Violence in the American Tradition

We should never forget the consequences of turning to violence. Innocent civilians have died, businesses have been destroyed, and the state is giving multiple indications that it wants to escalate the violence with serious displays and uses of force (as if it has not already).

As I watch the protests and riots over George Floyd’s death enter into its second week, I cannot help but feel sympathy for the protesters and the rioters. A few months back, I was having a conversation with my sister. She predicted–and I agreed–that there would be widespread discontent over the coronavirus lockdowns and the economy slumping and thought there would be riots once the American public was finally fed up with the current state of affairs. We were half right: there are riots, but not catalyzed by the coronavirus. Another shocking death of an unarmed black man at the hands of police officers, while nothing new in this country, proved to be the match to the tinderbox. Video footage of a black man crying out that he cannot breathe as he is slowly choked to death by an unempathetic white police officer angered a country already on edge. And people have a right to be angry: there is a lot to be angry about nowadays and a lot of that has been channeled into protests and, sometimes, devolved into violence. 

Violence is in our genes. It forges and defines us as Americans. Many Americans grow up in abusive households, and many more will grow up to witness or experience sexual violence, shootouts, domestic violence, suicide, violent car accidents, robbery, or being sent abroad to fight in an overseas war (of which there has been no shortage in American history). 

Looking at American history, it seems that nothing important ever happens without something violent occurring before, after, or alongside it. This country’s founding was born from a revolution against the most powerful empire in human history. The Southern economy was built on enslaved labor, propped up by vicious slave masters, a rigid social hierarchy, and a political and legal system designed to protect it. And that ended only after the bloodiest conflict in American history, where hundreds of thousands of American soldiers and civilians died and entire states left in ruin. Massive technological, cultural, economic, demographic, and political changes followed the two World Wars. Vietnam and subsequent wars in the Middle East hammered in the American psyche a permanent distrust of the idea that democracy and freedom could be spread through wars and conquest.

And of course, violence seems to be the only thing that catalyzes political change and discussion in this country. Trump’s family separation policy galvanized public opposition. Discussions about gun control spike after a mass shooting. 9/11 forced a mass reordering of federal law enforcement agencies and forever changed airport security. And every time an unarmed black person is killed by the police, protests usually follow in their wake. Sometimes, they become violent or spread nationwide, or both. 

Now, the protests over Floyd’s death are a combination of multiple factors. Many states are just now lifting lockdowns that have lasted for months, and only partially. The unemployment rate is skyrocketing amidst a sputtering economy where wages have flatlined and inequality has worsened. Not to mention that we are still in the middle of a global pandemic that has claimed the lives of over 100,000 Americans and is showing few signs of dissipating in this country, all overseen by a president whom a conservative pundit once remarked: “couldn’t collude with his own left foot.” And given that police brutality has been a serious issue that we have not given proper attention, it is understandable that people are angry and want to express that anger in forms of violence. 

There is something within me, a combination of anger and boredom from quarantine, that wants these riots to continue, to see buildings set aflame and protesters get heckled by police. The thought sickens me, but it is not without precedent. Rome entertained its citizens with its gladiator arenas, enticing free men to fight for glory and social status and forcing slaves to fight for their freedom. Romans cheered as gladiators hacked each other and wild animals to pieces in an all or nothing fight to the death. Gladiators who survived achieved all that they fought for and then some. Similarly, the American media casts protests and violent riots as a spectacle to behold, with the protester entering the American mind as a faceless person with almost godlike status as they fearlessly face down the omnipotent agents of the state, satiating our never-ending appetite for action and violence. The protesters, like the gladiators, have a myriad of reasons to do what they are doing. Some want to see genuine change, but others want glory and honor, to be able to proudly look their children in the eye and say “I was there. I braved rubber bullets and tear gas in the name of racial justice.” And still, others do so out of boredom, desperation, shame, or out of a want of adventure. In a way, these riots are a source of cheap entertainment. We are all watching the arena right now, with the protesters facing off against other civilians or the police. 

But we should never forget the consequences of turning to violence. Innocent civilians have died, businesses have been destroyed, and the state is giving multiple indications that it wants to escalate the violence with serious displays and uses of force (as if it has not already). We should always ask ourselves if violence is worth it if its costs outweigh the costs of the issue we are turning to violence to solve, and then decide whether to pursue that course or not. If history gives any clues, we already know the answer, though I should add that the American public tends to view protests more negatively when they happen but more positively in hindsight after they occur. But as some commentators have noted, protests and riots can sometimes be the only way the downtrodden can make a statement and be heard. In the end, perhaps we should ask ourselves not if violence is justified or not, but why it is so ingrained in the American tradition and why we turn to it so often to solve our problems and normalize it. If violence was a language, Americans would speak it fluently.

Photo credit:  Lucas Jackson/Reuters

The American Gladiators

As long as there are two Americans left on this earth, somebody is going to remind somebody else about football.

For the average, red-blooded American sports is something that is impossible to ignore. Football, especially, is something the average American can’t help but be widely conscious of, even if he finds himself quarantined Wuhan-style. Whether your local group of rowdy, party-planning friends begs for your attendance at their weekly get together or your coworker Walter over the water cooler hunts for an easy conversation starter, you will know about the football game coming up—because as long as there are two Americans left on this earth, somebody is going to remind someone of football. And thank God for this. Like all sports, football gets the daily devil out of the system, brings together friends and family, and—most importantly—gives patriots an excuse to drink alcohol, sing the national anthem with impunity and praise God for listening to their prayers and leading their team to victory.

Now, why does football inspire junk like social interaction, national identity and its relationship with religious traditions? Well, it’s because those things form the holy trinity of what makes sports really, really old. Surprisingly, in the human experience there are some things which never truly change, whether it be your neighborhood demagogue trying to subvert the democracy (I’m looking at you, Syracuse) or the obligatory, crudely etched graffiti of a penis on the side of a public building (Pompeii graffiti, look it up!). Sports was, is, and always shall be a ‘been there, done that’ to humanity. 

Let’s take the gladiators for example. They’re ripped, skilled, heroic and they don’t back down from a fight. They have owners and managers, they draw crowds in the millions and they were like celebrities in their day—as adored back then as we look back in awe of their sport today. Now, while their sport was very dangerous, in truth gladiators were not being killed left and right. Rather, gladiators were slaves, property to be protected and invested in. The vast majority of all matches ended with everyone going back home to fight another day because the people who run the show, the owners, want a return on their investment. 

This sport is archaic and barbaric, yet it adheres to a consumer base, property management, insurance, investment, and returns—qualities intrinsic in our modern free market! Take another look at football. Look at owners like Robert Kraft and Jerry Jones spending millions on a player whom they bought at a draft (an event not at all like a slave auction!) to garner a nationwide audience to tune in every Sunday for some violence for the sake of seeing who is the best of the best. Yes, all sports have their systemic and game-like similarities, but could it also be that there is really nothing new under the sun?

I kid the systemic ugliness inherent to all sports. Today all the players are millionaires; they have millions of loyal twitter followers and they get by with modern medicine. While living in a cramped slave’s quarters, they don’t have to worry about accidentally cutting their hand on a gladius. They don’t have to worry about triggering a spread of gangrene and needing an amputation, which would leave them as lowly beggars on the streets of Carthage in the second century A.D.

The one lesson I want every loyal Tower reader to take away from this article is that you should enjoy modern sports, but you should never take the game too seriously. A prime example of taking sports too seriously is Kleomedes of Astypalia. He was a boxer in ancient Greece who used dirty tricks and would routinely cheat in order to win. After Kleomedes killed an opponent during the Olympics, for which he was disqualified, he—like the unscrupulous try-hard that he was—resorted to wrath and vengeance by kicking down the central pillar of an elementary school in his hometown, thus killing every child inside… Talk about a sore loser. Naturally, the town tried to stone him. However, Kleomedes escaped the mob by hopping into a chest and disappearing forever, never to be seen or heard from again. The townspeople consult the Oracle of the Pythian Apollo for answers, and she said that, in truth, Kleomedes was a god-ordained hero and he must be immediately deified, for there will never again be another hero like him! 

I look at the story of Kleomedes of Astypalia, and in a way I see all of our sports in one small microcosm. People will religiously associate players, bring together with their home community and associate their city with this winner take all competition of brute skill. Sports will always have divas who for some reason will cheat to win and become hated in the end only to be glorified, whether good or evil, for the unparalleled mark they left on this earth (i.e. Tom Brady). As for the preservation of your local elementary school, always remember that the games will have winners and losers but, as sure as the coming Sunday or in the strength of the United States, football as a sport will long endure after our lowly lives.   

Enjoy Superbowl LIV!      

Photo by RickyBennison – This file has been extracted from another file: Football play from scrimmage.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81249334