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Noam Chomsky vs The World Cup

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Message Isaac Souweine
Noam Chomsky killed my World Cup buzz. For three weeks, everything had proceeded to plan. Announcers shouted GOALA!, bars opened before noon, strikers hit heart-stopping goals into the upper 90. Then, days before a climactic European powers finals, came a Netflix night with Manufacturing Consent, the 1992 Chomsky biopic. And two hours into the flick came a Chomskian riff on professional sports left my Cup world in tatters.

"Sports" began Chomsky with a smirk that was suddenly really annoying, is "another crucial example of the indoctrination system." Already the man was inching onto sacred ground. "Sports offers people something to pay attention to that's of no importance". Now on sacred ground and preparing to defile it. In fact, sports are "training in irrational jingoism". Pants unzipped, defilement in progress.

Relax, you say; 'tis nothing more than compensation for getting picked last on his Zionist youth soccer team. Maybe so, but having sports fandom trashed by an intellectual idol as Cup fever surged was still a serious bummer. The problem wasn't that my pastime might be vapid and regressive. The problem was that my sports-enabled communion with the culture industry was under attack. Heed Chomsky's sports bashing and I would be just like any other Frankfurt-school Marxist elitist - shouting slogans about the rise of the underclass while turning my nose up at their alienated viewing habits.

By the end of the film, I knew I had no choice. About NY Times coverage of East Timorese massacres, let Noam control the ball. But when it came to the Cup, I would try to dictate play. No matter that my opponent's discipline-changing linguistic theory, superbly researched anarchist diatribes and enigmatic low-key delivery make him one of the world's few intellectual super-pimps. If the US could blank Britain fifty-six years ago; if Cameroon could beat Italy in Milan in '90; well, you get the point.

My first runs looked to exploit Chomsky's weakest link: the equation of sports with jingoism. I have argued elsewhere that sports are deeply integrated into the violent international order. The problem, however, with strict sports-equals-jingoism reductionism, is that while sports simulate and even stimulate violent nationalism, they also sublimate it by channeling the nation-state's favorite urges-competitiveness, aggression, and belligerence toward outsiders-into a rule-based game with systems for limiting violence and encouraging respect. Of course, sometimes sublimation fails, in which case you have hooliganism or Brian McBride's face gushing blood. But this is not the failing of the sport as much as it is the victory for the dark sides of humanity, which wage darker victories in other quarters.

At their best, sports and sports fandom even ameliorate human nastiness. At one level, this occurs through the discourse of sportsmanship. Players desperate for victory still kick the ball out of bounds when an opponent is down and exchange jerseys after the match. At a deeper level, however, soccer especially diminishes small-mindedness through a universal language of achievement. Goals, crosses, headers and saves create a vocabulary that transcends language and culture. Once equipped with this common tongue, ethnocentrism of any kind is hard to maintain, for excellence so clearly transcends any restricted social grouping.

Feeling that at I had at least created a dangerous chance in Chomsky's box, I decided to pursue his rather unsporting claim that sports "offer people something to pay attention to that's of no importance". To do so I first had to withstand the inevitable Frankfurt school set piece: capitalist democracy is not just about forcing people to sell their labor, it is about distracting them to the deed with propaganda. Distracting them with, among other things, ninety minutes of soccer viewing, plus an equal or greater amount of prep and debrief time, multiplied by three to twelve beers and seventeen commercials.

In hopes of providing a quality reply to the sports-fandom-is-time-wasted volley, I chose a low-culture counter. Like the critical theorists upon whose work he builds, Chomsky interrogates the role of mass culture in co-opting the lower classes. This is fair enough, to a point. But if low culture can be politicized, it also deserves the same aesthetic protection afforded the high culture of the bourgeoisie.

Freed of low-culture bias, the World Cup reveals itself as a rich artifact of global culture. Like all sport, it generates a rich aesthetic by using formal rules as a platform for physical improvisation. Dance-like sporting exhibitions are further enhanced by character development and narrative tension in a theater whose outcome is by definition unknown. Add in a devotional audience-performer relationship, an extremely limited engagement and the ability to view the show in a bar and you get basically the coolest art-form known to man.

Nor is soccer's status as capitalist low-culture simply an aesthetic liability. When one billion people follow an art form, quality in every area actually tends to be high. Monetary and fame rewards bring the world's most gifted performers. Fan connoisseurship is taken to heights at once neurotic and sublime. And on flat screen, the media borg chips in with unmatched production values, especially in HD. All of which sounds way better than season tickets to the Met.

Like the Mexico-thrashing US side in '02, I was now ready for the big Allemagne: the Cup's role in the dreaded "indoctrination system". The challenge was obvious. The current world cup is expected to generate $1 billion in advertising revenue. That's $1 billion worth of sexualized, falsely aspirational consumerist schlock. Or, as Chomsky might put it, $1 billion worth of bad ideas about what human beings should value.

Unfortunately, just like the tired English, the outclassed Brazilians, and the overachieving German hosts, I knew the final push was beyond me. Maybe my defense was strong enough to shelter the purer forms of sport played by amateurs, (though even that seems unsure). But an event worth billions thost-country capitalists and billions more to FIFA and the rather nasty sporting goods industry just had too many folks I wouldn't want at my party.

Knowing victory was out of reach, I decided to try to salvage a tie. In New York City, all World Cup games are shown on Telemundo, a Spanish channel that features commercials I don't understand and a halftime shows so lacking in big media shine that even the cleavage showing girls seem wholesome. Since an ebullient Spanish commentator beats Marcelo Balboa any day of the week, Channel 47 is really the perfect back door out of the indoctrination big top. When you can't beat them straight, I figured, keep the score knotted; once you get to penalty kicks, even Noam Chomsky is vulnerable.
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Isaac Souweine is a software producer and occasional freelance writer living in New York City.
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Noam Chomsky vs The World Cup

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