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ICONIC PHOTOGRAPHS, PUBLIC CULTURE, AND LIBERAL DEMOCRACY

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December 19th, 2012

After Newtown: Tokenism or Culture Change?

Posted by Hariman in boots and hands, the visual public

This is one photo that probably wasn’t included in the slide shows at the major papers this week.

nba_u_durant11_600

And why not, some might say, isn’t one memorial to the victims in Newtown as good as another?  Well, no, not really, but the show must go on in pro sports, and so perhaps this is the best that Kevin Durant could do, all things considered.  If you look closely, you can see that he has written “Newtown CT” on the shoe that he wore for the Friday night game.  Nor was he alone: players and teams around the NBA and NFL put names on shoes and gloves, pasted decals on helmets, observed moments of silence, and otherwise had token observances across their scoreboards, end zones, and assorted other media.

And the New England Patriots even went to far as to donate $25,000 for the families of the victims.  Really.  And if you don’t believe it, just tune in to ESPN, which is making darn sure that everyone knows just how much the sports world cares, really cares, about the tragedy.

It’s hard, very hard, not to be cynical about these token gestures.  Indeed, I think the photo above neatly captures just how small and temporary they are: compared to the gleaming arena floor, polished like the finest glass, and the Nike swoosh, which represents a lucrative shoe contract for a global market, the small, black lettering is sure to be discarded soon, which will hardly matter as no one without a telephoto lens could see it anyway.  Ditto the tiny helmet decals, the player Tweets, and any other efforts to laminate compassion onto celebrity.

But that’s too easy.  Just about every candle, teddy bear, classroom letter, and prayer chain is also but a gesture.  And if the better memorial would have been to cancel the game, well, how many of you refused to go to work on Friday or Monday because you thought doing so would dishonor the dead?  The truth is, there is very little that anyone can do in response to such senseless slaughter, and that applies not only for distant strangers but also for close friends and family of the bereaved.  And however mixed the motives might be in the business of sports, one shouldn’t be too quick to assume that nothing is sincere.  (I’m told that Kevin Durant is a fine human being.)  So, token gestures become part of the story of how a nation deals with social rupture.

Of course, nothing said above should excuse pro sports for some of its excesses.  Individual players perhaps should get a pass, but the organizations may indeed need to consider that the better response really is to do nothing–or, if they really want to help the people in their own backyard, to do it right.  (Certain prominent figures on the religious right might want to take a hard look into that same mirror.)  But, again, the matter at hand is about more than pro sports or any other single institution.  The hope that many of us have this week–the one we hold on to against the shock and grief and dismay–is that this time the carnage might really bring the country to its senses about its culture of violence.  And although the resistance will be extensive, there are signs that change could be happening already.

One of the interesting things about American democracy is that it can be stalemated for so long and then seemingly transform itself in a few years.  Think of what happened after Pearl Harbor, or what has happened in the past few years regarding the acceptance of homosexuality (even the word now sounds antique).  The strength of the political culture is that it’s not just a political culture–that is, a subculture defined solely by a political class, although there is some of that–but instead richly intertwined with all the rest of society.  Think of the importance of integrating pro sports for civil rights, not just then but continuously, and look at how so many different people and organizations respond in kind to disasters such as hurricanes, floods, earthquakes–and shootings.  In those situations, what otherwise would be tokenism can become something else: a small but visible commitment to real change.

Guns are not unknown among pro athletes, so hypocrisy may yet prove to be the norm there and elsewhere as well.  But I hope that something else could be in the works, there and especially elsewhere.  In any case, the change requires silent, personal, private resolve to think differently–and not least to move beyond the political habits that were part of the prior stalemate.  Thinking differently is easier to do, however, if it can be done in small ways that can be shared with others who might want to do the same.  And to be shared with other citizens, there is nothing like doing something that can be seen.  So this week I’m giving token gestures of solidarity a pass, and in the hope that this time the nation can raise its game to a higher level of play.

Photograph by Jerome Maron/USA Today Sports.

One Response to ' After Newtown: Tokenism or Culture Change? '

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  1. Mike said,

    on December 22nd, 2012 at 9:31 am

    I remember doing token little gestures like this as a high school athlete. And while nobody would notice or care what a small-town shortstop in the early ’90s wrote on his shoe, I think I can imagine what gestures like this mean for professional athletes. On the one hand, Kevin Durant knows that there will be someone there with a telephoto lens to capture every inch of his performance and expression. To him, this was a public gesture much more public than most of us could make in response to Newtown. I want to compare it to a Tweet, in this respect. Millions of people Tweeted sympathy after the tragedy, and each one was an embarrassingly tiny and futile token, but somehow each seems to matter because they may indicate a rise to a tipping point in political culture. Somehow, Durant’s tiny gesture was public in a way that seems to matter. At the same time (and on the other hand), as with our Tweets and status updates and three-day-late blog comments, there is also something importantly personal, individual, and self-reflexive about the gesture. I imagine Durant took the time to write the word on the shoe himself (though it’s sadly possible that some equipment manager put it on all the team members’ shoes as a result of a decree from a team executive), and when he did, he was performing an important act of citizenship. Once in a while, superstar athletes seem to realize that they are connected to the rest of us, and they may feel genuine grief in response to something like Newtown. That’s exactly what these temporary memorials are about, and high profile expressions of grief, whether a teddy bear in a parking lot or a name on a shoe, serve both the individual griever and the collective.

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