There’s been talk all this week about that stunning report from former Senator George Mitchell revealing that Major League Baseball players, including some of the sport’s biggest stars, have been using steroids for years. The findings prompted my fellow journalist and friend Dick Starkey to recall an important insight into America by the eminent social critic, Jacques Barzun. A Frenchman by birth, now 100 years old and living in Texas, Barzun, like his illustrious ancestor Alexis de Tocqueville, has been a canny interpreter of the American character. “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America,” he once wrote, “had better learn baseball.”
So what do we learn about ourselves from the Mitchell Report? That something is flowing through our veins other than red corpuscles. It turns out owners, players and the players’ union were complicit in ignoring the growing use of steroids and other illegal drugs in our national pastime. But suppose our national pasttime has become our national pathology? Ours is a society on steroids, and we’re as blind as baseball’s owners were a decade ago.
In our drugged state, we cheer the winners in the game of wealth, the billionaires who benefit from a skewed financial system — the losers, we kick down the stairs. We open fire hoses of cash into our political system in the name of “free speech.” Television stations that refuse to cover government make fortunes selling political bromides over public airwaves. Pornography passing as advertising assaults our senses, seduces our children, and pollutes our culture. Partisan propaganda gets pumped up as news. We feed on the flamboyance of celebrities. And we actually take seriously the Elmer Gantrys who use the Christian Gospel as a guidebook to an Iowa caucus or a battle plan for the Middle East. In the face of a scandalous health care system, failing schools, and a fraudulent endless war, we are as docile as tattered scarecrows in a field of rotten tomatoes.
As for that war, you may have heard that a quarter of the heavily-armed ‘shooters’ working in the streets of Baghdad for the Administration’s mercenary Blackwater foreign legion are alleged to be chemically influenced by steroids or other mind-altering substances.
The other day, before Mitchell issued his report, the former pitcher Jim Bouton was holding forth on the importance of a level playing field in the sport at which he had long excelled. Were he playing today, Bouton said, he wouldn’t want to lose his livelihood because his competitors had an unfair advantage.
You don’t get a level playing field with performance enhancing drugs, any more than you get an honest government with political action committees and bundled contributions, or a fair economy with some derivatives, hedge funds, and private equity managers taxed at rates lower than their janitors. You get a level playing field only when the fans demand it. Suppose people stopped attending games in large numbers, stopped watching on TV, stopped buying the products hyped by the icons. The leveling would happen, or baseball as a money-making business would die. It’s not likely to happen. If we can’t organize to stop a brutal, bloody war in Iraq, or rectify an economic system that divides us further every day, we can hardly expect collective action from baseball fans.
There was a lesson in George Mitchell’s report that I’m not sure even he recognized. The day Americans don’t feel strongly enough about the need for level playing fields to fight for them — the day when cutting corners and seeking an edge become the national pastime — is the day democracy will be lucky even to find a seat in the bleachers.
BILL MOYERS is managing editor of the weekly public affairs program BILL MOYERS Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at www.pbs.org/moyers.