Apr 23, 2010

March 1, 2010: A Night at Old Comiskey, Lessons in Demolition, Politics as Spectacle

When at last we had found our seats it was the middle of the 7th inning of the first game of a twi-night doubleheader. Comiskey Park was packed. I hadn't seen it like this since that game with Cleveland way back in 1960—and that was “fireworks” night. People were literally hanging from the rafters. But there was something different about the the old ball yard. I could sense it as I walked among the ragged bare-chested crowd the half mile to the park, but I couldn't put my finger on it. Inside the park I took stock of the situation and things began to take form.

The time: Thursday, July 12, 1979. The place: Comiskey Park, Chicago. The mood: sullen. It was hot—very hot—and it was humid. Draped over the face of the upper deck were sheets upon which were painted “Disco Sucks” and other epiteths to Western Man's most recent cultural achievement. As my eyes swept the arena, I could feel the “thud” of exploding firecrackers, m-80's—the equivalent of a quarter of a stick of dynamite—thrown unto the field, sending ominous reverberations through the surely crowd. As the first game was winding to an end I could feel things getting out of hand. Instinctively I sought the “Box” seats for safety, for gathered here were the lowest elements of Chicago's South Side clearly in search of an EVENT!

The rest, in a manner of speaking, is history. The mob sat resitively through the first game, contenting inself with consuming drugs, seeting off firecrackers, and intimidating ball players. During intermission it joyously engaged in a raucus display as 50,000 rose to their feet singing “Disco Sucks” to the tune of “Disco Duck” serving as a kind of ritual chant imploring distant gods to save them from the likes of Donna Summers and the Brothers Gibb. But, alas, as the box of disco albums was ceremoniously and, I might add, anticlimactically exploded in center field the much heralded event was met with dead silence. For this, Bill Veeck was soon to learn, is not the stuff of which great events are made. Moreover for a crowd that had virtually terrorized two major league teams for nine solid innings, in an absolutely meaningless contest, to be relegated the role of distant spectators was more than an affront. It was, quite simply, a bore. Soon the mob, possessing an almost singular mind, trickled then poured over the railings driving the players and groundskeepers from the field. Here in an ugly display of defiance they had at last siezed control of the games. It was a grand spectacle, possessing all the attributes: humor, pathos, excitement, tension, anger, control and, as one witnessed the defiling of sacred ground once tread upon by the great demigods of baseball more than a full measure of tragedy. For the GAMES had degenerated to THIS! It became clear to me as I watched the mob in ritual dance about the bonfire they had set in center field that a certain perversity pervades the land.

Since the advent of the eight hour day the single most subversive force facing the modern state is not poverty, it is not injustice, it is not technology, nor is it the looming energy crisis or climate change. It IS pure and simple boredom. Boredom is an evil that plagues every paradise. Against boredom the gods themselves struggle in vain. Boredom, moreover, gives birth to though. Thought, born of leisurely contemplation produces, in turn, ideals. Ideals produce dissatifactions and social unrest. Is it any wonder then, that conservatism has waged a ceasless battle, then, to restore the working conditions of the nineteenth century? Thoughts born of leirsure, occuring outside the realm of the corporate state are, by definition, bad thoughts. Moral: all thoughts are bad thoughts. Answer: the masses shall not think. All else follows.

Boredom, that great scourge of mankind, has at last overcome the “Great Society”. Americans have put down their shovels, moved into the suburbs and exurbs, mortgaged their asses and declared that this is the promised land. But now, with the struggle at and end, we are overcome with a collective sense of puposelessness, what our 39th President would come to call “Malaise”. We have become directionless, confused, in a word bored. As the mob at Old Comiskey we have become part of meaningless rituals and unimportant struggles. It is a catharsis that offers no release. The mandarins of the State have intuitively grasped the central problem of our time: Boredom—born of leisure, father of unrest. The answer was at once paradoxical and obvious: if paradise is painful, let's have more paradise! Pain, it has been widely held, is deleterious to thought. It was a solution at once beneficial to both rulers and the ruled: consumerism. The strategy became at first to placate the masses with a veritable cornucopia of consumer goods. But, alas, even this did not suffice for in the immortal words of Mick Jagger “the pursuit of happiness just seems a bore”. We were back to square one. Enter: the GAMES!

De ja vu. We in the West have been here before. A similar crisis faced the ancient Romans. As the aristocracy bought up the land and introduced slave labor, people were uprooted from the soil and gravitated to the large cities in search of livelihood. Soon the State was confronted with large masses of dispossessed, unemployed people wich the Romans called the Proletariate. Given plenty of time to contemplate their station, the Proletariate likewise began to trek upon the subversive road of thought. Dissatifactions grew. They began to adopt strange new religions, to worship different Ceasars. There were rumblings in the streets. The army was brought in. Desperately the leadership groped for a solution and stumbled upon a brilliant strategem: “Let us put an end to this subversion, let us destroy it at its roots”, whispered the leadership to itself. “Let us consume their leisure time and entertain them as well. For it is writ: the masses shall not think. Therefore, let us give them the GAMES”!

At first the spectacles were unassuming. Circuses, freak shows, mock naval battles were organized to placate the Proletariate. But as the masses became sastiated a curious phenomenon developed—a certain perversity overtook the event. The Proletariate began to demand to take part in the spectacle. A certain thirst developed that could only be quenched by blood. Gladiators were brought in and the mob assumed the role of Ceasars, if not the gods themselves, deciding who was to live and who was to die. Here was the grandest spectacle of them all, the martial glory of Imperial Rome grovelling before the feet of the Proletariate! But such sacrifices began to grow costly, whole species of animals gathered from around the known world were sacrificed, and more blood and treasure would be spent in the Coluseum, it was feared than in the conquest of Gaul. But the Roman Senate understood, as modern historians do not, that the military was here facing the most serious, most subversive threat to the realm yet encountered. The games must go on. At last they fell upon an answer: throw a few Christians to the lions. The solution had an efficiency that would please a modern industrial engineer. Here, in one move, not only would competing loyalties be eliminated, but the mob would be placated as well. It was a small enough price to play given Roman sensibilities. Have I been understood? Christianity was not the subversive force Christians and historians have made it out to be. Constantine would prove that soon enough. No, imperial Rome was threatened by a more powerful and elemental force than Christianity—Boredom. It was to alleviate boredome and incidentally to direct the ire of the mob toward the “foreigness” of other creeds that the Christians were thrown to the lions. GRAND SPECTACLE. Enter the GAMES.

America is finding itself in the same crucible of history. With the advent of economic prosperity and a great deal of leisure time the State is confronted with a crisis similar to that faced centuries ago by the ancient Romans. The first solution was, of course, consumerism, an advantage of modern capitalist enterprise not available to the Romans. But, alas, the populace has grown satiated. Only the most recalcitrant now openly hold that the Winnebego and the snowmoble are the end products of civilization; the culmination and ultimate justification for the human experiment. Indeed when America began to lose faith in Buick the corporate heads of state began to tremble. Therefore the mandarins went about presenting us with a new diversion, one patterned after the experience in Rome. Enter the National Football League, the Superbowl and the Political Arena.

Corporate America has for some time now offered us the spectacle of the Super Bowl, and the introduction of professional sports into the fabric of American life gives the masses an opportunity to not only vicariously participate in masculinity, but in glory. It was a similar heady experience felt by the hapless denizens of Rome in years gone by. It is splendid diversion. It is splendid fantasy. But it has its limitations. With the exception of throwing refuse unto the field, garbage and bottles at umpires and judges, or epiteths at the players, the mob cannot participate in the action. But the masses feel frustrated at the limitations of being mere spectators. Like the Roman Proletariate it demands to become part of the action, indeed determine the outcome. It must, in the words of that classic anthem of the modern proletariate gets some “satifaction”.

It has long been held that in America politics is a spectator sport. Indeed it has been said that politics is the largest spectator sport in America. The Presidential election, that quadrennial spectacle is the playoffs and the Super Bowl wrapped into a long melodrama. The masses not only participate as spectators but, as the Roman Proletariate, here decide the outcome. It is here that the greate gladiators of the political stage pit against one another for the favor of the multitude. And, like the gladiators of old, everything now rests on the performance. For the chemistry of the event involves the interaction of the principle players and the crowd. Indeed it is upon the success of the modern gladiator turned politician to inspire the mob—that is to overcome boredom—to fill the emptiness in their lives that the fate of the modern Ceasar now rests. To wit: the single most devastating criticism leveled at Jimmy Carty—he cannot inspire the crowd!

One other parellel with ancient Rome must now be drawn. Like the Roman Proletariate, the American electorate is beginning to develop a distinctive perversity born of the need to be entertained by increasingly spectacular events. In the last 40 years we have seen one president murdered, several assassination attempts, one President forced to quit, one impeached on the most ridiculously tranparent grounds, two lose re-election. We have witnessed “landslide” victories on both the “left” and “Right”. Lets put this in perspective. Watergate was not seen by most Americans as a constitutional crisis. It was not seen as a violation of civil rights or constitutional guarantees, of law or ethics. Watergate was seen by America as pure and simple entertainment. Here faced with a perdiod of minimal political activity, America was swept away by the fascination of high political drama encompassing as it did all the halmarks of a popular pulp novel. Here we bore witness to humor, farce, drama, tragedy, all rolled into one. It was a splendid diversion and a GRAND SPECTACLE. The same could be said of the the Clinton impeachement. And, of course, Ronny....well he was our first television star turned president. The others....Johnson, Ford, Bush the Elder....failed the test and were in due course shown the door.

As I left the grand old ball yard on that dark humid night, I took a deep breath of the sultry air as I passed the line of patty wagons that ringed the arena and gazed over the plains of the mid-west. I thought I could sense in the rolling thunderclaps in the East and the South that in the words of Robert Kennedy these are not ordinary times. Indeed they have not been now for some time. With the proliferation of primaries and caucuses the political process has long been taken over by the masses. With the low voter turn-out in these contests the process has, in due course, been hijacked by single-interest groups and ideoligical purists as each party has turned to “litmus” and “loyalty” tests in a misguided effort to placate the mob. Recently with the help of right-wing talk radio, Fox noise, and corporate funding the town-hall meetingplaces have been ransacked by the so-called “Tea Baggers” employing brown-shirt tactics seeking to silence discussion and debate as payment for their full measure of participation in the GAMES. Herein lies the paradox, too much participation threatens the process, perhaps the republic itself. It has all the ingredients of greek tragedy but promises to be a grand spectacle. With the elections of the likes of Ronny Reagan and Jim Bunning America has already demonstrated a proclivity for confusing celebrity with substance. Now, as with the crowd at Comiskey, the “Teabaggers” and and other assorted brown shirts threaten by taking the field to destroy the very institutions of the republic. And, if recent history is any guide, replace them with mere spectacle. Whatever happens, it promises to be interesting. It sure beats the hell out of two and a half innings of baseball.