Delusions of Conservative Normality

In the latest example of conservative self-deception, David Brooks, in his New York Times op-ed column on Super Bowl Sunday postulated that popular sports movies such as "Coach Carter," "Hoosiers," "Remember the Titans," and "Miracle," represent a restoration of "traditional manliness" and "take the therapeutic, progressive, New Age part of the 1960s and 1970s and they crush it dead." (This on the day when the Rolling Stones provided the half-time entertainment for the Super Bowl.)

Of course the idea of trying to infer broad cultural attitudes from movies is pretty dubious in the first place. Movies are created to be entertaining, not to serve as a metaphor for American values. But even on his own terms, Brooks' thesis is alternatively absurd, misleading and delusional and I write this as the father of a 12-year-old sports fan with whom I have seen all of these movies.

Brooks quotes the character played by Denzel Washington, in "Remember the Titans" as saying, "This is no democracy. It is a dictatorship. I am the law." Putting aside the fact that it is politically un-wise for Republicans to highlight such a passage approvingly at this precise time, Brooks intentionally ignores the actual theme of the film which was the pain of racial integration and the way that sports led some communities into it. It a pivotal scene in the movie, the Washington character instructs each white player to get to know a black counterpart personally in a structured way that was both "therapeutic" and "progressive."

Brooks glibly acknowledges that virtues of the civil rights movement . But he also frets sourly that "Thirty years ago, young people were told to question authority." This was, in part , because "authority" was often seen as upholding racial prejudice that most of these films, including the recently released "Glory Days," depict. That prejudice (as well as prejudice against women) was overcome, not by those obsessed with obeying authority, but by those, such as Martin Luther King and Betty Friedan who morally and intelligently challenged it.

Brooks might have asked why, several decades after the passage of civil rights legislation, films which describe racism still resonate so deeply with millions of Americans of all races. Perhaps it's because these audiences recognize, as Hurricane Katrina spotlighted, that modern America still has grave racial issues.

Of course the other primary reason authority was questioned thirty years ago was because a United States President sent young people to a war that soon was seen by many not to really be in the national interest. If Brooks would like to know the current attitude about such things he need not wait for the next sports film but can consult current public opinion polls.

Since Brooks goes as far back as "Hoosiers" which was released in 1986, he invites comparison to two other sports films, released later in the nineteen eighties, "Field of Dreams" and "Bull Durham," both of which were much more popular and which combine an interest in sports excellence with other impressionistic layers that owe a lot more to the culture of the nineteen sixties than to Brooks' simplistic hypothesis allows.

As to his desire to impute to the popularity of these films support for a pre-sixties version of "manliness," Brooks is again highly selective to the point of being misleading. Of course, successful coaches in every decade and of every political philosophy both in movies and in real life insist that players practice more and work as a team. But one of the key plot points of "Hoosiers" is the redemption of the alcoholic Dennis Hopper character who is given a second chance by the coach played by Gene Hackman.

Indeed, if one is looking for popular metaphors which "affirm certain values precious to the culture," one should look not to movies about sports but sports themselves which make far more impact on many more people.

Over the last several decades one coach in professional sports has towered above all others in terms of championships and that is Phil Jackson, a Buddhist who was heavily influenced by the culture of the nineteen sixties, who as coach, first of the Chicago Bulls and later of the Los Angeles Lakers, has won an astounding nine championship rings.

Brooks ends his piece but smugly stating, "The nineteen sixties are over. Vince Lombardi won." Lombardi was the famously tough coach who won two championships with the Green Bay Packers in the early sixties and whose name is on the Super Bowl trophy. However Lombardi is dimly remembered compared to the sports figure from the sixties, Muhammad Ali, whose athletic prowess and social conscience continues to make him one of the worlds most famous and beloved men several decades later. Ali's attitude about authority did not exactly reflect the ideal that Brooks is trying to foist off as representing manliness and Americanism.

Ali's transformation from pariah to a treasured national symbol is in fact a fascinating metaphor for the evolution of the true heart of modern America over the last thirty years. Don't hold your breath for a David Brooks column on that one.