Friday, July 18, 2014

Time Out

Yet another world sporting event has concluded (the World Cup of what we in the States call "soccer") in an orgy of flag-waiving nationalism and tears and adulation from millions of fans watching the televised games all over the world. The team from USA made it - to everyone's surprise - to the "knockout" stage for their group of teams and were - to no one's surprise - knocked out.

Brazil, the host country, spent enormous sums of public money constructing the venues for the games, spread all over the world's fifth-largest nation, only to see the home team "massacred" (to use the violent and often belligerent language of sports) by Germany 7-1.

Announcers glibly informed us that, while the games were in progress, everyday life in many countries "ground to a halt." While there is multinational money invested in the teams and players competing for the World Cup, there is a great amount of national pride as well. The wisdom of staking a nation;s self-esteem and international reputation on eleven young men in possession of an extremely dubious talent is just one of the many curiosities of world sports.

Because I am not a sports fan, such events as World Cups and Olympics hold minimal interest. Because of the overwhelming emphasis on winning, I find sports wholly unedifying. But watching the behavior of the people who watch the games is often fascinating.

As Francis Fukuyama instructed us in his eminently hopeful book The End of History and the Last Man, all the "major problems" of world history have been (or were when the book was published in 1992) solved and that we have witnessed "the end of all large disputes" and we now live in "a world where struggle over all of the large issues has largely been settled." However much you may buy into Fukuyama's claims, sporting events have clearly become outlets for people's aggressive energies. It's thanks to stricter security at major sporting events that the behavior of fans, often regardless of what's happening on the playing field, doesn't degenerate into outright brawling. Rivalry between city teams can be extreme in many countries, but in international competitions, national pride and patriotism often gives way to nationalism. Clemenceau once defined the difference: whereas patriotism is simply loving one's country, nationalism is hating everyone else's country.

George Orwell noticed the reliance of sports on nationalism:

"There cannot be much doubt that the whole thing is bound up with the rise of nationalism - that is, with the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige."

But Orwell didn't stop there. (Let's restrict the argument to the sports that attract the most demonstrative fans - world soccer, American football, hockey, and basketball.):

"Even when the spectators don't intervene physically, they try to influence the game by cheering their own side and "rattling" opposing players with boos and insults. Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence; in other words it is war minus the shooting."

What Orwell didn't address is why "war minus the shooting" isn't a pretty good idea, that the aggression that many people - probably a majority - keep bottled up all week has to have some outlet or other and that screaming and stomping fr a few hours in a crowd of screaming and stomping fellows is probably therapeutic. It may not be that this pent-up aggression develops spontaneously or it may be that a feeling of powerlessness in people's lives, the inability to escape from debt, from an unfulfilling job, from the fear of unemployment, from the everyday mutual exploitation that our culture promotes, inspires aggressiveness in them. And because it is a group activity, there is probably a strong desire in individuals to assure others of their social availability - that they are one of them, no better or worse, and that they won;t be left out of the following day's enthusiastic talk around the water cooler.

Expecting justice is these matters is laughable, but I, for one, don't believe in a "natural" or "instinctive" aggressiveness in human beings. Such aggression must have environmental causes. Lord Wellington claimed that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. What he meant was that the British officers in his army were all educated at Eton, or at other old public schools, and that the values instilled in them there helped shape them into capable battle commanders. But what if conflicts in general could be settled on a playing field?

There is talk that Brazil's great loss at the World Cup has left a wound that will be felt by Brazilians for generations. The loss of a soccer game might even inspire a radical political response. It may sound ridiculous, and certainly some conflicts can never be resolved without bloodshed, but at least it wasn't an actual battle in which Brazil was "humiliated."

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