Without divulging too much about my personal political sympathies, I will admit to being an admirer of Noam Chomsky. In addition to being a man of letters with an impressive oeuvre spanning a wide range of topics, he is a native Philadelphian — something with which I can identify.
This fact recently prompted me to wonder whether Noam Chomsky is a baseball fan and, if so, whether he is a fan of the Phillies, which would be just another reason to add to the already long list of reasons that he is a cool dude. Well, as it turns out, Noam Chomsky’s brain is too big for him to be beholden to any one team. Thanks to the power of Twitter, I was pointed to this transcription of an exchange from his 1993 appearance on the talk show Pozner and Donahue (my efforts to locate video of the show were unsuccessful) in which he discusses the cognitive dissonance that is inherent to being a sports fan:
DONAHUE: There’s a part of the documentary which has you on the podium, reliving the experience of going to a high school football game when you were in high school. And you sat there and you said, “Why do I care about this team? I don’t even know anybody on the team.” Here, Professor Chomsky, you go too far. You are cranky, you’re anti-fun. We wonder if you ever knew the experience of a hot dog with mustard and a cold beer. And it is much easier, then, to dismiss you as the Ebenezer Scrooge of social commentary. Go away. You’re not a happy man. You’re scolding us for rooting for the high school football team.
CHOMSKY: I should say, I continued to go root for the high school football team — the reason I bring it up is, it’s a case of how we can somehow live with this strange dissonance. I mean, you conform to the society around you, and you’re part of it, and you have the hot dog and you cheer for the football team. And in another corner of your mind you notice, “This is insane. What do I care whether this …”
DONAHUE: What is insane?
CHOMSKY: What do I care whether this group of professional athletes wins or that group of professional athletes wins? None of them have anything to do with me.
DONAHUE: I don’t know. I grew up with the Indians [baseball team], I was a kid in Cleveland … it was a social experience, it was the smell, this huge Cleveland stadium. … Those are memories. What’s wrong with this? Why wouldn’t you want to celebrate this?
CHOMSKY: I did the same thing. I can remember the first baseball game I saw when I was 10 years old, I can tell you what happened at it — fine. But that’s not my point. See, if you want to enjoy a football game, that’s great. You want to enjoy a baseball game, that’s great. Why do you care who wins? Why do you care who wins? Why do you have to associate yourself with a particular group of professionals, who you are told are your representatives, and they better win or else you’re going to commit suicide, when they’re perfectly interchangeable with the other group of professionals. …
DONAHUE: You had a relative in New York City who had a kiosk which wasn’t quite on the main street, it was behind the train station. And God knows what kind of radical literature he was selling. And you’re there, this little kid listening in — no wonder you grew up to be such a radical who doesn’t like high school football.
CHOMSKY: Unfortunately, I did like it. I’m sorry for that.
As a devoted fan of specific teams myself, I found this to be a rather unsettling thing to read. As Socrates once said, however, “The unexamined fandom is not worth living.”
If we accept the notion that the players we root for are ultimately interchangeable, then fandom can be reduced to rooting for an article of clothing or the more abstract concept of “the franchise.” Rooting for an article of clothing certainly seems no less absurd than rooting for a group of interchangeable professionals. But, of course, the word “fan” itself comes from the word “fanatic,” which by definition means an irrational zeal for a particular cause. Here again we reach that state of cognitive dissonance where we as (mostly) rational people must defend and justify what is by definition an irrational practice.
Chomsky raises an interesting set of questions that would perhaps be worth asking more often — preferably before we resort to violence against others based on little more than their allegiance to a rival team.
A tip of the mortarboard to @BobbyBaseknock for the link.