Sunday, March 15, 2009

Doritos® and NCAA®!

In high school and college, I felt loyalty to my schools’ teams only when I personally knew one or more of the players. I’m amazed when, at about this time of year, I see friends and acquaintances around these parts, decades out of school, get apoplectic about NC State, Duke, or UNC basketball. With some people, I’d be risking bodily harm even to voice this concern to their faces.

It’s basically all in fun, I know that, a way to vent, to aerobicize one’s loyalties and group identifications. To some extent, I wish I could join in on the fun. Really, I do. But another part of me remains not just disinterested but distrustful—as if, as Noam Chomsky suggested, such sideline enthusiasm for team sports is just indoctrination in the herd mentality, groupthink brainwashing, and conditioning to respond favorably to jingoism.

I might go a little further—and say such concerns can be distractions from the business of a democratic republic. As the Roman satirist Juvenal so famously put it—with heaps of irony: “Now that no one buys our votes, the public has long since cast off its cares; the people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions and all else, now meddles no more and longs eagerly for just two things—Bread and Games!” (Satire 10, trans. G.G. Ramsay, 1918)

Or, to modernize, Doritos® and NCAA®!

Arguments about ideas, especially ideas that strike me as important and about which I’m curious—such as religion, culture, the state of the world, or politics—are very worthwhile. I thrive on reasonably heated (but mostly reasonable) discussions.

Another thing (but related): I’m not a good partisan. I’m really just not much of a joiner at all—sometimes just clicking a “send” icon to rally with is more than I’m prepared to commit to. I’m sorry if this offends—and I assure you I’m anything but wishy-washy—and I abhor unthinking relativism and the “paralysis of analysis.”

Still, I do not have a mindset compelled to bend every newfound fact to a pre-existing ideology. I try not to be a knee-jerk liberal or a knee-jerk anything. I do not feel bound to bottom lines, constitutions, creeds, manifestos, or scriptures. I haven’t decided yet whether this deficiency makes me more or less a person of integrity.

In breaking his ties to an anarchist organization, William Morris, the Victorian artist and socialist, wrote, “Men absorbed in a movement are apt to surround themselves with a kind of artificial atmosphere which distorts the proportions of things outside, and prevents them from seeing what is really going on.”

I stopped being a “true believer” of any sort by age 29. Though I am registered to vote as a member of the Democratic Party and happily voted for Obama last November, my mind is more dialectic than partisan, so I’m more a small-letter politico—democrat, republican, anarchist, radical, socialist, libertarian—which is to say “not actually a politico at all.”

I like to challenge (rather than to confirm) my ideals, principally by taking frequent long, hard looks at reality and seeking challenging input from knowledgeable people with varying values, interests, and affiliations.

It’s good to resist whatever conditioning one’s had to take sides automatically, without checking each position by the facts, without mulling the facts over. No doubt it makes life more difficult and sometimes more lonely not knowing what colors to wear, to have to wait to see who plays the better game before deciding whom to cheer. And sometimes I take shortcuts, but always with a sense of bad faith and guilt. (And, by the way, letting distrust corrode into cynicism is the worst kind of shortcut.)

Distrust of certainty, cant, and jingoism is healthy. Can you really respect anyone whose whole philosophy, whose whole politics, whose whole values, fit on an 11x3-inch bumper sticker?

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