As the Don Imus imbroglio fades ineffably from our collective consciousness, overtaken by more visceral, horrifying news, I am left to ponder whether any actual ground has been gained during our brief cultural roundtable addressing hate speech pertaining to race, gender and sexual orientation. Much of this dialogue I found to be highly interesting to say nothing of completely helpful, since I have for some time been puzzled into a state approaching total disorientation over what exactly it is I’m supposed to laugh at and what I’m not.
Over the past few year, talented and provocative artists like Sarah Silverman and Sasha Baron Cohen have crossed and recrossed and so thoroughly stomped upon the line of racially appropriate humor that a sort of fog of confusion has descended upon me. Although they both make me laugh uproariously, I cannotexactly put my finger on what is so funny about their acts. Both trade in the confused application of hackneyed racial stereotypes as spoken by bumbling, unself-aware personas, but this is not so new: All In The Family mined a highly similar vein of humor more than thirty years ago. However something does feel different with Silverman and Cohen, I think perhaps because they are emblematic of a society right on the brink of a significant intellectual breakthrough. With Cohen’s Borat character or Silverman’s absurdly befuddled persona, this sort of feckless, blighted bigotry has been placed in the sort of context of ultimate ridicule that it has always merited. This strikes me as a kind of 180-degree inversion of minstrelsy: Borat is such broadly drawn clown as to inspire something verging on sympathy for his pathetically ineffectual existence. That he is sexist and anti-semitic to a virulent extreme is an extension of the general absence of mental faculty which hamstrings his every asinine misadventure. Rather ingeniously, Cohen has created the racist iteration of the kind of characters played by Stepin Fetchit.
On the other hand, both Silverman and Cohen are both capable of being so charming as performers that I have felt an occasional creeping ambivalence about how much I actually liked their personas. Some of Silverman’s satirically racist material is so cleverly constructed — such as her infamous gag regarding jury duty and the Chinese-American community (aptly summarized here: http://www.avclub.com/content/node/42842) — that it can’t help but put one in mind of the ways in which a great joke or winning delivery can make palatable every kind of deplorable subject matter. In this way, Imus’s remarks were very helpful in clearing the cobwebs. His mean-spirited and grindingly obvious insult of the Rutgers women’s basketball team failed so utterly as comedy that nothing really existed to fog over its indefensibly transgressive essence.
More than anything else, I think this failure on Imus’s behalf to make a funny joke accounts for his relatively steep and swift sanction. And I think the outcome was perfectly appropriate, but I bet that you could have given Silverman or Cohen the same source material and not only would they not have hung themselves, they probably could have actually made people laugh.
All of which is to say that I’m still not completely sure why some hateful speech in our culture leads to a seething and comprehensible outrage, while other instances go unremarked-upon, or even celebrated. Perhaps, as Bob Dylan once rejoined at the end of the long parable “The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest”: nothing is revealed.
What I do feel I know I know is that at a certain point relatively recently — and far too late — is that a personal boundary has been crossed for me regarding a matter very close to my own heart. Following thirty years of feverish devotion and profound emotional attachment, I am wondering increasingly and by degrees how it is that I actually root for a billion-dollar sports franchise called the Washington Redskins.
The accumulating strangeness of this fact of my life is disassociating. What I think I have learned from the divide between Imus’s blatant race baiting and Silverman and Cohen’s satire, is that it is not so much any particular set of words that upbraids the conscience, but instead the context in which they are used. When a wealthy 66 year old man like Imus, protected by deep connections to the political establishment, leans into a largely anonymous group of successful minority women, the effect is crass, disturbing and frankly intolerable. By the same token, when a massive money-making National Football League enterprise trades in a blithely disrespectful manner on the imagery and iconography of an entire race of largely exploited people, this has somehow ceased to feel like an occasion for Coors Light and hot wings.
How peculiar that I am only outraged by this now. It is apparent that I am so accustomed to and in fact comforted by the familiar branding of this team name, that I am only recently able to recognize the extent to which I have been utterly inured to the reprehensible connotations of its employ. The process of enumerating the ways in which using this name is needlessly uncivil and repellant seems almost too obvious to even bother with. As one taught to address those of other ethnicities in the most courteous possible terms, it now strikes me as borderline deranged that I would routinely and as a matter of practice publicly shout my vigorous emotional encouragements to ersatz “Redskins.”
Why only after the head-slappingly simple decisions of several universities and other less profit-driven institutions to divorce themselves from similarly offensive monikers have I come to this conclusion? Why have I not previously joined with the progressive voices of certain fans of my team who have repeatedly pointed out how embarrassing all of this is? I honestly have no idea. I mean it really is very odd. I’m not even quite sure what to do anymore. Do I watch the team but not use the name? How do I discuss our draft possibilities next week without repeatedly invoking a racist epithet? It would all be fairly comedic if the history this name references were not so sad.
In any event, the time to amend this idiocy is surely upon us. In a somewhat pleasing irony, it was none other than the forked-tongued former Washington coach and current University of South Carolina headman Steve Spurrier who sounded the correctly scornful notes while addressing the similarly vexing continued presence of the Confederate flag on the South Carolina state house last week: “It’s embarrassing to me and I know embarrassing to our state.” Spurrier deserves a lot of credit for taking this stance, over the apparent objections of the university’s administration. Unfettered, take-no-prisoners truth-telling from those in high-profile leadership positions is the sort of thing that will bring about rapid change. I call upon the current Washington head coach Joe Gibbs, a legend of almost incalculable currency and good will within the team’s fan base, to help bring about the franchise’s name change with a minimum of further adieu. Gibbs may be an old-fashioned man, and a politically conservative one, but he is also well-known to be compassionate and to foster a team environment in which diversity breeds closeness rather than antipathy in the locker room.
While this gesture might grate slightly against the strong sense of team tradition that he prides himself in having had a large hand in building, I believe he will also come to see the ways in which that legacy is diminished when attached to a capricious racial insult in its every mention. This franchise will have still won three Super Bowls and produced countless legendary players after we change our name. But another part of the franchise’s legacy is that it was the final NFL team to integrate. If Gibbs states that we cannot run the risk of reliving and redoubling this embarrassment, I am convinced that a plurality of people will listen and agree.
And finally what we can conclude from the Imus debacle is that for a profitable franchise it almost always comes down to the objection of corporate sponsors before substantive changes occur. If some of the bigger ones, like Federal Express, were to begin to feel the mortification of financing the ubiquitous marketing of bigoted imagery, and began to feel queasy about being perceived in lockstep partnership with this utter anachronism, one can easily imagine that a change would not be long in coming.
Some combination of these things needs to occur, and it needs to occur rapidly. It is peculiar to think how long it can take to recognize the conspicuous face of the right thing to do. But once you know what it is, there is no further excuse for delay.
Guest Soccer Rant
A Beginner’s (or American’s) Guide to The Champions League
By Derek Keogh
Where is the capital of football? The San Siro in Milan, or Wembley in London, Old Trafford in Manchester or maybe Barcelona’s fabled Nou Camp? Wherever it is, thanks to the wonders of satellite TV, it’s constantly beamed into my converted garage in a little village on the outskirts of Dublin. Football has always been the people’s game and now with saturated TV coverage it’s everyone’s game. And via ESPN in the USA, you can watch “The Champions League.”
For the uninitiated, let’s look at the tournament’s design. Basically, the top three or four from each country in Europe qualify for next season’s Champions League. Which means a healthy chunk of TV rights money as well as prize money. The competition format is divided into two stages. In the first half (between September and Christmas) the teams are divided into six leagues of four teams, with Tthe top two teams from each pool qualifying for the knockout phase that runs from February to May. The knockout stages are two-legged affairs with away goals counting double in the case of a tied scoreline over the two games.
Confused? Well, try watching US sports uninitiated! Way too many stats to three decimal paces!
The beauty of the competition is that it allows you to compare the different styles of European Football. The free-flowing Spanish football that’s basically a hybrid formed from the South American imports like Ronaldinho, Robinho, and up to recently, Ronaldo. But Spanish defences are known for their lax attitudes and their inability to get close enough to attackers. The exact opposite is the Italians, renowned for their tough and often dirty defensive style. A slow and methodical passing game usually sees a designated midfield playmaker constantly trying to pick a pass through a like-minded defence to set the centre forward up. Italian football is noted for its 1-0 scorelines, and has a reputation for being dreary and boring.
Many would say the English Premier League is the best in Europe. If so, credit the influx of foreign players, coaches, and money: As just one example: Arsenal, who made the Champions League final last year, is coached by a Frenchman, Arsene Wenger, and fielded not a single English player in their semi-final and only one in the final. As the English national team struggles on the international stage, having been booed off the pitch against Andorra, the English league can boast three of the four Champions League semi-finalists next week. Liverpool and Chelsea play each other while current table-toppers Manchester United take on Italian giants AC Milan.
This year could see the first all-English final. First off on Tuesday we have Manchester United at home to AC Milan. The ageing Milan defence will find it hard to cope with the youthful exuberance of United’s strike force of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Alan Smith. Milan’s coach admitted as much when he conceded that the two late Bayern Munich goals in a thrilling 2-2 draw was down to defensive tiredness. In saying this, keep a close eye on Brazilian midfield genius Kaka. It was his touch of class that ended heroic Scottish champions Celtic’s foray into Europe. He could very well be the difference between these two great clubs, although after Manchester United’s unprecedented 7-1 drubbing of Roma in the second leg of their quarterfinal pairing, they surely must go into this tie as slight favourites.
Wednesdaywe are treated to a replay of the 2005 semi final, if treat is the right word. The first leg was a drab 0-0 affair with Liverpool edging the second leg 1-0 with a dubious goal — it subsequently has been proven that the ball didn’t actually cross the line! I honestly don’t expect anything more from this tie as two heavyweights cancel each other out by flooding the midfield and narrowing the game by neglecting the wings. Chelsea could, if they were more adventurous, easily win this by exploiting the wide areas, but they’ll play the percentages, preferring to keep a solid back four fronted by a defensive midfield. It really is anyone’s guess who’ll become finalists via this tie; I’m backing the Liverpudlians, simply because Chelsea are chasing domestic league and cup competitions whilst Liverpool’s last remaining hope of a trophy this season is the Champions League.
But that’s what’s great about this game, you wade through match after match and really have no idea which way it’s going to go. You are more often than not surprised by the outcome. Take the story of lowly Sunderland in the English second tier. What a wonderful example of fairytale football, but that’s another story….