Over And Out

The Women’s Professional Soccer league folded today.  Technically, it didn’t really fold–the press release called it a hiatus until 2013 to resolve the league’s legal issues with the rogue former owner of magicJack (formerly the Washington Freedom)–but effectively the league will never come back.  WPS will have been out of the public eye too long, there will be a talent drain for other leagues, and after two failures in two decades, a new women’s football top league will probably not come around again.

I am feeling such raw grief right now.  I don’t understand why women’s football cannot make it in this country.  The level of talent is astonishing, and there should be an audience.  If the WNBA can attract fans, why couldn’t the WPS?  The 2011 World Cup proved to the larger world that the women’s game is highly skilled and intense.  I see no reason why a women’s league could not be as pleasurable as the MLS, perhaps even more so.  It just needed to grow.

So why didn’t they come?

Waka Waka (This Time For Africa)

(I know I said I probably wouldn’t write much about the African Cup of Nations, but I just couldn’t stop myself.)  

As befits a tournament held in a brutal, repressive, oil-rich dictatorship, the African Cup of Nations got started with a bang.  The bang, that is, of police firing tear gas on a crowd trying to get into the stadium to watch the tournament’s first match.

Equatorial Guinea is one of the most repressive countries in the world.  I alluded to this the other day, and I wrote about it before when discussing the Equatoguinean Women’s National Team at last year’s World Cup.  Like with the dictatorships of the Arabian Gulf however, the world is willing to overlook this tiny flaw because of the nation’s vast petroleum reserves.  Let me make my biases completely clear–repressive dictatorships should not be allowed to hold international athletic competitions.  It was wrong that Nazi Germany held both Olympic Games in 1936, it was wrong that Italy and Argentina held the 1934 and 1978 World Cups, and it is wrong that Russia and Qatar will be holding the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.  (This is by no means an exhaustive list.)  While the pageantry is great, and perhaps the trains really do run on time, the human cost and the moral cost outweigh any potential enjoyment.

FIFA is eternally at the vanguard of paying lip-service to anti-racism efforts, but when confronted with real moral dilemmas, Sepp Blatter & Co. fall back on their favored “sports should be independent of politics” canard.  History has shown over and over again that this is blatantly false.  Of course sports and politics mix; they mix all the time.  Repressive dictators like nothing better than an extravagant showing of sports supremacy to reaffirm their own positions.  They throw the best parties, and making trains run on time is an effective way of using efficiency to mask cruelty.  The mix of politics and sports is how international football has gotten itself into the mess it finds itself in now.  Because FIFA’s former President Stanley Rous held fast to the misguided belief that sports and politics should be segregated (his particularly blind spots being South Africa and Chile) he lost the presidency to João Havelange who ushered in an era of corruption, theft, and cozying up to repressive dictators that has yet to end.

Even before the tear gas started, the Equatoguinean government got heavily involved in the tournament and the national team.  The son of the Equatoguinean President Teodoro Obiang offered the national team a million dollars to win its first match and $20,000 for each goal.  Equatorial Guinea did indeed win its first match, a 1-0 victory over Libya, a country that until recently suffered under its own ruthless dictator.  By all appearances, from the way the teams played the result of the match was fair, although I wonder if Libya would have been allowed to win had they been the better side.

On the other hand, Equatorial Guinea did cheat, even if the cheating went unacknowledged and will be unpunished.  According to Reuters:

[The Equatorial Guinea National Team] starting line-up consisted of five players born in Spain, two in Ivory Coast and one each born in Cameroon, Cape Verde, Brazil and Liberia.  Some players qualified through their parents but there are doubts over whether the naturalised players have lived in the country for five years as required by FIFA rules.

This was the exact same problem that the women’s team had.  Well, one of the problems–no one is accusing the players of the men’s team of not being men.  The entire Equatoguinean men’s starting lineup was born outside of Equatorial Guinea, which is not true of the women’s team.  Coincidentally, the women were disqualified from the 2012 Olympics for fielding an ineligible player (nationality issues, not gender).

(As an aside, my absolute favorite demonym is Equatoguinean.  My second favorite is Burkinabé.)

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 The other first day match was Zambia v. Senegal, a match with more symbolism and latent angst than an Ingmar Bergman film.  Senegal was a team on the verge of greatness, or so everyone thought in 2002 after the team famously upset defending champion (and former colonial master) France in the first round of the World Cup, and then reached the semifinals.  Then as suddenly as they appeared, the team disappeared from non-African international competition.  There were some fairly decent AfCoN showings, and top Senegalese players continued to play in the upper echelons of the game, but Senegal became a buzzword for unfulfilled potential.  For the first time in ages, Senegal actually looks good.

For Zambia, this match has even more symbolic importance.  In 1993, the plane carrying the very talented Zambia National Team crashed into Atlantic Ocean.  Every person on the plane died including most of the national team, the coaches, and the support staff.  That was the Golden Generation of Zambian football, the team expected to reach the World Cup, and the team is still deeply mourned in Zambia.  This year’s tournament and this match in particular are especially poignant.  The 1993 match that the Zambian National Team never played was a World Cup qualifier in Dakar against Senegal; the plane crashed after leaving Gabon, this year’s co-host, for a brief stopover.

Zambia won today’s match 2-1 which is something of a major upset given that Senegal is (was?) considered the tournament’s third-best team, behind only the Ivory Coast and Ghana.  Only a half-filled stadium saw this tremendous result because much of the crowd left after Equatorial Guinea played–another embarrassment for the host nation.

Zambia is still justifiably in mourning about the death of its earlier team, and because of the symbolism, this tournament is something of a redemption for the lost team.  Inevitably that will lead to disappointment, and perhaps unfairly.  So large does the lost team loom in the Zambian consciousness that the Zambians may have overestimated the ability of that team’s prowess.   Just look at this article written about the current Zambia side: “in Zambia there is no doubt [the lost team was] the best that the country, and possibly the continent, ever had.”

This of course leads to the inevitable “What if” questions, so endemic to African football.  Every footballing nation creates its alternate realities to explain away failure, but the African continent as a whole lives by them.  If only the Zambian team hadn’t been killed in a horrific disaster.  If only FIFA hadn’t been so condescending in the 1960’s, which led to the African and Asian boycott of the 1966 tournament thereby denying the great Ghana team a chance to play on the world stage.  If only South Africa had never adopted a policy of apartheid. If only the Nigerian FA weren’t such a corrupt cesspool.  If only Egypt didn’t choke every time there was a World Cup qualifier.  If only the Ivory Coast had better draws in the past two World Cups.  If only Luis Suarez had no hands.  If! If! If! If! If!  There are so many ifs because there that makes a convenient excuse for the absence of a when.  The flaws of African football have been thoroughly debated by those more knowledgeable and intelligent than me, but they seem to agree that change anytime soon is unlikely.

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I suspect that a small but significant problem with African football (beyond the money issues, corruption, and slave trade that disguises itself as “playing in Europe“) is that few outside of Africa think of the continent’s individual countries as individual countries.  Rather they tend to be lumped together as “Africa” even though we all know the major African powers and are not likely to confuse them.  This laziness can also be applied within Africa too, which is why the continent so thoroughly embraced the idea that the 2010 World Cup was the “African World Cup.”  No one thought of the 2002 World Cup as the “Asian World Cup” even though it was the first one to be held in Asia and two Asian countries (who otherwise hate each other) co-hosted.  No one thought of any of the World Cup held in the Americas or Europe as continent-wide tournaments.  Yet when Shakira sang “this time for Africa,” everyone bought into that, forgetting that Africa is just as diverse as Asia, if not more so, and far more diverse than any other continent in the world.

There are two books about African football that I have encountered, Ian Hawkey’s Feet of the Chameleon and Steve Bloomfield’s Africa United.  Both books examine individual African nations and their unique football cultures and histories, yet both treat Africa as a whole simply because of geographic happenstance, thereby undercutting their own theses that African football is not monolithic.  It also should be noted that in both books even the most disparate countries suffer similar trials, travails, and tribulations.

There must be a way to individualize African nations.  Perhaps once one African nation win the World Cup the world will view African nations as unique in the way that Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay prevented South America from being consolidated into a similar monolith.  However, unless something radical changes in the structure and governance of African football, I doubt that breakthrough will happen.

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In other news, the Ivory Coast beat Sudan 1-0, a score that flattered the latter and should give worries to the former.  Angola beat Burkina Faso 2-1 in a competitive and enjoyable match.

Second Class Citizens

On Kickstarter, there is a new movie project called Second Class Citizens.  It is a movie about LGBT discrimination, and the filmmaker Ryan James Yezak has put together an absolutely remarkable trailer for his project.  It is a testament to both the power of  the trailer and the strength of the LGBT community and its allies that this movie will be funded.

Kickstarter projects are funded depending upon whether they can reach a set amount of money in a set amount of time from online donations.  It appears that Yezak put his Kickstarter project on a little over a week ago.  He gave himself about two months to raise $50,000.  With 49 days left, he has raised (as of this writing) $131,602 and has almost 3,200 donors.  With 49 days to go, he has raised over 250% of his original goal and still going strong.

The fact that he has raised so much speaks very much to the power of the project, but it also says a lot about the community.  I first noticed this project on the gay blogs.  Ellen DeGeneres also noticed it, and she promoted the movie on her television show.  That is why Yezak got so much support so quickly.  His movie speaks to the LGBT community and to the community’s millions upon millions of straight allies who see this as the great civil rights issue of this era.

The much money in that little time is a remarkable feat.  I have no connection to the movie, and I feel overwhelmed by the support.

Here is the trailer:

To Blog Or Not To Blog

This decision may be taken out of my hands depending on employment circumstances, but I am unsure whether or not to write regular reflection pieces about the upcoming African Cup of Nations as I have done so with other tournaments, the Women’s World Cup being the highlight of my blogging career thus far.  I am hoping to write a lot this summer about the Euro and possibly the Olympics.  It is easy to get overextended writing about football so much though; because of the Women’s World Cup and the earlier CONCACAF Gold Cup, I had no energy to regularly write about the far less interesting Copa America.

The African Cup of Nations presents a unique challenge because, the tournament itself has become kind of dreary.  The reason for this is because the African international game has fallen in quality rather than improved.  Witness the performance of the (non-Ghana) African nations at the 2010 World Cup; it hasn’t gotten better in the year and half since.  The reasons for this are fascinating, varied, and pitiful, and Jonathan Wilson explores them in a brilliant article.

Wilson does not say this, but I would also add that one of the reasons AfCoN is so tedious is because it comes around far too often.  Every two years is too much, and AfCoN comes right in the middle of the club season, which makes the tournament more distraction than attraction.  That it also occurs during World Cup years (which it’s not supposed to, but Sepp Blatter needs African votes so FIFA won’t say boo), merely cheapens and overshadows the African tournament–as does CAF’s insistence to hold a continent-wide tournament in non AfCoN years that is only open to players who play in their own national league.

Because of mismanagement and corruption from CAF and the national FA’s, African football has regressed rather than progressed over the years.  Sure it still produces some of the greatest players in the world, but those players seem to feel that national team duty is more burden than honor, and quite frankly, given who can blame them?  Two of the nations that should be potential champions every tournament, South Africa and Nigeria, failed to even qualify this time.  African FAs do not even try to develop their own coaches, choosing instead washed-up Europeans or Brazilians.  For that reason there is little national style because there is a tremendous disconnect between national tradition and national team.  Is it any wonder that the Asian teams are overtaking their African counterparts in the international game?  (Wilson was probably too polite to say that in his article but he has noted that before.)

I will, of course, be following the tournament whether I write about it or not.  I am very curious to see what happens.  There are a lot of stories to follow.  Can Ghana live up to its promise and heritage?    Will the Ivory Coast’s Golden Generation finally win a tournament or disintegrate with nothing to show for all its talent?  Can Zambia overcome its tragic history?  Can Libya or Tunisia do anything  of symbolic importance in the wake of the Arab Spring (and Egypt’s qualification implosion)?  Should the brutal regime of Equatorial Guinea even be allowed to host a tournament?  Can newcomers Botswana impress like they did in the qualification round?

These questions and more will be on my mind as I watch the tournament.  I am just not sure that the football will give me enough of an impetus to write about the answers (or lack thereof) that I discover.  In the meantime, go Botswana!

[Update:  The job situation is such that I will not be able to spend copious amounts of time thinking about AfCoN.  I will try to post from time to time, but it will not be every day.  Sorry, or you’re welcome depending on how you feel about my blogging.]

Reasonable Debate

This post is not mine.  It is from the January 18, 2012 edition of Jon Wertheim’s weekly mailbag.  Wertheim, Sports Illustrated‘s premier tennis writer and an ally of the LGBT community, has for weeks been addressing the fallout from Margaret Court’s idiotic remarks about homosexuality.  This is not the first time Wertheim has addressed this homophobia in tennis (nor is the it first time Court has opened her big mouth in the past few years), but Wertheim’s answer to this question was so moving that I wanted to make sure that I did my small part to promote it.  I have reprinted the question and answer in full, save for the personal information of the submitter.  The question to Wertheim is in bold and his answer is in standard typeface.  

Since you reasonably endorsed the polite, understated protest of garnishing a rainbow flag at Margaret Court Arena, and you’re so skillful at juggling multiple viewpoints, could you comment on how one might disagree with the societal merits of a gay or lesbian lifestyle without being hateful about it? Unfortunately, the publicity machine only gets cranked up when someone pulls a ‘Margaret Court’ and is rude, depending on your perspective. Is there room at the table for someone who thinks those lifestyles are ‘just plain wrong,’ but voices their opinion in an appropriate way and at appropriate times? Perhaps you can remember an instance when someone disagreed the right way?

Thanks. I’ve had some private exchanges with a number of you about this issue and I guess here’s where I stand: there are some issues that invite debate and civil discourse. There are some views that fail to meet that standard and are, well, “just plain wrong” and should be treated as such. Giving rights to some and denying them to others based solely on their sexual orientation is not ripe for debate in my eyes. It’s just prejudice — deeply hurtful and offensive to so many within and out of tennis.

I do you think you raise an interesting point, both generically and specific to this issue: is there an appropriate way to disagree here? I struggle with that. We analogize at our peril here, but imagine if Margaret Court had said: “I love black people and pray for them. I just don’t think they should have the same rights I do.” Do we respect opinion and subjectivity? Or do we refute and attack? (While I respect the bible and religion, both, of course, are open to interpretation. The same value system that might condemn homosexuality also encourages tolerance and compassion and social justice.)

Inasmuch as there’s any discussion to be had here, you could start by showing some empathy, acknowledging your view/policy is causing great pain — and that this hurt is asymmetrical. When Margaret Court uses the word “abomination,” she has surrendered her boarding pass.

You could also stick to the facts. When Margaret Court speaks of converting gay congregants — “I help them to overcome. We have people who have been homosexual who are now married.” — measured discussion seems pointless.

I know some of you feel this issue hasn’t gotten sufficient attention, while others feel it’s gotten too much attention. Why don’t we enjoy the tennis and, barring a new development, throw this on the back-burner for a while?

 

Another Day, Another Clásico

Thanks to the luck of the Copa del Rey draw, this season could potentially have even more matches between Barcelona and Real Madrid.  I think by this point everyone who is not Graham Hunter is suffering from Clásico fatigue *(can something really be a classic if it happens so regularly?), and I imagine the biggest sufferers of all are the Madridistas.

For the third time this season at the Bernabeu, the fans of Real Madrid watched their team go up a goal.  And for the third time this season, they watched their team squander the lead.  The first time ended in a draw, the last two resulted in Barcelona wins.  The Madrid are finally fed up (sort of), they whistled their team off the field.  It’s not surprising really; since Jose Mourinho, the Great Merengue Hope took over, Real Madrid’s record against Barcelona has been one win, three draws, and five losses (and in fairness, two of those draws meant absolutely nothing because Barcelona won the round on aggregate).  Since Pep Guardiola took over, his record against Madrid has been nine wins, three draws, and one loss.  At the Bernabeu, Guardiola’s record is five wins, two draws, no losses.  (The one loss came at the Mestalla in Valencia in last year’s Copa del Rey final.)  Only Johan Cruyff beat Madrid that many times, and the Dutch legend did it over a much longer period of time.

Despite the short-sightedness of the football media**, which tends to see the present as the always, much can change in the course of a season.  Madrid is still leading the La Liga table by five points, and there is no reason to think they will or will not win the league.  Furthermore, today’s loss can be negated next week at the Camp Nou (no easy feat but not impossible).  The real prize, the Champions League, looms large on the horizon, and by no means has a winner been decided there.

Tonight’s victory was both incredibly meaningful and incredibly meaningless in terms of the rivalry.  It is meaningless because the win was not comprehensive enough for Barcelona to sit back and relax in the next leg at the Camp Nou.  The Copa del Rey is the least important tournament of the European season (not counting the pre-season exhibitions that are the Supercopa and the UEFA Super Cup), and this match was just the quarterfinals.  Whoever wins the round still has to play two more, and that is not necessarily a good thing given that the winner will have to continue playing in the Copa del Rey instead of concentrating solely on La Liga and the Champions League.

On the other hand, this win was fraught with meaning, because it solidified the message Barcelona gave to Real Madrid in their match last month: “We own you!”  The reason that Madrid have a five point lead in the league table is because Barcelona have been woeful away from home, that is by Barcelona’s own exacting standards.  Too many draws.  Yet every time Barcelona traveled to the Bernabeu this season, the Blaugrana played their best football in the second half and won.  No matter what tactics Madrid tried, it blows up in their collective faces.  Last month Madrid tried to take control of the match instead of letting Barcelona do it.  Madrid started well, lost badly, and Cristiano Ronaldo became a pariah to the fans.  This time Cristiano Ronaldo scored the opening goal while a team of big bruisers (particularly the loathsome thug Pepe) tried to outmuscle Barcelona and cut them down.  Barcelona tied the score with a Carles Puyol header off a set piece (set pieces are rare from Barcelona) and then Eric Abidal of all players scored the winner.  When Madrid shut down the  Blaugrana attack, the defense took up the scoring instead.

(A moment to cherish Carles Puyol.  In the last 50 games that he played, Barcelona have lost none of them.  In fact, the record is something like 42 wins and 8 draws.  It’s pretty incredible.  Forget Steven Gerrard, Puyol is the real Captain Fantastic.)

This brings us to the Mourinho factor, or more accurately the lack thereof.  Mourinho was brought over from Inter Milan for one reason, to beat Barcelona.  Two seasons ago he won the Champions League including a semifinal victory over Barcelona (aided by an Icelandic volcano, an ill-fated bus ride, and a terrible offside call at the Camp Nou).  Madrid saw a knight in shining armor, and ignored all the potential pitfalls.

Now it is true that Mourinho has been much more successful than the last three coaches of Madrid, none of whom got so much as a draw against Guardiola’s Barcelona.  But in many ways, Mourinho’s humiliation has been worse  Unlike his predecessors he faced Barcelona far more than twice a season.  At the Camp Nou in 2010, he suffered his worst ever defeat.  He destroyed whatever aesthetic style the Madridistas demand from their team, and created a loathed team of bullies.  He has created a world in which Madrid concedes it cannot play with Barcelona (a shocking admission from so storied a team), so it have to break the Blaugrana down through dirty play.  And then Mourinho has a ready-made excuse for when he loses: the referees and diving.  Mourinho is simply not used to being second best, and like any narcissist confronted with the reality that he does not live up to his own hype, he is cracking.  So far there have not been calls for him to go, but the criticism has been heavy nonetheless.

Mourinho’s response was fascinating.  His team played dirty, yet all 11 players remained on the pitch throughout the 90 minutes.  His team suffered no egregious refereeing decisions (and benefitted from a few misses) so he could not blame anyone else.  At the post match press conference he stated, “The responsibility is mine, especially when my team loses. Victory has many fathers; defeat only one. I’ve been in football a long time and I understand this.  The cup final victory we all celebrated, but in defeat I am the only parent.”  On one hand this could be read as Mourinho finally taking some responsibility as manager.  On the other hand his words also carry this underlying message: “The coach gets no credit for victory but all the blame for the loss.  It’s unfair.”  If that were what he really meant, it was a quite an abrogation of his responsibility.  Unfortunately, this latter scenario seems more like the Mourinho that the football world has come to know.  I claim no neutrality.  I despise Mourinho, I want him out of Spain, and I want this Special One nonsense done with for good.  I wonder how many more losses to Barcelona it will take before the Madridistas agree with me.

Footnotes: 

* More ammunition to those who say that La Liga is turning into the Scottish League.  Those critics conveniently forget the following the following facts:  (1) Barcelona and Madrid are the best teams in the world playing in the top footballing nation in the world while Rangers and Celtic haven’t won anything of note in ages and Scotland’s days as a footballing power were over decades ago.  (2) Nevertheless, Rangers and Celtic are not exactly hurting for fans.  (3)  So long as Barcelona and Madrid compete for the Champions League title every year, the top players will always want to go there no matter how good or how poor the other La Liga teams are.  (4)  The other La Liga teams are still of very good quality.  For all the talk of La Liga becoming a weak league overall, it is the supposedly more equitable EPL that has precipitously dropped off in quality the past couple of years.  So much so that mentioning Stoke and Barcelona in the same breath should be made illegal.

** Tomorrow on World Football Daily, the hosts will no doubt gnash their teeth that Madrid lost.  The show is getting near impossible for a Barcelona fan to listen to between the Madrid propping and the Barcelona bashing.  I am beginning to miss Steven Cohen a lot.  For all his shtick, it was nice to have someone on the air who actually like Barcelona.

The Revolution Is Televised

(An apology.  WordPress is messing with my formatting and my paragraphs all merge together no matter what I do.  I am truly sorry about that, and when I learn how to fix it, I will do so.)

A good rule of thumb: when the cast and crew of a television show have to tell you how groundbreaking their program is, it usually isn’t.

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To my mind there have been only two shows that completely revolutionized American television: All in the Family and The Simpsons.  Throughout the history of television, there have been quality shows, influential shows, and even groundbreaking shows.  What makes a revolutionary television show though is that it changes the way television is watched, and more importantly, it changes the societal dialogue.  It’s a tough standard that even the greatest shows on television cannot achieve.

Before All in the Family, American television was fairly quaint in the model of I Love Lucy, the grandmother of all situation comedies.  In retrospect, I Love Lucy was both conformist and groundbreaking at the same time.  Despite the fact that Lucille Ball–and Lucy Ricardo–was the star of the show, ensconced gender roles of the times were unquestionably affirmed–Ricky was the dominant force of the household; in one episode he even spanked Lucy (the first time I saw it, I wanted her to slap him across the face.)  The most compelling relationship of the show though was Lucy and her best pal Ethel, a genius comedy pairing between two women, often imitated but never equalled until their true successors came along in Edina Monsoon and Patsy Stone.  After Lucy, television shows progressed but only barely.  Throughout the next decade, sitcoms, even the most funny and intelligent programs such as The Dick Van Dyke Show, maintained the status quo rather than push against it.  Few shows were even as daring as Lucy, with a marriage between American Lucy and Cuban Ricky.*  (Lucy was revolutionary in a more technical way;  the show was a pioneer in the three-camera with live audience format, and singlehandedly developed the rerun and syndication.)

Then came All in the Family.  All in the Family was a zeitgeist, a televised distillation into narrative form of the national debates about gender, religion, sexuality, class, education, politics, and above all race.  Moreover, All in the Family was a weekly morality play, full of unresolved tensions and ambivalent resolutions.   Nothing like it had ever been seen on American sets before, and afterwards any preconceptions of television’s innocence were forever swept away.  Perhaps it is unsurprising that All in the Family was based on an earlier hit British show Till Death Do Us Part.  A show so different could not spring up organically; it had to be imported.

All in the Family introduced television’s most indelible character–Archie Bunker.  Archie is famously and repeatedly described as a “lovable bigot,” but that description entirely misses the point.  Archie is the embodiment of the white, blue-collar worker who in the 60’s and 70’s watched the world around him change.  He does not and cannot understand those changes, so he retreats into anger.  But Archie does not hate; he fears.  In each episode that fear is abrasively confronted by his son-in-law, the liberal, educated, and unemployed Mike Stivic.  Archie is no saint (the saint of All in the Family is his long-suffering wife Edith), but Mike is no hero, despite the fact that he is the mouthpiece of show creator Norman Lear and, ironically, Carroll O’Connor, the actor who brought Archie to life.  The show empathizes with all of its characters, and that is why it was and is so wildly popular.

After All in the Family, no subject (or almost none) was taboo.  If a show did not embrace All in the Family in some way, then it risked irrelevance.

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If I Love Lucy was the grandmother of sitcoms, and All in the Family parented a new era in television, then The Simpsons was the inevitable scion.  Now that the show has been on the air for over two decades(!), and the quality has dipped to a level that renders the show nearly unwatchable, it is easy to forget how powerful and intelligent the earlier seasons of the show actually were.  The Simpsons began life as animated shorts for The Tracey Ullman Show where both Dan Castellaneta and Julie Kavner were cast members.
From a purely simplistic level, The Simpsons is a crudely drawn animated show that parodied the typical sitcom family.  That is certainly how George H.W. Bush saw the show when he infamously declared that American families needed to be “a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.”  (Bart’s reply: “Hey, we’re like just like the Waltons.  We’re praying for an end to the Depression too.”)  Unsurprisingly, Bush completely missed the point of the show.  The Simpsons were not the anti-Waltons (or, more accurately for the time, the anti-Cosbys), a family that reveled in its low-class horribleness like their network neighbors the Bundys; rather the show was a razor-sharp satire of American life, full of both highly intelligent and broadly comedic references.  A British Literature professor of mine once said that The Simpsons (at least the first eight or so seasons) was the closest American culture has ever come to producing its own Shakespeare.
It may sound pompous (and my professor was nothing if not pompous), but he was also correct.  Take for example my favorite episode, A Streetcar Named Marge.  The premise was one that the show used before and would use so many times again; Marge, crushed by the weight of caring for her thankless family, channels her energy elsewhere–in this case a community theater production of Tennessee Williams’s play A Streetcar Named Desire.  Except for the fact that the production she’s in is a musical version called “O, Streetcar” complete with ridiculous songs and over-the-top stagecraft (Blanche DuBois’s descent into madness is represented by her flying around the stage on wires).  In addition to skewering community theater, the episode also references Ayn Rand, The Great Escape, Citizen Kane, Alfred Hitchcock movies, musicals, and one, of course, of the greatest plays in the American repertoire.  Nevertheless, what holds the episode together is the emotional core the writers create by paralleling Marge’s life with Blanche’s (complete with Homer screaming “MAAAARGE! at the top of his lungs), but still giving Marge a happy ending.
An animated cartoon seems an unlikely influence for live action television, yet The Simpsons has had more of an impact on television than any show since All in the Family.  The best shows post-Simpsons are those that abandoned the three camera set and the live audience in order to adopt The Simpsons‘ razor-sharp wit, multi-dimensional gags, and manic energy that the old format could not hold.  These shows learned from The Simpsons that it is okay to trust an audience, a lesson made easier by advent of the DVD.  Multiple viewings reward the audience with a fuller understanding of complicated gags.  It’s a respect that these shows’ writers have for their audiences; this is not the hand-holding of mediocre fluff such as Friends or Everybody Loves Raymond.
The best of this new wave of shows is the short-lived, much-loved Arrested Development.  Arrested Development, in its all-too-brief life, may well be the funniest television program ever.  The reason for the show’s success is not only the mixture of highbrow and lowbrow humor; rather it was the show’s foresight in creating a strong emotional core based around lovable characters who in the real world would be absolutely intolerable.  We care about the Bluth family against our better judgment.

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In contrast to actual revolutionary shows are those shows which pat themselves on the back for being revolutionary but aren’t.  Unfortunately it seems that the shows that trumpet the loudest are those that feature LGBT themes and characters front and center.  Four shows in particular come to mind: Glee, The L-Word, Will & Grace, and the American version of Queer as Folk.  Queer as Folk was especially egregious, airing a special prior to the series premier asking the question “Is America ready for Queer as Folk?”  The implication was that QAF was something completely revolutionary, when in truth it was merely a campy and poorly written soap opera that had copious male nudity.  That fact that these shows were (and are) so well-regarded in the gay community is a tragic sign that there is so little good gay programming.
Perhaps I have been spoiled because I saw a gay-themed show that actually was groundbreaking, and that was the original, British Queer as Folk.  Much ink has been spilled about the show, but there were some very good reasons why the British Queer as Folk was so wonderful despite (or because of) its short life.  It was a well-written, well-plotted, and well-acted show with great characters, realistic stories, and an unapologetic outlook.  Compare that to the show’s American recreation, in which all the characters were in some way manifestations of the creators’ politics and beliefs.  I would say that the American version’s writers put the accent on the wrong syllable, but we are not even talking about the same paragraph let alone the same word.
Will & Grace though earns a special place in Hell.  For all its plaudits, the Emperor has no clothes. I often wondered if the revulsion I felt was anything akin to what African-Americans felt watching Amos ‘n’ Andy.  Will & Grace was bleached of any potential same-sex passion in order to sell “tolerance,” i.e.,  make it palatable to the wider (straight) audience.**  What makes Will & Grace even more grating is that it takes credit for a revolution that it did not earn.  Since Will & Grace first aired, there has been tremendous progress for gay rights, and no doubt the show’s creators believe they are owed credit for changed attitudes about gays and lesbians.  They aren’t.  The progress that was made came as a result of societal change that coincided at the same time as Will & Grace, not because of it.  This was no All in the Family, a show that held a mirror up to American society.  Will & Grace was conciliatory; it lacked All in the Family‘s ambition to confront.
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In the Jan. 2, 2012 edition of The New Yorker, television critic Emily Nussbaum praised a new web-only show called Husbands.  The show was written by Jane Espenson, whose writing credits include, among other shows, the great fantasy series Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  There are 11 episodes of Husbands, only a few minutes each.  The show’s conceit is that on the night same-sex marriage is made legal, an openly gay Kardashian-like celebrity drunkenly marries an openly gay professional baseball star (yes, it is pure fantasy) after a night of drunken revelry.  Despite regretting their actions the next morning, the couple, in order to show the world that gays are not taking the institution of marriage lightly, decide to try to make their union work.***
It is easy to criticize, and I don’t actually enjoy doing it.  Criticism is the tearing down of a structure that takes effort to build.  Although some things deserve it (anything Michael Bay touches for example), I feel regret for saying anything negative about such effort, even though I am secure in the knowledge that none of the people I criticize will ever know this blog exists.
For that reason, I feel uneasy about my strong dislike for Husbands.  The people behind the show believe in what they are doing.  Nevertheless, that does not mean I think the show is quality or that I believe Nussbaum is correct (I don’t and she isn’t).  It would be easy enough to ignore a series that only exists on the Internet, but then I heard the creators of the show talk about how nothing like their show had been done before (a romantic comedy sitcom based around two men!)
Husbands suffers from the soft bigotry of low expectations.  Not societal expectations, its own.  The creators openly admire and emulate mediocrity like Mad About You and Dharma and Greg.  Worse, the director is a veteran writer/producer from Will & Grace, a show whose ethos infects every pore of Husbands.  The show models its cheap-joke dialogue and faux-emotional plots after these shows; I know the places I was supposed to laugh because those were the places where I cringed the most.  You can practically hear the canned laughter.
Besides mediocrity, the other major legacy from Will & Grace is the Husbands‘ blatant refusal to be political.  This is fine except that the show’s very premise is based on the political–the idea that same-sex marriage is such a precarious equal rights issue that a Britney Spears quickie-marriage will make all gay people look bad.  This fear underscores the entire show.  There is also an inherent dialogue about what it means to be gay and how and whether to make gender roles when both partners are the same gender.  This is not something that they worried about on Mad About You.  The creators of this show are somehow aware that the show is intrinsically political yet at the same time they are oblivious to it, and that willful obliviousness is maddening.  The show could be so much more than it is free of the constraints of television.  That it chooses to be apolitical and middling while at the same time trumpets itself for being original and groundbreaking smacks of tone deafness at best and pandering at worst.
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Like most gay people, I look forward to an American gay-themed television show that actually is groundbreaking. I just hope that when the show comes, it doesn’t have to tell me that it is.

Footnotes:  

*  This post focuses on long form narrative fictional television: the sitcom and the drama.  Dramas on American television have never had the kind influence or audience as half-hour sitcoms, although I will discuss one in particular later.  The lone drama that could potentially be called revolutionary is The Wire, which chronicled the failure of the drug war and the ensuing metropolitan decay in a style that was more visual novel than televised drama.  Whether The Wire is truly revolutionary will be determined by time.

** I am reminded of the movie Camp, which, like Will & Grace, pandered to straight audiences, yet was inexplicably adored by gay ones.  For example, in a camp that is full of young gay men, the only sex in the movie is heterosexual.  The short answer is that for all of its “tolerance,” the movie considers gay sexuality to be something shameful and embarrassing.

*** I reject the very premise on which Husbands based.  There is a very famous quote from the First Zionist Congress from 1897: “A Jewish state would only be a normal country if Jewish street-cleaners and gardeners worked in the same cities as Jewish doctors, lawyers and businessmen, and when Jewish policemen arrested Jewish prostitutes.”  I feel the same about same-sex marriage;  equality will be achieved only when gay people stop thinking of marriage with reverence and treat it as casually as straight people do.

Diplomacy

For a very long time, the State Department has been on the losing end of a turf war.  For all the prestige of the Secretary of State,* the department is nowhere near as large or as organized as the Pentagon, which has used that advantage to great effect in the shaping of US foreign policy.  The White House too has evermore increased its role in foreign affairs, further squeezing out State.  Therefore, despite the allure of the State Department (so much so that it is simply referred to as “Foggy Bottom”, referring to the DC neighborhood where it is located), the truth is that its influence is not what it once was.

When Hillary Clinton was named Secretary of State, this waning influence was a concern of hers, especially as she believes in the importance of diplomacy.  She agreed to take the position only if the President gave her a direct line to him.  Although there are still turf skirmishes with the Pentagon, things are generally better in the Obama Administration.  It’s not that Foggy Bottom has become as organized or as competent as the Pentagon, but the two organizations work much better together. In large part this is because Robert Gates, the previous Secretary of Defense, shared the belief with Clinton that diplomacy is important, and he supported good relations with the State Department.  Contrast that to the last administration where Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney (himself a former Defense Secretary) were often bitterly at odds with the Secretary of State–first Colin Powell and then Condoleezza Rice.**

There are understandable reasons why State and Defense would be at odds, merely beyond the egos of the people in charge.  In a sense, State and Defense have oppositional outlooks out of necessity.  The Defense Department cannot afford to make mistakes lest tragedy occur while diplomacy between nations is an ongoing process full of pitfalls and setbacks.  It is also easier to see the Defense Department in terms of black and white or good and evil depending on the eye of the beholder.  This reductiveness overlapped very nicely with George W. Bush’s own dichotomous view of the world–a view that ominously is shared and espoused by the current crop of Republican candidates for President and the Tea Party base.  In contrast, diplomacy is made up of shades of gray; it is complicated and time-consuming and full of compromises.  Good and evil are replaced by costs and benefits, which is not always pretty.  (Americans also tend to love their troops and hate their politicians who are akin to diplomats because diplomacy occurs in the political sphere.  Guilt by association.)

Back to Hillary Clinton.  I have already expressed my appreciation for her speech about LGBT rights, and there have been some incredible diplomatic victories for the State Department.  First, there was the Armenia-Turkey accord from 2009.  Second, and probably most notable, was the fact that she was the force behind the successful intervention in Libya (success of course being the overthrow of Gaddafi, whatever comes next remains to be seen).  While the Pentagon wanted to stay out of the conflict, Clinton forcefully advocated for humanitarian intervention, a logical followup to her husband’s successful intervention in the Balkans and failed intervention in Somalia.  Through Clinton’s efforts, the State Department pioneered the use of social media and smart power in political relations.  Clinton became the face of the US response to the Arab Spring–for better or for worse only time will tell.

To my mind, the most unlikely achievement of Clinton’s State Department is the apparent transformation in Myanmar (Burma).  One of the earliest posts in this blog was about Myanmar and the end of Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest.  That, it turned out, was the initial step in what has tidal waved into seemingly real democratic reforms.  Aung San Suu Kyi herself will stand for parliamentary elections, an indication that she too believes these reforms to be genuine.  Last month Clinton visited Myanmar, and, following the pardon and release of over 600 prisoners (at least some political prisoners) two days ago, formal diplomatic ties between the United States and Myanmar are about to be reestablished with an exchange of ambassadors.  As the Myanmar government continues to reform, more diplomatic ties will be restored or created.

It is hard to determine exactly why Myanmar is reforming.  Despite Western sanctions, Myanmar has not exactly been hurting.  Neither China nor India, two major allies, have cared much about the Myanmar government’s human rights record.  Nevertheless, Myanmar has been taking steps to create and a legitimate democratic process favored by the West.  For this, I believe that at least a little bit of credit belongs to the State Department.***  Since Obama and Clinton took over, diplomacy has been used as the first resort rather than the last.  It is true that often the Administration’s diplomacy efforts badly failed (e.g., Iran, Syria, North Korea), but at least diplomacy was tried.  In the carrot and stick diplomacy.  The United States looks far more reasonable and agreeable than under the with-us-or-against-us outlook of the Bush 43 Administration,† and other nations are more willing to follow where the United States leads if diplomacy is tried first.  Clearly the Myanmar government responded to such diplomatic persuasion; the carrot was good enough even if Myanmar did not fear the stick.

Whether Myanmar stays on this path or reverts back to military dictatorship remains to be seen.  Presumably, Aung San Suu Kyi is not going anywhere any time soon, and she will remain both leader and symbol to so many of her countrymen.  She will also continue to be the beacon that the West focuses on.  The Myanmar government will continue to work with her if it wants the benefits of friendship with the West.

I am hopeful.  Myanmar seems to be taking the right steps.  Just as the world is full of dictatorships, it is also full of former dictatorships and juntas that became democracies.  Hopefully the latter is Myanmar’s future.

Finally, Clinton begins a tour of four African nations this week where she will emphasize nation building, economic development, good governance and democratization.  Her stops include Togo, the Ivory Coast, Cape Verde and Liberia.  In the latter nation, she will attend the inauguration of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf who, following her Nobel, won a second term as Liberian President.  The elections were not always pretty; there was some violence, and the run-off was plagued by low voter turnout and a boycott by the opposition party.  Nevertheless, outside observers judged the elections to be free, transparent, and fair.  In a country that until just recently was plagued by violent civil war, to have a second consecutive relatively peaceful and transparent election is progress.

Footnotes:  

* Secretary of State is one of the big four Cabinet positions, along with the Secretaries of Defense and Treasury and the Attorney General.  These were the original four positions in George Washington’s Cabinet (sort of; the Secretary of Defense was preceded by the Secretary of War), and the first Secretary of  State was none other than Thomas Jefferson.  The Secretary of State is also the first Cabinet Secretary in the line of Presidential succession.

**  Three of the last four Secretaries of State (Clinton, Rice, and Madeleine Albright) have been women.  On one hand this would appear to be a good thing, a progressive sign that it is not only okay that the chief diplomat of the United States is female, it is almost expected.  (The fourth, Colin Powell, is a black man.)  On the other hand, two positions of more authority, the Defense Secretary and the White House Chief of Staff, have been held only by white men.  I just thought this was interesting.

***  Cabinet secretaries are generally chosen for their political ties rather than expertise.  They are politicians, administrators, and bureaucrats who determine policy but generally lack the specialized experience of career employees (Stephen Chu at the Department of Energy being an exception).  Often they are selected as a way to repay political favors or to make a statement of policy intent.  Clinton is actually a very good choice as Secretary of State.  Through her experience as First Lady, Senator, and Presidential candidate, she has acquired a breadth of  foreign policy experience (if not depth) that makes her uniquely suited for the position.

†  I am always amazed by Obama’s critics on the left who criticize his foreign policy because generally they apply the same good/evil world view and “us against the world” mentality of the Bush Administration.  Positive proof that stupidity knows no political party.