As the excitement surrounding soccer’s World Cup surges and sputters toward its grand climax, cultural arbiters in New York and Washington express their indignation at various curmudgeonly conservatives who dare to express our distaste for the elite-embraced “beautiful game.”
The most important question isn’t, however, why so many on the right feel indifferent, at best, toward soccer. The true puzzle is why so many on the left, particularly in this Age of Obama, feel impelled to extol the virtues of the sport cherished in most of the world as “football.”
Right-wing reluctance to board the onrushing soccer bandwagon shouldn’t be hard to understand. William F. Buckley memorably described the conservative as a courageous fellow willing to “stand athwart history and yell stop.” At the moment, nothing is trendier than newly-minted soccer devotees feigning insider savvy over football “matches” that unfold on a broad green “pitch” and often result in scores of “nil-nil.” Sophisticates look down their long-noses at hoi-polloi ignorance of the great gulf between a “goalie” (as in hockey) and a “goal tender” (as in soccer).
The conservative temperament instinctively and admirably recoils at the fashionable and the faddish, rightly preferring the timeless, tried and true. This impulse protected many of us from the embarrassments of bell bottoms and Nehru jackets, along with Maoist politics, in the bad old days of Jimmy Carter, as it keeps us safe from global warming hysteria today. Right-wingers generally take pride in exalting the commitments of our honorable ancestors. My late father loved baseball; even my immigrant grandfather relished the classic summer game, even if his limited English denied him access to its deeper complexities. Nevertheless, he liked to go out to Shibe Park to root for the Phillies because it helped him feel like a real American.
Liberals, on the other hand, enjoy the experience of soccer precisely because it makes them feel less American. They value the beautiful game for the same reason they enjoy singing “We Are the World,” or stubbornly support the U.N., or automatically assume the artistic superiority of films with subtitles. True believers on the left prefer to think of themselves as “citizens of the world,” with the overwhelming majority of self-described liberals telling a recent Pew Research survey that they seldom felt proud of their own country. Soccer provides a perfect mechanism for transcending old-school nationalism: it’s not only a game of global rather than distinctively American appeal, but what’s even better is that the mighty United States isn’t even particularly good at it.
Where else but soccer could you ever read the headline “Belgium Beats USA!” and take it as anything more than a parody or a punch line? All right, if there were an international competition in chocolate-making the Belgians might also prevail, but there’s no meaningful arena of human endeavor in which one of Europe’s most fragile and irrelevant nations could humble the world’s only superpower.
Even though they identified themselves as strenuous supporters of team USA, liberals actually cherished the idea of a pip-squeak society like the Belgians (where the Flemings and Walloons can’t even agree on waffles) humbling the swaggering Yankee bullies. It’s more than the normal affection for a plucky underdog: it’s a deep-seated desire to see the American behemoth cut down to size, looking no more significant or powerful than any other international competitor. President Obama sounded precisely this note in expressing his (utterly predictable) enthusiasm for soccer to George Stephanopoulos of ABC News. “The US exceeded expectations,” said the apostle of hope and change –who’s personally fallen far short of expectations. The president proudly suggested that the American team had gone from its prior status as “a non factor” to becoming “a middle of the pack team.”
“We’re not Germany yet, or Italy or France or Argentina or Brazil,” he shrugged. “But we’re now in the mix.”
These brief comments actually reveal some of the irreducible differences between left and right in the United States of 2014. The Left celebrates the idea of the USA as a “middle of the pack team”; the Right prefers a demonstration of unassailable American dominance. Liberals like the idea that Americans might abandon their parochialism and place themselves “in the mix,” going mad for the same game that’s admired in Belize, Burundi and Bhutan. Conservatives instead emphasize American distinctiveness, with our long-standing enthusiasm for home-grown, quintessentially Yankee diversions like baseball and football. The fact that these contests might feel unintelligible and odd to many millions of the uninitiated around the world only makes our uniquely American sports all the more worthy of home-team backing.
It’s a stark choice: do we want to become more like the rest of the world or should other societies become more like America? Would our culture benefit or suffer if we sacrificed our distinctive norms, quirks and traditions for the sake of global homogeneity and transnational uniformity? Should the United States welcome middle-of-the-pack status or strive for world leadership?
That’s the wearisome state of play on the pitch of ideas as the ball caroms wildly from right to left and back again. With any luck at all our home team can still defy the odds and score, repeatedly, against the fatuous if stylish opposition.
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