Of Politics And Sports

Far more Americans are prepared to participate in an informed, serious discussion of the concussion protocol in the NFL than they are military intervention in Syria.

The Internet is a godsend for the armchair anthropologist. Not only does it open the world to you; it allows you to observe its workings in “real time.” This latter is accomplished by exploiting the inter-active element. The results are revelatory in their unaffected rawness – what the social scientists call “raw data.”

What is most stunning is how few people are capable of logical thinking. This is electronic confirmation of what we notice all around us in listening to politicos, pundits and even expert commentators. Getting facts straight, deploying them in an organized manner to support an analysis or argument, coherent articulation of a point of view, consistency – these traits are most remarkable by their absence. Blog exchanges, by presenting us with the same phenomena in their purest form, underscore how impoverished and inarticulate public discourse is.

Does this merely reveal the truth that most humans are not perfectly rational beings? That a variety of psychological factors come into play to obstruct or divert logical thinking? That our rational behavior is manifest mainly in its instrumental application to the mundanities of our lives while abstract and distant matters are treated by using shortcuts that collectively fall far short of orderly thought?

If one extends one’s Internet wanderings to cover sports sites, we get some insight into our mental shortcomings. For there, the level of logic is markedly higher than it is at political websites. Yes, of course, there is no lack of morons who vaunt their ignorant and prejudicial ejaculations – who freely substitute  emotion for thought. Still, it is striking what a large percentage of participants are able to articulate views that actually make sense. Those persons are quite well informed, some have deep and accurate historical memories, they can handle more than one variable in an analytical equation, they – at times ― even are capable of separating loyalties from detached observation and analysis.

How is this possible? Surely the demographic is not much different from those who verbally flail about on political websites. A bit of reflection on one’s own experience and encounters with sports fans yields some insights. The characteristic sports addict exhibits these features: long engagement with the subject-matter; dense involvement with other persons similarly motivated; belonging to a culture that encourages skepticism and criticism; access to clear, accurate and annotated historical records of various sorts;  and – above all –focus and concentration.  Quite a number of these amateur commentators are unusually accurate witnesses of what happened on the field, on the court, or in the arena. Moreover, they form a nation-wide community whose members share a frame of reference, a conceptual vocabulary and a pattern of discourse.

The net result is that far more Americans are prepared to participate in an informed, serious discussion of the concussion protocol in the NFL or the issue of drafting teen-age players from the college ranks than they are military intervention in Syria, Medicare provided access to prescription drugs or mass electronic surveillance.

Replays, recordings, slow-motion, and YouTube contribute substantially to sports literacy. Those technological assets are also available for examining political and public policy doings. The difference is that very, very few avail themselves of the access. Who watches replays of presidential debates to confirm or to invalidate a point being argued about? Who remembers what was said or done six months or a year ago – much less two years or five years ago (as any serious sports fan can)? Who exhibits the curiosity to get at the truth? Instead, we are content with vague impressions, biased recollections, and spouting off as if our typically partial or uninformed opinions had some sort of sovereign claim to attention.

And let’s face it: the same could be said for the overwhelming majority of professional commentators – including news anchors and privileged contributors to the op-ed page of the New York Times. As for making a few clicks to check statistics, get accurate quotations or facts about foreign places – forget about it!

Further evidence to back up this contention comes from talk shows. In the sports domain, there is for example the impressive MLB Tonight where Harold Reynolds and Al Leiter offer crisp presentations that mix interpretation, explanation and instruction. No shouting, no posturing, no pandering, no giggles. There is not a comparable MSM news show or one that even could carry their cleats. (PBS – on a long and accelerating downward spiral – is less and less of an exception). Most hosts, and guests too, come across as Junior Scholastic staffers or products of stenography training programs.  Admittedly, there are a number of sports show personalities, too, who are just self-important blowhards and whose career performance places them below the Mendoza line. In the news media, though, we find entire rosters of over-paid prima donnas whose permanent residence is far south of the Mendoza line.

The consequence is that the sports citizen is a much more acute critic than the political citizen. Fans of any sports team in the land would never tolerate the hiring of a coach/manager who is so obviously a crude conman as Donald Trump. Hell, they’d shout down hiring him to be a first base coach on a Single-A baseball club.

It is remarkable that this disparity is pronounced despite mass education, rising numbers of those enrolled in higher education, as well as the much touted explosion of information on the Internet. There are millions of students majoring in Political Science, Sociology, etc. Moreover, almost all Liberal Arts programs require taking basic courses in those fields. The evidence suggests that, whatever else students derive from them, they do not acquire the skill to think systematically and logically about the real world content of those subjects. In truth, there isn’t a lot of interest in current affairs by either students or faculty.

As far as the powers-that-be in American society are concerned, it appears that the main and desired public function of undergraduate Liberal Arts education is to keep potentially troublesome people off the streets, in debt and out of touch; that category includes the professoriat in addition to the student body. The success rate in achieving this purpose is astoundingly high.