The Heart and Mind of America

The French-born master historian of all things American was Jacques Barzun – an outsider who became an insider. He could fit America in the great sweep of Western Civilization and explain all sorts of cultural phenomena, but he too could get tripped up. Cultures shift. Barzun once said this – “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”

Those days are gone – Field of Dreams was a nostalgia movie, for those who longed for the days when baseball seemed to matter, before the Dodgers and Giants left America’s City and headed for the west coast, because that’s where the money was. The Washington Nationals just won their division, but they used to be the Montreal Expos. Loyalty is fungible, and there were years of scandals with hitters juiced up on steroids and other stuff, and a strike or two here and there, shutting down the season, with the players and owners deadlocked over who got which part of the vast amount of money the game generated, even if they were all rich. Attendance dropped. They were all jerks, arguing with each other over what could have easily been worked out – and the game was too slow anyway. It was downright pastoral in an age where everyone was wired up and tuned into everything, instantaneously. With baseball you had to wait and savor the moment, that time before the next pitch, where the pitcher, in a tight spot, just stares at the batter, and stares and stares and stares. He’s thinking. How do I fool this guy – with the slider, or the fastball, or the curve, or the change-up? Then he starts his wind-up – and the batter steps out of the box, to mess up the pitcher’s timing, or to just mess with the guy’s head. It’s a battle of wits, and Barzun seems to have loved that.

Americans no longer do. They turned to professional football, with its play-clock. Move it or lose it. Delay of Game will cost you five yards. Thinking too much is a luxury you can’t afford. Do something, now, even if it turns out to be disastrous – you have no choice – just like in real life. Americans could relate to that. We know we can’t wait, ever. That’s why we invaded Iraq. We couldn’t wait to see if Saddam Hussein really had those weapons of mass destruction – the smoking gun could come in the form of a mushroom cloud. The French, among others, thought we were crazy, but they had probably taken their native son, Jacques Barzun, far too seriously – and now we’re off to fight ISIS – as we once again have no time and no choice. Barzun got it wrong, or time passed him by. If you want to know the heart and mind of America you had better learn football, quick.

George Carlin got it right in his epic comparison of the two games, with observations like this:

Baseball is a nineteenth-century pastoral game. Football is a twentieth-century technological struggle.

Baseball is played on a diamond, in a park. The baseball park! Football is played on a gridiron, in a stadium, sometimes called Soldier Field or War Memorial Stadium.

Baseball begins in the spring, the season of new life. Football begins in the fall, when everything’s dying.

That may be a bit broad, but football seems to be life as we know it:

In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy’s defensive line.

In baseball the object is to go home! And to be safe!

Liberals found this insightful and amusing. They liked Carlin. Conservatives generally shrugged. This was just more insignificant liberal nonsense, and football is America’s game. For years the Dallas Cowboys called themselves America’s Team, although for the last several years they’ve been awful, so everyone has reconsidered that – but the idea is that football is a fine sport, played by fine men. They are out there to inflict pain and humiliation on the other guys out there, those who are weaker, but what’s wrong with that? That’s how you win, and that’s how you win in life. Any sign of weakness invites attack. Those with the “killer instinct” get the job done. Shock and awe win. Ask Dick Cheney about that. Total dominance, humiliating the other guy, is what matters. In fact, it’s heroic.

One thing leads to another. This means that professional football is populated by those who have been trained to get what they want through inflicting serious pain on others to win – those who are the very best at that are selected out, to fill the roster. The good hit is everything. The fans cheer. It should be a “clean hit” – there are rules – but it’s a hit nonetheless. The heroes of the game also have that “killer instinct” that assure a win.

That made it odd that the New England Patriots cut ties with their superstar Aaron Hernandez – after he was indicted for murder. It’s three murders now, but he does have that killer instinct. They were appalled at a trait they value, shutting down that part of the brain that can imagine the suffering of others and recoils at the thought of pounding others into submission. Yes, Hernandez crossed the line, he actually killed actual people, but that line is just one point on a continuum. Hernandez is the kind of guy the NFL likes. He just didn’t see the one bright line here, but he had been carefully conditioned to not see other lines on the same continuum. He had honed his merciless bragging killer instinct, his iron will to dominate, to a fine point, and it had served him well. He just couldn’t turn it off, at will, when he needed to. Few if any professional football players are potential murderers, but they’ve been selected out because they have something in common with them. They make a living, a fortune actually, by being borderline sociopaths on the field. Most of them, however, leave that on the field. They go home to the wife and kids, where things are different.

Now we’re beginning to understand that this isn’t always so. Being a borderline sociopath for a living, and only for a living, may be harder to manage than anyone thought, or maybe the game itself, through its incentive structures, simply attracts established borderline sociopaths. They’ve started popping up everywhere, and CNN has a list:

Adrian Peterson – One of the top players in the NFL, he left the Minnesota Vikings on Wednesday to deal with child abuse accusations in Texas. Peterson had been deactivated by the Vikings and missed Sunday’s game, and then reactivated Monday. But the team said it needed to correct its mistake and deactivated him again…

Greg Hardy – The Carolina Panthers’ defensive star also took a leave of absence because of legal troubles. As with Peterson, Hardy will be paid while he is away from the team. Hardy was convicted by a judge in July on misdemeanor assault charges. He asked for a new trial in front of a jury, which is scheduled for mid-November. Hardy played one game then was deactivated as the outrage against the NFL grew over how it was dealing with domestic violence issues. He has proclaimed his innocence of the charges, which were filed after police said he assaulted his then-girlfriend and threatened to kill her. He was sentenced to 18 months of probation and received a 60-day suspended sentence…

Jonathan Dwyer – The most recent player to be arrested, the running back is alleged to have assaulted a 27-year-old woman and an 18-month-old child. Sgt. Trent Crump, a Phoenix police spokesman, said it would be reckless to identify the victims. Dwyer, 25, spent Wednesday night in the Maricopa County Jail, and the Arizona Cardinals deactivated him. Crump said neighbors reported two incidents in July. Dwyer posted bond and was released from jail Thursday after a judge set a $25,000 “cash-only” bond and required him to wear an electronic monitoring device and abide by a curfew. He won’t be able to take part in any team activities after his release. The woman didn’t allege any violence until last week, when she called from another state, where she had moved with the child. The most serious of six charges were three counts of assault, one of which caused a fracture….

Ray Rice – The running back without a team is appealing his indefinite suspension by the league. While Rice has called punching his future wife in the head and knocking her out “inexcusable,” he is seeking to have the opportunity to play in the NFL again. The players’ union has complained that Rice didn’t receive due process from [NFL Commissioner Roger] Goodell, who suspended him in June to a two-game ban, then increased the penalty to an indefinite suspension. That came earlier this month after TMZ Sports posted a video that showed the punch. Rice was three days away from completing the original suspension when the indefinite ban was handed down and when the Baltimore Ravens terminated his contract.

Ray McDonald – On August 31, three days after Goodell created an NFL policy against domestic violence, San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle Ray McDonald was arrested on an accusation of felony domestic violence. The new policy imposes a minimum six-game unpaid ban for first-time offenders and up to a lifetime ban for second-time offenders.

Quincy Enunwa – The Jets practice squad player’s arrest went practically overlooked outside of the New York area. According to USA Today’s “NFL Players Arrests” tracker, he was arrested on September 4. Enunwa was charged with simple assault after a woman told police he pulled her off a bed at a hotel, causing a head injury, reported. He pleaded not guilty, ESPN said, adding that the player was still practicing with the team.

The NFL doesn’t quite know what to do with these guys. They have the traits they want on the field – beat the crap out of the weak – but those traits seem to be part of them at all times. Beat the crap out of the weak – women and children in this case – to show them who’s in charge. As for Adrian Peterson beating his kid, Amy Davidson covers the odd facts of the matter:

This preschooler wasn’t paddled or, as Peterson put it to police, “swatted”; he was whipped with a stick and left with open wounds on his body. It’s also not obvious that Peterson has been at all straightforward. (This is something a jury or judge will work out.) In his statement, Peterson said, “I have to live with the fact that when I disciplined my son the way I was disciplined as a child, I caused an injury that I never intended or thought would happen.” This is apparently a reference to the specific wound to the child’s scrotum and a particularly ugly one to the leg. (In another text message, he told the boy’s mother the same thing, adding, “Got him in nuts once I noticed. But I felt so bad, but I’m all tearing that butt up when needed!” He also wrote that she would probably get “mad at me about his leg. I got kinda good with the tail end of the switch.”) Peterson claimed to the police that he hadn’t noticed that the “tip of the switch and the ridges of the switch were wrapping around” the boy’s thigh.

The kid was four. Peterson was disciplining him, and Amanda Hess covers what other NFL players were saying:

Reactions from around the NFL imply that “love” is a valid reason for beating a child. “I got an ass whippn at 5 with a switch that’s lasted about 40 mins and couldn’t sit for 2 days. It’s was all love though,” Arizona Cardinals defensive end Darnell Dockett tweeted in Peterson’s defense. Added New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram Jr.: “When I was kid I got so many whoopins I can’t even count! I love both my parents they just wanted me to be the best human possible!”

This is normal, and this is love, really, even if that four-year-old still can’t sit down. Maybe he learned something. Slate’s William Saletan argues that it doesn’t work that way:

Corporal punishment teaches itself. Peterson thought he was teaching the opposite. According to reports, he was punishing his son for pushing and scratching another child. He says he explained this to the boy. “Anytime I spank my kids, I talk to them before, let them know what they did, and of course after,” he told investigators.

But when you hit a child for hitting another child, the hitting does all the talking. That’s the upshot of a recent study of more than 100 children and their parents. Every parent who approved of spanking a child for hitting a sibling passed this belief on to their kids. And 79 percent of kids who came from homes with lots of spanking said they’d hit a sibling for trying to watch a different TV show – almost the same scenario that led to Peterson’s beating of his son. According to the researchers, “Not one child from a no-spanking home chose to resolve these conflicts by hitting.” The kids absorbed the model, not the lecture.

Amanda Marcotte sees something else at play here:

Christian conservatives defend the practice of spanking children, even with weapons, by saying that parents are not supposed to do so in anger.

“You want to be calm, in control, and focused,” writes Chip Ingram of Focus on the Family and that a parent who embraces corporal punishment “is not an angry, insensitive person with a big club and a vicious agenda.” This echoes a common refrain from parents to justify spanking, that they don’t do it in anger and they reserve it for serious infractions that require a lot of time and processing so the child doesn’t do it again.

Unfortunately, parents are overestimating their own abilities to keep it in check. Researchers at Southern Methodist University strapped audio recorders onto the arms of 33 mothers to see if and when they used spanking, and found that instead of retreating to a quiet space to calmly administer a spanking, mothers who spank are just hitting in anger and frustration. Kids got spanked for finger-sucking, messing with pages of a book, or getting out of a chair when they weren’t supposed to. Parents who spank say they do so around 18 times a year, but the SMU researchers found it was closer to 18 times a week.

That’s odd, but using violence to keep the very young and the exceedingly small in line, to exert total dominance, may indeed become habitual. You don’t even think about it, and then there’s the race factor, which provides an array of habits. Josh Voorhees comments on that:

The perception that black parents are more likely to employ corporal punishment than their nonblack counterparts is borne out by academic research. In one study that examined 20,000 kindergartners and their parents, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found that 89 percent of black parents had spanked their children, compared with 79 percent of white parents, 80 percent of Hispanic parents, and 73 percent of Asian parents. There is no single reason why blacks are more likely to turn to the rod for discipline, but the numbers are correlated with factors that include socio-economic status, religious upbringing, and even the heartbreaking feeling that, as it’s often put, “I’d rather my child get a beating from me than from police.”

Society itself creates a sense that beating the crap out of the weak does some good, even if indirectly, but Michael Eric Dyson thinks it’s more than that:

The lash of the plantation overseer fell heavily on children to whip them into fear of white authority. Terror in the field often gave way to parents beating black children in the shack, or at times in the presence of the slave owner in forced cooperation to break a rebellious child’s spirit. Black parents beat their children to keep them from misbehaving in the eyes of whites who had the power to send black youth to their deaths for the slightest offense. Today, many black parents fear that a loose tongue or flash of temper could get their child killed by a trigger-happy cop. They would rather beat their offspring than bury them.

This has always been about dominance, just like in pro football now, on the field, and elsewhere, and then there’s the political:

On Tuesday’s edition of his radio show, Fox News host Sean Hannity used a discussion of the Adrian Peterson case as a vehicle for his fears about “liberals,” arguing that bringing child abuse charges against the NFL running back could result in the government infringing upon parents’ rights to instill values in their children…

“Here’s where my fear goes with all of this,” Hannity said. “You guys are gonna tell parents what they can and cannot do – for example, is it going to become illegal if a parent teaches the politically incorrect view that being gay is not normal?” He added, “Because I think we’ve gotten to the point where, if we don’t politically correct our kids, we might as well just hand our kids over to the government the day they’re born and let them raise them.”

This is serious stuff:

“My problem here is: Do parents have the right to instill their values in their children?” Hannity asked. “The problem is, we send these kids off to school, and maybe they’re taught that God is dead and maybe they’re taught that it’s okay to have sex, or maybe they’re taught values that contradict what the parents are teaching, whatever it might be – Heather has two mommies, daddies, roommates. That’s the government circumventing parental values.”

That’s an odd defense of Peterson. The Adrian Peterson case will prevent parents from teaching kids that “being gay is not normal” – somehow. Ah well, Hannity is who he is, but the question remains. Why has America’s game, played by America’s heroes, suddenly generated all these events – Peterson beating the crap out of his four-year-old son, to teach him a lesson he may not even understand, but out of love – Ray Rice punching that woman in the face and knocking her out cold, and then marrying here, presumably because now they both know that she knows her place? Why are there all these other stories of severe domestic violence against women, by very big and very strong men? Could it be that Jacques Barzun was wrong and George Carlin was right about the heart and mind of America? We have always wanted dominance. Professional football shows us how it’s done. We simply apply the lessons, generally. Football is American’s Game.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to The Heart and Mind of America

  1. Rick says:

    I guess you do learn from your parents. Mine spanked us, but hardly at all — but only when we were very young, and never with a belt or a “switch”.

    And not only did it not leave any wounds, it didn’t even really hurt, except to our puffed-up pride. We had thought we could get away with doing something we shouldn’t do, and a ritual and gentle spanking was our parents’ way of reminding us that we were wrong about that.

    Which is exactly what my wife and I had in mind the very few times we spanked our kids. But it was never about not eating their veggies, or “finger-sucking”, or “getting out of a chair when they weren’t supposed to.” We did it only at those times when they would mock our authority to tell them what to do and not do. So yes, it was indeed a way of letting them know “who’s in charge.” I remember thinking at the time that it was our way of getting their attention, so they would stop sassing back and start listening to us.

    And it seems to have worked — not only on me, but also on my kids. Neither I nor my siblings grew up to be spouse beaters, nor violent people in general, and so far, it’s the same with my kids.

    I always wonder if Michael Eric Dyson really knows what he’s talking about. Is he really a rigorous historian, with evidence to back him up, or does he just conjure, out of his own imagination, all this stuff about plantation overseers and black parents whipping their kids in the privacy of the shack? But I don’t know; he could be right.

    Still, something I find troubling is hearing “that 89 percent of black parents had spanked their children, compared with 79 percent of white parents” — first of all, because the stories l keep hearing from black parents defending this as a cultural difference between black people and white people, and hearing that the use of “switches” is more common with blacks, makes me wonder if that University of Texas at Austin study takes into account possible differences in the meaning of the word “spanking”.

    But we should also consider that maybe the black community needs to rethink that idea of writing this off as just another “cultural difference” between races, especially in light of statistics that show such a higher percentage of black people incarcerated in the American justice system. Yes, I’m sure much of that can be attributed to racism, but maybe not all of it. It just might be that inflicting all that “love”, in all those “whoopins”, might not result in making someone the “best human possible!” after all. And yes, Dyson could be right about this problem finding its roots in slavery, but when in comes to solving this, should that really matter?

    But another issue associated with football players beating their wives that I think needs more attention is the regularity in which we hear the wives themselves defending their husbands, as in the case of Ray Rice’s wife — which, of course, sort of pulls the rug out of the theory that we need to always listen to, and believe, the victims.

    How to explain this: Stockholm syndrome? Probably something like it. In fact, I think it’s possibly related to the point of today’s column — that we demand our football players be violent, with a killer instinct, so what else should be expect?

    In the same way, I think there are many women who find themselves attracted to “bad boys”, and even after being abused by their boyfriend or husband, they figure playing with danger just comes with the territory and think it’s nobody else’s business but their own. In fact, trying to reason with them on this is like trying to reason with Sean Hannity.

    Speaking of which:

    “Here’s where my fear goes with all of this,” Hannity said. “You guys are gonna tell parents what they can and cannot do – for example, is it going to become illegal if a parent teaches the politically incorrect view that being gay is not normal?”

    Okay, I see where this is coming from. We occasionally hear of somebody going overboard and arresting some parent who disciplines his or her child in public in a supermarket.

    First of all, I know that being a conservative means Hannity doesn’t have much faith in America, but I must say there doesn’t seem to be much danger that we will lose our ability to differentiate between, on the one hand, a parent’s simple “spanking” or gently “slapping” a child’s hand, and on the other, whuppin’ the holy shit out of their kids.

    But if Hannity is worried that the thought police will show up to arrest him for misinforming his kids — like telling them that girls can get pregnant from having impure thoughts, or that Jewish parents eat their babies, or that it’s not normal to be black or gay — he should relax his sphincter and be assured that we Americans tend to look for other ways to correct rampant bullshit than arresting ignorant parents for teaching it to their kids.


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