Thursday, February 14, 2008

Culture Warrior Day at the Ballpark

OK, I give up. I absolutely just give up. I despise the culture wars. I hate the idea that every time they have even the slightest opening, culture warriors choose up sides and turn some politically insignificant matter into yet another hackneyed 60's-style battle between left and right.

Take the Duke lacrosse case, for example. This was the very definition of a local concern. A bunch of boorish white athletes went and hired a couple of African American exotic dancers for the evening. Things went bad from there (imagine that!), racial slurs were possibly exchanged, and one of the women ended up charging several players with sexual assault. A few Duke professors scribbled a poorly written and ill-informed screed about the case, perhaps trying to reassure women and students of color, perhaps simply self-righteously flexing their left wing. Maybe both. Their role, however, was trivial next to that of an ambitious D.A. who cut corners, played fast and loose with evidence, and made outrageous statements to the press. The players were ultimately exonerated and the prosecutor disbarred.

The case, obviously, did not stay local. The media, ever preoccupied with race, sexual violence, and facile rich man-poor man stereotypes, could not resist swooping into North Carolina to fill the time slots between episodes of To Catch a Predator. They were quickly followed by an even more obsessed band of right-wing culture warriors, out-of-state bloggers, grandstanding politicians, and wackjob pundits who had never before expressed a single moment of sympathy for the plight of the falsely accused. They attacked the prosecutor, who richly deserved it, but they also gave a ridiculous degree of significance to the college professors who overreacted to the case at its outset and acted—and by "acted" I mean only that they wrote an ad for the school paper—as though the culpability of the lacrosse players was already established (though the ad itself made no accusations of guilt).

To the culture warriors, the accused students were merely pawns in the bigger battle against the cultural left, in this case represented by a diverse group of local professors who had made the mistake of believing the claims of a (then) well-respected prosecutor. If these right-wing carpetbaggers ever cared that their incessant ranting actually made the players' names household words, forever to be associated with this tawdry event, they never said so. Rather, the plight of a few rowdy, obnoxious—but not guilty—sons of privilege simply represented the wedge by which these zealots could once again attack the academy and the bogeymen of tenured radicalism and political correctness.

So why do I bring this up now, with the Duke case mercifully behind us? Because the culture warriors never quit. The other day, I made a couple of flippant comments about Roger Clemens, the baseball pitcher testifying before Congress about his alleged use of banned performance enhancing drugs. Here's what I wrote:

"The biggest name, of course, was Roger Clemens, the premier pitcher of his era, and a man who, like Nolan Ryan before him, has come to embody all the manly Middle American values of hard work and determination that we glorify in our folk songs and beer commercials. No longer were we talking about a couple of surly Californians, i.e., Bonds and McGwire. Now the focus had shifted to an authentic Red State hero, the Dale Earnhardt of the diamond."

Little did I know that my words would prove prophetic. Yesterday, Clemens and his accuser, a sleazy piece of work named Brian McNamee, sat down before a congressional committee to play out their my-word-against-his battle on national television. I expected that each representative would, in turn, make smarmy comments about the horrors of steroids and then ask the witnesses a series of gotcha questions designed to earn the member a sound bite on the evening news. A good afternoon of tut-tutting and headshaking, I figured, would be had by all.

Instead, unbelievably, the affair turned into a partisan political fight. Republican members of the committee—most of them, anyway—seemed intent on taking Clemens' side against his accuser, as though nobody this upright, this macho, this conservative, could possibly have been lured by pride and greed to break the rules of Major League Baseball. The GOP pols hammered away at McNamee, as though the very persistence of manly individualism depended on discrediting this slimy creature of the decadent northeast. It was amazing and more than a little disheartening to watch as, one by one, these stalwarts of law and order behaved like the pitcher's personal cheering section.

As in the Duke lacrosse case, this wild-eyed obsession with ideological symbolism came almost entirely from the right. With Duke, most liberals, despite sympathy for the plight of a young woman who chose to survive by disrobing before horny frat boys, steered clear of the battle, inherently suspicious of overconfident prosecutors. Yesterday, the Democrats on the House committee went after both Clemens and McNamee, generally in measured and respectful tones. The committee's chairman, Democrat Henry Waxman, even took pains to point out that he had been prepared to cancel the hearing altogether until Clemens himself insisted on the opportunity to clear his name on national television.

How did we get to this point? How did the American right become so pavlovian in their responses to symbols (a manly Texan superstar here, some rich white lacrosse players there) that every legal hearing, every judicial proceeding, every congressional investigation becomes wrapped up in their pointless political crusade? I know that there are idiot leftists out there, too; a few on the liberal side certainly acquitted themselves poorly in the Duke case. But when the fanatical need to hold their ground extends even to a seemingly apolitical baseball case, you simply have to wonder if these supercharged reactionaries are even capable anymore of regarding events outside the rubric of their ideological obsessions.

I consider myself pretty cynical, but I never even imagined that a hearing over drugs in the big leagues would break down along partisan lines. Or if it did, I might have guessed that the Democrats would hit hard on due process and the presumption of innocence while the GOP committee members would don their prosecutorial garb and let Clemens (and McNamee) have it. I may have joked about Roger Clemens' Red State appeal, but it never occurred to me that grown up lawmakers would actually decide to make a stand on his behalf.

And these are the people Barack Obama thinks he can bring to the table? Good luck, Senator. You're going to need it.

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