Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A-Rod, Macho, Masochism, & One Cheer for Performance Enhancing Drugs (9 Aug. 2013))

"No pain / No gain."

         I'm writing at the time of another scandal about performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) in sports, and I want to join those making a provocative fringe-view assertion and then go off on my own, on sports and PEDs briefly, but mostly on the more general topic (singular) of machismo and masochism.

         After all the responsible, and respectable, and true things are said against PEDs — all the proper health-warnings promulgated and sermonettes on fair-play rehearsed — let us consider that, on the other hand, on balance, it might be better for really dedicated and/or obsessed athletes to take PEDs than to put in the workout and practice time it would otherwise take to be world-class athletes. There's a kind of perverse puritanism working that condemns warping lives through drug use and admires warping lives through too much dedication to what are, finally, conditioning, skill-acquisition, and games. 

         Let me repeat a story. When teaching at Miami University in, significantly here, Oxford, Ohio, I had a student varsity athlete, a swimmer, tell me how exciting she found her life at Miami U. Where, I asked, was she from; and her answer was "Sydney." "Sydney, as in Sydney Australia?" I asked, mostly rhetorically (she had a strong Australian accent). "Sydney's a great city!" I said. The nature of Sydney, however, wasn't something she knew: "I was swimming all the time." Now that was overstatement; she had to sleep and eat and go to school and all — but allowing for overstatement, that was pretty much her life: if she was awake, she was probably in the pool or weight-room. She didn't really have a childhood.

         Now I wouldn't have kids injected with PEDs or other sports-related drugs. Another of my students had his knees shot up with a pain-killer and anti-inflammatory so he could finish a high school football game, and if the coach and trainer had been taken out and shot for that, I would protest — I'm a staunch opponent of the death-penalty and supporter of due process — but my protest would be muted. (The guy's father did punch out the coach; I regret, as I'm sure he does, that he did not get to punch out the trainer — and apparently didn't successfully press charges or sue.)

         The high school football player could have been crippled, and he answered my question, "Uh, how are you now?" with "Well, I can walk — but I'm not playing football any more." The coach and trainer are guilty of child endangerment and child abuse, and the endangerment part at least would apply to any parents who had their kids use PEDs.

         But college athletes and older are adults, and if my swimmer student saw her only choices as PEDs, obsessive training, or never quite making the Olympics, I would fear she would choose PEDs and excessive training and hope that she'd lower her athletic expectations — or, failing that, try moderate drug use, sensible training, and having a life. In the case of children, I'll continue on the fringe and say that parents who make their kids train for sports (or music or theatre or anything) to where the kids have no other life are as guilty of abuse as those having their kids shot up with PEDs or painkiller plus anti-inflammatories.

         I'm far from the only person making such arguments, and what interests me here is that our effect on policy has been somewhere between inconsequential and nil.
         Obviously there are problems with literally equating over-pressuring parents as child abusers, and obsessive athletes with the pathologically obsessive: it's a bad idea to break up families and jail parents for pushing too hard for gymnastics or ballet, or to commit committed jocks to "Hotel California" in the sense of some insane asylum (besides, the Camarillo State Mental Hospital is now Cal State Channel Islands, a different kind of mental institution). And there is much to be said against the sort of low-pressure child rearing that has the goal of instilling high self-esteem, regardless of low achievement.

         Still, it's a question why it's immediately obvious to most Establishment Americans that PEDs are bad but excessive training and workaholic behavior are somewhere between no big deal and virtues.

         The answer to such a question lies in part in our Puritan and (small "p") puritanical heritage, and also in part in our concepts of macho as well as, and perhaps increasingly, macha.

         It is after all, called, in Max Weber's phrase, "The Protestant Work Ethic," and the founders of New England were about as Protestant as you can get: people who had given up on purifying the Church of England and ended up in the overly-tolerant Netherlands and then moved on to the new world to found pretty strongly Calvinist and definitely radical-Protestant Congregationalist congregations and colonies. Work for them wasn't just punishment after Eve and Adam got our asses kicked out of Eden but a downright good thing. Hard work was even better than just work, and success from hard work was a sign you were one of the few Elect and not part of the many totally depraved and damned.

         Success from hard work: good. Easy success because of natural ability and good luck — unless you're a really strict Calvinist and believe in Election, not that pagan good luck: questionable. Quicker, less painful success through chemistry: bad.

         More, there's that small "p" puritanism that sees pleasure as an evil and a snare, and a subgroup of that that goes one further: if pleasure is bad, pain is good.

         We can see this in extreme asceticism, especially when asceticism takes the final step and goes over into not just denying the body pleasure but into outright self-abuse: and by this I mean something like self-flagellation, as opposed to "self-abuse" as a perverse term for masturbation (a twisting of words that is a triumph of puritan-PC linguistic engineering).

         And this brings us to one of those odd areas of agreement between various religious and culturally conservative doctrines, and what I have called "The Macho Creed."

            When I was in my thirties— so a while back but still in the late 20th century — there was a US military recruiting ad using the theme of "DISCIPLINE," an ad I was able to parody by reprinting the text, just with the addition after the final "DISCIPLINE" of, "AND OCCASIONAL BONDAGE." My intention was to point out the irony of how much pain and guff "real men" are willing to take in proof of manhood.

            Boot-camp hard-ass Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Stanley Kubrick'sFull Metal Jacket (1987), is an exaggeration — I recall Lee Ermey saying he never inflicted on any one cohort of recruits all we see inflicted on the platoon in the movie — but the abuse was based in fact. All that was done to Pvt. Joker's training unit, Sgt. Emery had done at one time or another to recruits he was putting through Marine initiation at Parris Island. And, until it gets overly brutal or lethal, such hazing has its place: serious initiations need to require high cost for the initiates, and, given the uses to which Marines are put, their initiations need to be serious. I just object to seeing submission as all that manly or honorable, and I don't think much beyond a fraternity hell week can be justified in contexts less than preparing for combat.

            Which gets us to athletic "fun and games" (as we used to call the more unsavory hell week humiliations back at my old frat lodge) — which gets us back to various kinds of abuse in athletics.

            The least problematic cases are with self-abuse. You have the expression from personal training "No Pain / No Gain," and this makes some sense in weight training, where to gain muscle mass you need to put some strain on the muscles: work them toward fatigue if not to and beyond. Real pain, though? I was taught in PE and told by my physician, "Pain is nature's way of telling you 'Stop doing that.'" The mantra "No pain, no gain" is controversial with individual fitness training, but is far more questionable with team sports. As soon as more than one person is involved, the question becomes, "Pain for whom, gain for whom?" In the case of the coach and trainer who shot up my student's knees, future pain for him was immediate gain for the coach: depressingly small gain, actually, given what was at stake, since my student's team was winning the game, and the coach had a winning record — and tenure as a PE teacher.

            Less sensational but also harmful is verbal and emotional long-term abuse of athletes. Again, I'm willing to accept the logic of hell week or Hell 10-Weeks of initial Basic Training; that's initiation and indoctrination, and is okay so long as the hazing stops fairly quickly and, throughout, is stopped short of brutality. But there are too many coaches spending too many seasons on the brink, and too many athletes who have to put up with more than a week or a few weeks of systematic humiliation. Part of the problem is lack of a tradition of young athletes organizing to demand respect and (with modesty and prudence) draw some lines. A good rule of thumb is that of E. E. Cummings's character Olaf, with my emphasis (and capitalization): Speaking this much truth to power, that "There is some shit I will not eat."

            Another part of the problem is that masochism inherent in parts of machismo and machisma.

            I'll handle machisma first since the concept is weird and, public health excluded — a major exclusion! — not as threatening a matter as machismo, which, health matters excluded, it's pretty much a part of.

            Another student, another story: This one staggered into my office, sneezed, coughed, wheezed, and dropped off a paper on my desk, only somewhat spotted by her bodily fluids. She rasped, "Here it is," and waited for my thanks and appreciation. She didn't get any; I said something like, "Okay, now go home and get some sleep; I would've given you an extension." I wasn't going to thank her. I wasn't going to be impressed. What was going through my mind was (1) that she'd exposed me to Whatever Is Going Around — although I'd probably been exposed already (students are notorious disease vectors) – and (2) that far from being impressed that she'd trekked over with the paper, I thought her socially unskilled that she couldn't get a friend to drop it off and/or unsophisticated about modern technology that it didn't occur to her to just send me the essay as an e-mail attachment.

            I discussed this matter with some women colleagues, and they told me the problem was Great Grandmother Ferguson.

            They'd all been brought up on some version of Great Grandmother Ferguson, "who dropped the twins while plowing the south forty; bit through the umbilical cords; put one twin to each breast to suckle; finished the plowing; then went home to nurse a houseful of cholera victims; and you, you little weakling, you're complaining about some minor appendicitis. Woman up! You're whining like a boy!" The rule was, "Real women don't get sick," or they don't allow a little pneumonia to get in the way of getting work done: that's for boys and men, who "never have to go through a three-day labor like I had to for you — and then you ripped me apart!"

            My colleagues explained to me, "Girls are brainwashed, Rich; it's the Macha Creed, and you just have to tell them that times have changed, and we're winning the Revolution, and now women and girls can take a day off to be sick the way men always could. Or at least rich men."

            I thought that story and line were great, and I repeated them back to the class, to which several young women responded, "Right! Boys are wimps! If they get sick they go to bed!" And I repeated the point to rather militant stares and repetition of "Boys are wimps!" and finally just said, "All right — all of you! If you're sick, don't come to class. I gave you a roster, with contact information; you're divided into groups; get someone to cover for you." And we moved on.

            Following "Erlich's Law of Equal and Balancing Absurdities," when many Americans aren't checking out the drug store's fifteen varieties of pain-killers, they're into theatrically enduring pain in semi-silence and bragging about it. With women, it will be birthing children — you want to compete with that, fellas, and you gotta get yourself maimed in a popular war — and, with women, the macha claim (as such) will be carrying on in spite of illness. With men, it's going to be a toned-down version of John Rambo's sewing up the wound in his arm in [Rambo:] First Blood (1982) — a pretty good movie, actually, which can't be held responsible for its sequels — or, and most especially, something in the manner of many of the movies of Mel Gibson.

            If we're going to talk loosely about "The Protestant Work Ethic," and I've done so, we can talk also about "The Catholic Pain Ethic." As George Carlin of blessed memory pointed out, there is the tradition — strong in parts of Irish Catholicism — where "The priests were always pushing for pain," even if, with guys anyway, "You were always pulling for pleasure" (Class Clown, 1972). The first sentence in the Carlin quote is what counts here, because it brings me to Mel Gibson and those other great analysts of culture, in the tradition of Weber, Carlin, and Lenny Bruce — Trey Parker and Matt Stone. In "The Passion of the Jew" episode of South Park (31 March 2004), it's not just that "Mel Gibson is crazy," but that he's crazy in a very specific manner: few are more macho than Mel Gibson in his movies, and Mel Gibson, Parker and Stone have it, is a very sick variety of masochist. Allowing for satiric overstatement, allowing for more than the usual satiric malice and downright terminal snarkiness — allowing that the great majority of sexual masochists are healthy people with variant, sometimes highly variant, tastes — the Parker and Stone evaluation is correct.

            In an essay in The New Republic for 30 May 1964, George Grella complained that James Bond's "only genius lies in an infinite capacity for taking pain" (p. 17, quoted pdf 12). Gibson's Christ has other qualities but from what I could see with a lot of fast forwarding through a borrowed DVD, in The Passion of the Christ, Gibson literalizes and makes flesh the idea of Christ's taking on "infinite […] pain."

            A recurrent theme in Gibson's movies is heroic suffering, with images stuck in my mind of Gibson's character Porter — just "Porter" — getting his toes broken in Payback from 1991, and Gibson's William Wallace inBraveheart (1995) moving into the evisceration portion of a historically accurate hanging, drawing, and quartering.

            The macho hero kicks ass — and at least a couple of critics have suggested that that's exactly what Gibson's resurrected Christ is on his way to do —  but Grella's suggestion for James Bond is true as well: macho (and macha) heroes take pain. If you don't believe that, ask your local film-noir detective; they get beaten up regularly. Same for a super-macho anti-hero like Alex in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971); it's not what viewers remember, but if you count and time acts of violence — including high-tech torture — vicious little Alex spends as much time or more receiving pain and humiliation as dishing it out. We see such pain-taking in a lot in popular art, and the artistic motif both reflects and instills an ideal of macho that includes being kind of into pain.

            Which brings us back to "No pain, no gain" — or no gain many people will respect — and from there back to Alex Rodriguez and Lance Armstrong and the other PED users, with their short-cuts to winning and macho success.

            It's not just that these athletes have cheated; it's not just that they've upped the pressure on others to use drugs. It's also that we value work as such and want winners to sacrifice and suffer. We value taking pains and taking pain; and we value near-fanatical dedication to one's sport or art or calling.

            Fine, but "moderation in most things," if not "all things," and sometimes we in America — for all our hedonism, still descendants of Puritans and the puritanical — at times we Americans value sacrifice and suffering way too much.

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