Sport, Spectacle, Decorum, Politics

(This post is part of an ongoing series about Western culture and politics, and how the potential brokenness of one affects the other.)

My impression from yesterday’s service is that Obama was genuinely surprised by the untoward reaction of the crowd — and it may well be that he has never given real thought to the proposition that radicalism of all kinds is at odds with the order and seemliness we rely on. In that, he would be characteristic of his academic and political background. But he is a product of that background, not one of its driving forces. That it is he who must now stand before an indecorous people and try to observe decorum is not so much ironic as poignant and sad. –J.E. Dyer

They might have been mindful that they too had a role, a role as front-line mourners just as it was President Obama’s role to play mourner-in-chief. Instead, they were a “Daily Show” audience writ large.–John Podhoretz

It’s been rather interesting watching Commentary attempt to grapple with the fact that most of its writers genuinely liked the President’s speech in Tuscon, and that the rest can find little reason to complain.  But through this slight reframing of the question, they might have done us a favor.

Perhaps the shift of focus—from public statements of public figures to the behavior of a crowd of individuals; from civility to decorum—has (conscious or not) partisan undertones.  After all, Sarah Palin was being Sarah Palin from many miles away, while Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin exist primarily as disembodied voices.  But when they pose the question—Who killed decorum?—they can more easily shift blame entirely toward the Left.  Dyer points his finger directly at the radicals of the 1960s, while JPod finds space to blast (and perhaps blame) the Daily Show for lack of decorum (I’m skeptical of how accurate this is of its audience).  The Left, then, whether Radical (past) or Cynical (present) is wholly to blame for the initial and enduring loss of decorum in American life.

This, of course, is nonsense: the “radical” Left was not and could not have been wholly responsible for the changes in American decorum over the past half-century.  More importantly, the shift in public decorum they lament has roots prior to the 1960s.

While James Dean wore a leather jacket and hippie men grew their hair long and wore scraggly beards and sandals while their mates chopped theirs off and burned their bras in full public view, belief in the threat of the hippie caricature provoked not mass public profanity, but Nixon’s Silent Majority.  (Nixon’s language, like that of his predecessor, is notable for its profane lack of decorum—at least in private.)  And terrifying college Radical Leftists (who would eventually give birth to the less terrifying, still indecorous, Cynical Leftists) jumping on police cars with megaphones and taking over the offices of college administrators?  Let us assume a breach of decorum: what allowed this, as opposed to the breaches of decorum in the service of protest committed by the “radicals” of all prior American generations, to succeed?

It’s true: in a surface sense, there was a success in changing the American idea of decorum.  (This assumes that decorum was a conscious target of the Left.)  We go around in un-tucked T-shirts and flip-flops; Presidents and Vice-Presidents can curse publicly; you can “dress-up” by wearing a casual button-down and blue-jeans; rather than a coat and tie, spectators at sporting events wear body paint and shout drunkenly.

These changes though, owe as much to Abbie Hoffman than to our friends at Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce.  Decorum did not change not through a subjugation of “The Man” by the Radical Left, as Dyer asserts, but through “The Man’s” decision to work, in a sense, in conjunction with those gawdawful Radicals.  Don Draper might hate the “Lemon” ad and be sent into a spiral of emotional disintegration by the collapse of the order he thought existed, but Roger Sterling doesn’t care.  After all, SDS didn’t change the way we dress, or spark a brawl at the Cleveland Indians’ Ten Cent Beer Night, and what Dyer and JPod lament today affects Okies in Muskogee alongside San Francisco hippies.

Which brings us to sports.  This, whether they realize it or not, is where Dyer’s and JPod’s complaints are focused.  Consider: the crowd; the hoo-ha over the way it was dressed; complaints over cheers—well, I’ll just hand it over the JPod, actually:

“There was something about the choice of place, a college arena [. . .] [T]he tone of the event came to resemble a pep rally [. . .]  [The crowd behaved] as though they were delegates at a political convention, rather than attendees at a memorial service.”

The complaint is about the state of our political and public decorum—one imagines that, if given the chance, the critique would expand to include behavior at a political convention as well.  If not, it should; and, if not, it would indicate clearly what I suspect: that neither writer would acknowledge that this decline of decorum is prior to the 1950s and 60s.  They lament the assimilation of public life to a “mere” political event and, implicitly, of politics to sports.  What they lament, then, is the decline of sport into spectacle.

In short, one would do better to turn to Christopher Lasch than to the stereotypical Culture War narrative as he lamented the “trivialization” and “degradation” of sport and athletics:

What corrupts an athletic performance, as it does any other performance, is not professionalism or competition but a breakdown of the conventions surrounding the game.  It is at this point that ritual, drama, and sports all degenerate into spectacle. [. . .]  In the degree to which athletic events lose the element of ritual and public festivity, according to Huizinga, they deteriorate into “trival recreation and crude sensationalism.”

The degradation is a result of the trivialization, of the loss of what Lasch calls “awe” on the part of the spectator.*  It is not, however, the case that the degradation of sport causes the decline of public life; rather, it is a vanguard example of a broader “historical trend: the emergence of the spectacle as the dominant form of cultural expression.”

Ten Cent Beer Night, whatever one thinks of Lasch’s historical analysis of sport, was less a product of Abbie Hoffman or The Man than of an audience that, while it would perhaps argue that it took the game “seriously,” ceased to regard it with gravity, with all the Roman import that word used to entail.  Perhaps one can take entertainment seriously, but is it weighty?

Following this line of thought, a lack of political decorum can be seen as an outgrowth of political disenchantment: not a lack of caring about the outcomes of political “contests,” but the sense that it is not something one can affect; that one can only watch it.  Contemporary grassroots movements—yes, even (perhaps especially) the Tea Party—acquiesce to the disempowerment they claim to protest when they act as raucous cheerleaders and stadium fans.  A politics that one cannot affect becomes a politics that one can merely watch.  It is “something to do,” and must then compete with other “things to do”: go to the movies, watch TV, walk the dog, listen to music.  Hence the rise, on the right, of Limbaugh, and Beck—who offer not empowerment but the sense of empowerment, of which the Palin phenomenon is perhaps the (il)logical conclusion—on the left, of Michael Moore and the comedian-pundit-politician; and, across all lines, of the belief that politics is itself quite like sports: each election is a game in which the ultimate goal is victory for your team.  We’ve reached the point where elections even come with statistics just as interesting to the obsessed fan as box scores: we even apply SABRmetrics to them.

Dissociation from politics leads, inevitably, to dissociation from public life more generally—because politics should never have been separated from public life to begin with.  Public life becomes spectacle, and the “arena” we speak of is not the one in which we play football or basketball, but that which still stands in the center of Rome.  We have applause and cheering at memorial services that ought, ostensibly, to be solemn—but we also have events like the Michael Jackson Death Spectacle, in which the event itself was raised to public spectacle for the sake of approximating true grief—but also for the sake of entertainment.  It was, after all, “something to watch.”

*Which is perhaps why those of us who do take our play seriously, in a Greek kind of way, who look to sport and find something of significance or beauty—one is reminded of the effusions over Michael Jordan’s Classical elegance by Ravelstein/Bellow/Allan Bloom in Bellow’s Ravelstein—who want something more than mere entertainment, can be so genuinely appalled and offended by the Steroid Era; how I can take Sosa’s use, in fact, personally, even though the pitchers were juicing, too.

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19 thoughts on “Sport, Spectacle, Decorum, Politics

  1. I didn’t watch the O speech so my comment doesn’t particularly relate to that. I can’t help but think of the difference in behavior you would typically see at a predominantly AfAm church and that which you would see at a mainline protestant or Catholic Church. In a AfAm church it would be common to hear a lot of ruckus that seems undignified or inappropriate in other churches. Both, though, are part of our shared cultural heritage.

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    • I had much the same thought at times on Wednesday, especially during Obama’s speech, much less so during the other speeches. At other times, it just sounded like what one would expect from college students listening to speeches from dignataries. It was just a poor choice of venue, I think – an audience of college students, relatively few of whom were actually from the city of Tucson, much less had any direct connection to the victims.

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  2. I can’t speak about the crowd because I’ve read the speech but not watched it. I would say that a thought I keep having is that it doesn’t bother me that people now get so passionate about politics that they seem close to coming to blows. That’s been the case for the last few hundred years at least. It does, however, bother me that it’s no longer possible to imagine people coming to blows over a poem, a painting, or a ballet- all of which used to happen.

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    • I’m pretty sure painting still fits, poems have been replaced with movies, novels, and songs for coming to blows with.

      Of course all of my examples would be about paintings, videos, and novels that get caught up in politics so at best I have dinged your statement.

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      • It’s sort of a fuzzy line, isn’t it? I had in mind some of the aesthetic debates in the 1800s that broke out in brawls at plays and operas and the like, and definitely people took great offense at what they saw as cultural decadence. I suppose that also ties into J.L. Wall’s point about cultural ‘decline’ having gone on since long before the 60s. Bohemianism is fairly consistent in its provocations. But, of course, there was always a political aspect to it as well. If you upset the aesthetic standards of the bourgeoisie, it’s a political statement as well.

        Or, at least, it once was. Now, I suspect that shocking art is more a matter of consumer choice. I can always just attend another movie or buy another album. There aren’t universal standards that are being attacked by bad art. It just seems to me that most people I encounter are much more passionate about politics than about culture, and I was wondering if that doesn’t tie into Wall’s opening line there about the decline of one affecting the other. I know many more people who have strong revulsion and anger towards Sarah Palin than towards, say, Jeff Koons, although I’d sort of think Koons is a lot more deserving.

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    • I know my friends and I are like this. We are all big movie goers, have extensive music collections that we pride ourselves on, and play video games. But we also argue, sometimes virulently, about the value or greatness of any of them. We could spend an hour or two debating why one track is better than another, or how movie x was well executed but failed in its content, to the point where each of us takes it personally, as if we were defending a body part from amputation rather than dissecting the latest Coen bros. film.

      I’m not sure if that is simply because we like to argue, or if it’s because we are all a bit on the egotistical side, or something else, but taking a look around the bar, we are usually the few doing that.

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  3. In my experience, incivility and a lack of decorum correlate with to an inflated sense of self. I wonder if it’s that public occasions fail to instill awe, or if narcissistic people are, in some sense, threatened by experiences that seem to dwarf their individual selfhood. I wonder if they don’t find the awe-inspiring somehow offensive.

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  4. I’ll probably write something this weekend about the shootings in Arizona. I haven’t found an angle that hasn’t been explored yet. Until now.
    You see, the real issue is that there are not enough people in Arizona that are liquored up. That’s the real problem right there. It’s all about the Democrats taxing the alcohol. As a result, a significant portion of Arizona’s population has to make due without a substantial portion of hard liquor– the harder, the better.
    Due to the Democrats tax-and-spend ways, the Republicans’ cutbacks to social services, such as mental health care, come to light. If only there were more people liquored up standing around, it’s likely no one would notice.
    Mentally ill persons could well form some form of self-sustained management system, with non-compulsory reporting requirements where they could keep track of themselves and– for crying out loud– TELL SOMEBODY if you think maybe you’re on the edge of going out to shoot a congressman. A purely voluntary initiative. Who best to monitor the mentally ill but the mentally ill?
    Of course, it goes without saying that George Soros wouldn’t want the mentally ill to be monitored. The bastard. He’s probably out trying to get more people to become mentally ill right now, just so they can go without monitoring.
    He’s probably out there somewhere trying to stop good, outstanding Arizonans from getting liquored up. Maybe some redistribution effort or something.

    The thing is I can always tell if someone is to the Right or to the Left before they even really begin talking about it. It’s odd.

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  5. Terrific post Wall. Something interesting and provocative without being polemic. I was getting tired of all the back and forth about who was scoring and their vileness for attempting to do so at a time like this. It’s nice to get to something deeper.

    “They lament the assimilation of public life to a “mere” political event and, implicitly, of politics to sports.”

    When presented with this point of view I’ve always had the problem of, “so you want me to compartmentalize my beliefs about the world and how it should be?”

    I can understand not “politicizing” every facet of one’s life, if by “politicize” we mean trying to get Dems/Repubs elected. But when it comes to the other things (and this I think is why you see the Left always stewing in political juices, about almost everything), if I think that their are lots of poor people, and many can’t help their situation (this is just an example of a potential political attitude), and that young girls/boys die in poverty stricken areas because of violence, drugs, and unemployment, how do I compartmentalize that orientation to the world out of my daily mindset?

    With that in mind I can understand why really religious people are all, God this and God that. If I held that system of beliefs about the world, how could I do anything but? If anything, the ones who are confusing to me are the people that have their neighbors, friends, family, churchgoers, colleagues, etc. and they act differently in each sphere, with very little overlap. How can I be a religious man in one setting (the pews in church on Sunday) and then be a business man Monday. Or how can I be someone who feels certain things are morally owed by humanity to its fellow humanity, but then not only act against that belief (of course I do it all the time) but then justify doing so because I happen to be in another realm of my life?

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  6. It’s worth noting that the University (which created and organized this event) did not describe it as a memorial in the invitations and posters. That’s a media spin on the event. It was billed as a “celebration of unity, community, and life”.

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