2/25/2011 2:36:31 PM
This is a global moment unlike any in memory, perhaps in history. Yes, comparisons can be made to the wave of people power that swept Eastern Europe as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989-91. For those with longer memories, perhaps 1968 might come to mind, that abortive moment when, in the United States, France, Germany, Japan, Mexico, Brazil, and elsewhere, including Eastern Europe, masses of people mysteriously inspired by each other took to the streets of global cities to proclaim that change was on the way.
For those searching the history books, perhaps you’ve focused on the year 1848 when, in a time that also mixed economic gloom with novel means of disseminating the news, the winds of freedom seemed briefly to sweep across Europe. And, of course, if enough regimes fall and the turmoil goes deep enough, there’s always 1776, the American Revolution, or 1789, the French one, to consider. Both shook up the world for decades after.
But here’s the truth of it: you have to strain to fit this Middle Eastern moment into any previous paradigm, even as—from Wisconsin to China—it already threatens to break out of the Arab world and spread like a fever across the planet. Never in memory have so many unjust or simply despicable rulers felt quite so nervous—or possibly quite so helpless (despite being armed to the teeth)—in the presence of unarmed humanity. And there has to be joy and hope in that alone.
Even now, without understanding what it is we face, watching staggering numbers of people, many young and dissatisfied, take to the streets in Morocco, Mauritania, Djibouti, Oman, Algeria, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Yemen, and Libya, not to mention Bahrain, Tunisia, and Egypt, would be inspirational. Watching them face security forces using batons, tear gas, rubber bullets, and in all too many cases, real bullets (in Libya, even helicopters and planes) and somehow grow stronger is little short of unbelievable. Seeing Arabs demanding something we were convinced was the birthright and property of the West, of the United States in particular, has to send a shiver down anyone’s spine.
The nature of this potentially world-shaking phenomenon remains unknown and probably, at this point, unknowable. Are freedom and democracy about to break out all over? And if so, what will that turn out to mean? If not, what exactly are we seeing? What light bulb was it that so unexpectedly turned on in millions of Twittered and Facebooked brains—and why now? I doubt those who are protesting, and in some cases dying, know themselves. And that’s good news. That the future remains—always—the land of the unknown should offer us hope, not least because that’s the bane of ruling elites who want to, but never can, take possession of it.
Nonetheless, you would expect that a ruling elite, observing such earth-shaking developments, might rethink its situation, as should the rest of us. After all, if humanity can suddenly rouse itself this way in the face of the armed power of state after state, then what's really possible on this planet of ours?
Seeing such scenes repeatedly, who wouldn’t rethink the basics? Who wouldn’t feel the urge to reimagine our world?
Read the rest of Tom Engelhardt's essay at TomDispatch>>
2/22/2011 5:08:09 PM
Nezar AlSayyad, a Cairo-born professor of architecture, planning and urban history and the chair of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, talks about the history and design of Tahrir Square with Aaron Britt over at Dwell. It’s interesting to get a little historical (and design) perspective on this place that came to symbolize so much in the recent Egyptian uprising and now throughout the world. AlSayyad explains, from a design perspective, why the place proved such a successful point for the protests:
Twenty-three streets lead to different parts of it, which is why it was so successful with the demonstrators. There isn’t one big boulevard that you can block off, and there are two bridges that lead to it as well. One of them saw a clash between the regime and the demonstrators. It’s also the case that all of downtown Cairo, which isn’t that big, has a street that leads to side or another of Tahrir Square.
Image by RamyRaoof, licensed under Creative Commons.
2/21/2011 1:01:31 PM
As demonstrators continue to protest Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed cuts to the state budget, questions arise as to just what exactly the fight is about. Is Walker trying to bust unions or simply balance the budget? Do public workers make more than their private counterparts? Who is and who is not paying their fair share? Sometimes it’s hard to get a grasp with all the conflicting voices, so we turn to some of the trusted sources in our library and elsewhere to point us in the right direction. Here’s what some of those sources are saying about Wisconsin.
Andy Kroll at Mother Jones is on the ground in Madison and is providing updates via his Twitter feed. Kroll also has a primer of sorts on the Mother Jones website, addressing the basic questions of who exactly Scott Walker is, what is being proposed, and how the protests in Wisconsin might spread to other states, such as Ohio, where similar bills are being proposed.
Meanwhile, Robert Pollin and Jeffrey Thompson at The Nation call the Republican governor’s actions a betrayal of public workers, writing, “Let’s remember that the recession was caused by Wall Street hyper-speculation, not the pay scales of elementary school teachers or public hospital nurses.”
Sarah van Gelder writing for Yes! asks if the Wisconsin protests are the first stop on an American uprising, looking to a group out of England called UK Uncut. That group protests tax breaks for corporations, claiming that if those tax breaks were taken off the table cutbacks for other government services would be unnecessary. An American version called US Uncut has formed and is planning events to highlight corporate tax breaks in this country. (The issue of class warfare brought up in van Gelder’s article is one the Utne Reader focuses on in our March-April issue. See the cover stories here and here.) Van Gelder writes:
The tide may now be turning. Inspired by people-power movements around the world, people in the United States are beginning [to] push back. The poor and middle class, those who didn’t cause the collapse but have felt the most pain from the poor economy, are now being asked to sacrifice again.
Ezra Klein may put it most simply, though. In a column for the Washington Post titled simply “Unions Aren’t to Blame for Wisconsin’s Budget,” Klein, in reference to the “economic crisis unions didn’t cause, and a budget reversal that Walker himself helped create,” writes,
That’s how you keep a crisis from going to waste: You take a complicated problem that requires the apparent need for bold action and use it to achieve a longtime ideological objective. In this case, permanently weakening public-employee unions, a group much-loathed by Republicans in general and by the Republican legislators who have to battle them in elections in particular. And note that not all public-employee unions are covered by Walker’s proposal: the more conservative public-safety unions—notably police and firefighters, many of whom endorsed Walker—are exempt.
The fact that those public-safety unions are exempt from the proposals doesn’t mean that they’re sitting idly by, as Mahlon Mitchell, president of the Wisconsin Professional Firefighters Association, told Democracy Now! viewers and listeners this morning. Mitchell called the exemption a “favor” his union didn’t ask for and told Amy Goodman, “An assault on one is an assault on all. As firefighters and police officers, we do not sit idly by. We make things happen.”
Sources: Democracy Now!, Mother Jones, The Nation, Washington Post, Yes!
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2/17/2011 12:22:31 PM
This post originally appeared on Guernica.
A report from the Pew Research Center says that over 50% of the American public doesn’t know about what has happened in Egypt. Or if they do know about the revolution that occurred over there, they don’t really care all that much about it.
We’re looking at this thing from a tired old script.
Some Americans, feel the Egyptian protesters were looking for a U.S.-style democracy. Basically, they wanted American nylons and Hershey bars, and whatever else liberated people want in those old movies. It seems these people were also inspired by George W. Bush and his belief in the one-size-fits-all exportability of democracy.
Of course, the shiny people (they’re the ones who believe that America is a shining inspiration to all, since World War II) forget that there are many strains of democracy, and that it doesn’t always lead to the same kind of corporate one that we have here. They forget that democratic governments emanate from national identities. And these governments operate out of national interest, and nothing else. What’s in the national interest of some country elsewhere may not match what’s in ours.
Meanwhile on the far left, they’re running with the unicorns, predicting that these changes will mean a new, more peaceful world. Or revolution here (I went to a rally for Egypt that was hijacked by Maoists who said that, with our pathetic little posters, we were going to rise up and take over New York City and then the country). Many on the left attack Obama for not having urged revolution, right away. Of course, they forget that the United States serves its corporations first, and that it has long-been entangled in a variety of foreign alliances. We’ve hardly ever (have we ever?) supported a people’s revolution. Yet, Obama is supposed to be a superman. He isn’t. America hasn’t elected a revolutionary into office in some 200 years.
As Americans, we have inherited a stacked deck. We’re in a headlock with our corporate masters and in exchange we’re kept numb by entertainment and assurances that we’re the strongest country on the face of the earth. We serve our corporations and what they want. What these corporations want from Egypt is a territory kept cooperative enough for America to pick clean of its resources.
The Egyptian revolution is inspiring, even more so because it occurred at the edge of U.S. power. We can’t control what’s happened. No one can, not even the lords at GM GE Exxon Mobil—and that’s what a revolution is. It’s, well, revolutionary. what happened in Tahrir Square happened without us, and we weren’t even invited. It was the result of what Steven Berlin Johnson calls emergence: it was leaderless, and all the more powerful because of that.
For over 30 years, we gave Egypt the shaft, because it was in our national interest to do so. Now it’s time for Egypt to find out where its own interests are, without a strongman leading the way. The country has a difficult and terrible road to walk. I hope they’ll have enough of a jaundiced sensibility to look to themselves for guidance, because the United States and its allies will first be interested in keeping the world safe for 9 to 5, not in engendering equality and economic parity. One can only hope their revolution succeeds—and that it spreads.
Image by mshamma, licensed under Creative Commons.
Copyright 2011 Meakin Armstrong
Meakin Armstrong is a freelance writer and fiction editor at
. His nonfiction has been featured in Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, TheAtlantic.com, TheAlanticWire.com, Time Out New York, USAir Magazine, and in the books, New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg and Museyon Guides Film + Travel North America. In 2007, he received a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference scholarship for fiction.
2/17/2011 11:58:57 AM
Here’s the truth of it: You don’t need an $80-billion-plus budget and a morass of 17 intelligence agencies to look at the world and draw a few intelligent conclusions. Nor do you need $80 billion-plus and that same set of agencies to be caught off-guard by developments on our sometimes amazing planet.
Last Thursday, Leon Panetta, director of the CIA, assured a House Intelligence panel that he had “received reports” that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was likely leavin’ town on the next train for Yuma. When that didn’t happen, the Agency clarified the situation. Those “reports” hadn’t, in fact, been secret intelligence updates, but “news accounts.” In other words, billions of bucks later, Panetta was undoubtedly watching Al Jazeera (or the equivalent) just like the rest of us peasants.
After 30 years as Washington’s eyes and ears in Cairo, it turns out that the CIA didn’t have an insider’s clue about Mubarak’s psychology. No wonder our fabulous “community” of intelligence analysts and operatives was napping when history came calling. And maybe it’s fortunate for us that the future can’t be bought, that no matter how much money a declining superpower puts on the barrelhead, it’s as likely to be surprised as any of us; in fact, deeply entrenched in the stalest of Washington thinking, our intelligence agencies may have been even more surprised than most of us by what the future had in store. In our startlingly brain-dead American world, that realization in itself should have felt like a breath of fresh air as one startling Egyptian event after another unfolded.
Here’s the truth of it (part 2): You don’t need to spend a dollar these days to get clued in on the winds of change sweeping the Middle East. Anyone can stream Al Jazeera English on a home computer and be a jump ahead of the CIA any day of the week.
In other words, next time around, President Obama, remember that the U.S. Intelligence Community stands between you and common sense, so just start looking. You can do it all by yourself. It’s free and it’s better than any of those confabs you were eternally huddled in with your national security crew after which you issued confused, cautious, ill-timed, ill-coordinated statements which, until the last hypocritical seconds, left the U.S. on the side of an Egyptian klepto-autocrat.
Of course, your vice president, Joe Biden, pitched in by assuring the PBS News Hour audience that Mubarak was no dictator and so didn’t have to go down. Meanwhile, your ace secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, with her own set of crack advisors and a top-notch intelligence crew, having watched Tunisian ruler Zene Ben Ali go down the tubes, launched Washington’s reactions to Egyptian events by assuring one and all that the Mubarak regime was “stable.” She then reassured the world that Mubarak and his wife were “friends of my family.” Yikes! With friends like that...
As a start, Mr. President, you can save the American taxpayer tons of money by slashing to the bone the ridiculous labyrinth of organizations which pass for “intelligence” in Washington. As a former community organizer, all you have to do is keep an eye out for communities organizing themselves. After all, in these last weeks Egypt may have been transformed into one of the largest organized communities in history. Under the circumstances, it shouldn’t have been quite so hard to figure out what side U.S. “interests” were really on.
Wouldn’t it be great, the next time around, if Washington came down on the right side of history even 30 seconds before history banged it on the head? Whatever now happens in Egypt (and it’s no easy trick putting a mobilized people back to sleep), we’re on a new planet and you’ll adjust better with less “intelligence.”
As for stability? Honestly, is that what you want in one of the repressively creepy zones on the planet? If you’d like a quick explanation that goes to the heart of the matter when it comes to just how people power outwitted and out-organized “stability,” listen to Michael Schwartz, author of War Without End. While you’re at it, keep in mind that old Bill Clinton mantra: it’s the economy, stupid!
Read “Why Mubarak Fell: The (Sometimes) Incredible Power of Nonviolent Protest” by Michael Schwartz on TomDispatch>>
Image by mshamma, licensed under Creative Commons.
2/15/2011 5:06:02 PM
“Conservatives cannot govern well,” wrote Alan Wolfe in a widely circulated 2006 Washington Monthly essay, “for the same reason that vegetarians cannot prepare a world-class boeuf bourguignon: If you believe that what you are called upon to do is wrong, you are not likely to do it very well.”
Now that Republicans control the House of Representatives, thanks in no small part to the rabidly anti-government Tea Party movement, Wolfe has updated his thesis. Conservatives, now that they have a chance, simply won’t govern.
He writes in Democracy Journal:
Every indication we have suggests that in the wake of their midterm success, Republicans will continue on the same path of just saying no. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell all but gave the game away when he announced that “the single most important thing we want to achieve” was not the recovery of the economy or passage of any particular legislation but “for President Obama to be a one-term president.” The United States now has a major political party that has dropped policy entirely in favor of politics. The consequences for the future of American democracy will be serious indeed. …
It is commonly said that polarization has become the country’s most serious political problem. But polarization implies two poles, each of which is organized around ideas. The newfound opposition for the sake of opposition characteristic of the conservative movement suggests a far greater danger to democracy than polarization. That danger is not cynicism; even a cynic cares. What we witness instead is nihilism—and in the most literal sense of the term. Nihilism is a philosophical doctrine holding that because life lacks meaning and purpose, it is foolish to believe too fervently in anything. … Right-wing firebrands in the House promise that come hell or high water, they will not compromise. In any democratic political system, but especially in one with divided powers, no compromise means no governance. We can expect a significant number of House members to stand firm in their denial, no matter what happens to the economy, the environment, or the country.
Over at Media Matters, Eric Boehlert accuses the media in general, and the New York Times in particular, of “giving Republican obstructionism a pass.”
“Republicans,” he writes, “have been practicing an unprecedented brand of obstructionism since Obama’s inauguration, but the press has been treating it as normal. It’s not. It’s radical.”
Source: Washington Monthly, Democracy Journal, Media Matters
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2/14/2011 3:59:52 PM
As reporter Mike Miliard points out in “You are Being Watched,” most recently published by the Sacramento News & Review, those vested in online privacy have been “drawn to a battle between two conflicting notions—and the winner of that battle may determine what kind of Internet we end up with.”
“The voices advocating for increased privacy protections argue that our actions online should remain invisible—unless we give our express consent to be watched and tracked,” Miliard writes. “But some of the most powerful voices on the Web are beginning to suggest that you should be responsible for your online actions: that your anonymity on the Web is dangerous.”
Those in the first camp are most concerned about corporate opportunists and government spies, known collectively as Big Brother. Even if some citizens haven’t yet surrendered their anonymity to Facebook or Twitter, when anyone logs in at work or browses almost anything online their every keyboard stroke and mouse click is being tracked, analyzed, and saved. “Your smart phone—jam packed with apps coded by who knows who and potentially loaded with spyware—is a picket homing beacon, trackable by satellite,” Miliard reports. “There are trucks with cameras on their roofs, trundling past your apartment, duly noting your unsecured Wi-Fi signal.” Walmart is even “putting radio frequency identification tags in your underwear."
There are also, according to a special report Miliard references from the Washington Post, some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies in the U.S. developing programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence.
While Big Brother gets all the ink, though, there’s an equally insidious threat to our privacy that some Internet advocates have come to call Little Brother. “Who is Little Brother?” Miliard asks rhetorically. “He’s all the people you know, sort of know or wish you didn’t know: creepy, barely remembered high-school classmates; Machiavellian co-workers; your angry ex. But mostly you really don’t know who Little Brother is, because Little Brother is anonymous. He or she is part of a sea of nameless faces: the anonymity-emboldened tough guy on a message board, or an auteur posting a sadistic video on YouTube, or an obsessive Twitter stalker, or, sometimes, a malicious suburban mom hiding behind a hoax identity while taunting a teenager to suicide.”
Or, as the Sacramento News & Review points out in the tease for Miliard’s well-reported overview: “Don’t want the government, big industry and some 15-year-old to know your secrets? Guess you’re out of luck.”
Sacramento News & Review
Image by o5com, licensed under Creative Commons.
2/11/2011 9:56:13 AM
This article was originally published at TomDispatch.com
Bradley Manning, a 23-year-old from Crescent, Oklahoma, enlisted in the U.S. military in 2007 to give something back to his country and, he hoped, the world.
For the past seven months, Army Private First Class Manning has been held in solitary confinement in the Marine Corps brig in Quantico, Virginia. Twenty-five thousand other Americans are also in prolonged solitary confinement, but the conditions of Manning’s pre-trial detention have been sufficiently brutal for the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on Torture to announce an investigation.
Pfc. Manning is alleged to have obtained documents, both classified and unclassified, from the Department of Defense and the State Department via the Internet and provided them to WikiLeaks. (That “alleged” is important because the federal informant who fingered Manning, Adrian Lamo, is a felon convincted of computer-hacking crimes. He was also involuntarily committed to a psychiatric institution in the month before he levelled his accusation. All of this makes him a less than reliable witness.) At any rate, the records allegedly downloaded by Manning revealed clear instances of war crimes committed by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, widespread torture committed by the Iraqi authorities with the full knowledge of the U.S. military, previously unknown estimates of the number of Iraqi civilians killed at U.S. military checkpoints, and the massive Iraqi civilian death toll caused by the American invasion.
For bringing to light this critical but long-suppressed information, Pfc. Manning has been treated not as a whistleblower, but as a criminal and a spy. He is charged with violating not only Army regulations but also the Espionage Act of 1917, making him the fifth American to be charged under the act for leaking classified documents to the media. A court-martial will likely be convened in the spring or summer.
Politicians have called for Manning’s head, sometimes literally. And yet a strong legal defense for Pfc. Manning is not difficult to envision. Despite many remaining questions of fact, a legal defense can already be sketched out. What follows is an “opening statement” for the defense. It does not attempt to argue individual points of law in any exhaustive way. Rather, like any opening statement, it is an overview of the vital legal (and political) issues at stake, intended for an audience of ordinary citizens, not Judge Advocate General lawyers.
After all, it is the court of public opinion that ultimately decides what a government can and cannot get away with, legally or otherwise.
Read Chase Madar's “
Opening Statement for the Defense of Bradley Manning
, Soldier and Patriot” at
2/10/2011 1:17:55 PM
The United States has branded itself a “melting pot” since the eighteenth century, but we all know that metaphor has never really fit. Segregation is a perennial issue and, chances are, your city still has a nonverbal understanding of where different ethnic groups live, work, and worship. Through recent mapping and analysis, we are more and more able to discern where those fine lines of segregation lie.
Last September, Utne Reader reported on the infographics created by Eric Fischer that illustrate racial segregation in America. Fischer used data from the 2000 U.S. census to pinpoint the density of racial groups in the 40 largest metropolitan areas, with striking results.
Now, using new 2005–2009 Census Block Group data, Remapping Debate has created an interactive map that allows users to zoom in on segregation in their state, their city, and their neighborhood, even down to their block. Although only African-American, Latino, and white groups are represented, the map is a dramatic statement on modern segregation at a local level.
Image courtesy of Remapping Debate.
2/10/2011 1:03:35 PM
Don’t know how to break the ice with the handsome deficit hawk you met at the country club last week? Or maybe you want to express your true, pent-up feelings for that witty co-worker with a copy of TheWealth of Nations in her cubicle? Fear not, you shy romantic! The Grand Old Party of Unrequited Love wants to make your Valentine’s Day fantasies come true. Even if you’re a strict constitutionalist, there’s nothing illegal about opening up your heart and soul to another conservative. Maybe your love life isn’t exactly Clintonesque, but with the help of the GOP’s 2011 Valentine’s Day e-cards, you’ll soon be whispering sweet nothings to your beloved over red wine and passionately debating the preposterousness of climate change. Go get ‘em, Tiger!
(Thanks, The Atlantic.)
2/8/2011 1:22:55 PM
If you’ve been putting off that surgery because your basic health insurance doesn’t cover it and paying for it yourself is out of the question, as you’d have to sacrifice home and wealth along with your health, well, your answer may come with a vacation to Costa Rica. No, I’m not talking about the restorative qualities of a nice lounge on a white sandy beach, staring out at rolling ocean waves as dolphins arc in the distance and you sip a cocktail out of a coconut, dosing from time to time only to be woken up by the distant call of a toucan…sorry, got a little side tracked there; as I write it’s negative 10 with a windchill of minus 24 where I am. Anyway, while the relaxation offered by a good vacation may indeed serve you well, the cost of medical care abroad may serve you even better. Writing for 5280 Magazine Luc Hatlestad highlights the rise of medical tourism and posits that the practice has become a safe and affordable alternative to health care in the U.S.
Last year, Robin Lara flew more than 3,000 miles to see a dentist—in Costa Rica. Because her own insurance didn’t cover a series of dental implants she wanted, Lara decided to become just one more American to experience the growing trend of medical tourism….
The savings companies like MedVacation [a Denver-based medical tourism company] offer can be significant. Lara flew from her home in Sacramento, California, to Costa Rica for her dental work. MedVacation set it all up, including transportation between the airport, hotel, and dentist’s office. She’d been quoted between $15,000 and $20,000 for surgery in the States—none of it covered by insurance—but estimates she spent one-third to half of that through MedVacation. “The quality of the work is amazing, and the dentist was very friendly, professional, and sincere,” she says. “All anyone has to go on down there is their reputation, and they take that very seriously.”
It’s an interesting addition to the current health care debate—while some wait for certain parts of The Affordable Care Act to kick in and others try to dismantle it piece by piece. What do you think? Would you feel comfortable flying 3,000 miles to see a dentist or a surgeon? Let us know in the comments below.
Source: 5280 Magazine
Image by Nancy Pelosi, licensed under Creative Commons.
2/4/2011 9:40:30 AM
This article was originally published at TomDispatch.com
If you are still passionately following football or, worse, allowing your kid to play, you may just be an old-fashioned imperialist running dog. Not that all football fans are bloodthirsty hounds feeding off the crippled hindquarters of the dying animal of empire. Some are in a vain search for a crucible of manhood that no longer exists. Others are in pursuit of a ticket out of a dead-end life.
Whatever your reason, this is the Super Bowl to watch, even if you are among those who have made an effort to disregard the game since high school jocks shouldered you in the halls.
This is the Big One. Maybe the Last Big One. Never before have so many loose strands of an unraveling empire come together in a single event accessible to those who mourn or cheer America.
Let’s start with the conceit that this game is the only super thing we have left. Super power, super economy, super you-name-it… gone. You can beat the Bushes for that, but we’re all out of super -- except for the Super Bowl. That celebration of an all-American $9 billion industry (estimated because the National Football League has never opened its books), not to mention millions more in subsidiary and dependent businesses, offers us a national holiday that has arguably superseded Thanksgiving (thanks for what?) and Christmas (electronic excess and obsolescence).
Even little Everytrader has a shot here. Without insider connections, you undoubtedly have a far better shot at winning a football wager than gambling in the stock market.
The Big Four
Here are the four biggest reasons to watch this Super Bowl.
1. It’s Not Soccer
American exceptionalism is alive and thriving on Super Bowl Sunday. National Football League franchises are overwhelmingly owned, managed, and manned by American citizens. Neither immigration nor foreign capital has made a perceptible dent in the game. And you and I have proudly subsidized all this. American taxpayers have built many NFL stadiums. Most American universities, with their government grants, have sports schools attached; those multi-million-dollar athletic departments (despite claims, they are rarely profitable) train the players and one of academia’s latest revenue-producing innovations -- sports management departments -- train the front-office personnel.
American football is barely played outside the country. Call it a failure of colonialism (as baseball and basketball might), but it’s really a tribute to good old-fashioned protectionism. Those other major sports, even ice hockey, are increasingly being taken over by Latin American, Asian, or Eastern European guest workers. Pro football remains a native game.
The “futbol” that most of the rest of the world plays is a game that American male athletes and sports fans have never found compelling. Why? What’s not to like? The so-called “beautiful game” is exactly that, and the past several generations of American school-age girls and boys were lucky to have recreational soccer programs. But there was no room on the sports “shelf” for a game so poorly suited to commercial TV interruption and American domination.
(It’s not as if soccer is in any way effete. Its fans are famously thuggish. In fact, currently, the nationalistic Russian mobs who roam cities beating up people who do not look Slavic have taken to calling themselves “Soccer fans.”)
2. No Dogs Were Harmed in the Making of It
The controversy over allowing Michael Vick back into the select company of other NFL felons -- reportedly about one-fifth of the playing population -- faded after the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback showed contrition, spoke to schoolchildren, proved to be one of the most electrifying performers in the game, and then lost early in the play-offs, avoiding the embarrassment of PETA demonstrating at the Super Bowl.
At 30, Vick was clearly better than he had been before his 21-month imprisonment. He had added a previously missing work ethic and level of concentration. One wonders if the sharpening of Vick’s focus had to do with losing what might have been his primary outlet for sadism and violence: the brutal world of training fighting dogs and then killing the losers in often unspeakably cruel ways.
There is no question that violence stirs fan blood. Football players know this; they have been remarkably hostile to attempts to soften the mayhem, especially those ringing helmet-to-helmet shots, an offspring of the modern technique learned in PeeWee leagues of “putting a hat on him” (which means tackling headfirst rather than the more traditional style of wrapping one’s arms around the ball carrier’s legs and dragging him down).
Most pro football players seem to be on the side of the hats. A more careful game won’t be football anymore, they say. It won’t be the American game -- even for some of the doctors watching who treat the “epidemic of concussions blazing through schoolboy football.”
3. But No Chicks
The title of Mariah Burton Nelson’s 1994 book, The Stronger Women Get, The More Men Love Football, seems ever more prescient. The so-called feminization of America (really the slow movement toward equality) is reflected in most sports, many boardrooms, and the military. Resistance is stiff, from human resources violations to rape. Conservatives keen over the suffering of the average male. It’s tough when you suddenly have to compete against an expanding talent pool that includes women who are better than you. Mr. Average Mediocre can no longer count on his members-only credential to keep him in the game. Unless, of course, the game is football.
Football is the last estrogen-free zone. No wonder high school and college teams have such bloated rosters. (College teams routinely “dress” 85 men, compared to a pro team’s 53.) This gives more boys the chance to imagine themselves in the testosterone club, even if many of them hardly ever get into a game. Later, as jock alums, they will donate to alma mater and speak reverently of how old coach taught them to be men -- or at least not women.
Yes, there are girls playing in some youth and high school games, even in college, mostly as kickers. But the freakishness of it is still the story. The NFL is so relentlessly misogynistic that off-field incidents like those involving Brett Favre when he was a Jet and Super Bowl-bound Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger tend to be dismissed as boys-will-be-boys antics. Unfortunately, there’s a certain logic to this: since they began playing the game, they’ve been told they can be real men, not girls, not sissies -- if they submit to Coach, play hard, and play in pain. In return, their perks and entitlements will be those of conquering warriors.
4. The Faux Volunteer Army
If football really is the bread and circuses of this dying empire, the injuries suffered by the gladiators (disproportionately African-American) make the game more real, more urgent. And their willingness to take the risks absolves us from blame. After all, they volunteered. They really want to play this game, the media reminds us. These aggressive, competitive men have an intrinsic need to prove themselves to themselves, each other, and us. And where else, the media asks us, would they make so much money and find so much acclaim?
At Goldman Sachs? The Mayo Clinic? Skadden, Arps? No, no, these sturdy lads are often from the underclass and they have leveraged their skill and dedication into some college studies and a job in football. That many of these gladiators, clearly smart enough to absorb complicated game plans, feel that football is their only shot seems to be an indictment of American opportunity. What about all those high school and college football players who put all their chips in their hat and still didn’t make it to the pros?
Maybe some of them joined the National Guard.
It’s here, of course, that the entire metaphor may go offsides for you. Or at least become uncomfortable. Football -- Army? Gladiators -- mercenaries? What about all the strong young men and, increasingly, women who feel that their only shot at getting an education and a meaningful life is joining the military during wartime?
The author and journalist Richard Reeves made the connection neatly when he wrote: “We have a volunteer army, the National Football League with guns, and we are the spectators.”
As spectators we rarely see the young people die in either volunteer legion. Restrictions during the Bush years on journalists filming combat deaths or even showing returning caskets kept the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at a comfortable remove until they became distant and routine. Old news. Maybe even a little boring for people without loved ones on active duty.
On NFL broadcasts, players with broken bones and torn tissues are quickly carted off lest their teammates lose heart. For those of us watching on TV, the collisions seem almost like cartoon hits. How can those players just pop back up? Is it the pride, the adrenaline, that allows them to pretend they are made of steel? Of course, the real damage, the dementia brought on by head trauma, is years, even decades, away.
It’s hard to believe how recently the concussion discussion began in earnest, as if players hadn’t been hit in the head for more than a century. It was launched several years ago by the revelation that former pro football players were being diagnosed with dementia, and even dying from suspected long-term brain trauma, at disproportionate rates for their age. It was helped along by a number of workers’ compensation cases and the superb reporting of Alan Schwarz of the New York Times.
The concussion discussion has replaced steroids as the NFL health topic, although the issues are joined: larger players seem to be at greater risk for early death, and bulking up via steroids probably contributes to harder hits. The discussion has also raised the question of whether parents should allow their children to play the game -- years of small, unreported traumas to the head can’t be good for developing brains. It even occasioned a rare but telling ESPN column on abolition.
Lest you consider this enough piling on the all-American game, labor troubles loom with a lock-out possible in March. Because the main issue is money -- the teams want to share less revenue (currently 60%) with the players -- the media tends to characterize the conflict as “billionaires versus millionaires.” Actually, most owners are rich from other businesses and would not have been allowed into the NFL unless they were financially secure, while few players survive more than about three years in the league. The owners also want to increase production (adding two games to the regular season) without taking more responsibility for health-care costs.
If any of this sounds depressingly like real life, how could you not watch what might be the last Super Bowl, the endgame of empire, the two-minute warning before America finally beats itself?
Robert Lipsyte, the Jock Culture correspondent for Tomdispatch.com, is author of a forthcoming memoir,
An Accidental Sportswriter
(May, Ecco-HarperCollins). To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest TomCast video interview in which Lipsyte discusses what makes football all-American, click here, or download it to your iPod here.
Copyright 2011 Robert Lipsyte
Image by Vanni Bassetti, licensed under Creative Commons.
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