The Imaginary Resolution of Real Contradictions

April 8th, 2006  |  Published in Politics

Across America, a movement is stirring. People from all walks of life are feeling a newly awakened sense of outrage, and demanding accountability from their public figures. No longer content to stand by as lies and illegal behavior become normalized as acceptable strategies, no longer able to turn a blind eye to the corruption of one of our most important national institutions, ordinary citizens are fighting back. Their message is clear. While the causes and the culprits may be many in our national crisis, there is one man who must ultimately bear responsibility for the shocking transgressions of recent years:

Barry Bonds.

Follow the link to get a glimpse of the fevered state of Bonds-hatred in the world of baseball fandom. The anti-Bonds mania transcends the normal boundaries of sports partisanship, and outstrips even the vitriolic and spiteful fan-player relationships pioneered by fans in New York and Philadelphia. For many, it seems, the theme of this season is not root, root, rooting for the home team, but rooting against Barry Bonds.

How does the role of sports fan curdle from love and loyalty into demonization and hatred? And how can we explain the intensity of emotion, the depths of outrage, that Bonds provokes? How does a baseball player’s use of steroids–at a time when they were not even banned by the league–constitute an existential threat to our deeply held cultural values? And how has Bonds become the singular representative of baseball’s steroid era, which taints everyone from Mark McGwire to Sammy Sosa to Brady Anderson, and which was abetted by Major League Baseball’s unwillingness to tamper with a home run derby style of play that was filling ballparks?

It’s always dangerous to make grand analogies between a cultural phenomenon and a political one. Pattern-finding creatures by nature, humans can find elective affinities in the most improbable places, and the result has been not a few mediocre dissertations in cultural studies. But when historians reflect on our time, the parallel will be hard to miss: at the same time that Americans were becoming increasingly disgusted with the incompetence and mendacity of their political leaders, they lashed out at the deceptions of a baseball player whose personality, in his arrogance, egotism, and sense of entitlement, is evocative in many ways of George W. Bush.

For many who placed their faith in Bush after 9/11, it is difficult to contemplate the possibility that he is both a liar and an idiot. And even for those who have always been confirmed Bush-haters, it sometimes seems hopeless to expect political improvement. With our tepid two party duopoly, gerrymandered congressional districts, and hack media, it may seem as though no outrage by the Bush administration will be sufficient to provoke an anti-Republican backlash. Destroying Barry Bonds, on the other hand, is both psychologically easy and politically feasible.

Of course, Barry Bonds is also black, and we shouldn’t discount the alchemy of moral outrage and submerged racism in the way baseball fans respond to him. Race, too, explains why Bonds makes a better target than Bush: he shares all of the President’s shortcomings, but he lacks the markers of racial privilege that shield Bush from the recriminations of his white base. Reading the coverage of young white men taunting Bonds wherever he goes, one wonders how many of them are disaffected Republican voters.

I will admit that I am that rarest of things in baseball–I am, in some twisted way, a Barry Bonds fan. I love him as a theatrical character, a villain so perfect that he seems to have walked out of a professional wrestling script. But I also sympathize with this most unsympathetic man, who has become the object of a nation’s displaced rage–a rage that would be so much more fruitfully employed elsewhere.

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