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Diary of a Mad Law Professor | The Nation

Diary of a Mad Law Professor

Patricia Williams

It was one of those odd little paragraphs that leap out at you, so filled with unexpected images it was. "What would Al Sharpton do if Bush calls him?" inquired Peter Noel in a recent issue of the Village Voice. Sharpton's reply was pure deadpan: "I would not meet with Bush alone.... There has to be an agenda that the black collective agrees with. Clearly, I'm not looking to be part of the Bush administration."

It was inspiring to know that Al Sharpton had seriously thought about what to do if Bush should call him. It was inspiring because I figure there's at least as much chance of Bush calling me as Sharpton. So if the press is interviewing him about such prospects, then I should be prepared.

First of all, the Bush team needs me. I don't know how to say this gently, because I know how hard they tried, but most of us in the black community agree that Sister Condoleezza and Brother Colin do not a rainbow coalition make. And since John Ashcroft is backed by the Christian Coalition and Bob Jones University, I know that Bush knows that the fair and unifying thing to do now would be to make a radical lefty critical race theorist like me the head of the civil rights division. Yes, me--the frizzy-haired feminist alternative to Al Sharpton. I offer myself up as Bush's own personal Lani Guinier.

Since we're looking ahead here, I must confess that, like Sharpton, I wouldn't meet with Bush alone. Not that I worry about becoming the next Monica Lewinsky or anything, but all in all, I'd want witnesses. The kind of witnesses I'll bet Donald Rumsfeld wishes he had to explain those tapes in the National Archives. The ones in which he agrees with Nixon that African blacks are "just out of the trees." Rumsfeld, who's heard saying, "That's right," "I know" and "That's for sure," now has no better excuse to fall back upon except that he was "acknowledging," not agreeing with, Nixon.

But with me, a Bush White House would never have to worry about such embarrassing moments, because on each and every tape for posterity you'd hear me, loud and clear, exclaiming, "Say what?" and "You've got to be kidding!" You'd hear me reciting the Emancipation Proclamation, telling people about the Reconstruction Amendments, chanting passages from international conventions against the death penalty and pointing out Greece on the map.

What of my broader political agenda, you may well ask. Unlike Al Sharpton, I'm not ambitious enough to come up with something with which a presumed "black collective" might entirely agree. Nevertheless, since I was among the 92 percent of blacks who collectively voted Democratic, I'm confident that I'll be a lot closer to that goal than Republican "civil rights activists" like Abigail Thernstrom.

Like Laura Bush, I'm also a great believer in literacy. So when Lynne Cheney rises up to decry the decadent state of the arts in America, I'll help out by making sure the National Archives has plenty of copies of that lusty lesbian love story she published before Dick gave her what must have been a really, really good spanking. When librarians ban Harry Potter for promoting witchcraft, I'll be sure to suggest that they try replacing it with the 1853 edition of The Very Hungry Caterpillar--that children's book Bush says he so enjoyed reading as a child, but that some bitter liberals insist wasn't published until the year he graduated from college.

When John Ashcroft waxes nostalgic about the good old days of the Confederacy when "the races" lived together in honeyed harmony, I'll help set up the Sally Hemings Memorial Genealogical Resource Center so that all of us black folk who were so much happier then can find our way back to our beloved masters. I sincerely look forward to homesteading my own little cabin-in-the-garage, listening to the chilluns tell the neighbors how like family we all are. If the Missus wants to give me a little pocket money, and if I freely choose to do a few small chores like plowing the back forty, then isn't that precisely the utopian arrangement that former Labor Secretary-designate Linda Chavez, referring to the hospitality she bestowed upon a former slave of her own, described as "an act of charity and compassion"? Indeed, I foresee a mass migration of freedom-weary blacks streaming back to Tara to live with our good white cousins who have been waiting all these years for us to see that home is where the DNA says it is.

Moreover, when failed nominee Chavez continues to attack labor unions for interfering with such good intentions from her post at the Center for Equal Opportunity, I will see to it that she becomes a global role model of free enterprise, and on prime time. I'm pretty sure I could interest Fox in a program called Survivor Too. I see Ms. Chavez and the entire cast of characters of her think tank being transported to a remote tenement building in South Central Los Angeles. There they would have to learn to catch and broil rats, thatch their own roofs, find an open gas station when the toilets overflow and commute to their jobs in Washington, DC, by public transportation. To make it interesting, I suppose we could jack up the stakes with a Wolof-only language requirement. Each week, we the American public would be allowed to call in our votes and kick one resident out onto the street, where, dressed only in skimpy rat-skin jerkins, they would be consigned to begging for food on the mean streets of the financial district. If Chavez gets to Washington within one year of Inauguration Day, she gets that Cabinet post after all.

Finally, when Tommy Thompson succeeds in getting a federal ban on abortion and does away with welfare as we know it, I pledge to resurrect Jonathan Swift's modest proposal that the nation's Truly Deserving Rich round out their diets by dining on the plump babies of the Truly Undeserving Poor.

A baby in every pot, a contented ex-slave in every garage. I sit by the phone, waiting to serve.

A Christmas letter to the state of Virginia.

I write from shipboard, on the Nation cruise. The boat has just pulled away from port and chugs toward the horizon, leaving land behind. We are fourth in a line of cruise ships departing the harbor at sunset, all glittering in a blaze of orange and pink and turquoise. I look back at the shore and think: America. What a beautiful, rich, blessed land we live in. What more than the land itself could Coronado and Ponce de León have been seeking? Why gold? Why youth? Why even piña coladas? The pure pleasure of this place ought to have been enough.

And yet... it is a mixed sensation, for I am also relieved to see the land receding just now, suspended as we are in the tense limbo of this, the first week of December 2000. It is good to leave behind Rush Limbaugh's meanspirited radio transmissions, the foaming attacks on Jesse Jackson, the use of insulting stereotypes of black people to attack Al Gore and Bill Clinton. It is a relief to take a break from the contemptuous public disrespect for the function of courts, the role of lawyers, the intentions of voters, the requirements of process. As Florida slips beneath the horizon, and CNN's signal crackles and grows fuzzy, I feel like a black-single-mother version of Henry David Thoreau, only standing at the brink of a much bigger and much deeper pond: "To me, away there in my bean-field at the other end of the town, the big guns sounded as if a puffball had burst; and when there was a military turnout...I have sometimes had a vague sense all the day of some sort of itching and disease in the horizon."

What a time we live in. On November 7, I stayed up late like everyone else, listening to National Public Radio on my Walkman. I fell asleep with the headphones on sometime in the wee hours of November 8, exhausted by the flummoxed newscasters' frantic flips and flops. Gore was winning when I lost consciousness. When I awoke hours later, the tinny sound in my ears had changed: A sneering, gleeful voice was making fun of Florida's elderly and "NEEE-gro" voters. I lay frozen. What I didn't know was that NPR is only a hair's bandwidth away from The Howard Stern Show and that in my sleep I had apparently flipped and flopped as much as the results, enough to move the dial a fraction. So it was that my first waking thought was: "Dear God, George Bush won, and they've taken over NPR. The revolution has begun."

It's been all downhill from there. Over the days and weeks since, we have witnessed an eerily exact re-enactment of the tie that led up to the Hayes-Tilden compromise of 1876, as a result of which the federal government pulled troops out of the post-Civil War South. This in turn led directly to the collapse of Reconstruction and the vengeful reassertion of that brand of separatist white supremacy so vividly depicted in D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation.

In the weeks since, we have heard George Bush say that it's the executive's job to interpret the law, an idea that Augusto Pinochet surely would endorse. We have watched another Ryder truck (remember Timothy McVeigh?) make its way into the annals of American history. We have shared yet one more "O.J. moment," as Floridians lined the streets to watch the truck speed by, cheering, hooting and taking photos. And given that America's most precious natural resource turns out not to have been gold but rather the entertainment industry, we have been graced with enough material from which to spin conspiracy plots for years and years to come. I see blockbusters like Elián's Revenge, Jeb Jimmies the Lockbox, and of course, The South Shall Rise Again.

In the weeks since November 8, my cruel British friends have had a field day. So soon after the last fiasco, so soon after the spectacle of the Inquisition-style moralists who tried to impeach Bill Clinton, I find myself explaining American peculiarities yet again to the exceedingly upbeat English. They twitter on in the most condescending way about former colonies that simply aren't ready to govern themselves. I try to be serious and explain the Electoral College. They say they are quite informed about American history, thank you very much, and could I please explain why only three-fifths of Florida's electorate was counted while at the same time three-fifths of the people who have declared George Bush a winner are related to him? Is it fuzzy math or fuzzy brain that keeps Americans from noticing that Bush's margin of victory is about the same as the number of people he has executed in Texas?

"You lot got your knickers in quite a knot this time, eh?" gloat the Cruel British Friends.

"A real atomic wedgie," I concede.

In the postelection weeks, my sleep has been troubled by strange visions. I dream that Al Gore and George Bush are standing in the ring at Madison Square Garden, Gore bouncing up and down in his Harvard boxing shorts and nice new leather gloves, Bush trying to look presidential while wearing a Hell's Angels vest, swinging a chain and hiding a switchblade.

Another night I dream that Bush is President, and, first thing, the neural pathways for Croatians and Koreans get crossed in his brain. He ends up thinking they're all "Corians" and while his advisers are out finding floor samples, he drops bombs on the nearest thing he can find on a map--which would be those poor doomed Grecians. World War III breaks out, world markets plunge and the sublimina-limina-lominable hordes sweep down from the north, south, east and west.

Other times I dream I am arguing before the Supreme Court, and Bush appointee Kenneth Starr is our new Chief Justice. The United States Constitution is a jewel, I say, whose multifaceted brilliance takes time, polishing and the infinite honing of years of courtroom argumentation by the finest minds dressed in Brooks Brothers suits, blah, blah, blah. The dream always ends with just that: blah, blah, blah.

Anyway, back onboard the Nation cruise, I turn my attention to preparing my remarks for the first morning's panel, titled--I restrain myself from comment--"The Nation At Sea: Where Are We Headed?" I furrow my brow and chew my pencil. I stare at the blank white paper. "Paris," I write at last.

Afew days before the election, I accompanied a friend to the dentist's office. It was one of those situations in which appearance takes over more complex realities of who we are. I was a middle-aged black woman assisting an elderly white man. That he's a wild old radical who browbeats the mad law professor in me with Russian ideologues and German philosophers probably wasn't what most people saw as we toddled down the street arm in arm on cane. In the vast warren of the medical center, we become even more invisible in a waiting room filled with physically fragile patients, many of whom had been brought there by female caretakers of color.

Perhaps because of some such condescension, we became privy to a loud conversation floating out the not-quite-closed door of the office next to which we were sitting. One of the doctors was chatting with a patient, expressing his general pique at the world in familiar, often contradictory clichés. He was upset at the loss of standards in schools. He pitted merit against equality and paired merit with white, Jewish and Asian students. He insisted that "we are not all equal" and concluded that affirmative action was inherently immoral. A few minutes later he blamed white liberals for abandoning standards and praised as standard-bearers those blacks who support vouchers. "The problem is" minorities who teach their children to hate white people. He said that "blacks are out of control" and that black leaders "are not taking responsibility." He cited Al Sharpton, Marion Barry and Louis Farrakhan as typical black leaders, and he rattled on against substance abuse in the inner cities and guns in the hands of young blacks who will never make it into the middle class, because they don't study and don't have good table manners.

"Bite down," he said as he finished with a paean of support for "zero tolerance" policies, standardized testing and George W. Bush.

George W. Bush! I shook my head wonderingly. If only he were black. It's one of those things we black people think about a lot: If only this or that one were black. Can you imagine, we tell each other.

Just think where a black man who spent more than half his adult life as a substance abuser would be--a black man who had a conviction for drunk driving and a notoriously bad attitude. Is it too obvious to point out that George Bush and Dick Cheney--who has two convictions for drunk driving--share a certain equality of status with Marion Barry?

Just think where a sneering black frat brother who committed gross grammatical butcheries and called Greeks Grecians would be. What fun Abigail Thernstrom could have questioning why unqualified upper-class whiners like that should be admitted to "first tier" universities like Yale and Harvard. (I guess we're supposed to feel better that Cheney flunked out of Yale on his own merits.)

Just think of where a black businessman with a "winning" personality but a losing financial record would be when he showed up to buy that team franchise. Assuming he could get a job way down in the corporate food chain, you can bet they wouldn't let him anywhere near the cash register.

Imagine a black politician who was so loudmouthed that his own family called him "bombastic," who proffered opinions about nations whose names he hadn't bothered to learn or badly mispronounced and who created an international incident by falsely accusing the Russian Prime Minister of stealing from the IMF. If you're thinking Al Sharpton, think again.

Imagine a black leader who began his campaign for office at a university that historically advocated racial separatism as God's law and that published materials describing Judaism as heretical and Catholicism as a "cult." I do wonder how it is that George W. can wander through so much of Louis Farrakhan's metaphysical territory and still come out looking like someone whose morals so many Americans say they can look up to.

I do not draw such analogies simply to relativize. The more important point, I think, is one related to what I sometimes call innocence profiling. If George W. Bush were black, he would be a classic suspect profile. If he were Driving While Black, there are people who would have forgiven police if they had decided to shoot at his drunkenly weaving car on that dark Maine highway (as New Jersey troopers shot at that van full of perfectly sober, cooperative college students). If he had been black, we might have heard Mayor Rudolph Giuliani describing him as "no altar boy" (as he described Patrick Dorismond, a security guard "accidentally" shot and killed by the NYPD).

But of course, George W. Bush is not black, and thus it is, perhaps, that the New York Times instead ran an article describing him as having tamed his "inner scamp" and entered "midlife redemption"--even as the article goes on to describe the supposedly redeemed man-who-would-be-Commander-in-Chief as having behaved so insultingly and inappropriately toward Queen Elizabeth at a state dinner in 1991--five years after he says he gave up alcohol--that a horrified Barbara Bush promised the Queen to seat him far away from Her Majesty, "for fear of him saying something."

The lesson of equality is, at its heart, related to the question of double standards: There are still too many examples in American society of the degree to which we have zero tolerance for disreputable black behavior and seemingly unlimited indulgence when whites behave the very same way.

Anyway, back at the medical center, the dentist's door flew open. "Next!" called out the doctor.

"Now set the teeth...," growled my dear old friend and lefty warrior as he marched into the office to face needles, drills...and more. "It won't be so bad," smiled the dentist unsuspectingly.

But my friend had been quoting Shakespeare's Henry V. "Teach them how to war..." he went on and winked at me. The door shut softly behind them.

This presidential race leaves an odd sensation among those of us not having a television. Like the much-cited Kennedy-Nixon race, in which the camera was generally thought to have given Kennedy the visual edge, the Gore-Bush debates played very differently with the visuals suppressed. Listening to them, Gore sounded stilted, yes, and Bush sounded unbelievably evasive, no surprises there.

What's more interesting, however, is that the day after the first debate, I found myself unable to understand any of the follow-up commentary in the rest of the media. Matching suits? Jerking? Smirking? Orange lighting? Had Al Gore really been made up to look like Ronald Reagan? Even the now-famous sigh was mostly a visual event--a camera angle, a gesture of exasperation; it hadn't come across at all on radio.

I felt as though I'd missed out on some weird national Halloween party. Who had the best costume? Who won the monster mash dance contest? And who in the world was all this playing to?

I suppose that's why the candidates ended their campaign playing to undecided Missourians. You can't get more middle than that. No one in Harlem, where Gore started his campaign, is undecided. No one at Bob Jones University, where Bush began his, is undecided. And so the race ended with the contestants sashaying down the runway in a mock Mr. America contest, attired like the Blues Brothers in identical suits and ties, each spouting platitudes about education and the moral fortress that is marriage, each playing down differences so as to appeal to the kind of centrist whose taste runs no further to the right or left than boiled as opposed to mashed potatoes.

But as someone who listened rather than watched, I am really shaken by how little attention has been paid to what substantive disagreements there are between Gore and Bush. There was, for example, that revealing moment when Bush was pushed about affirmative action--not the right-wing version that equates affirmative action with quotas, but the actual, conservative version permitted by the Supreme Court. Bush responded with some nonsense about what he called "affirmative access," which as Gore pointed out, has no legal or political meaning. When Bush was asked directly whether he would support affirmative action without quotas, he retorted, "If affirmative action means what I just described, what I'm for, then I'm for it." This was the kind of repeated evasion at which Bush is very practiced, but the kind of evasion that in fact speaks volumes. There are, I repeat, big differences between Bush and Gore when it comes to the issues about which most people are rarely undecided: race, gender, labor and environmental issues.

I suppose that most everyone except undecided Missourians understood that such games were being played in the debates. What worries me is the degree to which the recognition of this as masquerade has made some forget that it is also a game with high stakes. Impatience with the game-playing leads some to want to opt for someone who speaks passionately. But let's face it: Neither Nader nor Buchanan nor any other third party candidate has a prayer of winning this election. That's a mathematical certainty, folks. It's not the world I like--I wanted Bradley. But for now there are two choices given, and one will rule our lives.

We are choosing the world's most powerful leader. It is not an opinion poll, it is not a popularity contest and it is unlikely ever to be the vehicle for launching a progressive revolution. I find it distressing to see polls predicting that Nader voters will help Bush take Washington and Oregon. And I think voters in New York and Massachusetts are naïtve when they say they will vote for Nader because they feel their states are overwhelmingly Democratic anyway, so nothing will be lost if they register a protest vote for Nader. This is an election, not a market survey.

I get alarmed when I hear people say that maybe it will be better for progressives if Bush is elected. What kind of progressive wants a Bush appointee heading up the Office of Civil Rights? A Bush appointee deciding the fate of habeas corpus? A Bush appointee delivering the FDA to biotech companies? And will the progressive revolution occur before or after Bush hands over the last American wilderness to loggers and oil companies?

None of this means that I don't wish we had a wider range of pragmatic options. But I'll express that dissatisfaction by working for campaign finance reform. I'll work to see the infamous case of Buckley v. Valeo reversed (that's the decision that equated speech with money, thus making campaign spending a form of expression protected by the First Amendment). I'll work to see the inclusion of third party candidates in future debates. (And speaking of barring third party candidates from the debates, wouldn't it have been more interesting to have given Missourians who support Nader and Buchanan the chance to grill Gore and Bush?)

I wish all kinds of things were different--that we had more cumulative voting in the United States, that we entertained adopting certain features of parliamentary systems. I too find this offend-no-one, appeal-to-the-middle of a race infuriating. But it's also true that this campaign has been waged like the Gulf War. We the citizenry watch a big screen filled with talking heads holed up in the Baghdad Hilton--or a school auditorium in Iowa--but we must know that real missiles are exploding on the Rush Limbaugh Show or in Rupert Murdoch's New York Post or through the Christian Coalition's televangelized appeals. Within those forums, Republicans are not at all evasive, but mounting a frontal assault that equates public service with corruption, diversity with lowered standards, public schools with race wars, private schools with free enterprise, free enterprise with civil liberty, choice with self-segregation and the segregation of whites from blacks with opportunity. In the end, Pat Buchanan represents very little threat to George Bush because the right is smart enough to know which side its bread is buttered on. This is one heck of a moment for what's left of the left to allow itself to be divided and conquered by wasting a vote.

I'm surprised at how many otherwise thoughtful people seem convinced that this election "makes no difference." In my very first Nation column, I quoted Justice Antonin Scalia, who, during a 1997 visit to Columbia Law School, stated publicly that if Brown v. Board of Education came to him as a case of first impression, he would vote against the majority. Most of the federal judiciary are Reagan/Bush appointees. There are an unprecedented number of judicial openings right now because of the unprecedented blocking of Clinton appointees maneuvered by the Republican-controlled Judiciary Committee. A sense of urgency thus prompted me to cull an unscientific sampling of lawyers, writers and human rights activists--all of whom feel that this is an important election in which to make one's voice heard.

Charles Ogletree Jr., professor, Harvard Law School: "The most important election in recent memory will occur on November 7, 2000. George W. Bush, who favors Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, and Al Gore, who favors someone in the mold of Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan, have radically different views of the next Supreme Court appointments. With Roe v. Wade, affirmative action and majority-minority districts at stake, there is no graver choice facing the nation than a progressive Gore Court or a reactionary Bush Court."

Reva Siegel, professor, Yale Law School: "Last term, the Court invalidated provisions of two different civil rights laws, holding that Congress lacked power to enact the antidiscrimination statutes--something the Court has not done since the nineteenth century. After these rulings, it is no longer clear how statutes like the Family and Medical Leave Act or the Pregnancy Discrimination Act can be enforced against state employers, or what kind of hate crimes legislation the Congress can enact. But more is at stake than the particular provisions of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act or the Violence Against Women Act, which the Court struck down last term, or the provisions of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which the Court is considering this term. The question is whether the Court continues to recognize and respect the federal government's power to prohibit discrimination as that power has been exercised by Congress in the decades since passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964."

Richard Matasar, dean, New York Law School: "Judicial appointment is the stealth issue of every national election. While abortion and crime occupy the attention of the press, the judiciary can also carry on a quiet revolution in its allocation of authority between state and federal government. The Republican judiciary has already significantly shifted the distribution of power between governments; this election can break or solidify that shift."

Maivan Clech Lam, professor, City University of New York Law School at Queens College: "The Supreme Court's rulings on state and federal power are very likely in the next years to determine issues of sovereignty important to indigenous Hawaiians and possibly all tribes in general."

Bob Wing, editor, ColorLines: "The prospect of an entrenched reactionary Supreme Court majority is awful.... However, I wish that I was more confident that Al Gore, who is associated with the Democratic Leadership Council's center-right wing of the Democratic Party, would reverse that trend."

Peter Gabel, president, New College School of Law: "I'm not sharply critical of those who want to vote for Gore to protect the Court, but I do think they overestimate the Court's role as an active progressive power and fail to see its essential commitment to maintaining a center (whether center-right or center-left). It is movements in society that motivate the Court to move. A real left needs to do the opposite of defending the empty center, which is perpetually self-erasing and actually blocks the development of a progressive movement. Instead, we must try to emerge into public visibility--visibility to one another!--by voting for Ralph Nader."

Jill Nelson, writer: "I've been thinking that it's the height of the ever-growing class-based disconnect in this society for people who consider themselves left or progressive or liberal to run the 'I'm going to vote for Nader because there's no difference between Gore and Bush.' Rest assured, I'm not happy with any of 'em, but I'm very clear about the importance of Supreme Court appointments and for that reason will vote for the lesser evil, which is the real, disappointing, difficult nature, it seems, of democracy as we know it. The alternative is for me to delude myself that an abstract notion of principle trumps class privilege, which it doesn't. Sure, no matter who's on the Court, me and mine can have abortions and hire top attorneys and otherwise have the possibility of buying ourselves out of whatever mess we're in, but that's not enough. For me, democracy is fundamentally about community, and to paraphrase Reagan in that movie, what about the rest of us?"

Sydelle Pittas, attorney: "In the course of work on a television series I produced for the Women's Bar Association on 'Your Legal Rights,' I interviewed almost all of Massachusetts' sitting federal judges. From them I learned a few things that showed me how important it is to have Justices who understand the experiences of real women. Justices are human beings, and while they are impressive in how mightily they strive to find the law rather than make it, how they make those findings necessarily comes from their own understanding, based at least in some part on their experience."

Bill Ong Hing, professor of Law and Asian-American Studies, University of California, Davis: "People of color and other traditionally subordinated groups have few institutions upon which they can rely. Their skepticism of the judicial system's desire to respond to their plight has reached a new high point, as the Court molded by Nixon-Ford-Reagan-Bush (Carter made no appointments) has come to dominate the nation's jurisprudence.... Whether and to what extent, if any, the Supreme Court serves as an agent or ally of social change is debatable. But a progressive voice of a Supreme Court majority--open to the views and experiences of those who have been marginalized--would foster a culture (and hope) for change in other mainstream institutions."

We don't have a TV at home, so we've missed the much-drubbed NBC Olympics coverage. So when a little friend of my son's said she'd been watching, I asked her if any of the events had inspired her to want to be an Olympic athlete when she grew older.

"Yeah!" she raved. "Just wait! I'm gonna be a rock star and I'll ride onto the field with my helmet on my head and my crossbow on my back and I'm gonna have a band and six backup singers, and then when they light the torch, all the soldiers I've been saving in my disk drive are gonna burst onto the screen and do a dance and then there'll be fireworks, fireworks, fireworks, boom, boom, kaBOOM! Like you've never seen before!"

Flushed from such imaginative exertions, this dangerous little person ran off with my precious son, she humming a tune by Britney Spears, he shouting a song by the Backstreet Boys. (It was a perfect fugue, by the way. Has anyone else noticed that Britney is just Lance hung upside down and played backwards?)

Each culture develops its own sense of sport, I suppose. When I travel, I confess I make up for the deprivation at home by watching a lot of hotel-room television. I am always fascinated to see the kinds of competitive sports that people will sit up late for in other parts of the world. I've been to Edinburgh during sheepherding finals (sort of a par course for sheepdogs grafted onto a running of the bulls, except with large shaggy rams. Like Babe, but vicious). I've spent time with friends in Minnesota where ice fishing--which is, I assure you, one of the slower sports known to mankind--took up Real Time in dinner party conversation.

Once I spent five days in a small German town in a university dormitory built on the site of what had been a Nazi bank vault. This being truly the belly of the beast, I was not at all surprised when the heat went out the moment I got there. Within hours, I fell sick with a raging fever, my body temperature rising with each degree the room temperature fell. As I lay shivering beneath the thin cotton blanket, I used my last ounce of strength to flick through the channels on the steel television set (which was bolted to a fixed rod hanging from the ceiling, like the ones in hospitals or prisons). Aside from the ubiquitous CNN, all the available stations were displaying the same sporting event--in German, Swiss German, Farsi, Turkish and Basque. The event in question appeared to be a particularly formal version of Austrian dressage: horses with knotted manes and beribboned tails prancing rigidly through backbreakingly unnatural placements and postures, two-stepping, then waltzing to martial music. The riders, who wore high hats and polished boots, put the animals through their paces with the reins tightened so as to hold the horses' necks upright, the bits so tight the horses looked as though they were leering. The riders were tense and ferocious. The horses were precise, wild-eyed, slobbering with foam.

In happier times, I've been to the far north, up around the Arctic Circle, where Icelandic log-tossing is what in other climes might be called "hot." These are not little logs we're talking about, if the broadcast I saw is any measure--contestants trained by hoisting Yugo minivans on their backs. Indeed, in a side event to the log-toss, they ran a course where every thirty feet or so they stopped to pick up a 350-pound block of stone and chuck it in a rain barrel. "These Icelandic strong men" the voiceover explained, "consume from eight thousand to ten thousand calories a day"--a conceivable goal if, like me, you're thinking of the energizing properties of Ring Dings and marshmallow fluff, but an impressively ambitious one when you learn that a professional log-tosser's diet is fat- and sugar-free.

In South Africa, I once watched a spoofy (I think) combat in which a white gladiator and a black gladiator battled each other up the sheer face of a wall, the goal being not just to reach the top first but to dislodge your opponent so that he has no chance of ever making it up.

Then there's Wisconsin, where, back in the eighties, I lived through three deer-hunting seasons. The season was only nine days long but with more than 600,000 licensed hunters on the prowl, around 260,000 deer could expect to meet their maker within that time. "I guess they have bad aim," said my sister dryly when she heard this bit of data, but the truth is they did indeed have exceedingly bad aim. If memory serves me, Wisconsin was the only state that actually gave blind people a license to shoot. I was told they had to wear a neon-red sign that said: blind hunter (thus giving other blind hunters the chance to duck, I suppose).

Not only did more deer die at that time of year than at any other, more Wisconsiners did too. So the real suspense of the daily television tally was always the human toll, not the animal. Lost bullets seeking their mark took shortcuts through people's breakfast nooks and open bathroom windows and attic hideaways. Stray bullets always caught people by surprise in the middle of some intensely private act. Not that every such death was a complete surprise: One year the sheriffs and game wardens got worried about hunters who shot across busy highways at deer on the other side. So they set up lots of deer decoys by the sides of lots of busy highways to catch the sort of people who would do such a thing. Many of us just hid in the basement until they thought the logic of that one over.

I'm optimistic that we humans will always express our sporting instincts in locally interesting and richly varied ways. Indeed, a recurring criticism of the NBC coverage has been precisely its homogenization of the Olympics--the sappy human interest, the weepy mood music, the breathlessly overdramatized replays. But when I think about what the youngest consumers of American sports culture are exposed to as routine athletic fare, I guess it's no wonder some of them would opt for the halftime song-and-dance act. They already know that too often the real action is played out in culturally revealing games like the Bobby Knight Memorial chair-tossing competition, Hide and Seek the Steroids, the Million Dollar Endorsement Dash, Soccer Mom Slugfest and Hockey Dad Death Match.

The month of June always makes me wistful. School's out. A half-liberated, half-sad seasonal sensation settles over me, a feeling I associate with childhood and summer vacation.

Author

Patricia J. Williams
Patricia J. Williams, a professor of law at Columbia University, was born in...

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