Thursday, June 17, 2010

Basketball is Basketball, Equality is Excellence, War is Peace

Boldly now comes the WNBA's television campaign for its new season, to accompany the NBA playoffs. Interspersing footage from both leagues the spot creates the illusion the men and women are playing together. For example, a WNBA player makes a pass; we cut to an NBA player hauling it in on his way to the basket. Several such iterations and the tag-line:
Basketball is Basketball
It is agreed. Basketball is basketball.

As a self-contained system of rules, the game is its own standard and ideal; its quality is its only valid measure. The players' identities are incidental--they are only represented by their competitive success. Why would you concern yourself with who plays, as long as they play well? I offer this as the best interpretation of the WNBA's slogan.

But how is this not precisely the WNBA's problem? It is basketball we go to see, not basketball played by X. The WNBA has the unfortunate circumstance of competing with its far superior parent league in delivering to market basketball. The women are way out of their league. Yet here they are, at once drawing our attention to and contradicting the purely sentimental nature of their appeal. Basketball is basketball, sister.

Any league not open to all is a novelty act. Akin to a six-foot-or-under league, of which we would make no pretense of parity with the NBA. Why, then, does the WNBA exist? If there is some demand for off-season professional basketball, why not another open league (which in turn might not be too competitive for the better female players)?

But "basketball is basketball" can have another meaning besides that which I've assumed thus far. So just to be thorough. It can also mean:
discernment in basketball is unwarranted because quality is trivial or uniform.
If you've seen one game you've seen them all. Call it the "parts is parts" fallacy. This exhausts reasonable interpretations of the slogan at two, and they are mutually exclusive.

Thus we have a phrase that is literal nonsense yet holds in potential two contradictory meanings; it is and isn't. What a perfect foil for the encouraged chaos of cut-and-paste. Here it blends together the superior with the inferior deliberately to conflate them, to the benefit of the inferior over the superior. As the advertisement's visual creates the illusion of one game by splicing together two, likewise the text splices together one meaning from two. The WNBA offers, as needed, two fluid options to guide us to the Nirvana of egalitarian bliss: ignore inferiority or disregard excellence.

Not that anyone is paying attention, much less defending the integrity of the language, but the slogan, mild doublespeak that it is, is the inclusion argument boiled down to its essence; all the energy they concentrate in their concise palindrome backfires and only serves to reveal that equality degrades excellence ("equality" as defaced by the modifier "social"; alternatively "inclusion," or "anti-discrimination"). In any given instance, more of one ensures less of the other. Yet we are conditioned to believe the effect is non-existent, trivial or even opposite. Why?

Our elite is divided between those invested in and those cowed by the advance of a federally administered regime of equality. Thus too-evident instances of of equality degrading excellence and impoverishing the common good are collective embarrassments, not only as individual failures of policy, but as evidence of the constant--equality degrades excellence. The more "equality" the equalitarian gets the greater its cost, the plainer its effects, the more he must hide. He is not alone, however; the need to conceal this corrosive process has as many allies as excellence has enemies, always ready to take up pitchfork and put torch to the affronts to vanity and pride that are Truth, Beauty, God. Only here the rabble is roused on behalf of power and the status quo. We have drifted into a historical novelty: we have an elite that demands disdain for tradition, custom, history. What then do they consider their mandate? A certain definition of excellence, ironically.

Meanwhile, the NBA is a singular story of merit by excellence overcoming social and sentimental bias, justly celebrated as a civil rights accomplishment yet, less noted, demolishing the queer premise upon which civil rights law and culture is based. That premise: American culture degrades and represses minorities and all groups are equally blessed with the host of human talents.

A group representing some seven percent of the US population (before accounting for age), setting out with every social and many legal conventions against it and armed only with exceptional ability, took one generation to to dominate professional basketball--transforming the game in the process. Today black American men still represent eighty percent of the NBA, even as they've made it so successful it draws talent from around the world. This attests equally to the unprecedented fairness of the league and nation on one hand and the racial diversity of human talent on the other.

Not only has white America rejected sentiment in favor of the superiority of the black game, the stunning display of racial disparity on display is itself largely responsible for the success of the league--white fascination with black physical talent as a superior and therefore good thing. A recognizably Western impulse. Western (and if the following carried negative connotations we would be allowed "white") creativity propels the story through various media, its ingenuity delivers it in high definition to your home, its industry daily manages the logistics of filling arenas with the reverential. African athleticism made transcendent by American imagination and industry. Is there anything comparable in history? A little respect, please.

It is not forthcoming. The celebration of this story grows progressively shriller, as if in inverse proportion to the improving material condition of its beneficiaries. The narrative focuses almost entirely on the storming of the barriers--not of their creative dismantling. Taken as part of the larger civil rights narrative it is presumed the barriers remain, their latency here contingent on our militant stance against them, active most everywhere else. But the true lesson lies in the relative ease with which longstanding social prohibition gave way permanently to excellence.

But the broader cultural emanations from this frank display of what still seems like a mystical talent to white America transcend basketball, combining with black excellence in popular music to level an entire complex of traditional barriers to blacks; once habitually taken as inferior, now considered superior in many aspects; envied, emulated, exploited into cultural preeminence.
The milieu demands however the writer frame the cracker here, yet again: the nation is uniquely neurotic regarding race, what with all this fascination with it! This sort of thing often from sportswriters, as if to absolve themselves of that they so conspicuously ridicule or abhor, shocked, shocked. But the story is not told. Racist exploitation has made Black America a cultural colossus.

Indeed, it is not an imagined human uniformity but racial diversity, and its complementary nature, that acts as a catalyst to excellence in an exploitative process that nonetheless empowers the exploited. This could only happen in an overarching culture with the energy, creativity and fairness--the excellence--of America. Ironically, when we are compelled to pledge "diversity is strength" the meaning is opposite (roughly: diversity is our strength because we're all the same and no culture is superior--a patent absurdity!) and the intention is to scandalize this reality in the popular mind, contradicting as it does elite convention--rather, convention prescribed for us by the elite.

Equality is a conceit only societies made wealthy through discrimination can afford (or a disease only wealthy societies contract). We have so long been wealthy and thus conditioned to humor this sentiment that it has become an unexamined article of faith. That conditioning is evidenced by the oblivious confidence of the accusation (women!) implicit in the WNBA slogan: that we aren't giving the women a fair shot! They truly know not what they say.

None of this of course means the WNBA hasn't the right to exist, or that its athletes aren't worthy, or that it might not carve out an economic niche and justify the NBA's subsidy; it just means we would do well not to allow them the affront that is this slogan. If people will create and nourish the WNBA God bless them. But that does not entitle them to abuse the language or logic. You can have your ladies' league and I wish you well; but you cannot then have your "basketball is basketball" pretense. No ma'am.

As demonstrated by the NBA's example, excellence and equality are at odds. In the case of the NBA's wardship of the WNBA, excellence humors equality, because it can afford to. American history in aphorism! Long may she wave!

Pessimistic as we imagine we've become about the nation's economic prospects, we nonetheless dutifully assume an endless summer of rising tax revenue to fund the ever-increasing cost of our condescension. We presume the creativity and industry of the resented will outrace the demands of resentment in perpetuity. This resentment is far more nurtured than confronted by our creative class, as jealously as if it were their own. Which it is, of course; as an artistic form, the civil rights genre now is where class bigotry goes to masquerade as enlightenment.

If it seems the narrative has become indulgent, pornographic even, that's because it has. Self-interested but still less rational than emotional. We now have an elite that not only doesn't care what is good for the common, it doesn't know what is good for itself. Our modern inversion: an excitable, bigoted and irrational elite in need of the calming influence of a wise and engaged population. Ah, to have one!

Where might our defensive wisdom begin? By critical examination of just such Orwellian tropes as the WNBA slogan. The fact that it is merely an advertisement, or "just basketball", shouldn't pardon it. This is where merit should make its stand, out here on the front line of the assault on excellence, where language and logic are the collateral damage. Exposure, examination, ridicule; these are the weapons of the insurgency.

The WNBA's egalitarian experiment is a tap stuck into the broad trunk of the NBA--the very bounty of human inequality--diverting a trickle for the purpose of sentimental inclusion. Embarrassed by this fact, the WNBA distracts from its inferiority through artful subterfuge and chides us for our bias even as it claims privilege. Is there a better model of the Token State?

Can it suggest something of the costs of that state and its definition of equality, out here in the world where the individual's spoils are humbler and the collective consequences graver? After all, the law is the law, engineering is engineering, firefighting is firefighting, medicine is medicine. That disparity in quality the WNBA wants you to ignore isn't an anomaly, but a small, exposed section of something vast and deliberately misunderstood.

Of course, what the WNBA is really about is making women more like men. Which prompts a whole new why?