Friday, August 29, 2008

Cynicism, Football Blogs, and Barack Obama

Reading through the footballosphere, I get the impression we're in a bit of a dead zone at the moment. The Euros are past and buried, the Premiership is in its infant phase, the Olympics seemed a bit of a dud except for the usual Brazil/Argentina issues, the MLS has lost its appeal for reasons Ben Knight would be better able to talk about, and lately I've been more rapt by the Democratic National Convention than I have been by the early spasms of the Euro Vase, even with Aston Villa's easy passage to the group stages.

So, as usual, I've been filling the void with existential thoughts about just what I'm doing here on this strip of web. I think one of the reasons there are so many football blogs is because of the ineffable nature of the game. Will he or won't he play for this team or that, nil-nils or goal-fests, bankruptcy or branding success, the variables are endless. We chime in and read because we can't stand the uncertainty of it all, yet the drama grips even when we're at our most smug, cynical selves.

When I watched Euro 2008, I saw football at its finest, its most accessible and its most universal. Yet there was always some webnerd at the ready to render the magic meaningless by giving his or her officious, close-minded 'perspective.' This is blogging at its worst, the type that lends credence to the views of Buzz Bissinger and his ilk. Rather than accept the possibility that football can reach beyond its trite boundaries (UEFA, Coca-Cola, transfer fees etc.) to a higher place, we feel we must always nail our feet to the ground.

Politics seems much the same. I don't think I've ever been more depressed surfing the internet than when I read through Drudge and Huffington and all the other usual suspects in political blogging. Politics, for all the editorial booby-babble surrounding even the most innocuous spokesmen-generated quotes, resides in an opaque cloud of unknowing. Poverty, war, disease, education -- there are no pat, one-size-fits-all solutions to society's problems. The samsara of contemporary politics first led to the development of ideology as a tool to give order to chaos, but now we have the smug, unthinking sludge of political blogs, whose form dictates that emotion must come before reason, self-righteousness before empathy, self before other.

When I saw a forty-seven year old black candidate accept his candidate for presidency on the forty-fifth anniversary of Martin Luther King's Dream speech, the latter an astoundingly pragmatic call for nothing less than the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, I knew that someone, somewhere, would deem it necessary to post the most vile, reactionary on-line prose, as if nervously filling in the void left by careless wonder.

While I don't subscribe to all of the political views of Barack Obama (pinko Commie that I am), and I'm not even an American citizen, I can say with all my faculties intact that yesterday offered a glimpse of collective history, a notion almost impossible at a time when grand social narratives have given way to the detritus of discourse. It was a marvel to hear a politician exhort its citizens to action in an age when government is viewed as a service industry, and the voter the customer. What's in it for me? has been the rallying cry for so long now, we've forgotten there was once a higher impetus to political service.

As in life, as in football. What's in it for me? It's not just the Ronaldos, Berbatovs, and Barrys of this world, its us, writing endless reams over a game we've forgotten why we like in the first place. We're kowtowed to by satellite networks who work hard to remove every last vesitige of mystery from the game to make the at home 'experience' superior to that of the fan who must drive out to support his local club. And then we go price that fan out of the game. Then the local club goes into administration, deducted points, scuttled off to non-league status, sold and moved up the road. It's not like it matters anyway -- everyone follows the winners, who pace through 'boring' league matches void of competitive currency. Place, history, heritage? What's in it for me?

We may think it trite to import social values onto our sporting values, yet the personal is the political, as Galeano might say. We forget that football was first codified to help young men develop a sense of obligation to society (an imperfect contract it must be said). David Forsyth, the Canadian footballing mastermind, was also a leader in education in Ontario and worked closely with the federal government. In fact, most of the members of the Canadian 1880s touring team were later involved in government or were leaders in public service. While I don't expect Robbie Savage to be culture minister any time soon, it would behoove us to remember that the developers of the beautiful game once took seriously the possibility that, rather than providing punter porn to millions of disaffected consumers, football could help engender a more splendid life in both the public and private spheres.


Fredorrarci said...

Delayed reaction, but great post - insightful and thought-provoking in equal measure.

As you said on Run of Play, this piece partly dovetails with the latest post there. I think you and Brian are talking about the same thing, and I wonder if, between you, you haven't stumbled upon a fundamental truth about football. Does football inherently embody this kind of uncertainty more than other sports, and does this account for its popularity as much as its much-vaunted simplicity does?

On cynicism: I don't think there are many places in the western world where someone could make a speech such as Obama's in earnest. The optimism and idealism (in the non-pejorative sense of the latter - isn't it sad that I felt it necessary to qualify that?) that is the foundation of the United States is often mocked, at least on the Atlantic's eastern shore, and the gap that there often is between the idealism and reality is an easy target for criticism. Though this is often deserved, it is surely a more noble way to be to have those ideals rather than bathe in the corrosive cynicism which certainly exists in my country (this nation was founded on the principle that we weren't someone else; as soon as independence was achieved we turned on each other).

For what it's worth, I don't believe it can ever be "trite to import social values onto our sporting values". Sport may be escapist entertainment for many, but it really is more than that (though I wouldn't go so far as to quote Shankly on this matter). Cynicism is an easy option, but to struggle against it is worth it- and struggle is not too strong a word, if my experience is anything to go by - "as in life, as in football," as you put it. Reminders like this are necessary from time to time.

Richard Whittall said...

Well said indeed Fred.

Regarding your comments about the United States; my dad, a staunch monarchist on the one hand and a hard proponent for social justice on the other, always said that the problem with the United States is it is based on Platonist view of political power, i.e. the constitution, coupled with a revolutionary founding mythology, provide a Platonic ideal in which the US can only participate but never practically realize.

He also argued that in Canada, unlike the United States where the president is both the representative head of state as well as an elected executive leader, the Crown (represented by the Governor General) absorbs most of the symbolism inherent in a Head of State. This is one the reasons why countries with constitutional monarchies so freely criticize their elected leaders, and also one of the reasons why Obama's rhetoric can soar the heights but remain grounded in the American political tradition, for better or for worse.

Why I don't quite agree with this analysis, I always liked how neat it sounded, and I thought of it when watching Obama speak the other night...

As for our 'sporting values,' based on the events of today's fast-closing transfer window, it will be interesting to see the outcome of the next 'fit and proper test', as well as the dissolution (perhaps) of the tradition Top Four...we shall see.