Saturday, June 19, 2010

American Exceptionalism

(Showing the spirit in Myeongdong, Seoul, 17 June 2010)

Korea's in the throes of World Cup fever, of course. The night their team played Greece, thousands of people went out in the rain to watch the game on a giant screen TV downtown. I stayed in and watched with my host and his family, who were much more excited than I was. Another friend told me he'd watched with his son and some other kids -- all boys, except for one girl who didn't know anything about soccer, and said she was sad for the Greeks when they lost. (A person after my own heart.)

Thursday, the night before I returned to the US, the weather was clear, if hot and humid. I'd seen lots of people swarming around the center of Seoul, getting ready for the outdoor gatherings. I was heading back to my host's when the game with Argentina started, and even at that hour the subway was only about half full of people. Several were watching on those small handheld TVs, and the whole car cheered when Korea scored its only point of the game.

My host's thirty-story highrise is on the outskirts of Seoul, in one of the New Cities (also called bedroom cities because too often the salarymen only go home to sleep, and to see their families on the weekend), so the towers stand in groups of three separated by some distance. As I approached the building I could hear cheering from a nearby highrise, and then cheering, yelling and screaming erupted from every building around me, in eerie multichannel surround sound. I thought the Red Devils must have scored another point.

As the whole world knows by now, they didn't, and the Argentinians won, 4 to 1. I felt most sorry for the Korean goalie, who is new to the team and probably felt the stress more than the other players did. When the same Argentinian player scored a second goal just a few minutes after his first, the Korean goalie flopped miserably on his face and covered his head with his hands for a few seconds -- just before getting back up to play again. It wasn't really his fault; the Argentinians really ganged up on the goal, and the Korean defense was so weak even I could see it. But not too sorry. Did any Koreans feel for the Greek goalie who saw two Korean goals go past him the week before? Only that little girl, that I know of.

I can enjoy watching soccer and some other sports, but only when I'm watching with friends who care about it. Otherwise there's no reason to, because I don't care who wins. Whoever wins, someone else must lose. (There was a lot of displeasure when the World Cup's opener, between the Ivory Coast and Brazil, ended in a tie.) I see the pain in players and fans on all sides, and I don't see any good reason to inflict it.

That's not why some other Americans are reacting to the World Cup with disdain, of course. Roy Edroso at alicublog linked to the legacy blogger Jonah Goldberg sneering at soccer, not because he's a racist but because it's like, foreign.

That being said, Goldberg has a tiny point in that latter post. Racism is a problem among soccer fans. But I don't idealize soccer or soccer fans, or sport generally; and admittedly sports fans tend to do both things with the sports they like. Is Goldberg claiming that racism isn't a problem in American sport, or is he simply asserting what he laughingly calls "balance"? (Yeah, we're racists, but you're racists too!) And just because the worldwide spread of soccer has something to do with British and other European imperialism doesn't mean that American imperialism doesn't have something to do with American lack of interest in soccer; if anything, it suggests that it does. Goldberg also protests that "First, the charge of racism as a motivator behind anti-soccer feelings is pretty bizarre given that the sports the rightwing trogs do champion – baseball, basketball and football – are dominated by nonwhites. And yet conservatives still champion them." Conservatives like this guy, right? In general it looks like conservatives "champion" those sports without abandoning their racism, complaining that the colored have taken over and are getting special treatment because it's PC. Though what matters is not the sport but the racism.

While it's probably not fair to pick on student journalists, except that so many of them will grow up to work for the corporate media without getting much smarter, I must cite this opinion piece from the student paper here.
What about soccer is even remotely interesting? I guess you could say it’s a funny game to watch when grown men try their hardest to hit a ball with their faces. But other than those few NASCAR moments, it’s a low-scoring, boring game. But once every four years, Americans have to care about it.

... But let’s be real. There are only two sports in this world that are worth following: basketball and football.
Erm, sonny, "football" in most of the world means "soccer." Of course you meant "American football." Everyone's entitled to their own tastes of course, but I can't see how soccer is any more boring than American football or basketball or baseball. I personally would sooner watch paint dry than an American football game, but that could be because I like the look of soccer players more; and I don't even watch soccer unless my Korean friends sit me down in front of a TV set during World Cup. And if soccer is so boring, why is it so popular in most of the world? The writer seems to explain this in terms of "the weight of the rivalries countries have with each other, like the England-Germany rivalry and that of Brazil and Argentina", but you could do the same with the rivalries in the Big Ten, the Ivy League, Notre Dame versus Navy, and so on.

But on to a more serious thinker. The most attention Noam Chomsky has ever gotten in the US corporate media was for speaking lightly of sports.
[PHIL] DONAHUE: There's a part of the documentary [Manufacturing Consent] which has you on the podium, reliving the experience of going to a high school football game when you were in high school. And you sat there and you said, "Why do I care about this team? I don't even know anybody on the team." Here, Professor Chomsky, you go too far. You are cranky, you're anti-fun. We wonder if you ever knew the experience of a hot dog with mustard and a cold beer. And it is much easier, then, to dismiss you as the Ebenezer Scrooge of social commentary. Go away. You're not a happy man. You're scolding us for rooting for the high school football team.

CHOMSKY: I should say, I continued to go root for the high school football team -- the reason I bring it up is, it's a case of how we can somehow live with this strange dissonance. I mean, you conform to the society around you, and you're part of it, and you have the hot dog and you cheer for the football team. And in another corner of your mind you notice, "This is insane. What do I care whether this ..."

DONAHUE: What is insane?

CHOMSKY: What do I care whether this group of professional athletes wins or that group of professional athletes wins? None of them have anything to do with me.

DONAHUE: I don't know. I grew up with the Indians [baseball team], I was a kid in Cleveland ... it was a social experience, it was the smell, this huge Cleveland stadium. ... Those are memories. What's wrong with this? Why wouldn't you want to celebrate this?

CHOMSKY: I did the same thing. I can remember the first baseball game I saw when I was 10 years old, I can tell you what happened at it -- fine. But that's not my point. See, if you want to enjoy a football game, that's great. You want to enjoy a baseball game, that's great. Why do you care who wins? Why do you care who wins? Why do you have to associate yourself with a particular group of professionals, who you are told are your representatives, and they better win or else you're going to commit suicide, when they're perfectly interchangeable with the other group of professionals. ...

DONAHUE: You had a relative in New York City who had a kiosk which wasn't quite on the main street, it was behind the train station. And God knows what kind of radical literature he was selling. And you're there, this little kid listening in -- no wonder you grew up to be such a radical who doesn't like high school football.

CHOMSKY: Unfortunately, I did like it. I'm sorry for that.
It's always been hard for me to tell whether Donahue means half of what he says; often it seems that he's playing devil's advocate, or dumbing himself down to speak for what he imagines his audience to think, and that might be the case here. (His audiences often seem to be more thoughtful than he is, judging from their questions.) Chomsky's response is interesting to me, though. When I first read this exchange, I mainly noticed that Chomsky'd had the same adolescent revelation I did, at about the same age -- that it was crazy to root for one team rather than the other, though I was reacting not to professionals but to my school's team. It's not their status as professionals that is the problem for me, it's the pretense that the enthusiasm of the opposing team and their fans doesn't matter. But rereading it tonight I noticed that Chomsky seemed to be reassuring Donahue and his audience that he was really normal, he did enjoy the game. I never did, and I don't care if I'm normal, so I don't feel any need to prove it.

As so often, Donahue misses the point: "it was a social experience, it was the smell, this huge Cleveland stadium. ... Those are memories. What's wrong with this? Why wouldn't you want to celebrate this?" Neither I nor Chomsky denigrate the social experience or the smell or the memories. It's the artificial structure of dividing people against each other on no real basis -- Cleveland fans versus St. Louis fans, Arsenal fans versus Manchester, Mexico versus Greece -- and the belief that it matters on some objective level who wins. Why would you want to celebrate one of the worst human tendencies, the tendency to believe that your group is better than another group because of trivial and often imaginary differences? The difference between a fan of one team and a fan of another -- to say nothing of the teams themselves -- is just that: imaginary.

Contrary to one popular apologetic argument, the obsession with sports is not about encouraging and celebrating excellence, nor is it about sportsmanship. If it were, the crowds would cheer the team that is playing well at the moment, regardless of its name, place of origin, team colors or mascot. (The association of teams with locations has long seemed funny to me, since the players are recruited from all over the place. And if I were to move to another city or university, I'd be expected to transfer my loyalty to the team there. This is one reason why I recognized sports enthusiasm as Orwellian doublethink.) There are other ways to celebrate excellence than competition. In non-team sports especially, competition isn't necessary for achievement, though it is imposed on the players and the situation.

If we want to encourage communal enjoyment, which is fine with me, there are other ways to do it. It is pleasurable to lose oneself briefly in the crowd, singing or chanting with many other people, and so on -- my preferred way of doing so was the dance floor -- and it is possible to do that without hating (even ritually) the crowd in the next town. That's what we need to do, but organized sport as it's now constituted does the opposite.