24 July 2010

Why the US Hasn't Caught Soccer Fever

The recent World Cup revealed a number of reasons that soccer is unlikely to ever catch on in the US.

Perhaps the most obvious reason soccer will have trouble winning the hearts of American sports fans is that it is a constant challenge to how Americans make sense of the world. We know that we are the reason that we are the richest and most powerful nation in the world. Just as the Germans, British, Dutch, Spanish, and Italians before us, we misconstrue our fortune of having been born into such privilege with the fact of our actually being special. American exceptionalism means, of course, that we Americans are exceptional. Regularly unable to beat teams from countries 1% our size, we are reminded that this simply is not so. Fans simply want to cheer. They don't want cognitive dissonance with their color commentary.

Another thing about the game that offends any reasonable American is its inefficiency. You can't use your hands? What are you supposed to do with that half of your body? Given their hands are free, you might expect that the players would at least be texting.

Any self-respecting American is clear that a person needs a goal. Without goals, one's life just meanders from place to place ... like the ball on a soccer field. Everyone should have a goal but apparently no one has told soccer fans. They seem perfectly content to watch 90 minutes of a game that is played, uninterrupted by a single goal.

Finally, one has only to watch a single game to realize why so many of the countries that love soccer are poor. This game never pauses. There is no opportunity for ads that remind fans that after the game they could go shopping. Compare that with any American sport. Even if there is not a single change in pitchers, baseball is good for at least 18 commercial interruptions. The last "five" minutes of football can take 50. Consumers drive the American economy and if we were to become soccer fans, our economy would likely collapse to the level of Argentina's or Cameroon's. It seems to me that the single simplest stimulus to economic growth that these soccer-crazed countries could undertake would be to change the rules so that commercial breaks are taken every 4 to 5 minutes rather than every 45 minutes. Until that happens, we Americans don't just have a right but actually have an obligation to show tepid interest in soccer.

19 July 2010

Europe's Great Un-Learning

There are only two states of mind that precede learning, and neither is particularly pleasant. Before you learn something, you are either ignorant or confused; or, put differently, before you get answers you have to question what you know. There were two huge events in the first two centuries of the first economy that created mass confusion and revealed great ignorance, two events that made Europeans question what they knew and opened them up to the Renaissance.

The Black Death, which began in 1348, and the discovery of America created tragedy, hope and cognitive dissonance. Try for a moment to imagine the incessant, near apocalyptic coverage today’s media would give to the discovery of a “new world” populated with people with many of the same social structures as us and yet very different rituals and behaviors, much less a pandemic that killed nearly a third of the population. Imagine what absurd speculation we’d hear on talk shows, the banter between “experts” whose expertise in no way prepared them for this, and the callers who began to question everything. These two events were like gales of destructive creation, destroying so much of what Europeans believed and opening them up to the new.

Saul Alinsky writes that someone pushing for social change will rarely have a majority on his side. Change is too uncertain and people are busy with their own lives. The best one can do is to get the majority feeling like the status quo is so bad that they won’t work to defend it. When that happens, you can make changes. In a sense, the Black Death did at least that, probably not just making Europeans feel ambivalent about the status quo but actually making them ready to actively change it.

11 July 2010

The Importance of Pepper

To find a good reason why the waiter might think it would impress your date to offer her freshly ground pepper from what appears to be a small table leg, you’d have to go back centuries to Medieval Europe. (Of course, Freud might have as much to say about what this conveys as any historian. Lasting rituals rarely make sense at only one level.) In medieval times, pepper and other spices were status symbols, highly coveted, exotic, and expensive. So much so that its special place in our diet has carried over into today’s fine restaurants.

Spices were ideal for trade. They didn’t spoil and were light in weight. Essentially, foreign trade meant spice trade and the foreign lands from which the spices came were so remote as to be shrouded in mystery. By at least one estimate the average European never traveled more than 5 miles from home during his entire life (although given the lack of pedometers this would have to be considered a very rough estimate) and places as remote as Asia were idealized. To medieval Europeans, America was unknown but Atlantis was real, as was Paradise. And yes, by Paradise they meant the Garden of Eden. Spices were so aromatic, so rare, and so special that they were thought to come from there. (It seems reasonable to assume that trader who were happy to enhance demand for their product would make little effort to clarify that pepper actually came from India and the Maluku Islands in Indonesia.) Medieval Europeans believed that “pepper … grew on a plain near Paradise [and that] ginger and cinnamon” had been carried by the Nile straight from Paradise.

European food had yet to be infused with so many of the exotics to come from later stages of world trade, and spices were coveted for the simple fact that they enhanced the taste of food. Given the trade route was so long, spice prices were high and the products were essentially reserved for the elites. “In fact, pepper frequently took the place of gold as a means of payment.” And as with any highly priced item, spices conveyed status, a literal display of good taste.

But in the 1400s, the long trade routes were getting hit with tariffs by new rulers, and growing wealth among Europeans meant increased demand. As a result, spice prices went up 30x. If a person could find better trade routes to India, a way to avoid the tariffs levied in the Middle East, he would be rich. A taste for spices drove explorers to find a new continent. Columbus, who ventured out into unknown seas in search of it, would have known that America was truly a land of great wealth if he knew that it was a place where waiters came to your table and offered you as much fresh ground pepper as you wanted.

Mostly drawn from Wolfgang Schivelbusch, translated from German by David Jacobson, Tastes of Paradise: A social history of stimulants, and intoxicants [Vintage Books, New York, NY, 1993]

10 July 2010

When the American Discovered Europe

Europeans discovered America but Americans also discovered Europe, a rarely mentioned story.

Pocahontas’s father sent one of his tribe back to England with the Pilgrims and gave him a stick, telling him to put a notch in the stick each time he saw a new Englishmen. The chief wanted to know what he was dealing with.

When the poor Indian pulled into the harbor he was flabbergasted by the crowds of people around the docks. He took one look at the crowds, looked down at his stick, looked back at the crowds and then simply threw his stick into the water.

2010: The Year of the Slacker?

Tomorrow's world cup final pits Spain against the Netherlands. Institutionalized siestas vs. legalized marijuana, which should make 2010 the year of the slacker. Maybe the lesson for the rest of us is that if we want to succeed it wouldn't hurt to relax a little.

Now that I've written this long post, I think I'll go take a nap.

08 July 2010

NBA News! (Just like ESPN)

I get so many requests for more sports coverage here at R World. I try to be responsive to my reader, so here goes.

Business idea: little green hat labeled, "NBA Salary Cap." The optional t-shirt could read, "Doing my bit to support the home team: I kept my salary under $20 million this year."

I'm shopping a book on this topic now, but few people realize how close Obama came to making a package deal of the Russian - American spy for spy swap and simply trading LeBron James and Chris Bosh to Brazil for soccer players Kaka and Fabiano to raise our world standing.

LeBron James will get about $240,000 per game (or more than $8,000 per point at the rate he scores.) If he played just one game per year, his income would put him in the top 2% of Americans.

It's a pity that James did not sign with the Houston Rockets. He missed a major marketing opportunity there. It's hard to believe that anyone could have a cooler nickname than VonBron James.

Shaq is still active? I find this sort of amazing and mostly heartening. He must be in his 50s by now and the thought of him still playing at that age inspires me. It's amazing that a guy over 300 pounds who runs and jumps could have a career last longer than 98% of the rappers from his era.

I just love the fact that a guy whose nickname is King James took one hour to announce that he was playing for the Heat. He must use really old English to take that long to express something so simple. I could understand it taking an hour to tell his grandmother, for instance, but not to tell basketball fans.
"Grandma, I'm going to play for the Heat."
"I've decided to play for the Heat."
"You've decided to play in the heat?"
"The team. The team is the heat."
"Why is it that every generation thinks they gotta make up new slang? Your grandpa would say, 'The team is so cool.' You say 'heat.' Well at least you are not as crude as your daddy and his friends. They'd have said, 'the team is the s**t.' There is no excuse for that."
"No. Grandma. I'm going to play for the Miami Heat."
"When you get to be my age, son, the Miami heat is reason enough NOT to play. A boy from Cleveland, like you, is likely to melt down there."
And on goes the conversation ...

Demetri Martin: “I used to like to watch sports a lot, but not as much anymore, ‘cause I’m always disappointed. I’d always rather see the actual animals fighting than the teams with those names. Colts vs Bears — yeah! Wizards vs Heat — freaking awesome! Magic vs Jazz — that’s a little too gay for me, I’m gonna pass on that one.”

Stay tuned for when LeBron takes on Harry Potter. Maybe Demetri Martin will do the color commentary.

04 July 2010

The Slow Spread of Democracy (say, aren’t those peasants armed with voter pamphlets?)

The American Revolution didn't just happen once. In fact, it is still happening.

In 1689, England's Glorious Revolution shifted authority from crown to constitution. British Parliament essentially hired monarchs (William & Mary) and told them that they could have subjects but would - like everyone else - be themselves subject to the constitution.

About a hundred years later the Americans decided that if they had a constitution they wouldn't even need a monarch. It's worth remembering that George Washington was the first president in the history of the world. But of course it never occurred to the founding fathers, who thought that all men were created equal, that anyone other than white, property-owning, Protestant males should be able to vote.

The Revolution of 1776 was a beautiful thing but it didn't really change the the rights of most Americans. It took 34 more years before people (well, property-owning white males) of any religion could vote. It took 74 years before even white males who didn't own property could vote. 144 years before women could vote and 148 years before Native Americans were considered real Americans and also able to vote. 189 years later, minorities' voting rights were ensured. And it took nearly 200 years before the 18 year olds considered old enough to die for their country were considered old enough to vote for their leaders. (And it is probably no coincidence that since then we've not had a draft.)

The real limit to change is always the collective imagination. For all of their vision, it is not the least obvious that our founding fathers could conceive of an 18 year old black female casting the vote that might elect the next president.

Social progress is often a bet on the person who has yet to prove himself. By definition it almost has to be. Before 1920, women could not prove that their vote mattered for the simple reason that it did not.

A couple of centuries later, democracy is still spreading. Right here within our borders. Now that's a revolution.

01 July 2010

A little Bukowski for Your Morning

about the PEN conference

take a writer away from his typewriter
and all you have left
the sickness
which started him
in the

- Charles Bukowski