Thursday, September 19, 2013

Big Fat Sports Analogy

A week of Obama Bafflement as the president failed to carry out his diabolical plans to invade Syria and appoint Lawrence Summers as Federal Reserve chairman. What on earth went wrong? Why does Putin care who runs the Fed?*

One of the reasons our pandits and political color commentators have so much difficulty understanding Obama, I think, is football. No, really. The belief that late-capitalism NFL football is a valid analogy for human life distorts people's views of human life to the point where they are incapable of interpreting it correctly.

Disclosure: I don't like football, not just because of the way it exposes players to the dangers of steroid abuse, early-onset dementia, and who knows what other kinds of  [jump]

*My guess: in this era of strange bedfellows, Putin is with James Pethokoukis in pushing the imaginary candidacy of Greg Mankiw. Then again perhaps  Putin was holding out for Edward Snowden. But seriously, folks.
Ponte Vedra High Powderpuffs from Jacksonville, FL. Florida Times-Union.

horrors, but precisely because it is a bad analogy; because it's artistically cheap and ugly. A lot of people I respect disagree with me and love it for reasons of their own, and I suppose it's just a blind spot on my part, like Bruckner's symphonies. Because after all why does a sport have to be an analogy at all? Why can't it just be a sport, like basketball (I can totally see that), a glorious phenomenality in its own right rather than an allegory of something else?

That said, anyhow, to me NFL football presents the world as late-capitalist executives see it, as a struggle between corporations, each made up of a CEO (coach) and staff, a sales division (offense, devoted to scoring), and a marketing division (defense, devoted to preventing the rival from scoring). No production, because that can always be done in Bangladesh or Honduras. In an extreme example of division of labor, almost no one is permitted to show any individual judgment but is assigned to perform, really, just a single gesture, except for the CEO coach who supervises the design of elaborately choreographed offensive plays and calls them, and the star salesman quarterback who leads the plays and may make approximately one on-the-spot decision per play, as to whom to pass to or which direction to run.

Politics to the football analogy fan consists in the same way of set-piece plays, and a result, for each play of relative victoriousness—gain in yardage, first down, score, or loss in yardage, loss of the ball. Political action is seen the way, say, the helpmeet sees it when you leave your glasses on the bed in a place where they might get sat on: she wants to know what you were hoping to accomplish, as if it's a peculiar policy you adopted without telling her, instead of just flotsam in the wake of your doing something entirely different which you will surely fix up as soon as you happen to notice it.

In the same way if, say, Lawrence Summers announces that he is not a candidate for the chair of the Federal Reserve Board, even though his "friends" have been telling the the New York Times and other outlets (anonymously, of course, because they promised their friend Larry that they wouldn't tell) that the president is desperate to have Larry and nobody else in the job, your political color commentators are all trying to figure out where the plan went wrong: what happened to the president's full-court press? (Yes, I realize they don't have full-court presses in the NFL. Shut up, small-minded pedants.)

Real life of all kinds, in contrast, is much better analogized by soccer, and politics, in a limited way, is a part of real life.
Image from KISW-Rock.
In soccer, nobody is an exclusively offensive player, or exclusively defensive either (even the goalkeeper puts the ball into play). Opportunities to score are extremely rare, and the players spend most of their time trying vainly to create them while preventing the opposition from doing the same. Opportunities for a set-piece score are rarer still; while the set-piece plays are lovely to watch and fascinating in the way they alter the situation, they generally fail, and most goals are driven through a hole in the configuration that just appears, seen by no one but the striker, and will disappear again almost instantly if it isn't caught: like the chance to shoot a coffee cup off the roof of someone's car from a train window. In football, if the commentator says, "Now for the field goal attempt," odds are about one to one that there will be a field goal attempt after the commercial break. In soccer, any such prediction would be as foolish as Dylan Byers.

It would be wrong to say that President Obama is playing 11-dimensional soccer; it would be more accurate to say he is playing an undetermined number of simultaneous soccer games taking place on a single field. Or three or four fields at most. He needs to set up the situations without knowing exactly what he is going to do with them when the time is ripe.

His reason for picking on Summers seems obvious to me, though I don't believe anybody has said it: the extremely rare, possibly unprecedented opportunity for a president to have a Fed chairman he can control. Because the Fed is by definition independent, and the chairman even more prickly ex officio than Summers is by nature; but Summers, through a unique combination of vanity, gratitude, and honest respect for the president's economic understanding, would have been the most manipulable chairman in history.
Sorry, I couldn't help myself once I got started on this theme. Via.
But believe me, there was nothing personal about it the way Mean Girl Maureen Dowd might imagine, at least on Obama's side, and the fact that it hasn't panned out is no more a "loss" or a "setback" for the president than the appearance of a hole in the defense where the striker is not looking. Just one of the millions of things that didn't happen to happen. And whoever he nominates will be a better than adequate chair.

Syria is a more complicated matter. The first thing to understand is that Obama had no particular intention of "doing" anything at all about Syria if he could help it. To paraphrase an old war criminal, Libya had better targets. Or, to put it in language the old war criminal would not understand, in Libya there was a real possibility of doing somewhat more good than harm, and in Syria there was not. It seems horribly cold, but then we make this kind of calculation all the time (there's some deep unconscious racism in the way we, or our media overlords, continue to be so appalled by Syria but indifferent to eastern Congo; but the lesson isn't that we should bomb Goma as well, it's that we just have to find cheaper and less violent ways of helping).

Hence, I thought, the famous "red line". The president understood that the situation could become really unspeakably dreadful and the pressure to "do" something irresistible—"It'll only make things worse" would not be a politically acceptable response, though quite true. So he named the threshold beyond which the US would be forced to act, the use of chemical weapons; so that Bashar al-Assad would know how to avoid an attack and the American public would know why it wasn't taking place. Upon which, naturally, the Syrian army began using chemical weapons, tentatively at first and then finally with such massive cruelty that that red line was well and truly crossed.

But Obama's aim, the thing he was trying to accomplish in that neighborhood—the thing he had promised in his first campaign, as opposed to having it leaked by Anonymous Senior Officials—had nothing directly to do with Syria: it was an accommodation with the party in the region with which the US has always had the most powerful common interests, Iran. As I have been arguing forever. And an incredibly difficult task, in the face of the complexity of the Iranian system, a kind of controlled civil war between democratic and theocratic forces, and the opposition of the Israeli government and Aipac and (therefore) the US Congress.
And via.
In this context the Obama red line had a meaning that we weren't noticing: poison gas has a huge significance in Iran, to the public and to the authorities. Poison gas to the Iranian public is what nuclear weapons are to the Japanese, an index of their victimhood in the terrible war they fought against the aggression of Saddam Hussein (and the Reagan administration that the Ayatollahs had ironically worked so hard to put into office and that then turned around to sell the gas to Iraq), and to the ruling establishment a symbol of their unwavering opposition to weapons of mass destruction (whatever Aipac and US cable news may affect to believe).

The agreement with Russia to get rid of Syria's chemical weapons is on the whole a very good thing, and very much in line with the president's consistent policy. It's not directly going to prevent very many deaths in Syria! But it has brought Russia into the process of doing something about Syria. When Vladimir Vladimirovich preens as the Great Peacemaker, he is slipping into commitments he really didn't want to make, and the football idea that he has "dealt a setback" to Obama is just ridiculous. Obama didn't "want" to attack Syria! He wanted Congress to back him up just in case it was necessary, as he hoped it would not be, a hope that now appears to be realized. He was also perfectly prepared to lose the congressional vote, though he wouldn't have preferred it; just as he was prepared to nominate Yellen to the Fed.

But the most important upshot of the whole thing isn't in Syria: it's that accommodation with Iran is really moving forward, with the Israeli war party unable to stop it or even to agree among themselves as to what is going on. Syria is the subject matter of discussions with Russia. Iran-US relations are the subject of discussions with Iran, where Syria is merely the conversation piece, where the shy parties find out that in spite of their discomfort there are common interests they can chat about. This is partly because of the startling presidential election results in Iran, a development Obama could not have anticipated! But because he is playing soccer, not football, he was beautifully ready to take advantage of it when it happened.

1 comment:

  1. It is very tough to remove misunderstanding from mind. If one time trust had broken, smoothness will never come.

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