Christopher Caldwell, a sad heart at the Super Bowl
Feb 14, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 21 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
It was not easy trying to figure out whether to watch the Super Bowl over the weekend. Spending the fall with the New England Patriots has provoked painful spasms of pessimism. It is not that two teams the Pats beat made it to the Super Bowl, while they themselves choked. Nope, that doesn’t bother me at all. Not at all.
It is something bigger and more existential that is getting me down. Football games, famously, go on for about three hours, and contain only about eight or nine minutes of actual playing time. The remainder is mostly commercials. So the experience of watching tons of football—of passing a whole autumn of Sunday afternoons recumbent on a sofa in a darkening room, with bowlfuls of snack food and that martial NFL theme music going “Rubba dump, rubba dump, rubba dump-dump, daah”—is wrapped up in the experience of coveting and buying. It is this Siamese-twin association with the real national pastime that makes football seem somehow more all-American than other sports (baseball, basketball) that have just as good a claim on the nation’s affections.
It is a dogma of our time that people’s true, non-hypocritical desires are the ones they put their money behind. The picture of America’s desires and yearnings and values that one sees on endless Sunday afternoon commercials should therefore be the most accurate one available. Only Madison Avenue has the resources and the incentives to capture what “regular Americans” want, and what motivates them. Whether you are a migrant farm worker stooped over in the Central Valley or a hedge fund mogul jogging in Central Park, your experience captures only a sliver of the national reality. The real heart of America is to be found on your couch on a Sunday afternoon.
And if that is true, well, really, what a dump this country is! Just look at your screen. We are obsessed with car insurance and motor oil. We are as easily impressed with worthless gadgets as savages used to be with shiny baubles—particularly as the pace of innovation levels off. (Do we really believe that that Internet thing-amabob that permits you to send family photos a half-second faster is really the portal to a “more powerful you”?) True, Americans still appreciate “craftsmanship.” We show this appreciation—through a process of reasoning that TV ads seldom make explicit—by drinking huge quantities of beer made with pure Rocky Mountain water. Why beer from the Rockies would ever be made with impure water is left unexplained, too.
Our food, on the other hand, all comes deep-fat-fried and in buckets. Much of it looks delicious. The ad for KFC’s “hot wings” sent me to the Internet to find the closest outlet. There I made the alarming discovery that nowhere within seven miles of my house does Colonel Sanders ply his trade. (Talk about Red America.)Taco Bell, meanwhile, used to urge on its football-afternoon commercials that we “do” a fourth meal (rather unimaginatively called “fourthmeal”), casting in a more favorable light all those scary statistics from the health care debate about how we ranked 13th or whatever in life expectancy. A country that “does” fourthmeal should be grateful it doesn’t rank 213th.
Which brings us to this national impotence of ours. (We can leave aside the national incontinence for a moment.) Advertisements for erectile-dysfunction remedies pose a major obstacle to football-watching as a family pastime. Football, after all, is for seven-year-old boys, and those who have not progressed much emotionally since childhood. When I was seven, the only uncomfortable questions my father had to fear if he let me watch the Patriots with him concerned why Schaefer was the one beer to have when you’re having more than one, or why the Patriots always lost. Today, unless you are a virtuoso of the mute button, your seven-year-old will be warned that an erection that lasts for more than four hours is grounds for consulting one’s physician. (“Dad,” the Internet-savvy seven-year-old will ask, “what’s a physician?”)
As the curtain came down on the Patriots’ season this year, it kept dawning on me what a terrible country we live in, what a terrible world we live in, and how awful humanity is. How awful football is, too.
On the other hand, the Pats have a young defense that is much better than it looks, the best coach in NFL history, and 3 of the first 33 picks in next year’s draft. Their only crying need is for a pass-rushing defensive end. If they get him, they will be a better team than even the 2007 squad that won all its regular season games. In fact, next year, the Pats will go undefeated.
Really. Remember you heard it here first. I’ll go out on a limb and make another prediction: By then I expect the human race to have undergone a corresponding improvement.