Monday, July 16, 2007

Politics or the language and culture of sports

MSNBC published an interesting article on the use of sports metaphors in politics.

While the anecdotes reveal a great deal about the trend itself, I found it worthwhile to delve a little deeper into the cultural meaning of the rhetoric. Below is the article with my interleaved comments.

Bush runs White House with sports terms
The Associated Press

Updated: 4:06 p.m. ET July 15, 2007

WASHINGTON - Running the country is no game. It just sounds like one sometimes. In the Bush White House, sports are a metaphor for life. Better keep up if you want to play.

Consider how President Bush describes his time left in office.

"I'm going to sprint to the finish," he likes to say.
Not content to run alone, he used the phrase to defend Tony Blair in Blair's dwindling days as Britain's prime minister.

"He's going to sprint to the wire," Bush declared of his pal.

The sports imagery changes when slow is the preferred way to go for the White House. Take the way the administration defends its global warming strategy against criticism it has lacked urgency.

"This is a marathon," explained Jim Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. "It's not a sprint."

Sports metaphors have become a pervasive way for Bush and his team to describe almost anything. Expressing ideas in terms of athletics is so routine in the highest levels of government — just as it is in more typical workplaces — that even people who do not follow sports are used to it.

Fairness means leveling the playing field; focus is keeping your eye on the ball. Send in the heavy hitters if you want results. If sacrifice is called for, then take one for the team.

"It's just the way we speak. Our language is permeated with these terms," said Harold Ray, a sports historian who identified 1,700 sports metaphors in a book he co-wrote about the topic. "We just assume that everyone understands them."

It may seem to be "just the way we speak", but it’s also the way “we” think. Culture encourages and pre-validates certain ways of thinking. The view of historical events as a sporting event, with winners, losers, rules of the game (procedures) and time limits is deeply rooted in US culture. The reference to sport has become a pattern for dismissing responsibility (we played by the rules of the game, not by those ethics or logic). This possibly derives from the underlying Calvinist belief that games and theology are linked: the propensity to attribute victory in a sporting contest to divine intervention (predestination). Sport has consequently become more than a convenient metaphor. It has taken on an ontological, ethical and eschatological character. We are invited to believe that our responsibilities are defined in terms similar to those of athletes and that playing the game is a way of putting oneself in the hands of the Great Playmaker and fulfilling His objectives (concerning gender, in US sports coaches are almost always men, though women are now accepted as referees, even for men’s sports. “Playmakers”, on the other hand, are therefore typically male and usually white).

Football metaphors meet language barrier
When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was forced to answer critics of a plan to shut down North Korea's nuclear program, she needed a way to urge patience. So, naturally, the administration's top diplomat used the language of a football game.

"This is still the first quarter," she said. "There is still a lot of time to go on the clock."
The powerful notion behind this is that history radically changes when a “terminal” event occurs. US culture believes that all games have ends after which we play by a different set of rules, whereas other cultures see history as a continuous struggle or dynamic harmony (yin and yang) of cultural forces that do not fundamentally change. The US was founded on a revolutionary rewrite of the “rules of the game” following an act of will validated by a belief in “destiny” (the semantic link between “predestination” and “manifest destiny”).

It’s worth noting, however, that Condoleezza Rice has also used another clear beginning/clear ending metaphor, when she qualified the 2006 war in Lebanaon as “birth pangs” of the Middle East.

The lingo does not always translate, however.

The same day in February that Rice spoke in Washington, U.S. nuclear negotiator Christopher Hill was in Beijing and described what private discussions with North Korean officials had been like.

"For those people who are not Americans, you won't understand this metaphor," he cautioned reporters. "But it's always like 3 yards, 3 yards, 3 yards. And then it's always 4th and 1, and you make a first down and do 3 more yards."

Apart from not realizing that this must be utterly incomprehensible to most of humanity, Hill seems not to be familiar with American football itself, the source of his analogy. On 4th and 1 teams almost always choose to punt (surrender the ball to the other team). The lack of precision in the use of sports metaphors (see the Cheney example immediately below) is an indication of how they function culturally: as a means of persuasion based on referring to a mutually accepted norm, the “logic” of sports. Of course, the “logic” of any sport is an arbitrary, closed and artificial system unrelated to and certainly not constructed on the principles of logical reasoning. Deferring to the authority of the game and its rulebook has become a privileged means of avoiding logical and moral analysis.
Got it?

By his own admission, Vice President Dick Cheney fumbled his reference to football when he tried to describe progress in Afghanistan.
"It's sometimes 3 yards and a cloud of dust. There's no home run — touchdown, home run is a flawed analogy — no touchdown pass to be thrown here. But it can be done," Cheney said.

I’m left wondering where the “cloud of dust” comes from. American football is played on grass (real or artificial) so dust is foreign to it. Baseball – which Cheney has mixed in here – does produce dust when sliding into bases. Is he thinking of the dusty landscapes of Afghanistan? Does dust play a role in his typical “strategic thinking” (i.e. throwing dust into the opponent’s eyes)? Or is there some deeper unconscious meaning here which only his analyst might be in a position to reveal?
It is now understood that when a topic becomes popular to kick around, it is a political football. The White House has used that term to describe an eclectic range of matters, from medicare to taxes to former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Switch in power, not sports talk

In October, just before the congressional elections, Bush said Democrats were a tad arrogant in assessing their chances of winning control.

"They're dancing in the end zone," he said. "They just haven't scored the touchdown."
Fun is the reward of victory, which itself is – or should be – the reward of hard work. While fun appears to be a strong value in itself (or perhaps rather the visible outward sign of other deeper values) it is suspect if it isn’t related to merit. There seems to be a moral division of society into two opposing camps: those who try to have fun without earning the right (the lazy and irresponsible) and those who can flaunt it because they have proved their worth (through some form of accomplishment, which generally means through compelling assertiveness possibly associated with a talent or hard work).
Then the Democrats won.
So the power dynamic changed, but not the sports talk.

How does the White House choose to challenge leaders in Congress? "Step up to the plate," Bush spokesman Tony Snow said.
But in reality the White House ended up using “executive privilege” to refuse to send their batters to face the pitcher! This highlights the function of sports metaphors: to reassure, to give the impression that decisions taken are both logical and inevitable (the link between logical and inevitable is of course an extension of Calvinist predestination).
What is the Democrats' motivation for investigating the firing of eight fired U.S. attorneys? "An opportunity to score political points," Bush claimed.
Will Bush now start vetoing more bills? "The ball really lies in the court of those in Congress," Snow said.

At heart, Bush is a baseball guy, a former co-owner of the Texas Rangers. He knows the rule when the ball and the runner reach first base at the same time: The tie goes to the runner.

Turns out, that is exactly how Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts explained a ruling that loosened campaign finance regulations.

"Where the First Amendment is implicated," Roberts wrote, "the tie goes to the speaker, not the censor."
The notion of ties has an ambiguous status in US culture. Ties are difficult to tolerate because there always has to be a winner. Historically in US football it was possible to have a draw (as in soccer), but draws are associated with indecision and ambiguity, neither of which are tolerable and both of which can be associated with the moral crime (attributed by Bush to Keryy) of “flip-flopping”. I believe that draws were definitively eliminated from professional US football in the 1950s (but they may still exist in university football????). Ties are also messy when making calculations to produce statistics (which happen to be a key feature of US sports, eminently worthy of cultural analysis in its own right).
Even the spy world can be explained by sports metaphors; CIA Director Michael Hayden uses them all the time.

Pressed to justify why so many senior intelligence jobs are filled by people with military backgrounds, Hayden used a phrase better associated with a general manager of a football team: "They were the best athletes available in the draft."
The use of the metaphor permits evading the question and at the same time links with “beliefs” associated with meritocracy, a fundamental feature of US culture.
As for Bush, it is no surprise that sports metaphors come easily, said Ray, a retired professor from Western Michigan University.

"With his baseball background, and with the way presidents have honored sports champions, it's a natural," Ray said.

The underdog of politics

Indeed, if Bush is ever free to put life in the context of sports, it is when teams come by the White House. He loves relating an underdog story to his political career.
"They said you didn't have a chance," he told the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers in 2006. "I kind of know the feeling."

One bit of caution, however, applies to explaining sensitive matters in sports terms — don't shoot and miss.

Just ask former CIA Director George Tenet.
In the run-up to the war in Iraq, Tenet chose a common basketball phrase to describe the strength of the case against Saddam Hussein. Tenet now says he was talking broadly about the case that could be made against the dictator — not a faulty assurance that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Either way, his wording has come to haunt him.

It was not, as he infamously put it, a "slam dunk."

Copyright (of the original article) 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
The history of the “slam dunk” in basketball and the perception of its significance in US culture is interesting in itself. The inventor of basketball, Dr James Naismith (a Canadian), placed the basket at a height of 10 feet in order to put it “beyond human reach” (in itself an interesting cultural concept). When Lew Alcindor (later to become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) dominated smaller players university basketball with the slam dunk, it was outlawed (a case of “levelling the playing field”!). But the gesture of aggressively slamming a ball through a hole struck such a vital chord in the perception of US sports spectators that not only was the slam dunk reinstated as a legitimate gesture, but professional basketball elevated it to the highest level of athletic expression and inaugurated the “slam dunk contest” associated with the All-Star game. The slam dunk – as used by Tenet -- has become a curious metaphor for assertiveness, power and minimization of risk.

All cultures describe politics with sports metaphors and to some extent thereby recognize politics as a game, though the paradigm is more likely to be chess (pure strategy) than outdoor sports. Unlike the US example, they tend to distinguish more clearly between politics and government, the “game” being played by professionals amongst themselves but not extending to the lay population. On the other hand, “the ball in his/her court” has become a dead metaphor in most European languages. What appears to be fundamentally different in most of the examples cited in the article is the attitude behind the use of metaphor. The speakers – generally those who wield power – are in most of the cases (but not all) using the metaphor to establish less a comparison with the way politics “plays out” than the idea that government is an established game, where you (the governed) don’t discuss the rules but apply them or allow them to be applied. In other cultures, games do not have this level of authority or depth of metaphysical import, but in the US where the ideas of “challenge” and “fun” are close to being fundamental values and are certainly moral gauges (fun almost always trumps “seriousness” -- seen as a fussy Old World concept -- and ends up justifying outrageous and ethically suspect behaviour, as seen in the cult of celebrity, from Donald Trump to Paris Hilton).

It’s also worth noting that most of the speakers cited use sports as an analogy (in rhetorical terms, a weak comparison) rather than as a metaphor (suggesting identity or some form of umbilical link between the two terms), but implicitly rely on a common understanding of the validity of sport as a metaphor for life itself.


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