Sunday, February 13, 2011

Playing Eleven-Dimensional Football

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the American left, such as it is, isn't doing very well. That's not exactly a new problem, and just why it's so has been much discussed and debated. I don't have the answer myself, and maybe the disturbing stuff I've been noticing lately isn't representative.

One problem is trying to figure out who is the American left; American leftists spend a lot of time and energy attacking each others' credentials, so one easy way out would be simply to say that the writers I'm going to criticize here aren't True Leftists. It's too reminiscent of Christian anathemas for comfort, though also a reminder that getting rid of religion doesn't automatically get rid of the misbehavior associated with religion: unbelievers just start doing the same nasty things in the name of History, or the People, or whatever. So I'm not going to worry about who's really a leftist and who's not. I'm not even interested in whether I'm a leftist, which I have from time to time been told I'm not. Maybe I'm really a rightist who believes that wealth should be redistributed downward. (And maybe I'm really a heterosexual who sucks a lot of dick.)

Anyway. What got me onto this topic was a post at The Distant Ocean last Sunday, a blog I've often found useful but often criticized. Yes, it was the night of the Heterosexual Oscars, and John Caruso was teed off because some guy posted a long article at Common Dreams dissing the Superbowl.
Robert Lipsyte, still bitter all these years later over the "high school jocks" who "shouldered him in the halls", decides to take a ride on the reliable left hobby horse of football bashing. It's a by-the-numbers bit of doctrinaire liberal cultural analysis that hits all the points you'd expect to see: vicarious proxy war, sexism, testosterone, soccer rejectionism (which he somehow fails to link explicitly to homophobia, though the subtext is certainly there), and even dog fighting to give the whole exercise some currency. ...
Funny thing, though: neither the commenter nor Caruso shows where anything Lipsyte said about football or the Superbowl was wrong; they were just complaining about his tone. It's exactly what a lot of liberals say about Noam Chomsky (also notorious in certain circles for failing to genuflect before commercial sport, unlike the butch Ralph Nader): he's so humorless, so bitter, so harsh, so elitist, so sure he's right and everybody else is wrong. Yet Caruso, so far, remains a fan of Chomsky, who's been under attack from other leftists again lately. Which isn't to say that Chomsky (or anyone else) is above criticism, but criticism should be halfway intelligent.
Lipsyte ... predictably misses the single most important one: that football is an interesting game to watch, in many ways and on many levels.

I won't go through all of those, but I do want to point out one that I haven't often seen mentioned: despite its reputation among people who don't know any better, football is a thinking person's game. It's deep and strategically complex, on offense and defense. I've always described it as the chess of mainstream sports (compared to the checkers of baseball or the tic-tac-toe of basketball). It takes years to fully appreciate everything that's going on during any given play of a game, and even after you've spent years watching it you can't really take in every aspect of every play. At any given time I might be paying attention to the line, or the secondary, or the backs, or the receivers (and even that just scratches the surface, since within those divisions I might be watching the safeties or the defensive backs, the running backs or the tight ends, etc). Or I might follow something else entirely, or take it in as a whole instead of focusing on any of the parts. ...
Pull the other one, why don't you? Sure, intellectuals can find pretty patterns while watching American football, as some of them have done with boxing and other sports. I don't find any of it convincing, but what matters is that none of this addresses what Lipsyte actually said.
I don't begrudge a person hating football for any number of reasons, even as I feel sorry for anyone who can't appreciate the unique beauty of a perfectly-thrown spiral perfectly caught. I watch much less of it than I did as a kid, actually, and I agree with a lot of the criticism I've read of football in particular and professional sports in general (and I've got plenty of my own gripes). But the notion that disliking football is some badge of ideological purity, and the particular brand of condescending dimestore psychologizing you see in the annual spate of Super Bowl-bashing exercises like Lipsyte's, are just the kinds of things that push people away from the left.
It's really generous of Caruso to pity me and others like me who don't enjoy watching football. (Sarcasm alert! for the irony-impaired.) But I don't really feel that I'm missing anything, any more than I feel that my failure as a connoisseur of opera, cheeses, or fine wines is a disability. Or cricket -- the list of things I don't love, but other people do, is probably as long as yours. And talk about "self-congratulatory disdain," the kind of patronizing toadying to Joe Sixpack that Caruso indulged in that post is the sincerest form of contempt.

Caruso also quotes a commenter on Lipsyte's article (no permalink, posted by lhhj
2011-02-06 12:24; bold type is Caruso's):
I do not particularly identify with pro football fans and, yes, we all understand the bread-and-circus-excessive-violence-late-empire aspect of the spectacle. The problem with this essay, however, is not so much its thesis, but rather its tone of self-congratulatory disdain for all those presumably insecure, threatened, and really rather stupid, macho American men out there who channel their insecurity into football. One paintbrush. Maybe many of these guys can still find some beauty and grace in the game. If so, then fine. But I also believe that the air of smirking cultural contempt expressed in parts of this essay is a real problem for the left and has been for quite a while.
It's also true, the left in America has often been at odds with commercial entertainment (which is what pro sport is), often for good enough reasons. Nowadays we tend to forget that well into the 60s the American left was bitterly hostile to pop music, including rock'n'roll, preferring the purity of traditional folk ballads and blues. That was the environment that nurtured Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and other protest singers of the period, until Dylan kicked over the traces and electrified. None of which in any way invalidated the criticisms of the entertainment business as business, the relentless dumbing-down of popular arts by commercial (and later corporate) interests that continues with a vengeance to this day.

I just reread Lipsyte's post again, and I don't find "the notion that disliking football is some badge of ideological purity" or an "air of smirking contempt" in it, though I find plenty of both in Caruso's post. (Maybe in some of the commenters.) That might just be my own blind spot, so you should read it yourself if you care. And Caruso admits that "I agree with a lot of the criticism I've read of football in particular and professional sports in general (and I've got plenty of my own gripes)." So what is the beef? If you don't like Lipsyte, read Dave Zirin for a left, antiracist, anti-imperialist critique of sport as we know it today.

I've said my say about the Superbowl, the World Cup, and competition generally in these precincts. There are many people I like and respect who feel differently, and while I occasionally challenge their adoration of this team or that, it doesn't strike me as terrifically important. I don't say that people shouldn't enjoy football or other sports; I only say that if they want respect for their pleasures, they should respect those of others. And if they claim to have a larger worldview, one that takes in not only pro sports but social justice around the world, they need to attend to the same kinds of analysis and criticism that Caruso said "push people away from the left." No, it's not the tone; it's the substance.

Caruso's tone, though, could use some work. He begins his post by jeering that Lipsyte is "still bitter all these years later over the 'high school jocks' who 'shouldered him in the halls'", as if that weren't a good reason to be bitter. As it happens, though, Lipsyte didn't say that he was shouldered in the halls by high school jocks, but Caruso puts those words in quotes as though he did. Lipsyte was addressing readers who might have received such treatment. For the record, I never was shouldered in the halls. I just never found football, or any other sport, worth paying attention to.

"Shouldered" is the least of it, though, since high school jocks often go further than that with impunity. (By the way, did you know that dolphins are just gay sharks?) That's a problem that needs to be dealt with, not jeered at. On the other hand, Robert Lipsyte is a sportswriter himself, and I wouldn't assume that he doesn't enjoy football or other sports. (Reading Susan Cayleff's biography of Babe Didrikson Zaharias reminded me just how bad most sports journalism traditionally is, however, especially the egregious Paul Gallico. It's one of the things that helps to keep me off sports.)

I don't enjoy sports, though. I don't have to try to learn to like them so that I can be a normal guy. Normality is, how you say, overrated. Nor do I have to pretend to like them so I can reach out to the Ignorant Masses; that sort of condescension has always alienated people. If I have any place in an American left (and I think I do), it has to be as myself, and I don't expect everyone else to make themselves over in my image either. Clearly there has to be a lot more thinking about this. Blaming a post at a liberal blog that most Middle Americans are never going to read is not a good way to start.

Caruso's post reeked of the same attitude that I find so winning in Barack Obama's attacks on the "professional left" (sometimes made through his lackeys, of course, but they're his), and probably for similar reasons. This isn't limited to Caruso, of course, or like so many other things I take on in this blog it wouldn't be worth writing about. Certain persons on the left have long said very similar things. Some of them were dreaming about former days, when burly workers struck against the bosses, when Woody Guthrie wrote "This machine kills fascists" on his guitar, when Leadbelly had to perform for white audiences in bib overalls so he'd seem Authentic. (For black audiences, like most bluesmen he wore a suit.) The left in America has often been in crisis, much like American manhood come to think of it, and it seems that every blow it has taken in the past thirty years has made things worse: the election of Ronald Reagan, the installation of George W. Bush, the election of Barack Obama, Republican victories in the 2010 midterms.

Now, I'm not saying that all these things haven't bothered me too. I know that writing a blog isn't political activism, but I confess I don't know where to find a Left I want to join. If it's going to be self-righteously racist, misogynist, and homophobic, I'm going to have to attack it as much as I attack the Right.