Saturday, January 24, 2015

Ruminations on Deflategate

The NFL season appears to be finishing pretty much the way it started – awash in scandal.  The season effectively began with a decision by the Commissioner’s office to turn a blind eye to evidence that one of the world’s best running backs knocked out his fiancĂ©e in an elevator.   Then, after only one week of action, the eye that wasn’t blind was blackened, as the world’s very best running back was caught taking a tree branch to his 4-year-old son and pounding the child in the back, on the legs, and in the testicles.  That, on top of everything else that was going on in the NFL, was enough to cause me to boycott the sport for most of the season.   When I finally returned, I was treated to a comeback for the ages in the week’s penultimate season.   But nobody is talking about that comeback.   It has been overshadowed by yet another scandal.   For that is life in today’s NFL – no matter how good the action is or how trivial the scandal, the latter will trump the former.  

The latest scandal, which is commonly known as “Deflategate,” has resulted from the first half of the Patriots-Colts game.  When the Patriots were on offense, they were playing with balls that had been deflated, thus making the balls easier to catch.  My understanding is that this has been proven.  We also know that the Patriots themselves had the ability to deflate the balls that their offense were using – and could do so relatively easily and quickly.  What we don’t know is who on the Patriots was responsible.  You would hardly have to be a cynic to suspect that the league does not truly want to get to the bottom of things until after the Patriots’ next game, which is the Super Bowl.   In other words, the league may have decided to turn yet another blind eye until the season is over so as to ensure that any punishment will not affect the competitiveness of its showcase event.

Everyone agrees that with or without the deflated balls, New England would have beaten the Colts, who were sleep-walking through the whole game.    Yet somehow, this scandal has captivated the attention of the media and the fans to the point where this is the only football story anyone is talking about.  How is that possible?

For starters, New England has been caught cheating before – most notably, for using video cameras to spy on an opponent’s practices.  Also, New England has been the most successful franchise in the 21st century, and people expect slimy acts of cheating from upstarts, not from the blue bloods of the league.   Let’s face it, this isn’t the kind of conduct that the old Boston Brahmans would approve of.   But then again, this also doesn’t appear to be worth all the attention it’s getting.  Surely, something else is going on.

Let me offer two explanations.   First, everyone who loves football should have realized by now that there is a stench surrounding this league.   It has consistently taken a strong stance regarding the color of the socks or sneakers that players wear and the dances that they do in the end zone, but when it comes to off-the-field violence, on-the-field injuries, and in-the-locker-room bullying, it could care less.   We fans enjoy watching the sport of football, but the barons of the game drive us crazy.  So whenever someone in a position of power gets caught looking like a jerk, we want to lash out at him – not only because we want the sport cleaned up, but also because it’s come to the point where we feel kind of guilty for watching it.

Secondly, Deflategate isn’t just another NFL scandal; it’s an NFL CHEATING scandal.   At least subconsciously, that has to remind us of an even larger cheating scandal that has gone virtually unreported for decades: the apparent prevalence around the league of performance-enhancing drugs.   We all realize that there have been tremendous advances in nutrition during the past several decades, and that those advances are somewhat responsible for the fact that the biggest and strongest players of the 60s and early-70s physically resemble the smallest and weakest players today.  But we also realize that the NFL has done little or nothing over the years to prevent the use of PEDs in its sport.  And that, presumably, those drugs are abused at epidemic proportions.  They give an extra edge to the players who take them and provide pressure to those who want to live clean, healthy lives but also want to compete on a level playing field.  

For me, no spectator sport is anywhere near as fun to watch as football.  An incredible combination of speed, power and finesse is on display at virtually every moment of the game.   And yet, when it comes to the NFL, what the league does to de-legitimize itself never ceases to amaze me.   As was once said about Yassar Arafat, it “never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”  So now, when fans should be looking back at the amazing Packers-Seahawks game and looking ahead at an intriguing Super Bowl, all everyone is talking about is some petty cheating scandal.   

Here’s my advice: don’t worry about the Patriots.  Win or lose, we all know what that organization has come to stand for – brains, talent, and a bit of sleaze.    Let’s concentrate instead on the real cheating scandal.  Let’s encourage the league to go drug free.  Test the players and kick out the cheats.  We might find that the players will get smaller, slower, and perhaps even a bit less lethal.   Then again, the action on the field will be every bit as competitive as before, and the hospitals and morgues might get a little less crowded.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The New Welfare State

During election season, I’m normally frustrated that virtually all that the media wants to talk about is domestic politics and domestic economic news.  Allegedly, Americans only care about their own wallets, and the last things on their minds are the wars going on overseas.  That, at least, is how the media rationalizes covering the rest of the world so superficially.

Fortunately, we’re not going through an election season – we’re about as far away from an election as it gets.  So the media can dare to cover world events, and lately we’ve been getting a major dose of them.   Reports about international terrorism have been blanketing the news.  We’ve also seen stories that flow indirectly from such terrorism, such as the reports that Benjamin Netanyahu has taken anti-Semitic violence in France as an opportunity to ask the world’s third largest Jewish population to “move to Israel, as early as possible.”   (Perhaps if he moved out, they might be more tempted to move in.)  I should be thrilled that Americans are being forced to pay attention to the other side of the ocean and that we’re being reminded that what happens there truly does affect our future here.   And yet … every now and then, a domestic story is reported that must force us to stop what we’re doing and pay attention to our own garden.   Such a story came out yesterday.

Maybe you’re heard the news already, but if not, be prepared to get depressed.  For the first time in history, most American public school children are recipients of free or reduced meals.  Throughout the South and the Southwest, the percentage of free/reduced meal recipients equals or exceeds 50%, and in Mississippi, it exceeds 70%.  That means that most American public school children, and the vast majority of Southern public school children, go to school every morning thinking of themselves and their families as either in poverty or close to it.   Being on the dole has become the new normal here in America.   

The topic of poverty is never far from my thoughts, but I have been reminded of it lately while dealing with the American health care system.   Long-term care providers now frequently charge so much money on a monthly basis that most Americans can no longer afford to pay their bills.   According to the new game plan, first the patients’ assets are completely exhausted, and then the Medicaid payments can kick in.  When the patients die, they die penniless and all they give to their “heirs” is air.  This is how we respect the dignity of Americans today – by putting them on the dole when they are young and stripping them of all their assets when they are old.

Oh, did I mention that we now have roughly 10 million millionaire households in America?  Or that there are well over a million American households with a net worth exceeding $5 million?   Both of those numbers are on the rise as well.

So the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting plentiful, and the middle class are getting scared.  But all is not lost, America.  For at least we still have our sense of humor.  In the last week, it has also been reported that a famous politician will return to the public sphere with a mission of fighting poverty.   This man, or should I say this chameleon, is none other than the same guy who, while running for the highest office in the land, announced that he would be building a car elevator for one of his many homes (the one in the beach resort of La Jolla, California).  That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, Mitt Romney is back, and he’s coming to give to the poor … if not to take from the rich.  

One wonders precisely what Mitt has in mind as a way of helping the free/reduced meal crowd … and I do mean crowd.   His last idea was for them to “Take a shot, go for it, take a risk, get the education, borrow money if you have to from your parents, start a business.   Sound advice, to be sure.  Maybe they should ask their grandma for the money.   Within a few years, grandma would have given all the money away to her nursing home anyway, so she might as well get rid of it while she can and give it to junior so that he can start a business.  I hear the residential car-elevator business is booming these days.   

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Terrorism, Violence, and Conventional Wisdom

Nicholas Kristof, in his Thursday op-ed piece for the New York Times, “Satire, Terrorism and Islam,” uttered a statement that seems to summarize what most of the Western world is thinking today:   “The great divide is not between faiths.  Rather it is between terrorists and moderates, between those who are tolerant and those who ‘otherize.’”  Kristof then went on to plead, “Let’s stand with Charlie Hebdo, for the global outpouring of support has been inspiring. Let’s denounce terrorism, oppression and misogyny in the Islamic world – and everywhere else.  But let’s be careful not to respond to terrorists’ intolerance with our own.”

Wrap that up in a bow, my friends, for therein lies conventional wisdom.  Kristof is making several points.  The characteristic virtue of our era is tolerance. The characteristic vice is intolerance-fueled violence. Charlie Hebdo speaks with satire (not violence) so we “stand with it.” And we stand with Islam as well as all other races, colors or creeds, because, unlike the “terrorists,” we are “tolerant.”    
Obviously, I cannot disagree entirely with Kristof’s comments.   Like Kristof, I deeply mourn the deaths of the employees of Charlie Hebdo and all of the others who died in France this week at the hands of religious extremists.   Like Kristof, I believe in free speech, including the right of Charlie Hebdo to disseminate its brand of satire.  But like most conventional wisdom, Kristof’s point was far too simplistic.  For one thing, Charlie Hebdo doesn’t stand for tolerance.  Tolerant people don’t depict all Orthodox religious practitioners, let alone the prophets of their faiths, as ugly, sub-human perverts.  Tolerant people don’t foment polarization and hatred.   Conventional wisdom may say “I am Charlie Hebdo,” but true wisdom says “Thank God I have better things to read than the smut that Charlie Hebdo publishes.”

I also disagree with the idea that the characteristic vice of our times is intolerance-fueled violence.   Violence certainly belongs on our short list of vices, but it would be folly to focus exclusively on that violence which is fueled by intolerance.  Our problem is violence, period, however it is fueled.   And believe me, the violence problem has reached epidemic proportions here in the “tolerant” West, not just in the “intolerant” Middle East.   

Conventional wisdom indicates that here in America, we are “tolerant,” we are “moderate,” and we are peaceful.  Well, we may be tolerant, but we are certainly not peaceful.   In fact, it is precisely our tolerance that fuels our lust for death … or our willingness to look the other way when other people kill, as long as it’s not in the name of “terrorism.”

To begin, we are addicted to eating meat, notwithstanding the effects of that addiction on our environment and our own health.   We ourselves don’t kill for our meat, we have others who kill for us, but our demand is what fuels the number of animal killings.  What’s more, we are hardly discriminating in the way we take our meat.   It’s no secret that factory farms don’t merely kill animals for our eating pleasure; they place their animals in conditions that can only be described as torture.   We are aghast when we read these reports.  But we eat the flesh that these farms peddle.   In other words, we facilitate and look the other way at the unnecessary killing and torture of animals, and as long as we’re not doing the deed (which we define as the killing, not the eating), we can happily view ourselves as non-violent.

We are also addicted to unprotected sex, despite the carnage that flows from such sex.   Each year, roughly one million human fetuses are aborted in America.  My guess is that most of these abortions come from unprotected, consensual sex.   Do we lust for such abortions?  Of course not – and that is one reason why we can look at these acts as fundamentally “non-violent.”   Another reason is that we are obsessed with the debate about whether abortion should be legal.  As a result, as long as we believe, as most of us do (myself included), that abortion should be legal, we can absolve ourselves of moral responsibility for having the unprotected sex that so frequently leads to aborting human life forms.  Once again, we are burying our heads in the sand about our violence problem.

When we recreate, we go to the movies, watch TV, or play with video games.  And what do we enjoy watching?   Mass quantities of gratuitous killings.   Even the directors and actors we admire the most peddle murder and torture.  It’s become almost de rigeur.   Who doesn’t love the Godfather?  Who doesn’t like Die Hard?   Even a movie like Django Unchanged, which to me is just a stupid orgy of violence with no artistic merit, received an 88% rating by critics on Rotten Tomatoes and was nominated for five Academy Awards.  The other day I heard on cable news that the members  of Al-Qaeda have derived a lot of enjoyment and inspiration from watching violent Hollywood movies.  These movies are shown worldwide, and they de-condition all of us to tolerate the abrupt and involuntary termination of human life.  There’s that word again: tolerance.  Thanks to our entertainment industry and its award-winning stars, we’re plenty tolerant when it comes to watching human beings blow each other away with guns and knives.  But are we violent?   Nah, because the stuff on the screen isn’t “real” violence, we tell ourselves, it’s only “virtual” violence.

When we elect representatives to serve in Congress, they quickly learn one lesson above all others – don’t mess with guns.  Here in America, people are gunned down on the city streets every day, and nobody cares (other than the immediate family members of the deceased).  It’s just something we have come to expect.   We also frequently have school shootings, and that does kind of tug at our heartstrings a bit – after all, the Hollywood types who have conditioned our “tolerance” haven’t decided to depict kids getting shot in every movie, but only adults.   As a result, these school shootings inevitably lead to at least some calls for gun control.  Yet even when the gun-control debate forced Congress to debate the issue of whether background checks should be mandatory for gun sales, and even when it became clear that more than nine in ten Americans supported requiring background checks, Congress still voted down that idea.    No doubt, our representatives didn’t see themselves as having a “violence” problem – they were only standing up for “liberty” and trying to get re-elected.  

The truth is that our whole world has become inured to violence.   What scares us here in the West isn’t all forms of gratuitous violence, but only the type known as “terrorism,” by which I mean the taking of innocent life by individuals as a political or religious statement by those who see themselves as fighters for an oppressed people or ideology.   

Do I find terrorism disgusting?   Absolutely.  Do I share Kristof’s views that there is a battle afoot between “terrorists” and “moderates” and that we are responsible for embracing moderate Muslims rather than lumping them in with their terrorist co-religionists?  Sure, I subscribe to that statement as well.   But where Kristof and I part ways is in taking that difference to be the “great divide” on which we should be focusing most of our attention.  To me, the great divide is between those who are working for peace in all its forms and those who are perpetrating, or looking the other way at, violence.  When you eat tofu instead of chicken, have sex only when protection is available, watch a comedy instead of an “action” movie, vote for Congressmen with bad NRA ratings, and (if I may add another point) work for climate change before it consumes the lives of millions of Africans and others … then you can talk about being on the right side of the “great divide.”  Until then, we’re all just fueling the same fire.