As the Beijing Olympics approach, and as I research boxing, sports and Muhammad Ali at his most political, a few quotes from Mike Marqusee’s Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties, pages 11-14, commenting on the evolution of sport (and the comment on human nature):
At root there is something irrational and arbitrary about sporting partisanship. As Jerry Seinfeld once observed, “People come back from the game yelling, “‘We won! We won!’ No: they won; you watched.”
How is it that passive spectators come to feel they partake in someone else’s victory or defeat?
This leap of imagination, this widening of the definition of the self is a wonderfully human phenomenon, which is why, as Seinfeld realized, it is also a rich vein of comedy…
This phenomenon is clearly inherent in human nature, for is affiliation with a tribe any more rational? Humans generally pick the team closest in proximity—or today, often the team with the most famous player.
Doris Lessing discusses the phenomenon in Group Minds, a chapter from her book, Prisons We Choose To Live Inside:
“…what is dangerous is not the belonging to a group, or groups, but not understanding the social laws that govern groups and govern us. When we’re in a group we tend to think as that group does: we may even have joined the group to find “like-minded” people. But we also find our thinking changing because we belong too a group.
It is the hardest thing in the world to maintain an individual dissident opinion, as a member of a group.”
Think back now to the horrors of 9/11. One person—one person—Representative Barbara Lee, a Democrat from California, voted against a resolution (HJ Resolution 64) authorizing the president to use (HJ Res 64):
“…all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks….[my italics].”
The general citizenry of beleaguered and largely illiterate Afghanistan—one of the world’s poorest countries, hammered by ten years of war with the Russian superpower, and then the civil war, and in the grip of a non-elected fundamentalist group—surely did not plan, authorize, commit or aid the terrorist attack in New York City.
And Barbara Lee? She was not even saying no to war. She was saying:
“We need to step back. We’re grieving. We need to step back and think about this so that it doesn’t spiral out of control. We have to make sure we don’t make any mistakes.”
A rational response, it would seem, under most any circumstances. The vote on this resolution was staggering. It passed 98-0 in the Senate and 420-1 in the House. Lee’s vote was the only one in opposition. For this she received immediate death threats, and had a bodyguard put on duty to protect her life.
Ted Kennedy might step up and support Obama and this person and that person can sing their own praises to the sky, but can you imagine the courage Barbara Lee’s decision took? Now that’s worth remembering…
I wonder if Barbara will ever be given a place in American history for that one dissenting vote—a Rosa Parks for the early 21st century, except Rosa had the NAACP behind her, I believe. Who did Barbara have?
Here’s a little more from Marqusee on the evolution of the sporting spectacle:
Modern, secular spectator sports—in the forms of boxing, horseracing and cricket—first emerged from the womb of parochial ritual and folk pastime in mid-eighteenth-century England.
[Modern, secular spectator sports'] midwives were rapid urbanization, the spread of market relations and the growth of an ambitious elite with both time and money to squander. The sporting realm preserved and organized the pointlessness, the triviality of play…
The loyalties and identifications [of the spectator] are not inherent in the spectacle; the tie between spectator and competitor is a constructed one, and the meanings it carries for either are generated by the histories—collective, individual—brought to bear on a contest that would otherwise be devoid of significance to all but direct participants.
Precisely because they are universal and transparent, innocent of significance or consequence, sports became charged with meanings; because they meant nothing in themselves, they could come to mean anything.”
Noam Chomsky in an interview seen in Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media.
You know, I remember in high school, already I was pretty old. I suddenly asked myself at one point, why do I care if my high school team wins the football game? [laughter]
I mean, I don’t know anybody on the team, you know? [audience roars]
I mean, they have nothing to do with me, why am I cheering for my team? It doesn’t mean any—it doesn’t make sense.
But the point is, it does make sense: it’s a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority, and group cohesion behind leadership elements—in fact, it’s training in irrational jingoism.
That’s also a feature of competitive sports. I think if you look closely at these things, I think, typically, they do have functions, and that’s why energy is devoted to supporting them and creating a basis for them and advertisers are willing to pay for them and so on.
I’ll finish with a thought-provoking point from Marqusee:
The egalitarian autonomy that is the presupposition of modern supports was overlaid with the prevailing hierarchies [with a society—class, race etc.].
A a result, competitors were to be judged by criteria extraneous to sports…Thus the “role model,” that incubus on the back of so many sporting champions, was born out of a need to tame the democracy of sport. It was a means of neutralizing its sublime indifference to social status.
Interesting, huh? It does not surprise me that boxers—with the raw ferocity it takes to fight—have challenged convention perhaps most aggressively. Jack Johnson was crazily fearless at the turn of the century. And then, of course, Muhammad Ali, whose image in 1964—he was booed before his rematch with Liston, as Champion of the World—was polar opposite to mainstream society than the beloved figure he largely is today.
Well, I guess we haven’t checked a score, but we’re a little more up to date in the world of sports. Lots of love to you and yours, and if you have kids, may your early morning hockey tomorrow not be too early.
PS For a little comic relief after all that high-brow sports analysis, here’s a live excerpt from Understanding Ken, about a ten-year-old Canadian boy in Spokane, Washington, USA for a hockey weekend, circa 1973.