Sunday, March 27, 2005

Baseball and Bullshit; or, The New National Pastime

From "Play's the Thing," the Woodstock Times, March 24, 2005:
Baseball is in danger, everyone agrees. Player salaries are skyrocketing while revenues — and soon, perhaps, teams — are contracting. Operating losses in the smaller-market cities are papered over with hope that a greater fool can be found to purchase the franchise at a price greater than that paid by the current fool. The abuse of controlled substances has called into question fans’ faith in the game and the integrity of its records.

Let’s review for a moment just how we got here.

There was much woe and lamentation in the seventies that the game was dying. Commentators bemoaned the sluggish play by roving mercenaries who had no loyalty to the teams or their fans; the players’ coming to the ballpark high, hung over, or strung out; the all-too-common consort with criminals; the inept and fractious ownership. But baseball bounced back in the next decade to reclaim its place as the national pastime: new heroes, spirited competition, and booming prosperity gave birth to dreams of expansion, both within the major leagues and around the world.

And then came the nineties, when owners, suddenly frightened that they had ceded control to the players, sought to restore baseball’s profitability by “running the game like a business”: they looked for ways to clamp down on salaries, reorganize the leagues to favor the big-market cities, and make real-estate fortunes from their ballparks. As we rolled into a new century, baseball was still struggling to recapture fans’ loyalty.

If I haven’t made myself clear, this worrisome chain of events describes the game of the nineteenth century. Yes, we’ve seen it all before. And yes, those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it. Baseball is such a great game that neither the owners nor the players have been able to kill it, if not for lack of trying. But over the last decade a venomous drip, detectable in the game ever since the Knickerbockers cavorted on the Elysian Fields in the 1840s, has now begun to resemble a tsunami.

Let’s call this tidal wave what it is: bullshit. Not as direct as a lie, which stands in opposition to the truth; not as endearing as hokum, which P.T. Barnum served up with a wink and a nudge to knowing patrons; and certainly not the truth, which is only dimly acknowledged by bullshit practitioners. In the furtherance of an aim, bullshit is foisted upon the public with utter indifference to the truth and guiltlessness about deception.

Until recently in respectable literary circles, none dared call this phenomenon by its pungent name. Academics like Daniel Boorstin certainly addressed the subject in such titles as The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, in which he observed that sport seems to offer us “a last refuge of the authentic, uncorrupted spontaneous event … an oasis of the uncontrived.” He might as well have said sport was a no-bullshit zone, but Boorstin was a proper sort, given to wearing a bow tie.

It was left to Harry G. Frankfurt, a retired professor of philosophy at Princeton, to call a turd a turd. In the fall 1986 issue of Raritan, he published an essay titled “On Bullshit.” Frankfurt reprinted the essay two years later in his book The Importance of What We Care About: Philosophical Essays, and in January it was reissued as a tiny gift book for bullshit practitioners, victims, or connoisseurs (On Bullshit, Princeton University Press, $9.95). In truth this is a fairly dry examination of a droll subject, with little puerile appeal beyond its admirable title and unsettling avoidance of euphemism: “Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it,” Frankfurt writes. “So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, or attracted much sustained inquiry. In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves.” In May we will see a larger if perhaps less philosophically rigorous book on the phenomenon: Laura Penny’s Your Call Is Important to Us: The Truth About Bullshit (McClelland & Stewart, $21.95).

The difference between lying and bullshitting rests in the bullshitter’s complete disregard for facts. According to Frankfurt he “does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.” In other words, the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony: the words may be true or false, no matter; the intent of the bullshitter is merely to persuade by any and all means.

This puts one in mind of the original rationale for going to war in Iraq, of course. However, for a combination of sanctimoniousness and political calculation it would be difficult to equal what we have seen in recent days: the Congressional hearings on steroids in major-league baseball and the legislative affirmation of the right to life for Terri Schiavo. To detect bullshit in these proceedings may seem offensive, as both cases epitomize genuine issues – for families, though, not for politicians. From the Volstead Act to the new bankruptcy law, politicians have sought to impress us with the strength of their convictions (or connections) rather than the cogency of their arguments. Madison Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue are two addresses for the same fetid phenomenon.

For all those who would dispense some sort of bullshit, the common imperative is earnestness. The most astounding things may be uttered without eliciting a murmur of protest if one wears a pained or beatific expression. The postmodern skepticism of objective truth (i.e., all perspectives are tainted, even “facts” are tinged by who musters them) today favors sincerity as somehow delivering a subjectively true and thus more authentic experience … as if Benny Hinn were to be trusted over Socrates. “Our natures, are indeed, elusively insubstantial,” Frankfurt concludes, “notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.”

I am put in mind of Mary McCarthy’s famous assessment of Lillian Hellman: “Every word she says is a lie, including and and the.” Or in the words of one of my elbow-bending mentors, “Once you can fake sincerity the rest is easy.”

In Congress that wisdom produced the long and largely redundant photo-op on baseball and steroids, followed by requests from our finest fawning representatives for autographs by the stars. Because I have written on the subject of players’ controlled-substance abuse recently in this space (“Steroids: The Fault Is Not in Our Stars,” December 9, 2004. present in this blog), for now let me share only my shorthand view of steroids and human growth hormone. They are dangerous and worrisome, and different from recreational drugs if not from amphetamines in this sense: they are performance enhancers and thus their use is not merely immoral or illegal, but also cheating. But baseball players and owners have always cheated, from spitballs to corked bats, from the reserve clause to municipality shopping; indeed, one of the game’s ten commandments has always been “It ain’t cheating if you don’t get caught.”

My problem with the glare of the Congressional klieg lights was succinctly stated on a recent baseball listserv by John Pastier:

“Hearings such as this are a farce, when Congress is unable or unwilling to deal with a myriad of far more pressing national and international problems. Given its dismal performance in recent years, a hearing such as this offers Congress a chance to posture over a relatively minor issue while ignoring or even actively exacerbating more important problems … the fact is that the steroid hearings are, in themselves, a classic and cynical example of the politics of distraction.”

This goes doubly for the sad spectacle that yielded the Terri Schiavo legislation. Professor Frankfurt might call both bullshit. I would say that Congressional egos were juiced.
--John Thorn


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