‘m a college basketball fan, and I’m more than a little bit mad in March. But that doesn’t explain what happened on Thursday. I was flipping back and forth between coverage of the war on Iraq and the opening games of the NCAA tournament. Granted, I was distracted: reading email, sorting through papers, jotting notes for a new project. And yet, more than once, I found myself reaching for the remote to get back to the news, only to discover that I was already watching it. While it’s possible that this confusion resulted from my multitasking, I think there’s something less accidental going on here.
Why is it that the coverage of a war looked and sounded so much like a basketball tournament?
All the networks do it: the retired coach/general in the studio making predictions and diagramming plays; the correspondent/sideline reporter interviewing the players; the up-to-the-minute scores and highlights. I confess that I crave a certain amount of this stuff from my news coverage. I’ve been conditioned like everyone else. And when I get it, I feel a twinge of excitement, but, disturbingly, it’s not so different from the twinge I feel when I put a check or an X next to one of the teams on the office pool sheet. Worse, I eventually tire of the news and turn it off, reasonably secure in believing, even after 9/11, that for me, it’s just a game played with someone else’s blood, sweat, and tears.
Given the convergence of war and sport, it should come as no surprise that U.S. athletes and athletic organizations have played a critical role in priming the country for the current offensive. Expressions of patriotism are nothing new at American athletic events, but since 9/11, we have seen a tremendous increase in flag-waving, throat-swelling ceremonies involving soldiers, and deafening aerial displays of military might at ballgames. The roar at stadiums was especially loud immediately following the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, and the message to world opponents—and to our own team—was clear: this wasn’t going to be a one-game playoff (it was impossible not to admit, at least implicitly, the one defeat), and the U.S. was about to sweep the road trip. It was a convincing message. Rooting for the U.S. now is a lot like picking UCLA to win the tournament in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s: it stems from a glut of confidence.
It also comes as no surprise that the majority of professional athletes who have gone on the record have done so in support of the war, or at least in support of “our troops.” “Support our troops” is, of course, a huge victory won by the conservatives on the rhetorical battlefield. With the ghosts of the Vietnam War still haunting the American psyche, conservatives have managed to make war protest synonymous with betraying our troops. And with that battle lost, the logic of dissent becomes too complicated to explain. We’re all sloganeers.
The few high profile athletes who have expressed dissent have learned the perils of public subtlety. Steve Nash, the Dallas Mavericks’ All Star guard, touched off a controversy in the NBA by wearing a tee-shirt that read “No War. Shoot for Peace.” “People are mistaking antiwar as being unpatriotic,” Nash said. Nash, who is a Canadian citizen, was recently scolded in the press by the San Antonio Spurs’ David Robinson. A graduate of the Naval Academy nicknamed “The Admiral,” Robinson said, “I get a little bit upset. The time for debate is really beforehand.” When Robinson was told by a reporter that several members of the Mavericks might believe that Bush’s war gives Americans “a bad name,” Robinson added, “If it’s an embarrassment to them, maybe they should be in a different country, because this is America and we’re supposed to be proud of the guys we elected and put in office.” This sort of rock-headed, root, root, root for the home team logic permeates American culture. As the President said, either you’re with us or against us.
This sort of simplistic thinking breeds myth. What’s important, as the logic goes, is not truth, but picking a side, rooting for a team. Whether it’s college basketball’s Cinderella (the underdog team that gets a last minute invitation to the big dance) or the U.S. government’s good Goliath (the myth of U.S. benevolence, even against seeming Davids), we prefer our rooting justifications in story form. We hate facts without narrative, emotional rises and falls. But myth appeals to the very opposite of reason. Myth is bad justification for policy, not because it is false (myth contains truth), but because it suppresses ambivalence.
For the record, I’m not against this war, and I use the ambivalent double negative intentionally, because that’s exactly what I am: ambivalent. I think Saddam Hussein is a brutal dictator, and I will celebrate his downfall, but I loathe the loss of human life and material destruction. I believe that U.S. hegemony can spread like a disease, and at the same time, I believe in the possibility, even the likelihood, of a future Iraqi government that is better than Saddam’s. I don’t think Saddam is linked with al-Qaeda, but I think he is a grave threat to his people and to the world. I think the U.S. is motivated by arrogance, and by oil, not merely “security,” but I don’t think that changes Saddam’s threat. I think there are other threats in the world, some perhaps greater than Saddam’s, but I think that possibility begs a question, not an argument. I believe in negotiation, but don’t think negotiation can solve everything. I believe in doing everything possible to avoid war, but I know that “everything possible” suggests an unachievable state of perfect knowing.
Unlike other liberals, I don’t believe that a lack of debate on these issues is the central problem, though it is certainly an issue. The mainstream media have been too deferential to the “Support our troops” crowd. I believe the deepest problem is the very notion of debate, at least as it is conceived in the U.S. For Americans, debate, like a ballgame, is always two-sided—your side and the wrong side—and the sides are always shaped by mutually exclusive checklists of belief. You’re a Republican or a Democrat, you buy Coke or Pepsi, you root for the Red Sox or the Yankees. You either conform to the manifestoes that come with these allegiances or you suffer the ire of the consistency police, perhaps the most powerful force in American public discourse.
Even when there’s not much difference between Product A and Product B, each side does its best to distance itself from the other. The illogic of sports fanaticism—remember the origin of the word “fan”—extends to the rest of our lives, encouraging absurd debates in which each side must support the unsupportable.
I’m not suggesting that ambivalence will be the key to political success any time soon, not while Americans still expect to have their “truths” served in slogan form and while networks thrive on co-authoring national myth with the U.S. government. But I am suggesting that ambivalence, and the subtlety of thinking that comes with it, would get us a lot closer to the truth. Not a bad goal for members of the media.
But to accomplish this goal, the networks will have to stop the interludes of stirring battle music and the advertising of war coverage as if it were the latest mini-series. They’ll have to stop promoting the mythical titles dreamed up by the U.S. military: first, Desert Storm and now, Operation Iraqi Freedom. They’ll have to recognize that myth-making instead of reasonable discussion is government’s primary tool of persuasion and that breaking down myth, not strengthening it, should be the media’s job. It will be a tough choice because—forget sports, forget sex—myth sells.