Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Break Announcement

If anyone bothers to check this blog for the next week or so, there won't be anything new, as the holidays fill me with too much cheer to be truly angry at everything. I'll be back with fresh vitriol on January 2 or thereabouts. Meanwhile, in honor of the season and the city I grew up in, here's a video from Harvey Danger (they did "Flagpole Sitta," but also some other songs).
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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Why Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Sucks

Christmas is here, the most capitalist of all our holidays, and with it comes a host of Christmas carols that often seem designed solely to drive shopping mall employees insane. These carols are part of our collective cultural DNA—somehow all of us, even the non-Christians, have the lyrics to “Frosty the Snowman” clogging up a corner of our brains. We hardly ever stop to analyze these carols, or even think about them for more than a second. Whether the carol is a thinly veiled warning to the followers of a vengeful and angry God (“Santa Claus is Coming to Town”), a litany of pagan nature-love (“O Christmas Tree”), or an incomprehensible story-song that no one knows the words to (“Good King Wenceslas”), Christmas carols are nothing more than background to our frenzied last-minute shopping trips.

One song that is a little more than background is “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” Written by an advertising executive in 1939 to appeal to children (seriously), it became so popular that it spawned several ubiquitous TV specials and a feature-length film. The song itself if the heartwarming story of a reindeer who learns that we are all special and can be helpful in different ways.

Ha ha! No, the song is actually about abusing those who stand out in any way until they become useful to the capitalist enterprise, then praising them and hoping they'll forget that you taunted them. Rudolph is only accepted by the other reindeer once he guides Santa's sleigh, and only then—if the “foggy Christmas eve” never happened, Rudolph would still be mistreated and no one would give a sack of coal. Luckily for him, his deformity turned out to be one that Santa could make use of.

It's an ugly story, and one that gets repeated over and over again outside of the North Pole. Just like Rudolph, the typical artist is usually abused and cast out by society, only to be praised by that same public once his art has become famous. From Van Gogh to Edgar Allen Poe to Kurt Cobain, the song remains the same: nobody likes you until everybody does (sometimes this process doesn't happen until you're already dead). Then, when everybody likes you, your suffering and years of ostracism are explained away. “Oh, sure we called you names, but that was because we didn't know how important you be!” say the public, or the other reindeer. “Now, how much for that painting? I just love your work!”

The ugliness of this cliched tale is that the artist (Rudolph) is expected to be fine with everyone who used to torture him. At the end of the song, when Rudolph is surrounded by his admirers—former enemies—how does he feel? Angry at them for being utterly two-faced? Is he secretly plotting his revenge against the worst of them? Or is he afraid that some day they won't like his nose anymore and he'll be cast out again?

One thing's for sure—unless Rudolph is a naive, gibbering idiot, he won't accept their shouts of glee at face value. He's saved Christmas, sure, but how long are these reindeer going to remember that for? Or someone else will save Christmas, and they'll tell that savior he'll go down in history too, abandoning Rudolph. But that sequel is not recorded in the song—maybe next Christmas will be foggy too, and Rudolph will remain in the limelight. Merry Christmas Rudolph. Remember: as long as you're useful, everyone will love you.
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Monday, December 21, 2009

Why the Tea Party Movement Sucks, Expanded version

Last week I talked about the chance of the Tea Party movement sabotaging itself like the 60s radicals did back in the good old days, when the protestors were young, liberal, and fuckable. That might be true—it's hard to imagine that nominating Sarah Palin, for example, would be a step in the right direction for right-wingers—but I don't think I explained the reasons I find the Tea Partiers so personally distasteful, so I'm revisiting the topic.

Now, I'm not one of those liberals that gets irrationally angry at the mere mention of conservative policies, or brands any critique of Obama as “racist.” Libertarianism appeals to me for many of the same reasons Anarchism does, and we certainly need criticism from both ends of the political spectrum to keep everyone busy and to test our convictions and arguments. To push for fiscal responsibility, to ask whether this country should continue borrowing money to finance a war and expand the social safety net—those aren't nutty propositions.

But the Teabaggers (as the left-wing blogs have dubbed them) are nutty, just like any mass organized protest group is nutty. If they weren't on the fringe of political opinion, they wouldn't feel need to protest to make their opinions heard. Some of them dress in crazy outfits, wave openly apocalyptic banners, and make vague threats of violence, like, “Sure, you can take my gun—take the bullets first.” (That's from the comment boards on Redstate.)

The 60s protestors were nutty too. But they were utopian nuts. They wanted to build a perfect society, founded on their principles of peace, democracy, and fucking each other pretty much all the time. They had hope for the future, and even though their ideas were a little off-kilter—taking a bunch of drugs, plotting terrorist bombings—their ideals were intact.

Teabaggers don't aspire towards utopia. Instead, their rhetoric is focused on denying dystopia, which is an altogether more depressing proposition. They believe that we are in a slow spiral towards a Stalinist state in which the individual will have no rights, and they care less about building something than they do making sure the “Socialist” society never gets built.

As a cause, this fucking sucks. Their passion is not progress, not the advancement of man or peace, but a sort of conspiracy-theory-driven anti-tax movement. “Don't take my money!” is their rallying cry—what's more empty and materialistic than that? Are they saying that a small change in the marginal tax rate denies them their rights? Or that earning a thousand dollars more a year would make them happy? Will defeating a bill to grant a subsidy to uninsured people make the world a better place? In a perfect universe where Tea Partiers could have all the tea they wanted, what would they do?

Maybe they would abolish the federal government, or the entire government, in which case I would say, “Go get 'em, guys!” But that sounds a lot like Anarchism, and I have the feeling that the Teabaggers want to keep the police and the military relatively intact. Their ideal world would probably be a bit like Galt's Gulch in Atlas Shrugged, where the free market has magically done away with poverty, only with Christian morality somehow mixed in there. That does not sound like a fun place to spend time.

It may sound a little trivial to criticize a protest movement for not being “fun” enough, but when you look back on the real accomplishments of the late 60s, you have to admit the best thing to come out of those radical, weird days was the music, the clothes, and the art—the fun stuff. I doubt the Teabaggers will achieve the political goals on their agenda (which is basically just stopping Obama's agenda), and unlike those 60s radicals, they won't have made much of a mark in the cultural fields either. Or at least I hope they don't. After all, this is the kind of painting they like, and this is the kind of protest song they like. “Fortunate Son” it ain't:
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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Why the Tea Party Movement Sucks

Once upon a time, a large number of people were unhappy with the direction the country was going in. They felt alienated, underrepresented by their government, and abused by those in power. Now, a whole lot of people feel that way pretty much all the time and don't do anything about it and just head off to their shift at Taco Bell, but these people I'm talking about could afford to take some time and let everyone know how they felt about The Issues. They expressed how they felt by wearing bizarre outfits, waving handmade signs that were sometimes clever, sometimes purposely offensive, and occasionally occupying buildings and refusing to leave. This, surprisingly, did not result in great social change. By the time the protestors organized themselves into a fully viable political movement, most of the country was sick of them and their presidential candidate got destroyed in the general election, despite a whole lot of hoopla about a “new era of politics.”

I'm talking, of course, about the 60s. American politics were moving to the right back then, with the rise of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and their teams of media manipulators, many of whom are still on the political scene, or working behind it. (Karl Rove and Roger Ailes both got their start working for Nixon.) The protestors—the Yippies, the SDS, the Weathermen, the Black Panthers—did not get what they were fighting for. Racial inequality, capitalism, and corporate greed went on unabated, as did the Vietnam War. The demonstrators succeeded mainly in getting laid and breaking the Democratic Party into tiny pieces from 1968-72, which of course led to a series of depressing (if you were a leftist) defeats. You can make the case that the extremism on display actually hurt the protestors' cause.

Discussion question: is the same scenario developing, but on the right side of the aisle?

Like the 60s radicals, the “Tea Party” protestors are dissatisfied with both political parties, although they lean more towards one side than the other. Tea Partiers' officially stated claims (lowering taxes and defeating the health care bill) are less important than vague feelings of anger towards the status quo, just as vague anti-capitalist anger and utopian ideals were more important to 60s radicals than the ending of the Vietnam War. Just like the protestor groups of old, the Tea Partiers are made up of several different groups, each with slightly different aims, and just as in the 60s, these groups squabble amongst themselves over arguments that make no sense to outsiders. Just like the Black Panthers threatened violence, so do some Tea Partiers threaten violence. And as that Congressional election in upstate New York last month shows, the Tea Partiers are just as willing to spit in the Republicans' eye as the Yippies were willing to spit in the Democrats'.

Right now, the Tea Party movement is popular. Democratic incumbents are going to lose some elections next year. But it's normal for midterm elections to go somewhat badly for the party that just got put into power. And right now, the Tea Party is hip and new, so people like it, just like everyone liked Tamagotchis when I was in fifth grade. The elections are a long ways away, especially the 2012 contests, and whoever emerges as the Tea Party's favorite candidate (Sarah Palin, maybe, or this guy) might be too extreme for a majority of the country, just like George McGovern was too extreme back in 1972.

The Tea Party movement sucks for three wholly separate reasons: firstly, it makes liberals froth at the mouth and become completely incoherent (like in this column) much as I imagine conservatives lost their minds over hippies. Secondly, from a conservative point of view, they might end up becoming extremists and refusing to accept useful compromises, thus losing elections for the party they're closest two. Finally, they don't use drugs, get laid, or create interesting music—they're like hippies without the fun. Blech.

(Most of the history in this post is stolen from Nixonland, a book that, in a just world, would be more widely read than Atlas Shrugged.) .
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Monday, December 14, 2009

Why Unemployment Sucks

Most people have a fairly easy decision to make when they wake up each morning: Should I go to work or stay in bed? You want to stay in bed, even if your job is Delicious Candy Taster or Famous Television Personality, because every job has a number of uncomfortable, often painful downsides—that is why you get money for working. Yet, with herculean efforts, we all get out of bed and stagger into the shower and even put on a giant rat suit, if our job is Mascot, because that is what it means to be a full and functioning member of Society. Also, we have bills and sometimes baby mommas to pay so: we go to work.

Unless, of course, we have no work to go to. Then our decisions upon waking up are more numerous, and more fraught. What time is it? What should I do today? Should I look for work? Should I masturbate? I should really look for work today, shouldn't I? How do I do that? Should I masturbate again? If I don't look for work, what should I do? What's on Hulu? How long can I stay inside my apartment before it becomes weird that I haven't left yet? Can I justify buying more weed, even though I don't have a job? MST3K is on Hulu now? What's my dealer's number?

Without a job, our days are completely free and the daily planner applications on our cellphones are useless. You should be refreshing Craigslist every hour, scanning job sites every day for leads, and roaming the streets with your bundle of resumes tucked under your arm. Maybe you do that for a couple of days, or a week, but if you are out of work much longer it becomes harder to convince yourself to look for work. Here's where the problems start.

You start growing a beard, even if you are a woman. You start riding the bus, not to go anywhere, just to have something to do. You never see the friends you have, because they're always at work or doing things that require money. You wear the same clothes for days, because what difference does it make? You start to believe the universe will provide a path for you. It doesn't. You contemplate joining the Navy or the Marines, or hitchhiking around the country. You tell yourself you need to take charge of your life and stare at the wall for several hours. You walk past a guy who is probably selling crack and think, I wonder what that's like, and mean both selling and smoking crack. You chicken out and go home, wondering how long you can go without paying rent. Your unemployment benefits start running out and you start watching homeless people very closely. How do they get by? Could you do that? Are you attractive enough to be a successful prostitute? Do you have to be attractive to be a prostitute?

People with jobs seem mysterious after too much unemployment. You watch them from your seat on the bus. Where are they going? Do they like having jobs? What's a job like? How did they get one? You follow some of them off the bus until they go into a building. This is getting weird, you think. You walk into a fancy restaurant and order thirty dollars of food for yourself, which you can't afford. You fantasize about having sex with the hostess, then you fantasize about being a hostess at a restaurant like this. Then you would meet new people and you could pay rent again! But all of the restaurant jobs in this town require experience. How does one start a career as a restaurant employee, if no one will hire you without experience?

Jesus, you think, what a horrible society we live in, in which all of our value and connection to society is based around what we do for a living! How can we live this way, with our lives so caught up in our relationship to the perverse and cruel capitalist economy? You read some Communist literature online, but it's pretty dense and you give up. You read that unemployment is 10 percent, does that mean 10 percent of people in this country are having the same problems you are? Jesus. What a fucked-up situation. Fucking banks. Fucking mortgages or whatever. You hope someone will give you health insurance soon, because if you get hit by a car right now, your life is pretty much over. That's a pretty grim thought. You check Craigslist again.

(Image stolen from Unemploymentality.)
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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Why "Just Wars" Suck

So everyone's favorite and least favorite sitting President accepted the Nobel Peace Prize yesterday, in the middle of escalating a war. Can you say awk-waaaard? (That should be delivered in a falsetto, if you actually say it.) Forget the Obama had to deliver a speech accepting an award "for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples" only a week after announcing that he plans to send 30,000 more men with guns in order to kill some people. So he fell back on that old politician's friend, the idea of the “just war.”

As Obama noted in his speech, war has been around a long, long time and is not going anywhere any time soon, for a variety of reasons. Now, the people who advocate for wars are hardly ever the people who go to fight in them, because, duh, fighting in wars causes you to kill people, die, get maimed, acquire irreversible psychic damage—it's a no-win scenario for the participants. So the warmongers have to convince the would-be soldiers that it's a good idea to go and kill and die and so on, which is no easy task. God has been frequently invoked in the preparations for war (“It will please Him greatly if we take that hill!”), and money may also be brought into the mix (“Okay, how about a hundred bucks if you fire a gun in that direction?”). But holy wars are becoming less and less common, and not all that many people are willing to die just for the sake of a check, so more abstract reasoning for war had to be invented: “We aren't fighting for God, we're fighting to defend Democracy/Our Country/World Peace And Stability!”

Obama's ingredients for a “just war” are these:
“If it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the forced used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.”
Well, that sounds fine, right? Right?

One obvious problem is that wars are always said to be in self-defense or in last resort. Even Osama bin Laden's fatwah against America was couched in the logic of self-defense in his manifesto. We invaded Iraq because we had to stop them from attacking us, and Afghanistan because militants in their country already attacked us. And the rationale for the Vietnam war was that if Vietnam fell to communism, a whole lot of countries would fall to communism and the reds would be on our doorstep. Who's to say with any certainty what is and isn't self-defense?

And “proportional force” is vague too. What would be proportional for the 9/11 attacks? Or Pearl Harbor, for that matter? Did the Holocaust justify the Dresden bombings? Did Japan's brutality in China and Korea justify dropping the bomb on Hiroshima? And most importantly, does that mean that if one side uses atomic weapons, one side could use them too, in the name of “proportional force?”

Then again, atomic weapons would kill civilians, and Obama's unequivocally against that. Um, “whenever possible,” which sounds an awful lot like the generals' promise to avoid civilian casualties in Vietnam, and we know how that turned out.

Obama's speech was nuanced, but it wasn't new. Every leader of every country always desires peace, yet somehow there are always reasons peace is impossible. And Obama's plea for countries to unite against rogue states sounds somewhat familiar too: “Sanctions must exact a real price. Intransigence must be met with increased pressure -- and such pressure exists only when the world stands together as one.” That sentiment isn't far from Henry Kissinger's “A sense of responsibility and accommodation must guide the behavior of all nations.” I don't want to compare Obama to a war criminal, I'm just saying Afghanistan is starting to sound like same song, second verse. (Maybe there's a reason that among all the wars Obama mentioned in the speech, Vietnam never comes up.)

Obama is right when he says that some wars are unavoidable. When confronted with totalitarianism and religious fanaticism, what else are we supposed to do but fight back? But the war in Afghanistan that Obama is now responsible for isn't as simple as World War Two, or even the Spanish Civil War. We aren't fighting a dictatorship, we're trying to build a country, something that I don't believe has ever been successfully done. The president of this fledgling country stole the election and pledged to fight corruption, which would be fine if it weren't little bit like Lil' Wayne telling kids not to do drugs. Then there's the small problem that the Taliban pays it's fighters more than we pay our Afghan fighters. And there's the difficult, mountainous terrain, Al Qaeda's fighters across the border in Pakistan, the opium trade that won't go away...when you look around for comparable war, Vietnam is the only one that comes to mind. I may not know a lot about foreign policy, but I know that this situation sucks. The problem is that instead of being a just war, Afghanistan is rapidly turning into just a war.

Obama's Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech (WSJ)

(Image at top stolen from an article in the Korea Times)
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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Things That Don't Suck: The Flaming Lips

After downloading and listening to the Flaming Lips' latest album, Embryonic, I have decided that the Flaming Lips are crazy. Not crazy in the usual drugged-up-boozed-out-rock-band way, or the Syd Barrett/Brian Wilson “No, I mean actually diagnosed as insane” way. The Flaming Lips are crazy because unlike nearly every other popular recording group, they don't seem to care whether anyone likes them.

Clarification: a lot of people do like them a lot. In fact, Embryonic debuted at number eight on the Billboard Top 100, so they did sell a lot of records, but on the other hand: holy shit, this album does not sound like something that should be on the same list with Taylor Swift, Jay-Z, and Barbara Streisand, who were all in the Top 10 with the Flaming Lips that week. Weird synthesizer buzzes and clicks obscure drum-and-bass grooves, parts of the album sound like they were recorded by and for machines, and there's that extended two-note guitar solo during “Powerless” that's practically an anti-guitar solo. This is not a radio-friendly or fan-friendly album. It is, however, friendly enough to people uncool enough to still be taking psychedelic drugs in this day and age. Coincidentally (or not), Wayne Coyne's lyrics sound like the kind of insights one has when coming down from an 18-hour acid trip: “I wish I could go back/back in time/but no one ever really can/go back in time.” What? Whoa, man, whoa. We're traveling in time, but, only in one direction.

Embryonic isn't my favorite Lips album, and parts of it are hard to listen to, but I appreciate that a modern rock band is willing to make my ears hurt. The Lips could have recorded versions of their 1999 mostly-undisputed masterpiece The Soft Bulletin over and over again, but like time, man, they're constantly moving forward.

Most bands try to find a sound that fits them and mostly stick to it with small amounts of tweaking over the years. This is true even in the case of “experimental” bands: was Sonic Youth's last album a different from the one that preceded it? And as awesome as Radiohead's In Rainbows was, wasn't it a lot like OK Computer, which they recorded last decade? Some of these bands seem to be performing the same experiment over and over again, and getting the same results. Whether you like or dislike or feel completely neutral towards the Lips, you have to admit that they're at least willing to try new things, even if those things alienate their audience or are utterly incomprehensible. (See: Zaireeka.)

And it should be mentioned, finally, that these guys are getting old. They've been making music since the mid-80s and they've hit that age where most artists are content to play their hits in exchange for sexual relationships with inappropriately young groupies. Thankfully, the Lips never had any hits, except for that song about jelly and not using it. I suppose when you aren't successful doing something one way, it doesn't hurt to try it another way—then again, the Lips don't seem like they could stay in one place musically or artistically for very long no matter how rich they get. As their kandy-kolored tangerine-flake streamlined live show indicates, they're fully willing to do almost anything—drop confetti from the ceiling, prance around in animal costumes, roll around the audience in a giant plastic ball—just for the hell of it, or to see if people will dig it. “What the hell, why not?” seems to be their motto a lot of the time, and that's not such a bad motto for any artist in any medium.

Further reading: this cool profile on Wayne Coyne.
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Friday, December 4, 2009

Why Sportswriting Sucks

In my last post, I attacked sports columnist Rick Reilly pretty aggressively, basically implying that he had wasted his writing career accumulating a portfolio of schmaltzy sob stories about parentless little league pitchers and goalies with one arm who overcome the odds. That's a little harsh, in hindsight. For one thing, the guy has also written three (no doubt mediocre) novels. And after reading his Wikipedia page, I found out he encouraged people to donate money to a charity that fights malaria in Africa. He might generally suck, but he's not evil or anything. More importantly, he doesn't suck any more or less than the current crop of mainstream sportswriters.

Some highlights of sportswriting history: in the beginning, there was The Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, and local newspaper sports sections. That was pretty much it for print sports media. You could also watch some games on television--but not many, because cable didn't exist—and listen to games on the radio. Suffice to say, information oversaturation was not a problem. Then in 1979, ESPN debuted, and slowly grew into a four-channel monstrosity. The NFL became overwhelmingly popular thanks to TV. Athletes starting earning very, very large amounts of money and becoming celebrities separated from their fans by cameras. Talk radio let people yell at each other and for unclear reasons became incredibly popular. Then: the Internet! Fan websites developed where local constituencies could grouse about their lazy, overpaid players and incompetent front offices. Bill James introduced statistical analysis to baseball and it spread to other sports thanks to a small army of tech-savvy, number-loving geeks. Somewhere along the line, we lost interest in horse racing and boxing, formerly the most literary sports. ESPN began televising press conferences and athletes began Twittering complaints that used to be told to sportswriters. The steroid scandal made everyone angry and self-righteous and the media focus on athletes became more intense, to the point where the only difference between ESPN and TMZ is that they follow different people around (for an example of this, see Woods, Tiger).

What's the end result of this exponential expansion of sports media since the 70s? I would argue it has made the average fan more sophisticated.I would argue it has made the average fan more sophisticated. We can now watch every minute of every game our team plays, whereas before we could only listen to them on the radio. We have access not just to the local sports columnists' views but to a gigantic universe of opinion from fans, old-media types gone digital, and number-crunching Jamesians. We pay attention to how much our teams are paying the players and criticize their contracts. We have invented entirely new statistics, like Football Outsiders' DVOA. When an announcer tells us what happened on a football play, some of us know better than he does. When a writer gushes about a baseball player's “grit” or “leadership” we can snap back, on a fan site's messageboard, “What about his .306 OBP?!”

But what about the newspaper sports columnist? After all, he's still writing for the general public, not the fanatic fans or the stat geeks. So despite all this upheaval in the industry, the sportswriter's job hasn't changed a whole lot. Watch the game from the press box, go get a couple standard-issue quotes from the players and coaches (“We gave it our all, but at the end, we came up a little short. We can't think about this game, we have to move on to the next one”), type up your story. Repeat for years. If you get a column: praise charity work, grit, players that come from rough homes or poverty; denounce bad coaching decisions, drugs, the flaunting of wealth, “me-first attitudes.”

The problem with this system is that reading the articles that get produced this way is like watching Olympic Diving—the same exact thing happens over and over. It's not a coincidence that my three favorite sports books (Ball Four, Moneyball, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) weren't written by sportswriters, nor is it all that strange that Bill Simmons, the most popular sportswriter on the planet, dodged this system entirely and came out a more interesting writer because of it. The sportswriting sausage factory produces the same kind of article again and again. It's not a terrible article, but we don't need so much of it. (This not-exactly-spectacularly-interesting profile of Saints receiver Marques Colston is a fair example.) If we want to find out what happened in a given game, there's the play-by-play of every game available on the internet. People who write about sports in that traditional, cliche-ridden, analysis-free style so popular on ESPN and in newspapers are becoming the appendixes of media: once probably useful, now vestigial, and should probably be removed by medical professionals for everyone's safety.

Which brings us to Mr. Reilly, who started writing about sports in 1981, for a newspaper, before the media landscape changed. In comparison to some of the articles published during his tenure at Sports Illustrated, he's actually pretty good. He finds interesting, off-the-beaten track stories, and usually avoids rehashing the topic of the week like so many of his contemporaries. (Really? Steroids and cheating are bad? Who would have known without our country's Sports Columnists?) He seems to genuinely believe in the old cliches about sportsmanship, and there are worse things to believe in.

On the other hand, those cliches have a way of winding up in his columns, and he reduces every story to good guy versus bad guy. If you are an actual sports fan hoping to read something that sheds light on an aspect of the game, he will disappoint you every time. Distressingly, his website has a quote from Publisher's Weekly praising him as “One of the funniest humans on the planet,” which can only mean that his website comes from a dimension where very few humans remain on Earth, and one of them is Rick Reilly. And that column of his I linked to on Wednesday is simply an inexcusable, naive piece of garbage from someone who does nothing but sit around and watch Field of Dreams all day.

But this is supposed to be an apology of sorts to the guy. So, Rick, it's not you. It's not me, either. It's just that your industry and the boring style it spawned is dying. Thank God.
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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

An Open Letter to Rick Reilly about why Sports Suck

Hi Rick,

How are you doing? I worry about you sometimes. You've made it your personal and professional mission to write columns about “human interest” sports stories, stories meant to warm our hearts. Like last week's story of a father and son separated due to some bad luck who find each other thanks to Facebook. Uh, and the son is a defensive end at some small university, so I guess that counts as a “sports” story. Or your fawning profile of Texas quarterback Daniel “Colt” “Pistola” McCoy, who is under a lot of media scrutiny but is also, surprise, an ordinary guy who likes to fire guns at trees when not watching DVDs on his laptops. Or your even more fawning profile of the Williams sisters, tennis players, of whom you say: “Their achievements rank with any set of sisters in American history” Or how about that story about Little League, where you criticize a over-litigious mother while practically getting an erection over a kid who broke his arm but found a way to participate in Little League anyway (you really, really like Little League, don't you Rick?).

Anyway, I worry about you because nearly every single one of your columns is an attempt to justify sports as character-building, or noble, or pure, and the reason is obvious: if sports were just a diversion that helps distract us from our soul-sucking day-to-day existences and helps advertisers reach out to the coveted 18-to-34-year-old-white-male-with-disposable-income demographic, if that's all sports was, your devotion to them would be pathetic. So you sift through all the commercial garbage that surrounds sports and seek out the good, the honorable, the cuddly—no matter how banal or maudlin or tangentially connected with sports it is.

That kind of pathology can't be healthy for you, Rick. You're in constant denial, working so hard not only to produce your column but to keep the words “it's just a game” out of your head. And finally, in your last column for, your pathology spilled out onto the page and revealed probably more than you wanted it to.

You start out with the story of your journalism professor telling your that you were “better than sports.” Then you explain to us why you “will never be better than sports,” mostly using the lazy writer's friend, the rhetorical question. For fun, I've decided to answer some of them for you:

“Sports fans can be buried in a coffin that is painted in their favorite team's colors and logo. Anybody buried in a Chicago Symphony Orchestra coffin lately?”
No, that would be insane, just like getting buried in a Green Bay Packers coffin. Instead, people donate millions of dollars to the Chicago Symphony because they love it so much.

[after an anecdote in which football players conspire to let their autistic teammate score a touchdown] “Ever see that on Wall Street?”
Well, I imagine some financial companies do hire people with Asperger Syndrome because those people tend to be good with numbers and complex math problems. There's a
Danish software company (Google doc) that hire only people with Autism, which seems more useful and less condescending than “giving” a kid a touchdown.

“College football teams fill 100,000-seat stadiums. Seen the history department do that?”
And Hitler drew bigger crowds than that. Your point?

“If sportswriters are so trivial, why did Frank Sinatra want to be one?”
Maybe because he was drunk all the time.

Speaking as a Sonics fan, whose team got moved to Oklahoma city because the NBA thought it could make more money there, sports is not some magical realm more virtuous than the cold, cynical real world. What about those NFL players who have brain damage as a result of entertaining us? What about my Sonics, or the Hartford Whalers, or the old Cleveland Browns, who were moved from their cities by selfish men for selfish reasons? What about the culture of drugs and booze that permeated professional sports for decades? What about the culture of steroids that permeates them today?

If you want to hold sports up as an example of the good inside us, I can hold it up as an example of everything that's wrong with us. For every kid who found meaning and purpose in putting a ball through a hoop, there's another kid who was humiliated and felt like shit just because he couldn't hit a baseball.

Sports is a vessel. For a lot of people, especially men who aren't encouraged to share their emotions, it's a way to express themselves. We can be sentimental about sports (I know you can) because it occupies a masculine place in society. No one will call you a pussy for crying over the World Series. And some people fill their lives with sports, just like people fill their lives with math, or literature, or music, or politics. It doesn't make sports magic, Rick.

Oh, and I doubt your journalism professor was attacking sports when she told you you were “too good for sports.” She probably meant you were too good for sports journalism. Because while journalists have uncovered corruption, called attention to the plight of the unfortunate, and told the public what it didn't want to know but needed to know, sports journalists don't do any of that. They cover a game for a living and try to get quotes from millionaire athletes who hate their guts, which is pretty depressing. Your professor wanted you to put your talents to work for a cause that really mattered. Oh well, looks like it's too late for that now, doesn't it? Have fun writing about the kid with one leg who's playing in the Little League World Series.

Rick Reilly: Why Do I Love Writing About Sports? This Column Should Answer That Question [ESPN]
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