Like their American and European counterparts, Canadians harbour three sacred cows they would do well to put out to pasture. The largest by far is professional sports. The second is charity and the third gambling.
Since this may seem a surprising suggestion, I will offer a brief critique of each, then suggest how sports, gambling and charity have been contributing to an unexpected crisis – the diminution of the middle class and increasingly vicious attack upon the poor.
We can begin with an undisputed fact. However enthusiastically they 'talk the talk', most North Americans are not active participants in sports. For the typical enthusiast, life is sedentary ... centring upon the offerings of the television industry, with occasional forays to ball parks or hockey arenas. Any remaining energy or time is spent ferrying youngsters to practices and games, followed by morning-after rehearsals of their exploits, or – for the familially-challenged – the highlights of some televised tryst.
All of this is thought to be wholesome. Sports are said to underscore camaraderie and teamwork, and emphasize that "playing the game is what it's all about." Such benefits may be occurring, but there are far less desirable outcomes as well. For example professional sports – the catalyst and focus of whatever interest today's young people have in athletics – are restricted to the exploits of a few extraordinarily talented, young athletes. Yet everything we know about well-being recommends life-long activity. If athleticism is portrayed as restricted to the first few decades of a few lives, what of the millions of 'remaindered' lives?
This institutionalised indolence is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Surely nothing but indolence is nurtured by trooping millions of fans into hockey, baseball and soccer stadiums. What lessons are instilled when such a preponderance settle for the thin joys of cheering, cajoling or chauffeuring?
There is another dimension to this harm. Children internalise adult examples far more deeply than adult pronouncements. The youngsters carted to hockey practice or figure skating lessons are also learning that they too must soon put away skates and dreams to nurture some similarly short-lived participation in their own children.
An even more worrisome consequence is that professional sports perpetuates a primitive view of human affairs – physical competition, strategy, teamwork, us vs. them, the loss of personal identity in favour of the team .... Echoes of these toxic notions prowl the world's political and economic corridors. They set the stage for military adventuring, and then obstruct other than military solutions.
I sometimes glimpse how one might take take pride when one's country spawned a 'world class' athlete. However, I cannot understand identifying with teams whose membership is always changing – and who may indeed be all imported. (The Toronto Raptors appears to be such a team.) Canadians' ecstasy over Donovan Bailey's Olympic exploits in 1997 ... their shame when Ben Johnson was stripped of Olympic gold a decade earlier ... seem equally mysterious, since the athletes in question were not 'Canadian Issue'.
Strictly speaking, most of us are not 'Canadian Issue' either. We are the third or fourth generation spawn of immigrants.
Thinking about this, I realized that there is a way this could make sense. Nations could populate national teams with athletes drawn from indigenous pools of vanquished peoples. For example, Canadians could deploy Innuit athletes. Americans have more choices because they could fill team rosters with either indians or negroes.
This would be win - win all around. If a national team, or some professional team, did poorly, there would be no need for shame among either citizens or fans. These athletes are, after all, merely the spawn of a defeated 'ethnic group'.
On the other hand, should our game of life proxies win, armchair heroes would have a plausible reason to gloat. "Do you realize," they could say to disgruntled stakeholders in other nations, "our ancestors whupped the ancestors of the team that just whupped yours! Think what we could do to you!"
What is the connection between fandom and gambling? Gambling is especially appealing to the physically repressed or frustrated. Obesity, indolence, physical incompetence ... do not prevent individuals from sending 'fiscal avatars' to do battle – placing a bet or buying a lottery ticket. The difficulty of prevailing in physical competition is analogous to winning a game of chance. Indeed, since 'time is money', gambling is tantamount to putting (a bit of) one's life on the line.
Capitalizing upon such psychological links, government-sponsored lotteries, casinos, video lottery terminals ... have been springing up everywhere. The fact that gambling has always been regarded as socially disruptive and psychologically addictive is deflected by channelling a percentage of gambling 'profits' into good works.
Not surprisingly, this obvious ploy has occasioned a great deal of scorn among those opposed to gambling. However, the arguments trotted out in defence of casinos and lotteries may be a straw horse. The question to ask? What are we being distracted from? In the world today, as technologies become increasingly sophisticated and people displacing, companies have less and less need for employees, especially well-paid employees This is creating the paradox of increasing productive capacity in the context of either frozen or declining incomes.
What does this have to do with athletics and gambling? Even though trade agreements and multinational corporations have until recently been able to export some of the harm of people-displacing 'progress and development' to third world populations, an explosive situation has been building up. In addition, the last two centuries has seen an evolution of personal rights claims. Western populations have well-defined ideas of what an acceptable life-style and social safety net consists of – medicare, unemployment insurance, old age pensions and welfare.
However, as information-processing and robotic developments marginalize those without sophisticated skills or shares in corporations, such notions become toxic. In the context of declining employment opportunities, life-style expectations are politically volatile and no longer have economy-vitalizing relevance. In a world where economies are shrinking because of progress and development, social safety nets no longer be financed by transfer payments from middle class populations or, a fortiori, by the wealthy.
Nor are they likely to be funded, (pace Jeremy Rifkin) by the imposition of new taxes upon financial transactions. The wealthy have their equity invested in the world they mostly own and largely control. This is what should concern the rest of us. The evolution of people-displacing technologies and the increasing preponderance of wealth in a few hands are why public infrastructure is degrading, expenses are being downloaded to municipalities and health care is being clawed back.
The increasing difficulty of finding money to satisfy investor expectations and service public debt illuminates governments' love affair with charities, sports and gambling. Vicarious accomplishments and the possibility of windfalls are especially appealing to sedentary, economically challenged populations.
Confronted by these prospects, the wealthy have much to ponder. Channelling a percentage of gambling profits into charitable activities is the most imaginative response we have seen. There is a critical difference between a hard-pressed individual receiving funds for food and shelter as a right, and receiving the same number of dollars via some charity. In the first instance, the money received is the person's due. In the second, it is a handout. The institutionalization of charities, the talking-up of volunteerism, the transmogrification of welfare into workface ... all serve to extinguish the now obsolete rights claims middle and lower class populations harbour.
The fact that charities are increasingly being funded via the casinos and Lotteries patronized by those being gulled is merely an incidental delight.
As this process unfolds, we should expect the rapid degradation of middle and lower class life. Unless some extraordinary grass roots renaissance of community solidarity intervenes, the next generation will find themselves hurled back into the ancient rich - poor split.
They will, of course, have 4' television screens and stupendous virtual opportunities.
As this occurs, emerging nations will go into their own spiralling decline. With the vanishing of the middle class in western nations, their incentive and moral precedent will be obliterated
Sports, gambling and charities: the cows of our apocalypse.
We didn't need a fourth. We didn't warrant horses.
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