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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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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.