Assimilating into American Culture 1.0

Part of what informs my life is my ongoing assimilation into American culture. The journey began in 1961.

It was cold and snow was piled high on the tarmac of Idlewild Airport (now JFK International) and on New York City street corners. For a wide-eyed, frightened, young boy, but 7, and who didn’t speak a word of English, the City was something out of an epic, something only imagination can conjure in big terms, colossal, I don’t know, something seemingly impossible though there he found himself in Herald Square, W34th Street, in 1961.

Carlos Vila Photography/Cityscapes

Carlos Vila Photography/Cityscapes

What I didn’t know is that to take in a powerful culture like this, I had to give something up – and if not give it up entirely, tuck it away somewhere.

The first change, the one aspect of my life I had to immediately push away was fútbol. Not the game, rather the word. In it is a world. Only this world is not the U. S.’s. No longer would it be fútbol or even futbol, the name given by Spanish speaking countries to the universal game.

Football originated in England. FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) lists 43 affiliated nations that use fútbol and futbol. The United States and Canada are the only two members, of a total of 45, that call the game soccer. Soccer has been the prevailing term for association football in the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, where other codes of football are dominant.

An initial code of football involves the helmet. When this kind of protection becomes central, the culture, unknowingly, adjusts its gaze on that one vital component. This change, this new point of view, is fraught with implication; it changes the values of a culture, an important factor in determining the meaning of football.

Ray Lewis

Ray Lewis

The head in fútbol is used for thinking, planning – and heading. The head is a weapon in football. The critical thinking happens on the sidelines and in booths, thinkers assisted by technology – computers, cameras, software, communications technology – that reflect our very own condition, the fan looking in, the fan trying to read the very confusing kernels of information streaming from various points of origin, most of which are unknown. This is not to suggest that there’s no thinking on the Gridiron. There is – but it’s short lived, reactionary,  compressed, almost ephemeral, fleeting – gone once territory is captured. Followed by chatter. Followed by next. In-between a beer maybe.

Violence, the taking of territory, anxiety over time – the defining characteristics of football that pushed aside the grace of the world’s game, fútbol. Instantly I learned that force is privileged in this foreign place. Force and violence, that is. The taking of territory by guile and violence, all neatly wrapped in a spectacle that generates huge amounts of money in a merciless, vertical economic reality. You’re in or your out. That’s it. Play or go home. The message, as a young boy trying to take it all in, was clear. Totally. Riches reside at the top, the penthouse – or in the case of football, the luxurious owner’s box. On the field the bodies lay wounded, forever changed in a quid pro quo: money for your body. A football contract is about the value of a player’s body – that’s it.

Heavy snow fell the night before John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, January 20th, 1961. We flew into New York a few days before. The election of 1960 had been close, and the Democratic Senator from Massachusetts was eager to gather support for his agenda. Kennedy attended Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown that morning before joining President Eisenhower to travel to the Capitol . The Congress had extended the East Front, and the inaugural platform spanned the new addition. The oath of office was administered by Chief Justice Earl Warren. Robert Frost read one of his poems at the ceremony.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

Kennedy’s image was grainy on the Martinique Hotel’s TV. But I listened and my father translated.

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

In 1961, the AFL and NFL agreed to merge together to create one “Super League” called the NFL. In this agreement between the AFL and the NFL they arranged to begin playing a championship game between two conferences the AFC and NFC after the 1966 season. Originally the Championship game was named the AFL – NFL Championship, but it was soon nicknamed the Super Bowl.

The first Super Bowl, though, between the NFL’s Green Bay Packers and the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, wasn’t so eagerly anticipated. With Green Bay’s perennial dominance the only question seemed to be was how large would Green Bay’s margin of victory be. Even though the tickets cost only $12, the game still wasn’t a sellout.

The NFL machinery was in motion. The spectacle was born. I was terribly excited – all 7 year old boys, mostly Irish and Italian at St. Gabriel’s School in Riverdale, Bronx, New York, played out their athletic fantasies in the schoolyard. I was looking to find ways in, trying to understand and learn English – until I heard someone call out, Spick. Spick. I didn’t have to look long. My way in was fighting, just being tougher then someone else, not backing down. Respect.

Unconsciously, I was taking in a world awash with violence, anger and confusion. It came from all sides. The body of Christ, I heard the priest say in front of a crucifix held high for all to see the suffering. A political movement for equality played on TV, harsh images of German Shepherds attacking Black people.

The Cuban Missile Crisis paralyzed the world for 13 days, a confrontation between the Soviet Union and Cuba on one side, the United States on the other. From October 14 to the 28th, 1962, the world stood at the brink of nuclear war; it was the very real moment when we first understood mutual assured destruction.

How long do I have? I began thinking then. How am I going to live with this? Certainly not abide. If I’m going to go, I’m going to go my way. Everything around me told me as much.

On November 20th, 1963, at 12:20PM, in Dealey Plaza, in Dallas, Texas, the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated. On February 21, 1965, one week after his home was firebombed, Malcolm X was shot to death by Nation of Islam members while speaking at a rally of his organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity, in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom in New York City. On April 4, 1968, at the age of 39, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. And on June 6, 1968, while campaigning for the presidency, Robert F. Kennedy, “Bobby,” was assassinated in the Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, California.

All of this was regular television.

We were in the thick of things in Vietnam, which lasted until the fall of Saigon, April 30, 1975 – three years after I first registered for the draft and missed being sent when I was 15 numbers off in the lottery. Richard Nixon was inaugurated as president on January 20, 1969, sworn in by his onetime political rival, Chief Justice Earl Warren. On January 5, 1972, Nixon entered his name on the New Hampshire primary ballot, effectively announcing his candidacy for reelection. At some point in the spring, I think it was, Nixon came through Garden City, Long Island, a Republican enclave in Nassau County, and I managed to shake his hand. He didn’t get my vote – no one did that year. I didn’t vote. By June 17, 1972, The Washington Post was breaking the Watergate Story.

The murders of the Kennedy’s, King and Malcolm X, the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, Gay Rights – and Nixon – were a perfect storm that changed the semblance of America until our very day. We haven’t recovered. We haven’t fully realized what materialized since.

But the spectacle of violence was in place – and getting stronger, growing exponentially with broadcast technologies. Football was fast becoming America’s game because America was fast becoming a media-centric society. And our attention was narrowing.

The Sports Broadcast Act of 1961 was passed in response to a court decision which ruled that the NFL‘s method of negotiating television broadcasting rights violated antitrust laws. The court ruled that the “pooling” of rights by all the teams to conclude an exclusive contract between the league and CBS was illegal. The Act overruled that decision, permitting certain joint broadcasting agreements among the major professional sports.

Football’s potential was in its infancy. The road ahead was clear. It’s been television that’s brought the NFL to prominence, along with a spectacular way of passively transmitting the dominant culture’s ruling ideologies. Since then, NFL broadcasts have become among the most-watched programs on American television, and the financial fortunes of entire networks have rested on owning NFL broadcasting rights. This has raised questions about the impartiality of the networks’ coverage of games and whether they can criticize the NFL without fear of losing the rights and their income.

Monday Night Football first aired on September 21, 1970, with a game between the New York Jets and the Browns in Cleveland. This brought ABC Sports producer Roone Arledge’s dream of creating an entertainment “spectacle” as much as a simple sports broadcast to fruition. Advertisers were charged $65, 000 per minute by ABC, a cost that proved to be a bargain when the contest collected 33 percent of the viewing audience.

Before we knew it, the spectacle became how we experienced life in the U.S.. Programs such as the Kardashians and the Real Housewives of (fill in your city) were born then. They all work on the same soap opera narrative model, something NFL coverage excels in.

Monday Night Football

Monday Night Football

Monday Night Football ushered in a new era of television and I was further away from fútbol than ever before, though I was playing in a small community league, coached by a Scotsman. It was soccer all the way. The Scotsman tried playing an orderly game, a military-like, precision game of mid-range passes, very little flair and solid fundamentals. It didn’t sit well with me. Remember: I was going to go at this life my way. Soccer in a football culture.

I was a foreigner, undocumented, except for a passport, until 1972 when I followed my father into Naturalization. See, because before I wasn’t Naturalized. I felt the Other – foreign – on and off the field.

By now, 2013, amidst scandal pertaining to concussions, exposed in the Frontline documentary, League of Denial, where the NFL is compared to the tobacco companies, the National Football League will have revenues “somewhere just north of $9 billion, which means the league remains the most lucrative in th world.” That is up 5.6% – or $500 million – from the previous year, and $1.8 billion (23.4%) more than Major League Baseball ($7.7).

This is the America in which I find myself and I’m not sure what I think. If NFL player contracts are about the player’s body – how long will it last? – then how much is a body worth?

An NFL game is about crisis and the drama that can be built around this with careful narrative strategies – as in politics. Television and now the Internet have forced new narrative lines to appear, across all professional sports, in order to capture the fan’s gaze. By now I’m wondering what’s left of that wide-eyed 7 year old boy? The violence and brute force that initially overwhelmed my conscience have metamorphosed into an experience that is highly compressed. Reacting to violence, which seems to be so prevalent – and promoted – is, as I write here, now, a major obstacle in every aspect of my life, and I suspect other’s as well.

The grace of fútbol is gone from my life – except when I catch a game (hopefully it’s Messi and Barcelona) on TV. Not enough time, a tighter field in which to do open field running, abundant crisis – these mark our lives today. Which is a road to what? Where are we going?

I haven’t watched any football this year, except to watch Middlebury College defeat Williams College, 21-14, on October 12, 2013. Perhaps a final act of assimilation into humanity.

Advertisements

The Meaning of LeBron James

There’s a photograph of a close friend and former student that has remained fixed in my mind: two young lads, teenagers, wearing LeBron James, Cleveland Cavalier’s game shirts, number 23, one red and one white, stand amidst the solemnity of the Walling Wall, or Kotel, located in the Old City of Jerusalem at the foot of the western side of the Temple Mount.

Ryan at the Walling Wall

Ryan at the Walling Wall

LeBron James means something to these kids from Cleveland. He was the world to them to such an extent that they appear at one of the holiest sights in the world sporting his jersey. LeBron was hope — not just for Cleveland but for the post Michael Jordan NBA; his is the American Horatio Alger story we so need to keep alive — from poor Akron, Ohio, to the fourth highest paid athlete in the world, the kid who wasn’t suppose to be holding up the Larry O’Brien Championship trophy after the Heat beat the Spurs, 95-88; he was the new face of Black American hope, even before President Obama, as James explains how he’ll be the first billion dollar athlete and, to this aim, he installed his closest friends to run his empire, heard first on the  60 Minute interview.

LeBron James means something to the NBA. He’s moved our attention past the dearth of exhilarating play that fell on the NBA after Michael Jordan retired. He’s excited new narratives — is he better than Michael? will he have an equal amount of championships — can he catch Jordan? is he more like Magic Johnson? is he the best of both?

The game today is not the game Michael played. And for me, speaking strictly basketball, James is the prodigal son of a long standing prototype that has adapted to and animated the evolving play of the NBA. LeBron James is true, imaginative adaptation. Think Karl Malone, “The Mailman, “ generally considered one of the greatest power forwards and long held to be a strong leader, even another coach. Think of the 6’9″ Magic Johnson and the selfless play, the incredible vision, the passing, the shooting, the quickness. And we can take a page out of Larry Byrd, too, if we consider basketball IQ in a deep and penetrating sense. LeBron James is all these players — and Michael Jordan (who wasn’t all these players).

Basketball — as in most sports — is keen on comparing numbers and trophies, the accolades that fund a vertical profit structure and that can give a player — and a team — value; this is why racing to comparisons with Michael Jordan abound and are easy to make. The comparisons are trite, though; these types of comparisons are like statistical models in economics, say: they only tell one small piece of the story. What this modeling fails to see is that LeBron James, in his young career, has already outdone Michael Jordan — if we look at the whole man, beyond the game, and understand that, unlike Michael, there are moments when a figure appears and transforms his sport, as well as the perceptions of fans and the culture at large.

LeBron James is a product of our culture and he’s transforming it as well — the good and not so good. This is his true meaning — and some may not like this, while others see vitality and hope. It’s a fresh narrative line when we most need it since the other being that was to transform our culture — Change Obama — has clearly not, acting more like Mike then LeBron.

Here’s how it works:

Mediated sports in American culture — their immediacy, their narrative strategies, their universal appeal — occupy the unique function of continuing the ongoing tensions — relationships, influences and antagonisms — in the dominant culture. The assumptions about popular culture concerning race, class, and gender — especially masculinity — are grahically displayed in media’s representation of sports. In other words, there are but a few figures that stand in the center of this spectacle that are transforming these tensions, while also, before our eyes, being transformed by them. And it is here where we are offered a mirror of who we are. One such person is LeBron James, of course.

But to get there, we have to begin with Michael Jordan’s problematic position in popular culture.

“To some, Jordan in his prime became the embodiment of Black Power,” writes William C. Rhoden in Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete; “to me he is the antithesis, however, the embodiment, if anything, of the destructive power of the Conveyor Belt and the perversion of the nobler goals of integration.”

Who is Mike? asks Rhoden.

Jordan is the one who fully exercises the won right to be publicly neutral, not to have to deal with quotas and segregation, and even to have the ‘black’ elements of style and image — bald head, baggy pants, soaring acrobatics — not just accepted by the mainstream, but revered, freeing him to be obsessed with wealth and image. Freed by the Civil Rights movement to be neutral, he’s lightly shrugged off the historical mission of black athletes to push for progress and power.

Jordan paid a price for this. In May 2003, Jordan was summoned to Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin’s office and categorically dismissed, Rhoden tells us (as did many others in the media).

“I didn’t do this for the money,” Jordan told Pollin. “I thought I was going to take over the franchise eventually” (in Rhoden).

“That was never a part of the arrangement,” Pollin responded, Rhoden tells us. “I’ve worked thirty-nine years to build this organization. I’m not giving it to you and I don’t want you to be my partner, Michael.”

Says Rhoden, “Intentionally or not, the dismissal served as a warning shot that reverberated through the NBA. The greatest athlete of all time — “God,” “the deity,” His Airness — couldn’t prevent his own firing. Jordan was effectively taken out into the yard and shot like a dog.”

This is not LeBron James. He learned from Jordan’s don’t make waves, go along quietly and just Be like Mike attitude. In fact, James may have learned from the Williams sisters: they’ve paved their own way, created their own, respective voices in tennis and, literally, as in the case of Serena that “runs women’s tennis like Kim Jong-un runs North Korea: ruthlessly, with spare moments of comedy, indolence and the occasional appearance of a split personality,” designed their own lives and fortunes — on their terms.

LeBron James’ meaning encompasses something of all the descriptors used for Serena Williams, the antithesis of the Be like Mike, quiet persona that refuses to take a stand on anything. James is something other then Jordan’s passivity and reluctance to engage any racial challenge. When LeBron James was handed the MVP and the NBA championship, standing with each trophy securely in his arms, he acknowledged coming from Akron, Ohio, saying that he wasn’t even suppose to be here, the champion, a profound political statement in a dramatic moment.

As Rhoden suggests, Jordan was fully aware of his double standard and, like most African – Americans “playing the game, seeing racism and sidestepping it, grumbling about it under his breath, but pushing it to one side in order to reap the full benefits of a multiracial society. At the same time, even if his attitude about race was familiar and defensible, his actions remained troubling.” Who could forget, in 1992, when Jordan balked at wearing the Reebock designed United States Olympic Committee awards-ceremony uniform and covering it with the American flag, of all things?

What’s the point?

The point is that LeBron James is reaching far beyond the confines of race in sports, pushing the boundaries, creating new models to consider. Somewhere in America today, young boys are running around trying to be like LeBron, not Mike, and wonder, as LeBron has said, if they too can use basketball as a stepping stone to other ventures.

But this, too, is the problem, and deeply felt, more then most, by Cleveland fans. In order to be the first million dollar athlete, and taking a page from the Williams sisters, more so then from any other story today — except for, maybe, Muhammad Ali — LeBron James is floating to the heights of capitalism like no other athlete before, conflating Black Power, Black Style and (Black?) Capitalism. This was made evident in The Decision. James said he wanted to win championships, the hard road to value and to making an impact on history. The people of Cleveland were devastated; unfortunately this is because most fans don’t understand the business of sports and how a player is valued, financially and historically. Players will float to the money — and money, even though there are rules in the NBA, has no allegiances, except to more money.

I received a text from another student post the Heat victory: Even though I love LeBron, she says, the Spurs are a REAL team. This is another meaning of LeBron: he represents the conditions in which the game takes place. Pat Riley and the Heat management bought a team — and helped LeBron make his mark. In the Heat vs Spurs NBA final, we saw two histories, two narratives unfolding that are mirrors of our lives: bought, immediate success vs the labored building of success over time. LeBron James has given meaning to this business form — which is also a military form, “shock and awe.” We don’t like this when we’re affected by it. (Sort of the hatred of the winning Yankees, the glee in their losing.)

LeBron James is the meaning of our times — loved and despised; admired and yet disliked, too, for his grace, agility and strength; he is liked and disliked because of his work ethic, professionalism and business, as well as basketball, IQ (no one said, as an announcer said about LeBron during the NBA finals, that Michael could coach any time; he’s failing miserabley with the Bobcats because his basketball IQ is just not LeBron’s); and he’s both admired and admonished because he forces us to look at race in an America that still asks that African Americans be like LeBron, or Mike, or Magic or …, to succeed while others hope for the best in the injustice of it all. Think Detroit, think Akron, think South Bronx.

LeBron James’s meaning is that he’s us — we are him. He is a mirror of our extremes; he is a sign that all is not right, but suggesting that what is right requires self-reliance, certitude, facing fear without reservations, and launching out with dead reckoning, much as Herman Melville would suggest. We love and hate LeBron James because he captures all of who we are and he’s letting us know; and we are uncomfortable, in Apartheid America, that one individual is actually striking out, not on the Pequod, but on the basketball court, and calling it his own.

LeBron James and the Williams sisters, too, are the future. They’re in control of it — we’re not.

Gabby Douglas and the True Story of the Olympics

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.

Under the Hood of Education: A View of the Classroom

Often, when I’m out socially (this is rare), I am asked about “education.” The questions go like this: “How’s school?” “Are you done yet?” “What do you think (about this or that on the news or concerning an opinion someone has heard)?”

I’ve found that the best way to respond is by telling a story that lifts the hood and exposes the education engine — or at at least a part of the engine. So here’s a story …

I teach a course that’s a typical (perhaps not ?) composition course for students who may lack some confidence writing — yes, even at Middlebury. It’s called Writing Workshop 0101A (I didn’t come up with the title; you can’t access the course without a password). Students read challenging literature, gain confidence interpreting what they read and learn how to move these interpretations into subjects for their writing. Easier said then done.

I’ve designed the course so that we read only one novel the entire 12 week semester, Don DeLillo’s 827 page Underworld (1997). Students always complain that they are given too much work; that they don’t have time to effectively ingest all the material that they’re given; that they learn for the test, then forget the material. I therefore pace this course as a response to these critical points, giving students the necessary time — and space — to think and reflect, dialog and write.

Students read approximately 160 pages every other week. The in-between weeks are for writing: students come into class with rough drafts and we peer-review; they also receive comments from me, one-on-one, and come to my office, too, to discuss their work as it’s being written. Lots of scaffolding. The course is labor intensive. Leading up to these writing workshop weeks, students are given in-class prompts relevant to what we’re reading in Underwrold — a passage, perhaps, or an entire section. Online, prior to coming to the class discussion on a particular sequence, students have been capturing major ideas and themes and posting them on a forum; they respond to each other, establishing a mellower, online version of our discussions. (I use these to touch on major points students make, and lecture in the gray areas.) Writing, then, happens all the time; it’s a model I want students to have: writing is not just for a grade, rather it’s a practice that should genuinely be done all the time; it’s a way to learn, to see yourself thinking; it’s a way to make sure we don’t lose what we’re thinking; and writing engenders life-long learning, which is what everyone in education says is desired.

For example (I’m trying to be quick about this explanation), Underworld begins with the famous prologue, “The Triumph of Death.” “He speaks in your voice, American,” says DeLillo, “and there’s a shine in his eyes that’s halfway hopeful.” The implications of this line for the rest of the narrative are significant — and daunting. We spend about 25 or so minutes discussing this line and the different paths it gives us into the narrative. Then I give the students a writing prompt (and 10 or so minutes to write in class, afterwards they share their insights): think back to a significant moment in your life that changed your life; this event was perhaps unexpected — or perhaps it was planned — either way, before the event you had one perspective, after you had another: what was going on in your life, the conditions of your life, including your community, family, and so on? what lead you to this event? what happened? Take us through it. And on the other end, the moral of the story is …?

I keep repeating these prompts, in different ways, circling the class, until all heads are down and the students are writing. I don’t care if students write on paper or on a computer (I have no rules against computers in the class, finding these, well, for lack of a better word, stupid: if you’re going to teach this generation, you better get used to — and learn how to — work with computers, cells phones, tablets, etc., in your class, otherwise you have no business being in the classroom).

In all, students will write 5 official essays in the course ( 5 – 7 pages each). What’s significant is that each student essay grows from this intial writing exersice, giving (a) students an entry into Underdworld (b), evolving a theme of the course: a piece of writing, a note, scribbling, a response to a prompt, done at any time, is relevant and can — and must — be used to evolve the more formal writing, and, finally, (c) students learn that they’re going to see, in Underworld, the narrative proper, only what they bring (experience) to the reading and writing act.

The role of the teacher in a writing course is to tap into these student experiences — the knowledge students already bring to the table. In a safe, creative space, students will expand creatively, moving from the deeply personal to the more subtle and complex world(s) of Underworld — but always able to see their signature, which began in their first paper. This is how writers work. I’ve chosen never to cloud this up with ridiculous rhetoric.

Sorry it took this long to get to this last point — what exactly is the knowledge students bring to the table? — but it’s critical to the rest of the story.

It’s important to note, at this time, that this exercise, these lessons, Underworld, is all happening inside an elite liberal arts college in New England. That is to say, we need to understand that the work I’m describing — and doing here — happens behind the hallowed ivy walls of a tradition that suggests that students are learning to think critically on their way to becoming strong, mindful and empathetic, self-reliant democractic citizens; that this tradition is “influenced by the Stoic goals of self-command, or taking charge of one’s own life through reasoning,” says Martha Nussbaum in Cultivating Humanity. And that what I’m trying to do, again quoting Nussbaum, is to arouse the mind, which is essential “for citizenship and for life, of producing students who can think clearly and justify their views.” In education, any other mission is a waste of time.

So now you have a context. And now you can begin to understand what may be going on in education when you see the rest of the story. Here we go: One day, I come to class — this is 3/4’s of the way through the semester, between weeks 8 – 9, and students are pretty accustomed to how we’re working — having in mind to go over a challenging passage in Underworld.

In typical DeLillo fashion, we have beautiful writing, a conflation of the historical with the personal, the psychological and the emotional, and the culture. “On a large console the screen was split four ways and the headshot ran in every sector and, ‘It’s outside language,’ Miles said, which is his way of saying far-out, or too much, or the other things they used to say …”

The key, here, is “headshot.” It’s JFK’s murder in Dallas on that fateful day that seemed to change the country — or, perhaps, the country had already changed and the murder was simply its symptom, a final event lifting the curtain so that Vietnam and Nixon, Watergate and the culture of cynicism we’re in now could emerge.

DeLillo continues: ” … and here was an event that took place at the beginning of the sixties, seen belatedly, that now marked the conceptual end, carrying all the delirium that floated through the age, and people stood around and talked, a man and woman made out in a closet with the door open, remotely, and the pot fumes grew stronger, and people said, ‘Let’s go eat,’ or whatever people say when a thing begins to be over” (496).

In a liberal arts environment full of inquirying minds, one would want students to pick up on “the beginning of the sixities,” “the delirium that floated through the age, “the pot fumes” (the very least), and wonder about that “headshot” that’s “outside language,” exciting a need to know; this creative disruption should, then, launch students into a Google search to come to understand how and why “the screen split four ways” and “the headshot” actually mark “the conceptual end” of an age. Reading is a contact sport and this is the work of reading critically.

DeLillo adds yet two more hints for an easy Google search: Elm Street and Zapruder. Here’s how it reads, finally, bringing the entire passage to a close:

It ran continuously, a man in his forties in a suit and tie, and all the sets were showing slow motion now, riding in a car with his confident wife, and the footage took on a sense of elegy, running even slower, running down, a sense of greatness really, the car’s regal gleam and the muder of some figure out of the dimmest lore — a greatness, a kingliness, the terrible mist of tissue and skull, so massively slow, on Elm Street, and they got something to eat and went to the loft, where they played cards for a couple of hours and did not talk about Zapruder. (496)

There it is — the images are running “continuously” on TV, hence suggesting the importance of “the murder of some figure out of the dimmest lore”; these give off a “sense of greatness”, and there’s a car that has a “regal gleam,” a la Camelot, and the horrid — and beautifully described, capturing the culture to be, the one needing reality TV — “terrible mist of tissue and skull,” moving slowly on “Elm Street” (the motorcade had to proceed to Dealey Plaza, before exiting onto the Stemmons Freeway, again turning onto Elm, from a segment of Main Street, the often disputed and critical change of plans).

DeLillo ends the entire passage with, of course, the most critical of signs, Zapruder, which should, if nothing else, send readers off into a quick but meaningful search to learn it’s function. In other words, if all other rather emphatic signs are missed or dispensed with, finding the significance of Zapruder would create a domino affect and everything would cascade into a single understanding. This is how great writing works. There is a key, a sign-function that opens doors (though these lead to other doors).

When I Googled Zapruder, before class, it took less then 3 seconds to see the first, full suggestion, “Zapruder film,” followed by the second, “Zapruder.” I chose “Zapruder,” not film, thinking that a student may push aside “film” since it’s not in the passage (even though there are images running “continously” on TV). The entire reference is here. This Google exercise, including reading the entry, took no more then 5 minutes to complete.

Back in class, I looked around and asked, after opening up to the passage and re-reading it to the class (students read it for homework a week earlier!), “What is Zapruder? Who or what is Zapruder?”

No answer. Thick silence. (There is creative, necessary silence a teacher works for in a class, and there is non-creative silence, the kind only someone dumbfounded relies on. This was the latter.) By now in the semester, students are not intimidated; we’ve joked around enough and they’ve learned that I’m not someone that creates an inhospitable environment — just the opposite. The learning space I create is open, welcoming, suggesting to students that they can take chances because they’re supported. In fact — not to boast but to give you a full picture — this is indeed my reputation judging from 27 years worth of students’ evaluations performed every single semester I’ve taught.

So then I say, “Someone Google it, please. Google Zapruder.”

In seconds, a few students find Zapruder and one kid reads: “The Zapruder film is a silent, color motion picture sequence shot by private citizen Abraham Zapruder with a home-movie camera, as U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade passed through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963, thereby unexpectedly capturing the President’s assassination.”

The students leaned back, “Oh…,” some say. And if the students would have kept reading the entry, they would have learned about Elm Street.

I leaned forward, and asked, “When you guys read, how many of you have computers open?”

Just about every single student raised her/his hand.

“And are these computers open to Google, Facebook, Twitter? What?”

Students said that their computers are open to just about all of these — multiple windows — including (ironically) Wikipedia for some. (Is the notion of “Windows” also ironic, the deepest and darkest irony, I wonder? Windows to what?)

“And so, in the course of the semester, when we read, how often do you think I ask you guys, in class, to turn to Google and look something up?”

“You always do that,” they answered in unison. Some nodded, “Yeah. Always. We always do it. ”

“So could this be a hint? A suggestion? Something at all that may, at some point, suggest to you that what I’m asking you to do is to look things up, quite easily, using the technology at our fingertips?”

Silence, again. Students look away, down at their iPads and MacBook Pros.

New Yorker Cover, May 28, 2012. A picture says it all.

There are three distinct challenges higher education is facing: For American students, the challenge is obvious: international students are gobbling up resources and advancing efficiently, particularly in science and economics and technology, creating spaces for themselves, in the U.S. and abroad, and American students have yet to wake up to the fact that, as Thomas Friedman said years ago, the world is indeed flat ; that this race to have the most luxurious “stately pleasure – dome…Enfolding sunny spots of greenery,” as Coleridge says, particularly when we add labor costs — faculty with PhDs and the large staff needed to maintain this “miracle of rare device” — is not sustainable. (Elite institutions, recognizing that change is inevitable, have begun to address this problem.) And the last, the third challenge, perhaps the most critical of all, is that we’re not sure what our students bring to our classrooms — emotionally, psychologically and knowledge: the culture has had an effect on our students and we don’t yet know what this is, though we’re experiencing what we call something, an unknowable, perhaps, something strange and different, unfamiliar.

We’re not talking about who our students are and how they may perceive the world we’re trying to squeeze them into.

I’ve been in higher education for 27 years. I have seen a lot of changes and I’ve seen a lot that looks like change but is nothing more than smoke and mirrors. But perhaps the biggest change has been the student. We need to engage our students differently so as to better learn who they are and what they want; we need to also better engage the world outside the ivy because it, too, has changed and it’s not at all what we perceive it to be.

A huge change in the American student — leaving aside the other two distinct challenges facing American higher education — is found in the story I tell.

In a recent News Hour interview, Andrew Delbanco, Columbia University professor, speaking about his book, College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be,” tries to defend the traditional four-year college experience with a liberal arts education, joining a long list of scholars addressing the issue, and finds that the liberal arts, four-year experience is “not lost, but I think it’s under threat from many directions. And much of that is understandable. The anxiety that parents feel about the cost of colleges … It’s well – place anxiety.”

But when we look at the cost of a four-year liberal arts education, we’re failing to place this in a greater context that is more threatening to a democracy, which is our allegiance to mindless corporatism that has a primary function of scorning knowledge itself. This is why students, sitting with computers open to Google, cannot make the connection and search for Zapruder even though the behavior has been modeled in class time and time again. Thus, as John Ralston Saul says in The Unconscious Civilization, probably the best thinking on this subject, we have been given permission to “interiorize an artificial vision of civilization as a whole.” Students may see Google as part of their world, not ours, in academia, with our demands and constraints. Google, and other systems, are their liberating tools; when brought into the confines of a traditional classroom and used as a tool rather then a liberating break from confusion, a student’s identity is challenged — his or her sense of self is upside down. They’ve been taught, always, to have neat lines of demarcation that define pleasure and work — and school is work since it’s valued as a system for socio-economic success. Zapruder is therefore irrelevant to a student’s vision of reality. Students actually said this. Students embrace ideologies that insist on the “oppressive air of conformity” that “force public figures to conform or be ruined on the scaffold of ridicule.” Doubting and questioning are gone, then. “The citizen is reduced to the state of the subject or even of the serf.” Our students come into our classrooms already reluctant to challenge their position — subjects; they’ve been lead to this because they’ve never been taught to think for themselves and learn through experience. For many students, their lives have been managed.

Our communication technologies, our culture that holds fashion to the highest levels, though it’s the lowest form of ideology, is what paralyzes students that have been spoon fed a culture that insists they be driven to play dates, organized games, the proper college prep courses, the right channels to elite instituions. What is behind this narrative, though, is crude “individualism and false modernism,” leading to a life in a void. Instinct and common sense are lost. They’ve been taught that the world is hostile and that life is a competition. The horror. They can’t connect to Google in an academic setting, even if it’s to their benefit. The student sees absolutely nothing important, nothing relevant in the action of Googling Zapruder so the meaning of the DeLillo passage has been completely lost. But that’s okay, for students. The meaning of the passage, its significance in the narrative is not relevant; it’s an exercise we’ll go over in class. What is relevant is simply getting through the course, nothing more, since this is what’s being promoted culturally: get a degree in something meaningful and this will give you a good life. Students are taught to follow, not to pursue creative disruptions of the status quo.

I feel for my students. I care for them. I have kids their age as well. I feel for all these kids in school today, graduating tomorrow, because I wonder whether they can think critically, critique, fear not standing out because they question.

I leaned forward, again, and said to the class, “Remember this day when you’re handed your diplomas. I want you to go to your parents and thank them. Say, Thank you for spending over a quarter of a million dollars to make sure I’m one more sheep that will follow on command.”

I wasn’t expecting the students’ reaction. They laughed. “Professor Vila, you’re so funny,” they said. “So funny.”

I leaned back in my chair, briefly thinking that I wanted to jump out a window — and I’ve not stopped thinking about this day since.

Says Saul,

We can now add to the list such simple battles as that for consciousness versus the comfort of remaining in the unconscious; responsibility versus passivity; doubt versus certainty; delight in the human condition or sympathy for the condition of others versus self-loathing and cynism regarding the qualities of others.

So, “how’s school?” “What do you think?”

Media, Sports (NBA) and the Order of Things

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.

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?

The New Yorker Cover, July 21, 2008: Clarion Call for an Unconscious Civilization

I came across a middle-aged woman on Ferry Beach in Scarborough, Maine, reading The New Yorker. When I asked her what she thought about the latest cover she pursed her lips and said, “Well.” She shrugged annoyingly. “It’s sarcasm—but do we really need this now?”

Blitt's New Yorker Cover Cartoon

Blitt's New Yorker Cover Cartoon

The cover cartoon by Barry Blitt shows the Obamas in the Oval Office. Michelle, sporting a radical chic Afro and an AK-47 over her shoulder—“Nothing gets between me and my AK”—stares intently at her husband, head tilted towards him, her left hand on her hip in an ah ha, you go girl pose. Her right hand reaches out to her husband’s, fist closed. Right on, we did it.

Barack is in Muslim garb. A sly eye gazes at us—a fox, telling us to wait and see what’s next now that the Obamas have arrived. The other eye is presumably on Michelle. He reciprocates Michelle’s clenched fist. Right on.

Two distinct artifacts behind Barack Obama adorn the Oval Office and flirt with our xenophobia and racism. An American flag burns in the fireplace and above the mantel looms half of a portrait of what can only be described as an Islamic fundamentalist, perhaps even Osama Ben Laden.

Do we really need this now? Yes, we do.

Iranian Female Guards with AK-47s

Iranian Female Guards with AK-47s

Michelle Obama’s Afro is 1960’s chic radicalism. The AK-47 comes from the Middle East. In Tehran a billboard of a young woman and her AK-47 stares down at the busy streets reminding everyone that even the women of a repressive regime are willing to fight for the cause of Islam.

Michelle’s cartoon figure fuses the strong African American female with the equally strong Middle Eastern woman, suggesting that a third, more dangerous possibility can reside in the White House—the woman that has appropriated our worst fears and is going to have her way.

Cartoons are exaggerated messages. Realistically, Michelle embodies the post civil rights American Dream. She is the daughter of a city water plant employee and a secretary. She attended Princeton and Harvard Law, reaping the rewards of the civil rights struggle. The image is then not about Michele Obama at all.

The cartoon overstresses how our deepest, most profoundly xenophobic fears can be manipulated to create a myth—even if the myth is a condemnation of the truth.

The cunning Obama image confuses us, too. He has not helped himself in this respect, changing positions he once held, having to defend himself on issues ranging from his personal relationship with God and the flag to the wars to political reform. He’s backed by real estate professionals, medical professionals, commercial bankers and hedge fund and private equity managers. Obama’s ambitions are supported the old-fashioned way, money, and lots of it. He’s mainstream politics, with every sound bite moving more to the center.

The cartoon is sarcasm all right, but it derides the viewer. It postulates knowledge, but not of the Obamas. It’s about us and how reliant we are on the media’s fixation with the surface of things. This was evident during the primaries when we wondered about Barack’s odd name, his relationship to Reverend Jeremiah Wright and his not sporting an American flag pin on his lapel. If Obama is not loyal to American iconography, the argument goes, then he must be loyal to something else, and with a name like Barack Obama, well then, it must mean he’s secretly loyal to Islam. He even wants a dialog with Syria and Iran—that says it all. Israelis have picked up on Barack’s middle name, Hussein, and read it as a sign of mistrust and contention.

The New Yorker cartoon is our shortsightedness. It portrays, as Jonathan Ralston Saul has written, an “unconscious civilization,” a “civilization that scorns knowledge itself.” We aggregate the quick and easy, the first idea or, better, the first image until we can’t tell truth from fiction. We don’t know when we are being told something meaningful or when we are being made fun of—and in this case, both are true.

In The New Yorker cover we find the Other we don’t want to face. This Other is not the fear that Islam or any other belief system may find its way into the White House, but rather, it is the sins of America that we have yet to resolve to enable us to move closer to reconciliation since, after all, what is demanded of us today is to find roads to end conflicts and renew friendly relationships with those we have scorned and violated. Our age requires deliberation, cooperation and collaboration, particularly when we find deep differences.

The woman on Ferry Beach finally said to me, “I don’t know what this means, not now.” This is why we need to look at this cartoon. It’s an image not of the Obamas, it tells us nothing about them, but of our challenges and conflicts, of us, the citizenry that has been sleeping away the promises of America.

Yes, we need this now—because we are inalienably free and we’ve yet to realize the promise of this truth.


Re: The Politics of Fear

A letter in response to Barry Blitt’s cover (July 21, 2008)

Barry Blitt Defends his cover of Obama

Yikes! Controversial New Yorker Cover