May. 23, 2015
Five Ways Sports Are Helping Me Deal with These Election Results
Like a lot of Americans, I'm upset and scared right now. That's to be expected: no matter who is elected in this country, approximately half of us feel like we've lost. I can't imagine that any regular reader of this blog is surprised that I'm to the left of the political spectrum, at least by US standards. It also shouldn't be a surprise that my mind went to sports metaphors fast, as a way of getting my head around what had happened and thinking about how to proceed with my life. As a matter of fact, the sports metaphors started long before Tuesday night and were a constant for me, and not just because I never entirely stop writing blog posts in my head. So here's a list - in no particularly meaningful order - of what's been running through my head since Election Day.
1. No matter the outcome, there's a lot of good in the world.
I feel it's important to put this one first, since a lot of people in my social circles are treating Trump's victory like it's the end of the world. I think that a lot of what he plans to do is terrible, not just for me personally but for the nation and world as a whole, but despair is the worst emotional state to settle into when the future looks bleak. Despair makes you feel like there's nothing to be done and nothing to fight for. I've been lucky to find a lot of protection from that way of thinking in the wake of Tuesday's results. I watched the returns come in with a person I care about a lot, offsetting the dread with martinis and Mexican food. When the writing was on the wall, my friends started texting, and it brightened my mood to see how many people wanted to reach out for mutual support. There were even some victories on the political front, as Tammy Duckworth unseated Mark Kirk as U.S. Senator and Susana Mendoza became the first Hispanic person and first woman of color to hold the office of Illinois Comptroller. (If that sounds like cold comfort, know that the Comptroller actually has a lot of power around here.)
In the morning, one of my friends messaged me to note that the sun had still risen. She was still feeling down, though, so I started sending her links to my favorite figure skating programs, the ones that I watch when I'm sad. The list got long enough that she compiled them into a YouTube playlist that is now my happy place. The conversation reminded me that few things have the power to restore my mood like a great figure skating performance. I've put the playlist on shuffle and have been dipping into it all week. It's utterly biased, putting my irrational preferences ahead of point totals and outcomes (and occasionally ahead of all common sense).
2. Once you're a fan, there's a lot you're willing to excuse.
I'm not hugely into hockey, but I have a number of friends who love it enough to suck me in once in awhile. Many of them are (or used to be) fans of the Chicago Blackhawks, and most would complain every so often about how racist the team logo is. Some were bothered enough to refuse to buy merchandise with the stereotyped Native American chief on it, but none were bothered enough to quit following the team. When news broke about the rape allegations against Patrick Kane, and the team's dubious handling of the situation followed, it became the tipping point for a number of my friends. Most hockey fans in Chicago stood by the team, though. Their enjoyment of hockey triumphed over their philosophical opposition to racially insensitive mascots and even over their deep horror and outrage about rape. In my neighborhood, more than 80% of the votes for President went to Hillary Clinton, but the ugly mug of a cartoon Indian flies high over the bar at the end of my street. Most Chicagoans' principles end where the prospect of another Stanley Cup begins.
The same went for political allegiances in this election. Both major Presidential candidates had giant skeletons in their closets, past behaviors that their opposition perceived as unforgivable. Journalists worked painstakingly to exonerate Hillary Clinton when the Trump campaign painted her as a pathological liar with a history of criminal financial dealings and deleted emails. They worked equally hard to chronicle Trump's record of bad real estate deals and unethical business practices, not to mention continual reminders of his racist and sexist comments. Then, to ensure the most direct possible parallel with hockey, woman after woman came forward to accuse Trump of sexual assault and harassment. For all of the mud slung and the research hours logged, none of this seemed to sway many American voters. Most of the anti-Clinton crowd had hated her for years as a symbol of liberal establishment politics, corrupt cronyism, and empty rhetoric. The Americans opposed to Trump would have despised him for his regressive economic policies, semi-coherent bluster, and The Celebrity Apprentice even without the bigotry and bankruptcies. After Trump won, think pieces proliferated about the sad confirmation that racism and sexism aren't deal-breakers for most American voters. But any sports fan could have told you that.
3. We know we live in a bubble, but we don't realize how small it is.
If you spend a lot of time on figure skating social media, you know that everyone loves Ashley Wagner and is lukewarm at best toward Gracie Gold. You'd be forgiven for wondering why USFSA even manufactures the rivalry, when it's so clear that Ashley is America's sweetheart. But when you attend a live event where both are competing, the bubble bursts. You're surrounded by tween skaters and fans without Twitter accounts who idolize Gracie and barely register Ashley. Each skater resonates with a specific population of fans, with so little overlap that the two only notice each other when they're all in the same arena. (There's another metaphor here, one that speaks to this Mirai Nagasu true believer, but we'll set that aside, because my love for sports underdogs could not translate more poorly to dark horse primary challengers or third party candidates.)
My Facebook and Twitter feeds were (and, in the aftermath, still are) as uniformly liberal as they are uniformly pro-Ashley. There are a handful of libertarians, but by and large, even they were imploring people to hold their noses and vote for Hillary. I come from a family of old-school, big-city Democrats, so I don't even have that One Racist Uncle everyone else talks about. Throughout the election cycle, I made jokes about how lucky I was to be this sheltered, but it bothered me, because I haven’t always been. One of my ex-girlfriends had staunchly Republican parents, and her dad and I used to get into it about politics. The funny thing about it was, her dad and I were both conflict-avoidant by nature and nerdy about fact-checking, so our conversations were both abnormally civil and frequently interrupted while we looked up histograms of the Federal deficit. When my relationship ended, I obviously lost touch with my ex's family, and now, I miss having an intelligent person whose politics I totally disagree with in my life. We made each other reassess some of our beliefs - he softened on LGBTQ rights, I got more pragmatic about gun policy - and we made sure that neither of us got so stuck in our partisan bubbles that we internalized harmful nonsense.
The bubble had particularly thick walls in this election, and I think that's why most of blue-state America was so shocked when Trump won. The polls and the think pieces were on our side! Even Glenn Beck was voting for Hillary! The voices cautioning us otherwise were beyond our reach, or we declined to hear them. It's all too easy to retreat into elitist fairyland when literally no one you know lives anywhere else.
Or when you live in a city whose beloved baseball team has just won its first World Series in over a century. I'm no baseball fan; when the Cubs make the playoffs, I mostly count the days until I can ride the Red Line without getting beer spilled on me. But it was impossible, in those last couple of weeks, to keep from loving the Cubs a little - or to keep from assuming that everyone else in the world loved them as much as my fellow Chicagoans. My cousin, who lives in Cleveland, burst my Cubs bubble with a mournful response to the World Series results. Who knew there were so many Indians fans? And that they were as distraught about the pitching meltdown in game 7 as I was about Yuzuru Hanyu's short program at Skate Canada? The local Cubs mania had made all other baseball opinions invisible, just as the urban, liberal culture in the Chicago area had made the pro-Trump movement look faraway and small.
4. Don't let them shush you.
One of the few blemishes on my fabulous Skate America 2016 staycation weekend was a tweet from some fellow fans in the stands. My Twitter friends had been screaming and cheering all weekend, and some of their neighbors in the stands threatened to "report them to an usher" if they didn't shut up. I'm pretty sure the threat was empty - not least because the ushers seemed well aware that this was a sporting event and not an actual performance of The Nutcracker - but it reminded me that there's still an annoying divide in philosophies about how live skating should be enjoyed. I'm very much of the opinion that skating is an experience to be enjoyed loudly, with warm support for all the competitors, screams and standing ovations for the best performances, and an ear-splitting GANBARE!! for my favorite Japanese skaters. The athletes back me up on this, pumping up the crowd when we're not yelling and clapping enough for their liking. Fans' positive energy gives the skaters confidence, and making some noise helps the fans feel like we're part of something special.
Nonetheless, in response to behavior that would have seemed downright restrained at a Blackhawks or Cubs game, two women in my row spent the entire ladies' free skate shooting dirty looks at me and the friends I was sitting with, then moved to a different section during ice dance and pairs. When I started attending live skating events, almost a decade ago, I think there were more fans who expected silence during programs. Now, the few who remain are much more aggressive about shushing the rowdy majority. It's almost always older women who disapprove of skating fans who behave like they're watching sports, and they always seem to think that the young don't know how we're "supposed" to act. The cool thing is, the noisy younger fans seem to be winning over the older ones. I've befriended, and egged on, a fair number of loud and bawdy grannies who happened to be sitting nearby. And really, who are the current generation of grannies? Folks who followed the Grateful Dead around and protested the Vietnam War. The defiant younger fans are giving them permission to feel cool and part of something.
One of the most resonant moments of this election cycle, for me, was a mass shushing, and I can't help but connect my Skate America frustrations with it. At the Democratic National Convention, frustrated Bernie Sanders supporters persisted in drowning out the speakers with pro-Bernie slogans. By that point, it had been made clear to them that Sanders would not receive the nomination, and Sanders himself had counseled his supporters to conduct themselves with restraint. But the Sanders loyalists felt like their party was neglecting and sidelining them, and they fought back with their voices. Finally, well into the first night, Al Franken and Sarah Silverman had had enough, and they implored the Bernie shouters to tone it down, saying they were being ridiculous. At the time, I agreed with Franken and Silverman, because I thought the disruptions reflected badly on the Sanders contingent.
I've reconsidered since then, and not out of any illusion that Sanders could have succeeded where Clinton so narrowly failed. What I'm disturbed by is the arrogance of the Democratic establishment. After the primaries anointed Clinton, the Democratic leadership seemed to think they had a mandate to push a large portion of the party - a portion that is relatively young and radical - to quietly get in line and support Clinton. Many outright refused, putting in protest votes or simply staying home. Others complied, but without enthusiasm. Many of the most energized and most potentially influential Democrats felt marginalized by their own party, to the point where they didn't feel motivated to donate money or time. Shushing people is as bad in politics as it is in a figure skating arena and has much broader consequences. I don't think the Democrats' impulse to keep the rebels in line was the deciding factor in this election, and it might not even have been a major one. But it was a big contrast with the Trump campaign, which goaded its supporters into frenzied chants of "Lock her up." Maybe if the Democrats had let their left wing make some noise, they could have drowned out the hateful rhetoric. Or, better, learned something.
5. Write like you're running out of time.
Okay, so maybe I cribbed this one from Lin-Manuel Miranda. It's also something I learned from writing about sports, rather than from watching them. When I started this blog, I was afraid. I worried that my criticism would be perceived as too harsh, my affection for certain skaters would be perceived as too fawning, and worst of all, that my jokes would be perceived as less funny than I thought they were. The first few times I received negative responses to my writing, I almost crumbled. But for every negative note, I got a lot more words of encouragement. Over time, I learned how to write this blog in a way that's true to my perspective on the sport. When I contributed to The Judges' Table last week, I said some ballsy things in front of an audience that was new to my writing, and I got backlash - and not just for the opinions that I knew were hot takes. The weird thing was, the dissent felt good. The point of writing about anything you feel passionate about shouldn't be to garner universal agreement. It should be to get the idea out there, to get people to think and talk and question. When I see people respond to what I'm saying, even if their response is that I am horribly wrong about their fave and need to get some better taste, I know that I'm getting somewhere.
I didn’t put the same kind of courage and confidence into action during this election cycle. It’s easy for me, at this point, to say that I think Satoko Miyahara’s score at Skate Canada was right on target, even though I know that opinion will upset some people. But throughout the election, it was much more difficult for me to voice my objections to Hillary Clinton as a candidate, especially after she received the nomination. Just as I admire a lot about Miyahara’s skating, I admire a lot about Clinton’s career and political approach. But I have serious problems with her, problems that preceded her candidacy and intensified as her campaign went on.
I said nothing. I was trying to be a good Democrat and to promote the best possible option. Lots of Americans censored themselves for similar reasons, but my self-censorship was particularly shameful because I’m a writer. I have a platform here, and I have connections elsewhere that could have brought me a wider audience. I gave in to my old fear of negative attention, and to the impostor syndrome that tells me I’m not informed enough or interesting enough. I alone was not enough to sway this election, but I know I’m not the only person to toe the line when they shouldn’t have. Collectively, we would up reinforcing the illusion of a unified left and center in the United States, and that illusion bred a complacency that probably did play a strong role in Trump’s victory over Clinton.
When I created this blog, it was supposed to be about sports. I’ve used it before to touch on politics, though, and pretending that I’m just writing about ice skating has made it easier to draw in bigger issues that I wouldn’t be sure how to approach otherwise. It's that old Teddy Roosevelt line, proving itself true again: Do what you can, with what you have, where you are. If this is how I teach myself to become a more vocal and engaged citizen, that’s good for me, my community, my country, and the world. It’s a shot that I’m not going to throw away.
That doesn’t mean I’ll stop writing about figure skating. I have plenty to say about this weekend’s Trophée de France that has little to do with politics. (Nathan Chen! Gabrielle Daleman! Pretending Gilles/Poirier’s short dance twizzles didn’t happen!) My favorite sport is still the focus here, and always will be. My goal, instead, is to use what I’ve learned from writing this blog to have an impact elsewhere. It’s what I have, and it’s where I am.