Why have we come to treat everything as if it were a sporting event? Come to think of it, why do we treat sporting events as we do? I can’t imagine that I’m the only one who wondered this while watching last week’s reaction to the good news that Osama had gotten popped in the noggin (and as a result learned that it was a mistranslation and the “72 virgins” are really “72 white raisins,” which ain’t much to get by on when you’re talking all eternity, even if you eat them slowly).
Good news, yes. A very bad man will not be doing any more very bad things, or things of any other variety, either. Having said we would get him, we actually did (after almost a decade, which puts him not quite at average death-row life expectancy). We did not react to the news well, from Geraldo’s over-the-top announcement of it to the president’s Sunday night appearance to stake out his claim as the hero of the story — a title that some might think more properly belongs to those who actually carried it out — to the appearance of cheering crowds in the streets.
There is a difference between relief and rejoicing, but sometimes I wonder if we recognize fine distinctions anymore. In my estimation, relief, perhaps seasoned with a pinch of satisfaction, was an appropriate response; rejoicing at the death of anyone, no matter how bad and no matter how necessary that death was, not so much.
Nor at this late date can we rightly load the event with all that much significance: we did not hear bin Laden’s followers all around the world say “well, okay then,” and put down their guns and their bombs and their little vials of microorganisms, and go back to their pre-terrorist jobs. We solved a problem, but we did not solve every problem.
(Indeed, we may have created a problem. Wrapping the corpse in a sheet and sending Osama to sleep with the fishes is as good a recipe for cult-and-conspiracy creation as you can find. The claim is that a terrestrial burial would become a shrine. So what? It would be nice to have people we don’t like and who don’t like us all together in one place, doncha think? My preference would be to commission some retired Disney “imagineers” to provide the animatronic machinery so that his stuffed remains could serve as greeter at the museum at the new World Trade Center when it is completed 300 years from now. But my tastes are not everyone’s. Still, administration actions seem almost designed to generate wacky theories. And the president’s comment about not wanting to “spike the ball” carries forward the sports metaphor.)
Yes, everything has come to resemble sporting events.
Think about it: Our most popular television programs are now and have for awhile been contests. Singing contests, dancing contests, cooking competitions — they shape much of the national conversation. People develop favorites and root for them. Who will be voted off the island?
Our politics have in a lot of ways become beauty pageants, with the nation selecting who they would like to have as celebrities for the next period of years. Thus we have so much attention paid to the candidates’ families. A sensible republic might not care whether the candidate’s wife is a hideous harridan, but we do. The most brilliant political thinker in the world has little chance here if he’s ugly or stutters. That’s because we too often think of it as a contest in which a prize is awarded, not the hiring of someone who will have power over our lives.
So I suppose that it’s not entirely surprising that the sporting metaphor has bled — literally — over to the national reaction when a military enemy is dispatched. But our sporting metaphor has gotten extreme even when applied to, well, sports.
We used to shake our heads when in Europe or South America or someplace an unimaginably large number of people got trampled to death in something usually called “soccer rioting.” We can’t, really, anymore. (An aside: Can you imagine any death more devoid of meaning than getting squashed by a rampaging mob of soccer fans?) When a professional sports team wins a championship in some cities in the U.S., there are riots and cars are overturned and fires are set. Pride in local high-school sports is one thing; even college sports, because conceivably some of the athletes share hallways and classrooms with non-athlete students who are also enrolled for “Landscape Appreciation” and “Identification of Primary Colors.” But the NFL, where people are hired to come to town from wherever they really live and, having arrived, play football? (Another aside: How about a professional sports rule that every player must live in the city limits of the municipality whose name appears on their jerseys? Year round.) It has to be some kind of vicarious escape, the notion that the success of the team somehow reflects on us.
This disconnection has grown so great that now we apply that reaction to just about everything, and we look for more. We push important things in our world out of the way and in their place assign undue importance to things far outside our influence. It can’t be good.
This happened once before. Wrote the satirist Juvenal, “the people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions, and all else, now meddle no more and longs eagerly for just two things — bread and circuses.”
The place was Rome. We don’t hear much about the Roman Empire anymore, do we?
Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large to Open for Business. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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