Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

Party like its 1944: What NASCAR and the Winter Olympics have in common

In Uncategorized on February 23, 2010 at 6:40 am

Before I start this post, I should apologize for the title. I have used this kind of hook before for a television spot in which I was speaking about the 2008 election and a lead up into the third debate between John McCain and Barack Obama. Subsequently, I realized that the reference I was making, though it still sounds rather fresh and hip to me is now, is quite dated. Of course, this is a play on the old Prince song from 1982. Now that was only 28 years ago, but if anyone in college is reading this and you are of modal age, your memories of how weird it would be to be facing New Year’s Eve in 1999 may be less salient then it is for the established columnists and would be public intellectuals who commonly use the frame. It may be time for us to retire it. After I read Gail Collins column last week, I promised myself never to us the Prince thing again, so this is my way of mourning the passing of time.

The notion of mourning time and the passage of time may be appropriate for this post, for what does a simple set of results like the following tell you?

http://www.vancouver2010.com/olympic-medals/

I must say that what I see in this list is a yearning for forgotten times, and the winter games serve to aid that grief. Indeed, I was reviewing the nice web feature that the New York Times has on the history of the medals and I referred back to the 1936 games that were held in Garmisch-Pertenkirchen Germany (the last pre-WWII games). The results are, in order, Norway, Sweden, Finland Germany, United States, Austria… It would not to be too surprising to find this list appearing today. True, northern countries like Russia, Canada and Korea have broken in, but the list is quite different from the summer games counts.

I will now assume that my students are not reading this and turn our attention to a chart from wikipedia that depicts world population by nation. It looks quite a bit different from the medal chart.  Only two of the top ten demographic countries are represented in the top ten winter medal countries. Number three Norway is number 116 in population on this list. India and Indonesia have no medals as of yet as I write this. (There is a rank order correlation between size of country and number of medals of around .25, which would probably ramp up significantly if we controlled for average annual snowfall and GDP, but who has the time?)

So, that is interesting.  The list sort of reminded me of the powers who participated in establishing the postwar order of which the Bretton Woods agreement was so important (you would have to swap England and Germany to get close to this, but the key point is not too contorted by the switch). Given that my largest pool of international friends comes to me through the World Bank, I am sensitive to the influence of those BW institutions.

The games in a sense reflect the waning system of global power that was so problematic in its promotion of colonialism, economic exploitation etc., but which is also largely responsible for the proliferation of the conceptions of global democracy and liberal institutions we strive for today. This paradox is what I see reflected in the winter games. We are uncomfortable with a West vs. the rest model (north-south would work well here for obvious reasons), but we are nostalgic about its passing.

This got me thinking about other sports and how we celebrate and what that means. Consider the demographic profile of NASCAR fans. Okay, overwhelmingly white, over 35 years in age, upper middle income, no college, center male, without kids. I suspect that this is roughly the breakdown of the Tea Party as well. It certainly reflects the core group who would be populist Republican if you drop the kids thing (Republicans tend to be disproportionately married). I hope that we can trust these numbers from quantcast to measure web traffic, and I do not vouch for them, but contrast this with the NBA demographics. Wow! Under 34, non-white, low to moderate income, with kids, and average education. Bourdieu was right, what we love reflects where we stand.

Why is this? There are many ways to spin it and the sociologist Bourdieu is a good starting place, but it may be easier to begin with another sociologist Erving Goffman. One way to gloss what Goffman famously argued is to say that we spend most of our day, angling for face points. By this I mean that we try to continuously reframe our little piece of the world so that we look good in it. By practicing and mastering the diversions that portray us well, we increase our chances of successful reframing and we get others to play social interaction ball on our court. This means that we have a better chance of feeling okay about ourselves through the day. This is a pretty fragile of view of the ego, but it probably goes a long way toward an explanation and is not incompatible with what you will find in Bourdieu’s Distinction if you ever chance to read it (worth doing by the way). Why this is so can probably be explored through contemporary amendments to MacLean’s triune brain theory mixed in with some robust conception of culture.

So, enjoy the Olympics, but ask also yourself while doing so, am I more NBA or NASCAR? The answer is less innocent than you suspect.

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