Saturday, January 01, 2011

On the Wussification of America

Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell managed to get some attention for himself this week. Whereas most people who want a soapbox have to resort to hoping that someone somewhere may pick up on their Twitter posts, savvy politicians realize that even if a situation is beyond their scope of influence, they can still get the mass media to pay attention to them. And Rendell was especially savvy because he realized that he could plug into ESPN's news cycle, guaranteeing a continental-sized soapbox.

When the NFL and the Philadelphia Eagles made the decision to postpone Sunday night's game, it set Rendell off into rhetorical overdrive. He managed to invoke the two most overused, overwrought, and oversimplistic arguments you hear. The first is what I call the "up hills both ways to school argument." One would think that this is a tactic exclusive to old folks, but speaking as someone who has read a lot of standardized test essays written by young people, this cliched thinking is endemic to all generations. The basic idea is that in the good old days people worked harder, dealt with harsher conditions, and were more able to respond to adversity. There is usually a nationalistic component to such an argument, with the popular sentiment that "America is losing its greatness." Give Rendell credit for at least taking this tired idea and imbuing it with some flourish, including the use of anaphora:

“This country was born on risk,” Rendell said. “We grew into the greatest nation in the world because we were bold; we had courage; we had a sense of adventure; we had a willingness to go forward and get things done. It seems like we lost that pioneer spirit that made this a special place.”

I would wholeheartedly agree that we have lost some of our pioneer spirit. But that is hardly a bad thing, given we have no land left to pioneer. And so there is a grain of truth in Rendell's further claim that the game represents a "wussification of America." But is that a bad thing? Anybody who ever played the computer game Oregon Trail knows that it was darn near impossible to make it to Oregon with your entire traveling party intact. Somebody would invariably die of dysentery or snakebite or starvation. Now that we've settled Oregon, do we still need to have the same "pioneer spirit" that left so many people dead?

In the 19th Century, one of the reasons that large families were so common was that it was accepted that there was a good probability that one or two children in a family would die. As a new parent, the prospect of losing a child is something that I simply can't fathom. The fact that so many families were able to go on in the face of this does speak to a firmness of psyche that perhaps doesn't need to be invoked today. So should we celebrate that it isn't as often required, or try to compensate by playing football games in blizzards?

One of the common phrases that I hear older people make in regard to the less permissive and more tightly regulated world that we live in now is that "it's a wonder we ever survived." They take a look at a world where seatbelts are required, where food and drink is marked with nutrition labels, where tobacco products carry warning labels and the ability to smoke in public is severely limited, where children aren't allowed to play in the street unsupervised (or talk to strangers), where parents are told to lay babies on their backs without putting anything else in the crib, where lifeguards are always on duty, and yes, where events are cancelled because of bad weather, and they come to the conclusion that because they survived without these safety measures in place, the safety measures are at best superfluous and at worst detrimental. But the logic is flawed. Not everybody did make it. Before these measures were taken, people (and often the most vulnerable among us) died unnecessary deaths. Not that this doesn't happen anymore, but as Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, the director-general of the World Health Organization, wrote (with some anaphora of her own) in 2002:

The result is that, in many ways, the world is a safer place today. Safer from what were once deadly or incurable diseases. Safer from daily hazards of waterborne and food-related illnesses. Safer from dangerous consumer goods, from accidents at home, at work or in hospital.

So we may be wusses, but at least we are living wusses. Yet Gov. Rendell has a response to the counter-argument that we've reached a comfortable plateau where unreasonable risks are not necessary. He invokes the classic "Yellow Peril":

“If this was in China, do you think the Chinese would have called off the game? People would have been marching down to the stadium, they would have walked and they would have been doing calculus on the way down.”

This argument often follows the "up hills both ways to school" rhetoric. America was once great, and if we don't get back to the way things used to be, we will be passed up by the Chinese (or by Korea or India). But what China are we talking about? Are we talking about the China that is fabricated by eager imaginations in order to pose a threat to our national identity and spur us on to political expediencies? Or are we talking about the China that saw devastating earthquake destruction a couple of years ago because buildings were not up to code and government corruption? So yes, maybe the Chinese would have played that game, but I don't think that's indicative that they are a superior economic power that we need to emulate.

But fortunately, it doesn't appear that Rendell's criticisms have caused the actual decision makers to second-guess themselves. Apparently, Joe Banner, the Eagles president, has heard from a lot of people who don't have motorcades to get them to the game. From the Philadelphia News:

"It's been heartwarming," said Banner, who characterized calls and e-mails to the Eagles as massively, overwhelmingly thankful. "I'm not sure I've done anything that's been appreciated this much in my 16 years here. Banner said he remained solidly convinced the league did the right thing. He said many fans had called who would not have been able to get to the game, and would have spent their ticket money for nothing. Banner said he had heard reports of problems with area mass transit late Sunday night, when fans would have been traveling home; he said many people had thanked the team for not putting them in that position.

Let's hope that those with the power to influence public health and safety will continue to make wise decisions in the upcoming year, and not bow to criticism from those who manipulate the media for their own ends.


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