Empty Gestures

Empty Gestures

The racist taunting of Orioles outfielder Adam Jones by Red Sox fans points to the often invisible ugliness at the heart of liberalism.

Adam Jones is a hell of a center fielder. He's also been one of the Baltimore Orioles' best hitters for nearly a decade. All this can make him infuriating if he's playing your team.

Red Sox fans were appropriately infuriated. The American League East is a cage match which lasts five months. Five teams battle with brass knuckles and broken bottles for the division title, playing each other eighteen times per season. Familiarity breeds contempt. Red Sox fans hate Orioles fans hate Yankees fans hate Blue Jays fans hate Rays fans hate Red Sox fans. To make matters worse, a combination of injuries and bad luck had made the Sox's first month of the 2017 campaign less celebratory than most had expected, while the Yankees sprinted out to an early lead, with the Orioles following close behind.

On May 1st the Orioles visited Fenway Park for the first of four games. Jones found himself ducking racial slurs and a thrown bag of peanuts. Fans were ejected, some earning themselves lifetime bans from the venerated old ballpark. The Orioles won 5-2.

In the aftermath social media lit up with calls to demonstrate that a few fans' actions did not represent the views of most Bostonians. Some suggested that Jones be given a standing ovation by the Sox faithful when he stepped into the batter's box the next night, and that's exactly what happened. Red Sox starting pitcher Chris Sale, usually noted for working quickly, stepped off the mound and conferred with his catcher in order to let the applause ring. Then Jones struck out on four pitches, and third baseman Manny Machado came up to bat.

It was Machado who, in the teams' previous meeting in Baltimore, had injured Boston's Dustin Pedroia when sliding hard into second. Sale, in keeping with baseball's unwritten, arcane code of conduct, threw a 98 mph heater behind Machado's knees. It was retaliation for something – either for the Pedroia injury, or for the Orioles' Dylan Bundy earlier beaning Sox center fielder Mookie Betts. Either way, Machado zagged out of the ball's path, and the umpire warned both benches.

 

 

Sandy Koufax threw his perfect game in LA against the Cubs on September 9th, 1965. Much of Los Angeles still smoldered in the wake of the Watts Rebellion.

A headline in Boston read, “Negro Children Invade White Schools.”

It had been a month since the enactment of Lyndon B. Johnson's Voting Rights Act. In The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s, and concerning the climate which allowed the VRA, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and other Civil Rights victories, Allen Matusow writes, “having recently waged World War II against demonic racism abroad, liberals could no longer ignore the domestic variety. After the war, for the first time since Reconstruction, a significant body of white opinion was willing to confront the contradiction between American principal and black reality.” The VRA was the latest in a string of legislative victories, concrete actions designed to make good on JFK's “symbolic acts.”

Within four years, Johnson's “Great Society” would give way to the Nixon years, the great hope of '60s liberalism dashed on the rocks of “white backlash,” according to Matusow, and the Vietnam War.

Three weeks after his perfect game, Koufax refused to pitch Game 1 of the World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. He retired after the '66 season, just a year later. He was thirty. His arm was shot.

 

 

Postwar optimism, the fatigue of oppression, new economic reality; Jim Crow technically became a thing of the past, but “all deliberate speed” has given way to segregation and disenfranchisement by gerrymander.

Boston's not alone. It isn't the only racist city in America, and America isn't the only racist nation on Earth. But says Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia, “We all know. When you go to Boston, expect it.”

 

 

Of the phenomenon of being “exposed to more evils than we can possibly attend to,” Elisa Gabbert writes, “These unspoken algorithms by which we manage our empathy — they are almost innocent, almost 'self-care.' (We’re not committing atrocities, just refusing to witness them.) But layered together, they have the shade of evil.”

And this:

[I]f ethical systems are incoherent, which I believe they are, wherefore my moral certainty? Perhaps I should write instead about my own participation in evil: my complicity and complacency as an American, and my entitlement. I ignore the evils that support my quality of life, which I’ve become accustomed to (access to cheap airfare, a cheap phone, cheap meat). We’ve arranged to make the evils that benefit us invisible.
 

 

My father makes jokes about political correctness, but he's no Fox & Friends viewer. He's a '60s liberal who believes in the goodness of progress. When he makes such jokes I remind him that language both grants and reflects power. I remind him of Susan Sontag telling Mailer, “Words matter.”

 

 

Within four years of the Voting Rights Act, Johnson's “Great Society” would give way to the Nixon years, the great hope of '60s liberalism dashed on the rocks of “white backlash,” and the Vietnam War.

 

 

I also withhold things from him in order to preserve his beliefs, because yesterday's liberal is today's fossil (I am becoming one myself). I don't tell him that the Left is splintering further than he'd ever imagine possible. I don't tell him that infighting and linguistic debate is dividing the progressive movement at precisely the moment that it should be solidifying itself and preparing to mount an offensive. I don't mention that I understand this tendency to cultivate the near fields, to stage a series of small, winnable battles, instead of the impossibly vast ones. I understand the reasoning which states that if we cleanse the language within our own discipline we can claim to be innocent of larger evils.

In Speedboat, published in 1976, Renata Adler writes, “It was hard to remember yesterday's polemic, to determine whether today's rebuttal was, in fact, an answer to it. Recalling arguments in order genuinely to refute them was an unrewarding exercise. A lot of bread, anyway, was buttered on the side of no distinction. God was not dead, but the Muse was extremely unwell.”

 

 

The Jones incident occurred seventy years after Jackie Robinson debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Baseball does a good job of remembering Robinson – each April 15th, on the anniversary of his first game, every active player dons his #42, a number otherwise retired throughout baseball. But it's actually furthering the project of integration, tolerance, and anti-racism that gives the game some trouble. The game is, in some ways, stuck in the moment of one man's victory. The number of African-American players in Major League Baseball is at an alarming low following decades of post-integration growth. Among the big five major North American professional sports, baseball players are the least politically conversant. When Cardinals outfielder Dexter Fowler dared criticize the first Muslim ban, he was resoundingly shouted down. It didn't become a black ballplayer with an Iranian-American wife to have an opinion on such things.

 

 

The average American is likely to consume north of 74 gigabytes of media a day. Public anger is appeased by spectacle, or the apparent forgiveness of guilt. In the ill-conceived commercial, a riot cop is satisfied by the gift of a cold Pepsi. Is liberalism a sales pitch? Is it a privilege enjoyed in times of economic ease?

 

 

After Sale threw at Machado, it became the dominant storyline surrounding the May 2nd game, usurping the ovation. Said Machado, post-game, “It’s fucking bullshit. I’ve lost respect for that organization, for that coaching staff, for everyone over there.”

On May 3rd, Jones was ejected in the fifth inning for arguing balls and strikes. The Sox won 4-2. On May 4th, the last game of the series, the O's won 8-3, and there were no standing ovations. The gesture had been rescinded. Sox fans wanted desperately to see their team beat the Orioles.

There's always a war to cite as distraction.

 

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