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Stardumb: Professional Sports v. Hollywood and Music

Also: Tiger Woods v. Michael Moore and Anna Quindlen v. common sense.

7:00 AM, Apr 17, 2003 • By DAVID SKINNER
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PERHAPS because of the mixed and novel aims of the war in Iraq, no single argument against the war ever came to define the antiwar movement. Rather, the pro- and antiwar camps roughly divided into people who believe in the moral potential of American might and those who don't. The latter have been even more disbelieving as a result of their collective contempt for our president, a hatred that more than any ideal or policy aim distinguishes the hard-core left today. Indeed, few who opposed the war seriously addressed the crimes of Saddam Hussein, preferring to focus on the supposed crimes of George W. Bush instead. This jaundiced view made it perfectly rational, predictable, and pretty much inevitable that the term "anti-American" would become the most commonly used adjective for the antiwar crowd.

But such macrodivisions did not give the public debate its unique flavor; instead it was the microdivisions that changed what might have been a serious controversy into a B-flick drama. The street urchins with their hastily scribbled signs and slapdash habits of dress made one think they didn't actually want or expect to be taken seriously. Indiscriminate slogans and reckless accusations: As political theater, the movement lacked dramatic focus and narrative power. More parade than parable.

But while the streets showed us the undisciplined mentality of a mob, television, print, and especially the Internet ushered in a large and gorgeous cast of stars from the music and entertainment industry to protest the war. These "ordinary citizens," as a few hilariously called themselves, were no more learned on the subject of war than their traffic-blocking brethren, nor at all seasoned in the customs of political debate, but they took seriously the attempt to give the antiwar movement an attractive public face.

But not all celebrities came out in protest. In an unusual wrinkle among the footnotes of who did and did not support the American-led war against Saddam's regime, a remarkable group of great athletes stood behind the president and the American cause in Iraq. Thus athletes came to represent--albeit very quietly, which seems appropriate--not only the pro-war opinion, but mainstream America. And Hollywood and music celebrities came to represent an oppositionist culture fueled by anti-Bush venom and peopled by the anti-American fringe. The same week that Michael Moore accused the president of the United States of fabricating a grievance with Saddam on stage at the Oscars (before a huge international television audience), Tiger Woods without any to-do posted a statement of support for the president on his website. The two men were more or less opposing archetypes of the American celebrity in wartime. The content of their politics were as different as their style.

Moore, known for his open contempt of American culture and corporations, and loose command of facts, could barely contain his rage as he characterized the war and the president as illegitimate--or to use his word "fictional." Woods, not known at all for his politics, except insofar as he has declined to use his fame to indulge the identity agendas of the left, delivered the verbal equivalent of raising a flag on his front lawn. But it's not just Woods and Moore who differ with each other. Their professions and their fans disagree with each other.

Another example of this clash of milieus can be seen in the Baseball Hall of Fame's decision to cancel its 15th anniversary celebration of "Bull Durham," arguably one of the best baseball movies ever. The Hall's reason for nixing the festivities was the possibility that two of the movie's stars--antiwar activists/actors/domestic partners Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon--would "use the Hall as a backdrop" for "highly charged political expression." For Sarandon, this was the second such "disinvite" in the last few weeks after the United Way told her to forget about speaking at a training session in Tampa.

There is, of course, nothing illegal or even dishonorable about chucking a celebrity like this, though in her Newsweek column, Anna Quindlen claims it "suggests that national interest is more important than free speech." Notice that weakling verb, "suggests," as it puffs up its chest to make these disputes among private parties sound like federal issues. Quindlen goes on to say it's "deeply ironic" that we should call Sarandon/Robbins "unpatriotic," while we as a nation praise America's Founders: "Children learn of the greatness of those who spoke out against the policies of George III, then hear vilified those who do not agree with George W. How confusing."

Quindlen thus "suggests" it is better to be cute than sensible. But then again, maybe she means what she says: that because George W. Bush has the same first name as George the III, people who favor war should not criticize or withdraw invitations from people who oppose war, lest our children get confused. Certainly, very young children might get their Georges mixed up and wonder why we condemned George the III while 75 percent approve of our sitting president. Newsweek columnists, however, are expected to rise above such difficulties of comprehension and even to understand the differences between freedom-loving Founders and anti-liberation lefties as well as the difference between private snubs and public policy. I dwell on this not because Quindlen makes a serious argument, but simply because her column is routinely this dumb.

Contra Quindlen, the United Way cut illustrated only that while political speech may be free, it is not free of consequences. Take unpopular stands--especially ill-informed, anti-American stands--and you risk making yourself unpopular. Meanwhile, the Baseball Hall of Fame's decision to cancel speaks, additionally, to the strangely consistent ideological chasm that runs through our popular culture separating sports with its pro-American inclinations from show business and music with their anti-American inclinations. (Ah, yes, back to our thesis!)

In addition to Tiger Woods, who praised "the assertiveness shown by President Bush," American Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong said "I absolutely support our president and I absolutely support our troops." Canadian hockey great Wayne Gretzky (who lives in the United States) called Bush "a great leader" and "a wonderful man" whom he supports "100 percent." Earlier this year, ESPN organized a pen pal system for athletes here in the states and their fellow Americans abroad in the armed forces. Participants included Shaquille O'Neal and Roger Clemens and many others. Can one imagine the Screen Actors Guild doing anything of the sort? How about any of the celebrity-worship cable stations like the E! channel or mythmaking rags like Entertainment Weekly. Even tennis star Serena Williams, who seemed ambivalent about the war, took time to insult the French for not being serious about international affairs.

Meanwhile, the antiwar ranks of Hollywood and the music industry thickened to the bulging point from all the celebrities lining up to snicker at Bush and denounce the use of force. These famed protesters came in several varieties: ashamed Americans abroad, including Dustin Hoffman, Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, the Dixie Chicks, Edward Norton, et al; cable-pundits-in-training and rally speakers Janeane Garofalo and Mike Farrell and Martin Sheen; antiestablishment institutions like MTV, which provided a permanent platform for one-party antiwar orthodoxy and famous ignoramuses like Justin Timberlake and Jay Z; there were even protest singers, John Mellencamp, Lenny Kravitz, R.E.M., and the Beastie Boys, all of whom had to rush to get their antiwar songs out before the war ended.

It may be unimportant, but it is certainly interesting to ask why. Why stagehounds and screen stars but not gridiron greats or baseball legends? Let's start with the uncontroversial assertion that one's profession informs one's worldview.

As competitors who directly face opponents, athletes may have less trouble accepting the probability of enmity between nations. They become famous over the strenuous opposition of other people. Their professional lives are in fact defined by antagonism and opposition. They have to individually dominate other players, and help their teams dominate other teams.

By contrast, when show-business types triumph, victory comes on a wave of public admiration that can make it seem like they were just elected the public's favorite human being. If competition is the watchword of sports, adoration and acclaim are the watchwords of show business. This kind of career makes for a weak political education as one grapples to understand why a president would take actions certain to make him unpopular in important parts of Europe and elsewhere.

Only monarchs know the kind of adoration Hollywood stars enjoy. Meanwhile athletes must constantly defend their bona fides against other contenders. As such, theirs is the more democratic glory. Anyone wrongly anointed in sports is quickly given his comeuppance. Anyone wrongly anointed in show business can spend years skipping across the covers of glossy magazines before anyone's the wiser.

Also, since their skills have such strictly quantifiable values, athletes may labor under fewer illusions about their unique ability to see what others don't notice. Thus they are less likely to feel called upon to enlighten others on the dark promise of American power.

Throughout the recent debate, show-business types and music professionals seemed far more prone to imagining they knew, even after hardly any study of the questions involved, what twisted horrors were in store with the unleashing of American military power. This element of personal vision goes a long way in explaining the ideological divide.

Why should entertainers as opposed to athletes find themselves believing in the power of their own personal vision? Well, what other than some very special mojo belonging only to the person with the box office hit or multi-platinum record can possibly explain their incredibly good fortune?

There are many talented actors and musicians who never make a living at it, let alone become stars, whereas if you can score twenty points a game against professional basketball players, you're going to enjoy steady employment. There is no one futzing around the local Par 3 course who can play golf like Tiger Woods, whereas if you look hard, you'll find singers as good as Sheryl Crow or actors as good as Tim Robbins who can barely make ends meet.

Other differences come to mind. Athletes are used to representing other people, whether it be a city or the United States. At least since the Greeks, athletic glory has been intimately bound up with national pride. Their glory is our glory. We feel proud of them when they go abroad and conquer opponents. Thus they experience professional (as well as personal) obligations to the United States.

Meanwhile the American people are less invested when a Hollywood reel or an American CD crosses the globe and turns actors and musicians into stars. This lack of a bond goes both ways. Actors and musicians are less diplomats than freelances. Art, it is often argued, transcends national boundaries. Less often considered is how sports emphasizes national boundaries.

But not only does entertainment transcend national cultures, but America's entertainment industry is legendary for its cultivation of countercultural film and music. Dating back to Vietnam, pop music has been home to loosely stitched patterns of leftists sentiment. Only country music stands out here as exceptional and, more likely than not, pro-American. Movies, too, have played a major role in the development of an anti-bourgeois, anti-Washington agenda from "Dr. Strangelove" to "American Beauty." Professional sports, meanwhile, play a much less important role in the counterculture. To state the obvious: There is no Bob Dylan of the NFL.

George W. Bush, compulsive jogger and onetime president of a major league baseball team, may also have a lot to do with this split dividing athletes from entertainers. The former cheerleader's personality is more or less typical of a jock from the popular crowd. You know the type. Complacent rich kid from a powerful family, just brimming with school spirit. He's been in dozens of Hollywood movies . . . and he's always the bad guy.

David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.