Monday, October 13, 2014

Foul Play

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On the intersection between sports and militarism.

Is there any greater evidence of the violence routinely celebrated in American culture than the popularity of professional sports? The question is not meant to be hyperbolic or rhetorical.

No doubt spectator sports, like any other form of popular entertainment, play a role in pacifying and distracting citizens from more pertinent civic matters. The Romans had their gladiator games--their "bread and circuses." We have our Super Bowls.

But, at the same time, sports also reinforce imperial sentiments of war, competition, sexism and homophobia, aggressiveness, and an "us-versus-them" mentality fostered by team rivalries like that between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees.

While there is nothing wrong with a little healthy competition--indeed, it is an integral part of the game--Red Sox and Yankees fans take this bitter, often vulgar rivalry so far one would think the two sides are not competing baseball teams but feuding mobsters, each sworn to the other's destruction.

It is not a stretch to see the same sort of "Otherness" Yankees fans take on in the eyes of Red Sox supporters replicated in the "War on Terror." Muslims at large have become the new Communist--a terrorist "Other" from a supposedly backward, barbaric part of the world we Americans do not--and make no effort to--understand.

As a result, sports are the perfect method of indoctrinating young people into the militarism of American empire--if not into the U.S. military itself. We often hear African Americans talk of the "school-to-prison pipeline," in comparing the two authoritarian environments. Consider high school and college athletics the "sports-to-military pipeline."

As world-renowned linguist and political dissident, Noam Chomsky observes in the 1992 documentary film, Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, (based on the book of the same name which Chomsky co-wrote with Wharton School Professor Edward Herman) sports serve as a way to instill in young people "irrational attitudes of submission to authority," along with "group cohesion in irrational jingoism."

Certainly, these are traits well suited to the young solider recently deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, or one of the other numerous nations we are currently involved in.

George Orwell was more blunt in his assessment of sports.

"Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play," Orwell wrote. "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."

Nowhere was this link between sports and the military more abundantly clear than at Kennebunk High School's recent "Armed Forces Night," in my hometown of Kennebunk, Maine. The newly-launched "thank-you-for-your-service" ceremony, which started last year, honors current, former and "fallen" local soldiers during the KHS early October football game.

The event is the brainchild of KHS assistant football coach Nick Parent. In a story (10/18/2013) in the local weekly rag, The Kennebunk Post (the free paper is little more than advertisements, press releases, and feel-good puff pieces), Parent mouthed the same tired, empty platitudes to "supporting the troops," who "fought for our freedom," we are routinely bombarded with by politicians, the media, and popular culture.

(Of course, our gratitude is reserved only for those veterans who dutifully read from the Pentagon-sanctioned script and extol the virtues of war upon returning home. Those veterans who speak honestly of the true horrors of war or, even worse, openly question the rationales for the wars entirely--soldiers like Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl or members of Iraq Veterans Against the War--are, apparently, not worthy of our support.)

The crowd at the Armed Forces Night game cheered jubilantly at every mention of the army. Many of them, including the cheerleaders, wore camouflage-colored bracelets that said, "U.S. Armed Forces." Throughout the game, several local veterans were called to the field and singled out for their service.

Yet there was no mention of drone strikes, targeted assassinations, the surveillance state, or the very real and chilling fact that, under the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), anybody in the audience could be randomly swept up by the government, at any time, for any reason, and imprisoned indefinitely with no trial.

I guess those inconvenient facts would have dulled the otherwise celebratory atmosphere of the night. The rousing pop-songs by artists like Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus that intermittently blared through the speakers further reinforced the sentiment that war is one giant party. And you, too, can be invited. Sign up here.

It all begs the question: To what extent do events like this serve as an elaborate recruitment tool for the U.S. military? Furthermore, what sort of message are we sending our children when public schools appear to be pushing the military as a worthwhile and perfectly reasonable career option?

Indeed, the unspoken irony of the night was the fact that schools and universities throughout the nation are seeing budgets, faculty, staff, and resources slashed, while we ramp up our numerous and ever expanding wars against ISIS in Syria and our recent recommitment in Iraq. Over 50 percent of our federal income taxes go to the "Defense" budget.

Then again, sports teams like The Kennebunk Rams will likely be spared. It is the music, theater, and liberal arts classes that are always first to go in times of fiscal crises. Sports? They're sacrosanct.

But war is not a game. It is nothing like Saving Private Ryan or other glitzy Hollywood war movies. Soldiers do not return from war as hypermasculine warrior-heroes.

As former New York Times foreign correspondent, Chris Hedges, points out, most Americans have little concept of the true horrors of war. And given our all-volunteer army, the majority of us spend precious little time even thinking about our state of permanent war. They have become an abstraction that we simply tune out in favor of American Idol or Downton Abbey.

So by all means, root, root for the home team, if you so desire. Just be sure you understand what it is you are really rooting for: "War minus the shooting."

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