Friday, August 13, 2004

Heck, I Don't Even Watch Super Bowl Halftime

This was supposed to have been the first day of Big Column Pride Week, during which I would write again again and again in a boastful way about my various competencies, some of which soar to above average. Thus, I would counterbalance the unheroic catalog in recent posts of phobias, frailties and chronic maladjustments so cynically aimed -- and there can be great cynicism in the simple truth -- at winning your allegiance.

Hail, King. Post forever.

But today the Olympics open, which I don't watch, and the Olympics remind me of other great communal media events that I don't watch. So now I'll just rant, though ranting is a prideful thing if you do it as well as I do. (He shoots, he preens, he scores.)

First thing I loved and that loving feeling lost was the Miss America Pageant. When I was a kid in the Fifties my family watched every agonizing moment of Miss America, rooting for Miss Virginia to make the final ten, which would have been honor enough for us po' Southerners, at the time the group of Americans who had most recently lost a war.

I liked Miss America because of the sex, i.e, the swimsuit competition, that chaste contextualized eroticism filtered through the girls' "talents" -- and never has the ironic use of quotation marks around a single word been so well illustrated. At the time, however, my family was pretty much irony free. Singing operatic arias or reciting patriotic speeches or twirling batons -- these were good things. And we did not think the girls' answers to the final questions that winnowed out the shallow from the glib were either shallow or glib.

Of course of course after I went away to college I learned about the commodification of women and one way or another became exposed to better singing and better acting -- though never, I recall, to better baton twirling. I heard enough smart people say enough smart things so that the 60-second philosophizing of the Miss Americas was transformed into camp. I understood, well before there was a genre to give it a name, that the Miss America Pageant was reality TV, and that its semi-scripted inanity was its charm.

I hate reality TV. I do not enjoy the sourness of the triumph of the few built on the humiliation of the many. I just don't have that much ironic distance, and what I have I reserve for politics. My wife and I haven't watched a Miss America Pageant in 35 years. We would be embarrassed for us, for the girls, for the X chromosome, for the mad energy of the evolutionary process turned to this.

It's been nearly that long since we watched an Academy Awards show, though it's harder for me to explain exactly why. It's not that I don't like Hollywood movies or that I reject the idea that there is such a thing as really good movie acting. Maybe my wife and I got sick of Bob Hope, the signature Oscar host during the Sixties and Seventies, whose politics went Neanderthal during Vietnam. It wasn't that the occasional incoherent speech from an Oscar winner embarrassed me the way the grim relentless smiles of the Miss Americas did. It was really a simple matter of cost/benefit ratio: The Academy Awards program is so damn long. The Hollywood stars weren't that funny or dramatic or touching, given the investment of time required. Unscripted, they were merely banal and occasionally dyslexic, like George Bush, but lacking his power for real mischief. So no deep psychological or philosophical or ideological force drove us away from the Oscars. We just got bored.

But why abandon the Olympics, where even the losers are gallant, and you actually see the performances on which the stumbling speeches of acceptance are based? Running and jumping for prizes today reminds us of our running and jumping in order to survive for tens of thousands of years, and thus has a considerably more distinguished pedigree than baton twirling or tap dancing. At some visceral animal level, we know the trained body matters, and the variety of Olympic sports illustrates through how many patterns physical strength and dexterity can find expression. Critics may claim that the Olympics are spoiled by drugs and commercialism and sob stories, but the events themselves float on top of all the corruptions, even the bizarre ones like synchronized swimming which literally float on, and sometimes lunge from, good true water.

(Synchronized swimming is an odd sport with certain ritualistic implications. When it's over, don't you really feel they should haul the maidens out of the water and sacrifice them to the gods?)

But none of it means anything to me because I remember when the Olympics stood for something. I mean 50 years ago when the Olympics were not simply war by other means between us and the Soviets but something more. I am talking not about soft symbolism but hard symbolism. If their system made girls and guys who could beat the best girls and guys our system made, then their system was probably making better -- and here's that phrase from back when it meant something -- WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION.

I laugh when people cringe and moan about al Qaeda, who on a good day might kill us by the thousands. The Soviets -- I knew this as ten-year-old boys know such things -- were capable of killing all of us, every one of us. Al Qaeda compared to that? -- a slap on the face compared to a knife to the throat.

The Olympics were the bomb, baby, back in '56 or '60. This attitude was not rational or useful, but it was vivid. Mere modern nationalism is nothing. The Olympics are nothing. God, I hated Khrushchev the way I hate George Steinbrenner. That's why I still love baseball and watch it all the time. Something evil this way comes. I'm not totally out of the loop.

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