Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

I’ve watched far more soccer this summer than ever before, and have been fascinated, as a sports fan, by the game, for its elegance, its awkwardness, its futility and beauty and drama. As a cultural observer, I have marveled at the torrent of commentary generated by this global spectacle, and especially—here comes the American studies—commentary about the place of soccer in the United States, and the United States in soccer. Here’s my small contribution to the conversation.

I’ll start with the simple observation that soccer is a perfectly good term for this global sport. I have noticed a trend among sophisticates to call the game football, as nearly all the rest of the world does. I find this silly. There is nothing wrong with a mild case of American linguistic exceptionalism in this matter. After all, language is one of the most parochial of human activities, as even a global tongue like English enjoys endless local variations. And who wants a bland, globalized, and homogenized language anyway? Not me. In this instance, our local terminology is actually more cosmopolitan than one might imagine, since, as Hendrik Hertzberg in the New Yorker points out this week, the word “soccer” is in fact a mid-nineteenth century nickname for the game, coined with upper-class cheekiness at Cambridge and Oxford. In England. This irony has apparently escaped the cultured Anglophiles in the US who call soccer “football” and, even worse, call football “American football.” I see no need to be ashamed of our language—it’s as good as any other, and it’s ours.

Watching the World Cup, then, has led me to a renewed appreciation for American linguistic nationalism, and my second soccer-inspired observation regards the many virtues of nationalism more generally. The event, even more than the Olympics, rests fundamentally on its invocation of primal nationalistic passions (our TV-generated Olympics narratives focus so much more on individuals than on nations, expect in the superfluous medal counts). And I have come to see this quadrennial exercise in national pride as worthwhile in the main. Certainly nationalism has its vicious sides, in xenophobia and violence; we know that story well. But the nationalism of the World Cup inspires a pride in community rather than in race or tribe. Most of the powerful teams are multi-ethnic and multi-racial, and yet fans powerfully identity with their team and its players all the same.

We in the US have long suffered from a dearth of national pride, as fractured as we have been by race and region, and real good can come from identification with the nation. For all the darkness of twentieth-century European nationalism, it allowed for the development of robust social democracies because of the sense of the nation as a real “we.” We need various forms of “we”—from family to neighborhood to city, state, and nation—in order to develop the bonds that inspire self-sacrifice and mutual care. The racism that inflects many forms of anti-government rhetoric in the US is rooted in a version of “we” that regards fellow citizens as “them” and recoils from contributing to “their” stake in the common welfare. If soccer can help us see ourselves as Americans (or Germans or Ghanaians or Brazilians), and therefore as part of an extended family, that seems healthy to me. So I say let’s have more flag waving, by Americans liberal and conservative, black and white, Northern and Southern, religious and secular. War, of course, serves the same purpose, and many of the great social reforms in history have come after the trauma of war, such as the building of the European welfare states after World War II. I prefer soccer to war.

Finally, we hear every four years that Americans don’t really love soccer the way the rest of the world does, and I have come to regard this as both false and pernicious. Some, like Glenn Beck, respond to this with jingoistic pride (“I hate it so much, probably because the rest of the world likes it so much”) while others react with a world-weary resignation, as if our purported lack of interest in the world’s game were akin to our shamefully high rates of incarceration or infant mortality. Depending on one’s temperament and politics, it seems, our moderation in all things soccer becomes a chance to proclaim either a mean-spirited superiority or a sniveling inferiority.  In this back-and-forth we hear echoes of the debate on immigration, since immigrant communities in the United States, especially those from Africa and Latin America, bring with them a natal passion for the game, and this passion symbolizes wider cultural changes that frighten reactionaries like Beck.

Yet the strange truth is that our current national non-passion for soccer is precisely what makes us un-exceptional. Sure, vast numbers of non-immigrant Americans like the game—millions and millions play soccer, and the World Cup this year received very solid TV ratings. If my Facebook is any indication, lots of us are paying attention. We just don’t suffer the way Europeans and Latin Americans do. Instead, we care with roughly the same harmlessness as do fans in India, China, Russia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Japan and the rest of the majority of humanity.  When it comes to soccer, apparently, we are stuck in the cultural sensibilities of the nineteenth century, measuring ourselves against our betters in Europe and our neighbors in the New World. We need to stand up and realize this is the twenty-first century, the century of India and China, where Americans can continue enjoying the game of soccer, as I and millions of others have this summer, with a guilt-free indifference. Our moderation may not make sense to Italians or Brits or Argentines, but their ferocity is the exception, and our pleasant amusement the rule.

After all this, Spain won. I would have preferred the Dutch, but no matter. It was fun, even for nearly two goalless hours. Now back to baseball!


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When the Attorney General of Virginia, Kenneth Cuccinelli, declared recently that state colleges and universities had no legal right to ban employment discrimination of the basis of sexual orientation, we were reminded once again of the fragility of our basic civil and human rights. Enshrined in national scripture may be the words “all men are created equal” but we have known since the very moment those words were written how simultaneously world-changing and meaningless they are. One election, one decision by a B-list politician, and poof…gone.

After much outcry across the state, including by many staff, faculty, and students at the University of Virginia (my employer), Gov. Bob McDonnell issued a surprisingly robust rebuke to his attorney general. In a publicly released statement, the governor overruled his AG, and asserted, “Employment discrimination of any kind will not be tolerated by this Administration.” In one passage, he even declared:

The Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution prohibits discrimination without a rational basis against any class of persons. Discrimination based on factors such as one’s sexual orientation or parental status violates the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution.

When this arrived in my inbox I was flabbergasted. Did this graduate of Pat Roberston’s Regent University just state that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation violates the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution? Though Virginia continues to maintain one of the most hostile legal environments for gays and lesbians in the country, this strikes me as a hugely significant development, and the basis for much potential good with sweeping implications for all sorts of matters, including marriage equality. But it’s not yet law. This was just a public statement from the governor, and the state legislature has still refused to enact anti-discrimination protection on the basis of sexual orientation into law. Our rights are precious, fragile things.

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Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family, and founder of The Revealer, has done new reporting on the connection between American religious conservatives and the proposed anti-gay legislation in Uganda.  The connection comes through an organization called “The Family.”  As Sharlet’s book details, The Family is a secretive fundamentalist organization dating from the 1930s that seeks to cultivate political leaders with a combination of quirky theology and conservative policy.  Among other endeavors, they provide housing for senators and congressmen, run Bible studies, and host the annual National Prayer Breakfast.  On Fresh Air this week, Sharlet discussed the role of The Family in Uganda.  A nice summary of this matter can be found at Episcopal Cafe.  Take a look.  But be forewarned—it’s scary.

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November 9th marked the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a momentous event that signified the end of the Cold War.  I was a sophomore in college when the wall fell.  Today’s sophomores in college were not yet born.  I sometimes forget that a whole generation has now grown up in the United States with essentially no personal memory of the Cold War.  What they know of that forty-year geopolitical conflict they have learned in history class, or heard from parents and grandparents, or taken from popular culture.

When I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, the Cold War was a prominent backdrop to my life.  It was a continual presence in my pre-teen and teen imagination and in the broader culture of the time.  I worried about nuclear holocaust.  I was freaked out by the television movie The Day After.  The Soviet boxer Ivan Drago intimidated me in Rocky IV.  The opening scene in Red Dawn, in which invading Russians and Cubans parachute into a schoolyard and open fire on teachers and students, really unnerved me.  I ardently agreed with Sting when he sang, “I hope the Russians love their children, too.”  I wrote poems and songs about atomic war, radioactive fallout, and post-apocalyptic nuclear mutants.  I was actually very concerned about the mutants and what I would do about them if I survived an atomic attack.    

I wonder what the Cold War means today for Americans who did not grow up with it.  Our political discourse is rife with Cold War references, even if they are sometimes (okay, oftentimes) incorrectly used: President Obama is a communist, or a socialist, or a Manchurian candidate; health care reform will bring back gulags or make the U.S. like Cuba; communist symbols can supposedly be found on prominent Manhattan buildings (or so claimed Glenn Beck, telling FOX news viewers he found images of a hammer and sickle in Rockefeller Center).  Contemporary American culture is similarly throwing us back to the Cold War era: take for example the TV show Mad Men, the newest Indiana Jones movie, the documentary Virtual JFK (which imagines what might have happened in Vietnam if Kennedy had lived), and the recently published book The Hawk and the Dove, a dual biography of Paul Nitze and George Kennan.  There’s even a popular indie rock band from Fullerton called Cold War Kids.  And in 2010, Hollywood will release a remake of Red Dawn; in this version, teenagers will fight an invading force of Chinese and Russian soldiers.

So for the post-Cold War generation, that historical era lives on in partisan political name-calling and in popular culture.  Still, it’s strange for me to think that the Cold War is already becoming the stuff of popular memory.  For me, it will always be linked inextricably to my childhood, and especially to my childhood fears about how the world might end.  My college students today tell me that they don’t even worry about nuclear war.  Instead, they fear the world will end as a result of global warming or an infectious disease outbreak.  Or some believe that it won’t end at all. Perhaps that’s progress.

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All Idiot, no America

Last week I went to see Berkeley Rep‘s much-hyped staging of a rock opera set to Green Day‘s 2003 concept album American Idiot. This seemed like a sure-fire winner of an evening. I am a huge fan of the album, I grew up in Berkeley, Green Day famously got their “start” at 924 Gilman, a local punk club, and I know that Berkeley Rep also helped launch Stew‘s brilliant musical Passing Strange — so I figured this couldn’t go wrong.

But I was wrong and so was the show.American_Idiot-Green_Day_480

The play took the record and managed to reduce all of the punky post-9/11 angst, all of the clever insights and all of the whip-smart political commentary to a thinly woven narrative about three friends and the choices they make (one gets his girlfriend pregnant; one leaves town for fortune, fame and drugs; one joins the army). Green Day’s smarts were reduced to smugness while the actors retained the band’s famous brattiness but none of their brains.

The show seems to have forgotten the ways in which the album conjures up a very difficult 21st century American landscape in which individual choices are always in conversation with larger political and cultural structures. Despite nods to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to George Bush, the play fails to make them speak to its characters, and vice versa.

All of the things that made this album so good were crushed beneath an overblown cast and an under-inflated story. The story of this record lies not in the play’s moralizing tale about drugs, family, salvation, and relationships, but in what it means to not have the choice to live elsewhere when your country is waging wars you don’t support. It articulates frustration and confusion and the knowledge that one might hold on to the American Dream despite the fact that it is so patently a lie. None of the tension that is woven throughout the album managed to make the jump to the stage. The notes sounded right and the postures looked familiar, but the sense of the sound simply wasn’t there.

There were a few nice moments, such as the staging of “When September Ends” as an allegory for an endless autumn, that began on September 11. But following such a moving evocation of that day’s losses, the story somehow fell back into its tritely packaged narrative about individual choices and their consequences. But the record isn’t fueled by petty choices, but by the sense that one can’t choose everything, and that we are somehow, regularly, caught by political and cultural forces beyond our own control. Thus: life in post-9/11 America, where we are all in danger of being American idiots.

On an airplane the following day, I dialed in the album on my iPod, to figure out if what I thought I heard in earlier listenings was still there. It was. The tensions it captures still ring true, the guitars still resonate and the lyrics still stand as one of the strongest expressions of the politics of the last decade. It is still a great album — sometimes the fury ought to remain sound.

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In recent days we have seen a rather alarming convergence of events related to homosexuality, religion, and globalization.  Currently under debate in the Ugandan Parliament is a bill that would extended the country’s already draconian anti-gay laws, calling in some cases for the death penalty for homosexuals.

As horrifying as this is, it gets worse, since the Ugandan authorities responsible for this proposed legislation have received direct and indirect support from a variety of American and Western forces.  First, those in the US pouring money into Maine to repeal its marriage equality legislation—which is on the ballot today—have over the years also made alliances with anti-gay forces in Uganda. American megachurch pastor Rick Warren once touted his relationships with those in Uganda now pushing these measure, for example, though he claims to have disassociated himself from them in recent years.

Second, religious leaders of the Anglican Church in Uganda have been vocal supporters of the legislation, and Pope Benedict XVI gave these very same religious forces a major boost last week.  The Pope announced that he would create a special arrangement for disaffected Anglican priests, and their congregations, to join the Roman Catholic Church.  Brushing aside decades of painstaking talks between the world’s two largest Christian bodies, Benedict chose to welcome even married Anglicans into the Roman fold.

The reason some Anglicans might want to join the Roman Church, though never stated directly, is obvious to anyone following recent developments in the global Anglican communion:  conservatives are upset by the ordination of women and, more recently, of open, non-celibate homosexuals. Many of those most upset about the movement toward full inclusion of gay and lesbians Anglicans are leaders of the Anglican Church in Africa, including in Uganda.   This recent announcement from Rome is strictly designed to bolster the antigay forces at work in the Anglican Church, including those in Africa.

American and Europeans church bodies have done many good things in Africa in recent years, including advocating for the vast increases in public health aid money implemented by the Bush administration.  Nevertheless, the Pope, American evangelical anti-gay advocates, and conservative Anglicans and Episcopalians in the the UK and the US are all implicated in direct and indirect ways in these outrageous developments in Uganda.

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