Thursday, May 21, 2015

Waco: Cossacks v. Bandidos / Team America: Typical More than Exceptional

"Let 'em all go to hell, except Cave 76!"
                  Mel Brooks's 2000-Year Old Man
"[T]he battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton […]"
George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn  (1941),
alluding to a probably apocryphal quotation
— US Fan Chant for US v. USSR Hockey, Winter Olympics, 1980
— US Fan Chant, Operation Desert Storm, 1991

            I tried to come up with a variation on "Hell hath no Fury like a woman scorned" that would make a similar statement about bores. Having just come from a meeting of my local Home Owners' Association, I'll try "The complainers klatch of an HOA has few bores as virulent as a sports fan disappointed." Not a great line, but it'll do to introduce a scene burned into my memory of getting cornered at a party by a drunk Cincinnati Reds fan who felt utterly betrayed that his team, against the laws of God, Nature, and probability was having so lousy a season. After listening to his complaints for, oh, let's say an eon or so, I finally said that I admired his concern for the team and his loyalty to its leadership, but clearly it was time for him to fire the manager and shake up the staff. "I can't do that," he said, sobering up a bit; "only Marge Schott can fire a manager." To which I replied, "Then the Cincy Reds is Marge Schott's team, not yours, and you needn't be so emotionally involved." And I slipped away.

            I understand, somewhat, the feelings of this fan. One time, when I was fourteen, I was at a football game with my (by God!) high school's team — the  Lake View High Wildcats — just three point behind or something like that in the last seconds of play, and our quarterback threw a secular, public school version of a Hail-Mary pass just when the cheerleaders and their boy friends were able to get our school pennant on a long pole and wave it in a great arc across our field of vision watching the field of play and we all jumped up and cheered and the ball game down … way short of the receiver and the goal line, and we lost the game.

            I felt a twinge of keen disappointment at the time, and obviously a memorable twinge — that time was nearly sixty years ago — but we loyal Lake View-ites left the stadium and bought pizza, and got on with our lives.

            A game's a game, and school was just school.

            And maybe also, Lake View High School in Chicago is in the Cubs' neighborhood, and most of our elders either became rabid fans or learned not to get too emotionally involved in games other people played.
            Well, and throw in the fact that I'd played grammar-school football but stopped growing at 5'2", and serious football (to say nothing of basketball) was definitely something other guys played.

            The Beach Boys hadn't sung "Be True to Your School" yet — that song came out in 1963, and I graduated high school in 1961 — but I was and remain pretty loyal to my high school, attending class reunions and having donated a media collection and all. But I wasn't into the idea of my high school, apparently, as much as most.

            Or at least that was the accusation of Mrs. Wilkinson, the permanent, immovable Senior Class Adviser, against me. And she had a point.

            My older sister had attended Senn High School before district boundaries were tightened up, and I was in a high school fraternity that had more members from Senn and some other North Side schools than from Lake View, so I understood that it was just where you lived that determined which school you went to, and that North Side Chicago public high schools weren't all that different.

            So "my high school" wasn't a major deal for me, and when challenged by Mrs. Wilkinson, I had to take somewhat seriously her hyperbolic, "You never participate in school functions!"

            I told her that the "never" was wrong — I was in Key Club and had done some school service stuff, especially back when I was in ROTC ("JROTC" to be exact) — but, okay, I certainly did far less than I might have.

            "I can never be elected high school Principal," I finally told her; "so I concentrate my efforts where I can be elected president and have some clout."

            More exactly, my philosophy of personal politics, as I later learned, was that of Creon in Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus: I wanted a situation where I could be elected president but preferred not to be; I liked being vice president of organizations. That way I had clout but could act quietly and, if necessary, pass the responsibility-buck up to the president. And if being VP meant doing occasional metaphorical hatchet-work so the president could keep his hands clean …, well, I could do that.

            My attitude was cemented in college when I joined a fraternity rather than live in the dorms. The University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana was and remains a very large school and something of a "total" institution: we had our own power plant, police, and fire department. I didn't want to add having the Big U as my landlord.

            In the fraternity, eventually, I could have at least a bit of influence over my minute part of the campus. Fraternity life meant taking a bit of shit as a pledge and a shitload of shit as a "neophyte" going through Hell Week. But after that I was a member of the community and would work my way up in seniority and could get elected to office.

            The University of Illinois did not offer undergraduates those sorts of option ca. 1963: you had no vote and little voice until graduation — and after graduation you were sent on your way. As I was later to gently chide my faculty colleagues who bad-mouthed fraternities, "Fraternities are a hell of a lot more democratic than the rest of the Big U."

            In the old frat lodge, I could at least decide how to paint my room. As I once said to a candidate for the U of I Student Senate, "The day Senate can determine the size of the wastebasket in the Student Senate office without clearing the decision with three deans and a vice president is the day I'll vote in a Student Senate election.

            Several years later, I become a board member of the English Graduate Student Association and then the University Graduate Student Association, but the Student Associations aspired to be like a union, not a "toy government," and we would talk about ourselves as graduate student government only if we got authority to tax graduate students and legislate campus-life regulations (which, of course, did not happen).

            My undergraduate fraternity was my fraternity in part because I had some say in its running, and also in part for reasons I will get to. The University of Illinois was "alma mater" and all — competing a bit with Cornell, where I went for an MA — but it wasn't exactly my university.

            Indeed, when the Big U came up with the title of a publication stressing "Your University," I responded with, "Oh, good! Let's sell it."

            But I do identify with the U of I, and I'm typing this wearing my new "ILLIONOIS"™ sweatshirt; and I wear an "Illini" cap from time to time, one time significant for where this ramble is going.

            I was wearing my Illini cap and was asked about it and got vaguely worried I'd be called out for the Indian name — but the guy just wanted to know if I was an Illini Football fan; and I said, "No; I'm an Illini." And he said, "You played football for Illinois?!" — see above on my size — and I told him, "No" again and said I went to school there, two degrees worth, and didn't add I had damn well earned the right to wear the cap.

            The University of Illinois both is and isn't "my" University, and it's an interesting question to whom it belongs. For three weeks it technically belonged to the attorney David Stevens, in terms of legal esoterica, and at law the University — although not the sports teams when I was there — was the Trustees. I would ask rhetorically, however, whether the University was the Trustees to the extent that they might burn down the University Library if they liked or even — in those days before e-books — disperse the collections. The collections are a national and world treasure, and the Trustees don't own them but, as the word "Trustees" suggests, hold them in trust.

            So I identified a lot with my high school and college fraternities, and more so my year club, because I had a say in running them and because many of the people in them, if far from all, were my friends. I can see identifying strongly with a sports team if you played on it (and weren't liable to be dropped or traded casually), and I identified with my high school and universities — a bit for status and more because I'd invested a lot of effort in my studies there.

            But enough about me ….

            That people identify with and feel part of small groups is no mystery: bonding with sexual mates, family, clan, and friends is rooted deeply in figurative human social and cultural DNA and ultimately underpinned by traits encoded in our literal DNA. "One chimpanzee is no chimpanzee," as Robert M. Yerkes said, and a reliable-looking website adds to that a Greek saying, "One man [is] no man." Most humans feel increasingly uncomfortable if isolated for a long time; "solitary confinement" is a serious punishment, and it's about as close as one can come to simple facts about human nature to assert "No man is an island / Entire of itself" — "no, nor woman neither" — and that human beings are social animals.

            What gets complicated and somewhat weird is identification with groups larger than a military fire team, year club, or sorority, or a platoon or clan or village. Or, for some, identifying even with a small group where you don't like the members.

            It's a joke — though a bitter one — that there are American bigots who love American while loathing 90% of Americans, and we used to joke, though with wonder (and exaggeration) more than bitterness, about guys in the fraternity chapter who "Love the house, but hate the brothers."

            Most of us, though, need "the house," the group, and it's occasionally scary how arbitrary that identification become. In the Jewish expression, there's "My schul is better than your schul": one's local synagog, or congregation, but also just "school." Was Lake View any better than Senn, or vice versa? Is 
Cornell significantly better than the U of I? Or, from the outside looking in — and ignoring what ethologists call territory and movie Mafiosi call "business"— why would the Texas motorcycle gang that Bandidos be a group one might identify with and be willing to die for, fighting against the Cossacks?

            A small motorcycle gang can be your "Cave 76," and Neolithic or Paleolithic rules might apply. But gangs nowadays, even motorcycle gangs, can get very big, and identification and loyalty beyond "Cave 76," identification and loyalty sometimes unto death, require explanation.

            Such loyalty and dedication clearly require some (apparently) peculiarly human talents, plus some indoctrination and individual effort. Apparently, humans and only humans on our planet can deal with the world with such vigorous abstraction that we can identify with symbols and react as if those symbols were human beings to whom we are bonded.

            Consider attacks upon sacred or "sacralized" symbols. There are people who will respond to the stomping on a crucifix or urinating on a Torah or lampooning the image of Mohammed or the burning of a flag or appropriating the word "Texas" as the "bottom rocker" on a motorcycle jacket with the same sort of physiological and physical reactions that they would with an attack upon one of their children.

            That is mysterious behavior and perhaps central to the larger mystery of why we can use the word "love" seriously for all of the parts of "I love my spouse, my children, my parents, my dog, and my country." Okay, we can say also, "I love ice cream," but our listeners will be confident that we wouldn't risk our lives for ice cream, not in the sense of putting our bodies between a tub of ice cream and a blowtorch. And okay, also, indeed, in combat men don't often die for their country but for their comrades and friends; but in a fair number of cases guys dying for their country — and some gals as well — got to where they were likely to get shot because of patriotic love and devotion.

            And that sort of love and devotion is for a more abstract abstraction than even a flag: a paradoxical "concrete symbol"; such love and devotion is for one's country, and that sort of love and devotion doesn't just happen: it is inculcated, or, in a nice image, instilled, i.e., added drop by drop.
            It is also reinforced by social conditions. If you're living in a neighborhood where loners tend to get beaten up or shot, it's a good idea to get other guys to watch your back, and there's strong pressure to join a gang: when the Sharks might knife you, it's a good idea to run with the Jets. When the Crips might shoot, you it's a good idea to become a Blood, and a really pressing matter if the Crips might kill you if you don't join the Bloods — and the Bloods might kill you as well.

            But for privileged folk pressures are subtler and for larger groups inculcation/instillation is a long-term process. We pick up our identity and our folkways almost as unconsciously as we pick up language. We learn how to operate in our families and neighborhoods and communities and so on outward, and we learn initially not so much "this is how we do things" but "this is how things are done." We're socialized and acculturated and that includes loyalties.

            By the time we reach adolescence, and our world expands beyond the family and — if we're lucky enough to have one — the neighborhood, then things get more complex because there are competitions for our loyalties.

            And there are people out there looking to attract our loyalties.

            Frequently, the attraction is weak and the competition would be silly if so much money and emotion weren't involved: as when we're tempted into "brand loyalties" and the fandom for sports teams or movie genres or music.

            Beyond those, however, matters are thoroughly serious, and best seen when they're deadly serious and necessarily highly concentrated, as in military "basic training and indoctrination," where instillation is something of a deluge.

            Classically, there's Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island and the breaking down of a civilian and rebuilding a Marine. Part of this is the attraction of "The Few. The Proud." as the USMC slogan went — which is also said to have been picked up (or carried on) by the outlaw motorcycle gangs claiming to be "the [top] 1%" of badasses. More though is the following of traditional patterns of initiation.
            I'm confident of this assertion because I helped put together a new pledge training program for my fraternity, and we looked very carefully at child development, tribal rites of passage, and at the most basic parts of Basic Training in the US military.

            We decided that brutality was optional, and an option we rejected: we made sure pledging came with some pain — people value things in terms of the price they pay as much as for any intrinsic value — but stressing, "the little things." It's not so much Gunnery Sgt. Hartman and "I will P.T. you all until you fucking die! I'll P.T. you until your assholes are sucking buttermilk"; it's the "Sir" form of address and the saluting and the little arbitrary dip-shit rituals day in and day out, the routine drill and the drilled-in routines of the military in general and basic training strongly in particular.

            And in this way people — especially late-adolescent guy-type people — can be assimilated into a group and come to accept its authority.

            Which is not a bad thing, if, but only if, people incorporated into a group are eventually brought to consciousness of what has been done to their heads.

            Which is why I insisted that our fraternity "neophytes" had one question on their final exam before initiation that they had to answer correctly: Identifying the logic behind our more illogical rules for pledges. They had to figure out that the rules were arbitrary and that that was the point: we were requiring obedience — and the dumber the rule the purer the obedience — and thereby instilling acceptance of the authority of the group.

            Our group: that ol' frat lodge.

            Not their parents. Not the university. Not the State — or not only them; but we wanted our initiates to accept the authority of pretty much their peers before they went from a kind of mildly-indentured servant status (pledges) to part of the demos of what would probably be the most democratic institution they'd encounter. It's a pretty low bar, there, and "democracy" doesn't necessarily mean liberal democracy — note the status of ancient Athenian slaves or women or resident aliens about that issue — but we'd be more democratic than the university we were embedded in or the corporations Americans work for, or for most Americans, the government of the United States.

            We fail in America in not making enough people conscious of how their group identities get formed.

            The first national anthem, the 2000-Year Old Man, sang, was "Let 'em all go to hell / Except Cave 76!"; and that stance and way of dealing with the world is still with us, but dangerously expanded.

            The Battle of Waterloo was won in part on the playing fields of Eton because the young gentlemen of Eton were taught there and elsewhere at Eton to identify with their teams and with Eton and with the Empire. The quotation from Orwell goes on, however — war veteran, socialist, and iconoclast that he was: "Probably the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton, but the opening battles of all subsequent wars have been lost there." That is, the British elite learned at Eton and the other "public" schools the chivalric code and snobbery that led the British officer corps in subsequent wars to make some really dumb and costly moves. Significant here is that the playing fields of Eton and American sports arenas and school stadiums are part of the system of instilling a habit of loyalty, so that a cheer of "USA! USA!" for a US hockey team can be transferred fairly easily to what Trey Parker and Matt Stone called TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE (2004).

            Group identity is inevitable, necessary, and usually a good thing. But we need to understand how it operates and how it can become highly dangerous.

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