<
>

Worst. Column. Ever. But it's right!

3/15/2010

It is exhausting to be an American.

By the time I'm done posting my obscene accusations and inflammatory arguments on my favorite political message boards, I barely have the hours or the energy or the vocabulary left to post my inflammatory accusations and obscene arguments over at my favorite sports message boards.

To say nothing of the anonymous comments I'm now compelled to leave beneath every story I read about sports or politics or politics or sports. Consider yourself pwned, MSM!

My voice above all must be heard! My thoughts accounted for! My dreams and wishes and impulses and fetishes expressed! Answer me, world!

I will not be ignored!

Such is the life of the mind at the turn of the 21st century, as polarized and contentious and myopic in every waking moment as any Texas textbook debate.

Thus a few quick words today about the democracy of chaos, about the collision of politics and sports and technology, history and commentary, misery and mystery, Ari and Tiger, criticisms, witticisms and broadband solipsisms, you and me and how it is that you are always so very wrong, wrong, wrong about everything.

I'm not so sure there was ever a time in American history when these debates were civil. When there was a rhetorical etiquette of some kind. We've always argued sports and politics red-faced and at the top of our lungs. The difference these days is one of reach, and how far the shouts of our arguments now carry.

That and the fact that the Internet allows us our fraudulent assertions and baseless speculations and slanderous idiocies without the imminent threat of a punch in the nose.

You impugn Brett Favre/Barack Obama/Ann Coulter? How dare you, sir or madame! I demand satisfaction!

So whether you get your political opinion -- or simply download your impotent and inexpressible rage -- from the Weeping Imam of Glennbeckistan or the Ministry of Indignation within the Democratic People's Republic of OlberManada or from the Imperial Sultanate of the Exalted Limbaugh, doesn't much matter. You can (and must!) give global expression instantaneously to every quirk or quibble or prejudice, every tired talking point, every partisan cliché, every trope and meme and party line yelp.

(As H.L. Mencken explained, when it comes to politics -- and just about everything else -- nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.)

The same holds true of sports, of course, and the endless opportunities sports create for polarizing argument and recreational disagreement. Post the name "JaMarcus Russell" anywhere online -- even in the "Track a Package" window of the Postal Service Web site -- and within 30 seconds you'll have a red-hot debate going over the mental fitness of Al Davis and the role of the quarterback in the postmodern NFL.

In fact, we so enjoy these debates, and have enjoyed them for so long, that the metaphors of politics and sports long ago became interchangeable, from John McCain's "Hail Mary" choice of running mate, to Jim Caldwell's failure to "balance the ticket" in Indianapolis. Every election a horse race!

The trouble begins, as it usually does, when we mistake one thing for the other.

Politics are not sports, despite our every impulse and effort to the contrary.

Witness Tiger Woods and former White House whack-a-mole Ari Fleischer joining forces. To do what, exactly, no one knows. Spin the spin, I suppose. (Perhaps it simply represents another failure of intelligence.) Both creatures of IMG, this may just be a case of one brand washing another.

Part of the problem, certainly, with all this deafening debate is our epic ignorance of history. Even "history" as recent as that of 10 or 15 years ago. And this is as true of bad political arguments as it is of dunderheaded sports assertions.

"Michael Jordan saved the NBA" is as ridiculous a position to stake out as "Ronald Reagan single-handedly undid Communism."

Debates proceeding from such flawed beginnings can only be absurd at their end. The world is a complicated place, after all, and webbed with complex narratives.

It's fine in making a point to boil these stories down to the core truths at their center: i.e., Jordan arrived in a thriving NBA, and with the help of expanding new media, especially the Internet and cable television with its 24/7 sports/infotainment megaphone, made it even bigger; President Reagan was the longtime happy cold warrior with his hand on the throttle when Communism finally collapsed. Those are core truths. To say otherwise ignores Magic and Bird, Mikhail Gorbachev and Lech Walesa.

Arguments like these, which right or wrong proceed from a specific premise, are not to be confused with the kind of harmless, wandering bar talk that begins at "Who's the greatest baseball player of all time?" or "Who was the greatest president?" and ends when the bell tolls for last call. These are not arguments at all, having no correct answer, but rather spiritual riddles, Zen koans in which the endlessly circular nature of the meditation itself is the point. No harm ever came to the mind or heart of humanity by considering the infinite. Or Stan Musial.

But it's interesting to note the obvious contradiction inherent in our new "Information Age." More people in more places have more access to more undifferentiated data than at any time in human history. And less wisdom with which to parse it, apply it or to express it than ever before.

Part of this has to do with the terrible distraction and attention deficit from which we must all now suffer in response to our ingenious technologies; part with our own prejudice and preconception, which keep us reading and downloading only those things with which we already agree; part with a rapidity of delivery allowing no time for deep, dispassionate, considered thought; and part with the sheer overwhelming volume of raw, unfiltered 1s and 0s we're now meant to consume (if never to digest).

The instrument on which you're reading this, and the series of connections bearing into your home or office the infinitely variable arrangement of electrons representing the sum and substance of all human thought, is 10 times 10 times 10 times the size of the ancient library at Alexandria.

Thus we have at our fingertips the entirety of the human enterprise.

And no idea what to do with it.

At its worst, politics, like sports, devolves into just another way to divide people, to separate the world into camps of irreconcilable Us vs. Them. No real harm done if you want to go through life arguing Browns vs. Steelers or Yankees/Red Sox.

But when we presume a whole zero-sum world filled only by winners and losers, we doom ourselves to planetary failure. Because the truth of politics is the dreary continuum of human need. It is the day-to-day grind of simple governance, and the endless work of making our neighbors' lives a little better.

In order to better ourselves.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Please continue to submit your answers to his question "What are sports for?" You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com.

MORE COMMENTARY »