It’s Super Bowl Sunday, a day when most of the nation will gather in front of television sets and root for one of two teams.
Which actually makes today like any other day in America. The only thing that changes is the game.
It has been six months since deciding to use this blog to explore what the notion of being “American” means. Yet I still have not yet followed up on it. Yes, being the World’s Laziest Blogger is a part of that. But another part is that the more you try to come to the topic, the less prepared you feel. So I’ve been doing a lot of reading.
This entry is not a product of that reading.
Instead, it is the product of a professional life spent covering teams and fans. And of the growing realization that these phenomena are not relegated to sports alone.
I owe a debt to the great writer/minister Frederick Buechner, who points out that religious denominations are very much like teams. He writes:
“It is not so much differences . . . that keep the denominations apart as it is something more nearly approaching team spirit. Somebody from a long line of Congreagationalists would no more consider crossing over to the Methodists than a Red Sox fan would consider rooting for the Mets.”
Buechner, as always, is perceptive even beyond his immediate subject. He wrote those words in 1988, and life since then has become even more a spectator sport.
Listen to political pundits and notice the sports terminology of their debates. But more than that, note that increasingly people are less aligned with ideas or principles and more aligned with a side.
Our teams even have colors now. There are red states, and blue states.
And for a great many, allegiance is as arbitrary as it is in sports. After a recent column I wrote exploring how my two sons could be fans of differing rival teams, I was flooded with email from people who either had experienced the same, or had avoided the same through strict indoctrination. One man proudly sent me a YouTube link of his 2-year-old son spelling “C-A-R-D-S,” followed by the words, “I hate UK.” And it worked both ways, even among older fans. One Louisville professor chastised me that he would never let a son attend UK, for its academic inferiority is well-known. If he’d been writing from Yale, I’d have given him some leeway. But is there truly a dollar’s worth of difference between Kentucky’s two largest state universities?
Regardless, a great many have views that are shaped en masse, by team identification, by friends at church or school, favorite media personalities, or by long history — “my parents were (your political bent here), and so am I.”
And the media, far too often, have allowed themselves to be identified with teams. The team concept sells. It is good television. You know you’re appealing to at least half of the audience. It creates natural drama. But it also creates inconsistency. One outlet will criticize something that the right is doing, but not criticize the same thing when the left does it. And vice versa.
Teams. Media critic John Katz, in a C-SPAN interview, contrasted the ideals of Thomas Paine with ours today:
“Today you don’t have journalists arguing a point of view. You have journalists who are paid to argue the same point of view every week and pretend to be passionate about it. That’s the opposite of reason. It’s like the cockfight every week where people get together and debate each other and score points on each other. “
Here is what Paine, our first political pundit, said: “When men yield up the privilege of thinking, the last shadow of liberty quits the horizon.”
I expect it of sports fans, to approve of actions by their own coaches and players that they would not tolerate from opponents.
But we should not be a nation of fans. Otherwise those who say they are for limited government can see their team preside over the greatest confiscation of personal liberties in a generation and approve of it. Or those who come to power protesting an unjust war can preside over the escalation of just as questionable a war somewhere else. (This on the heels of news that our nation is going to pay money we do not have to tribes we cannot control to prop up a government we do not trust in a nation we cannot subdue.)
As I have begun to organize thoughts over what “American” means, the starting point has always come back to freedom. Though it has not always been attainable for all people in this nation, it was the defining desire of its founding, and the motivating principle of its inhabitants.
That I can type these words and fear no knock at the door as the result of them is a thing not to be taken for granted.
Yet today, freedoms of Americans are assaulted from all sides, not just by government, but by corporations allowed to amass monolithic power and by the constant shout of what author George Saunders calls “the brain-dead megaphone” of media, which turns the attention of the public away from the essential issues of its day toward this back-and-forth battle of teams.
So, I suppose, this is the first task in getting to the root of what it means to be “American.” To get beyond the teams.
More Americans will watch the Super Bowl today than will watch any other event or program this year. They will fix their attention on two teams and await the outcome. It has become a mini-holiday for much of the nation, and American tradition.
But the team-spectator-fan mentality that attends it is not an American tradition, or at least, is not a tradition that supersedes the most important American traditions: Freedom and individual liberty.
In this, the cliche is presciently true: “There is no ‘I’ in team.”