Tuesday, May 22, 2012

London Calling

Forget the Olympics.  For sporting drama, last weekend in London was unmatchable.  On Saturday, the Chelsea Football Club defied the odds and became the first soccer team from London to win the European Championship, beating Bayern Munich.   It was a victory as dramatic as it was improbable.   Improbable because:

  • Chelsea looked terrible this year.   In the English Premier League they finished in 6th place, their worst finish in 11 years.
  • Their road to the European championship was daunting.  In the round of 16, they lost a first leg match to Napoli 3-1.  They not only reversed that result, they went on to beat Benfica and mighty Barcelona to reach the final.
  • They fired their manager just two months ago.
  • The final against Bayern Munich came down to penalty kicks.  And as everyone knows, when it comes to penalty kicks, the Germans are terrific and Chelsea is terrible.
Chelsea has come close before.  When Russian business tycoon Roman Abramovich bought the club in 2003 and spent gobs of cash on top players, Chelsea’s status as a perennial contender was assured.  Football traditionalists sneered at the nouveau riche from West London but you couldn’t argue with the results – 3 Premier League titles, 4 FA Cups and 2 League Cups.  But the greatest prize, the UEFA European Championship, eluded their ambition.  They came excruciatingly close in 2008 when they reached the finals and lost to Manchester United in a penalty shootout.  The following year, they lost in heartbreaking fashion to Barcelona in the semi-finals.   Chelsea’s nucleus of core players – Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, John Terry and Peter Cech – were aging and this year it looked as if the window was finally closed.  And then, magically, thanks largely to Drogba’s heroics, it wasn’t.

Not only was Chelsea outplayed for nearly the whole game, but their opponents, Bayern Munich, enjoyed home field advantage.  The site was selected over a year ago – it was played in Munich’s Allianz Arena before 62,000 fans.  And even though the Champion’s League final is the biggest event in international sports, there was another soccer match played in London earlier in the day,  a match with even greater stakes played before 90,000 fans at Wembley.  The English Championship playoff final saw another London club, West Ham defeat Blackpool 2-1, earning promotion to England’s Premiership, the world’s leading domestic football league.

For uninitiated American soccer fans, there are two puzzling features of the European game.   The first is the way teams play in multiple tournaments at the same time during the same season.   Imagine if the NCAA basketball tournament wasn’t played in March.  Instead, teams merely qualify in March for the next season. Then, the following winter, tournament games are played on weekdays while ordinary conference games in the Big East and SEC  are played on weekends. That’s why a team like Chelsea can win the European championship while finishing in 6th place in the domestic league.  Additionally, there are various cup tournaments, such as the FA Cup which was also won by Chelsea in this magically bizarre season.

The other curious aspect of the European game is the system of relegation and promotion.  The three teams that finish at the bottom of the standings don’t merely suffer the insult and indignity of losing - they get kicked out of the league and are forced to play in a lower league the following season.   Their places in the league are taken by the top 3 teams in the lower division.  Imagine the worst major league baseball teams being demoted to the minor leagues and replaced by the top Triple A squads.  It’s ruthless, cruel and very exciting.  Below the Premiership is England’s Championship Division.  (It would be like baseball's Triple A if the teams were independent, rather than farm teams).  The top two teams from that division, Reading and Southampton already qualified for promotion.  On Saturday, Blackpool battled West Ham in a playoff for that third promotion spot.  The financial stakes for the club and the emotional stakes for the fans are enormous.    By virtue of winning the match, West Ham will receive over $ 70 million dollars in added revenue, attract new talent and play some of the best teams in the world.  Blackpool will languish another season in the limbo of the minor leagues. There’s jubilation in East London and agony on the Blackpool seaside.

If it was the best of times for Chelsea and West Ham, it was the worst of times for another London club, Tottenham.  Ordinarily, if a team finishes in 1st, 2nd, 3rd or 4th in the English Premier League, they qualify for the biggest of tournaments, the UEFA Champion’s League, which crowns a European champion.   Playing in Europe means revenue and glory for the club and excitement for the fans.  It means you’ve reached the big time.  Tottenham finished fourth.  They should be playing in Europe next year.  But here’s the rub.   Even though Chelsea finished in 6th, because they won the Champion’s League, they automatically qualify for the Champion’s League.   They take Tottenham’s spot. Tough luck Spurs.

For Tottenham’s north London rivals, Arsenal, the weekend was a mixed bag. The Gunners finished in 3rd and can breathe easy because they will be playing in Europe next year while their arch-rivals won't.  But another rival, Chelsea, now has the ultimate prize, a shiny trophy that painfully eludes Arsenal.   Jealously and resentment make for rivalry.  And rivalry is what it’s all about.

There are 20 clubs in England’s Premier League.   Next season, six of them will be from London.  In addition to Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham and West Ham, there are Fulham and Queens Park Rangers, clubs with more modest ambitions.   But every year, there is something to fight for.  Sometimes it’s a trophy.  Sometimes it’s survival in the league.

It should be an interesting August.  Enjoy the Summer Olympics in London.  After that, the real fun begins.


Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Occupational Therapy

"They don't hate capitalism, they hate what's been done to it” - Bill Maher 

“Death to Capitalism”  -    Banner displayed at Occupy Wall Street Protests

"It's always best on these occasions to do what the mob do'
'But suppose there are two mobs?' suggested Mr. Snodgrass.
'Shout with the largest.' replied Mr. Pickwick"              
                                                                                                    -  Charles Dickens  

Liberals still don’t know what to make of OccupyWall Street.
Maybe that’s the point.  I sometimes think that the amorphous quality of the Occupy Wall Street movement is precisely the source of its appeal.  Got a grievance about the status quo?  Grab a banner and come on down.  Whatever it is that’s pissing you off about the powers that be - injustice, unemployment, wealth disparity - Occupy Wall Street has something to offer.
What enthusiasts describe as a “broad coalition,” others would call an incoherent mess.  Occupy Wall Street isn’t a big tent as much as it is an untidy confederation of sleeping bags.   They insist that their goals are clear and just.  But ask any two Occupiers what their goals are and you won’t get the same response – unless it’s an answer that is so general (“A fair society!”) as to be practically meaningless.  What's the practical result that you seek?  World revolution?  Banking reform?  Political reform?  Tax reform?  Job creation? A general condemnation of corporate greed?  Support for organized labor?  Criticism of U.S. foreign policy?   All of the above?  

Any fair minded person can find something they agree with in the cacophony of populist outrage.  But there’s much about Occupy Wall Street that seems useless, if not troubling and counterproductive. The most positive thing I can say about Occupy Wall Street is this:  It’s better than apathy.  When citizens come together to express outrage over a broken system, they are serving an essential function of democracy.   But is Occupy Wall Street bringing us closer to fixing any particular problem ailing us? The movement’s more measured defenders remind us that real change takes a long time to materialize. This is just the beginning of a conversation.  Conversation?  If I seem skeptical, it might be because of the experience I had when I stumbled upon an Occupy rally in downtown Boston last October.  The masked protesters blocking traffic, surrounding our car and marching with their “Death to Capitalism” banner didn't seem much interested in conversation. 

Now I realize that it’s unfair to judge a demonstration by the most outrageous demonstrators or the most extreme slogans. That’s a game that the media and political spin doctors play all the time. They show us the photograph of the idiot displaying hateful slogans scrawled in bad grammar to create the impression that the knucklehead is actually representative of the movement.  It works for the left as well as the right.

In the interest of offering a more balanced take on the views of the Occupiers, I reviewed a collection of photos posted on Facebook.  Here’s a random sampling of banners from last week’s May Day event:

  •  “Healthcare is a Human Right”
  •  “Stop the Greed”
  • “Free Alkawaja – Support Democracy in Bahrain”
  •   “Stop Raising Interest Rates for College Loans”
  •    “Dear 1%, its Over.  We’d Like Our Stuff Back.”
  • “The USA & CIA are the #1 Terrorists in the World”
  •  “Long Live Communism”
  • “Restore Glass Steagell”
  • “NYU, the Debtors College”
  • “Somos el nu se 99%”
  • “Fuck Your Unpaid Internships”
  • “Imagine World Peace”
  • “Monsanto Herbicide Gets Sprayed on Your Food”
  • “Why Work?  Make History! Celebrate May Day.  Join Workers, Immigrants and the 99% at Union Square."
My favorite sign was one held by an elderly woman: “If you are not protesting today, ask yourself why?” Why, indeed?  

There are many possible answers:  Because of my own day job.  Because the stated goal of the event, “to block the flow of capital,” doesn’t seem productive to me.  Because I don’t feel comfortable marching alongside masked demonstrators who would be just at home at a Hamas rally.    Because the “us versus them” mentality driving this protest strikes me as divisive and simplistic.  Because I don’t agree with much of what is being expressed.  And because the sentiments that I DO agree with are little more than that – sentiments, rather than solutions.  An exception is “Restore Glass-Steagell.”  Now THAT is some sensible legislation that I can get behind.  But protests aren’t about sensible legislation.  They are about emotion and attention and demagoguery.  ( Paul Berman writes that "it is not the job of festivals to be articulate...it is the job of magazines to be articulate.") 

Occupy Wall Street also appeals to those baby boomers who are nostalgic for the protests of the 1960s.   I missed out on all of that. (I was two years old when the Kent State shootings occurred).   But I can’t help but wonder if younger Occupiers are trying to recreate the sense of purpose and social consciousness that they imagine the 1960s were about. They want to take part in a historical moment and are fueled by the intoxicating belief that their own generation's activism can make a real difference.  If you can get past the herd mentality thing, there’s something romantic, almost noble in the sentiment. There is the promise of community within the carnival.

But the 60s were quite different.  For all of the turbulence and counterculture, the essence of the political protest could be distilled to two concrete goals:  1) End the war in Vietnam, and 2) Promote equality by means of Civil Rights legislation.  The primary targets of Occupy Wall Street, Corporate Greed and Income Inequality, are shapeless by comparison. To be sure, the protests of the 1960s were not only about politics.  There was sex, drugs and music and the blossoming of a youth culture that would not be restrained. The rallies and gatherings themselves served a different purpose.  There was no Facebook or social media then – the rallies WERE the social media.  Quite simply, these are different times. 

It is possible to think of Occupy Wall Street as the left’s version of the Tea Party.  Both movements are driven by populist outrage, grassroots organization and us-versus-them rhetoric.   The Tea Partiers emphasize “liberty” and take aim at government and "special interests".  The Occupiers emphasize “justice” and take aim at corporate influence in government.  But they are largely warring against the same system although they come at it from a different place in our culture and with a different social agenda.  Some see Occupy Wall Street as part of a larger global movement but it’s far from clear how much traction or influence it will have on U.S. politics. The Tea Party on the other hand has already influenced the outcome of dozens of congressional elections and there is an official Tea party congressional caucus chaired by Michele Bachmann.  There are 66 republicans in Congress who are members.  There is nothing like that for Occupy Wall Street.

The comparative lack of coherence and organization on the part of the Occupiers reminds me of a point made by Antony Beevor in his excellent history of the Spanish Civil War.   Beevor's Introduction explains that the war was not simply a battle between left and right – there were other axes of conflict:  state centralism against regional independence and authoritarianism against the freedom of the individual.

"The nationalist forces of the right were much more coherent because, with only minor exceptions, they combined three cohesive extremes.  They were right wing, centralist, and authoritarian at the same time.  The Republic, on the other hand, represented a cauldron of incompatibilities and mutual suspicions, with centralists and authoritarians, especially the communists, opposed by regionalists and libertarians."
I am not remotely suggesting that a civil war is brewing.  But a “cauldron of incompatibilities” similar to the one that doomed the republic's forces in Spain also threatens to undermine Occupy Wall Street.  Does the movement seek to fix capitalism or tear it down?  At its heart, is it an expression of liberalism or radicalism?  If the movement really does have staying power, time will tell. 

As legitimate as the grievances are, Occupy Wall Street does not speak for most Americans.  Neither does the Tea Party.  But it’s usually the loudest and most radical elements that get the most attention (and raise most of the money). Political moderates hope to steer such movements to the center where consensus can be reached and practical solutions may be realized.  But radicalism has a mind of its own.  In Europe, for example, the influence of extremist political groups is on the rise.
I’m reminded of the banner which was displayed in 2010 at Jon Stewart’s semi-satirical Rally to Restore Sanity:

            What  Do We Want?
            Evidence-Based Change!
            When Do We Want It?
            After Peer Review!

Now THAT’s the stuff that gets the blood pumping.