Amusement Park Blues

I first notice the horrible music. Walking down the stairs toward the plaza in front of the Old Stage, the cheesy and plastic sound of Swedish Folk gives me a good idea of what’s to come. I already know what the band members look like: aging, with frighteningly white smiles.
[andreas1] The sun’s finally setting on the brightest day of the year, and a slight chill sets into the smoky air. It usually rains on Midsummer’s Eve, one of a few Viking holidays to survive the Christian invasion a thousand years ago, but it’s been sunny all day. Maybe the old gods knew I’d be working today.
I saw the midsummer pole when I punched in. The grass cross, taller than the nearby buildings, looks spectacular. At each end of its horizontal bar, a huge circlet shifts in the wind. Tourists landing at Swedish airports always get a movie display of people dancing around the pole in the arcane costumes a butter-churning maid named Helga might wear. I’ve met only one person named Helga and never seen anyone wear the folk outfit, but the dancing part is true.
Midsummer’s the very epitome of what’s Swedish, a day of feast and celebration. While parents dance around the pole with their little kids, teenagers drink like fish, throw up in bushes and rape each other in dark forest areas. It’s the most traditional and hilarious aspect of our society. I didn’t know until I was 15 that what I had danced around with my family as a kid actually was a phallic symbol, begging the gods for fertility.
Surrounding the pole is a mass of activity. On top of a large mat of artificial grass stand the now abandoned dinner tables, full of discarded plates and napkins. People are dancing in the ridiculous recreation of a lush meadow that’s supposed to make them forget they’re in the middle of Stockholm. In their forties and fifties, they are a sharp contrast to the bubblegum-chewing teen crowd we usually get on a Friday night. Before this summer I would’ve expected a contrasting behavior, too, but the theme park has given me perspective on growing up. The dancers smell of smoke and roast beef, mature scents mingling with those of popcorn and candy to produce a nasty funk. They’re nostalgically skipping and twirling and laughing, and for a moment I think I’m on a different planet. The scene reeks of happiness, which angers me. I can’t believe I’m stuck operating the fucking Loop on Midsummer’s Eve. And what are these people doing here? This is the Theme Park, the home of simulated unity and manufactured joy. On the most natural day of the year, they came to the most mechanical place on earth. They are pathetic.
[andreas3] Still, anything breaking the monotony of a minimum wage-paying shit-job like this one is welcome. The usually boring walk to the cafeteria is now infested with drunk middle-aged people, and one in particular grabs my attention. His suit is white, the jacket hanging open to reveal a wrinkled blue shirt and a flowery tie. While everybody else is teamed up, resting happily in the arms of a partner, he is on his own, swaying his hips and arms in the wide uncoordinated arches of someone with too many drinks in his system, the persona of the suburban drunk. The worst failure among failures, he is both amusing and saddening. Shaking my head, I go grab some dinner.
I stop by to see Johanna in the Play Land on my way back. Like any gratis playground, the Play Land is where parents drop their youngest while herding the older ones around on the rides, and where management places unruly employees to teach them a lesson. A day of dealing with screaming kids and their psychotic parents while sitting on the most uncomfortable chair in the world is supposed to show us. We all hate the Play Land, but not as much as Johanna. Responsible for most of the “I’M NEVER GOING TO HAVE CHILDREN” inscriptions on the wooden panel at the entrance, she’s in there alone almost every other day. The hellhole is now blissfully free of kids, but she still looks unhappy.
“I can’t take this music anymore,” she says, sounding like she really means it, like she’s going to explode. “They’ve been going on for hours.”
I try to come up with something encouraging to say, but stumble on the fact that neither the music nor our shifts will end until midnight.
“At least you don’t have to mop up any piss or vomit today,” I finally say.
Johanna glances toward the midsummer pole.
“Don’t be so sure about that.”
Walking back toward my cell I run into Helena. She cocks her head over at the band and takes a few sarcastic dance steps. I do the same, and she smiles.
[andreas2] “What’s wrong with these people?” I ask. “Don’t they have any imagination?”
“I know,” Helena laughs, “who goes to a theme park on Midsummer’s Eve?”
“Yeah, why don’t people go out on the countryside and rape and stab each other like they’re supposed to? Nobody respects traditions anymore.”
For once, Helena doesn’t laugh. The joke was carefully formulated during the many hours already spent today pulling levers and pushing buttons. The lack of response disappoints me, but her eyes tell me she’s preoccupied with something better.
“Oh my god,” she says. “Look!”
It’s the suburban dancer again. He’s rocking out hard, plucking vigorously at the strings of an air guitar, drowning in the greasy notes blasting from the speakers. Both Helena and I are shocked by such a blatant display of lost self-respect, which clashes with every social convention we adhere to. We laugh in disbelief as he leans backward, lifting his imaginary fret board toward the darkening sky.
We talk for another few minutes, but then realize we have to return to our posts. We nod in mutual sympathy, knowing there’s no need to say anything.
I wait a while before ascending the mechanical ship that is the Loop. They named it well, everything about it is routine and repetition. The darkness left by its broken lights makes it look imposing and menacing. My temporary replacement sighs in relief at the sight of me and hurriedly leaves. Once again confined to the loneliness of the Loop, I look across the plaza to my bored colleague at the Ferris wheel. Tiny and dark under its bright glowing circle, he looks as crushable and insignificant to me as I must to him. Like Johanna, Helena and the rest of us, he hates the theme park. Like us, he knows he has to get out of here. We don’t want to end up like Rolf, the 70-year-old who’s spent 50 years operating the bumper cars.
While we point fingers at middle-aged losers who don’t know how to celebrate Midsummer, we know our very presence here marks us as losers, too. One day that might be one of us dancing alone around a giant grass cock, playing a guitar that isn’t there.

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Middle East Lansing

It’s the middle of February, a day like any other at East Lansing’s city hall. A small hailstorm the night before has resulted in sloppy dreariness and cold: typical ambivalent Michigan weather. The city councilmembers are in the midst of their terms, busy at their full-time jobs, leaving the office to its regular inhabitants and their devices. People walk back and forth between cubicles and a woman lectures interns on administrative procedures. It’s a day like any other.[demo]
However, in a tiny conference room, the mayor lounges before a table, a wood and metal structure consuming most of the restricted space. A clock hangs over his head, a little anime figure looking down from behind its glass cover. Half the room is enclosed between hard, cold walls, the other is padded in a soft gray fabric in the style of a drab insane asylum. The mayor, comfortable in his warm sweater, a casual dark garment under his strictly black suit, leans back in his chair and takes a breath. He’s about to explain what Iraq could learn from his city’s democratic system.
“The history and political evolvement here is probably greater than elsewhere; it would be a good ideal for them to shoot for,” East Lansing Mayor Mark Meadows said. “We have more citizen involvement: no restriction on their amount of input, except for the five minutes they have to speak at city council meetings.” He describes the positives of small-town democracy at length. “In most countries there’s no emphasis on vocal participation. It’s among our responsibilities to listen to our constituents; all of our citizens know the right to complain or praise.”
Iraq’s situation could not be more different. A nation in flux, it hasn’t been the same since American troops arrived two years ago for a long-term invasion, sparking numerous debates and protests in East Lansing, including one sit-in which shut down Grand River Avenue for a short period of time. Iraq’s recent election, from which the Shiite parties emerged with almost half the mandates in the National Assembly, is the latest step on the tall ladder toward democratic prosperity.[iraq]
After the long reign of Saddam Hussein, who unified the country under a strict campaign of discouraged citizen involvement, Iraq has become fragmented, both on the streets, where soldiers and civilians keep dying, and on the political scene, where over 100 parties tried to get members into the 275 seats in the National Assembly. The final electoral tally shows a sharp ideological divide between the dominating factions, comprised of 140 Shiites from the United Iraqi Alliance, 70 Kurds from the Kurdistan Alliance and 40 secular Sunnis and Shiites from the Iraqi List. These discrepancies suggest Iraq might not be that different from East Lansing after all, where students have long since complained about the perceived abuse of power by the city government in which students are underrepresented.
The similarities between the American and Middle Eastern political cultures are more striking than what’s initially obvious. Countries like Iran and Iraq have been stuck under authoritarian rulers defined by their religious affiliation, and America is dominated by an upper class whose members can’t progress toward prosperity without claiming an abiding faith in the Lord.
God seemingly carries the most clout among federal politicians, but he also makes appearances at local and municipal levels from time to time. Last year, for instance, the East Lansing City Council named the last week of November “Bible Week,” a move prompting detractors to cry about the violated separation of church and state. Mark Meadows, East Lansing’s mayor since 1997, rejects both this idea and that Bible Week constituted preferential treatment for Christians.
“If somebody wants Koran week, we’ll pass it,” Meadows said.
A small town of barely 50,000 elected Meadows. Comparing East Lansing and a multi-million-citizen nation without any democratic history seems ridiculous. The interim Iraqi constitution caters to the affairs of a nation; East Lansing’s charter is designed for the needs of local neighborhoods. Even so, some of small-town America’s principles have made it into Iraq’s political culture, even if they won’t remain after the new government adopts a permanent constitution.
[alcohol] For example, the city charter prohibits city employment of relatives of the current city manager and councilmembers, a notion that was lost on Saddam Hussein, but which should be applied more regularly in the new system. Other similarities are more ironic. The city’s crackdown on alcohol-related offenses and legislation against open alcohol consumption resemble Sharia law, traditional Islamic law opposed by modern liberal Muslims, especially in a city where alcohol sales were outlawed until 1968. Likewise, members of Iraq’s national assembly must be at least 30-years-old, a limit inadvertently mirrored on the city council, producing a sore point among students and widening the gap between the East Lansing and MSU communities.
Jared Rapp, who ran for city council in 2003, feels this divide as much as anyone else.
“East Lansing is a flawed city,” Rapp said. “It lacks the ambiance of a city this size; its residents don’t know what’s best for the city.” Rapp continued confidently, without effort, launching a spirited and fast-paced attack on the democratic state of the college town, concluding that the city council has let it go to waste. He highlighted the mental separation of the city councilmembers. “They don’t know what young people are into,” Rapp said, almost echoing fellow ASMSU student assembly representative Derek Wallbank.
“There’s a vast disconnect between people on this side of Grand River and people on that side,” Wallbank said, though he admits it’s getting better. Wallbank objects strongly to the zoning ordinance on rental housing passed by the council last year, calling it 1780s democracy. “I don’t think it’s constitutional,” he said. “It leaves people out of the decision-making process.”
While these complaints have been voiced by many, they’ve hardly been repeated as often as those directed toward 2003’s much talked about noise ordinance. The ordinance made it possible for police to issue a civil infraction punishable by a $1,000 fine, a misdemeanor punishable by a $500 fine and three days in jail, seemingly unnecessarily harsh consequences for innocent offenses. It ignited antagonisms as some grumbled that the city was just as undemocratic as any totalitarian state.
[students] Wallbank sounds exasperated when discussing the ordinance.
“Now the city has decided that it’s within their prerogative to jail students for annoying people,” he said.
Meadows, however, has repeatedly argued for the necessity of the ordinance, and that it isn’t especially harsh given the felonious nature of some of the indicators needed to trigger it. Furthermore, he thinks students have misconceptions about what the city is doing.
“I understand [that students feel alienated], but I don’t necessarily endorse that viewpoint,” Meadows said. “There’s a disconnect in most university communities. There’s an alienation because of those things which impact or prohibit what they see as student life. But they also haven’t taken the steps to have an impact.”
Few students have taken such steps, perhaps rendering their lack of representation in the city council self-inflicted rather than imposed. Rapp was the last one to trot that way, when he, along with Joey Marcus, ran as write-in candidates against Meadows and his fellow incumbents in the 2003 election. While he encountered no bureaucratic or institutional obstacles to his campaign, physical hurdles took a toll.
”It was a tedious endeavor,” Rapp said. “I was drained constantly.” An ASMSU representative and general business administration and pre-law senior, Rapp found it hard to balance the campaign with his schoolwork. “I was so happy that I didn’t win. At first it looked like it might be close, but then it trailed off. So we shook the mayor’s hand and went to Trippers to celebrate.”
Rapp’s and Marcus’ names were not printed alongside the three incumbents’ names on the ballots, as they didn’t partake in the August primary election – a $20,000 expense held when most students are out of the city – an extravagance which now has been removed from the electoral process. Hence, many voters were unaware of the students and their write-in information, and Rapp and Marcus each collected less than 400 votes as Meadows extended his term on the council, which began in 1995, for another four years.
“We even lost one of the on-campus stations,” Rapp recalled with a sardonic smile.
However, the composition of the ballots doesn’t account for Rapp’s entire lack of support in a constituency where voter participation typically struggles to break 10 percent. In Rapp’s own words, student voters are “pathetically apathetic.”
Wallbank put it more delicately: “Students are inherently a fluid group of people,” he explained, pointing to the constant migration in and out of MSU. “There’s also a general disconnect between students and some issues in East Lansing. Ninety percent of the students voted in the presidential election; if we could get that type of turnout for every sort of election, we’d be fine.”
The lack of interest in local politics – which when garnering interest is one of the cornerstones in the argument for the American democratic model – was made apparent a couple years ago, at a concert on campus organized by Meadows and Mayor Pro Tem Sam Singh, to promote student participation in local governmental affairs.
“Sam and I used our own money to sponsor [it],” Meadows said. “We built a stage at the rock, we had six bands; it was a beautiful, sunny weekend day.” He paused and smiled. “100 people came.”
He believes he understands why most students don’t care.
“They have one foot in their hometown, one in East Lansing; one with mom and dad, one with independence. They only stay here for four or five years, so they don’t feel like they want to be involved,” Meadows said. Still, students have many reasons to get involved, and he particularly pointed to one national statistic to prove his point. “The average living in a single spot is five years, so you should think of this as the place you live in.”
Meadows, who won’t be one of the councilmembers up for re-election this fall, welcomes student competition.
“The more, the merrier,” he said. “In the last election, I ran alone; that should never happen again.”
A lot of merriment appears to be headed toward city hall come this November’s election, as Wallbank said he knows at least eight people who are either planning to run or considering running, including himself.
“It’s very much an issue of getting someone on there whose 100 percent concerned about students,” he said. “If it’s not me, then it’s someone else who’s equally strong on student rights. It’s not going to be an unchecked election again.”
[speakers] Maybe, then, the future will bring a community more representative of student life. If so, there will be plenty of occasions to voice comments like Rapp’s message to college town inhabitants complaining about excessive noise:
“If I wanted to live in a war zone I’d move to Baghdad,” he said. “If I didn’t want to be bombed, I’d move out.”
This shows the vast disparity between the Middle East and the Midwest. Iraqi insurgents blast cars and buildings, East Lansing “rebels” blast speakers. Bereft of holy causes and opportunities to die in regular bombings or shootings, MSU students must keep people awake at night, rape each other and riot over lost basketball games. We have the freedom to be as lazy and apathetic as we want. In this environment, there’s no room for political participation.
But it should be alarming that the city government is currently less representative than Iraq’s, a fledgling democracy fresh out of the grasp of longstanding dictatorship. As it is, the system is undemocratic, unnecessarily punitive and geared against students, but it’s within our power to change that. In a country of hundreds of millions and in the wake of the presidential election, the municipal level is the only place where the common man or woman can make his or her voice heard and possibly see any change. How much sense does it make to fight abroad for other countries’ rights to democracy while giving up those rights at home? East Lansing’s built on a foundation of participation and input, stemming from a strong democratic culture. When utilized, our democracy is in better shape than Iraq’s. The question, then, is if that’s good enough.

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2005 According to MSU

So far in 2005, MSU students have already seen unspectacular inaugurations of two presidents, although Lou Anna K. Simon’s installment arguably means more than George W. Bush’s in terms of changes. Looking ahead, we already know some things that will happen in the world. Every year brings some surprises, but certainties always remain.
For example, it seems fairly safe to assume that May’s premiere of the final “Star Wars” movie, and its anticipated mutilation of Hayden Christensen’s body, will be one of the year’s most anticipated events. The American soccer team’s qualification for the 2006 World Cup in Germany and the cancellation of another NHL season are equally probable, but few will take notice. Similarly, certain international political events are already set in stone, spawning some of the most important news we will ignore in 2005:
Aside from further car bombings and struggles against insurgents, Iraq will have its promised democratic election. Such an event, of course, is nothing new to the Iraqis, but this time Saddam Hussein will not receive more than 99 percent of the vote. The election is supposed to take place in a couple of days, but logistical problems threaten to postpone it. An important factor in legitimizing America’s presence in the country, it could be a considerable embarrassment if things go wrong. Regardless of the outcome, quibbles on the subject between conservatives and critics at home and abroad are certain to bore us to tears before long.
[american] However, a lot of students will not have the chance to get bored, as they won’t be paying attention. Some don’t even know there’s an election coming up.
“I get sick of hearing the same thing over and over; it’s pretty depressing,” telecommunications senior Nicholas Kowalski said. “I know I should [follow the election], but I almost make a point to try and not follow it because I’ll get frustrated and mad.”
In February, Bush will cross the Atlantic to Brussels, Belgium, for a meeting with the leaders of the European Union. Expected discussion topics include America’s plans for post-war Iraq and a still functioning part of Bush’s Axis of Evil: Iran.
“I have heard they are the next target after Iraq,” Kowalski said.
Iran has been hostile toward the U.S. – which it labeled “The Great Satan” – since its 1979 revolution, but some students are still unclear about the basis for the animosity.
“Perhaps something about nuclear weapons or the threat that they have them,” accounting senior Jeffrey Drew said.
The United Kingdom will host the G8 summit in Scotland this summer. Ronald Reagan’s death overshadowed 2004’s meeting in domestic news coverage, prompting Europeans to question American priorities. Hopefully, no ex-presidents will die in July, when the environment and climate changes will be on the agenda for the world’s most powerful leaders. Look forward to seeing Bush balk as the Kyoto protocol is shoved in front of him once again. Also, enjoy the violent protests and arrests the G8 entails, as demonstrators travel long distances and across borders to show their displeasure with international politics. Web sites are already dedicated to organizing the dissenters.
Drew, however, will not be following the summit. Why?
“Because I’ve never heard of it,” he laughs, “and I don’t really care… I’m a terrible American.”
Drew and Kowalski assert their busy schedules keep them from reading newspapers or watching newscasts.
“If I get busy working 20 to 40 hours a week and doing school work, I don’t have a lot of time to watch the news,” Kowalski said.
“Being a business student,” Drew said, “I find it hard to keep up with a lot of politics. I’m more concerned about keeping up with financial issues. If I were to keep up with current events, I think I’d be overwhelmed.”
The importance of these events is arguable. They will not stop East Asian tsunamis or Michigan snowstorms. They will not affect campus rapes or tuition rates. When it comes down to it, Iraqi elections and political meetings have hardly any bearing on MSU life, as zoology junior Cristen Mushong expresses in her reasoning behind ignoring international affairs.
“They have no impact on me,” she said. “Whatever happens is not going to have a direct effect on my life. Plus, let’s face it: I’m American. I don’t have to know anything.”

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A Stately Presence

For roughly the first one hundred years of its existence, this university was a relatively quiet place. Invisible in the larger scope of things, in its guises as Michigan Agricultural College and Michigan State College, MSU mostly limited itself to farming endeavors. It was small and relatively unknown, an academic unit in which few things of consequence happened to drown out the sounds of fertilizer hitting soil and cows mooing in peaceful harmony. Then something happened. Former MSU president M. Peter McPherson remarked on this change in a September 2004 speech at the Beaumont Tower, when he kicked off the university’s 150th anniversary.[ouch3]
“People should be proud of what MSU has done –the values this university has embodied– the opportunity for discovery, knowledge and our international presence,” he said.
This presence extends beyond school T-shirts paraded around other continents by students in study abroad programs, as McPherson’s involvement in America’s reconstruction of Iraq shows. In the past 50 years, MSU has dabbled in international politics several times, involving itself with some of the biggest global issues of the 20th century, including one of America’s most infamous losses.
Warm Homecoming for a Dictator
Between 1951 and 1971, MSU extended a helping hand to 35 overseas technical assistance projects, providing services like training Colombian agricultural schools and Brazilian business schools. The most publicized project was projected over the Pacific Ocean to South East Asia. There, from 1955 to 1962, the Michigan State University Group (MSUG) resettled refugees and consulted the construction of police and public administration bodies, all important contributions to reconstructing Ngo Dinh Diem’s Vietnam.
MSUG was the product of political science professor Wesley Fishel’s personal relationship with Diem and longtime MSU president John A. Hannah’s successful efforts to expand the university academically and financially.
“There’s a certain expectation that the president will represent the institution and translate what we do here for the community and our stakeholders beyond the boundaries of campus,” President Lou Anna K. Simon said on her website, and Hannah did just that.
A strict anti-communist with strong ties to powerful Republicans in Washington, D.C., Hannah cooperated with Harry Truman in his Point Four program (by training international agricultural colleges); left MSU for 19 months during 1953 and 1954 to work as Dwight Eisenhower’s assistant secretary of defense and became the head of Richard Nixon’s Agency for International Development after retiring from the university in 1969. During his tenure at MSU, it grew from 6,000 to about 40,000 students, and gained some international recognition, prompting Fortune Magazine to call him “an astute politician and a skillful manager.” MSUG became his most controversial project, similar to other technical assistance contracts in that it reaped great capital benefits- $25 million- but different given whom was involved.
Diem visited East Lansing twice. On Wednesday, May 15, 1957, named “Ngo Dinh Diem Day” by Michigan governor G. Mennen Williams, he received an honorary degree from MSU and spoke in front of 4,000 faculty members and students, whose afternoon classes had been canceled by Hannah to ensure a large turnout. There, Diem was celebrated as the savior of Southeast Asia.
Diem called the event “a very pleasant and warming homecoming,”
He would never experience that feeling again. His relationship to the United States deteriorated as he allocated more political power to his family, corrupting Vietnam into a dictatorship dependent on American military assistance and thereby validating the future communist upsurge in the eyes of the international community. Finally, after a couple of critical articles by MSU professors in the New Republic in 1962, he cut the ties to MSUG.
The project generated immediate capital gains, which in part were used to erect new buildings like the International Center. It lasted until 1966, before a backlash came, induced by a series of articles in the leftist magazine, Ramparts, which accused MSU of hosting a CIA unit in Vietnam as a part of MSUG. Contributing writer David Horowitz, now the editor of FrontPage magazine and a critic of the whole leftist spectrum ranging from liberals to radicals, but then an influential participant in the New Left movement, attacked the university in Ramparts October 1968 issue:
“In university service to the empire, the grimier field work is often left to unprestigious social climbers like Michigan State University,” he wrote. “MSU’s now notorious CIA cover operation in South Vietnam – writing Diem’s constitution, training his police, supplying him with arms – was merely part of the school’s long globe-trotting pursuit of plush, parvenue academic prominence for itself and for its guiding genius, president John A. Hannah.”
In a national landscape increasingly critical of the growing political disaster that was the Vietnam War, MSU lost a lot of goodwill due to their part in the conflict. Afterward, the school toned down its international involvement, especially in sensitive issues, focusing mainly on agricultural assistance.
Vision of Greater Equity
Standing out as an exception to MSU’s cautious strategy was its divestment from South African companies in 1978, following seven years of campaigning by students and faculty members from the South African Liberation Committee (SALC). The university was one of the first in America to remove investments from companies involved with the apartheid government; between 1977 and 1985, 55 others joined the boycott, increasing pressures on American businesses and politicians to engage in anti-apartheid activities.
MSU officials take great pride in the university’s role in the international protests of the racist politics. For example, in October 1999, following the publication of South African democratic activist Ahmed Kathrada’s book on his longtime imprisonment, McPherson told the MSU Press:
“Kathrada’s donation of the [collected materials from his struggle to the university in 1996] and the book that followed from the MSU Press are visible evidence of MSU’s long-standing involvement in South Africa and our commitment to democratic values and vision of a world with greater equity.”
However, some claimed that MSU’s divestment was not complete, and the SALC continued to apply pressures on the administration in the 1980s. In 1986, for example, they built a shanty in front of the administration building as a protest, and students discussed the topic lengthily on campus and in The State News. Nevertheless, by at least partially pioneering the divestment movement, MSU set a precedent in using university finances as serious international political tools.
The Business of MSU
MSU increased its international presence in 1993, when it slighted more academically qualified presidential prospects in favor of McPherson, a former executive vice president at the Bank of America and administrator of the Agency for International Development. McPherson served as a special assistant to Gerald Ford in the 1970s, as Deputy Secretary of Treasury under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, and his role in George W. Bush’s current reconstruction of Iraq is well known.
The parallels to Hannah are obvious: neither founded their presidencies on strong academic backgrounds, both had powerful friends in multiple Republican governments, and both were involved in the most controversial and internationally politicized military interventions of their times. But while Hannah led the university into Vietnam, McPherson brought it in to Iraq: he took a six-month leave of absence in 2003 to help set up a new currency and central bank in the country, and now he’s gone permanently to pursue other goals. Also, he hasn’t introduced Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi on campus yet. With McPherson, MSU didn’t embark into international affairs—international affairs came to MSU.
With his departure comes the ascension of Simon, a longtime member of the university community, but no political power figure. Despite being a provost since 1993, her methods remain unknown to students as they wonder what lies ahead. In her opening statements on her Web site,, posted at the coming of the new-year, Simon seems customarily vague:
”We must remain ever-cognizant of our historic obligation to be the model and leader in fostering the concepts of civility, cultural understanding, respect, and responsible citizenship in our rapidly changing, increasingly diverse and internationalized world. ”
She inherits a university which annually sends more than 2,000 students abroad in academic programs and which takes part in many international projects besides agricultural training. MSU is involved with the Afrobarometer, which measures the social, political and economic atmospheres in Africa; it cooperates with the Vietnamese Cantho University to reduce poverty in the Mekong Delta, and it’s part of a project to formulate a strategy for cutting poverty and hunger in Africa significantly by 2015. The list is long, and even if MSU doesn’t manage to fall into another political controversy, its current international presence is enough to lend some credence to Simon’s following hyperbole:
”Celebrating our sesquicentennial, we look back at just how far this university has come in 150 years. From a small scientific agricultural college among the fields on the outskirts of Lansing – a new idea in higher education and uniquely American experiment – to the world-class, globally-engaged powerhouse that we are today, it’s really been an amazing journey.”

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“The time will come when mass anger must be reckoned with… the day seems not far ahead.” – from “Revolt,” in October, 1932.
“Socialism was the future,” – from “Dissent,” in 1954.
Democrats’ disillusionment following the 2004 election can’t compare to that of American socialists, whose hopes and dreams have been dashed and trampled for much longer than a four-year presidential term.
In the 1990s, the demise of communist regimes, the moderation of Europe’s social democratic states, and the increasingly conservative American landscape complicated life for socialist citizens. The Soviet Union’s fall finally sent the world into the new order radicals had yelled about for almost a century, but instead of a utopia of solidarity, this one saw market economies expand through Middle Eastern pipelines as western-style democracies globalized into former totalitarian nations.
The successes of capitalism and commercialism over utopian idealism presented problems for would-be socialists, whose ideas and strategies quickly turned obsolete. The international structure’s still developing away from traditional leftist values, and socialism seemingly must adapt itself to the new rules if it wishes to remain relevant, redefining itself to the spirit of the times. But in the new order, who knows how to define it as an ideology?
Not that I ever knew what it was in the first place. While finding satori, Jesus, or Allah is an enlightening and wonderful, instinctive experience, finding Bakunin, Marx, or Lenin is more cumbersome. An anarchistic friend last year lent me “God and the State” and “The Communist Manifesto,” but the former put me to sleep after three pages and the manifesto still leans unopened against my worn-down copy of the Lord of the Rings. Ever since I hit puberty, roughly ten years ago, I’ve been calling myself a socialist, and throughout junior high school I probably even believed I was one. Now, I’m not so sure.
Navigating through leftist definitions is difficult and boring. The specific distinctions between a communist and a socialist, a syndicalist and an anarchist, or either of those two and anarcho-syndicalists, I don’t know. They’re as unknown to me as the general socialist concept, posing several questions in need of answers. The Internet’s one pathway to enlightenment, another is the MSU library, although that’s online nowadays as well.
It’s easy to find sources and documents through the library’s search engine, and I automatically go through the motions as I’ve often done before, typing “socialist and periodicals” into it. The on-screen page changes to show a much longer list of hits than I expected. I effortlessly decode the call numbers for the magazines locations and prepare to retrieve them. But a closer study of the list reveals something I’ve never seen before. All the publications are in the “Special Collections room.” An avid reader and self-admitted geek, I’ve borrowed thousands of books during my three years at the university, but I’ve never been to the Special Collections room. I’ve heard they have a good comic book collection, but nothing about radical periodicals. Furthermore, it’s in the basement: unexplored territory. I’ve always gone up the stairs, who likes heading down?
Now, I do just that, leaving the upper world and its sunlight behind, entering darkness. The basement’s fluorescent lights blandly illuminate its bookshelves and tables, rending the atmosphere artificial and surreal. Random people sit poised over books as if petrified; and the Special Collections room is out of sight. Whereas each of the other floors consists of one giant and easily navigated room, the basement is a labyrinth. Turning the first corner, I see arrows pointed toward my destination. I follow their trail past withering theses and oversized dissertations, finally reaching a heavy rust colored metal door with an archaic sign saying “Patriarch Room.” Taking a deep breath, I press the handle. Bright- almost blinding- light streams out the frame, enfolding me as the door closes.
I. Ghosts And Goblins
“Hello,” somebody says in a voice barely stronger than a whisper.
I turn my head to find a friendly little white-haired hobgoblin of a man gazing up at me from behind a desk.
“What can I do for you today?” he asks.
“A lot,” I say, showing him my list of publications.
The hobgoblin smiles.
“Well, we don’t do that,” he says. “What’s your research topic?”
“American Radicalism.”
He nods, and murmurs something I can’t quite make out. It sounds like a joke about turning me in to the authorities. Laughing neutrally, I fill out the checkout-form with name, address, student number, and the magazines’ call numbers. The hobgoblin frowns.
“I’ve never seen call numbers like that before,” he says before showing me where to put my coat and belongings; only notebooks and pencils are allowed at the reading tables, and the research materials must not be removed from the room. “I’ll be back in a second.”
He walks the length of the cramped room, which is bordered by polished wooden walls and glass cabinets, easily evading the reading tables: six along the walls, and a big one in the middle. He disappears through a door with a small window revealing only the slightest amount of their mysterious vault. There is no telling how big it is, for all I know it could stretch for miles, down to even deeper catacombs and chambers filled with all the knowledge of the natural and supernatural world: the ghosts of cultures and movements long past. My answers are in there, but I am not allowed to enter.
As I wait, I stroll past the glass containers, each representing one of the special collections. I disregard the cookeries, merely glance at the natural histories, but stop at the popular culture cabinet. It has over 140,000 items, according to the information sheet, a lot of them comic books.
“It looks like a nerd’s paradise,” I note to myself. They probably even have anime.
Finally, I get to the American Radicalism display. It holds a few examples of feminist magazines, showcasing the diversity of the collection, which “includes books, pamphlets, periodicals, posters, and ephemeral material covering a wide range of viewpoints on political, social, and economic issues in American life.” Some of the materials cover extreme rightist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, but most are leftist collectibles, a good size of which document the evolution of socialism during its formative years.
American socialism boomed three times in the 20th century: in the 1910s, 1930s, and 1960s. Sharp declines followed every wave, sinking the movement a little lower each time, as a receding tide. In contrast to in Europe, American socialism never really found its feet, and scholars generally agree on the underlying reasons:
In 1919, following the Russian Bolshevik revolution and the founding of the Soviet Union, the conservative and militant factions within America’s socialist party finally split it in half. The ensuing enmity between the new communists, their former socialist “comrades,” and smaller radical groups like the syndicalists, divided support and halted significant progress for all parties.
As early as the 1920s, the Soviet Union and its affiliated U.S. party presented a threat to high- and middlebrow America. This threat was connected to the socialists by their communist rivals and amplified by mainstream politicians. Because of international evolution, the far left generated fear and suspicion, which would escalate to extreme proportions in the following decades, characterized by the Red Scare.
Possibly the largest factor, however, was the ideological thievery of Franklin D. Roosevelt for his New Deal, a plan for social reforms which somewhat resembled those of European welfare states. In the economically ravaged Depression era America, the New Deal borrowed from traditional socialist demands, taking some of the monetary support for the poor, but none of the radicalism. To casual observers, the socialists had nothing special to offer but aggression; and in a two-party political system, the leftists kept sliding to into the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and beyond.
II – Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup
Trends in socialist journalism initially mirrored the political climate, especially in weeklies and magazines, which had formats perfect for ideological commentary. Stylistically freer than newspapers, magazines allowed for personal and subjective coverage beyond mere facts, while remaining journalistically valid and dependable. While socialist dailies could be discarded as propagandistic, that weakness was the strength of contemporary weeklies and monthlies.
When the hobgoblin returns out the windowed door, he pushes a rackety cart full of such publications ahead of him. Most are bound in hardcover volumes, but the really old ones come in boxes and plastic slips.
The Comrade, founded around the turn of the century, followed the times’ dominating periodical style of blending graphic and literary commentary in an easily digestible and intellectually accessible mix for both the educated elite and the illiterate. Riddled with cartoons, it matched personal reports with criticism and opinionated discussions, closing each issue with seemingly mandatory book reviews, which would remain a hallmark for socialist magazines even after all literary style and humor had retired for the sake of numeral statistics and finger pointing.
Interestingly, despite the periodical’s obvious left leaning professions, even “comrades” couldn’t do without a little commercialism. Advertisements were few and small, but were present. For example, an 1905 ad called out to mothers – not once or twice, but three times; with excessive use of exclamation points – to buy “Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup.” It “soothes the child, softens the gums, allays all pain, cures wind colic… it is the best remedy for diarrhea.” A universal cure it would seem, but why then would we need to socialize health care if we have this syrup?
“Wonder if it applies to more than just personal health?” I ponder. “The world could use some good syrup these days.”
My head swivels up at the sound of the heavyset entrance door opening. The hobgoblin quickly makes his way across the room to welcome the new arriver, sliding smoothly through the small space between my chair and the wall. The newcomer stays dazedly at the door, squinting through the light at the little creature coming toward him. In his early 20s, he looks like a 1985 political commentator: with a square-shaped news anchor’s haircut, big glasses, and a heavy black jacket.
“Hi,” he says, in a high-pitched Jerry Seinfeld-voice.
“Hello,” the hobgoblin replies. ”What can I do for you today?”
“I’ve heard you have a really good comic book collection.”
“Yes, but this resource is not open to the public. Student’s only.”
“Oh, okay. It’s just that my friend told me….”
The two go on for minutes, discussing early issues of Spiderman and other comic book characters unknown to me. The hobgoblin gets visibly exited at the prospect of a lengthy discussion, his face reddening and voice growing almost audible. The conversation turns into a monologue, the newcomer only pitching in short phrases:
“Huh!? Oh!? I see! Fascinating! Wow!”
“Yes,” I think, “why care about politics when you have comic books.”
Putting away The Comrade, I open one of the biggest boxes, which holds the 1913-1917 volumes of The Masses, drawing a thick layer of dust onto my shirtsleeve. When the hobgoblin dumped the magazine onto my table he informed me it’s one of the Special Collections’ most prized possessions because of its colored political cartoons.
The Masses coincided with the peak of the socialist party. In 1910, socialist mayors governed 33 American cities, including Berkely, Calif. and Flint, Mich. Two years later, the party counted 118, 000 members; and its leader, Eugene Debs, polled 879, 000 votes in the presidential election. That was six percent of the total. The socialists sent representatives to several state legislatures, and even one Victor Berger out of Wisconsin to the U.S. Congress.
Socialist periodicals in the English language approximated 270, most of them small in scope and circulation. Like most minority-identified magazines, they depended on financial contributions from friends and philanthropists to keep running. Few lasted longer than three or four years, and those that did would often change their names.
The Masses eventually became The Liberator, after long legal battles with the Associated Press and the Department of Justice barred it from the postal service and sent its editors to several trials in 1918 for “conspiracy against the government.” The editors walked free, but the magazine was condemned.
For most of its published time, it was both political and literary, with a definitive focus on visuals, artwork, short stories, and poetry. Outside sources mostly contributed the poems, but several issues (perhaps all of them) included a full page with the lyrics of the editor, Max Eastman, a leading radical intellectual and former philosophy professor at Columbia. For example, the January 1913 issue opens with a poem, printed over a drawing of two women, one draped in a long cloth and one in the nude, lounging in front of two dark rock pillars in a dusky desert landscape:
One line reads, “Truth rises startle-eyed out of a tomb, and we are dumb…”
“Damn, she’s hot!” I think, studying the naked woman. “… for a cartoon.”
“…A death-bell tolls, and we still shudder round the too smooth bed, for Truth makes pallid watch above the dead…”
“That pillar in the background looks like Stephen King’s Dark Tower!”
“…Light and the garish life, and we are brave, for Truth sinks wanly down into her grave, yet the heart yearns.”
“It sure does.”
For all its smarts and good humor, The Masses remained radically critical and propagandistic in its core. This most clearly showed in its satirical cartoons. A recurrent theme, the drawings typically portrayed the petty and downright evil nature of fat men symbolizing either the bourgeois, the authorities, or both. For example, one 1913 cartoon pictured a giant policeman with a belt buckle imprinted with “U.S.” He sits on a tiny old working man, called “the striker,” sinking his blood streaked bayonet into the latter’s arm. The sky above them is red, filled with smoking black industrial chimneys. A bearded old man dressed in tweed, called a “serene on-looker,” complacently puffs on his pipe while watching the scene.
“Very unfortunate situation,” he says to the striker, “but whatever you do, don’t use force.”
While The Masses was guilty of representing themselves rather than their ideological base (a common fault in socialist publications) its editors’ narcissism didn’t nearly reach the magnitude visible in other common types of contemporary magazines: those published by and in the name of leading socialist intellectuals. Eugene Debs had Debs H. Gaylord Wilshire had Wilshire’s, and Upton Sinclair had Upton Sinclair’s.
Sinclair, who in 1934 won California’s Democratic nomination for governor after several unsuccessful runs as a socialist, was a notable public figure, one more moderate than his ideological peers. His magazine primarily served as an outlet for the opinions of his and his wife’s, but still drew contributions and letters from celebrities like the novelist H.G. Wells and the popular newspaper columnist H.L. Mencken, although the latter dispensed pleasantries in his commentary.
While the socialist party loudly and vehemently opposed American intervention in the World War I, Sinclair openly supported it. Discussions about the war frequented his periodical and set him apart from the larger organization, especially its militant wing, which ultimately formed the communist party.
Upton Sinclair’s only lasted a few years, not long past the division of the socialist party. Though preachy and self-involved, as well as distinct from the opinions of the party, it articulated the core issue of socialism, what Sinclair called his message of Social Justice:
“If you really want to do away with the horrors of Armageddon, you have to abolish exploitation, you have to drive poverty from the earth; you have to change the ideas and ideals – not merely of German Junkers, but of American gentlemen, business-men, merchants and masters of affairs. You have to do away with the power of any man, anywhere, to make his comfort and his glory out of the necessities of others; you have to discredit, once and for all time, those pecuniary standards of culture, which estimate the excellence of people’s happiness he can possess and destroy.”
Sinclair’s magazine ended along with the most prosperous era of the socialist movement, concluding the first chapter of leftist journalism. Periodicals between 1900 and 1920 were intellectual, humorous, literary, poetic, visual, personal and accessible to many if not quite the mainstream. The period’s dubbed “The Golden Age,” but, given the socialist party’s comparatively puny success, it better resembles yellow mica. Even so, one tiny nugget of that was worth millions compared to what followed.
III – A Separating Symposium
“I’ve been told you have a really good comic book collection.”
Another visitor has arrived, stating her business at the front desk. She seems a part of a trend.
“Comic books are obviously popular.”
Conversely, the leftist press of the 1920s did their best to turn off readers, as membership in the socialist party dwindled. Already, in 1922, ten years after the party’s peak, it counted only 11, 273 members. Its faithful remainders saw their multifaceted periodicals lose most sense of humor and humility, turning into vehicles for intra-leftist squabbles. Respect for the uneducated disappeared, replaced by poorly masked condescension; the beautiful visuals disappeared, never to return, replaced by statistical tables; descriptive lyrics disappeared, replaced by numerals, percentages, and a newfound love for the word “symposium.” As the new socialist leader Norman Thomas steered the party along a more intellectual course, the press embraced academia’s scientific aspects, discarding all artistry.
Photographs seldom appeared. Insufficient finances probably contributed to the infrequency, given the magazines’ small circulations and revenues, but the extreme length of many articles implied that the writers had too much to say to allow space for pictures.
Whereas the commentaries of the golden age showed signs of optimism for the future, the anger and broadness of the journalistic language in the subsequent decades suggested growing indifference and hopelessness. The movement successively lost influence, despite a boom in membership in the early 1930s, and thereby also lost its need to appeal to mainstream audiences. Socialist magazines grew increasingly radical in tone, boiling down their enemies to two Cs: Communism and Capitalism, commonly capitalized for emphasis.
Nowhere was this as visible as in student magazines such as Revolt, first published in 1932. Revolt’s rhetoric included key phrases like “the new order,” and appointed socialism as “our only hope of averting catastrophe and establishing plenty, peace, and freedom.” Uncharacteristically, however, the magazine showed some distance to its convictions by changing its name to The Student Outlook after a few issues.
Students, its editors announced, “felt it was more important to sell our magazine and convince by its content than to shout ‘revolution’ and have no one listen.”
An insightful measure, but it didn’t work. Neither did its example grow to become a journalistic standard. For instance, 43 years later, The Campaigner’s November cover showed heavily armed soldiers marching westward from the Soviet Union over a dark map of Europe. The issue contained only a 35-page defense of Stalinism by the Labor Party’s presidential candidate, Lyndon Larouche, who in 2004 ran for the Democratic nomination. Though unable to match that extreme, today’s radicals still grapple with the problem college kids solved 70 years ago.
However one perceives the far left, it can at least not be accused of watering down its standards or being overly accessible. The socialist media made no attempts to hide their disdain for the people they were fighting for, not in the 1930s, 1940s, or anytime after.
“The American working and middle classes are, politically and economically, among the most illiterate in the world,” proclaimed The Student Outlook in 1932.
“All the workers in the U.S. including the politically backward, i.e. the majority among them…,” wrote The Modern Monthly in 1933.
The magazines reduced proletarians to doddering idiots who couldn’t be trusted to act responsibly and cast what Student called “intelligent votes.” At best, the press treated workers as unruly but well-meaning children in need of parental guidance:
“In our era, the technostructure and intellectuals will always serve another class,” wrote Monthly Review in 1968. “It is the job of radicals today, in our country, to make that the working class!”
Monthly Review continued a trend that was visible in the early issues of The Modern Monthly and its 1930s contemporaries, in which the articles’ focus slid from the U.S. over the Atlantic, to countries where socialism was a viable political alternative.
“Socialism is an international movement,” Revolt’s creators had decided, but as time progressed, its community increasingly excluded America. Parties and people in Albania, Czechoslovakia, France, Hungary, and even South Africa garnered more interest than the domestic population. The magazines’ had completely detached themselves from their audience.
IV – Icebergs And Ice Picks
Whereas detachment from the working populace was undesirable, socialists gladly widened distances from other groups and organizations. Early on, intellectual socialist publications like Partisan Review consequently cut all ties to the communists and Stalin, from whom they desperately but unsuccessfully tried to disassociate themselves. This most clearly expressed itself in an escalating interest and support for Leon Trotsky, the exiled Soviet revolutionary leftists turned to for ideological refuge as the reality in the Soviet Union grew worse. Periodicals frequently analyzed Trotskyism and compared it to Stalinism, printing Trotsky’s essays even after he was murdered in 1940.
“A successful ideology apparently must have a martyr. It doesn’t matter whether its founder helps form one of the most oppressive states in modern history as long as he’s stabbed to death with an ice pick.”
This schism added to the tip of the socialist iceberg as Sen. Joseph McCarthy steered America toward an intense “red scare.” The internal strife and external pressures then proved insurmountable for the party, despite The Fourth International’s 1952 prediction of “the failure of U.S. imperialism” and “the doom of capital.” So when Labor Action in 1957 asked “Can the left unite?” the answer was visible to all but the blind.
Thus, when Irving Howe and his Dissent entered the magazine market in 1954, they remained independent of parties and organizations. Discarding propaganda, Dissent’s writers analyzed and contemplated around the union of socialism and democracy. Without an overlying agenda, the magazine took no responsibility for the content of its articles; its contributors, including many big names like Norman Mailer, were as independent of the magazine as it was of the socialist movement. The Dissenters thereby created not only their own brands of socialism, but of socialist journalism as well. Benefiting from writing in a climate where socialism was as far from the power as possible, Dissent found an opening for serious criticisms and refinements of the old and rigid ideology which weren’t voiced in Europe.
“I wonder if it’s still around. If it is, it might need to improve its marketing technique.”
Exhausted, I fold my reading materials before stacking them back onto the cart from which they came. Slipping The Masses into their boxes, I notice a sticker I’d initially missed.
“The Masses has not aged well as a physical artifact,” it says. “In fact, few original paper copies remain anywhere.”
“Kind of similar to socialism, then,” I think, only to realize that it more closely resembles youthful idealism. Cynicism eventually calls on everyone but the religiously devout and the clinically insane, but it reaches the socialist before anyone else, possibly excepting aspiring actresses and WWE-wrestler wannabes. The ideology hasn’t disappeared, but people’s faith in it has. It’s hard to be a pragmatic and realistic adult while investing energy in losing causes.
“Socialism demands too much: too much time and too much thinking,” I decide, before the hobgoblin’s voice snatches me away from my thoughts.
“You all set?” he asks.
Before leaving, I watch him push the cart back through the windowed door. When it opens I catch a glimpse of someone moving through the vault, a man I haven’t seen since I was small. After the door slams shut I stare at it in stunned amazement. The man had once been my biggest obsession, before turning into my greatest disappointment: I’d lost faith in him before I even knew politics existed. He’d looked just like I remembered him, but for his tight green shirt. Short and round, his hair was long and white, just like his bushy beard. I’d thought he was dead, but now I know better. Santa Claus lives in the MSU Library’s basement.
V – Antisocial
The woman at the main library’s circulation desk pauses after scanning my book through the computer system.
“This is an old book,” she says apologetically. “I’ll be right back..”
She returns after a minute to stamp a photocopy of my Student ID and the names of the borrowed book and its author. My face as it was three years ago is right there on the paper, next to the 1968 volume of Monthly Review: An independent socialist magazine: a 20-year-old freshman staring angrily at the library stamp swishing down toward him.
The clerk hands me the book, but keeps the “receipt.” In a pre-PATRIOT Act America, I would’ve thought nothing of it, but now I can’t help but feel as if I just signed my deportation papers. Exiting to the dreary Fall evening, I fear that my face will be faxed to the CIA headquarters, sending men in black suits, tanned sunglasses and white headpieces aboard private jets destined to East Lansing before I even have time to reach my door. Crossing the street outside, I wonder if the agents drive one of the oncoming cars mockingly glaring their headlights in my face. I regret not having said goodbye to my family. Nearby, the clock tower ominously strikes the hour:
Modern socialists don’t live on the fringe of America’s political landscape, they live outside of it. Ever since the 1930s, and increasingly after the 1960s, the ideological measuring stick tilts steeper and steeper, sliding the moderate right across its middle and shoving the left completely off its edge. Consequently, the modern leftist is a Democrat. Ralph Nader’s as close to socialism publicly known politicians will get, and even he hasn’t managed to poll as well as Debs did in 1912. Socialism’s invisible in the new world order, and the common man has no idea what it is.
Learning anything takes effort, especially if it runs contrary to mainstream values. Socialism’s “Dangerous” teachings’ nature makes them even less reachable. Hence, the story of socialism is locked away in a basement, accessible solely through a hobgoblin, and by students only. There it will remain until it becomes a greater priority than comic book collections.
The most interesting information about the socialist movement trailed off after the 1930s, because it was primarily a movement the early 20th century. The confrontational hard core aimed a bazooka at its own foot, blowing it off before it took steady steps. How can quotes like The Modern Monthly’s “Gradually building socialism alongside of capitalism brings only shameful defeat” otherwise be explained? Add internal strife, and the socialist movement was sure to stay in its cradle, never progressing beyond a crawl. Socialism was the future, now it’s the past.
Minority movements’ voices are their media. The steady breakdown of socialist journalism left its supporters nearly mute. The traditional problems, like aversion to visuals, are still noticeable if not quite as bad as before. Against The Current, published out of Detroit, is a good example of periodicals wasting spotlight opportunities on creaky, stilted writing and topics Americans can’t relate to, like political corruption in Mexico. Such judgments might be too hard, however, as the limitations of small magazines likely represent lack of dollars rather than talent or good will. The media’s role is not to create opinion; a large-scale movement must precede it.
Many socialist intellectuals of the 1930s called the working class politically and economically illiterate. They’d likely find today’s low wage earners even more repellent, perhaps so much as to disavow their convictions and capitulate to capitalism. They’d never turn over power to the modern worker. In the view of the socialist old guard, the modern worker would institute Spanish as an official second language, appoint fried chicken as a national food, and make wife beaters mandatory uniforms. In their view, his would be the dictatorship of “ignorant” immigrants, “vulgar” blacks, and “white trash.”
For far too long, American socialism took the form of Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup. It purported to solve all of life’s and society’s problems; showcasing flashy rhetoric without following it with solid, constructive actions. In the new world order, that strategy can only be destructive. Bereft of a strong official organization, socialism’s reduced to an idea, but maybe it’s always been a mentality rather than a system. Before it can be politicized, it needs unity, demanding acceptance, solidarity and love from its followers, even for those of different and initially disgusting opinions.
Maybe socialism is nothing but a fairytale, as real as Spiderman and the Green Goblin, as real as Santa Claus and hobgoblins. Disillusioned baby boomers often call the step out of college entering “the real world,” equating it with a growing appreciation for Lands End sweaters, Disney movies, and November Christmas shopping. But the real world is conservative, idealism is childish; utopia is nothing but a dream. But the socialist would rather dream away his whole life than spend eight years of it under a Bush.
When I get home, my keys stick in the front door’s lock. My roommate lets me inside.
”What have you been up to today?” she says.
”I’ve been digging through stuff at the library’s special collection, have you ever been there?”
”No, never,” she says. ”But I hear they have a really good comic book collection.”

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The World According To MSU

A common complaint about Americans, both domestically and abroad, is that we don’t pay much attention to foreign cultures and international events in which our government doesn’t have a direct stake. For example, in 2002, National Geographic conducted a survey which revealed that “roughly 85 percent of young Americans [from ages 18-24] could not find Afghanistan, Iraq, or Israel on a map.” Given this information, The Big Green set out to investigate whether this allegation is a myth, or if we actually are clueless.
The conflict in Israel is continuously in the news, and has been ever since the state’s creation. The United States has been a steady presence in the country, especially during the Clinton administration, leading the issue to a permanent place in The New York Times’ international section, where it likely will get even more space in the wake of the American election. On November 11, the day after the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s leader Yassir Arafat’s death, we asked local students what they knew about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Their answers were then combined into a history of the struggle, as told by university students half a globe’s distance away from it. The final product follows below, the world according to MSU:
Control of the land on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean has been contested and fought over for thousands of years. The current conflict dates back to biblical times, when the Egyptian tyrant Pontus Pilate exiled the Jewish people from their land, initiating an Arab migration into Jerusalem and its surrounding areas. The area and its population balanced on the brink of disaster for two millennia, but actual fighting did not break until the 1990s. Or was it the 1970s?
”They’ve been fighting for a while,” journalism junior Georgia Bistolaridis said.
The reasons behind the conflict are uncertain, but they’re believed to be rooted in differing perceptions of which deity to obey and which book of supernatural rules to follow.
[world] ”It’s about land, religion, and beliefs,” psychology sophomore Rachel Loskill said.
In an effort to reach peace, the Arab forces, led by the PLO started a war against the new Jewish state.
”They’re fighting for peace, something to do with freedom and peace,” general business administration junior Sheetal Prevadi said.
After the initial battles, which ended with Israel taking over all Palestinian territories, nothing happened for years and years, as if the whole region had disappeared.
“…,” everybody said.
There were no United Nations General Assembly resolutions on the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, no 1967 six day war, no 1982 invasion of Lebanon, no 1987 Palestinian uprising, no 1993 Oslo Accords. Israel and Palestine entered a black hole, only emerging when Arafat (“He’s the president of Palestine, right?”) died last Thursday. His death signaled a change in Palestinian leadership, a change the international community hopes will induce a more peaceful discourse between the two conflicting parties, bringing an end to the current intifadah. And what is that, now again?
”The Intifadah?” said civil engineering junior Eric Humesky. “The Wu-Tang Clan mentions them a lot. They’re Arabs.”
The United States, looking for more allies in their struggle against something, got involved sometime during the shrouded period. The country still plays a huge part in maintaining a dialogue between the Israelis and the PLO, now led by Palestinian Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, but neither George W. Bush’s administration or previous ones have sided with any one party.
”The U.S. is more of a mutual mediator,” Haskill said.
This story is based on comments from Haskill and 19 other random MSU students, whose most common answers were “I don’t know” and “Uhhhmm.” Pretentious elitists are compelled to mock such ignorance, but it’s important for condescending news consumers to remember that most (including myself) know just as little about what actually goes on in the world. While it’s easy to point our fingers and laugh derisively, we should examine our own habits as well as make fun of theirs. Only then will the question whether the region’s militant Palestinian group is called Hamas or Humus finally be resolved.
The UN has dedicated a site to Palestine at Check it out for an alternative account of these events, but don’t expect historical accuracy. We all know what really happened, don’t we?

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The Day of Reckoning

On November 2, at 7:30 am, local time, a black Chevrolet pulled up outside a polling location in the Texas town of Crawford. The backseat door opened, and a hand protruded, already waving. A smiling face followed, as the body of George W. Bush hung out the side of his vehicle, saluting the unseen crowd for several seconds before finally hitting ground. A few minutes later the president held a post-voting speech to reporters before leaving for Ohio, which was projected as one of the key swing states.
“It’s a great feeling to vote,” he said. “It’s in the hands of the American people now.”[diddy]
Those hands filled out ballots for a whole day, and would’ve produced a clear-cut winner if it weren’t for a few hundred thousand in the aforementioned Midwestern state and its provisional ballot rules. Even closer than expected, the election outlasted conclusion that day, and the following night.
The morning after included things usually associated with alcohol-induced hangovers: headaches, sleepiness, and a full dose of confusion about where we were and what is about to happen. A few things were certain: the Republicans will control the House of Representatives and the Senate in the following years; the marriage-defining Proposal Two was widely supported; Michigan voted for Sen. John Kerry, but Bush still led both the popular and electoral race as a few states remained unaccounted for. Beyond that? Who knows (we’ll know very soon).
8:00 am. Nov 2, 2004
Election day starts out as any other, my hand reaching first for the alarm clock and then the TV remote. But as the tube snaps on I sit up, eagerly readying myself for a long day of well planned rhetoric and sharp political analyses. I initially get P. Diddy’s.
Falling asleep to MTV’s reality show Battle Of The Sexes the night before, I’d already had a taste of the cruel fate awaiting abrasive leaders judged by their electorate. The channel, showing a rerun of Monday’s Total Request Live, is still on the dial, greeting me with the sound of teenagers screeching as the pop rap mogul formerly known as Puff Daddy runs out, pumping his fist to the “Vote or Die” t-shirt on his chest, shouting:
”Do you all understand what’s about to happen? You will elect the president of the United States of America! LET’S GET CRAZY UP IN THIS MOTHERFUCKER!”
It’s truly inspiring, even though my mother always told me to never trust a man who wears sunglasses indoors, but after being harassed for two months by people running around with registration forms (“Are you registered to vote? Are you registered to vote? Are you…”) I’m almost immune to even this installment in the larger effort to entice “The Youth Vote.” What’s the point of voting if you despise both main candidates equally?
This early in the morning, news coverage is extremely boring. CNN reports from an empty stage in Boston from which Kerry hopes to hold his victory speech; Fox discusses what the issues will be, as if we don’t know by now; both networks discuss a problem with some voting machines in Pennsylvania (“Will the state be this year’s Florida?”). “Fox and Friends” provide their usual newsworthy commentary and witty banter. The morning’s center segment’s an interview with Laura Bush, who has to smile stiffly at this funny story from the weekend’s trick or treating adventures:
”Two men had dressed up as politicians, one of them as your husband. My son said: ’Hey, you’re the president,’ and he said: ’That’s right, here’s some more candy….’”
Ha. Ha.
I turn off the TV and leave for my morning class, tiny raindrops hitting my head in a steady unpleasant stream. The weather’s projected to be bad the whole day from the Mexican gulf, over the Bible Belt, up to the Midwest. It’s speculated that this might deter some from standing in line outside their polling places. Will “The Youth Vote” conquer the rain and make it’s presence felt?
1:00 pm, Nov 2, 2004
Joseph’s already waiting to give me a ride to Detroit. As we hit the road he turns on the radio. What could be more soothing in the barren monotony of the Michigan freeway than the sound of Rush Limbaugh’s sweet voice? I only half-listen as I study the billboards, cornfields, and occasional political propaganda framing I-96. Random sentences break through the automotive noises:
“There IS no Kerry appeal… That’s quite a statement for a socialist type European guy to make… It’s not HARD to vote… There are a lot of nitwits around us… I’m not saying Americans are stupid… And these leftist Stalinists at Rock The Vote….”
”I love that guy,” Joseph laughs.
We have time to discuss several issues before reaching the Metro area, when we make our personal projections. When I walk toward the elementary school polling for my district, Joseph’s voice echoes in my head.
“If Bush takes Florida, it’s over.”
Two camps of men carrying flyers in their hands huddle on opposite sides of the school driveway. They wear raincoats and caps with the American flag. I pass right between them, staring forward, hoping they won’t approach me. I only look back when I reach the door carrying a sign saying “No campaigning allowed within 100 ft of entrance.” I’m in the clear.
Inside, signs pointing to the voting room alternate with drawings of smiling Jack-o-lanterns. Expecting a huge line, I walk into an empty room but for a series of blue voting booths, a counting machine, and a rectangular table with five clerks. Voting Clerk One gives me a sheet to sign with my name and address; Voting Clerk Two checks that I’m on the list; Voting Clerk Three gives me the ballot: large, ungainly and enclosed in a beige folder; Voting Clerk Four tells me how to fill it out:
“You can vote a straight partisan ticket: then you only fill this section out. You can vote a split ticket, then don’t forget to check the back; do not fill them both out! You can vote independently, then don’t forget to check the back; do not fill them both out!”
Here I am, the youth voice, ready to throw my vote away. Gripping a worn down pencil I begin connecting arrows to names of people I’ve never heard of before. Presidential candidate? Check. Congressional representative? Check. Proposal One and Two? Check. District Court judge? Hmmm. Local School Board representative? Uhhhh….
One possible strategy’s to vote for women and foreign sounding names, but that seems a little too frivolous. I approach Voting Clerk Five with several unchecked items tucked in my folder. We put it into the machine together. It grabs hold of my ballot, sucking it out of the folder, out of my grasp. It doesn’t give off a sound, but in my mind I hear a toilet flushing.
“Man, you’re good!,” Voting Clerk Five tells me, handing me a sticker with an American flag and the proud words “I voted.”
An hour later, my phone rings.
“Hi, Andreas?” an uncertain voice asks, mispronouncing my name badly. “This is the Michigan Republicans calling to remind you that George Bush has provided steady leadership for the past four years in the war against terrorism; he’ll work for a strong, stable economy; and you should keep that in mind as you vote today. This message has been paid for by the Republican Party of Michigan. You have a nice day.”
9:00 pm, Nov 2, 2004
Accompanied by a serenade of screams from the Pistons’ season opener against Houston, the presidential campaign rolls on, but it’s lost its flare. It’s too early in the evening to project results, and too late to discuss new issues. Fox News Anchor Brit Hume does his best impression of a movie trailer announcer, but can’t breathe life into stale interviews and clichéd angles.
One report counts the celebrity support for each side. Supposedly, Britney Spears supports Bush. This brings back memories from Destiny’s Child’s performance at Bush’s inauguration in 2001 and Beyonce’s rationale behind promoting Republican politics:
“Oh, I don’t know much about politics (I don’t know much about anything). But we’re all Americans (Buy our record!), and I think it’s important that we all unite behind the president, whether he’s a democrat or a republican (I’m rich, bitch!).”
Past midnight, most spectators have left the election for the more pleasant environment of their beds. There’s still no winner, and the jokes are set aside for mechanical and statistical coverage:
“Arizona will go to the president with its electoral votes… Florida will go to the president with its 27 electoral votes.”
What about Ohio?
“Colorado, and its nine electoral votes, will go to the president… Montana, and its three electoral votes, will go to the president… New Hampshire goes to Kerry… Oregon and seven electoral votes go to Kerry.”
What about Ohio?
As the polls draw to a close, Fox News counts 269 electoral votes for Bush, CNN only 249. Both have Kerry at 242. First to 270 wins. Looks like a close one, it might all come down to one swing state.
What about Ohio?
3:00 am, Nov 3, 2004
Reports say that voters between ages 18 and 24 didn’t have a larger impact than in earlier elections. What a surprise.
5:40 am, Nov 3, 2004
It’s clear that the race will elude conclusion when Bush sends his chief of staff, Andrew Card, to speak to the eroding crowd at the Reagan Center. Fox News’ anchors have talked for hours like it’s a done deal. At this time, no one knows that the president won’t call a victory until he receives a concession call from Kerry at 11 a.m., but Card essentially guarantees the presidential race a win for the Republicans.
“President Bush has won the state of Ohio!” says Card, further implying that Bush refrains from ending it all out of respect for Kerry and his right to reflect on events before ceding the election.
In Boston, John Edwards long ago addressed the pro-Kerry crowd, shoving thumbs high into the air.
“We have waited four years for this,” he said, “we can wait one more night.”
Like four years ago, one side is sure of its victory, while the other hangs on to a sliver of hope, refusing defeat. Reports of malfunctioning polling during the day were sporadic, and nothing indicates a lengthy debacle like Florida’s in 2000.
The Afternoon of Nov. 3
Some of us were stupid enough to stay up all night waiting for answers, as the entire election slowly narrowed down to one state. But now it’s done, we can finally exhale, and some of us can get some sleep. Bush supporters across the nation can relax, while Kerry fans reluctantly release their tight grip on that tiny slice of hope that John Edwards still grasped at 2:30 this morning.
Here we go again. Let’s get crazy up in this motherfucker.

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Playing Dirty

It began four years ago, even before George W. Bush took the presidential oath, but it wasn’t until this year the presidential campaign’s trash-talk alert passed code orange and entered high risk territory. Now, campaign ads from both sides have hit their peak, as they try to convince voters that the election isn’t about current national and international conditions, but rather 30-year-old events in relation to a conflict in a small pastoral nation in Indochina. But John Kerry’s war record and Bush’s attendance in the Air National Guard aren’t the only issues facing the electorate in speeches and the past weeks’ debates. The challenger and the incumbent have traded barbs over North Korea, Iraq, tax cuts, and Medicare, giving opposing campaign teams plenty of material from which to spin new ads and attacks.[john]
Michigan’s position as a swing state ensures that its citizens are forced to witness the evidence that the more than $1 billion raised by both sides collectively has been put to better use than just purchasing banners for their respective conventions and balloons for the election day after-party. In fact, the multitude of ads and allegations thrown around make it questionable whether the two sides are trying to win an election or if they’re just honoring an old American tradition: that of the dirty, filthy, and nasty.
Dirty politics shelter many different actions under its umbrella. Aside from gerrymandering (manipulating the configuration of voting districts) and rigging of vote counts, it includes bugging and blackmail, and the dirtiest manifestation of them all: the political murder, historically popular in Serbia, among other places. But while American politics certainly have had a taste of them all, none have been as prominent as mudslinging: verbal charges aimed at an opponents character and political integrity. These range from serious attacks, such as accusations of atheism or communism; to more humorous practices, like the 19th century comparisons of Democrats to donkeys (which finally led to the party adopting the animal as its symbol in 1896); to contemporary parodies like last year’s gubernatorial election in California, when the Democrats highlighted Arnold Schwarzenegger’s national ties to Adolf Hitler, and he replied by calling them “ghurlymen”.
This fall, mudslinging seems as popular as ever, intensifying after the first debate at the end of September. Consequently, the old complaints about the modern campaign’s limitations once again rise to the forefront. People react to the ridiculous amount of money that goes into this campaigning, to its focus on irrelevant information, and to its overt negativity. As if any of this is something new.
Tyrants and Gorillas In The Oval Office
Image related attacks are as old as the republic’s first election, during which George Washington went to great troubles to hide his bad complexion and ugly dentures from mudslinging opponents, going so far as to wear false teeth.
The following presidential campaigns were some of the nastiest in the history of American politics. Personal attacks and character assassinations were abundant, demanded and amplified by a sensationalistic press emphasizing scandal and sleaze. Messages were conveyed by slogans, songs, speeches, and a wide array of printed media including newspapers, posters, pamphlets, and mailings. The invention of photography further galvanized the process by visualizing it, foreshadowing the modern campaign’s television ads. Libel and slander laws existed, but were not enforced; reflecting an electorate accepting dirtier methods than those of today. Half-truths and outright lies were hence common; and if political issues ever managed to enter into elections, they were used only as a means to question the integrity of an opponent.
Thomas Jefferson, for instance, met a barrage of accusations during his campaign against Federalist incumbent John Adams in 1800. Not only was he called an infidel and atheist, it was said that if he was elected, he would cede power to the Jacobins, who had ruled post-revolutionary France in a ”reign of terror.” American women would thereby be exposed to violence, rape, and seduction; property would be plundered and vandalized; and Christianity would be profaned and destroyed. The Federalists even publicized written evidence that Jefferson had died. This was actually true, but it turned out that the dead man really was a slave by the same name. Although exposed, the Federalists suffered no significant backlash, as the slow contemporary communications almost prevented the Republicans from convincing voters that their candidate was still among the living. For their part, members of Jefferson’s party certainly were no saints, calling Adams a criminal and tyrant who would establish a monarchy.[page]
As the 19th century campaign progressed, name-calling emerged as a common method to denigrate opponents. Adversaries to Abraham Lincoln, for example, accosted him with everything from simple slurs like “ape” and “gorilla” to more sinister affronts like “shapeless skeleton” and “rail-splitting stallion,” before John Wilkes Booth solved their problem by shooting him at Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. The mudslinging then culminated in the 1884 election between Democrat Grover Cleveland and Republican James G. Blaine, generally considered history’s nastiest political rivalry. It featured everything from character assassinations to racism and bigotry, highlighting Blaine’s shady business deals and the discovery of Cleveland’s bastard child. Political issues were buried under an ocean of mud, as emphasis on a clean and wholesome personal life, so important in modern politics, took a permanent place among the characteristics of presidential candidates.
[david]While the dirtiest tricks of the early 20th century appeared in local and state elections, in the guise of vote rigging, national politicians still smeared each other left and right. Highlights included Woodrow Wilson’s alleged two-timing love life, which possibly sent his wife to her grave; and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s supposed sending of a U.S. warship to collect his pet dog, Fala, which he’d forgotten on an inspection tour of the Auletian Isles.
The late 1950s saw the ascension of television as a political weapon. It began with the first televised debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960 and America’s first broadcasted campaign advertisements. Democrat Lyndon Johnson’s group made the most notorious ad in 1964, which followed an idyllic scene of a young Aryan girl picking flowers with the sound of a NASA countdown and footage of a nuclear explosion (“Vote for president Johnson on November 3, the stakes are too high for you to stay at home”).
As the conflict with the Soviet Union and the war in Vietnam bore on, smear became issue-based rather than personalized. But the dirty tricks were still there and shamefully returned to the public’s attention, in what possibly was the century’s biggest political scandal.
”I think we have to go a long way to surpass what the Nixon campaign did in 1972,” said David Rohde, a political scientist and distinguished professor at MSU.
Nixon’s team was responsible for numerous break-ins, buggings, harassments, and pranks leading up to the well-known Watergate incident and the president’s subsequent impeachment. His fall from grace resonated strongly with an electorate tired from the strain of the Vietnam war, sick of shady politicians and the dirt they slung at each other. Campaign rhetoric hence cleaned up somewhat in the 1970s, becoming self-promotional rather than attacking. But things returned to normal in the following decade, and the rest, to quote a cliché, is history.
Capturing The Electorate
The modern smear campaign, then, is characterized by questions regarding the opponent’s motives and integrity; harangues about what he is for or against, but not what the campaign’s own candidate stands for; true evidence implying false conclusions; and an emphasis on past failures and embarrassments.
The 1990s and the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal showed us that nothing was too dirty and that it didn’t matter if the politician was even running for office. Opponents went after Clinton with the intent to smear his reputation by attacking his morals and exposing a certain oral encounter. Americans forgot what Clinton actually did or did not do during his eight years in office and instead remember him as the “Slick Willy” that recieved gratification in the oval office.
Nowadays, there are large scale advertising processes, which first identify and target audiences, and then pattern strategies after the predominant values found. Hence, several researchers have found that a successful campaign convinces the electorate that it shares its sentiments, and that the opponent doesn’t.
”[They should] make negative charges that can’t easily be proved false,” Rohde said. [page]
[mud]Charges typically revolve around issues evoking strong emotional responses, rather than rational ones. Patriotism, prejudice, religion, and fear are therefore commonly targeted. Similarly, as psychologists have shown, TV ads use filmic devices that only register at the edge of the viewer’s consciousness. They bypass rational perception and leave unarticulated information unrelated to the political issues at stake. TV’s growing importance in 20th century campaigns diluted substantive argumentation, making elections accessible to low-involvement voters who don’t take the time to investigate every side of an issue; while they also, as all humans, are incapable of processing all information coming at them.
”If we did that for everything we knew, we’d be overwhelmed, so we face the challenge of lots of information coming in by balancing rational and irrational thinking,” said Cheryl Kaiser, a social psychologist whose research tracks human behavior regarding their cultural world views.
”Negative information oftentimes does capture our attention more quickly than positive information,” she said. ”If can you raise fear in people, what you’re going to be getting is people trying to cling on to candidates who can help them avoid the fear.”
And thus negative campaigning works, as voters absorb its messages even if they disapprove of its methods. Accuracy is optional, but lack of it could backfire.
”It is potentially very damaging for a campaign to make negative charges against your opponent that are proven false,” Rohde said.
At the least, allegations must be credible. If they are, they can be very powerful, especially if the other side isn’t slinging back any mud.
Political scientists noted early on that a negative attack must be answered for its effect to be minimized. This can be done through a press conference, a response ad, or by establishing a well-informed electorate. A defensive strategy is likely to fail: a successful response either disassociates the candidate from the accusations, reframes the context they appeared in, or go on the offensive and allege even grislier things about the opponent.
”The best response, if it’s  possible, is to prove that [the charge] is false,” Rohde said. “Even better is to get someone who’s neutral to say that it’s false.”
Some analysts have gone so far as to suggest that a politician guilty of the allegations directed at him would respond best by admitting his mistake and apologizing for it. However, aside from in Bill Clinton’s televised oratorical tearjerker following his realization that he neither could escape the blame for the Monica Lewinsky-scandal or his subsequent lies, this theory is rarely put into practice.
The 2004 Election Revisited
Both press and populace behave differently in close presidential races, when candidates devote more time to communicating with the electorate. The media, sometimes criticized as too passive, too ready to let candidate rhetoric seep into their news coverage, make better use of their time, producing substantive reporting. Simultaneously, of course, the campaign teams spend greater time making more ads.
Contrary to appearances, campaign ads are regulated. The National Association of Broadcasters has guidelines for which commercials to air and which to reject. Furthermore, American law requires that television and radio ads have the explicit approval of the candidates before airing. Candidates can get around this legislation by letting independent groups, such as the ”Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” or ”MoveOn,” do the dirty work and then condemn their practice if necessary, as both Bush and Kerry have done this year. Also, the Internet lacks proper regulation for political advertising, and online slurs are hence much harsher and more numerous. Amendments including the world wide web into existing legislation have been proposed, but even if they pass, the task of enforcing them remains.
Mudslinging will likely have an effect on the upcoming election, because it is clear it will be a close race. More interesting is the candidates’ respective reasons behind going on the offensive and not focusing on their own policies. It’s an obvious tactic for Kerry, as he’s challenging the conditions the current administration has established, conditions which divided the country. Bush’s reasons are more obscure, implying that smear tactics have been adopted into the political culture, becoming expected tools too dangerous to avoid. Or maybe the answer lies closer to what Rohde suggested.
“One of the reasons for negative campaigning is to get people not to vote, to get your opponent’s supporters to stay home,” he said. ”It’s hard to get people to switch sides, especially once they’ve made a choice. It’s easier to turn them off from voting.”

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A Matter of Balls

Football is back. After being restricted to the sloppy care of amateurs playing on grassy fields over the summer, it’s finally back at the big venues. Now, the world livens up with boos and cheers while sports fans everywhere salivate at the prospects of a new season… everywhere but in the United States, where the football is brown and oval rather than round and white, moved by the players’ hands rather than their feet. Here, the game known and loved by billions worldwide is called soccer, and it’s relegated to the dark alleys of sports coverage favoring brawny jocks in goofy helmets crashing into each other.[bore]
As Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Mike Royko once said: “All that proves is that most of the world is too poor to build bowling alleys, golf courses, tennis courts and baseball fields. There’s hundreds of millions of poor people out there who still ain’t got indoor plumbing, but that don’t mean there’s something great about an outhouse. Soccer is boring. I’ve never seen a more boring sport.”
Regardless, the big leagues began in early September in Europe, the center of the world’s commercial soccer, ending a two-month drought only partially alleviated by the Olympics, in which the best players can’t participate. As always, the summer gave birth to record setting transfers, most notably the English Premiership’s Manchester United paying more than £20 million for Everton’s 18-year-old prodigy Wayne Rooney. Even as the teams square off against each other internally, the best clubs set their sights toward winning the Champion’s League, and the national squads attempt to qualify for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. The ticket offices pulse with excitement, once again filling the air around the stadiums with the supporters’ song. In the midst of this rejoicing, nobody looks over the ocean toward America, where Major League Soccer plays before uninterested television viewers, unwanted in its own country.
Ten years ago, soccer was the most fashionable game in the U.S. It was hosting the World Cup, the biggest sports event on the planet, and international broadcasters and tourists lined up at its borders, money in hand. Americans bought tickets and read in the newspapers about the unknowns representing their country. At the home opener in the Pontiac Silverdome, they waved their flags and cheered at Eric Wynalda’s equalizer against Switzerland as if they understood what they were watching.
The tournament was a success. The U.S. advanced from the round-robin before losing to Brazil, who went on to win the gold. But as the rest of the world returned to their homes, American analysts pondered whether they’d bring the game back with them, whether soccer was a one-hit wonder. They’d hosted the World Cup to promote the launching of Major League Soccer, but the question was whether the hype would carry over to this latest attempt to claim the game as American and give it a permanent place in the hearts of domestic sports fans.
In 2004, the answer reads loud and clear. The MLS, home of mediocre Americans and international has-beens, completely devoid of star power, gets virtually no airtime by the major sports broadcasters. Neither do any other leagues, for that matter, and it seems safe to say that soccer remains a foreign sport, unable to garner support from baseball and football fans.
Still, while a commercial failure, soccer’s a lowbrow athletic hit, as evidenced by the many intramural players on the MSU campus, as well as the two teams representing the university in the Big Ten tournaments.
Ashley Lawson and Emma Harris both play for MSU’s women’s team, the latter leading it in scoring. Both attribute their love for the game to an early introduction to the little leagues most children play in whether they’re talented or athletically degenerated. [page]
“My parents put me into it,” Harris said .
Asked to explain why soccer is special, Lawson points to its aesthetic quality. “It’s a pretty game, the way the plays build up,” she says. “There’s a lot of strategy to it, and it demands more hand-eye coordination than other sports.” [fans]
Coincidentally, this is one of the main complaints the hardcore soccer haters, lamely nicknamed “soccer-knockers,” voice against the sport. For example, a random and very non-representative survey of Michigan State’s tailgating community yielded comments like: “In soccer, a team can dominate another for 89 minutes and the other team plays a long ball that is nodded on and falls right and they score and win: that is crap,” and “it’s more of a finesse game….”
This implies that soccer is uneventful: a game for weaklings who don’t score enough goals or break enough bones to entertain. This image partly stems from the diving antics prominent in leagues like the Italian, where sportsmanship is punished and bad acting is rewarded with penalty kicks.
Brazil’s Rivaldo performed one of history’s most impressive dives in a 2002 World Cup game against Turkey. During a stoppage of play, one of the Turks loosely kicked the ball toward Rivaldo, hitting him on his left thigh. Rivaldo fell to the ground, rolling around as if shot, hands covering a face twisted in convincing agony. After the tournament, FIFA penalized the Brazilian midfielder for his conduct. The fine equaled roughly $7000, which the star, likely laughingly, promptly extracted from his huge fortune.
Incidents like this are hardly endearing to American sponsors and spectators, and neither is the murky reputation of soccer hooligans, who seem to be inseparable from the game.
“It’s more intense,” Harris said, comparing the atmosphere she experienced at a game in Belgium to that of an American football game. “(fans) were throwing things.”
Which must have been on a good day, as hooligans likely do more than throw things given a chance. Hardly deserving to be called fans at all, they claim allegiance to certain teams only to have a reason to fight each other. Commonly on a game day, they set a time and place to duke it out, sometimes even agreeing on which weapons to bring. Unfortunately, they don’t only beat the hell out of each other. With every big event, there’s a threat of large-scale violence, and hence cities spend huge amounts on police support every year. This behavior is not restricted to the spectators. The lower the quality of the league, the lower the quality of security, and the larger the chances of referees getting chased out into the woods by angry coaches or linesmen being brutalized by players disagreeing with offside calls.
Although the hooligans are the most visible, they only make up a tiny proportion of soccer-lovers. Hardcore fans appear in all shapes, sizes, and ages. They meet and warm-up before the game and socialize afterward. They bring the game home with them, read about it in the morning papers, discuss it at work, and dream of a championship title for their club. Those who saw British movie “Fever Pitch” (or read the book) have a fairly good idea of the climate. Soccer can be more than just a game, it can become an obsession transcending sports and creating its own culture.[page]
Pride and Prejudice
Harris and Lawson are living proof that women’s soccer is more popular than men’s soccer in America, an inversion of international conventions and conditions. Harris names the success of the female national team as one of the reasons.
“They won the World Cup (in 1999),” she said. “That helps to inspire girls growing up.” [culture]
This leads to the question whether Americans only like sports in which their team without a doubt is the best, a notion neither Harris nor Lawson agree with. But the country’s major sports are football, baseball, and basketball. The first two are mainly restricted to North America, and the third quickly got disavowed during the Olympics this summer, when it became obvious that the “Dream Team” couldn’t walk all over their opponents anymore. As the tournament bore on, many fans even began rooting for the other side, as Iverson, Duncan and the others only managed to scramble to a bronze.
What other explanation is there for Americans refusing to embrace soccer as something more than a hobby? In soccer, the commercial center is elsewhere. For once, there are no high quality games for fans to see live this side of the Atlantic unless they’re willing to venture to the southern continent. The U.S. is furthermore marked by an obvious lack of interest in foreign leagues, similar to the sentiment toward subtitled films, which rarely make it to the American big screen. Whether this represents a larger reluctance to understand foreign cultures, who’s to say?
One thing’s for certain, however. The rest of the world is comfortable keeping the status quo just as it is. They’d hate to admit it, but they breathed a relieved sigh when the Germans beat the U.S. in the World Cup quarter-finals two years ago. The American women may dominate, but unfortunately nobody seems to care. But if the men step forward to claim the cup, then the U.S. will have the world in upheaval, completing the humiliation initiated by George W. Bush when he ignored the United Nations in 2003 and invaded Iraq. The last sense of international pride doesn’t depend on a desert country in the Middle East, nor on a sheet of paper with environmental legislation. No, it rests on a green grass pitch with white lines, in spiked black shoes tearing forward, in a round white ball hitting the back of the net.

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