June 21, 2002


Playing Right Wing : The bizarre phenomenon of anti-soccer conservatism. (Sasha Polakow-Suransky, 6.20.02, American Prospect)
Conservative magazines such as National Review and The Weekly Standard would have us believe that by remaining indifferent to soccer, Americans are heroically resisting the onslaught of a sport that is "for bureaucrats, socialists and overbearing mothers." As Stephen Moore wrote in National Review in 1998, "I am convinced that the ordeal of soccer teaches our kids all the wrong lessons in life. Soccer is the Marxist concept of the labor theory of value applied to sports -- which may explain why socialist nations dominate the World Cup."

This type of analysis may be lent a superficial plausibility because of the well-known political gulf between the U.S. and Europe. Thus, The Financial Times recently attributed the new transatlantic divide to Bush's inability to communicate with European leaders when it comes to sports, namely soccer. But lo and behold, even the famously disinterested President Bush called U.S. coach Bruce Arena and the team just hours before they faced Mexico, telling a surprised squad, "The country is really proud of the team... A lot of people that don't know anything about soccer, like me, are all excited and pulling for you."

Indeed, Moore must be eating his words as his United States advance to the quarterfinals against those commie Germans, surrounded by other perennial reds like the South Koreans, the Spanish, and the Brits. In fact, to hear the right tell it, it would seem that the leader of the capitalist world has betrayed its values by engaging in a sport that -- like hockey or football -- could, god forbid, end in a tie.

Fair Ball (Franklin Foer, 06.20.02, New Republic)
With a little work, even a mediocre marketing mind could save American soccer from its Volvo-driving friends and give it street cred with Joe Six Pack. Some American exceptionalists suggest anything that didn't come across the Atlantic from Europe with the turn-of-the-century migration will never catch on with blue-collar America. But if that were really true, the British monarchy wouldn't dominate American tabloids, nor would there have been a British pop invasion. And if multinational corporations like Nike and Budweiser are bringing basketball to Europe and baseball to Latin America and Asia, there's every reason to believe that with their corporate investment in soccer, they could brand the game for the American working class. It would be a delicious, perverse twist on the caricature of the global market--not the Americanization of the world, but the
reverse. Let the honeymoon begin.

Despite the public perception of conservatives as prissy schoolmarms and bible-thumping Puritans, nothing more clearly distinguishes the Right from the Left than the latter's complete humorlessness. It's oft been noted--perhaps too often by me--that to a liberal life is a tragedy, to a conservative it's a comedy. There are several causes of this. The most important is that conservatives hold to the Judeo-Christian worldview of Man as Fallen. we believe that Man is sinful by his nature and that this capacity for evil precludes the possibility of ever perfecting the species or society. Liberals (like Libertarians) are utopians. They believe that Man is naturally good but that he has been corrupted by money and the artificial stratification of society that accompanies it. They believe in the possibility of perfecting the species once again and of perfecting society. Thus, the two politics, of Left and Right, diverge even at their conception of human nature and of the purpose of life.

Now humor is a difficult thing to define, but one would hope we could all agree that it by and large consists of our taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others. Comedy occurs, always, at someone's expense. This is difficult enough for liberals, with their more tender hearts to accept--with their greater empathy they are naturally more deeply affected by the pain of others. But even worse, even as the fact that the bad things happen serves as a challenge to their utopianism, the fact that we all enjoy it when these bad things happen to others serves as challenges to their benevolent view of our nature. If we were truly "good" would we take such pleasure in observing the sado-masochism of the Three Stooges?

On the other hand, for a conservative these things serve merely serve as a confirmation of our dismal view of Man and of life. Pop in a Porky's movie and then try to tell us that mankind is perfectible. Heck, try to tell us that God wouldn't be justified in scrapping the whole mess and starting over.

And so, all great comedy is fundamentally conservative. There simply is no such thing as liberal humor.

All of which is by long way of bringing us to the great American soccer wars. Soccer has had a notoriously difficult time gaining a foothold in the American popular imagination. Despite millions of dollars invested, despite several attempts to start professional leagues, despite apparently hosting the World Cup (I read that somewhere, but I don't recall it happening), despite the participation in youth leagues of millions of our kids, despite Pele's personal ambassadorship to the U.S., despite all of this, we just don't care. Oh sure, there are many immigrants who still root for their native countries. For the common mass of Americans though--soccer just doesn't register.

But wait, there is another exception to this rule--liberals seem, one would assume because of their general Europhilia, to like the game also. Not only do they like it, but since they are disproportionately represented in the media, they keep telling us that we ought to like it to. And this has turned what would otherwise be a healthy conservative indifference to the matter into a perhaps overheated loathing of the game and everything it represents. Here's a little secret though, one that has, typically, gone right over the heads of the dour and pedantic Mr. Spocks on the Left. They're so serious about everything that they think we're serious, that we actually care enough about soccer to let it raise our ire. They don't even get the seemingly obvious point of the whole exercise--we're just yanking their chains.

Now, I've no inclination to try to excavate the whole tawdry episode, but I believe that one irony of the current cycle of psychic violence against the beautiful game is that it was actually initiated by a passionate defense written by a humorless geek (and I assure you I mean that as a term of affection) of our own. Writing in the pages of National Review, poor Robert Zeigler merely tried to convince conservatives that we should give soccer a chance. Of course, on its face this may seem a harmless enough thing to do, but Mr. Zeigler made one significant mistake; he tried to cast it as a political issue, even as an issue of American pride. That slander simply could not stand.

I'm sure many others must have done the same, but I know for sure that I picked up the cudgel and laid into this nonsense, which it seems should really be characterized as a thought crime. My own effort (SOCCER--NOT AMERICAN AND NOT CONSERVATIVE), inadequate as it was and focussed entirely on the political aspects of soccer, rather than on any general judgments about the game itself, still excited some of the most hostile reaction we've ever seen here. One somehow felt that one had blasphemed the Virgin Mary during the Inquisition.

The gently chiding, almost avuncular, quality of our remarks was soon demonstrated by the far harsher and much, much funnier essay that H. D.
Miller at Travelling Shoes soon posted : The Unified Field Theory of World Entertainment. I defy anyone to take what we'll call the Travelling Shoe challenge. Try reading that essay while eating your morning bowl of cereal, as I did. If you can get through it without laughing so hard you spit Cap'n Crunch all over your keyboard, I'll personally help set a car on fire when we lose to Germany, or whatever it is you soccer folk do for "fun".

But did these soccer fans and Eurocentric liberal policy wonks (but I repeat myself) appreciate the humor? Did they look upon it as good-natured ribbing? Please... The next liberal or European who can have a hearty chuckle at his own expense will be the first. Instead, they descended upon poor Mr. Miller like the wrath of Godot, with name calling, threats of EU sanctions, you name it. And now, in some kind of Soviet social realist counterattack, we get these twinned pieces in The American Prospect and The New Republic (the duplicative nature of the essays just the latest example of the two magazines morphing into one), telling us in deadly earnest of the real mistake that Americans in general are making by ignoring the sport and that conservatives and sports writers (again I repeat myself) in particular are making by attacking a game so beloved by the rest of the world. They warn, with the same historical determinism that foresaw the inevitable victory of communism, that conservatives stand like King Canute on the beach, roaring at the tide to stop. They see a future where we are engulfed by soccer fever and it is we opponents who are ajudged Un-American for resisting assimilation. With the crystal clarity of a Five Year Plan they forecast an America with futball regnant, the Right having sold FIFA the rope with which conservatism was hung and NFL football smoldering on the ash heap of history.

Boy, it looks like we really got their goat this time. And they wonder why we find them and life in general to be hilarious, rather than tragic?

Relax fellas. Put down your Little Red Books, kick off your Birkenstocks, grab a mineral water, and belly up to the bar. We want to beat the stinking Huns today just as much as you do. Somewhere in our cold, uncaring hearts we've got some yob in us too. It's time to put our foolish differences behind us and unite in that quintessential soccer emotion : hatred of the other guys. If, God forbid, the Fourth Reich should cheat their way to an unjust victory over those heroic American boys in short pants today, let conservatives and liberals alike gather in front of Pat Buchanan's house, where we'll torch his Mercedes. Let football be our common ground, not the new battleground of a house divided.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 21, 2002 8:59 AM
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