Friday, April 25, 2008

Cranky Doodle Dandy

Thoughts turn in spring toward the traditional pastime. Unfortunately, the dreaded Red Sox are heating up. And I’ve taught myself not to get too caught up in the pennant race till September, when the end is in sight. So I indulge my passion in other ways. I confess to have become a Utah Jazz fan and watch at least part of their games in the playoffs. (Deron Williams who in college played at Illinois is their star guard.) Then I think nostalgically of old baseball movies. And I watch the new sport, the presidential election campaign.

One of those movies is the Jackie Robinson story, with the man himself in the title role. (You can watch it online.) As films go, even restricted to the genre of sports films, it is not a great picture. There is a stiffness in the acting, a predictability in the delivery. But the story is incredibly important. Breaking the color line was the crowning achievement of baseball, more important than all the home runs, stolen bases, and no-hit games put together. It is worth viewing to mark this great achievement. The key character apart from Jackie Robinson himself is Branch Rickey. The full speech to which I linked is worth a read. It gives a very interesting interpretation why U.S. history regarding Blacks after emancipation was so much harsher than the similar experience in Latin America, where there is and was much greater acceptance of Blacks – slavery was a condition of circumstance and predated the African slave trade; there was law called manumission (it is spelled differently in the speech) where slaves could buy back their freedom and most did, and free people who had been slaves were prone to take care of their own kind when they became free. The speech makes it clear the Rickey was looking to break the color line for some time before he found Robinson. He had a vision of what was necessary to do that.

"Then I had to get the right man off the field. I couldn't come with a man to break down a tradition that had in it centered and concentrated all the prejudices of a great many people north and south unless he was good. He must justify himself upon the positive principle of merit. He must be a great player. I must not risk an excuse of trying to do something in the sociological field, or in the race field, just because of sort of a "holier than thou." I must be sure that the man was good on the field, but more dangerous to me, at that time, and even now, is the wrong man off the field. It didn't matter to me so much in choosing a man off the field that he was temperamental, -- righteously subject to resentments. I wanted a man of exceptional intelligence, a man who was able to grasp and control the responsibilities of himself to his race and could carry that load. That was the greatest danger point of all. Really greater than the number five in the whole six.

In the movie this issue about off the field behavior played out in a scene where Rickey tests Robinson for his reactions in a variety of circumstances, each meant to provoke Robinson with taunting, racial epitaphs, and worse. I don’t have the precise dialog, but my recollection is that eventually Robinson asks something like this. “Mr Rickey, don’t you think I’m strong enough to fight back?” And Rickey responds, “Jackie, I want you to be strong enough not to fight back.” In Rickey’s view fighting back would be the path toward lack of acceptance by the rest of the nation. The only way was for Robinson to turn the other cheek. The movie is worthwhile for watching that scene and for how events transpired thereafter. Ultimately, Rickey allowed Robinson to take the gloves off and he had a variety of fights out of public view, proving his mettle in the more traditional way.

The other movie I want to comment on is a wonderful piece of fluff in black and white, perfect viewing for a rainy afternoon, It Happens Every Spring. A chemistry professor, played by Ray Milland, makes an accidental discovery when a baseball from a sandlot game crashes through the window of his lab, knocking over beakers with who knows what in them to produce a one of a kind formula for a substance that is repelled by wood. When applied to a baseball the substance makes for the perfect ‘spitball’ and the professor becomes transformed into the best pitcher in the major leagues.

The professor/pitcher is in the absent minded category, lovable but zany. He ends up rooming with his catcher, who tries to keep him on the straight and narrow. There’s great comedy between them. This movie is purely for the entertainment value while watching, no real take away afterwards, but it is interesting to note how professors are depicted in the film, a stereotype that I believe persists to this. Unfortunately for me, I fit much of the stereotype – absent minded, sure; not able to deal with normal real-world stuff without the help of others, definitely; but also, charming and loveable if these other needs are attended to but capable of being aloof and too focused on ideas rather than on people otherwise. Other people might read the behavior as disdain, though I’d call it concentration.

This is not a perfect segue into the presidential campaign as sports viewing but I want to switch to it anyway. And the first thing I want to note – the partisanship among the analysts seems greater than I can ever recall before. When you watch a ball game on TV and you are tuning in on to the home team’s broadcast with the home team’s announcers, it is really no surprise that they favor the home team. That’s the expectation. But if you watch a game on a national network, say on ESPN, you expect the announcers to just want good play and not prefer one team over the other. In this case, it’s neutrality that is the expectation. During a break between innings they might do an interview with the manager of one team (typically not too informative – the other team might be watching) and if so they’ll be sure to get the manager or some coach of the other team later in the broadcast. They are governed by rules of fairness in how the broadcast is conducted and the broadcasters take that seriously; if they themselves are fans for a particular team they restrain that as best as they can. The system works pretty well, not perfectly to be sure, but it is more than satisfactory.

Consider this Wikipedia entry on the now defunct TV show Crossfire and in particular Jon Stewart’s appearance in 2004. The criticism, one I suppose that many people at CNN agreed with since they cancelled the show soon thereafter, is that people on that show would not argue in a way where they might change their opinion if their counterpart made a good and effective point, so that the end result would be a synthesis of the starting views of the participants. Rather they’d more or less give a sales spiel about their position and keep spieling whenever they had the opportunity. (Sometimes both from the right and from the left presenters would talk at the same time, which made them both look rude, but by opportunity here I mean when the other wasn’t speaking.) When those on TV don’t move toward a synthesis of ideas, neither does the audience. Members of the audience either embrace one side of the argument, and then feel confirmed by hearing someone else give voice to their own views, or they are repulsed by it all and walk away with the sense that argument is a painful thing to do, something to be avoided whenever possible. We talk about the Net Generation regarding their technology experience, but we don’t talk about their lack of experience in witnessing interesting debate and in learning how argument advances thinking.

CNN’s own election coverage has in effect moved some of the Crossfire into the same programming with Wolf Blitzer, John King, and the other Caspar Milquetoast staff of regulars. They’ve done this, I suppose, to compete for viewers with Fox News. Unfortunately, the approach has spilled over elsewhere including to ‘more respected’ outlets, like the New York Times Op-Ed page and the Charlie Rose show. All are competing for eyeballs and being loud can drown out making subtle points. So a kind of Gresham’s Law has been at work here, which is doubly unfortunate because when there are lingering remnants of good argument being made, the viewers likely find it hard to separate the chaff from the wheat.

This particular show, from last Tuesday, was better than most in getting the pundits to make real argument. But even here, there might be what you call ego getting in the way. Early in the show, perhaps around the 17 minute or 18 minute mark, Dick Polan defends a Clinton ad that others had argued was mean spirited. Later in the show when the question came up how the candidates were talking to the Press off the record, Polan reported that Clinton was much better in that context, warm and open. Obama didn’t do it much and was stiff and guarded when on the record. I know the first time through when I watched it on TV, I got the strong impression that Polan was for Clinton. On watching the replay on Google video, the impression was still there but more muted. What did come across, since so much of the subject was connection with working class white (male) voters, an obvious topic of discussion after the Pennsylvania Primary, is Polan’s willingness to document where Clinton seemed to make that connection and Obama didn’t.

I thought the best bit of the show came in Mark Halperin’s analysis around 22:30, where he begins by talking about the fatigue of both candidates and then turns to the fact that they are no longer getting better in the campaigning, partly because of that fatigue. (Both candidates did improve early on.) Rather they are now taking a low to the ground tactical approach that gives most of the rest of us who’ve voted in our own state’s primary the impression that the primary season is too long. The question then becomes whether the rules should be changed to shorten the season. (Baseball, that most traditional of games, has the Designated Hitter, a multi-tier round of playoffs, and a reinterpretation of the strike zone. Even our must revered institutions can go through rules changes.) Or is this such an exceptional circumstance with two strong candidates that we should not project this experience into how things should be done in 2012 and content ourselves to watching the theater of the endgame as the nominee is selected?

All of the pundits seemed to agree that Obama is remote and aloof, or at least is perceived to be that way. The question arose whether Obama is the next Adlai Stevenson or the next JFK. Here Stevenson is cast more or less in the role of the Ray Milland character in It Happens Every Spring, as the egghead who can’t connect with ordinary people. (I don’t know whether this is a fair characterization of Stevenson, who did get the nomination both in 1952 and again in 1956. It’s true that he lost both times. But Ike was a popular opponent.) None of the pundits even remotely suggested casting Obama as the next Jackie Robinson. They seemed much more comfortable attributing the Obama behavior to his intrinsic character than to view it as a planned approach, to remain guarded and circumspect in order to gain acceptance, shielding his own character from view.

Maybe they are right. I don’t know. They’ve got more direct information. The rest of us only have what we view and read. But there were many reports from well before the Pennsylvania Primary that Obama muted his critique of Clinton, and that doing so was a deliberate strategy on his part. I’ve got the impression that he’s still pulling his punches even after the two campaigns stepped up their attacks on each other right before the Tuesday vote. And I’ve been puzzling over this because of the perception that Obama is the more tired candidate and Clinton the stronger. First, I question whether it’s true. Second, if it is true, I question why. Obama holding things back explains both – remember the Branch Rickey line from the movie.

So it could be his personality but I’m not giving up on the thought that Obama is playing out the same sort of strategy that Rickey laid out sixty years ago. In clinging to that idea, I’m challenging the wisdom of the pundits. Taking on the pundits is my form of diversion. It’s more fun than yelling at the umpire for a bad call.

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