Why I Said What I Said About Sports

Today in the office it came up, though I can’t at the moment remember how, that I happened to be in broad—though qualified—agreement with an idea that is apparently considered common sense among a certain faction of liberals in America: that sports generally serve as a distraction from things that matter in one’s life. Chomsky has outright said this (stated it, for example, in an interview included in the documentary Manufacturing Consent), but of course Chomsky is one of those people I both admire and have issues with.

In any case, I knew in stating my belief that there is some truth to this, that there would be some hostility to the idea. No, wait, what I knew was that it was going to have a very dubious reception at best. After all, since about January the main topic of widespread discussion in the office (aside from problems we’re having with administration, or how we have junk PCs) has been the playoffs and scores and players in whatever game has happened to be in season.

The discussions have been loud, but of course those of us annoyed by it have had the common sense to just shut up. You can’t go around telling people not to talk about sports 90% of the time, no matter how annoying it is, when you have a shared office space. Of course, at the same time, it’s not like I play music in the office, though it’s a comparable passion for me, and I don’t start lengthy and loud discussions of musical theory with Myoung either. Still, I recognize that I’m in the minority in thinking it’s just a bit annoying when I have to listen to sports talk all the time. (Oh, and for a while it was computer games, which was less loud and bothersome to me, but more constant for a short time.)

But that’s not why I said what I said.

I’ve been thinking about why I said what I said. One of the things I’ve noticed is that, with the exception of one person I can think of, the people who are all continually fascinated with game scores have been—and this is not a castigation, believe me—but I’ll say it even at the risk of it being taken the wrong way and the rest of this not being read. They’ve been American males.

Now, before you flood my comments box, please bear in mind I’m not bashing these people in my office. I have good working relationships with most of them despite in some cases wideningly apparent ideological differences. They’re mostly okay folks, something I can assert happily because a lot of our differences don’t matter much to me anyway. They’re generous enough to share, they’re nice enough to inquire as to things like my health. They’re nice people.

I’m also not bashing America as a nation, or American culture, though I am looking at certain aspects of it critically. I am also trying to clear out my thoughts a little, and point my finger at something I was kind of trying to say today, and saying pretty badly because I was self-censoring for the sake of office relations, and because I felt from the look I was given when I said what I said that there’d be little point in trying to really explain. Well, in the office there might be… but here, in what seems to be both public diary and a clearing-house for my thoughts, I have every reason to clarify my thinking.

So here is what my thinking is: Consumerist societies are filled with endless distractions (termed industries) that work to consumerize others. Because a person’s free time and energy is finite, the way a person becomes more of a consumer is by giving up other avenues for the expenditure of energy and time.

That is, the more of a good consumer you become, the less of anything else you become.

This is not a radical observation, though you’re probably guessing right that I’m going in a direction that might seem radical. Bear with me, and see if they radical conclusions I come to maybe actually follow from this simple, sensible assertion. For I think it shouldn’t meet too much resisance. For example, Christians should be nodding their heads and recalling that their Messiah pointed out the same thing, calling for people to put nothing before him for fear of pursuing their salvation in any degree of distraction. This is a conventional understanding of Jesus’ injunction to leave all else behind and follow him, as well as his comment regarding rich men, eyes of needles, and the gates of heaven.

Wait, you say, so is this therefore a positive appraisal of organized religion coming from Gord?

Heavens, no. For all the good it can (and does) do people, religion is far too often a kind of commodity which is “consumed” by “adherents”. People are sold on a kind of whole worldview that goes with a religion, and it’s naturalized as part of their culture. Their religion defines their whole reality, rather than simply shining like a light and inspiring them to look at reality more closely and joyfully. My favorite philosopher, Kierkegaard, railed against this. His writings constituted a war with Christendom, though he was deeply Christian. Because the Church had primary allegiance to Christian society and its own continued existence (and this is, bear in mind, the Lutheran Church, which was not very Protestant at all in Kierkegaard’s day), he railed against it because really, what it was doing was selling a comforting belief in the current social orde,r instead of the radical vision of truth-seeking he detected at the heart of Christianity, something that would necessarily be at odds with comfortable faith.

In response to the question, “Do you mean the established order can assure my eternal salvation?”

Why certainly. And if with regard to this matter you encounter in the end some obstacle, can you not be contented like all the others, when your last hour has come, to go well baled and crated in one of the large shipments which the established order sends straight through to heaven under its own seal and plainly addressed to The Eternal Blessedness,?with the assurance that you will be exactly as well received and just as blessed as all the others? In short, can you not be content with such reassuring security and guaranty as this, that the established order vouches for your blessedness in the hereafter? Very well then. Only keep this to yourself. The established order has no objection. If you keep as still as a mouse about it, you will nevertheless be just as well off as the others. (From Training In Christianity, though I’m citing it from here)

This is, I believe, why C.S. Lewis claimed in several of his books, including Mere Christianity and (by implication in the narrative) The Screwtape Letters that becoming an avid churchgoer can in some cases, in some situations, do a man far more harm than it does good… once a person is sold on a kind of package-deal of Christianity, where all the certainties are in place, the reality defined, then one has lost all of his spirit to a system.

Now, why am I writing about Christianity in a post that began about sports? Well, because in some ways I have to qualify my statement about sports in the same way Kierkegaard qualifies his statement about Christendom. It is possible to rail against Christendom because one is a passionate Christian, if one believes Christendom is (or has become, or is becoming) a bad establishment. One needn’t believe sports universally bad to believe that there are certain very negative effects that come from the role in culture that sports occupy, the effects it has on people.

And I think there are an astounding number of very important effects which are true, but in subtle ways. These thoughts cannot really be proven, of course, but it’s also my contention that they’re not anywhere near as outlandish as people who disagree make them out to be. Further, I think people who reject these points will do so first and foremost by gut instinct, resisting yet another leftist wanker’s decrying of sports.

That’s not what this is, in fact, and the very idea that I am a “leftist” is a symptom of the whole problem I’m trying to highlight here.

Yes, that’s right, I don’t consider myself a leftist. To be frank, the left-right dichotomy in American politics is so right wing altogether that I have very little use for it. When I say “left” and “right” in discussing American politics, I mean something more like “somewhat right of center” and “approaching fascist”, respectively. The American battle between left and right is a grandfather war, something pretty much irrelevant to the way people live their lives and will live their lives.

Let me provide an example. Even if the Republicans manage to officialize their discriminations against gays into the Constitution, clever people will find loopholes around it. Some of the people who fight to open those loopholes and set precedents will do so for reasons of political allegiance to the Democrats, of course. Many others will do it for other, more human reasons: having a gay cousin (or brother, or friend) in the hospital who wants to see his lover. Having a friend who is the benefactor of a will contested by the estranged and once-abusive family of a dead gay lover. Gay people will continue to live together, and they will eventually find a way to have their relationships legally legitimized, even if it means using a whole different set of laws and rules to govern them. That, to be frank, is simply inevitable.

It’s also frankly irrelevant to both right and left. It’s honestly pretty much a political nonissue. It has no bearing on the lives of a huge majority of voters in America, in fact on the lives of the vast majority of people living in America. Realistically, the metaphysical angst ought to be pretty small, and probably would be if the issue hadn’t been bandwagoned by a few opportunists. Banning gay marriage has no effect on the sex lives of gays, which is what religious objectors presumably find so objectionable. It has very little effect on their legal status. The few things it would cut off, will be worked around sooner or later, in the legal sense. The one thing that the legal blocking of gay marriage does is marginalize gays socially, legally, politically.

But all of this analysis, you see, doesn’t really enter into the mind of the average voter out there in America. I’m convinced that both those on the left and those on the right mostly don’t spend time thinking about that. I don’t mean that they’re not able of thinking about it, not at all. It’s just that’s not the deep aesthetic of the thing. The fundamental approach to politics, I’m sure, is comparable to their fundamental approach to sports: “Which team is winning?”

This isn’t such a far-fetched conclusion, really. As the first example, one of the work mates I have discussed this with (his comments were the impetus to my thinking about this stuff and eventually making the comment I did, at the office) and I were talking about politics in Canada. I noted we’re decriminalizing marijuana possession and are a lot closer to legalizing gay marriage that America will be for years. I said, this was not really an issue of right versus left because, well, we have more than two parties and really this legislation is not the center of our politics, it’s more just kind of the way we find to reasonably peacefully coexist in our country.

To this, my workmate confessed, he couldn’t help but naturally see it as “one side winning, and the other losing.” I noted it wasn’t really this way, not in Canada, but he said it was just how he saw things, how he’d learned to see them. And it’s an understandable viewpoint for an American, even an intelligent one, to have. Where Asian democracies look like food fights (sometimes literally) and European and Canadian ones look like a kind of stage-play drafted off the Freudian Id-Ego-Superego model, or maybe something more Jungian (though the campaigning in Canada is, like so many things, Americanizing with each successive term), American politics is through-and-through like nothing as much as it is like a football game. Only one side can win, and when it does, it wins big and hard and you have to wait through a few years of sneering before there’s a rematch. In football, the quarterback may get to screw the whole cheerleading squad on victory night, but in American politics, the quarterback gets to screw the whole country for four years.

And what’s amazing about this is that people actually buy into the dichotomy that they’re sold. Left is for this and against that. Right is for that and against this. So if you agree with this, then you’re left. If you’re for that, you’re right. I remember as a child, wondering, “What if you’re for this and that? What if you’re against both of the other thing and whatchamacallit?” Unfortunately, the answer I was given is the standard party line, even in Canada: “Well, you try to chose the candidate or party whose views closest reflect yours.” Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that: there’s choosing the party you think can be remade, via grassroots efforts and voter pressure, to closer fit your views. After all, the Republicans have been the Left, such as it was, in the past. Okay, given that I’ve already noted left and right are somewhat devoid of meaning to me, I’ll restate that as follows: the ideological stances and tendencies of the major parties are by no means permanently fixed, or integral to the parties.

Which means that the current image is really just the current marketing concept. If America eventually, say, after ten years of hard efforts by pro-gay-rights filmmakers and journalists, became overwhelmingly sympathetic to the cause of legislating gay marriage, the Republicans would have to give up that political issue and choose another marketing concept, in order to avoid alienating too many potential voters. (This is not so far fetched, except for the timeline; consider the political rights and legal status of blacks in America sixty or seventy years ago for a comparative change.)

This suggests what makes political bipartisanship so appealing and such an effective system for the consumerization of politics: it’s immensely simplifying, in that every issue is basically reduced either to general agreement (Al Qaeda is bad!), or to polar disagreement (whether the war in Iraq was justified). It’s saleable because people are tuned into the “one side wins, one side loses”—or, all other sides lose—model of competition throughout their society.

Consider the fact that every major competitive sport in America is a bipartisan model. Consider that in each major sport, one team wins and the other loses, after a regulated period of competition. Consider that there is normally some kind of annual tournament to winnow teams down to two final competitors vying for the Big Win—the title, the trophy, the Cup, whatever it is they’re playing for.

Yes, this is true of Canada’s most beloved sport, hockey, as well; and the model of using two teams to compete in a sporting game is not unique to America: it’s been known in every society that’s had sports. But it’s unarguably America that has turned sports into a major consumer industry, a massive part of American culture, a basic facet of American (male) life.

But think of the sports which have been idolized in America. Why do you think it is that sports like long-distance running, cycling, bowling, golf, sharpshooting, curling, and the like never became major competitive sports in the United States? Certainly, part of it is simply the range of mainstream American conceptions of masculinity . While it’s okay for a small elite to admire Tiger Woods’ form, the vast masses of men are going to be more interested in what is credibly “tough” and “manly” in sports: football, therefore, approaches the status of religion in America, with cathecisms in the younger grades, and of course the Christmaslike ritual of Superbowl. If you doubt the rituality of Superbowl, the massive influence it has in American culture, consider that it is absolutely the biggest consumer event on American television, and perhaps even TV in the world. Advertisement prices are astronomical, and companies often compete to produce the best Superbowl ad.

Of course, I always find it amusing to consider what my father said about football: that it seemed a little too wimpy for him. All that ridiculous amount of padding, when British men just go out and play rugby and deal with the pain directly. Not just British men, of course: my sister was, in her time, “a damned good little rugby player”, as my dad put it. So I am understandably dubious about the masculinity of football. But nonetheless, I know it is supposed to be very male: that’s the mythology of it, what we see in movies and on TV. Less manly is baseball, and yet it is again, really, about two teams, each with a very crucial player (a pitcher on each side, as a bad pitcher can, the myth of baseball tells us, make or break a team, like a quarterback in the mythology of football). And then, I suppose, there is hockey, though as far as I understand it, it’s more of a Canadian thing.

It’s almost a given, among a majority of men, that sports is important to other men. If there’s nothing else to talk about, you can at least talk about The Game. Me, I have no idea which game, which sport, which country people are even talking about. I’ve been asked, “Which sports do you follow?” rather than, “Do you follow sports?” When I’m asked that by a non-native-speaker, I usually explain the question assumes one actually follows a sport, but that not everyone does. When a native speaker asks me, I imply the same fact (which seems so often overlooked) by answering something like “jazz music” or “contemporary verse”. But men often do assume others follow at least one sport, the same way Koreans—even those with pretty good English—tend to ask, not “Do you have a religion?” but rather, “Which religion do you follow?” This is, of course, something very useful to an industry: a business of woongdoongs can be nothing but happy when suddenly everyone is trying tokeep up with the Joneses in the area of woongdoongs.

I’m not bringing this up to complain that people are insensitive to the fact I don’t have any time for sports, or presumptuous in assuming every man should. I bring this up merely to state the fact that people would acknowledge if they thought about it, though they might feel resistant to doing when reading this: that sports in America have surpassed the level of religion in terms of the way the connect men. There are all kinds of different religions out there, all kinds of weird beliefs, all kinds of discomfiting differences between citizens, but you know that every man you know, and every man you meet, watched that Superbowl with rapt attention. You know that he gets it: he gets the meaning of two teams fighting it out, trying to win it all, win it big. You may disagree about what kind of women are better, or which bar to go to tonight, but you know how important the game is, and the aesthetic of the game, of the two dueling and the fact that there can only be one winner, that’s so deep in both your minds it’s beyond an assumption.

In that world, the Republican vs. Democrat understanding of American politics simply makes sense. But outside of it, you see, it’s not so sensible. For example: though I would definitely be a Democrat were I living in America, there are Republicans with whom I believe I have far more in common with than other Democrats—the only-somewhat-frustrating neoconservative Francis Fukuyama being one example.

I see no fundamental disjunction between Democrats affirming that gay marriage should be allowed, and Republicans objecting on religious grounds: if religious grounds are all they have, then let them ban marriage within their religions. Freedom of religion guarantees them the right to do that, no matter how bigoted it may be. Meanwhile, freedom of religion also frees the rest of the nation from having to worry what religious extremists deem unacceptable, as they’re free from others’ religions. Void of religious objections, there are none sensible enough to prevent the legislation of gay marriage as far as I know. Problem solved; which is how it shall play out in any country that legalizes gay marriage. This is not a case of A winning and B losing, but rather a case of compromise, and a step away from theocratic fascism.

But you see, this idea makes no sense in America. The win-lose model is the only model that seems computable in American politics, and a win-win situation is not just impossible, but anathema. Someone has to win, and in this case, it looks too much like Democrats winning for anyone on either side to see it as a win-win situation.

Bipartisanism, as I’ve long held, has been one of the most politically crippling facets of American political practice and thought. It reduces the populace basically to either a uniformity of opinion, or a polarity. Certainly, the reality often delves into the grey zones a lot more often, but the political thinking required of most people usually ends up being the simplified end-user model. End-users are consumers, and end-user models are also marketing concepts, something I learned long ago when writing tutorials which were not only tutorials but media for the message of the marketing concept of the kind of tutorials we were producing. The message of a tutorial built a certain way is, “This is a good way to learn XYZ.” And the message in a bipartisan, win-lose conception of politics is that it is effective, representative of at least something like reality, and sensible.

There are other models all over the place that I could attack, as well. I could look at the Korean culture’s long historical lack of a tradition of compromise, which an old professor once sat me down and enlightened me about, telling me Korean political conflict usually ends in conversion by one of the two people butting heads. Korean politics is dirty, and the Korean public seems apathetic… and the bipartisanism here is on the rise. The Canadian public is somewhat apathetic too, from what I gather. Our Jungian psyche-like government is not all that inspiring, even though it’s not bipartisan. But I find that in Canada, at least, there is… well, it’s not more intelligent debate about politics. I think what it is, actually, is just a lack of the same frustration assumptions I encounter time and time again in popular American political thought.

I wrote of consumerism, and had I more time to tackle this, I would draw the string taught, trying to illustrate more clearly how I see consumerism as a major factor in the neutering of both religion and politics and the distribution of sterile simulacra in their places. But the astute reader can probably very easily connect the dots. What Kierkegaard decries about Lutheranism in his own time is just as relevant to Christianity in North America today; furthermore, the infection has spread to popular politics. And I think the sports industry is a major trajectory of generalized infection.

And a final note: what I mean when I use the word “sports” is different than a bunch of buddies getting together and shooting hoops on a Saturday morning, or even the leagues children play in as kids, or in high school. That’s an admirable enough thing, if it isn’t carried too far (though even on these scales it all too often is), and if I were less lazy and ornery I might do it and even enjoy it. I think the parallel to that would be the gatherings of Christians for meals and discussions of their struggles together (as opposed to mere church attendance), and to citizens hanging out and talking about issues and trying to find solutions to them, or working for causes in the grassroots (as opposed to talking about parties and being consumers of election campaigns and campaign news and the like).

Before I conclude, a final point from the above-cited essay on Kierkegaard, which seems to be a bouncing-point for some of the ideas I’m presenting here:

The cultural Protestantism that German theologians call Kulturprotestantismus and Kierkegaard calls Christendom is as hostile to Christ as was the religious establishment of first-century Judaism. Indeed the hostility is stronger since the Pharisees did expect a radically new thing in the coming of the true Messiah, whereas Christendom thinks it has smoothly subsumed what it formally acknowledges as the true Messiah into the all-inclusive synthesis that is The System.

Similarly, I’d say, American assumptions of bipolar, bipartisan struggle as basic to political life is as hostile to real democracy as were the feudal kingdoms that preceded them. The System, it seems, is working increasingly well. I find that the sports industry, as a consumer system, serves very powerfully to support fundamental assumptions of the nature of officialized human competition and interaction. Sure, music is a consumer industry too, and to the degree that it distracts people from things that are important to their lives—the true politics of a culture, as opposed to the agendas set by parties vying for control within the System—the music industry is a bad thing, too. Hollywood, though, would sooner deserve castigation for supporting the kinds of assumptions and aesthetics implicit in sports which carry over into politics, where most of the music industry simply fills in the empty space left where people might otherwise have been thinking. In the System, everything has a function, rest assured, even the things that I seem to find myself holding dear.

Well, that’s all a lot clearer now, for me. I’m sure there are a number of questionable assertions there (and welcome corrections). Still, I’m glad I wrote it.

4 thoughts on “Why I Said What I Said About Sports

  1. hmmm…got to think about this one. Well, in my view politics and religion are both pretty personal and depend incredibly on your point of view. There are so many shades of grey in both those subjects that to compare them to sports is not really a very clear model.

    Americans believe in a bipartisan political culture, but what about other countries. Brazil for example where the parties exist but dont really mean much as the cult of the personality is far more important. Hang on. Ive just described American politics!

    OK then the UK…hmmmm…not too good an example really. Fortunately in the USA a President can only be President for two terms, in the UK its for however long they can hang in there. Maggie screwed the country for 12 years, to steal your analogy, and Tony has been for the past 8. The British people have been well and truly fucked over the last 3 decades, if you forgive the expression.

    No. Sports are sports. I love football ( the real one not the American kind) and Rugby, cricket and Volleyball. I have been an Arsenal fan since I was knee high to a gnat and will wax lyrical about them for hours if encouraged. But in general I agree with you about sports bores, and yes they probably do exist to take peoples minds off other, weightier matters. But thems the breaks.

  2. Alistair,

    I can understand loving sports, because I’ve lived in a family with at least two voracious sports-lovers. My old man loves sports with all his heart, and my baby sister is the one kid in the family who really picked up on that thread and carried it on into areas like rugby, soccer, and even kickboxing.

    But my dad (and, I suspect, my sister) are very poor consumers of sports. I can’t remember a time when they tuned into any televised broadcasts of the big games. They didn’t spend money on buying team shirts, and the only time when I remember any big sport being continuously on our televisions at home was during the Olympics.

    You’re right that the bipartisan model is distributed all over the world, but I do believe that those systems evolved in emulation of the American one. And politics is nowhere clean, of course. I would argue that British football culture probably occupies a similar niche in Brit culture to the one I assign to American “football” in American culture. I think British politics has been incredibly dirty and bad over the last 30 years, from the little I know, but Britain right now is not the nation I’m particularly worried about.

    And that’s the other reason I think I’m discussing American culture and politics: America is now the superpower in a unipolar world. The government of the only superpower in the world has a profound influence on the rest of the planet; I think this warrants scrutiny directed at the voters and the society that supports and instantiates that government.

  3. Once again I agree with you to a certain degree. But I think you missed the point about what I was trying to say about politics(wether American or any other) that parties have very liitle to do with it, infact parties are the least important factor when you choose who your going to vote for. But personality is everything. If you have the right personality at the right time and sufficient money to push that personality you are going to win. An example: There were recent elections here in my city in Brazil, for mayor and council members. The guy who won is a complete arsehole. He is a personality from a z-division local “police and current-affairs” programme. The guy was on TV last year “interviewing” a local law-breaker ( suprisingly from the poorer strata of society) and suggested that what society should do with these people is poor gas over them and set them on fire ( emmolation being a legitimate form of punishment of course). But the guy has a very charismatic way with him, and lots of money to back him up. Not even the President (of Brazil) had such a slick campaign. His opponent had extremely good policies and is a very sincere person ( I know him personally as he is one of my students), but didnt have the money to back him up.

    Unfortunately in this day and age there are many factors involved when election time comes around. Personality is one and the ability to mobilise is another. Party Politics very rarely come into it.

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