So of course, the right-wing response to the images of Colin Kaepernick and other (mostly Black) players taking a knee during the playing of the anthem is racist to the core, especially in a sport many call a plantation of white owners and black players. The Trump crowd accuses them, quite wrongly, of disrespecting the troops. With him, as we should all know by now, it’s all about preaching to his chorus.
And yet, in a perverted way, there is more to this, and to the vitriol I occasionally received at Maples Pavilion. Isn’t the furious reaction to the feeling that something sacred is being violated? A ritual is being corrupted, especially in Pro Football, but apparently everywhere else Americans gather to watch organized sports.
At one level, that sacred thing is a contest played within clear boundaries and time restrictions (except for baseball), under clear rules, with recognized masters of ceremony (the refs). For normally productive adults to play, or even watch others playing, is a relatively brief and longed-for vacation from the actual, forty-hour per week, competitive, dog-eat-dog, rat race grind of useless, unfulfilling work that most of us call the “real world.” Another word for that escape that we used to use was carnival, and an even older word was Heaven.
But on a deeper level, this ritual of play, despite the recent popularity of women’s sports, is training in traditional masculine roles. It is symbolic rehearsal for war.
Of course, military men have long known, or imagined, or wished for, the connection between sports and warfare. The Duke of Wellington allegedly said that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. A hundred and fifty years later, Dwight Eisenhower admitted, “The true mission of American sports is to prepare young men for war.” It is not a substitute for war.
On July 1st, 1916, as the British army rose from its trenches on the Somme River, some of their officers kicked soccer balls in front of the advance. It was one way to motivate those young men, 60,000 of whom would be mowed down before evening. Everyone on both sides of that ceremony of child sacrifice understood the metaphor; the British were attempting to penetrate (from a Latin root related to “innermost part of a temple”) the German lines. Perhaps the Yiddish verb shtup (“to overfeed, annoy, or to fuck”) is more appropriate. Everyone understood the patriarchal connection between sports, war – and sex.
Consider the essentially phallic nature of almost all major sports, that the purpose, the definition of victory, the whole “point” of the game, the way one “scores” in football, basketball, soccer, hockey, volleyball, water polo, rugby, Irish football, lacrosse, golf, tennis, table tennis and badminton is to penetrate the opponent’s defenses and deposit a small object across his (let’s be honest, her) boundaries, into his/her sacred inner space. Ironically, the only major sports where this is not the goal are baseball and cricket, despite their famous use of phallic bats. Indeed, the goal of baseball is to square the circle and get “home,” as Robert Kelly writes. But I digress.
The war mongers have always claimed that this is training in our most fundamental value, the free competition between young, well bred, Anglo-Saxon men with equal opportunity to demonstrate the mental and spiritual characteristics attained by combining innate talent and dedicated work. It’s the essence of our myth of meritocracy. Such men forged a nation, conquered the “howling wilderness” of North America – and they perpetrated the Sand Creek and My Lai massacres and Abu Ghraib torture chambers, ran the Guantanamo concentration camp, joy-sticked the drone attacks and polluted the entire Earth.
This understanding that competitive team sports – as they evolved under patriarchy and later under capitalism – is a fundamental preparation for warfare implies another contradiction in our American myth. For all our insistence on the values of radical individualism (remember the Army’s TV ad with the slogan, “Be All You Can Be!”), the shadow of that national self-image is the extreme conformism and brutal response to dissent that we predictably fall into each time the warmongers decide to convince us to fear a new evil Other. Then, we jettison the individual heroics and civil liberties and send our children out to war as a group. And, with perverse if unconscious joy, we watch them entire the fires of the sacrifice.
But what about cooperation (another team characteristic)? Physical anthropologists agree that we humans share our violent competitiveness with other hominids, that this represents the primitive parts of our brains, and that what made us human was the development of our capacity for cooperation. This trait dominated for the vast majority of our history. Indeed, as Jeremy Lent writes, “…in virtually all hunter-gatherer societies, people join together to prevent powerful males from taking too much control.”
As students of culture and ritual, however, we interested in why some men are so pathologically driven to dominate others. Chapter Five of my book Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence investigates the question of initiation and concludes that the crimes of patriarchy, colonialism, religious warfare and terrorism are perpetrated by uninitiated males. Patriarchy is not the rule of men. It is the rule of immature, privileged, uninitiated men. Here are some of my essays on initiation:
And as mythologists, we try to tell new stories about ourselves, stories that could be true. This involves imagining what competition once meant, and what it might be again.
Consider three characteristics of modernity: first, polarization into extreme positions of right and wrong; second, the lack of true, initiated warriors and the elevation of the Hero to high status; and third, the loss of effective rituals of conflict. The paranoid imagination sees conflict as necessary to defend against, convert or eliminate the Other. To the predatory imagination, conflict is a fact of a life; kill or be killed; take what you can; and no apologies. Both accept any level of violence necessary to attain their goals, including genocide.
But what if conflict itself had a completely different function? Many tribal people that I’ve read about once believed that it existed neither to eliminate alternative voices nor as a tool for rape and plunder, but to bring people together. We see vestiges of this in the Gaelic language. One cannot say, “I am angry at you,” but only, “There is anger between us.” This wisdom is present in the word competition (communally petitioning the gods). Engagement can refer either to martial or to marital affairs. Animosity, with its connections to animal, animate, animation and anima, derives from the Latin for “breath of life.” If we follow animosity to its archetypal source, we find the one breath we all share.
Although Greek myth is full of horrific violence, it offers us a surprising image in the war god, Ares. He is called “killer of men,” a stereotyped murder machine. Zeus calls him, “most hateful to me…” But beyond the Iliad, he appears in few fully elaborated myths. Instead, writes (James) Hillman,
He presents himself in action rather than in telling…The god does not stand above or behind the scene directing what happens. He is what happens.
Like all inhabitants of the polytheistic imagination, Ares is more complicated than he seems. An immortal, he is an image of the divine, and thus of the psyche. This tells us first that Greek culture understood that martial values are fundamentally human, not to be demonized and certainly not to be ignored. Second, some say that his elders taught Ares to dance before he learned the arts of war.
Third, he was Aphrodite’s lover. This most masculine god and this most feminine goddess birthed a daughter named Harmonia. Thus, in pagan thinking, the war god had a “harmonious” relationship with the feminine that balanced his destructiveness. There is sublime beauty in war, and there is conflict in love. Harmonia is the product of the Warrior in a balanced relationship with its complementary archetype, the Lover. Love and war (may) beget harmony, as Psyche and Eros beget Voluptus, or voluptuousness.
Soldiers entering battle invoked Ares, asking for strength and courage. But they also called upon him to prevent conflict from degenerating into uncontrollable violence, as in this 7th-century B.C.E. hymn:
Hear me, helper of mankind, dispenser of youth’s sweet courage, beam down…your gentle light on our lives…diminish that deceptive rush of my spirit, and restrain that shrill voice in my heart that provokes me to enter the chilling din of battle…let me linger in the safe laws of peace…
This poetry invites us to imagine a consciousness that loves conflict as a form of relationship, seeking restoration of harmony rather than domination. “Who would have imagined,” writes Hillman, “that restraint is what Ares offers?”
Our post-modern, demythologized world, however, offers us neither a model of a divine war god nor of the divine madness that Dionysus once symbolized. Lacking that mythological imagination, we search for initiation in all the wrong places, often as vicarious intensity, the excitement we feel when someone else (usually the image of someone else) confronts the edge of danger. And, as the young and poor experience the actual danger, we – especially our intellectuals – enjoy the spectacle from a safe distance. After the 9/11 attacks, Christopher Hitchens, utterly insensitive to his own privileged safety, articulated the thrill experienced by the “Neocons” and others when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan:
…another sensation was contending for mastery…to my own surprise and pleasure, it turned out to be exhilaration. Here was the most frightful enemy…if the battle went on until the last day of my life, I would never get bored in prosecuting it to the utmost.
This helps explains why we prefer to watch major sports events among friends. “Fans” (Latin: fanaticus, mad, divinely inspired, originally pertaining to a temple) make up an emotionally engaged community holding the container for these rituals of “com-petition.”
But some of us demand more of this vicarious intensity. For them, only the expectation of violence can penetrate their emotional armoring. Hence, along with the increasing militarization of society, the increased popularity of football, hockey, pro wrestling and auto racing, where helmeted Christs suffer for us all. And some move easily from cheering our team and wearing its logo, to taunting opponents and brawling with their fans; from “Kill the umpire!” to “Kill the Jews!”
Vicarious intensity feeds upon literal violence that we once expressed symbolically under ritual conditions. But when we have not been initiated into a fundamentally spiritual identity, team spirit becomes war fever. As Jung wrote, then people become
…sick of that banal life…they want sensation…when there is a war: they say, ‘Thank heaven, now something is going to happen – something bigger than ourselves!’
Beyond the questions of male dominance, incomplete initiations, vicarious violence and tribalism (U.S.A! U.S.A!), what is this love of competition, really? We must admit that it’s there in a chess match, a child’s game of “Go Fish” or a scientific debate as much as in a match between Barcelona and Tottenham. Or in a jazz combo, or a poetry salon, where a solo performance is not meant to outdo an “opponent” but to challenge them to up the ante, to commit themselves even deeper, to inspire them to do even better. This is the essence of what we try to do in Rumi’s Caravan.
It is also the essence of real competition at the highest levels of sport. Of course, competitors play to win; they devote their lives to this goal. But the post-game embraces between players who, moments before, had been bashing each other, are quite real; and sometimes we can identify something in their eyes that we can only call love. Down at our level, any beer-league softball player who’s ever high-fived his opponent and told him “Good game!” knows what I’m talking about. And this, at the core, is “petitioning the gods together.” In this imagination of who we once were and who we might be again, to compete is to pray.
“Blah, blah. Chill out, man,” you might say, “it’s only entertainment! Well, yes…and:
Michael Ventura writes that movies and the electronic media that came after have “usurped the public’s interest in the arts as a whole and in literature especially.” Whereas for thousands of years indigenous people had participated in their entertainment, Americans (except for social dancing) are mainly passive consumers of culture. The Western mind-body split, writes Ventura, comes to its extreme in the concept of an audience. It “… has no body… all attention, all in its heads, while something on a screen or a stage enacts its body.”
Vicarious, voyeuristic intensity meets electronic spectacle in our recent wars. We see without being seen, writes Marita Sturken:
This tension of immediacy, sadism, and a slight tinge of complicity was thus integral to the pleasures of spectatorship. We saw, we were ‘there,’ yet the technology kept us…at a safe distance.
Our primary leisure activity is entertainment, watching or listening as we are passively entertained. Certainly, we deserve relaxation and restoration. But why does it seem so unrewarding; and despite this, why do we constantly repeat the experience, as if something might change and our longing be fulfilled?
“Entertain” means “to hold together.” But what does “together” refer to – subject or object? Two or more subjects can hold something in common. Or, one subject could hold two or more objects. Finally, a community, several subjects, could potentially hold two or more mutually exclusive concepts – the tension of the opposites – in a ritual container such as tragic drama. Perhaps the original meaning of entertainment was ritual renewal of the community through shared suffering. Athenian audiences, watching tragic theater, did exactly that; viewing the clash of unbearable contradictions, they held that tension and they wept together unashamedly. They emerged spent but renewed, purged of their anxieties for a while.
This is why the satisfaction of entertainment is so fleeting. Often, we hold something (hero-worship or villain-hatred) together. But since we, in our darkened rooms, rarely encounter authentic paradox or nuance, we miss out on the shared grief and joy that can actually unite people. Instead of embracing the mysterious and tragic coexistence of opposites, we release the tension by watching it being resolved, either violently or comically.
We identify with either conventional, American redemption heroes who restore innocent Eden, or with an endless procession of cute, ironic, self-deprecating, sharp-witted, deathless or comic characters. Media entertainment satisfies nothing but our longing for innocence. These experiences give us so little nutrition for the soul, so little communitas, that sooner or later we succumb to the need for a scapegoat.
But competition can hold people – even enemies – together, as a glance at many Western movies produced in the 1930s and 1940s shows. So often, vicious bar fights, complete with chairs smashed over men’s shoulders, end with the antagonists dusting themselves off, staggering back to the bar and buying each other drinks. The cliché scene speaks to something much deeper.
Oh yeah, there’s nothing wrong with watching sports, live or on TV. But one of the lessons of the great cultural transition we are in is the necessity of making beauty, ourselves, in and as embodied beings.
As the myth of American innocence continues to unravel, we are all called to live with these massive cultural contradictions, to hold the tension of the opposites. So I refuse to reduce this discussion with a simple resolution. It’s Opening Day. Play ball!
For brilliant – and politically progressive – sports commentary, read or listen to Dave Zirin.