Sunday, February 05, 2006

Pushing The Sports Analogy Too Far

Behind the New York Times firewall, in "Remaking the Epic of America", David "Babbling" Brooks shares the insight he expects us to derive from a handful of sports movies he has seen. Movies in which:
A tough, no-nonsense coach, usually with a shadow-filled past, takes over a shambolic, underfunded team. He forces his players to work harder than they ever thought they could. He inspires them to sacrifice for the greater good. Finally, he leads them to glory over richer and more respected rivals.

When a story is repeated this often, and when it continues to attract audiences time after time, it is because it affirms certain values precious to the culture. The values these movies affirm amount to a brick-by-brick destruction of the values that were prevalent 30 years ago.

Thirty years ago, young people were told to question authority. But the heroes of these movies are coaches who are unabashed authority figures. Preferring success to affection, they instill fear and sometimes hatred in their players. They insist on being called "sir" and impose dominating discipline. "This is no democracy," Denzel Washington's character says in "Remember the Titans." "It is a dictatorship. I am the law."
This, of course, tells us far more about Mr. Brooks than it does about society. Having a reasonable impression of Mr. Brooks' stature, I somehow doubt that he has any first-hand knowledge of playing football under a tough coach, but as with William F. Buckley, Jr. and tales of life at sea, the movie image seduces him. And the seduction is not so much the idea of following an unabashed authority figure - it's a reflection of the authoritarian mind at work.

What do I mean by that? I am referencing the mindset that certain people are meant to lead, and others meant to follow. When you are in the position of a follower, it is your duty to be both loyal and unquestioning. This mindset also defines how the authoritarian personality relates to his superiors. Think of Ambassador John Bolton, who seems to have simultaneously been a horrible boss to those "beneath" him and comfortable in the role of a sycophant to those above him. Brooks and Buckley are a bit peculiar as authoritarians, as they have sidestepped the traditional power structure of our society. But perhaps that shouldn't be surprising of an authoritarian with a huge ego but who has nobody to command.

This of course doesn't stop the fantasy - Buckley admires a pubescent lord naturally taking his position as a leader of men, without so much as a thought for the men and boys of common blood who were fated to serve, and Brooks adores the totalitarian coach who cannot be questioned by even his best player. Meanwhile in real life, they spend their careers sitting alone behind their computers or dictaphones.

While Brooks is enamored with the "Horatio Alger" aspects of the stories, his larger point appears to be that independent thought - and affirmative action - are bad.
In short, these movies embrace the civil rights part of the 1960's and 1970's. Women and minorities should be given full access to the competitive world of the meritocracy. But they take the therapeutic, progressive, New Age part of the 1960's and 1970's and they crush it dead. They create a culture of all-inclusive traditionalism.
I must have missed the mixed-gender sports teams in the films he listed.

I understand why somebody who thinks like Brooks would think that the decline of independent thought, cowed deference to authority, and everybody meekly maintaining their place in the societal pecking order is attractive. Many an elitist snob yearns for the return of an "upstairs-downstairs" society. Personally, though, I think it was the breakdown of rigid class structure and the questioning of authority which led to the remarkable progress we made in the 20th Century.

Meanwhile, I'll await Brooks' column where he explains that, as slasher films have seen significant success over the past thirty years, movies like Se7en, Nightmare on Elm Street and Silence of the Lambs affirm values precious to society.


  1. Don't forget the Saw series. Wholesome family values!

  2. “Meanwhile, I'll await Brooks' column where he explains that, as slasher films have seen significant success over the past thirty years, movies like Se7en, Nightmare on Elm Street and Silence of the Lambs affirm values precious to society.”

    Hmmm . . . who are the characters who nearly always die first in a slasher film? The ones who have premarital sex and use controlled substances. Who is nearly always the survivor? The “good girl” who doesn’t do any of the above.

    Maybe you are on to something Aaron . . .



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