… and he is us. For the millionth time, thank you, Walt Kelly.
Election Day 2012 in these Untied States of America is upon us. You may perhaps have noticed. If the noise didn’t get your attention, the heat surely did. That hurricane that barreled into New York just last week? The energy for that didn’t come from global warming. Nah.
It came from all the Americans jumping up and down, yelling and screaming at each other.
In recent weeks, a number of Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba’s friends and acquaintances have lamented the loss of civil discourse in America. You are a True Believer, or you are (pick one) a freeloader / a tool of the 2%, and therefore subhuman, of value only as a yell-ee. One correspondent blamed the politicians for this. “If our leaders were civil to each other, the people would follow suit.” He was none too happy when YFNA suggested that it was the other way around. That the politicians follow the lead of the people, and modern political discourse is uncivil because that’s the way We want it.
One could argue that the present descent into mad (and, yes, perhaps, madness) began, or was shoved along, with the vice-presidential debate some weeks ago, wherein Joe Biden abandoned all efforts at civility and tore into his opposite number, in so doing (maybe) saving the Obama presidency.
YFNA, however, argues that the process began long before this season’s presidential debates, indeed long before some of those whose votes will be tallied in the evening hours of 5 November 2012 were born.
Exhibit A: Mr. John McEnroe.
McEnroe was a professional tennis player, active primarily during the 1980s. He is reputed to be one of the most skilled and successful players ever to play the game. “Reputed”, because YFNA ceased to follow tennis early in McEnroe’s career, and never bothered to follow the game thereafter. And Mr. McEnroe is the reason.
Y’see, at the time McEnroe appeared on the pro circuit, the sport of tennis demanded exemplary behavior of its players. Its code of conduct was second in its stringency, among the outdoor sports, only to that of golf. The story was told of Björn Borg, a Swedish-born contemporary of McEnroe’s, who, once, in his youth, so forgot himself on the tennis court that he threw a racket in frustration. His father (and coach) yanked him off the court, grounded him, and told him “Repeat that, and your days playing tennis are over.” He learned the lesson.
McEnroe never did. He threw rackets. He argued constantly with referees, and sometimes his tirades were laced with obscenities. He was fined, he was suspended, he was lectured, all to no avail. According to the codes of his sport, his violations should have gotten him banned for life.
That never happened. Audiences lapped up McEnroe’s antics. Fans who had no idea what a ‘baseline’ was, never mind anything about the artistry of executing a passing shot from the baseline while on the run, sure as hell knew what an f-bomb was, and when will Mac drop the next one? Tennis prospered like it never had before.
And never has since. Indeed, during the career of Pete Sampras, who succeeded McEnroe at the top of the tennis world, and who was, in many ways a superior player to McEnroe, professional tennis nearly went broke. Why? Sampras adhered to the classic code of tennis conduct. BOOORRIIIINGG!
McEnroe demonstrated to the sporting world that discipline was not the way to make money. Ranting and raving was. Because ranting and raving is what We the People will buy. McEnroe, YFNA thinks, pointed the way to Allen Iverson. Dennis Rodman. Terrell Owens. John Daly. Sports figures whose talents were secondary to their conduct-code-flaunting antics – on and off the field. Which We the People have paid for to the tune of $1 million, nay $10 million, a year. While scientists with bachelor’s and master’s degrees, doing work that matters, make less than trainee managers at McDonalds.
It’s not too much of a stretch, YFNA thinks, to suggest that McEnroe pointed the way to the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage.
It’s a tricky thing, this ranting and raving business. Yes, it releases the emotions. The resulting surge of adrenaline can feel really good, and it can convey a significant advantage to an athlete, both as an individual and as part of a team. A really good motivational speaker can rouse the emotions of the audience to such a pitch that the listeners will tackle things that the logical faculty says can’t – or maybe shouldn’t – be done.
Like building “showers” at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, for instance.
Adolf Hitler was a really good motivational speaker. University students were among his most ardent supporters, and many otherwise intelligent, critical people reported that, under the spell of one of his speeches, they simply could not think logically.
And he was the most popular politician in German history.
Among those who survived the consequences of Hitler’s emotional appeals were those who became the guardians of the sports codes. Guardians who recognized that the emotions, the passions, released in competition needed to be governed by discipline. And pretty stiff discipline, at that. Lest the emotions released in the name of winning the game, or an argument, bust the bounds of logic. You don’t get to have that last 10% of the adrenaline surge if that means throwing a racket, or breaking spines in a chop block, or re-enslaving blacks and women in the name of … whatever.
YFNA spent a fair chunk of his life being labeled “repressed” for holding this view of conduct. He’s beginning to think that a little “repression” of this type might be timely. No one can impose it, it has to be something that We the People choose to adopt. It won’t be easy, either; it will mean that sometimes folk have to refute the mantra that is perhaps the defining legacy of the Baby Boomers (from which they have, until now, profited nicely): ‘if it feels good, do it’. We the People are probably going to have to practice some ‘if it feels good, don’t do it’. But, a little social discipline, reinstalled into the political and social life of these Untied States, just might save the nation.
If it isn’t already too late.