The culture of following professional sports is often maligned - especially in Jewish religious circles - as a silly waste of time, at best, and a subtle but pernicious form of idolatry, at worst. Even those who like sports and don’t see any particular issue with following and enjoying them, don’t usually think that they play any important positive role in society.
I argue that, when seen in light of a clear understanding of the culture wars of the west, the sub-culture surrounding sports, especially in the US, is of paramount importance - if you happen to be on the side that supports Israel.
The root of the Right vs. Left conflict
Supporters of Israel around the world are always wondering how it is that the vast majority of academics and journalists in the western world are so biased against Israel. These are smart people, and yet they tend to blame Israel for the conflict with the Palestinian Arabs, in the face of constant common-sense evidence that the main source of the problem lies with the hate for Israel and Jews so deeply embedded in the culture currently prevalent among Palestinian Arabs.
But, you see, there’s the rub. Any self-respecting, right-thinking, morally-sensitive, progressively-minded western intellectual is simply not allowed to think in terms of problems within a culture that produce negative outcomes.
It comes down to this: When you see that one person, group, or society, does much better than another person, group, or society, do you automatically assume that the reason for the disparity must come from some external injustice inherent in the “system” in which the people or groups are operating, or do you first consider the possibility that there are internal reasons for the relative success and failure of different people or groups. Put in simpler terms: do you think that the concept of winners and losers is inherently unjust. If you think it is, congratulations, you are a Leftist, and can be admitted into proper society. If you think otherwise, well, I’m afraid you’re an intolerant right-winger best consigned to the abyss of the conservative blogosphere; or Israel.
The western left simply takes it for granted that it’s evil and stupid and bigoted and fascist and racist to even entertain the possibility that some group is failing because of decisions they freely make themselves. Any disparity in success or failure is already in and of itself incontrovertible proof of unjust discrimination by the “system”.
A stock example: In the US, black people are pulled over for speeding at a rate vastly disproportionate to their percentage of the population. You are more likely to get pulled over for speeding if you are black than if you’re white. Why? To the Left – which as we know includes the vast majority of intellectuals – this can only possibly be because of discrimination by racist police officers working for a racist justice system. The much simpler explanation for the disparity, that blacks simply actually speed more than whites (for whatever reason), is not entertained, because entertaining this explanation is considered racist.
Notice that the simpler explanation based on internal factors, that black people are actually speeding more, is not dismissed because it’s logically wrong, per se, but only because it’s seen as immoral to suggest it. The reason it’s seen as immoral is that it smacks of the actually racist assertion that blacks speed because there’s something about their race that makes them speed. The right-wing person who suggests internal causes for success and failure is always presented as making this kind of racist claim.
But of course the right-winger isn’t claiming this at all. The left presents the choice as being between the racist explanation that blacks are more likely to speed because of their genetics, and the Marxist explanation that blacks are only pulled over more often because the system is rigged against them. This is an absurdly false dichotomy. It completely disregards the most obvious cause for patterns in human behavior: culture.
The simplest explanation, based on both highfalutin' logic and common sense, is that there is something about the culture currently prevalent among blacks that makes them, as a whole, more likely to speed. It has nothing to do with race and nothing to do with the cops.
Israel vs. the Palestinians
Applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, here’s how this plays out.
Understand what the common well-meaning western intellectual sees when he looks at the situation in Israel. He sees an enormous disparity between Israelis and Palestinian Arabs in wealth, freedom, and military power. These are facts. No one denies them. To the common western intellectual (CWI) this simple observation is the only one of any real importance, for this is incontrovertible proof of injustice and abuse by the “system” set up and run by the powerful: namely, Israel.
The CWI sees an arena where one side is winning and the other one is losing, so it must mean that the winners are cheating. The massive disparity in the outcome of the “game” cannot be attributed to better strategy, discipline, and decision-making on the part of the winners, but must be attributed to some kind of cheating, to the game being rigged. There is no need for any specific evidence of the game being rigged, the mere fact that the outcome is so uneven is proof enough.
Thus the CWI arrives at the immediate conclusion that Israel is ultimately to blame for any problems in the region because they are constantly rigging the system. Any and every terrible thing that the Palestinians do or say only strengthens this conclusion: it is just more proof of the depths to which the poor Palestinians are driven by the circumstances so terribly rigged by the Israelis. Any argument made by the pro-Israel side must include the assertion that the culture pervading Palestinian society is the main cause of their own (relatively) bad situation. This assertion is simply inadmissible in polite CWI company. It is akin to Nazi propaganda. And so we lose the debate before it ever begins.
The CWI – the most prominent of them is President Obama – is not inherently anti-Semitic or malicious; just utterly brainwashed by the supposedly brilliant insight that sometimes things are rigged and unfair, that sometimes we are too quick to attribute people’s failures in life to their own decisions, that circumstances do matter, and it’s imperative to be sensitive to them. The CWI simply sees absolutely everything in politics and culture in light of this insight.
I said they see everything like this, but in truth there is still one area in which winning is still considered a virtue: sports.
The last vestige of the “old” morality
When Team USA wins the gold medal in gymnastics, everyone knows this was because they were better at gymnastics than everyone else. When Leicester win the English Premier League (!), everyone knows it’s because they’ve done something right during the season, even if they weren’t the most talented team. When the Denver Broncos defeat a highly-favored Carolina Panthers team in the Super Bowl, no one looks to explain it in terms of the game of Football being rigged against teams from Charlotte, or a preference in the NFL for horses over cats. Everyone sees that it happened because something about the Broncos caused it to beat the Panthers in a fair game.
The culture of sports is the last stand of the old-fashioned idea that effort, preparation, and smart decisions bring about good outcomes.
In the light of sports culture, Israel looks golden. Our people have built a thriving state where others have failed miserably because we’ve done things better. We are more successful because our cultural norms, built painstakingly over thousands of years, are more conducive to success. This doesn’t by any means entail that others cannot be successful. No one has a monopoly over good ideas and behavioral habits, they can be adopted by anybody. This is eminently fair. The system isn’t rigged against anybody. All can succeed if they simply get better at the “game”.
The function of sports in society
If everyone in the western world saw the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lens of sports, the world would be a better place. Sports now serve to instill in people the idea that success depends on hard work and good decisions, not on the “system”. This is especially true in the US, where the sports culture emphasizes this very strongly. It is no coincidence that the US is still the place where the general public is most supportive of Israel.
So whether you like sports or not, and while there are certainly aspects of sports culture that are negative (especially in soccer, but that’s a topic for another column), try to think about the positive role sports play in the great culture wars of the west. Positive, if you’re pro-Israel, that is.
Note: Look for Arutz Sheva's new sports section.