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Freud Goes to the Super Bowl

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It would be hard to find a more obnoxious display of American corporatism and imperialism than this year's super bowl. The whooshing super-hero graphics, the flag-waving, the pre-hyped $11-million-a-minute ads and a succulent J-Lo pole-dancing at halftime. If I hadn't decided to write about it as decadent spectacle, I'd have turned it off and read a book.

The 2020 Super Bowl spectacle
The 2020 Super Bowl spectacle
(Image by John Grant)
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But, then, there was the game itself. The come-from-behind, three-touchdowns-in-five-minutes in the last quarter, an onslaught led by a modest-looking 24-year-old quarterback with goofy hair named Patrick Mahomes was an exhibition of athletic courage and intelligence that transcended all the glitzy nonsense. As a Vietnam veteran anti-war activist sick and tired of militarism and corporate piracy, it made me long for that kind of smart, masculine competence on our side.

Colin Kaepernick was a very competent quarterback and a profile in moral courage, and look what happened to him: Blackballed from a career for the unforgivable crime of "taking a knee" during the Stars Spangled Banner to oppose an epidemic of police violence against black people.

Yet, things do evolve. For some reason, black quarterbacks are now everywhere, and the NFL feels the pressure. In cahoots with Jay-Z and his Roc Nation cultural empire, the NFL ran a progressive public service ad during the super bowl on police violence. Jay-Z is in it for money, but, still, he told the New York Times he hopes his company's social justice efforts working with the NFL will further both his and Colin Kaepernick's interests. "We are two adult men who disagree on the tactic but are marching for the same cause," he said. Thanks to endorsements etc, Kaepernick is reportedly not a pauper coming out of this, though it seems far-fetched to think the NFL would accept him back into the fold. They'd have to eat too much crow.

It reminds me of anti-war activists during the run-up to George W. Bush's Iraq War whose message was blackballed from mainstream venues and, thus, forced into the street to be choreographed by the police. After it became obvious to even Republicans that the war was the immoral disaster many said it would be in 2003, George W. Bush's war was thrown under the historic bus. Still, the "forever war" goes on and money & power isn't giving up an ounce of its arrogance.

Today, thanks to Donald Trump, the war cycle is beginning all over again with Iran. Instead of made-up, boogie-man WMDs, it's the demonization of General Gasem Soleimani as a monster and "terrorist" whose murder by US drone is justified "to keep America safe." Liberal Democrats are now tripping over themselves intoning this obligatory, cover-your-ass line. Or else they're silent.

I've been reading Sigmund Freud's 1930 classic Civilization and Its Discontents and, as I watched the super bowl, I was reminded of an absurd moment of football fandom I experienced some years ago, something Freud would probably understand. I was with friends at a bar in Atlanta devoted to the Philadelphia Eagles. Don't ask me why there's such a bar, but there is. The place was jammed and everybody was drinking and having a good time, as was I. Every time the Eagles scored, the fans were given a shot of something green and everybody sang the Eagles fight song. "Fly Eagles, fly! . . ."

I'm not particularly interested in football, but I'm a committed people-watcher. So I was drinking, laughing and eyeballing the crowd. The Eagles were moving down the field and scored a touchdown. Standing nearby was an ordinary mid-thirties black man; he could have been a carpenter or a lawyer, I don't know. As the Eagles scored, this excited fellow started hollering, loud, pumping his fist in a very public manner,

"f*ck that ass! f*ck that ass!"

No one else seemed to notice. I wasn't that shocked; I just wondered: What the hell was going on here? The man didn't seem "gay" or to be thinking sexually. He likely had no idea how whacked-out he sounded. He was just excited his team had scored and had humiliated the other team.

Freud addresses this kind of linkage with the subconscious in Civilization and Its Discontents. The excitement of the moment has overwhelmed repressive barriers established by social contract to permit the growth of civilization over barbarism; here was a simple outburst of deep, satisfying aggression. In this case, it was a feeling of power expressed as sodomy and rape, a primal exultation over humiliating an enemy that suddenly exploded out into the open.

It's Freud's contention (something that feels true) that civilization requires the suppression of an anything-goes approach to sexuality and aggression, or to put it into pop culture terms, as Lenny Bruce liked to describe the male aggressive impulse: "Men will f*ck mud." The first-taboo for civilization is, of course, incest, something I recall our cats doing all the time when I was a kid. It's all part of Freud's fundamental theory of sublimation. Here's Freud himself:

"[C]ivilization is obeying the laws of economic necessity, since a large amount of the psychic energy which it uses for its purposes has to be withdrawn from sexuality. " [I]t is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built up upon a renunciation of instinct. " As we know, it is the cause of the hostility against which all civilizations have to struggle."

It also involves his theories of Eros and Thanatos, the life and death instincts, respectively, the former focusing on cooperation and love, while the later is about self-destruction, domination and hate. Both overlap with sexuality. As should be obvious following the so-called sexual revolution and today's political struggles involving male prerogatives, homosexuality, gender issues, #MeToo feminism and abortion, this dialogue over "civilization" is an ongoing, perennial struggle.

Besides being a shrink, Freud was an excellent writer with a broad range of interests beyond things like boys wanting to have sex with their mothers, something he's often reduced to. Late in his life, he was particularly interested in issues of violence and war. In the period following World War One, he exchanged letters with Albert Einstein, a pacifist who opposed militarism. They were both in their different ways interested in understanding the impulses toward violence and war that they saw unraveling in the newspapers. If possible, they wanted to put the brakes on future wars. Civilization and Its Discontents comes from this period.

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I'm a 72-year-old American who served in Vietnam as a naive 19-year-old. From that moment on, I've been studying and re-thinking what US counter-insurgency war means. I live outside of Philadelphia, where I'm a writer, photographer and political (more...)

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