Monday, December 06, 2010

Sour Grapes

I'm a resident of Oregon, for those of you who don't know. I did not attend either of the large state universities in the area, but I do have a certain amount of pride in my state. For the record, I attended a small (2500+ student) private school, University of Portland, whose main claim to fame in collegiate sports is their women's soccer team. When I was attending school there at the Master's level, the team was doing well, but when I was an undergrad we had no sports teams that were really competitive that got any notice at all.

For the first time ever, one of the two state schools, Oregon State University and University of Oregon, is almost certainly going to the BCS Championship. This is particularly interesting as for the last five years those of us on the West Coast have felt that the BCS system is rigged against Pac-10 schools. For those who aren't aware, UofO's athletic programs have been boosted and to a fair degree funded by Phil Knight, the guy who started Nike and has more money than almost anyone.

This past Saturday saw the annual Oregon Civil War football game, which for many years was the only time either team stood a chance of winning a game the entire season (back in my high school days). The programs have clearly been revitalized in recent times, and they almost always compete well in their division, if not nationally. As such, the Civil War game tends to create a lot of buzz in the region, and often the result has bowl game implications. A few years ago, Oregon State's loss to Oregon (an upset) in the game cost them a trip to the Rose Bowl, and it's very clear there are still hard feelings about this on the Beaver side.

Yep, our state's school mascots are Beavers and Ducks. Better than the Flaming Slugs or Galloping Pedophiles I guess, but not by much. Although I have seen very aggressive Ducks before. Wait, those were geese.

This year, Oregon State had high hopes of crushing Oregon's trip to the BCS Championship as payback for the earlier upset that kept the Beavs from the Rose Bowl. It didn't turn out that way - Oregon won 37-20, and were pretty much a lock for our state's first ever trip to a very possible championship. You would think that at this point that everyone in the state would be thrilled that, in the midst of one of the worst economies and highest unemployment in the country that this would be a shining beacon of Oregon can-do attitude (along with, of course, a particularly wealthy white Knight).

Instead, OSU fans were, within minutes of losing the game, cheering for Auburn to win the BCS Championship. And as far as I can tell they haven't stopped.

Understand that Oregon won fair and square, and did it on OSU turf. This wasn't a close game decided by a bad call or two. Oregon won by three scores, two of which would have had to be touchdowns. It wasn't a blowout in college ball terms (87 to minus 42, as seems to be the case often), but it was decisive.

We live in the south part of the Portland metro area, which most of the Portland area boosters would travel through on their way home from the game, and went out for dinner at a local family restaurant chain about the time the boosters were coming home. It was crowded and noisy and more than a bit uncomfortable as both groups of boosters were there (with children, I might add, most of them pretty young). I saw repeated snarky comments, looks, and more than one interaction that I could have seen going physical were there not cooler heads present.

As I watched, I realized that this is the world Americans now live in. 16 years of uber-partisan politics, where your side can do no wrong and the other side is evil incarnate, has reduced us to nothing but tribal politics. The Other is, as stated on a ultra-right-wing blog I accidentally stumbled across, "vermin". Or, as far too many liberals would say of Republicans, "Nazis". These sorts of gross generalizations, perpetrated by uninformed bloggers and an increasingly unabashedly partisan media, are not only massively untrue, they are also ripping the country apart.

Worst of all, the major reason that we are being ripped apart is for corporate profit. The people at Fox News might have some actual ideological motives for what they do, but in the end it's to make the rich richer. How else could you explain how the Republicans want tax breaks extended for the rich and encouraging earmarks for their own districts while at the same time bemoaning the deficit, a deficit that their party created? The Democrats are, for the most part, no better - they just don't have a centralized ideology but instead a lot of people who vote for them because the Republican platform is increasingly frightening. And even then, the Republican Party is on the verge of going Populist in a big way via the Tea Party, something that hardly ever ends well if you study American history.

I will almost certainly get slammed by someone on the right claiming that I have an offensive position, and have no idea what I'm talking about. Actually, I consider myself a moderate forced to vote liberal because the right is *so* far right. Someone told me the other day that a significant percentage of Americans think that the WMDs in Iraq simply haven't been found yet (after seven years of looking). Believe me, we'd have found them by now. We had every piece of paper in the country at our disposal, and someone somewhere would have mentioned them. With this kind of misinformation continually streamed into people's brains by propaganda machines, it's not surprising but deeply troubling that we can't think critically about such obvious lies.

For those people who think I'm a liberal dupe, let me just say that I think the people who have gone around claiming that the Bush administration actively engineered 9/11 are just as crazy. It's just that the right has worked so damned *hard* at it for the past 16 years, and have been able to get away with it for so long. When someone disagrees, the right shouts them down and just keeps repeating their message over and over until we believe that we should be giving equal time to arguments that can't tread water in the kiddie pool. And there is no question that the left can't win at Fox News' game.

In the end, my side is right, your side is wrong. No, that's too generous. Your side is evil, my side is on the right hand of God. Sound like anyone we think we know? Islamo-fascists maybe?

It permeates American society, to the point where people who should be happy that a state team will be vying for an NCAA football championship are instead willing to root for Satan himself rather than their bitter rivals.

That's a lack of vision. A lack of being able to see the big picture. A lack of being able to think critically and an overabundance of thinking with your lizard brain. A knee-jerk reaction.

Americans live in a country where popular culture has become nothing but encouraging these lacks. Corporations don't want consumers to think. Corporations don't want computers to see the big picture. They want them to consume their products and make the corporation and their shareholders money, regardless of cost. They are concerned with this quarter's numbers, often this *month's* numbers. It's why so much energy has been put into "debunking" climate change when almost every scientist who knows anything about the subject understands that we're on the verge of massive disruption from the melting of the polar ice caps.

We don't even teach critical thinking in our schools. We teach enough information for people to become good workers and consumers. It's no wonder "intellectuals" are feared by the masses - they're smarter and can convince the average joe into just about anything. And they are.

Yeah, Oregon won. And they dashed OSU's hopes a few years back. But kids, the game is *over*. The election is *over*. Thinking that it's all about the next election is great until that election is over and then it's only about the next election. It's not about the next election, it's about looking at our problems and finding solutions. We've completely given up on that process. We aren't making sausage, we're flinging shit at each other and calling it fair and balanced.

Next time you're feeling smug that your side won, think for a few minutes about why that should be better (and if the reason is so that we can get that mongrel out of the White House, and isn't there some irony there, you need to think of why you're even thinking *that*). Because winning in life is about as transitory as it gets.

Next time you're feeling angry because your side didn't win and looking solely for revenge, think for a minute about whether or not that revenge isn't going to cost a whole lot more than acceptance will. When the Republicans won a contested election on very questionable grounds in a very close election (these are facts, not propaganda), most liberals were unhappy but shrugged and waited to see how Bush would do. As of 9/11, he was on track to be a lackluster and one-term president. Liberals were happy to wait it out. Then we got 9/11 and the country went mad and we invaded another country for reasons that, had the Soviets pulled it 20 years earlier (and they did) we would have been furious. And a very large part of the country couldn't see that at all, and it hasn't gotten better.

Jon Stewart threw a rally to Restore Sanity. It was remarkably unsuccessful in that the entire world completely missed the point. It wasn't to show that he could throw a bigger party than Glenn Beck. It was to point out that we have become dysfunctional to the point that we are endangering our very planet, not just our own country or way of life. It was to point out that perhaps it's better to take a *really* deep breath, step back, and look at how we conduct ourselves. On both sides. Of pretty much any argument you can think of.

In my state, we can start by hoping that our team, regardless of where you attended college (and really, is that a good reason for this kind of animosity?) does well on the national stage. Because unless you have a good reason (and by that I mean a rational reason) to root for Auburn, such as having an actual connection with the school, you should be rooting for your team. Your team in this case is Oregon, a team from your state. Hell, if you're on the West Coast, root for them, if for no other reason than to root for the Pac-10. At the very least stay neutral. Because to root for Auburn because you lost a game fair and square is exactly the sort of thing I hope to God you aren't passing on to your children. And I hope with a little thought you'll come to feel the same way.

And then, just maybe, we as a culture have a chance to survive. Because American Exceptionalism now means that we're exceptionally dunderheaded. If we're really all that exceptional, screaming at the other side is pretty clearly a Really Bad Idea that hasn't worked in almost two decades and it's time to get over it.


Laurent said...

Well said!
I work with a bunch of Beavers and they will be rooting for Auburn. I do not get it, maybe being raised in a different country and not going to either college explains it.
But I think it's deeper than that. When I was in France, we had a ice hockey pro team in the city I lived. I would be the first to applaud a nice goal scored by the other team. I guess I'm a sport fan, not a supporter.
Same thing with politic, I did not understand why the Republican called for Obama to fail and therefore their country! If I'm not the one to bring happiness/prosperity/..., let's all feel miserable

Ken said...

I am an OSU supporter who will be cheering for the Ducks against Auburn. I will be accompanied by crazy Alabama fans who will also be cheering for Oregon. Dedicated Auburn fans will be cheering for Michigan State against Alabama. Dyed-in-the-wool Michigan fans will return the favor by cheering for Alabama. Hooray for college football rivalries.

When did this current trend of cheering against your rival start? I don't know, but the Harvard fight songs from about 110 years ago have some interesting things to say about Yale.

Chris Brooks said...

Odd segue into a political rant, but I like your points and agree. Another Beaver fan saying "Go Ducks!". And a (old school) Republican saying WTF! to the current party.

Mike said...

The standard saying is "I support 'x' and whoever is playing against 'y'", where 'x' is your team, and 'y' is their local/bitterest rivals. Sad, but that's the way that the media encourages it. (I also think it's really sad to refer to the UofO/OSU game as a Civil War - that just disparages those that lost their lives in the real Civil War.)

Dug said...

I guess my point is that a) this seems a *lot* nastier than in the past, more personal. I'm all for rivalries, we're not singing Kumbaya here.

b) As for my political rant, my point is that I strongly suspect that the reason *why* we are having such nastiness in what should be good-natured competition is the nastiness in our political and social spheres. It seems to date back to the Republican "Revolution" back in 1994. I'm not saying who started it, I'm just saying that this appears to be when the wheels started to come off.

I tried very hard not to give a political "rant" but in the end the Republican Party is just so *good* at stirring up fear and loathing of the Other while the liberal side does such a terrible job of it (witness the disaster that is MSNBC compared to the incredibly successful Fox News) that they provided the most ammunition. The Republicans work in lockstep while the Democrats

At this point, the only way that government will start acting like adults is if the electorate starts to act like adults. That includes the media, who has some responsibility for whipping up alumni into a frenzy, reminding everyone of every past transgression by the other side, and focusing on the crazy. Quite frankly, they've all become propaganda arms for fear, although as I mention above some not only do it really well, but seem to have been created for that express purpose.

What I failed to do was make a better connection between being overly emotionally invested in what should be a game (and is actually big business - look at how much Boise State "lost" by losing a single game) and being overly emotionally invested in a political position. And it doesn't seem to matter any more what the position is, so long as it's your side's position.

In the end, Americans don't seem to have a lot of interest in learning to think for themselves, much less thinking for themselves, and that I find troubling. It becomes far too easy for the fringe to take over the conversation.

Of course, I, as a cynic of the first rank, believe that we've pasted the point of no return and we're doomed to become if we aren't already. And at exactly the wrong time. Maybe we're going insane because we just can't face the fact that our culture is not only unsustainable but also in dire danger. I guess it's comforting somehow to be more concerned with whether or not your gay neighbors are married in the eyes of *any* authoritative body than to know that we're one collapse of the Western Antarctic Ice Shelf away from a whole slew of Really Bad Days.

Ken said...

The key is to create as much fear as possible about how the other side creates so much fear. :)

Ken said...

Just to come clear, I'm not trying to be flippant. I'm just having some fun.

I attended a lecture at OSU this morning about "Basin Attractors in Modelling". (Including both mathematical and mental.) The idea is that there are often causality loops that can cause major errors with huge societal impacts. This happens when "because" and "therefore" can be transposed.

My own example:

- We experience forest fires because of the accumulation of undergrowth because we actively suppress fires because we experience forest fires.

A fun Yogi Berra example:

- No one goes to that restaurant anymore because it's too crowded.

A recent financial meltdown example:

- We use computer models to make money because there are profits to be made from keeping the financial markets stable because any instabilities are quickly identified as arbitrage opportunities and eliminated because we use computer models to make money.

In this case, the model actually influenced the behavior of the system it was modelling, causing it to undergo a phase change which made the model inapplicable.

So what does all that mean? I have no idea except that it was a fascinating discussion.

To the point of the blog, my opinion is that the current state of political discourse is not ahistorical in its nastiness. Honestly, some of the stuff in the past is laughably way worse than today. Here's one from 1964:

OK, if I don't vote for Lyndon Johnson, then the world will end soon in a giant fireball. I remember being scared to death of Ronald Reagan who was without a doubt going to start nuclear World War. I wasn't around then, but I know that the 1856 presidential was won by James Buchanan who was running around saying that unless you voted for him, it would result in civil war.

Our political history post-1994 doesn't really look any more or less nasty to me. Partisans will always try to make political hay by claiming the high road and pointing their finger at the opposition's horrible behavior.

Here is one thing I do know for sure though. It's a damn good thing that the lecture I attended at OSU this morning was given by a Beaver professor. Had he been a Duck, then the lecture would have been so boring and inaccurate that someone would have undoubtedly burned down the entire building.