There is a video making its way around the internet of some American Jewish kids on vacation in Jerusalem spewing a bunch of racist garbage, mostly about Barack Obama. . The kids are drunk, probably from some wealthy yeshiva in the Northeast, and shamefully ignorant of just about everything:
It’s an appalling representation of Jews, Americans, and Young People – three subgroups to which I proudly belong. By posting and talking about it here, I’m probably not doing myself any favors as such, but the clip merits discussion.
The fact that there are racist Jewish kids shouldn’t be a surprise. There are racists and idiots of every race, religion, and nationality. We’re all human and the human condition is fragile, flawed, and fickle. Despite understanding all that intellectually, I can’t help but find the video really revolting on a gut level. I barely made it through the whole thing.
To be honest, if this were a clip of some white kid in Georgia making the same bigoted comments, I wouldn’t be writing about it. I would have watched it, shook my head, and moved on. However, with identity come pride and shame all the emotions in between. Maybe this is a personality flaw, but while I can understand that underneath labels and colors and languages we are all the same, I still expect more of the groups I’m a part of. Not to be better – nobody is better – but to at least try harder at it.
This feeling manifests itself in all sorts of places. When I see some drunken, American tourist making a mess of things in a foreign city, I can’t help but roll my eyes and think he’s not doing much to help our image in the world. When Eliot Spitzer got caught banging a high-priced hooker, the first thing I thought – and I’m not especially proud of this – was “bad for the Jews.” When Manny Ramirez was suspended last month, I had to wonder why, why must it be a Dodger?
After all, fandom is just another level on which we identify. A friend of mine here in New York is a big Kansas City Royals fan. On the once-in-a-blue-hat occasion that he sees somebody sporting some Royals gear, he approaches them about it. It’s exciting for him to find someone who shares his relatively obscure identity.
And with identity comes identity politics. We work to advance our own particular fandoms – Yankee fans want to be better, more dedicated, more educated, stand on higher moral ground, than Red Sox fans, and vice versa. Same goes for any rivalry in any sport, or in politics, or in global affairs. In a very dramatic essay called The Sporting Spirit, George Orwell assesses the rise of gung-ho fandom in grim terms:
There cannot be much doubt that the whole thing is bound up with the rise of nationalism — that is, with the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige.
Without getting into too much detail about the relataive sanity of fandom – or whether the habit of identifying oneself with large power units is truly lunatic – I think Orwell’s point is generally correct. There is an innate urge to identify ones self with a larger unit, whether familiar, religious, national, or athletic. Often society does the work for us. We can’t help where we are born or who our family is. Even the things we are supposedly free to choose like political affiliation, religion, taste in music, or favorite sports teams, are often inherited from our parents or subconsciously absorbed from the people we grew up around.
Sports fandom isn’t just bound up with the rise of nationalism, it is nationalism. There is no intellectual or moral reasoning involved in the way we pick our favorite teams — it’s geography and family and a number of other subliminal factors. I grew up in Los Angeles, thus I am a Dodger fan. My mother’s family is from Miami and brainwashed me from a young age, thus I am a Dolphins fan. Is it random and illogical? Yes, but no more random and illogical than patriotism – and like patriotism not necessarily (sorry Mr. Orwell) such a bad thing. Teams are homelands. We all need those. That’s why a group of bat-shit crazy costumed criminals can get together, start a support group, and call it the Raider Nation.
Then again, these are artificial nations. Membership in the Raider Nation is just a luxury afforded by the institutions and protections of the American Nation. And words exchanged between fans during heated competition bear much less historical weight than words like the ones uttered by the kids in that video. Fan violence is real and tragic, but it pales in comparison to religious or nationalist violence. The personal and historic significance of our identities varies over time. In the end some have to mean more than others. If one of the kids in those videos was wearing a Dodger cap, I would have certainly noticed. But “bad for the Dodger fans” is the last thing I would have thought about.