Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Penalty Box

"I went to a fight last night and a hockey game broke out."
(Rodney Dangerfield)

It is easily the most thankless task for an expatriate to have to explain to uncomprehending foreigners the behavior of some of his more exceptional countrymen. Not to come across as disloyal, yet doing his best not to misrepresent or excuse them, it too often becomes necessary for him to be dismissive or to downplay what is clearly objectionable or, in the eyes of a foreigner, intolerable.

I watched President Obama's "Town Hall Meeting," which aired on CNN on January 7 - except I watched in on Friday morning here in the East Asia. It reminded me, as all such cozying up to Americans in their living rooms by sitting presidents does, of FDR's "Fireside Chats," broadcast on American radio in the 1930s. Quite skilfully, Roosevelt tried to explain to Americans some of the extraordinary reforms that were being implemented that were intended to alleviate the hardships of the Great Depression.

Similarly, Barack Obama was attempting to calm some of the fears of Second Amendment proponents, who regard his executive actions on incremental gun control as direct assaults on their Constitutional right. I found the program impossible to watch, since I am extremely skeptical of the president's ability to change anyone's mind that he isn't trying to take away their guns or that he is not in favor of further tyrannical encroachments on their liberties.

I am in the habit of drinking my morning coffee(s) while catching up on whatever news events transpired overnight, and for the past few years I have watched events unfold in the States from what has become an increasingly uncomfortable distance. My Filipino housemates have by now grown inured to my exclamations of outrage at the announcement of sometimes heartbreaking "breaking news." They have routinely heard me, just moments after turning the television on, saying "holy shit!" or "Jesus Christ!" at yet another mass shooting, and have learned to gauge the extremity of the event when they hear the words, usually uttered gravely, "oh my god!"

Now that the shootings have become a terrible routine in America, attempts by my foreign friends to get some sastisfactory explanation for them out of me have waned as they saw how incapable I was of ever being able to do so. Nevertheless, I've tried to frame for them the kind of explanation that is somehow analogous to other comparable outrages.

I remember when, in 1990, I watched Saddam Hussein invade Kuwait and, as armies of a coalition opposing that invasion readied themselves to push him out of Kuwait, he threatened to use the foreigners stranded in Baghdad - mostly diplomats and reporters - as "human shields" when the imminent "Desert Storm" was unleashed. There was a terrible moment when, in front of television cameras, Saddam brought out an American family and tried as gently as he was capable to embrace a boy who was perhaps ten. The boy was obviously terrified of Saddam. When I first saw the video, it was on NBC's Today Show. Fred Rogers, of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood, was on the show and he was asked how he would explain that video to children. He surprised me, and took my breath away, when Rogers said simply, "I would tell the child that we do things differently here."

We do things differently in America. That's how I try to explain to my foreign friends why some Americans cling so tenaciously - and childishly - to a completely outdated amendment to their constitution. But when I'm in a generous mood I try to explain the actions of my countrymen like this -

In 1998-99 when the NBA Player's Association failed to reach an agreement with the team owners, there was a lock-out that drove many fans to despair and some others away from the sport in disgust. With no basketball games to be aired during prime time, the TV networks and cable sports channels looked around for a suitable alternative to basketball. The only other professional league sport that was available during that time of year (October to May) that was relatively familiar to American sports fans was the National Hockey League.

So the networks and sports channels aired professional hockey games for a few weeks, hoping that basketball fans would take to them. Hockey is the national sport in Canada, and there have been teams in American cities like Boston, New York, Detroit, and Pittsburgh for decades. The popularity that hockey has enjoyed in the States, however, never presented the NBA or the NFL with serious competition.

When the initial reactions of fans to the introduction of hockey to prime time telecasts came in, it became clear that professional hockey simply wasn't ready for prime time. So television producers approached NHL owners and coaches and presented them with a suggestion: if they could somehow try to control or eliminate what they called the "Gonzo element" of pro hockey - i.e., the violence - they could attract (at least as long as the NBA lock-out lasted) a much broader audience.

The NHL owners and coaches politely considered the suggestion. Then they politely informed the TV producers that if they did anything to control the violence in hockey, they would drive away their diehard fans, the ones for whom the Gonzo element is what is most distinctive and vital about the sport.

America, I tell my foreign friends, wouldn't be the same country, for the better or the worse, without its Gonzo element.

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