience — that hope because what we are able to momentarily fantasize is that our medieval system is still there, still wanting, still trying to work.
The Yankees, in this World Series, represent our discipleship to our crumbling economic system; they represent how much we’ve been manufactured into a kind of nebulous and sleepy citizenship; they represent how we wish we could succumb to our illusions about our history. But we can’t. After every game, millions of Americans get up and go to work and face the music.
Baseball is no longer America’s past time. It’s lost its place. This World Series is also about how we, mediated spectators, have lost our place. Football has won this accolade. Vicious brutality, a hankering for pain, and the blatant disregard for the other, coupled to primitive displays of war-like victory dances have won. In the political world, it’s pretty much the same — it’s vicious, un-thinking, a-historical. It’s not surprising, then, that Al Gore, the epitome of an American capitalist, is being blasted by extremely conservative forces. Is this because a new capitalist horizon could emerge that profits from peace? Let’s watch baseball and think about it.
The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat ~ or What Alex Rodriguez, Esmailyn “Smiley” Gonzalez, R. Allen Stanford and Bernie Madoff Have in Common
February 20, 2009 § Leave a Comment
Illustrator Barry Blitt has done it again. He has created yet another great New Yorker cover that parallels the one he did of Obama back in July of 2008. Only now, in the February 23 issue, we find a muscular Alex Rodgriguez signing autographs for steroid pumped children.
The illustration captures the conflicting drama of sports in America today: while we’ve been taught that sports–and particularly baseball–are about community, fair play, honor and courage, the notion that a player works as hard as she and he can for the benefit of the team, we find instead another reality–selfishness and hubris, egotism, deceit, cheating and scandal. And all of it the design of a production system that suggests that winning at any cost is what matters most.
The fundamental American principles of self-reliance, experience and pragmatism are nowhere evident. It’s no wonder we’re all confused.
Baseball was about redemption. It is a forgiving sport for players and viewers; it is also a contemplative sport. The point of baseball is to “come home”–round the bases home. It’s a space game. There’s plenty of time in baseball. But none of this is true anymore. Baseball is as harsh a sport as any other. Home is where the gold is. Possibilities are gone, as is the imagination. Like football, our current national pastime, baseball is now a finite game, about end results. And the end result is not winning, but rather, profit and loss.
In 2008, the 33 year old Rodriguez had a .302 average (.306 lifetime) and earned $28 million dollars. Coming into the 2008 season, the Yankees were valued somewhere between $200 million, to $1.2 billion; their revenue was $302 million (with $28 million in losses); and player costs, the largest expense, was approximately $200 million a year.
“The Yankees—read Steinbrenner—also own more than a third of the YES network, which broadcasts Yankees games to 8.7 million subscribers. The network’s revenues top a quarter billion and its profit margin is 60 percent. Though a completely separate business from the Yankees, YES’s value is directly tied to how much interest people have in the team, making a $200 million payroll a very easy decision.”**
The system corrupts. The profits for many owners, staggering. And players like Rodriguez are used to ensure that a franchise’s tentacles are many and reaching far and wide. It’s not surprising, then, that “A top baseball prospect from the Dominican Republic who received a $1.4 million signing bonus from the Washington Nationals lied about his age and name in what team president Stan Kasten called ‘an elaborate scheme.’”*** The Nationals signed a 16-year-old shortstop named Esmailyn “Smiley” Gonzalez. He was compared to U.S. Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith. “But while the Nationals have been listing his date of birth as Sept. 21, 1989 — which would make him 19 now — Kasten said on Wednesday that a Major League Baseball investigation determined Gonzalez was actually Carlos David Alvarez Lugo, born in November 1985 — meaning he was really 23.” ****
Money corrupts and the prospects of a lot of money earned early and fast corrupts even more. That’s the game now. That’s been American life for quite some time. This is why we can’t see ourselves coming out of this black hole for quite some time.
We learn from the historian Richard O. Davies, in Sports in American Life, A History, that “to be a sporting man in the mid-nineteenth century was to be someone who flouted rules of social acceptability by gravitating toward activities deemed inappropriate for a proper gentleman.” By mid-century this changed and sportsmen had good social standing and created outlets such as boating, swimming, horse racing, baseball, and so on. And by the end of the century, spontaneity is gone from sports and we find “formalized structures, written rules and bureaucratic organizations,” Davies tells us. Professionalism in sports is in–and it comes in with industrialization. Money–read profits–becomes central to the American experience.
Now in 2009, we have incredibly lavish sports venues, extraordinary media contracts and more highly paid stars than ever before. The stakes are high. So so much so that sports venues are sometimes created at the expense of communities nearby–the old Yankee Stadium and the South Bronx is a case in point.
The athlete as role model, in this system, is supplanted by the owner as king. The owner as plantation owner in a vituperative economic model dating back to slavery (see: William C. Rhodan, sports columnist for The New York Times, in Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete /a star like David Beckham, at the time of this writing, is about to be traded–not loaned–to AC Milan). Money is privileged above all else. The premium placed on performance is extensive because the faster, bigger, and more powerful athlete has to hold the viewer’s attention. Salaries and on and off the field mayhem (Phelps’s pot smoking theatrical) are all part of the mediated experience of sports in America. Without it we don’t know what to make of our sports. We need the disjointed narrative to make sense of our oppressive lives that, with every day, appear to hang by a thread.
Professional sports mirror American life and the reflection is bleak and dark. The American athlete is central to our collective experience. The professional athlete is a metaphor for our sense of self, our desires–but also our foibles, our darkest selves. It’s not surprising, then, that during these the darkest of times Mixed Marshall Arts, which used to be called caged fighting, extreme fighting, and no holds barred fighting, is one of the fastest growing spectator sports. Anything goes.
Bernie Madoff and R. Allen Stanford believed this–anything and everything was for their taking. Not unlike Rodriguez and “Smiley”-Lugo, Madoff and Stanford, who lived in an elite system, a bubble, sensed that they were somehow immune to the morals of our society and our socioeconomic systems. Rodriguez’s ready-made narrative is that he was young and naive, a stupid kid. Unknowingly he took steroids. In the case of “Smiley”-Lugo, MLB, agents and owners are all passing the buck, no one really taking responsibility, though there is a history of age irregularities in the league.
Why a 70 year old Madoff, so respected by Wall Street, would create a Ponzi Scheme, your guess is as good as mine. And why would Stanford involve himself in fraud is yet another mystery. But most distressing is the information we’re getting that some of the Madoff money comes from organized crime, while some of the money in the Stanford case comes from a Mexican drug cartel. Madoff and Stanford have allegedly been involved in money laundering. Anything goes, including the taking of people’s lives.
Madoff and Stanford, and Rodriguez and “Smiley”-Lugo are one and the same, born in a time where hubris reigns supreme; where what children see and experience is irrelevant–some will suffer, others will pull themselves up by their bootstraps and survive, and yet others, like those kids in the Blitt New Yorker cartoon will imitate Madoff and Stanford, Rodriguez and “Smiley”-Lugo. This is the most corrupting tragedy of all. Everyone is expendable. And when everyone is expendable, everyone is also a commodity.
Steroids, graft and corruption, these are the symptoms of a lost humanity.
In “Money for Idiots,” David Brooks tells us that, “Our moral and economic system is based on individual responsibility. It’s based on the idea that people have to live with the consequences of their decisions. This makes them more careful deciders. This means that society tends toward justice — people get what they deserve as much as possible.”
This is the ideal, not the reality. We find ourselves in a moment of real moral oscillation. We don’t know which end is up. We can only look at ourselves, though, and determine who and what we value,what’s closest to the human heart, what’s important. It may mean that in order to balance ourselves out, we have to also balance out idiots–but not criminals–as Brooks contends in his editorial piece.
In the meantime, in the South Bronx, within view of Yankee Stadium, a little girl, Pineapple is her name, Jonathan Kozol tells us in The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, looks out towards Manhattan and describes us as “other people.” She fully understands that we live differently than she does–and she’s only in elementary school. What she sees–the Rodriguez’s and the Madoff’s and the Stanford’s–are what she calls “other people,” and they live different lives, touted as successful, luxuriant, wonderful. Just to get to school, Pineapple and friends have to walk through all sorts of dangers. As she looks outward past Yankee Stadium, how will she learn how to choose? Who will she be given who we are?