May 27, 2003
can't say that I went out of my way to immerse myself in the media
frenzy over golf star Annika Sorenstam playing with the men late
last week, so I could have missed it. But in all the discussion
of the greater significance of the event, I don't think I heard
anybody get to the heart of the social and cultural meaning of what
Annika Sorenstam did. That I didn't suggests to me that our American
media culture (a term susceptible to many definitions, of course,
and an abstraction to boot) is virtually incapable even of entertaining
or perhaps even conceiving of the meaning in the terms that seem
to me perfectly obvious and sensible.
me jump ahead of myself to suggest that the fact that our culture
has such difficulty recognizing meanings that seem perfectly obvious
to some of us might also help to explain why our culture seems to
take seriously the idea that humankind would do better living in
peace than in constant conflict. That's a pretty long leap, I confess,
and I'm constrained to admit that some of it is intuitive; I haven't
worked through all the logical connections yet, but I'm pretty sure
they'll hold together.
stick with me. I'm writing on a holiday, another day our culture
seems to me to misconstrue. There should be at least an element
in the conscious remembrance of those who have died in military
service of a determination to make sure that Americans are not called
on to die in the service of causes that are less than worthy of
their willingness to sacrifice. Instead, it often becomes close
to a celebration of the current conflict, with a strong undercurrent
of making sure there will always be a supply of young people willing
(preferably) but at least ready and able to die in future wars.
I detect a whiff, in America's way with Memorial Day, of the conscious
celebration of death.
barbecues in celebration of nothing more than a Monday off work,
with not a trace of historical or patriotic remembrance are more
socially constructive, in my view.
persistently as Annika Sorenstam herself resisted the categorization
that various avatars of media popular culture tried to subject her
to, you would think that a few people might have gotten a clue.
To be sure, she didn't articulate her beliefs in an especially sustained
way; she simply dropped clues. They were almost universally missed.
wanted to make her a representative of women, or perhaps American
women, or perhaps women athletes or women golfers, or people born
in other countries who have chosen to live in the United States
for now. They (that ever-handy "they" on whom we can blame
everything) wanted to make the golf match a metaphor for the current
position of women (or women golfers, etc, etc), for the current
status of sports as an American obsession of cultural significance,
for the resistance of the culture to full equality for despised
minorities, and on and on, ad absurdum.
herself expressed surprise, and probably genuine surprise, at the
intensity of media interest. She tried to insist that she wasn't
a role model or a representative or a symbol or a metaphor or a
cultural signifier. She was just a very good woman golfer who had
nothing left to demonstrate to herself or to others in competition
with other women and wanted to see how she would do playing against
men. She got an opportunity to do so and took it. That's it. No
deep social meaning.
there is a deep social meaning to the way Annika Sorenstam chose
to breach mostly informal or cultural barriers and play with the
men. Like Babe Didrikson Zaharias, the first woman to do it more
than 50 years ago, she did it as a talented individual person rather
than as a representative of some larger group. Both Babe and Annika
seem to have been so comfortable within their own skins and their
own identity that they almost didn't recognize consciously the social
significance of their actions. Being an individual and acting like
an individual is for some people so natural as breathing, and not
something to which they give a lot of introspective thought.
apparent paradox is that by operating as an individual rather than
as a political symbol, she may well have done more to open up opportunities
for other women golfers than if she had undertaken the tournament
as a conscious or self-conscious test case. Once she understood
that the media frenzy could not be avoided, she simply focused on
her playing despite the emotional pressure. The first day's 71 showed
she could play with the boys, and do so with dignity and grace.
The second day's 74 was disappointing, but the upshot was that anybody
who looked at the situation would have to acknowledge that if she
wanted to she could do respectably on the men's tour – probably
not a dominant repeat winner, but a solid and probably improving
once she established that, she announced that she had no intention
of trying to crack the men's tour on a regular basis, that she had
benefited from the experience and would go back to the ladies' tour.
individualist to the core, to the end.
that in cultural terms, what most of what the media wanted to do
was to make Annika Sorenstam a member or representative of a tribe.
The instinct or inclination toward tribalism must be very deep in
the human psyche-soul-spirit-whatever. We moderns, who are supposed
to have graduated beyond tribalism into civilization (we're speaking
in generalizations here, and excepting the wise writer-detached-observer
from the category, which can be dangerous), still seem to want to
divide into tribes – by gender, race, ethnic origin, language, occupation,
enthusiasm, sexual preference, etc.) and pin our self-identity,
sometimes quite narrowly and parochially, as members of a group
– a tribe.
can be attractive, an easy way to gain identity, perhaps even a
sense of self-worth and pride as a member of a group. But tribalism
tends to be very narrow and to demand fairly complete obedience
on the part of tribe members. In conflicts (and Steven A. LeBlanc's
new book, Constant
Battles: The Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage, which I
haven't finished yet, is just the latest to affirm that simpler,
"primitive" societies were marked by battle and organized
war whenever control of scarce resources or territory became an
issue, which was often) a tribe member is supposed to support his
tribe, right or wrong. Indeed, having the notion of a sense of right
and wrong, detached or independent from the interests of the tribe,
is difficult even to entertain or imagine in a strictly tribal culture.
trouble with tribalism, in short, is that it tends to be accompanied
by parochial vision, constant conflict, and a difficulty in developing
the ability to view "the other" – the tribe on the other
side of the hill, or the other side of the world, or of the ideological
or religious divide – with understanding, sympathy or anything representing
empathy. Viewing an "other" as fundamentally different
from and generally inferior to you facilitates being able view them
as possibly subhuman and therefore being more willing to kill them
– on behalf of the interests of your tribe, or the greater glory
of the cause (socialism, racialism, democracy, religious purity,
Americanism, self-defense), of course.
how do you transcend tribalism, leading to the possibility of a
civilization or culture with wider, broader sympathies, willing
or even eager to work out peaceful resolutions to conflicts rather
than being ready to do battle at the drop of an insult? There's
a respectable school of thought that it is necessary to encourage
people to have broader sympathies, to identify with humanity as
a whole rather than with the tribe or category into which you happen
to be born or into which society (that handy abstraction) wants
to push you? Only by seeing ourselves as humans in that larger sense,
beyond nationalism or tribalism, as "citizens of the world,"
or people whose rejection of their own tribe is so deep that they
might even have a tendency to identify automatically with the foe
of the moment, can we hope to get beyond petty and grand conflicts.
people believe this, or something like it, quite sincerely, and
are usually on the right side of the matter when it comes to current
issues involving war and peace. But I believe the more promising
way of transcending tribalism is through individualism, through
encouraging people to think of themselves as individuals first and
foremost – and therefore capable of assuming responsibility for
their lives and the consequences of their choices, and worthy of
being treated with dignity simply because they are individuals,
even before they have earned that respect – and as members of tribes
or groups essentially as secondary or even simply descriptive characteristics.
is people with a sense of themselves as individual people, people
with a certain amount of self-esteem and confidence, who tend to
push boundaries, make discoveries, create new patterns or works
of art, think outside the box, and therefore create breakthroughs
from which others can ultimately benefit. Again, it might seem paradoxical
to some, but people operating in what they view as their own self-interest,
at least in a system in which they have to trade value for value
with other equally independent individuals, turn out to be those
who often benefit humankind or at least some significant portion
thereof, in the most practical and concrete ways. As long as they're
trading rather than fighting, people can serve their own interests
best by taking into account the interests of others, which requires
a broader perspective, a capacity for understanding and sympathy
with people of different backgrounds.
would argue that having a solid individualist sense of oneself and
having the kind of broader, more tolerant emotional capacity to
understand others whose experiences and values are different is
not only possible. It may be that the person with a solid sense
of himself or herself as an individual is best situated to develop
that broader understanding. Perhaps a secure individualist feels
less threatened by the "other" than somebody who yearns
to achieve identity through a group, through being a member, through
surrendering a part of yourself – and therefore a part of your eagerness
for independent thought and judgment – to a group or tribe.
individualism and generally reciprocal (if not entirely free and
voluntary) trade are the key (or even a significant key) to developing
broader sympathies with others and resolving differences in interest
or perception relatively peacefully, then American culture's response
to Annika Sorenstam's big adventure might suggest we are a long
way away from even beginning to understand a sensible path to peace.
that the path lies through what some might view as an unfortunate
or paradoxical detour, a well-developed and culturally encouraged
sense of individualism as the first step toward transcending tribalism.
If our culture can't even recognize that the glory of Annika Sorenstam
is that she is an individual on a path of defining herself even
more as an individual, how can it understand, let alone celebrate,
individualism as a key to civilization, progress, broader intellectual
and cultural sympathies, and ultimately toward the possibility of
peace rather than conflict as the defining quality of our species?
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