It’s not often that you have a philosophical question that hasn’t been beaten to death; what with science and astronomy and politics getting their own fields, philosophy doesn’t have much ground left to cover anymore. But there’s a topic that’s been dogging me for a long time now, never pressing enough to answer, but always around. The question: are monuments ethical?
By monuments, I don’t mean the ones that have been in the news lately, the statues of non-Americans that some Americans feel protective of. I mean monuments in the grander sense: the colossal civic projects, forged by mystical inspiration or whips or both, to create a lasting thing, a representation of the people who lived there. The Pyramids and the Taj Mahal, or even on a local level, the St. Louis Arch and the Golden Gate Bridge are iconic constructions that inspire and memorialize, the last connections to the obelisks of an ancient age that spurred mankind toward revelation.
Monument-building has slowed down in the modern age, however, mostly because fewer people are getting whipped to build things. What we generally consider the wonders of the world are a product of despotism or, in the best of scenarios, the benefaction only possible through extreme wealth; they are not democratic things. In democracies, when we’re about to gild the ceilings of our cathedrals and throw fortunes into construction, there are people to remind us that there are folks down the street who are starving. Or at least that we could build a mass transit system for them to get to the cathedral.
Monuments are tricky things because they create a shared good, both in the tangible present and the intangible future. The Space Needle doesn’t really do anything, per se, except attract some tourism funds from people who like to eat from a height while rotating slowly. But it’s a permanent feature of the Seattle skyline, a source of civic individuality at a time when that’s difficult to find. But can they be justified when people are hungry and homeless? It’s not an easy question to answer, but there’s an easy follow-up while we mull: what about our modern cathedrals, the stadiums?
In 1949, Bertrand Russell made a series of lectures, which were collected into a short volume entitled “Authority and the Individual.” Then a spritely 77-year-old, the Lord Russell had long completed his conversion from logic-based mathematician to reason-based social philosopher and humanitarian, and the speeches are packed with occasionally-diverted arguments founded on common sense. His target, for so long dated and recently un-dated: the rise of government control, both in the communist and capitalist spheres, and the conflict of man versus society.
One of the primary failings of modern democracy, Russell finds, isn’t rooted in corruption or power-grasping, but simple logistics: governments are too big because nations are too big. Even in its original 13-state condition, the Founding Fathers had to make some compromises on the original democratic blueprint of the Greek city-state: the town hall wasn’t going to cut it. We needed the results of those town halls to collect into bigger town halls, which would head to a town hall at the nation’s capitol. The same expansiveness that defined the nation and provided its resources also handicapped its ability to represent its people, since every stage of growth only supplied an extra layer of difficulty and distance.
By 1949, Russell saw this remoteness between government and its civil service, and the people it was supposed to represent, and prophesied that the people would lose more and more of their power. In this sense, he was correct, though he could not see the completeness of the loss, the gerrymandering and campaign spending, or the destruction of local politics through television and internet media. Today, paradoxically, Washington, D.C. feels farther than ever, and yet at the same time we can never escape its noise. Russell was hardly a small-c conservative; he was a major proponent of a world government, and saw it as the only alternative to nuclear war. But he also recognized that it wasn’t just about creating governments, but maintaining them.
And it’s not just that government is actively distancing itself from its electors to avoid responsibility or repercussions; it’s also just a natural aspect of the shared workload of the community. The individual, he says, is born with a spirit of adventure and primitive ferocity that is at odds with, and often stifled completely by, the drive toward efficiency and equality in society. Most people can get by with cooperating for the most part, employing vacations or trampolining to get their thrill-seeking out of their system. Artists and writers, who need to be apart from society in order to thrive, whose main purpose is to make their audience see something specifically outside of accepted truth, have it harder.
But the main goal is to channel that warlike instinct in all of us toward helping each other, often at our own cost. For most of history governments have employed that warlike nature into actual war, seizing fortune and property to the benefit of all, while constructing an Other to rally against. In the nuclear age, however, war grew expensive (though obviously not too expensive) and enemies became more dangerous to create (though obviously not too dangerous).
Still, a substitute is needed, and Russell provides his solution alongside his solution for democracy as a whole in the form of local government. “It would be a good thing,” he says, “if cities could develop an artistic pride leading them to mutual rivalry, and if each had its own school of music and painting, not without a vigorous contempt for the school of the next city. But such local patriotisms do not readily flourish in a world of empires and free mobility.” Or franchised business, or the internet, two more forces that would have only hardened the philosopher’s determination.
I cannot cite figures, and certainly position myself for criticism with an opinion, but it would appear that Russell’s fears of homogenization of culture have proved worse than he could have imagined. On the small scale, we see it in the ripples of the death of the newspaper, and local news in general. Globally, languages and traditions wither before us. Advances in social and physical mobility have improved trade, shared ideas, created incredible efficiencies leading to the increased wealth of all; we can eat grapes in the winter, take in the works of master artists overseas. But the increased wealth has also led to increased sameness; cities are no longer as distinct, physically or culturally, as they once were. You can drink Starbucks in Seoul, eat Subway sandwiches in Stockholm.
“In those who might have worthy ambitions, the effect of centralization is to bring them into competition with too large a number of rivals, and into a subjection to an unduly uniform standard of taste. If you wish to be a painter you will not be content to pit yourself against the men with similar desires in your own town; you will go to some school of painting in a metropolis where you will probably conclude that you are mediocre, and having come to this conclusion you may be so discouraged that you are tempted to throw away your paintbrushes and take to money-making or to drink, for a certain degree of self-confidence is essential to achievement.”
We’ve already seen this effect in baseball through the dissolution of the spirit of the minor leagues, subservient to the demands of efficiency by their major-league overlords. Denied an identity through the baseball they play, these teams are forced to the creativity of Game of Thrones promotions and emblazoning their jerseys with pictures of tacos. Specialization of future athletes has become so vital that children are forced to channel their entire lives into the pursuit of a single dream, and forsake others. Sports cease being a diversion, cease to fulfill their original purpose of combat substitute, and become just another caste, unavailable to almost everyone except in vicarious form.
So where do we stand? America’s largest cities, in an era of economic inequality and crumbling infrastructure, pour hundreds of millions of dollars into buildings where millionaires play for the profit of billionaires. With few exceptions, those cities that refuse to pay the ransom lose their teams to the highest bidder. Some of the deals work out better than others, but it’s inevitably a sad Faustian bargain. But the evils of public financing for private stadiums is hardly a new, or an interesting, argument.
Though it’s difficult to quantify, and thus difficult to budget, sports teams do offer value to their cities beyond the fictional economic stimulus owners pretend they bring to their surroundings. Having survived the cookie-cutter dome era, the modern stadium is a rare display of uniqueness in modern America: individual foods, aesthetics, even individual playing dimensions.
It may make the arts critics shudder, but professional sports are one of the key components of American culture: they create shared experience, supply catharsis, provide avatars to act out our own quiet struggles and concerns. Not only has the playing of baseball become a form of expression, but even the act of watching baseball has become just that: an active verb, the foundation for mathematics, art, and discussion. It would be wonderful if Americans were still reading and arguing over poetry, or engaging in discussions at the local salon. But that’s not the way of our culture in this efficient century; sports are, for whatever other value they offer, a better fit. And it’s unquestionable that something is lost when a sports team leaves a city; perhaps not for every individual, but for the whole.
So how to solve the basic conflict between the private and the public good? How do we justify the baseball stadium? One solution, the capitalist solution: all public funding is withheld, and stadiums and teams become vanity projects at best and oversized theaters at worst. The minor/independent leagues become the model of baseball, a collection of informal pleasure and shoestring budgets, of players paid minimum wage (we’ll at least give them that, in this utopia) while they play for the love of the game. The minor leagues, no longer bound to their masters, would regain relative independence and local presence, selling players when necessary to survive.
It wouldn’t be a terrible way to conduct the game, as long as there weren’t the parent clubs there to suck all of the value and currency out of the leagues for their own ends. It’s the way baseball used to be, in the Class-D era of the game, reflecting a 19th century feel for America. We can’t return to the romanticism and comfort and tumult of local baseball; once you leave the small pond, you can’t really go back.
I suppose that the ideal solution for this problem would be nationalization; baseball’s antitrust laws already make it a poor example of the capitalist ethic. In such a scenario, a baseball team’s management would be itself a representative democracy, elected to terms, responsible for budgets. Meanwhile the civics of baseball fandom would translate into a more active citizenship in the local arena, the ugly and necessary work of figuring out bike lanes and zoning laws, the actual teamwork that democracy demands. It would finally allow fans to earn that possessive first person plural so unavoidable in sports: we won the World Series last year.
Is this rank naivete, another example of paper-thin socialist idealism? Certainly. It’s also the baseball I see when I close my eyes. It’s a disservice to repeat the joke that the fan roots for laundry in the age of free agency—what they root for is a sense of place. Sports teams aren’t defined by their ownership or their players; they’re defined by the fans, the thousands of people who assemble and join together in that rarest of modern phenomena: a common cause. Sports belong to them. Each city, each town should have its own Hall of Fame, the way each school has its display case of trophies. Stadiums already do this, with wings and displays celebrating team history (or, in the case of the Mets, other teams). But they should advance even further and create museums, and tourist-fans should make pilgrimages to each.
Jim Bouton once said of Seattle, when the Pilots fled to Milwaukee between the completion and the publishing of Ball Four, that “a city that seems to care more for its art museums than its ballpark can’t be all bad.” There would be, it was eventually proven, room for both.
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