Happy 4th of July — to All Left Out of Freedom, Independence and Hope

We’ll never know what happened in Sofitel Suite 2086.  What we do know, however, is that there is more than one victim.  The hotel maid is a victim. DSK’s wife, Anne Sinclair, is a victim, too.

The ironically named the “Audacity of Hope,” that sneaked out under the cover of night from a Greek port with aid to Gaza, was stopped by the Greek Coast Guard.   Forty US passengers were on board, inspired, I’m sure, by rays of hope for the people of Gaza.  There are a lot of victims here, too.  Palestinians.  Israelis, too.  Of course, freedom, self-reliance, independence and hope are victims as well.  In the Israeli – Palestinian conflict we’re all victims. There are no winners here.  It’s a dark course we’ve embarked on here.

Not a single latino baseball player (40 percent of major league baseball players are latino) will boycott this year’s All-Star Game in Arizona, who passed an anti-immigration law.

We march on, celebrating the American 4th of July — yet thousands upon thousands cannot celebrate with the same audacity.  Of course, the top executives of the most powerful companies that now rule — that is, that run our government for their benefit can, indeed, celebrate unprecedented freedoms.  But for the countless poor, those that reside in the inner most regions of our large cities, their lives are walled up.

It’s to them, the people and their kids that I’ve come to know in such places as the South Ward of Newark, that I write.  It’s to them I send my wishes.  And I send these wishes using the words of sociologist William Julius Wilson, who I have used plenty of times before in these pages.

I think it’s best to simply allow Wilson to speak without commentary, so I’ll cite some definitive conclusions pertaining to The Economic Plight of Inner-City Black Males chapter in Wilson’s book, More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City, again a text I’ve used numerous times and that must be read and acted upon.

Listen carefully.  Read these out loud, several times, and see what happens:

Indeed, the employment woes of poor black men represent part of ‘the new urban poverty,’ which I define as poor, segregated neighborhoods in which substantial proportions of the adult population are either officially unemployed or have dropped out of, or never entered, the labor force.

…neighborhoods with larger fractions of nonwhites tend to be associated with higher rates of unemployment…[The data shows] that education plays a key role in enabling black men to secure employment.

By 2007, blacks were about 15 percent less likely than other workers to have a job in manufacturing. The dwindling proportion of African American workers in manufacturing is important because manufacturing jobs, especially those in the auto industry, have been a significant source of better-paid employment for black Americans since World War II.

Because they tend to be educated in poorly performing public schools, low-skilled black males often enter the job market lacking some of the basic tools that would help them confront changes in their employment prospects. Such schools have rigid district bureaucracies, poor morale among teachers and school principals, low expectations for students, and negative ideologies that justify poor student performance. Inner-city schools fall well below more advantaged suburban schools in science and and math resources, and they lack teachers with appropriate preparation in these subjects. As a result, students from these schools tend to have poor reading and math skills, important tools for competing in the globalized labor market. Few thoughtful observers of public education would disagree with the view that the poor employment prospects of low-skilled black males are in no small measure related to their public-education experience.

Their lack of education, which contributes to joblessness, is certainly related to their risk of incarceration.

…national cultural shifts in values and attitudes contributed to a political context associated with a resurgent Republican Party that focused on punitive ‘solutions’ and worsened the plight of low-skilled black men.

In short, cultural shifts in attitudes towards crime and punishment created structural circumstances — a more punitive justice system — that have had a powerful impact on low-skilled black males.

…research by Devah Pager revealed that a white applicant with a felony conviction was more likely to receive a callback or job offer than was a black applicant with a clean record.

Thus, whereas the subculture of defeatism is a result of having too little pride to succeed in the labor market, the subculture of resistance reflects too much pride to accept menial employment.

So much for the audacity of hope!  Have a wonderful 4th of July!

Carmelo Anthony, Derek Jeter, Wisconsin and the Uncanny Tyranny of Inverted Totalitarianism

What do Carmelo Anthony, Derek Jeter and Wisconsin have in common? Each is a sign — a result, if you will — of the large scale cohabitation between the corporation and the state.

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.

Carmelo Anthony, Derek Jeter and Wisconsin are the reification of a managed democracy — the specter of inverted totalitarianism, as defined by Sheldon S. Wolin in Democracy Inc. (2008):**

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.

The Yankees, The New York City Marathon and Citizenship

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


Orlando, Fort Hood, Meb, Yanks

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.

Capitalism, Al Gore, and the New York Yankees

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

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.

Blitt New Yorker -- Rodriguez

Blitt New Yorker -- Rodriguez

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.

Phelps + Bong

Phelps + Bong

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?