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Nov 06, 2009

“For Whom the Bell Tolls …”

Few things seem to bring the American people together as one as the shared heartache that follows upon the violent tragedies of the sort that unfolded in Tucson this past week.  Columbine, Oklahoma City, 9/11, Ft. Hood, Blacksburg,… the list goes on. And it is as it should be, for as the poet put it, “any man’s death diminishes me.”  And indeed, there is something comforting about the photographic record that models a public culture of sorrow and grief as a fundamental (or perhaps transcendent) sense of care and community.  In everything from images of the makeshift memorials comprised of an anonymous outpouring of flowers, prayer cards, and stuffed animals to candlelight vigils and to collective moments of silence, as in the photograph above of congressional staff members standing on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, we are given the opportunity to see who and what we are (or who we can become).  No matter differences divide us on other matters, the photograph implies, there is nothing that will stand in the way of our common humanity.

That said, there is also something just a little bit dispiriting about such formulaic visual displays, for they imply in their own way that we can only overcome our differences to recognize that common humanity as ritualistic responses to violence and tragedy.  And when the cameras go away, and when the media turns its attention to other matters, in a week or two or three, that sense of commonality will survive as only a distant and fading memory, replaced by selfish interest.  Until the next time, of course—and it will come.

The problem here is not that we should avoid disagreement or difference, or that we should strive to live in that ideal world where “everyone can just get along.”   A productive democratic culture thrives on, indeed requires, a vital sense of difference, as well as robust debate and dissent, lest it become socially and culturally rigid and self-satisfied. Rather, the problem is the sense in which our normative notion of community is too often visualized as a unified, ceremonial response to occasional violence—think here of what animated the so-called “Greatest Generation”—rather than as a mechanism for negotiating the relationship between commonality and difference in a humane way on a daily basis.  The question is, how might one envision community without such rigid unity?

Credit:  Charles Dharapak/Associated Press.


“For Whom the Bell Tolls …”


5 Responses

  1. David Johnson says

    Bob: I thought to “look you up” as I’m reading through the NYT and elsewhere, processing the developing story here. Glad I did. Appreciate your commentary above and below. As toyour last paragraph above, I think in many ways the root cause goes to economics and the depressingly massive disparities in wealth distribution, and the parallel ferocious defense of status quo by the economic “winners.” Plenty of alienation and anger to go around these days. And a ton of hard work ahead for the country. I hope we find the language somewhere to aid and abet the work. Maybe among your students!

    Notwithstanding these sometimes upside down times, all’s well here in Des Moines. Best to you and yours.

  2. Robin Hoecker says

    This might be out in left field (literally), but what about sports? I admit, I am not the most dedicated sports fan, but I do think sports and their fans form communities that cross the typical boundaries of class, race, religion, politics, etc.

    My fiance is a sports fan, and I am always amazed at how the topic allows him to instantly bond with many different types of people, from random strangers at bars or on the El to the CEO of his company. Sports bring all types of people together, and we see images of it all the time.

    For example, WBEZ, our local NPR station, just circulated a story entitled “Top 5 places to celebrate a Bears victory.” As they point out in the article, “Sports fan or not, much of the city will be, ahem, a little preoccupied this Sunday, from noon until 3 p.m., watching Da Bears.” I am sure that on Sunday, there will be images of rowdy crowds of blue and orange fans expressing pride for the city, especially if they win.

    And as a Pittsburgh native, I can say that the Steelers winning their sixth Super Bowl was a city-wide community event. I was in the city for the game. When it was over, crowds streamed from their houses into the streets. People were hugging random strangers and giving passing cars high-fives. When the team returned home a few days later, hundreds of thousands of fans turned out to watch the players parade through the city. It didn’t matter if they were democrats or republicans, lawyers or janitors, young or old, everyone came out. It was an amazing experience. And to think the Super Bowl happens ever year.

    Images of sports fans and the celebrations of the victors are routine. I think it is an example of how people come together and put aside their differences for an event other than collective mourning.

  3. Lucaites says

    Robin: Point taken. But two things: I don’t exclude other possibilities than collective mourning–you’ll note I start by saying “few things” so as to cover myself in this regard. And second, I don’t think that sport necessarily brings us together as an “American people”– though maybe as a Chicagoan or Pittsburgher. Even as I write that, however, I wonder about something perhaps like the Olympics (e.g., the “Miracle on Ice”) which calls to attention a larger, national public. But the more important point–which I hadn’t considered until I read your comment–is the sense in which sport is sublimated violence … and so once again it is violence (without the tragedy, to be sure) that brings us together. And I would also remind you of how such celebrations oftentimes are not simply ticker tape parades and hi-fives, but devovle into violence and vandalism. Thanks for your provocative thoughts.

  4. Robin Hoecker says

    I respectfully disagree with the idea that sport is sublimated violence. Perhaps with football, but even there you could argue that the game is more about strategy than violence. What about baseball? Soccer? Track and Field? Swimming? I would argue that sports are demonstrations of human strength, agility and endurance. Perhaps this is what gives sports such a universal appeal. Although some celebrations devolve into violence, I think it is a minority of fans that participate in such behavior. Having lived in Germany for two European Soccer championships and the World Cup, the vast majority of celebrations I saw (and there were many) were happy and violence-free.

    In Germany, the World Cup was widely recognized as allowing Germans to publicly show their patriotism after many decades of shame and hesitancy. The sporting event marked a new era of German public culture. Likewise, the performance of China at the Beijing Olympics, along with the execution of the event itself, was seen as announcing that country’s place on the world stage.

    I agree with you that Olympics bring out a visible sense of national pride and togetherness. I think many Americans were tuned in to watch Michael Phelps earn his 8th Gold Medal, or the creative inventions of snowboarder Shaun White. I know I certainly felt a sense of pride when White landed his Double McTwist 1260, a move that had never been done before in the history of snowboarding.

    I think there is a clear link between sports and public culture, evidenced by the tradition of presidents meeting with leading athletes. Both Shaun White and Michael Phelps, along with the Super-Bowl- winning Steelers have all met the president at the White House in a public ceremony (an event which I had the pleasure to attend). I think this practice is done because politicians recognize that sports figures play an important role in our public life. I believe this function is important on a national level, as well as a local one.

  5. Lucaites says

    Robin: I’m not sure I take your point on how sport is not sublimated violence. Some sports don’t sublimate it at all because they actively promote it — football, boxing, and the like. But most other sports–including swimming, golf, and tennis–all function in some measure to redirect physical and psychic aggression–hitting and kicking balls, outwitting one’s opponent, etc.. You need to look no more than the language we use to describe virtually all sports in terms of offense and defense, which is of course a martial metaphor. Now I’m not saying this is a bad thing. Much to the controversy. But I don’t think it gets us very far to romanticize sport as not connected to the world of violence in very direct ways.

    Do sports figures play an important role in our culture? Absolutely. Is it implicated in how we think of ourselves as citizens in some measure. Sure. But I’m not sure that the public ceremony of taking “winners” (in a competition) to the White House is akin to creating a sense of unity in the ways in which national public mourning seems to do it. For one thing, I can’t think of anyone who would refuse to mourn the tragedies the discussion started off with. I know of many who either are upset when their team loses (say the World Series) and then has to watch the opponents (say the evil Boston Red Sox) go to the White House (that’s my own demon). And many others who saw the Olympics as unrepentent chauvinism. But again, you’ve pushed the argument in an interesting direction and I appreciate that.

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