I’ve just returned from a week or so in Romania, where I was attending an academic conference in a Transylvanian town too small to mention on a theme too recondite for me to even bother to try to explain it. I can report, however, on the results of the usual extracurricular breeze-shooting about politics.
The most important lesson I took away was one that I’ve long known but all too often forgotten: that it is vitally important to remain sensitive to the local contexts in which global events are interpreted. The Iraq war, and Romania’s prominent position in the coalition of the willing,, are understood in this particular local context as an important turning point in Romania’s history: after the savagery of its dictatorship, the violence that brought this dicatorship to an end in 1989, and the uncertainty of impoverished Romania’s position within the economic and social order of the European community, it is not surprising that Romania has been proud to be declared, even by the likes of Donald Rumsfeld, a member of the New Europe. Romanian support for the Iraq war may thus be seen as a sort of locally laudable, globally unfortunate” opposition to the bullying of Jacques Chirac, certainly a regional tyrant of sorts, who, many Romanians think, showed his true character when, shortly after Romania and some other former Communist states voiced their support for the attack on Iraq, condescendingly declared that these countries had “missed a good opportunity to keep quiet.
What’s remarkable, though, is that many Romanians seem to have an image of the United States as a society fundamentally incapable of collapsing into tyranny. The symbolic apparatus of eagles and stars and stripes rather than hammers and sickles, the rhetoric of freedom and opportunity rather than of popular will and solidarity, seem to assure the former victims of Ceausescu that America is just a different sort of creature, incapable in its essence of drifting all that far from the principles upon which it was founded. My new, unlikely friend, Catalin Avramescu, for example, a political philosopher at the New Europe College in Bucharest and the author of an as- yet untranslated book on cannibalism, happily declared to me not only his enthusiastic support of the US-led invasion of Iraq, but also his unequivocal advocacy of US-led preemptive strikes and regime change in Iran and North Korea. To prevent excessive retaliation against South Korea, in the latter case the strike would have to be swift and unexpected. Those new low-yield nukes the US is developing, the so-called bunker busters, Catalin told me, would be perfect for the job. (You’ll just have to take my word for it when I say that he’s actually a delightful fellow.)
In any event, my impression of America’s essential character, or its lack of one, was rather different as I drove down from Montreal a few weeks ago to appease my late-surging activist conscience by joining the rabble outside Madison Square Garden, as inside the Republicans plotted and posed. It seemed to me, on this visit more than ever before, that those virtues that many Romanians continue to ascribe to the United States are rapidly giving way to virtues extolled by the Ceausescu dictatorship itself, virtues that had their most vivid ancient expression in the civilization of the Spartans. This is a troubling change, as it is usually thought that there has been a distinct, continuous line of descent from ancient Athens, the enemy of Sparta, through to the American Revolution, from the freedom of Socrates to pursue truth rather than mere opinion, to the freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. Sparta has been the eternal opposite, so the narrative goes, of everything we stand for. And this change is particularly disconcerting for those of us who prefer to spend our time hanging around in marketplaces (or their modern analogues), shooting the breeze, pursuing our erotic whims, drinking too much.
In my case, the conflict between Athens and Sparta hits very close to home. The first stirrings of my political consciousness came not upon hearing, as I no doubt did, words like Reaganomics, and Apartheid,, but during soccer practice. I, an unfortunate dreamer of eight or nine, had been, by some tragic parent-teacher miscommunication, conscripted to play on a team of would-be soldiers, all outfitted in camouflage pants and T-shirts with slogans like Kill em all, let God sort em out,. The coach was of a similar disposition. He had a tyrannical moustache and wore a tool-belt with a hunting knife on it.
I wanted nothing more, as long as I had to be there, than to stand about on the field, counting dandelions, observing the dragonflies in their mysterious flight formations, feeling the warmth of the sun. Occasionally, the ball would come my way, and I would kick it, not in the service of the team, no, but just to get it away from me. The coach, invariably, would yell something about teamwork, and the boys would communicate to me, through words, gestures, and stares, that I was hated, and that my failure to kick the ball in the right direction, with enough force, was in fact just an early symptom of a general deviance that would grow, in time, to include political convictions, morality, and aesthetic sensibility. In a word, they were trying to live in accordance with Spartan virtues. I wanted Athens.
Fortunately, American society had been diverse enough to allow me to spend my teens and young-adulthood in the company of like-minded idle dreamers and yakkers. Now, I fear, it’s as though that soccer team has seized power and is seeking to impose its set of virtues on all of America.
As a sublimation of war, sports are an essential feature of any Spartan civilization. Consider, for example, this gem that I pulled from my personal copy of Kim Jong Il’s Selected Works (Pyongyang: Foreign Language Press, 1995), from a speech he delivered in 1972 to the North Korean national soccer team: “It is very important to develop sports. Pointing out that physical culture is one of the means to strengthen the friendly relations with foreign countries, the great leader [Kim’s father, Kim Il Sung] said that physical culture should be developed At present, however, the instructions of the great leader are not carried out to the letter in the sphere of physical culture, and sports exchange is not conducted properly, as required by the Party. A common example is the fact that our soccer players were defeated in the recent preliminaries for the Olympic Games.
Kim takes defeat as itself proof that the athletes are lapsing into counterrevolutionary laziness. Should this unsubtle hint that the higher- ups expect to start seeing some victories cause a bit of stress, no worries, the dear leader has a cure: “As for those whose nerves are on edge, they will get better if they live in tents on Rungna Islet.
Of course, the Bush administration has come nowhere near this degree of Spartanism. As far as I know, there has been no threat of sanctions against losing sports teams that represent the US. One wonders, though, what might happen if our sports teams consistently performed as poorly as the US basketball players at the Athens Olympics. The US does not have to start threatening its athletes yet, since, for the most part, here as elsewhere, we continue to dominate.
As we are reminded at the White House website for kids, though (a truly surreal experience; imagine Karl Rove targeting the seven-year-old demographic: http://www.whitehouse.gov/kids/sports/visitwh.html), it is of course the winning athletes and teams that warrant our own dear leader’s benediction, not the dandelion-gazers. The losers aren’t punished, but the beauty of their failure goes entirely undetected.
In any case, as long as public executions of losing athletes remain beyond the pale, we must see the valorization of athletes in our society as a relatively harmless symptom of the tendency I am describing. Another more serious problem is the conflation of the respective functions of police and military in society. Before even arriving at the demonstration in New York City, I stopped at a rest-stop just south of Albany. Inside, there was a large, illuminated ad paid for by, I think, the New York State Patrolmen’s Boosters Association. It depicted two men, one a state patrolman, dressed in an imposing black uniform, with a scowl on his face, sporting an automatic weapon; the other was a US Army soldier, dressed in the usual camouflage, with a scowl on his face, sporting an automatic weapon. In large letters at the top, the ad implored us to “Support Our Troops.
Now as far as I can remember, until very recently state and city police were thought to fulfill a very different function than were soldiers. The former are members of the community, protecting and serving, maintaining order; the latter are charged with the task of defending the integrity of national borders. Of course, even if we buy the line that these are complicated times, and some of the work of national security can’t but overlap with that of law enforcement, still, it is simply an improper use of English to call policemen troops,. This elision of the functions of police and army in American culture vividly illustrates, it seems to me, the extent to which this culture has been militarized.
Another example. When I cross the border at Champlain, in upstate New York, nine times out of ten the crew-cutted goon who questions me will bark: “Where are you going today, sir! It’s a question, technically, but the intonation forces an exclamation point after the sir, that strongly suggests my interrogator takes this to be some sort of martial interaction. No doubt he presumes he is treating me with respect. That’s the problem with the term sir,. Officially, it’s polite, even though we all know that whenever it’s bellowed in our direction, we certainly won’t be making any new friends. The particular problem I have with this usage of the term, though, is that I am a civilian, I am proud to have never served in the military, and I don’t even know how to stand or sit at attention. Invariably, when I get this treatment at the border, I slouch even further down into my seat and respond with a string of casual, decidedly unsoldierly mm-hmms,.
What else can I do? How can one resist this Spartanization of our culture? Surely we cannot fight fire with fire. But we can at least cultivate some distinctly un-Spartan values. In particular, I would like to make the following recommendations:
1. Do not exercise; or, if you must, admit that you are only doing so in order to keep the pounds off and thereby facilitate erotic intrigue. 2. Do nothing that requires teamwork,.
3. Patronize creators of degenerate art, no matter how bad it in fact is. See the new John Waters film, listen to crunk, read Michel Houellebecq. Just don’t spend your money on anything with an uplifting, life- and faith- affirming, positive, message.
4. Drink French wine.
5. Respond to chatter about home-team victories and defeats with a resolute blank stare.
6. Above all, hate war.
This is just a beginning, of course. Idlers, dreamers, breeze-shooters, bon-vivants are by definition poor organizers. So the resistance will have to be, for the most, part, left up to each of you, dear readers. It will take the form of everyday trouble-making. Sabotage the three-legged race at your company picnic. Let your children see you reading in bed in your underwear of a Sunday morning, when the neighbors are dragging their poor brats to church. If enough of us collude in this subtle, barely perceptible movement, our influence will be so insidious, it will take nothing short of a true tyranny to keep us down.
In other words, in the coming years the possibility of living one’s life out of step with the Spartanism of the prevailing political culture will be the true test of our democracy’s robustness.
Justin E. H. Smith teaches philosophy at Concordia University in Montreal. He can be reached at: email@example.com