Sunday, May 03, 2009

David Barash is a Moron: Idiocy Alert

Well, folks, I have my nominee for the dumbest thing written by anyone anywhere in 2009, and if you think about today's climate of dialogue, that's quite an assertion. My selection comes from David P. Barash, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington, whose "The Roar of the Crowd: Sports Fans' Primal Behavior" appeared in March in The Chronicle Review, a publication that most of the time I really like, as it provides an interdisciplinary lens through which to view the life of the mind.

Under ordinary circumstances I would go paragraph-by-paragraph, line-by-line to eviscerate this screed against being a sports fan. But the article does not compensate for its idiocy with brevity, so I'm only going to have to address a few of the lowlights. I will excerpt some of the passages and then will provide my responses -- if you are a sports fan, enjoy:

Marx was wrong: The opiate of the masses isn't religion, but spectator sports. What else explains the astounding fact that millions of seemingly intelligent human beings feel that the athletic exertions of total strangers are somehow consequential for themselves? The real question we should be asking during the madness surrounding this month's collegiate basketball championship season is not who will win, but why anyone cares.

Note the condescension. But also note that one could replace "spectator sports" with, say, movies (I bet you a thousand dollars Barash prefers the word "film") or theater or music or television, or even literature while making the same argument. In other words, yes, as human beings we sometimes do not make all of our own amusements. Even onanism, intellectual (a skill at which Barash seems particularly well equipped) and otherwise, cannot provide sole intellectual sustenance. Sometimes we rely on others, since we live in communities larger than ourselves, to help facilitate our various enjoyments. Or maybe Barash only watches movies in which he knows all of the participants. Plus sports have an added benefit: They are real. I love movies and tv and the other amusements, but I don't privilege them over sports largely because sports represent real drama played out in real time by real people with immense gifts and who do not have their lines or their blocking written out for them.

Now for the second paragraph:

Not that I would try to stop anyone from root, root, rooting to his or her heart's content. It's just that such things are normally done by pigs, in the mud, or by seedlings, lacking a firm grip on reality — fine for them, but I am not at all sure this is something that human beings should do. In desperation, if threatened with starvation, I suppose that I would root — for dinner. But for the home team? Never.

Ha! See what he did there? Root can have two different meanings! Sports fans can root! Pigs do something entirely different, called "rooting"! David Barash is clever. I'd also bet I can list a whole lot of really really smart sports fans who have a perfectly fine grip on reality. Why, some of them are even in academia. Are they really all akin to pigs? Still, that little "root" wordplay? Priceless!

So instead of sports, he suggests:

Is life so pale, dull, and unsatisfying that it must be experienced vicariously in order to be savored? You might try reading a book, talking with your family, going for a walk, wrestling with the dog, listening to some music, smelling a flower, making love.

Now this is so serially foolish that I really do not even know where to begin. Once again I'll point out the vicarious nature of, say, watching movies or going to the theater. But beyond that, I love his dualism -- if you spend three hours watching a ballgame, for Barash the logical conclusion is that your life is dull. It must be great to be one of David Barash's students, because it means you can get away with saying some really fucking inane, illogical things in the papers you write for him because David Barash is clearly a complete fucking moron. (Hey, he introduced the name calling.) You see, apparently no one who watches sports reads books. (Though I am going to place as an aside that I would bet you a thousand dollars that as a disciplinary imperative as a historian I've read a lot more books in 2009 than psychologist David Barash.) If you watch sports you do not talk with your family. I certainly am not going for a walk with my wife in the next half hour because I will also watch sports today. We own cats, so he's got me there. But if you watch sports and have a dog, sorry -- you have to pick one! Smelling a flower doesn't really take all that much time, but again, the logic is unassailable. And it is a proven fact -- sports fans never have sex. Which is why going to a ballgame is a bit like attending a Shaker meeting -- there are lots of old folks because of the prohibitions against sexual reproduction. If I ever quit on sports though, I am going to root the hell out of . . . (hey, another meaning for root! David Barash, watch yourself. I'm catching on fast!)

Then we get some some ham-handed differentiation between those who participate in sports -- which he sees as admirable, and thank God we jocks have his imprimatur -- and those who watch. Because they are obviously never the same people. People who love sports either only participate or watch, in David Barash's reading-prolific, wife-walking, dog-wrestling, flower-sniffing, cocksman's life. I'm not even going to waste much time pointing out with how absurd his argument is, or reminding you how those who have played the game often love the game in myriad forms. Because later on he drops this little gem:

Of course, there have been athletes who were admirable, even off the field. On balance, however, the probability is that successful athletes number among themselves more than their share of alcoholics, misogynists, sociopaths, and violence-prone dimwits and miscreants. After all, these are adults paid to play children's games, and there is simply no reason why the ability to do remarkable things with one's body — things that are generally quick and violent — should make someone worth emulating in any other way, and probably good reasons why the opposite is more likely.

Now this one absolutely infuriates me. For one thing, it's a pretty fucking brazen assertion without even a scintilla of evidence. And it is an assertion from someone who presumably does not watch enough sports to be making this sort of value judgment. There is also, Dr. Barash, no reason to assume that the ability to do, let us say "semi remarkable" things with one's mind "someone worth emulating in any other way." Therefore following your logic, I would assume that the probability is that successful psychology professors at the University of Washington number among themselves more than their share of pedophiles. The logic is exactly the same. Except that society generally does not give two shits about psychology professors, so their boy-rooting (when you play with fire, Scarecrow . . .) does not end up on Sportscenter or in the newspaper. And naturally a DWI makes news among the famous in a way that someone not getting a DWI does for reasons that ought to be apparent to anyone who understands a rudiment about how the world functions. And yet clearly based on the episodes he observes between stuffing his face in flowers, Barash is capable of drawing an evidence-free conclusion on athletes based on the public embarrassments of a tiny, tiny, minority. And if there is evidence, he doesn't cite it, which in its way is actually worse. Because I at least acknowledge that I have no evidence that Barash is a pedophile (though following much of his logic in this article, I also have no evidence that David Barash is not a pedophile. Work your algorithm magic, Google!).

Then there are literally hundreds of words of really lousy argumentation that are based on evolutionary psychology, including some claptrap about how we can fool the American oystercatcher by placing an enormous fake egg where her real egg is and she'll try to nurture it. And so somehow this is analogous to human sports fans for reasons that I am either too dumb or not dumb enough to divine. (Stupid American oystercatcher! Stupid sports fans -- watching a game you have come to love over the course of your life because it gives you enjoyment! What a silly fake eggsitter you've turned out to be!)

Much later, because Barash is really beginning to grate, and because you just knew it was coming:

Sometimes the rapport of identification can be harmless, not uncommonly resulting in giggles, laughter, yawning. Sometimes it is more sinister. As Koestler emphasized, the acts of greatest human violence and destructiveness have arisen not from personal aggressiveness or nastiness, but from self-transcendence in the form of seductive, mindless identification with a group. Think of Rwanda's Hutus and Tutsis, Bosnian Serbs and Muslims, Nazis and Jews, Irish Catholics and Protestants, Armenians and Azerbaijanis, Israelis and Palestinians.

Yes! Yes!! YES!!! Godwin's Law! Godwin's Fucking Law!!! "Sometimes the rapport of identification can be harmless" but sometimes -- and surely in statistically significant enough doses to make it worth addressing -- Red Sox fans actually just want to machete some motherfuckers. ("Yankee fans.") That's just how we roll. And the death camps at Invesco Field? They really are something to behold. Seriously: Is he joking with this?

And for the conclusion, which I will take on sentence by sentence:

By we, the fan means the whole deliciously desirable, immensely seductive group.

You can assume that the "we" in that sentence should probably have appeared in quotation marks and refers to the tendency of sports fans to refer to their Gestapo units, er, favorite teams, with a strong sense of identification. The shame!
He means that he is no longer just little old himself, but something larger, grander, more impressive, more important, and thus, more appealing.

Want to debate whether the gendered language is intentional? In any case -- yes, again, many of us actually realize that we are not in and of ourselves a sustainable planet. We have to look outside of ourselves. I, for example, do not have David Barash's ability to regurgitate cud from one of my four stomach units, so I sometimes look outside of "little old myself" (hello, syntax!) and go to a restaurant. You know who else liked restaurants? Idi Amin.

Sports fans, in this view, are nationalists writ small.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, the Nazi nonsense. Except that "nationalism writ small" is an almost useless concept given what "nationalism" actually means as either a word or as a historical concept. It would be like referring to "giantism writ small." Given what giantism is, or what nationalism is, the idea of either being "writ small" indicates a desire to use an ad hominem that one does not understand.

Or oystercatchers writ human, which is to say, moved by inclinations less distinct and less automatic than the rigidly stereotyped response to releasers and the obedient superresponse to supernormal releasers that are found among many animals, but inclined to some sort of response nonetheless.

No idea what this means or what the framework for the analogy is. Just asserting an analogy is insufficient. And most professors in our varying disciplines try to stomp out this sort of fatuous attempt to grasp the world through shallow analogizing. Not David Barash. He got a Chronicle Review article out of it.

There is nothing unusual about it, although even now, I must admit, the whole business perplexes me.

This is the first sane thing you've said: Being a sports fan is an enormously common phenomenon. Given that fact, perhaps it's not everyone else who is wrong. Just a little self reflection might have saved us all this headache. You do not like spectator sports. I do not like evolutionary psychology. The difference is, I would not compare evolutionary psychologists to genocidaires.

But an oystercatcher would understand perfectly.

If you have a better nominee for the most fucktarded thing written in 2009, I'd like to see it. David Barash goes into the clubhouse (sports analogy! Achtung, bitches!) with a lead I do not see him relinquishing.


sophmom said...

Well, Derek, I have enjoyed several of your recent posts, but baseball fan that I am, this one particularly got my attention.

Phew...really good to know that I best keep a fragrant flower handy the next time I catch a game, lest I qualify as having a "pale, dull, and unsatisfying" life. Heck, if I can even manage a chat with my husband while watching, then all the more possibility of escaping that "mindless identification with a group" to which all sports lovers are prone. Live and learn.

dcat said...

Sophmom --
Thanks. As you can tell, I became rather exercised over the whole thing!


Jesse said...

Thank you so much for this intelligent response to Barash's tirade. After struggling through the majority of his 3000+ word vent, I was left feeling awfully depressed that someone of his status (a Ph.D., after all!) thought one of my passions so utterly pointless and stupid. So I was glad to read your very intelligent (and at times humorous) response sticking up for silly apes (or pigs?) like myself. Well, I'm off to do a little dog wrestling now... we'll see if I can add some genuine meaning to my Neanderthalian existence. Take care.

Ross said...

YOU are the moron, and the tirade is yours.

No doubt, you have primordial need to justify your miserable existence.

dcat said...

Really, Ross? is that the best you can do? No engagement with the substance of my response to Barash? Why not nut up and bring something of substance? Is it because you have nothing of substance to bring? I suspect as much.


Anonymous said...

dcat is the epitome of American sports fans; ignorant, arrogant and a genuine piece of shit asshole!