Our Gladiator Culture: On “Grit,” Competition, and Saving Future Generations

my father moved through griefs of joy;…
his shoulders marched against the dark

“my father moved through dooms of love,” e.e. cummings

This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

“Good Bones,” Maggie Smith

While sitting in the ER with my father a few nights ago before he was admitted into the hospitals’ heart center—a few days after my mother’s stroke sending her to another, larger hospital 40-minutes away—I was reminded of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, a novel, among other things, about the abusive power imbalance between men and women.

Late in the novel, Celie explains to her sister Nettie: “Take off they pants, I say, and men look like frogs to me. No matter how you kiss ’em, as far as I’m concern, frogs is what they stay.”

The most powerful and imposing man in my life, my father, sat in the ER—stooped, shrunken, pot-bellied, tongue hanging out of his mouth and bowed head like an aged human-sized toad somehow in a wheelchair. My father has always been my physical and athletic superior, despite my being in my mid-50s and quite successful in my career and my athletic hobby; he has always cast a shadow, darkening my lingering insecurities and anxieties.

This morning, Father’s Day 2017, I visited my father still in the heart center after spending almost all my time at my mother’s side as the number of family members able to help has dwindled as the day-count grows. Although improved, frog-like and frail, my father declared to me: “Nothing is wrong with me. I need to go home.”

For some time now, his heart has been working at only about 33%, wearing him and his pacemaker out at an accelerated rate.

In times of great medical stress, when families are brought together, stories spring forth to stabilize the chaos and restore our delusion that we have some sort of control.

One of the many myths of my father: In high school, because of fights and sports (my father was a four-sport letterman and captain of his high school’s first state championship football team in the 1950s), by age 18, my father had a full set of false teeth. So many teeth had been knocked out, his dentist eventually pulled the remaining 10 or 12 one day.

After the procedure, my father played in a baseball game, prompting his father to track him down, trying to make him come home to rest.

Like him, my mother is a gendered twin of the fanatic 1950s template for self-sacrifice, rugged individualism, and blind faith in the whitewashed American Dream—the racialized lie about hard work paying off and good guys winning.

I believe I am not being hyperbolic to recognize that my parents lie now in hospitals, broken and frail, because they bought the hokum, the hard-work hokum that makes people define their dignity in how fervently they sacrifice themselves, in how they work moment by moment to prove they are not lazy, soft, or in any way dependent on others.

My parents passed onto me a neurotic work ethic; my father instilled in me an incredibly unhealthy obsession with being athletic as proof of my manhood.

Although I have been trying to ween myself off sports fandom, I remain often connected to the sports fanaticism of the U.S.—one most solidly grounded in college and pro football, the perfect metaphor for the gladiator culture that defines us.

Dragged kicking and screaming, college football and the NFL have begun paying lip-service to acknowledging that [gasp!] the sport is cruelly violent, that football players are turning their brains into mush because of the relentless concussions that are simply part of the game.

The stories linked to the concussion debate in football are powerful and disturbing because they reveal a subtext that also came to mind as I sat with each of my parents: pro football players, many retired, admit that they have and would continue to lie about concussion symptoms to remain on the field.

The gladiator culture of the U.S. is replicated exponentially in the NFL [1]—toxic and hyper-masculinity, anything necessary including sacrificing health and even life.

And while the NFL and football mania of the U.S. are disturbing, the most troubling reality is that our neo-work-ethic of the twenty-first century targets children, specifically black and brown children from impoverished backgrounds.

The “grit” and growth mindset movements have become (mainstream) socially acceptable ways to wink-wink-nod-nod that black, brown, and poor people are simply too lazy, unwilling to work themselves, like my dad and mom, into decrepitude for the 1%.

Frantic—we are a nation with a ruling class snowblinded by their own privilege and terrified they won’t have a servant class—the whitewashed American Dream for black, brown, and poor children.

The U.S. has devolved into a perverse and inverted gladiator culture with the 1% in the stands and the rest of us reduced to a dog-eat-dog existence, an artificial and unnecessary dog-eat-dog existence.

Visit the elderly of this country, worn down by the demands that they work hard and depend on no one.

Look into their faces and if you can their eyes.

This is the future we are demanding of “other people’s children.”

But it is also a future we can reject, choosing instead an ethic of community and compassion.

As I look at my parents—discardable white working class Americans—I think that they deserved better, despite their own culpability in our whitewashed American Dream.

On this awful Father’s Day 2017, I would prefer above all else to be on the couch with my granddaughter, who yesterday kept imploring me “Wake up, Papa!” as I tried to doze between sessions with my mother, as she snuggled against me, her futon.

I know she deserves better—as does every single child having come to this planet and country by no choice of their own.

“This place could be beautiful,/right? You could make this place beautiful”—a haunting image of everything that I wish for this world in a poem by Maggie Smith that confesses:

The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.

On this awful Father’s Day 2017, I have kept much from my father and my mother in ways substantial and indirect.

But there is no way to justify the lies we tell children—that they fail to work hard enough, that they are somehow not good enough unless they act as if they do not matter, that they should shut up and suck it up.

Few things are worth fighting for, but one is to keep every child from the gladiator’s ring, to promise every child if not a beautiful world, at least the possibility of one.


[1] In the same way the NFL promotes the great lie that the U.S. is a meritocracy:

Despite this, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell rejected on Friday the idea that any kind of blackballing was taking place. He called the NFL “a meritocracy,” saying, “If they see an opportunity to get better as a football team, they’re going to do it. They’re going to do whatever it takes to make their football team better. So, those are football decisions. They’re made all the time. I believe that if a football team feels that Colin Kaepernick, or any other player, is going to improve that team, they’re going to do it.”

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Our Gladiator Culture: On “Grit,” Competition, and Saving Future Generations

  1. Pingback: Paul Thomas: A Difficult Father’s Day, Reckoning with Our “Gladiator Culture” | Diane Ravitch's blog

  2. Pingback: Our Gladiator Culture: On “Grit,” Competition, and Saving Future Generations | Matthews' Blog

Comments are closed.