Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 23 June 2023


The Age of Spectacle Is Upon Us

A closeup of a blue Los Angeles Dodgers cap with the interlocking L and A in rainbow colors.
Credit...Meg Oliphant/Getty Images
A closeup of a blue Los Angeles Dodgers cap with the interlocking L and A in rainbow colors.

Opinion Columnist

If I walked onto the field at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles and stomped on a Dodger’s uniform on home plate, I hope that the Dodgers and their fans would be upset. This is the jersey that Jackie Robinson wore, along with Dodgers legends like Sandy Koufax, Orel Hershiser, Tommy Lasorda and Roy Campanella. You don’t dishonor other people’s uniforms. In a pluralistic society, decent people don’t dishonor what others find sacred.

This is one reason I think the Dodgers erred in honoring the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence last Friday.

As you might have read, the Sisters are a group of L.G.B.T.Q. activists who have provided invaluable services to those in their community, especially during the AIDS crisis, but who also dress up as over-the-top nuns, adopt names like Sister Mysteria of the Holy Order of the Broken Hymen or Sister Sermonetta of the Flying Phallus, and who have been known to mock the crucifixion by hosting a re-enactment of it as a pole dance.

They are justified in protesting a church whose teaching doesn’t acknowledge their right to be who they are, but they do it in a way that dishonors the nuns who live in poverty serving the poor. They do it in a sophomoric way designed to cause offense. In a healthy society, we try to assert differences without demeaning one another’s identities.

Besides, the Sisters’ methods are counterproductive. L.G.B.T.Q. rights have progressed so far over the past decade or so because members of those communities have displayed their own dignity, not because they’ve denigrated the dignity of others.

The Dodgers were wrong to honor a group that dishonors other people’s uniforms, and the sacred commitments those uniforms represent. But that’s not my real beef with the Dodgers. My real beef is that they should be in the baseball business, not the culture war business. When they cross that boundary, they are eroding something fundamental to a healthy society.

In a healthy society, the early-20th-century Dutch prime minister and theologian Abraham Kuyper observed, there are a variety of spheres, each with its own social function. There is the state, the church, the family, the schools, science, business, the trades, etc. Each of these spheres, he continued, has its own rules and possesses its own integrity and correct way of doing things. Each sphere is a responsible zone of flourishing. You can clarify what any particular sphere’s responsibility is by asking questions like: What is a school for? What is a science lab for? What is a baseball team for?

Society grows unhealthy, Kuyper argued, when one sphere tries to take over another sphere. In our country, the business sphere has sometimes tried to take over the education sphere — to run schools like a business. But if you run a school or university on the profit-maximization mentality, you will trample over the mission of what a school is for — the cultivation of the student, the mission of pure research.

Today, the boundaries between spheres are collapsing. You go into an evangelical megachurch and it can feel like a political pep rally. Some professors now see themselves as political activists. You open your email and find corporations taking political stances on issues that have nothing to do with their core businesses.

Some days it seems every sphere has been subsumed into one giant culture war, producing what Yuval Levin described in Comment magazine as “a vast sociopolitical psychosis.”

I’d add only that it’s not just politics that has taken over everything — at least if you think about politics as arguing over policy. It’s more accurate to say that it’s politics as spectacle that has taken over everything.

Spectacle is the sphere that achieves public titillation through public combat. In Rome, gladiatorial combat was spectacle. Professional wrestling is spectacle. Reality TV is spectacle. Donald Trump — the love child of professional wrestling and reality TV — is spectacle. Tucker Carlson presented TV news as spectacle. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence perform activism in the form of spectacle.

The point of spectacle is not to resolve differences; it is to attract attention. In spectacle you thrive by offending people. Narcissism is rewarded, humility is forbidden. Inflaming hatred is part of the business plan.

Baseball exists in the sphere of sport, but not spectacle. Players compete to thrill the fans and honor the game, not to humiliate or offend their opponents. Baseball is woven into so many of our lives because it is that sphere where childhood dreams play out and lifetime memories are made, where communities come together in triumph and disappointment.

When the Dodgers embraced the culture war spectacle, even just a little, they eroded the integrity of their sphere. Personally, I think it’s great for teams to honor groups in their fan base, as with Pride Night or Hispanic Heritage Night; but I think it’s wrong for teams to honor organizations that ridicule other groups in their fan base.

It’s a reminder for the rest of us. We’re each entrusted to guard one sphere or another, a trust we violate when we become the brothers and sisters in culture war displays of perpetual self-indulgence.

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