Why have sports and entertainment become so political?
Because of Donald Trump, yes, but not for the reasons Stephen Colbert and LeBron James think. The president certainly denounced protesting players in his speech in Alabama, but he didn’t cause the Kaepernick Affair, nor did he disinvite the NBA players to the White House before their leader declared that he didn’t want to go. Mr. Trump didn’t call Meryl Streep “overrated” until she trashed him in her Golden Globe speech.
But his replies have accomplished something more. In fighting back, and evoking a thousand counter-replies, Mr. Trump has drawn the stifling liberalism of the sports and entertainment worlds fully into the sunlight. The NCAA and NFL showed its leftwing muscle in their response to religious freedom bills in Indiana and North Carolina and elsewhere. ESPN got rid of Curt Schilling. And the Emmys and Oscars have witnessed periodic outbursts of hectoring liberalism ever since Vanessa Redgrave’s 1978 Academy Award acceptance speech blasting “Zionist hoodlums.”
What we see now is a boiling over of what’s been simmering for a long time. Trump is the burner that’s done it. The upsurge of politics in sports and entertainment was inevitable as soon as an aggressive conservative occupied the White House. It happened somewhat under Nixon, Reagan, and W., but none of them struck back the way Trump has. His street-fighting responses have unleashed actors and athletes to cross the old line between ideology and leisure with fervent righteousness (and profanity).
The line-crossing is what irritates fans and viewers most. Why can’t we simply enjoy the game? Why not a separation of sports and state? But the left cries foul on simple pleasures, and this tendency didn't start with Colin Kaepernick (as The Wall Street Journal implied in its editorial "The Politicization of Everything"). It goes all the way back to Karl Marx himself. Marx believed that all human institutions, including the ones that appear ordinary and natural, are, in fact, thoroughly political and fabricated. Ordinary people believe that the nuclear family is the normal way to live if only because it’s been around for so long. By contrast, radical feminists believe that the bourgeois family is a patriarchal strategy to suppress women, one that hides its machinations beneath the guise of nature and propriety.
In the progressive mind, everything is political. Politics are everywhere. People who just want to laugh and listen to TV conversation à la Johnny Carson, approach the Emmy Awards as a celebration of the art (not politics) of acting and screenwriting, and look forward to three hours of football as an escape from the news cycle—they merely ignore the grim, political truth of human reality. They have to be indoctrinated good and hard.
Donald Trump is a conservative in that he believes some areas of public life should be preserved from partisanship. His predecessor didn’t. When the Obergefell decision came down and Mr. Obama illuminated the White House in a progressivist rainbow, he took the presidential residence out of the civic space of America and politicized it. The White House should belong to everybody; it is a civic emblem, not a political one. But civics implies a common area that transcends parties and factions. Progressives don’t believe it exists. They call it a “mystification,” a fake conception.
Actors and athletes may be unaware of this background, but they do seem to enjoy going political in these (usually) non-political zones. They could barely contain their naughty glee at the Emmys. They got a charge out of flouting the old manners that asked people not to talk religion or politics during leisure occasions. They don’t realize the wisdom of it. In a democracy, if we don’t allow some common enjoyments free of partisan feeling, if we can’t relax and just watch a game or show together, suspending our ideologies or, perhaps, sublimating them into the conflicts on the screen or the ball field, we end up with what we have now, a dispiriting, discouraging politicized culture.
The answer to it, however, is not a lowering of the temperature on all sides. The politicization of all things is a set goal of the left. Donald Trump’s many declarations of war on media and sports figures put this to the test in a whole new way. He has forced an accounting: have enough Americans grown so sick of the politicization of what seems to them innocent pleasures that a critical mass will choose to stay home and tune out?
If that happens, if we stop watching the NFL, the league and its players will have learned what Samuel Johnson taught an actor who sought to be popular. Those who live to please must please to live.
Mark Bauerlein is Professor of English at Emory University and Senior Editor at First Things Magazine. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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