On Lies, Bullying, and America’s Greatness: “the true horror of lost status”

When Nora experiences her existential epiphany and decides to be no longer a doll in Torvald Helmer’s house, it is Torvald’s response that has always fascinated me.

“Oh, you think and talk like a heedless child,” Torvald responds before becoming desperate: “But can’t we live here like brother and sister–?”

A Norwegian playwright dramatizing well over a century ago the sexism and misogyny inherent in social norms such as marriage—what could this possibly have to do with the U.S. in 2016?

Torvald, in fact, is a dramatization of what Toni Morrison recognizes in the rise of Trumplandia; Morrison’s confrontation of racism speaks as well to sexism: “These sacrifices, made by supposedly tough white men, who are prepared to abandon their humanity out of fear of black men and women, suggest the true horror of lost status.”

We see in Torvald the embodiment of “the true horror of lost status.”

Teaching A Doll’s House was challenging in the rural conservative South, but so was asking my students to confront Thomas Jefferson, whose letters reveal a past president of the U.S. who rejected:

The immaculate conception of Jesus, His deification, the creation of the world by Him, His miraculous powers, His resurrection and visible ascension, His corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity, original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, etc. (letter to William Short, 31 October 1819) [1]

These central beliefs of Christians, Jefferson labeled “artificial systems,” and my students were usually stunned because their upbringing had mostly idealized the Founding Fathers as traditional Christians who formed the U.S. as a Christian nation.

The general public is often as misinformed about presidential elections, which have historically been nasty. Jefferson was often vilified in his presidential campaigns, but we can imagine that he could have never been elected president if his beliefs noted above had been common knowledge.

The irony, of course, is that few could value Jesus as a mere human as they could as a fabricated son of God—just as the public must believe political leaders are larger and even better than real life.

The rise of Trump revealed many who refused to acknowledge the truth about Trump but readily embraced provably false claims about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

And while tracing from the Founding Fathers to Trump may seem a stretch, we should consider a much more recent harbinger of the U.S. fascination with lies, bullying, and the false narrative of U.S. greatness—Lance Armstrong.

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“Former U.S. President George W. Bush, seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, and U.S. Army Major Sergeant Major Chris Self (from left to right, above) held a press conference this morning in Lajitas.” (Source: The Big Bend Gazette, 27 April 2011)

Few examples better represent right-wing mainstream U.S. politics, superficial patriotism, and total bullshit than Bush’s man-crush on Armstrong—one of the most discredited and dishonest athletes in the history of competitive sport.

Armstrong’s success as a professional cyclist—in a European sport—stretched all credulity, but his very long scam worked because he wrapped himself in the flag and became U.S. Greatness, which again ironically once the truth was exposed, like Trump, is the perfect commentary on U.S. Greatness as total bullshit.

But Armstrong as harbinger of Trump is more than the lies; Armstrong was a bully of a magnitude only equaled by Trump himself.

Trump and Armstrong are bullies who are exclusively self-serving, who have destroyed innocent people’s lives and will continue to do if given any opportunity.

Armstrong won as a doper, a fake, just as Trump is a false success, a sham of a business man, a con artist.

And they use every means necessary to maintain their false statuses—Armstrong manipulating his cancer survival and the cancer community in ways that are as disgusting as Trump manipulating poor and working-class whites through nods and winks to racism, xenophobia, and sexism.

The U.S. has a long and troubling history of clinging to lies, but now we seem equally enamored with bullies.

Armstrong and Trump are who we are—all lies and bullying—and it is deplorable.

At the end of Ibsen’s play, Nora confesses, “I don’t believe any longer in wonderful things happening.”

However, we are left with Torvald unwavering, “But I will believe in it.”

And again, this play lays before us the delusion of false belief, comforted by privilege.

Might we be able to do better?


[1] See also Jefferson’s Religious Beliefs and The Religious Opinions of Thomas Jefferson, J. Lesslie Hall.

On the Deaths of Prince and Ali: Even More Anxiety Chronicles

Gilbert Gottfried had a joke that included the land of the one-name people—there was also the pretentious first initial people, I think, like F. Scott Fitzgerald—and there was a time I thought the joke was brilliant, especially in the context of Gottfried’s delivery.

But not today.

I have been planning to write about Prince’s death, and the role of chronic pain in that far-too-early passing.

I was sidetracked by nerd-panic over Captain America, and then Ali died as well.

I cannot claim to have been a fan of Prince. What I can say is that I was, from the very first moment I heard and saw Prince, in awe of Prince—the enormity of his gifts, the size of his presence.

Ali was a completely different story because he was an iconic target of the racism within which I was raised. I was brought up to scorn Ali.

From young adulthood until today, I have worked diligently to make amends for those facts of my life that were not my decision, but for which I still feel responsible.

Today, now, as the world has lost both Prince and Ali, I can say without hesitation that I live in awe of both men—I am driven to cold chills and tears because of the grandeur of their lives, their living.

But that Prince fell victim to chronic pain and Ali lived a deteriorated man for years hurt me to the core in a way that I understand in ways I wish I did not.

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Boxing great Muhammad Ali, right, pats the head of the Artist Formerly Known as Prince during a meeting in Washington Tuesday, June 24, 1997 prior to a news conference where they were to announce plans for a benefit concert in October. The World Healing Honors will be a grand benefit concert to promote international harmony and tolerance. (AP Photo/Karin Cooper/Rogers & Cowan)

Along with my lifelong battle with anxiety, I suffer under the weight of chronic pain—and I have no real way to separate the two since I think the anxiety and chronic pain are working in tandem, a brutal cycle.

How does someone of Prince’s talent and fame end up dead and alone, fallen by his battle with chronic pain?

I don’t know the facts of Prince’s life, but I do know that anxiety and chronic pain are the twin cousins of a much more powerful and dangerous force: embarrassment.

As a tremendously privileged white male, I am not writing a pity party here, but even my privileges work to create an even greater bubble of embarrassment.

My anxiety and chronic pain make me feel weak, inadequate, and hopeless—less of a man, less human because I cannot enjoy my mortal shell.

Even on the best days and during the most wonderful moments—moments public and intimate—anxiety and chronic pain tag along, hover there, tap me on the shoulder.

In Scarcity, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir argue that the ultimate tragedy of poverty is that people living in scarcity cannot take a vacation from poverty.

That is the anchor of anxiety and chronic pain—there are no vacations, even when we stoop to proper and self-medication.

If we find ways to numb the chronic pain, we still know it is there, that it will return. Chronic pain is chronic, it isn’t a wound or affliction that will heal.

Along while Prince’s pain, I am petrified of the natural deterioration of aging, held before us by Ali’s struggle with disease.

When the mighty fall, we all must be more aware of our shared humanity, a frailty that cannot be ignored forever.

Ali was vilified for his bravado, that scorn a base code for rejecting the nerve of a black man to demand with words his own and other’s dignity.

I live in the shroud of embarrassment created by anxiety and chronic pain, but my heart is drawn to Prince and Ali as they lived, as they celebrated themselves as evidence that we humans can be glorious if we so choose.

Their public selves were the antithesis, the antidote to embarrassment for simply being ourselves.

Today, I am sad, yes, but I also feel fortunate to have been gifted these possibilities of living life freely and proudly—as Ali demanded: “You must listen to me.”

Politics, the Super Bowl, and, of course, the Children

This was supposed to be another post about good teachers because I was invited to speak to a class of 4th graders about writing public opinion pieces and that experience confirmed my recent assertion that to know if a teacher is good just watch and listen to the students.

The short version of that blog: the students were vibrant and smart—reflecting just how wonderful their teacher is.

During that visit, however, the teacher asked if we could have a brief debate so the students could think about how to pose their arguments. When a student asked what I was thinking about writing next, I mentioned the Super Bowl halftime show, specifically Beyoncé’s performance.

For several minutes, I was confronted by a classroom of children adamant that Beyoncé and her backup dancers were inappropriate for the show; their clothing and dancing, the children argued, were not appropriate for children watching on TV and attending the game.

I asked them to consider how we have different standards for how women dress and behave, and I asked about whether it was appropriate for children to watch the NFL, considering the violence of the sport, and the commercials, such as those for beer.

The children never budged, noting that children, in fact, play football (boys are just violent, they argued) and rambling into a very casual acceptance of children having guns and knives (for hunting).

But Beyoncé? Not appropriate for prime time (and the children).

Of course, these students were mostly voicing the opinion of their parents and other adults, highlighting, I think, the influence of every child’s home on who they are and how they think.

These students’ arguments also reflect something that almost no one is addressing about the Super Bowl: everything about the Super Bowl is political. Everything.

Those who criticize Beyoncé for her political performance and chastise the hoodied Cam Newton for over-celebrating throughout the season and his sulking post-Super Bowl defeat are silent during the NFL’s ritualistic flag waving and hiding behind the U.S. military—some of the many shields the NFL hopes mask the orgy of violence that is professional football; are somehow OK with Coldplay and Bruno Mars; and likely didn’t uttered a peep when All-American white hero straight out of Pleasantville, Peyton Manning, spouted a Gronk-like beer comment, pouted and didn’t shake hands after one of his Super Bowl defeats, and (like Cam, who was criticized) kept his helmet on while shaking hands with Russell Wilson, another Super Bowl defeat.

Just as every second of the Super Bowl is political, every moment of the gosh-darn industry that is Peyton Manning is political.

And Manning’s politics is aimed right at your red-white-and-blue bank account.

But the politics of capitalism and consumerism that buoy white male privilege in the U.S. is at least shielded, if not invisible, behind the confetti and celebration of yet another ascension to pinnacle by a Great White Quarterback (Beer and pizza, anyone!).

This is not about Beyoncé being political and Coldplay/Bruno Mars not being political.

This is not about Cam being political and Peyton not being political.

This is about the racialized notion of “political” (and “not appropriate for children”) and the very American and very ugly symbolism of the NFL shield.

Peyton, Coldplay/Bruno Mars (very safe and male pop music), and the NFL’s patriotic posturing are simply the shielded politics of those in power, of white privilege, of male privilege.

Beyoncé—along with her backup dancers and her song—and Cam are complicated elements in the politics of resistance (both real and perceived)—and of course, we can have none of that. You know, the children.

Listen

Super Bowl Aftermath: Beyoncé, Cam Newton, and “Unapologetic Blackness”

Coach K, Sports Fandom, and More on My Redneck Past

From early childhood through young adulthood, my wife and I lived lives dedicated to sports—she a real and successful athlete (state champion, MVP, honorable mention All-American), and me a sincere, hard-working wanna-be.

Our daughter was born in 1989, and I am sure we almost immediately began dreaming of her athletic exploits.

Although my wife and I had shared a love for basketball and mostly played sports traditional in the U.S., we registered our daughter at age 4 in recreational soccer, which neither of us had ever played or even watched.

For two or three years, my daughter languished in soccer (or so it seemed to my wife and me), and each time registration came around, we would carefully ask her if she was sure she wanted to play—because it seemed to us that she wasn’t really all-in, wasn’t really cut out for soccer (or maybe sports at all).

A great deal of recreational soccer was social, and our daughter was forming a close group of friends, all of whom were building some of their identity around playing soccer.

Eventually since we were athletes, and my wife was a high school coach (volleyball), the rec league coerced us to coach. That first year my wife coached our daughter, my daughter was a marginal player on a team with one player clearly elite.

As competitive people by nature, my wife and I coached as we played, to win; thus, the elite player received the playing time and praise, and my wife and I accepted more and more that our daughter wasn’t the fanatical athlete we have been, that we anticipated in our off-spring.

I really believe we were both quite fine with that.

Until one day at a match—I remember this clearly, but admit such memories are often embellished—I watched the two teams take the field for the usual Saturday morning play.

My daughter then was a frail and energetic soul—always a joy to watch do anything. So I was watching her.

She scanned the opposing team, and immediately when the match started, she darted toward the largest girl on the other team, knocking her down and then standing over her for a brief second to be sure she got the message.

Not long after that day, while I sat in a doctoral class about an hour and a half away, my wife watched my daughter score six goals in a rec match.

Something had clicked, and in a few years, my daughter soon moved to club soccer.

From the age of 10 until she graduated high school, she was one of the fastest, most graceful, and most intense soccer player I ever witnessed.

Although she looks more like a cheerleader or an all-finesse, don’t-touch-me striker, she became an elite defender—her club team winning state championships and making a strong impact on regional soccer. My daughter was also the SC MVP in the first SC/NC all-star high school match.

To this day (she is in her mid-20s, recently married and a mother), my daughter will watch U.S. football and regret she doesn’t get to hit people any more.

My wife and I, then, spawned an intense and competitive child, who once played a club soccer match on a broken ankle and started her high school senior season pretending (i.e., lying about) her ribs weren’t broken so she could play.

There was a certain karmic balance to the weeks leading up to Coach K at Duke University winning his 1000th game as a head coach.

At about the age of 10, I became an ardent Duke fan—primarily because my mother and maternal grandfather were—more than a decade before Coach K would arrive. I have been a serious sports fan ever since, although in the last 8 or so years that has gradually become more and more of a problem for me.

That ethical dilemma is best captured in the moments when Coach K crosses himself before games and then when he is shouting profanities at his players.

As the lionizing of Coach K escalated in anticipation of his being the first male coach to hit 1000 wins at the top level of college basketball, I have wrestled more and more with the boy and young man who lived and died by Duke basketball—the same young man who saw in his daughter and encouraged in her as well the sort of athletic zeal that now makes me very uncomfortable.

My Coach K problem is linked like Coach K himself to my Bobby Knight problem.

Knight and Coach K embody my passion, my nearly demonic passion for competing at the highest level. But both coaches also embody everything I reject about coaching.

As a coach, I was a hard-ass, and I was very demanding of my players and myself. But I never shouted profanities at them, and I tried never to demean them, to intrude on their dignity.

As a soccer coach, I often stood on the sidelines adjacent to the opposing team—not across the field as in many other sports. Once while at an away match, the opposing coach was the extreme version of a screaming profane coach.

While one of my defenders (who often bristled at my demanding nature) was briefly out of the match and standing beside me, he turned to me and said, “I know I complain a lot about you, but I sure am glad you don’t act like that coach.”

And so was I, and I very much appreciated his telling me that—because I knew he mostly clenched his teeth all the times we clashed about my demands for their commitment and excellence.

When I agreed to become the soccer coach while teaching English at my hometown high school, I had two foundational commitments. One was I wanted to have the support to do the job right, and two was I wanted to start a girls program—with my eye on my daughter and her friends having a team when they were older.

Something I miss dearly about no longer teaching at that high schools is also about tension. As a white, male redneck myself, I knew my white, male redneck students—and especially my white, male redneck players on the teams I coached. That knowledge created an odd and even palpable tension among us—part brotherhood, and part distrust.

Committing to doing my job as soccer coach right meant that I had to learn soccer quickly—having never played myself—but it also meant I had to build a program (and not just a team) and a culture of professionalism—all of which I had come to understand through my daughter’s club soccer experiences.

That effort at building a culture of professionalism antagonized players, parents, and fans at matches.

I have no interest in ignoring or erasing the past—not mine, nor history writ large. But as a teacher and coach, I saw me in my students, and I did work quite seriously at rehabilitating the worst aspects of my redneck past that I saw in those students and athletes.

Step one with my soccer team was addressing warming up before matches. Before I took over, the team prepared for the matches in a way that reminded me of a carnival—lots of mayhem and lots of yelling and laughing.

If there is one thing about being a redneck that is our fatal flaw it is our proclivity to be loud and brash—an unwarranted arrogance that rips through anyone, any time like a tornado through a trailer park in springtime.

My players loved to play soccer; they begged every practice to scrimmage, only. But there was no sense of practice, and no grasp of the purposeful dedication to detail that was required to be successful.

Practices were a constant battle—how to instill the importance of drills, but also how to convince players to practice well.

So warm ups became the key turning point for moving the team from a doormat for other teams to a solid high school soccer team.

The team was entrusted with running warm ups on their own—guided by captains, but everyone’s responsibility. And the new norm was silence. The routine was precise, and the effect was crucial—as we immediately appeared to be a team with a mission, a team that was all in.

And it is in these efforts that my inner-Coach K and inner-Bobby Knight were on display. I have never been one for discipline or authoritarianism, but I have always been drawn to doing things right—with care, purpose, and precision.

Doing things right remains in our control, while being gifted is at the whim of the gods.

As a wanna-be athlete, as a teacher, as a coach, as a parent—nearly to a fault (if not to a fault), I sought to do these commitments right.

For all his flaws that we seem to ignore, Coach K, for me, embodies that same drive—as did Bobby Knight, Larry Bird, Tiger Woods, Bill Russell, Muhammed Ali, and many, many athletes I admired, like my daughter and my wife.

It is an intensity to be admired, an intensity destined to cross lines we shouldn’t cross.

Several years past 50 now, with my daughter a mother, I am often reflective about my redneck past—one that included many years of being a sports fan and being a zealous father of a daughter/athlete playing soccer at the highest levels.

In some, if not many ways, I wish I could go back and avoid much of that. I think I asked too much of my daughter—although she loved those soccer years and the friends and accolades she gathered.

I think I may be at the end of the fandom journey as well. Such loyalties die hard, I am afraid, but I am more and more uncomfortable about how coaches treat athletes (in fact, I have always been disturbed by that) and the prices athletes pay for their sport.

Many years ago I stopped letting a game or match by a team I pull for determine what I do and when. But sport is so large, and the social elements so encompassing, that I haven’t stopped watching, and hoping.

This past week, I watched Duke lose to Notre Dame and then make a surge at the end to knock off undefeated Virginia. That was thrilling because I do still enjoy athletic excellence.

And of course, I joined friends and watched the Superbowl.

All of it, however, leaves a bad taste in my mouth, “nibbles at the soul.”

I miss my daughter at 10, and then every year, every moment until she no longer walked onto a field to play soccer.

Few things were as wonderful as watching her play. She was fast, intense, and more graceful than nearly anyone else who played.

But there were concussions, broken bones, and tearful losses.

My mind and heart are torn—and I hope there remains some way to save all that is beautiful about what sport has to offer from all that has been ruined about sports.

Yes, there is something to excelling, to rising above, to pushing past where you thought you could go. And sport can be, should be about that—human frailty and human potential.

I’m pretty sure it too often is not about that, and everyday I am older, I am less tolerant of ignoring that fact.