THE BLOG

Sports and Patriotism

07/20/2007 12:10 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

For some of us, it's awkward to be at a professional baseball game before the first pitch. Especially on July 4. You can be certain that there will be the obligatory display of patriotism -- patriotism narrowly defined as military celebration. The Star Spangled Banner. Some soldiers marched out on the field with a massive American flag. For the All Star Game, as with the Super Bowl, there is a fly-over of military fighter bombers.

At the A's game this time, getting ready to watch us take on Toronto, American militaristic pride was in full flower. It says something about the time we are living in that we are more intimidated by this than we used to be. Twenty years ago, I would refuse to stand up for the Star Spangled Banner -- making a small protest of the notion of imposing a rightist political ritual on the moment of a sporting event. Back then, one could look around and see plenty of others sitting. If anyone gave me a hard time, I would easily glare back, knowing I had my principles and my rights. Now I either stand up or find a way to be at the concession stands. The atmosphere is more challenging, more aggressively conformist. You could get hurt if you don't participate in the ritual.

There are so many ways this hypocritical nod to "our troops" is nauseating. The display of militaristic patriotism, the ritual unity of our "supporting our boys," is actually an act of complicity in sending them over to Iraq and Afghanistan to die. The super-patriots are not the friends of the GI's; they are loading them in the death transports to the front.

As the flag was marched onto the field, my daughter Aisha had just been telling me about the strange phenomenon in L.A. of new trendy restaurants opening every week, each one more expensive than the last. How about $150 each for dinner? And -- guess what? -- you can't even get a reservation; Americans are flocking to these bacchanalian feasts in droves. These people are not feeling the war. America has managed to mount its war with a handful of working class youths while continuing to party back home.

As I watch the soldiers march out in stiff uniforms, bearing a flag that almost covers the infield, I see the Americans around me adopt an attitude of reverence -- our soldiers are our heroes and they deserve our love. Jane Addams, the founder of Hull House in Chicago and an opponent of World War I, mused on the phenomenon of crowds cheering our troops as they marched down Main Street. We are not celebrating that they are going to go out and slay others, not really. We are honoring them because they are about to go out and be slain. Yes, their very suffering and death has sanctified them, has made these youths a holy object, someone from among us who we send out to die, to preserve our community, our way of life.

This does not have a rational basis -- for the war may indeed be a disaster, a waste, a cruel joke. Thousands more may die while politicians dither and maneuver. No matter. The important thing is that they are to die and that is something that gives our lives meaning. It is primal, it is sick, how we send them off. How different if we were to see our identity, our sense of community, with other peoples in the world and not just in our narrow and embattled enclave. Our self-imposed nightmare.

And, of course, even those who oppose the disgusting wars America has launched in the Middle East stick to the narrative of the slaughtered GI's, the victims. We are against the war but we support our troops. Someone needs to deliver the bad news. These are not just heroes. . . . or victims. These are Americans who are killing, slaughtering people in our name. Yes, Iraqi and Afghan families, parents and children, are being burned, blown open, lacerated by American weapons wielded by American youngsters. Get used to it. The trials of Marines for murder in Hamdania and Haditha will be added to the tortures of Abu Ghraib. And more horror stories are yet to surface. The Iraqi victims have no names in our consciousness but their suffering will not leave us in peace. Ultimately, to heal, our soldiers will have to confront not just their victimhood but their complicity in the crimes of this war.

So why is this patriotic tableaux reserved for sporting events? Perhaps because sports is the ultimate metaphor which feeds the myths of our society. We love to watch the games because they feed our desire for a just and ordered world. After all, in sports, the team with the most talent, the team which works hardest in conditioning, practice, and execution, is going to win the contest. The team that loses has not worked as hard for it or is not as "talented." It is comforting to transfer this story to the world of school and work. Surely, those who succeed have the best minds and have worked the hardest. They deserve it, right? Only in the real world privileges of birth assure access (that's how George Bush got into Yale with C's), support (armies of tutors for some), and options (the ability to pay $40 thousand a year for college). The sports model reinforces the myth that we live in a fair world.

Speaking of war, though, the sports metaphor is also helpful to American mythology. After all, in a game, someone is going to clearly win and someone is going to clearly lose. There are winners and losers. Some are elated, some are dejected, at the end of the day. War must be like that too, right? We won World War II; remember the ticker-tape parades? What if it turns out that war is just a massive slaughter, an unspeakable loss for both sides? That's closer to the truth. Sports feeds our dream that we can "win" these wars. Perhaps if we gave M-16' rifles to the A's and Blue Jays and let them blast away at each other, we'd see if anyone was happy and high fiving at the end.

I conclude with the words of George Lipsitz, who is bemoaning the demeaning of American education in our current atmosphere of a war state. These were the thoughts that went through my mind as I watched the ritual of American patriotism before the July 4th A's game. In his essay, "Teaching in a Time of War and the Metaphor of Two Worlds,"[1] Lipsitz writes: "Successful teachers seek to help their students become citizens skilled at seeing things for themselves and continuing to learn even when their teachers are no longer physically present to guide them . . . Successful students master the tools of evidence and argument. They learn to see through surface appearances, to avoid the path of least resistance, and to embrace complexity and contradiction.

"The ways the Bush administration has waged war undermines all of these premises and presumptions. This has been a war waged without solemnity, sadness, or sorrow. Our leaders have not made the case for war on the basis of evidence, argument, and logic, but instead have performed the inevitability of war for us through sensationalism, spectacle, and sadism. Our leaders seek to inspire through fear what they cannot achieve by persuasion. This has been a war waged without solemnity, without sorrow, without sadness. It manifests a view of other humans as instruments for achieving our own ends. It substitutes the lust of the spectator for the responsibilities of the citizen.

"The rationales given to us for the war come directly from the practices of some in the most antieducation elements in our society - advertising, entertainment, and public relations. In these realms, complex problems have simple solutions; quick fixes relieve us of our responsibilities to think things through. This is the world of masculinist fantasies about military heroism, where all the weapons work perfectly the first time they are fired, where civilians are never killed, and where violence solves problems once and for all. It is an imaginary domain, where revenge and retribution are both sweet and decisive, where resort to war brings lasting peace rather than endless cycles of retaliatory violence; an arena where combat purportedly confirms how different we are from our enemies even as it requires us to take actions that make us resemble them."