The Politics of Symbolism

dnldstrlngThe Donald Sterling issue is only the latest example of how symbolism over substance is distorting the national conversation about race, class, and economic reality.  
 
We have gone from caring about substance to caring about appearances – to such a degree, in fact, that we can turn multi-millionaire athletes and coaches into victims while ignoring the real issues confronting our children and our nation. 
 
In pointing out these issues, I do not mean to suggest that there is no reason for concern about the remarks Mr. Sterling made or the other issues I will briefly outline here. In each case, there was justification for investigation, some offense and perhaps even deep concern. What I do mean to suggest is something specific and damning – that the media and certain political forces have enflamed certain issues and in doing so are performing a great disservice to our country. They are taking what are mainly aberrations and trying to argue that are indicative of larger trends that don’t exist, at least not in the way being suggested. 
 
Let us take the George Zimmerman case as a starter. It is the most serious of the issues and it caused a firestorm in the civil rights community. Though it was a tragedy, why did it justify the hysteria among civil rights groups, the media and the president? There was no larger principle at stake other than the fact that two people confronted one another in a high stress situation and it lead to bad things. There is no reason to believe that George Zimmerman was out to get anyone or that he harbored biases that led to the tragedy that occurred or that he represented some larger, nefarious movement or force. 
 
But by trying to make the Zimmerman case a race issue with national implications, the media and the political elite involved in that effort exploited the issue and thereby distracted us from much greater and more impactful issues: economic and cultural dysfunction rooted in crime, broken families, and backward leadership in major urban areas, for example.  
 
The Riley Cooper issue was even more absurd. A drunken player who apparently has no pattern of racially motivated behavior acts out like a foolish person, shouting racial slurs,  and the national sports media gets hysterical for days. This at a time when hundreds of players are suffering from brain injuries, getting arrested for all sorts of criminal activities (including murder) and generally proving Rush Limbaugh’s point several years ago that football was going the way of gangs. 
 
What Cooper did was wrong, but it is symbolic of what? Well, nothing. There are far bigger issues affecting sports, including the ridiculous amount of money and resources thrown at them while our inner cities, our educational system and our economy implode. But for days you heard almost nothing else on the sports talk radio circuit. Same with the Miami Dolphins situation. 
 
As for Sterling, sure, the guy is a doddering old fool who has racist attitudes. That was hardly news if anyone was paying attention. He would not be the first or the last person (whatever their race or ethnicity) to express prejudices. But what people say, particularly in private, is not usually national news. The question isn’t whether he is a decent human being; he clearly has issues. But what about the entire NBA culture – a culture that cultivates corruption, elitism, sexism and prejudice of all kinds. How rich is the irony that Magic Johnson, of all people, is being held up as a savior of the situation – a guy that by almost every account, including his own, treated women like tissue, and not even facial tissue.  
 
So why do these situations get so overblown? 1) It serves the purpose of those who attain their power and prestige precisely by inflaming passions and making things look worse than they are, thereby giving them an easy perch from which to pose as the arbiters of political and moral correctness; 2) it is easier to posture about such issues and feel good that we “did” something than to wrestle with the more complicated, deeper and troubling issues facing our nation. 
 
The problem isn’t just that Sterling is an idiot, though he certainly is. The problem is that increasingly more and more people in our country, faced with far more important matters, care so much about nonsense and so little about substance.
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