Overweening Generalist

Thursday, June 19, 2014

On Sports Fandom

Being a True Murrkin I'm only pretending to care about the World Cup. The US could win the World Cup this year, and then again four years from now, and still, "football" would probably only attain the status in Unistat of "slightly less popular than the NHL." It's the fucked-up way we Murrrkins roll, rest of the world. Sorry about that. No offense. Don't get me wrong: anyone can see your "football" is beautiful; we're not talkin' aesthetics here, man. We're talkin' sports! Slapshots, slam dunks, 3-run homers, going for it on 4th and 4, after the Two Minute Warning. Sports is a drug, and we're mainlining it, baby. Have been since The Shot Heard 'Round The World. (<----To anyone who wonders about the psyche of Unistat: you can learn a lot from studying this 2-minute clip!)

Currently, my fave comment on YouTube about the above clip is this:

Henry Marriott
3 months ago
  The 'shot heard round the world', more like the shot heard around America and no where else because every other country hates baseball because its an awful sport! Lol Americans living in their dream world again

Let this be a warning to any readers not in Unistat. I chose/was brainwashed to follow Los Angeles area pro sports teams (Dodgers/Angels/Lakers/Kings) at an early age. I see sports fandom as a sort of disease. And yet I still "follow" my teams. Maybe I should have written it as "dis-ease."

I've been wanting to vent - or "come out of the closet" - about the enormous time I've wasted investing my emotional energies in sports fandom. But I haven't been able to. Until now. Gawd, this is difficult.

I remember the day, long ago, when I was reading a Noam Chomsky book. It was a transcription of an interview. Chomsky was discussing political ideological systems in the former (?) Soviet Union and Unistat. There are "experts" who advise the public what to think about matters too "difficult" for them to understand. At times, Chomsky has called Unistat's political experts "mandarins," the "guild structure," and "the commissar class." (Think of the NeoCons, David Brooks, Thomas Friedman, Maureen Dowd, Michael Grunwald, Jeffrey Toobin, Andrew Ross Sorkin, David Gregory, Michael Kinsley, and far too many to count, much less stomach.)

Chomsky had been trying to explain his idea of "Cartesian common sense," in the framework of citizens utilizing their intellectual endowments to truly work with others and understand the world, which is difficult in a world set up like ours is, presently. Here are the passages:

James Peck: How can common sense emerge, in this context?

Noam Chomsky: Well, let me give an example. When I'm driving, I sometimes turn on the radio and I find that very often what I'm listening to is a discussion of sports. There are telephone conversations. People call in and have long and intricate discussions, and it's plain that quite a high degree of thought and analysis is going into that. People know a tremendous amount. They know all sorts of complicated details and enter into far-reaching discussions about whether the coach made the right decision yesterday and so on. These are ordinary people, not professionals, who are applying their intelligence and analytic skills in these areas and accumulating quite a lot of knowledge and, for all I know, understanding. On the other hand, when I hear people talk about, say, international affairs or domestic problems, it's on a level of superficiality which is beyond belief.

[Chomsky then says that citizens do this because they feel they can't do anything about the problems in the world or their own country, so they invest their intellects in a "fantasy world," where nothing really matters. Skipping ahead a bit...]

James Peck: Do you think people are inhibited by expertise?

Noam Chomsky: There are also experts at football, but these people don't defer to them. The people who call in talk with complete confidence. They don't care if they disagree with the coach or whoever the local expert is. They have their own opinion and they conduct intelligent discussions. I think it's an interesting phenomenon. Now I don't think that international or domestic affairs are much more complicated. And what passes for serious intellectual discourse on these matters does not reflect on any deeper level of understanding or knowledge. 

One finds something similar in the case of so-called primitive cultures. What you find very often is that certain intellectual systems have been constructed of considerable intricacy, with specialized experts who know all about it and other people who don't quite understand and so on. For example, kinship systems are elaborated to enormous complexity. Many anthropologists have tried to show that this has some kind of functional utility in the society. But one function may be just intellectual. It's a kind of mathematics. These are areas where you can use your intelligence to create complex and intricate systems and elaborate their properties pretty much the way we do mathematics. They don't have mathematics and technology; they have other systems of cultural richness and complexity. I don't want to overdraw the analogy, but something similar may be happening here.

The gas station attendant who wants to use his mind isn't going to waste his time on international affairs, because that's useless; he can't do anything about it anyhow, and he might learn unpleasant things and even get into trouble. So he might as well do it where it's fun, and not threatening - professional football or basketball or something like that. But the skills are being used and the understanding is there and the intelligence is there. One of the functions of things like professional sports play in our society and others is to offer an area to deflect people's attention from things that matter, so that the people in power can do what matters without public interference.
-pp. 33-36, The Chomsky Reader, ed. by James Peck. There's an elaboration by Noam on this subject in Understanding Power, pp.98-101, if'n yer at all innarested.

So, here I was reading Chomsky and nodding my head, yes. I liked the idea that my seemingly clueless fellow-citizens had the capacity to understand politics, but chose not to. I took this and abstracted to the implication that some could possibly change their minds and start paying attention to what really mattered. I liked Noam's riffs about the intellectual system of kinship in non-Western societies. I of course love all of Chomsky's attacks on "experts." Chomsky all too often smears "the social sciences" as being filled with these "guild structures," which unfairly tars some anthropologists and sociologists - even a few renegade economists I like, and who are clearly not part of a "guild structure" (David Graeber/Peter Berger/Ha-Joon Chang, anyone?) - but that's Noam being Noam. He does think that just about anyone can arrive at a nuanced and informed stance about the world and domestic problems, if they practice what he calls "common sense." I desperately want to believe him. I grapple with this one, friends.

And yet, at the same time, I am following my teams, and entering into that "fantasy world" of meaningless relationships with "my" players vs. The Other Guys. It's something I think I should have dropped completely around the age of 18. However, far from it. I think I read that passage from Chomsky when I was 29 or 30. Things haven't gotten better for me, and I've learned a lot about why, which I'll get to, I promise.

Now, I had familiarized myself with Marx's ideas about "false consciousness." I had been struck by T.S. Eliot's observation about the increased interest in sports in Unistat in the middle of the 20th century: "decadent athleticism," a perfect example of Kenneth Burke's notion of effective poetic rhetoric of "perspective by incongruity." I had noted how, in the deep history of the Great Books program in Unistat, a 30 year old President of the U. of Chicago, Robert Hutchins, got rid of football at the school. Imagine being that serious about your students reading Plato, Kant and Tolstoy!

I noted how often sports metaphors were used by political "experts" and even by some of my countercultural favorites. Dr. Timothy Leary was quite mindful of the game-like aspects of social "reality" and so larded his talks and writing with sports metaphors. Leary was a good friend of Johnny Roseboro, a catcher for the Dodgers in the 1960s. I tend to think Dr. Leary also thought he could "score points" (<----you can't escape this shit in Unistat!) with the non-counterculture by using sports metaphors. I don't think it worked for Dr. Leary. When Tim talked about the role of alcohol in the territorial 2nd circuit of his 8-Circuit Brain Model, I found it wonderfully applicable to sports.

                                 I don't know who this guy is, but he's making my point.
                                 And he manages to add to my embarrassment. So who 
                                 forced me to put him here? I blame myself...

Academic Philosophers and Sports
Within the past six months, a philosopher named David Papineau made the argument that becoming a fan of a team is not like shopping for a washing machine. He wonders how fandom could be fully rational. On the other hand, he sees children as needing nurture, but favors his own kids over other children; there's no "objective" basis for doing so, but accepts that this is the way we are. All children deserve love and care, but he will concentrate on his own. Similarly, praying for your team to win just seems absurd, as if the deity would favor your team over the other. Not much rationality there.

Papineau says that humans are unique animals in that they consciously choose to tackle long-term projects, which entail ultimate goals. Such as Winning It All. Going All The Way. So, at some point, you choose a team (or inherit them from your family or friends) and the team becomes part of your Project. You become committed to your team winning, reaching its ultimate goal. Like life, there will be setbacks, and much of your fandom is a social thing. When I read Papineau's idea of "projects" - which is apparently a hotter topic in academic philosophy than I'd realized - I thought the idea of the project of being a fan of a winning team was like the project of obtaining a mortgage, getting a degree, making more money, getting better and better at the job, being a better friend, getting to be awesome at sex, learning a musical instrument or another language. (Dear Dr. Papineau or his colleagues: if I'm wrong here...?)

Another philosopher, Alva Noe, responded by alerting his NPR readers to Papineau's blogpost on fandom. Noe had warned Papineau that, when he moved to New York, he should root for the Mets in baseball, and not the Yankees, who represent everything rotten about Unistatian culture. (And I agree, but...later. Maybe.) At one point Noe says we'd like to be "admiring sporting achievement for its own intrinsic qualities," which I also agree with and it's why I now tell all my friends and family and new acquaintances that this is why my sports fandom is "ironic." That's the actual term I use. I suspect I'm trying to get myself to believe it. But most of the time, I am ready to applaud the other team, if the play is spectacular. When Lebron James has played "my" Lakers, I'm in awe of his abilities. It's aesthetically pleasing to see someone that good. I never thought I'd live to see a basketball player as good as Lebron James. But I said "most of the time." I've come to agree with Eric Simons, who in his stellar book The Secret Lives of Sports Fans: The Science of Sports Obsession, that "to be a sports fan, first of all, is to  seriously undermine your free will." (p.21, and Simon's book is far superior to the overly-analytical and not exactly down-to-earth thinking about sports and fandom that I've seen from every philosopher I've ever read on the subject. What makes Simon's book so great is his New New Journalist's generalist's approach to the topic, and just check out the index for "dopamine" or "oxytocin" or "testosterone" and "mirror neurons" and neurobiologists and primatologists, etc: this is the book on what it means to be a fan, and what makes Simon so cool is that he addresses his own sports fandom, does experiments on himself and his friends, and has a healthy sense of humor. See Carlin Wing's considerable review of Eric Simon's book HERE.)

Back to the philosophers: Noe engages with Papineau and then proffers this: "We need to give up the hyper-rationalistic demand that we justify ourselves and our commitments." For some reason, Noe doesn't cite William James or John Dewey or especially Richard Rorty, who would have said the same thing, but much earlier. (Has Noe ever "come out" as a neo-pragmatist? Inquiring minds wanna know.)

Just to drop another example of how I see the philosophers as three-quarters baked on fandom:  Recently, academic philosopher Simon Critchley wrote on soccer (what the rest of the world calls "football"), "Working Class Ballet." Critchley enjoys it, dammit. And here's a bit on how he couches his argument:

"Football is all about the experience of failure and righteous injustice. It is about hoping to win and learning to accept defeat. But most importantly, it is some experience of the fragility of belonging: the enigma of place, memory and history." Yea, yea, yea Critchley, can you move your head a bit? I think I missed the ref's call there. Was it in or out? Let's see the replay and confirm our suspicion that this ref has had it in for us from day one!

Seriously, Critchley's take is nice and all, but, like Eric Simon might say, pretty soft-core. The line from Noe about being hyper-rationalistic holds for me here. I'm most concerned with the non-sanity of fandom. 'Cuz I've been there.

Woody Allen
A longtime fan of the NBA New York Knicks, in the book Woody Allen on Woody Allen he says investing in your team - giving meaning to it all - is a microcosm of what we do with life. So here Woody seems a lot like David Papineau. But remember, this Woody Allen character thinks the most meaningful thing in life is to constantly work (!), and his favorite book is Ernest Becker's 1973  The Denial of Death.

                    My favorite baseball player for the next 10 years, at least: Mike Trout

Sports Fandom Insanity: The Most Compelling Game, For My Money
There was a time when Frederick Exley's "fictional memoir" A Fan's Notes was the most literary account of the drug-addict-like sickness of being a sports fan. It was like The Lost Weekend with lots of sports added in. I read it with relish and wondered why there wasn't more of this stuff around. Since then, I'd like to point to the film Big Fan as a perfect depiction of the sheer un-sanity of some sports fans. This film should be seen and discussed much more in our effed-up political state (Unistat). If you're like me and wonder about why you can't...be more like Chomsky regarding sports, see this film. And be glad you're not that bad.

As of today's date, to my eyes, surpassing Exley and everyone else for nailing the craziness and complexity of the literate sports fan's..."illness"?, see the piece "Red Sox Antichrist" from Steve Almond's book Not That You Asked. Key passages: 106; 109-110; 122-123 (Red Sox fans and their alcoholic martyrdom); 123-124 (fandom and politics; it speaks to the Chomsky passages above); 125 (Red Sox fans); 133-134; 137-138, esp. bottom of 137 ("sports hangover"); 138 (sports and politics); 140-142.

Brief Note on Donald Sterling and Pro Team Sports in Unistat and Canada
Sterling simply got popped. Of yea, he was particularly egregious as far as rapacious billionaires who own sports teams go. I know people who told me about Sterling's racism 20 years ago. Team owners are some of the very worst people in the set of {humanity}. He just crossed the line too publicly, so there had to be a big show by the NBA that they won't cotton to this sort of attitude or injustice. Forcing Sterling to sell is a dramatic show, and I'm glad it looks like they'll be able to pull of off. (But my libertarian streak wonders about possible slippery-slopes here.) But it is a show. Don't get me wrong: from my knowledge Sterling is an atrocity. But the true step toward sanity would be for every team to be owned by the fans, like the Green Bay Packers are in the NFL. That would be a meaningful step. Do I think it'll happen soon? Nooooooo. Things are going to get worse, or as some of my sports fan-friends put it, "worsier."And for those of you who see Kobe Bryant's new salary/contract plastered all over the news and ask, "Where is the sanity?" Just look at Wall Street. No matter what some player signs for, no matter how "heartless" he may seem to the fans he's leaving as a free agent, for some other City's fans, he's getting what he's worth. He's an entertainer; he's not ruining lives. And for this idea about value I am indebted to Publilius Syrus, a 1st BCE Roman who said that a "A thing is worth whatever the buyer will pay for it."

Chomsky Didn't Dare Phrase It Like Prof. Carlin!
"And remember, the polls show the American people want capital punishment, and they want Social Security. And I think even in a fake democracy people ought to get what they want once in a while. If for no other reason than to feed the illusion that they're really in charge. Let's use capital punishment the same way we use use sports and shopping in this country: to take people's minds off how badly they're bein' fucked by the upper one percent." - written pre-9/11 by George Carlin, in a Swiftian diatribe against capital punishment, found in Napalm and Silly Putty, p.216

Apologia, or Just Apologies
This post was overly long, and for that I apologize yet again. I do feel a bit better, but I have a long way to go. With the dumb-world of sports fandom - aside from what Chomsky says - I'm surprised I still have the brain power to write a coherent sentence. I have only said about 3% of what I have to say about sports, which I think can be a beautiful and even noble thing. My problem is how often it misses the beauty and noble mark, and by how far. As the announcer said while watching a Mickey Mantle home run disappear into the distance: "a country mile!"


Eric Wagner said...

Terrific piece, thought provoking as always. I love sports, and I went through a period of fanaticism back in the eighties. I lived for Showtime. I named my poetry/basketball zine noon blue apples because of the acronym. In the nineties I lost interest in sports to a large extent. Then on Thanksgiving 2008 at my brother-in-law's I started watching a football game, and I realized, "I really like this." I got back into football, but I realized I often enjoyed watching people talk about football more than the games itself. I loved Inside the NFL (especially when they had Warren Sapp) and Hard Knocks.

Now, I've loved the Washington Redskins since childhood, and I find the current semantic debate interesting. I no longer wear my RG III t-shirt since someone called it racist last year.

Someone once asked P. G. Wodehouse his favorite of his books. He replied _Mike_ since it did such a good job of recreating the world of a cricket match. My parents used to live in London, and one Christmas I asked for some books on cricket. I studied these and attended part of match when I next visited them. I considered it a triumph that I could follow the match at least a bit.

michael said...


It'll be interesting to see how the "Washington NFL Team" (as some pundits now say it) issue plays out; it would SEEM to have implications for the Cleveland and Atlanta MLB teams, and possibly the Chicago NHL Team.

I never understood why the LA hockey and Sacramento team owners chose The Kings; I thought this was an idea that most Americans disliked. Same with the Kansas City Royals. But then: I'm treating a fantasy realm of Unistat kulch as if it were a "rational" thing.

I never "got" cricket, but I doubt I gave it more than 20 minutes. I doff my Angels cap to you for reading books on it and understanding it.

Tom Jackson and I have exchanged messages about how we've lost interest in American football, esp the NFL. I didn't have space/time to address it in the mega-prolix post above, and if I tried to articulate why I quit the NFL around 1990, I would write too much. I pay a modicum of attn. to the NFL, but don't watch games, unless it's a Super Bowl party.

Every year before baseball or the NBA season starts, I read two or three books on each of those sports. I read a baseball book recently that really knocked my socks off, and I will blog about it soon.

Anonymous said...

That's the worst fucking picture of
US I've ever seen. :^ )

Chomsky is on to something, I noticed
early that kids who were not exactly
giants of intellect were able to
memorize endless reams of statistics
about sports players. Presented with
homework that was nowhere as complex
they retreated into a funk because
it was "hard".

I could see the value of sports
of individual excellence, competing
against yourself but until Boot
camp I never understood what a
"team" was all about. Then I
discovered that being part of a
group effort for a common goal
had an effect on the psyche. It
also extends to the fans as they
are pulled into the group gestalt
generated around the activity.

As a soccer fan (where else can
you see a sustained effort by
such superb athletes), most sports
are about moments. Soccer is all
about cooperation over the long
haul with very few breaks.

A few years ago it was Deutscheland Uber Alles in the
World Cup until Brazil kicked their
butt with a better team and better
play. Of course soccer fandom has
nuts in it that make the others
look wimpy by comparison.
Starting a war by bombing the
winner of a matches capital city
is one of the nuttier episodes.
I even have one of the banned
Vulvazelas (human powered truck
airhorn) but have been forbidden to use it in the house.

I have a nephew on a NASCAR pit
crew so have followed it without
becoming a maniacal fanboy.

Probing such things for rationality
seems counterproductive since they
have a lot more to do with pack
behaviors than cerebral choices.
If I recall correctly Goebbels
said the Nuremburg rallies were
modelled on American Baseball

To me the high point of American
football was in a game where the quarterback started to find a
pass reciever and noticed Otis
Sistrunk was watching him but
there were no players between them
he threw the ball away, it wasn't
even close to anyone when it hit
the ground. Right out of Sun Tzu.
To defeat your enemy without doing
anything is the best way to win.

Currently, I wonder why no one
has called "ethnic cleansing" on
the Eastern Ukrainians yet ?
Referring to the Rus as sub human
and then changing it to inhuman,
while using white phosphorous and
artillery on civilians seems like
it should call for a few public

ISIS seems to have shiny new guns
(I think the Saudis are supplying
the funds and weapons). No one
seems to want to mention Saudi,
like if we pretend it's not there
then it won't be a problem. As a
connected dot, the loudmouthed
Sadr of Iraq is a family member
of the Sadr of the Iranian hostage
crisis of the goode olde dayes of
Reagan/North/Bush etc.

The Terror of the French Revolution fed a lot of media
agitators to the chopper, If it
occurs again I wouldn't give a
wooden nickel for the chances of
your favorite talking heads to
not make it to the front of the
line (I'm channeling MMe laFarge).

They are worth disputing but also
not worth too much time away from
pursuits that leave less of a bad
taste in the mouth.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

It seems to be that in terms of irrational behavior, Cleveland sports fans are in a category by themselves. A fan of the Los Angeles sports teams, such as the Dodgers and the Lakers, has one important thing going for him: The teams sometimes win. I can remember championships for the Dodgers and Lakers within living memory. The Cleveland teams have not won a championship since 1964 or so.

I pay attention to soccer during the World Cup, just as I pay attention to ice hockey only during the Winter Olympics.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Sorry, that was supposed to say, "It seems to me."

michael said...


I was surprised how much I enjoyed watching the US-Portugal game, and found I wanted the US to win (why?), then Reinaldo made the most impossibly perfect pass from way out on the right wing to a guy who headed it in with a few seconds left to make it a tie, 2-2. I found the Portuguese play to tie it absolutely thrilling. I understand Reinaldo is something like an international Michael Jordan-like star. With that pass, I can see why.

All your ideas/comments are, as always, interesting. But your segue to Sun-Tzu, Ukraine, ISIS, and The Terror was perfect: I wanted to mention the psycholinguists/cognitive scientists Jerome Feldman and George Lakoff, who both note that war metaphors are virtually interchangeable with sports metaphors. Feldman discusses spreading activation of neural circuits and cognitive mapping - metaphors - and a wonderfully complex hierarchy of these mappings:

"Each conventional metaphor, that is, each mapping instance, is a fixed pattern of correspondences across conceptual domains. As such, each mapping defines an open-ended class of potential correspondences across inference patterns. When activated, a mapping may apply to a novel source domain knowledge structure and characterize a corresponding target domain knowledge structure. For example, if you hear someone talk about a 'career detour,' you might consider your own career somewhat differently.

"Once a domain of knowledge becomes well known, it can itself serve as a source-domain (basis) for understanding more novel concepts. We sometimes get metaphors mapping both ways, for example between war and sports. These create no difficulty - the appropriate concepts in each domain are activated and inferences are drawn from the combined activation."
-Feldman, _From Molecule To Metaphor_, p.209

In Lakoff's _The Political Mind_, pp.79-80 he has some wonderfully disturbing takes on the deep structures of metaphors that have to do with competition, winning, masculinity, and conservative "every man for himself!" thought, but at the risk of seeming too outre (or just a damned pedant), I will resist going into it.

For now.

michael said...

@ Tom-

IIRC, Jim Brown led to the NFL CLE browns to the title in 1964, so I think you're right. Quite a drought for the great City. The Indians get a find team going every few years but can't seal the deal. I thought their Manny Ramirez teams might do it, but naw.

Lebron somehow took a sorta-good Cavs team to the Finals. That was incredible.

At least you probably have the best Symphony in Unistat.

I inherited the Dodgers, one of the most storied teams in baseball. And in my living memory, they lost to the A's in '74, then beat TMY (shorthand for many baseball fans: "The Muthafuckin' Yankees") in 1981. The '88 team won it all under Orel Hershiser, Kirk Gibson, Steve Sax, etc. Since then: nada. I needn't go into my Lakers wins. As a kid I also followed the Angels, who were always terrible, and, if you read Eric Simon's personal narrative at the very beginning of his book - about UC Berkeley blowing the possible chance for #1 on a bonehead play, how time seemed to stop and he was in a flop-seating altered state for a while after? My moment was when the Angels were one out from going to the WS when Donnie Moore served up a HR to Dave Henderson of the Red Sox in '86. Then, when the Angels won it all in 2002, I found it difficult for a long time to wrap my head around the Angels - The Angels? - being the WS champs. Same with the Kings three years ago. They were always terrible...except in '93, when they had Gretzky and they won Game 1 against Montreal, only to lose 4 straight. Kings won again this year!

I find in my older age I want the Indians to win. Cubs too. I used to feel that way about the Red Sox, but that ship has sailed, bigtime.

Lakers are terrible now. Last year was pug-fugly. But they'll be back.

Mostly, I just want great play. I thought the Spurs were stellar in their title this year: total TEAM play.

Does anyone reading this actually believe Unistat will ever go big for soccer AKA "football"?

michael said...

Sorry that should've been CLE Browns, and "flop sweat"...I type at times in stream-of-consciousness and it can become a mess if I don't have the patience to proof.

Anonymous said...

The switch to soccer will happen,
like science it only takes a good
idea 40 years to penetrate the
average skull.

Pro football was just an oddball
anomaly until TV exposed it to
the sofa tuber set.

All soccer needs is a little more

Water Polo however will require
a lot more tech so the spectators
can see what' going on. Plays just
like Rugby with drowning.. : ^ )

Great post any extra pedantry is
just cake icings.

Sue Howard said...

Started reading this excellent-looking post. Got onto the Chomsky quote about "ordinary people" and their "level of superficiality" (etc), and had the thought that on this subject (sports and ordinary people) Chomsky displays no more depth (and probably just as much superficiality, disproportionate to windbag wordcount) than an "ordinary" intelligent disgruntled teenager. Chomsky might have erudition coming out of his ears, but it doesn't always translate to "depth" of insight... or that's what I was going to say, in opinionated fashion, before Luis Suarez's behavioural outlier distracted my attention from reading any further. So now I'm serving the Agenda of Power, having fun watching football, fully distracted and ordinary, but it does seem a beautiful game to watch.

Sue Howard said...

Okay, there's a few hours until the Holland vs Mexico game, so I can expand on my previous comment a bit, so I don't come off sounding too flippant.

Prof Chomsky posits a sort of reservoir of brain power that's accessible to "ordinary people". And they'd naturally use it to engage in Chomsky-style thought and activism - if it weren't for the Power Elites getting them hooked on sports, instead?

Actually, that's unfair to Noam, because in places (as in the above quotes) he says it's ordinary folks' choice to focus on things that don't matter (like sports and fantasy). And he gives some rational-sounding reasons why they'd make this choice.

But then elsewhere (eg in the documentary, Manufacturing Consent), he frames it in very conspiratorial terms. He talks of sports as "training in irrational jingoism", and that (from the Elite perspective on ordinary people) "it's important to reduce their capacity to think", etc.

The examples he gives of people being well-informed, intelligent, analytical, etc, on sport, presumably involve a different mode of mental activity than the emotional jingoism training, the tribalism, etc? I don't think you can just lump it all together as potentially "intelligent" "ordinary people" who are directed towards sport (and away from politics).

And, from my British perspective, these two modes of thinking both translate into politics - in different forms. So it doesn't appear (to me) anything like Noam describes it. The people who talk and write analytically about sport also talk and write analytically about politics, media, etc, whenever they feel inclined (look at the hundreds of blogs for evidence of this). The people who grunt about the other side being "scum" (in sport) also tend to grunt about welfare recipients (or whoever) being "scum" (look at the thousands of social media posts for evidence - or talk to people in the pub) - at least according to these respective modes of thinking, if not consistently for a given person?

And y'know, the conspiracy thing? Any evidence on that, Professor? Cos, to me, it sounds like 'They Live'.

(I've written this in fast, ranty, tribal fashion. The football is affecting my brain. Those damned elites).

Anonymous said...

Nice Sue. There's a thread through
the literature of elitism which has
been around for thousands of years.

Those who do craftworks are scum
and those who rule and their horde
of sycophants are magically better.

The fact that this is a trap for
both layers of society isn't very
obvious. So Chomsky is caught by
the same trap he rails against.

Ordinary folk assume that since
there are few elitist eggheads in
the stands that it is a safe place
to be intelligent without suffering
ridicule. They have been trained
by the school system into avoiding
any appearance of original thought.

Please notice that I am not trying
to validate society practices or
justify them. Attributing Malice
to Stupidity is the surest path
to conspiracy. I will note in
passing that most of what passes
for analytical blogging needs a
few more logic classes and more
thought. However as a gloss on
the passing scene it does fulfill
it's purposes.

OG does a much better job than
most because he lacks pedantic
certanties, which is a good thing.

michael said...

@Sue Howard:

Thanks for elaborating, but the first comment was juicy and I was meaning to get to it. I think Chomsky likes to watch sports too, but not in any way that could be called fandom. I LOVE the problem of some of what Chomsky saying about sports and elites and fandom sounding like a conspiracy from The Top. Indeed, at times he does sound conspiratorial. And his style of thought prevents him from explaining it all as a complex kludge. (Which is my main model right now: there are PR people who'd rather the Great Unwashed stay diverted, but they only have so much power. And then there's you and me and many people we know who do follow sports and are "fans" but are also non-elite yet erudite types. And your point about "bad" sports fans also being not the best citizens is well-taken.

I don't think Noam sees sports as a conspiracy; I do see his ideas about "ordinary" folk using their intelligence as well-meaning and in keeping with his ideas about "Cartesian common sense."

It also seems Noam has fallen for a classic Left-intellectual's game: we'd have more of The People on our side - unionizing, getting involved, etc - if there weren't so many siren songs and bread and circuses to divert the true consciousness; I want more people with me. Or at least paying attention to my books?

In this, I sympathize a little, but 15 minutes later will mutter a nasty thing about the manager making a dumb move at a crucial point in the game.

michael said...


One of Chomsky's influences, John Dewey, in 1920's _Reconstruction In Philosophy_, turned upside-down the Platonic idea that craftsmen don't really know anything of value vs. armchair readers of the classics as the true Knowers. It made a hell of a lot of sense then and still does. The issue seems more of Who speaks in which register.

Ideas about intellectuals who are sports fans and/or write about sports is very interesting to me. Despite all the "culture studies" stuff that opened up in the 1980s, I think it's still declasse. And yet there is a decent body of very erudite, thoughtful, and poetic writing about sports. And presumably there are readers equal to the writing.

In my lifetime I've seen extensive statistical analysis change baseball. I've seen the NFL overtake baseball in mass popularity. I've seen the NBA wax and wane. I've noted five or seven waves of writing and talk that soccer was due to take over American sports fans' consciousness because, after all, we're not all that different from the rest of the world. I played on soccer teams for five years as a kid. I have been unable to figure out why Unistat hasn't yet taken to soccer. But I agree with the erudite Unistatian Keith Olbermann: it won't gain all that much in popularity. Again, I don't know why. I feel fairly certain about this: once the US is eliminated in this World Cup, the "miracle" ratings that HuffPo and other outlets are reporting will go away. Personally, if I had my way, the NFL would sink into oblivion and "real" football would take its place in Unistat. But I ain't a' holdin' muh breath none.

Olbermann's take:

By the way: erudite crime writer/researcher Dan Moldea published a book in 1995 called _Interference: How Organized Crime Influences Professional Football_ (we're talking NFL here, not "world" football), and the book was headed up the NYT bestseller charts when Moldea was lambasted in reviews as a conspiracy theorist and the book disappeared; book sellers had to ship boxes of the book back to the publishers. It's somewhat difficult to find the book now. Moldea is well-known as an excellent researcher. Olbermann read Interference as soon as it came out and said it was one of the best things he'd ever read on sports.

So there's all that stuff, too.

Disgraced ex-NBA ref Tim Donaghy wrote a book about ref shenanigans, but the sports press and the NBA has seemed to pretend it doesn't exist.

Getting back to intellectuals writing about sports: George Plimpton of the Paris Review once put forth the Small Ball/Big Literature theory of sports writing: the smaller the ball, the better the literature about the sport. And I think he was trying to say that baseball writing was superior to all others. But what about golf and ping-pong? Tiny balls, both. But I haven't read much that was great about either sport. I confess I loathe golf, but a library patron once talked me into reading _A Good Walk Spoiled_, about golf, and it was okay. I still hate golf. Is there any great ping-pong lit?

A tennis ball is slightly smaller than a baseball, and I don't follow tennis, but I'm aware of it. And I must say: David Foster Wallace's writing about tennis - esp in an essay in (IIRC) _A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again_, was completely awesome writing about a sport I've actually played for a total of about 25 minutes.

American poets seem drawn to baseball, and I think it's for roughly the same reasons I'm drawn to it.

Thorfinn Axelson said...

You can make a ball from a sheep's bladder and play soccer. You can make a religious prophecy from inspecting a sheep's liver by playing haruspex. You can clone another sheep from this one alone if you lose the first ball in the ocean or if the first prophecy doesn't work out for you.
Proxy for warfare:

michael said...

@Thorfinn Axelson-

Yes. In stream-of-typing consciousness I got sidetracked from going into why I see sports fandom as a kludge (sp?); you seem to make the point succinctly: the sport is what an individual makes of it; there is no monolithic meaning behind being a follower/fanatic of one's "team."

I was reminded of the Aztec's use of human heads for sport when the So. American goalie was killed for letting in a goal...in '93? A couple years ago, a Giants baseball fan attended a game in LA against their storied rivals, the Dodgers. After the game - much alcohol was involved - a couple of pissed off Dodger fans beat the Giants fan almost to death in the parking lot. The trial goes on: the beaten fan's attorney wants $37 million for brain damage, loss of life chances, a poorly-lit and inadequately-patrolled parking lot, etc: but all I think about is that this was tribal behavior over turf/game. The beaten fan admitted he'd had a few and was talking "smack" anyway. The accused seem like typical sports fan thugs, and I like the Brit word for soccer/football fans like this: "hooligans."

Sue Howard said...

>>> I don't think Noam sees sports as a conspiracy; I do see his ideas about "ordinary" folk using their intelligence as well-meaning and in keeping with his ideas about "Cartesian common sense." <<<

Yes, that certainly seems clear from the type of quote you provided. That's his "particle" logic, I guess. Throughout his writings and talks, he often slips into "wave" logic. Here's an example from the documentary I mentioned:

"[Then there's] the real mass media - the kind that are aimed at Joe six-pack - that kind. The purpose of those media is just to dull people's brains. This is an oversimplification, but for the 80% or whatever they are, the main thing for them is to divert them - to get them to watch national football league and to worry about the mother with the child with six heads or whatever you pick up [...] in the supermarket stands. Or get them interested in astrology or fundamentalism ... just get them away from the things that matter. And for that it's important to reduce their capacity to think".

Can you get around the conpiratorial implications in this type of reasoning (which can be identified in his writings if you look for the sweeping propositions that are worded so that he doesn't specifically name the parties that have the purposes/plans to do these nefarious things)?

It's not just in sports, of course, that he makes such claims, but it seems more conspiratorial here because dulling people's brains, reducing their capacity to think, getting them away from important things, etc, can't easily be reduced to institutional profiteering, promoting rightwing ideology, etc.

What do you think?

michael said...

This is brilliant: your "particle/wave duality" of Chomsky's thinking about what may be considered "conspiracy theory." Thanks for finding that passage and typing it out; it certainly does seem to me that Noam goes over the top here.

His researches on social engineering and PR and what he and Hermann dubbed the "manufacture of consent" can seem at one moment strongly compelling (to me); then he'll at times say things like your quote above.

And tabloids want to make money; broadcasters want to make money. Publishers and fundamentalists do too. And when people go for these things, I guess we can say they've had their attentions diverted from what "really matters." But this seems like special pleading: astrology and tabloids and sports and fundamentalist religions weren't developed in order to divert attention; or at least that's not my understanding.

And I'm interested in all those things - esp. what the payoffs are for investing time and energy in them. And yet I read Chomsky's books.

The Chomsky wave/particle duality seems to extend to other areas: his linguistic systems and their baffling de-emphasis on the importance of semantics vs. his critiques of the PR industry, which seem to be all about using semantics to manipulate.

Personally, the most ironic aspect of Noam's thought: academics went for this ideas about linguistics in such a big way that an easily- understandable-for-"ordinary persons"-system like General Semantics was neglected. (GS had its own problems: usage by L.Ron Hubbard, the senile right wing politics of one of it's greatest popularizers, Hayakawa, and Korzybski's odd personal style, just to name three.) But a basic grounding in GS would, it seems to me, be far more effective than Chomsky just telling everyone to use their Cartesian common sense in order to see through PR manipulations.

While I thought Noam's attacks on the JFK assassination writers/thinkers was interesting coming from him, with his style of thought, I noticed a big chunk of leftish writers and academics thought he was out of bounds there. At the same time, Noam's admonition to stop paying attention to the crimes of one gang killing off leaders of another gang and instead work to see how the whole thing is rigged? It makes sense. But I can do both: I can triangulate my reading and keep working at seeing how social and political ideas work at their deepest levels, while still thinking the JFK/RFK/MLK and other assassinations are worth while to think about.

Sue: Thanks for this idea about Chomsky's inconsistency, and the quantum physics framing of it.

chas said...

#23 hit the homer, of course.