"Ambivalence Dissolved"

Oh What a Relief it Is

On the eve of the Olympics Opening Ceremony, I read Lindsay Crouse’s New York Times opinion piece, I’m Tired of Being Cynical. I’m Watching the Olympics, and promptly grumbled about it.

“To frame anger at [the IOC’s] extremely-ill-advised moves that endanger hundreds of thousands as ‘cynicism’ …,” I wrote on a semi-private social-media channel, “Sucks.”

An eloquent statement like that hardly needs elaboration, but I went on: “Also, this quiet-part-loud can be applied to so many liberals on basically everything — climate change, gross inequity, on and on [quoting Crouse]:

‘I’m tired of being cynical about everything. I read every day about how the ship I’m on is sinking, and right now I want to hear the band.’”

In this allusion, I think, the ship is existence and the Olympics are the band?

Tokyo is shaping up to be an angry Olympics, and with good reason: corporate greed, climate decay, racial inequity and the risk that holding the Games during a still-raging pandemic will make them a superspreader event.

She wants to turn down the volume on the stuff reported on every day by her employer of record and crank up “Nearer My God to Thee.” This is relatable!

Crouse offers up the requisite to-be-sures — the disgusting rot of the US Gymnastics Association, the self-dealing corruption of fat cats who oversee this “amateur” endeavor, the displacement of local populations for single-use stadia, and the fact that, in her words, “[c]hampions were fueled by drugs instead of grit.1

She goes on:

I was as exhausted by the pandemic and numbed by the litany of Olympic problems as anyone else, but as I watched Simone Biles teach gravity a lesson and Sha’Carri Richardson outsprint her competition, ambivalence dissolved.

As Crouse strains to hear music over the groaning collapse of the ship’s hull, she does a thing sportswriters love to do: appeal to the sheer marvel of elite performance. Goshdarnit, that human spirit overcoming adversity will just get you every time.

And it will! Years ago, I wrote in the LA Review of Books about my ambivalence toward my favorite sport of football in light of what we now know about the long-term effects of repeated subconcussive impacts on brain health. Eight years later I continue to watch the NFL, an association of rapacious corporate entities for whom its workers are disposable pieces of meat. Furthermore, my all-time favorite team is the Kansas City Chiefs, whose non-defensible nickname will surely come under increased scrutiny now that Cleveland’s baseball team has become The Guardians.

Did my “ambivalence dissolve” when Kansas City’s incredible young quarterback won the first championship in my three decades of fandom?

OK, maybe for a minute or two. But it quickly reconstituted itself; ambivalence is a fact of life in the 21st Century (and probably all the others). This is why I find Crouse’s phrasing, and its timing, curious. She says her “ambivalence dissolved” after watching Biles and Richardson — who are both incredible — at their trials.

But as Crouse well knows, the US Anti-Doping Agency stepped in almost right away to restore insanity: Richardson — set to be a breakout sprinting star at these Games — tested positive for that dreaded performance-enhancer, marijuana, and won’t be there at all.

As I registered my objections online, Jenifer Leigh asked me to clarify, adding:

I think you have to give yourself a pass for moments at a time
you can't be actively interacting with all the stuff always
because it is literally exhausting

I agree. You have to give yourself a pass. We will probably be watching the Olympics here.2

The framing of legitimate concerns — about the advisability of proceeding with these warped, off-year Olympics; about the other global problems mentioned in passing — as “cynicism” is altogether too glib.

Jenifer nailed the problem:

Cynicism is expecting everything to be bad, and deciding that you can't do anything about it, so whatever.
Trumpism is deeply cynical
she's actually talking about the exhaustion of having the opposite of cynicism

Often, the implicit question in op-eds3 like this is “Can I do ethically-complicated thing X and still feel good about myself/consider myself a good person?”

In fact, Crouse makes it more than implicit:

Is it possible to still watch in good faith? Or is this another broken institution we need to burn down?

For me, the answers to Crouse’s questions are “no” and “yes,” respectively. She doesn’t define “good faith” here, but I would say it’s not possible to watch in “good faith” because that would mean at the very least believing that the people in charge had the participants, spectators, and host community’s interests at heart. That is self-evidently false.

Should the IOC be abolished? Yes! Who needs it? Throw in the NCAA and make a bonfire.

My answers may contravene the answers Crouse offers throughout her column, but we agree about watching the Olympics, if you want. Jenifer again:

You can give yourself some moments of unfettered joy at a Simone Biles vault
and then go back to thinking the IOC is trash

Crouse’s essay is of a type often run by outlets whose audience is upper-middle-class liberal, and it feeds our obsession with what Ta-Nehisi Coates has called “the politics of personal exoneration.” We know the systems are racist, but we, personally, are not racist. We know things are bad, but our acknowledgement of those conditions means, we hope, that we, personally, are not bad. And we’d like everyone to know it.

My officemate, the novelist Jeremy Bushnell, said something at a meeting a few years ago that has stuck with me. We were talking about the myriad issues involved in the grading of student writing (not least of which is that it’s pedagogically useless, completely arbitrary, and beside the point, but that’s an argument for a different letter), and he said he’ll sometimes go back to a first principle: “does this [whatever the grading decision was] reduce the amount of suffering in the world?”

Deployed in an argument about grade inflation, it registers as slightly out of scale, but as an orientation toward the world, it can throw into relief the concerns that are and aren’t important.

Does watching the Olympics somehow reduce the amount of suffering in the world? No, probably not.

Does not watching the Olympics somehow reduce the amount of suffering in the world? Also no.

Does feeling bad about watching or not watching the Olympics reduce…. You see where I’m going with this?

Blamelessness is not on the table. So, if you want, let’s listen to the band, sour notes and all.

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Coda: I’ve tried to use this space to work out my reactions, and I have felt at times like I’m chasing my own tail. I feel as though I’m missing something, but I’ve decided to steer into the skid and send this out. I’d love to hear responses, reactions, rejections. Hit the button below!

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1

This may be a reason for skepticism for some, but I’m a PED agnostic. The stakes have been too high for too long for athletes not to try find a way to win any way they can. I don’t feel particularly cheated by dopers — except for Lance Armstrong. I thought he beat cancer on his own, then I found out he used drugs and I was so disillusioned.

2

Indeed, the seven-year-old just came in the room to tell me that he’s going to Josh’s house to watch skateboarding.

3

Sorry, Katie Kingsbury, sorry. I know they are more-appropriately called “opinion essays.” It’s just taking a minute to get used to.