Monday, June 09, 2014
Against needless complexity
by Emrys Westacott
Some things are simpler than the experts would have us believe. Recently I watched the EUFA Champions League final between Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid. In the build up to the match there was, naturally, a great deal of expert analysis focusing on matters such as the history of games between these clubs, the psychological stratagems of the coaches, the defensive systems to be used, and the potential impact of the rival superstar strikers Cristiano Ronaldo and Diego Costa. These were supplemented with all sorts of statistical data made possible by modern technology. Here's an excerpt from a preview of the game in The Guardian:
"[Real Madrid] have won a higher proportion of their games without Alonso in the starting line-up (80%) than with him (65.2%) in the league this season, but they will miss his ability to break up play in front of the back four. The side have conceded 1.13 league goals per game with him compared to 0.91 when he has been in the line-up......"It's no coincidence that since [Arda] joined in 2011, Atlético have scored more goals per game 1.81) with Arda in the starting line-up than without him (1.56)."
Here's what happened. Costa was not fully fit and had to be substituted after nine minutes. Ronaldo had a fairly quiet game, effectively neutralized by excellent defending. Atlético took the lead due to a rare and hence very surprising error of judgement by Real's goalkeeper, the great Ikar Casillas. It looked like they were going to win 1-0, but deep into injury time Real's defender Sergio Ramos equalized with a simple direct header from a corner kick . (The header could have been easily blocked had Atlético placed men by each goalpost, and why any team doesn't do this, especially when defending a corner in the last minute of the game, is a total mystery to me…..but I digress.) After having had the cup dashed from their hands, Atlético were finished, and in extra time Real always looked like they were going to win, which they eventually did 4-1.
My point is this. The sophisticated analyses of the experts seemed to bear little connection to the crucial events that actually decided the outcome of the game: a goalkeeping error and a poorly defended corner. This happens often. For instance, the 2010 World Cup semi final between Spain and Germany pitted against one another teams with interestingly contrasting styles of play. The pundits discussed at length such matters as whether Spain's intricate passing game would or would not create openings behind the German midfield, and so on and so forth. But in the event Spain won when seventeen minutes from the end their muscular centre back Carlos Puyols barged through a crowded penalty area and headed in a corner. That was the decisive event.
I see examples of excessive sophistication in analysis in many areas.
One obvious one is literary criticism. Here is the abstract of an article published in the March 2007 issue of PMLA (Proceedings of the Modern Language Association):
"Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events is adolescent in the sense provided by Julia Kristeva–it offers critical insight into the breakdown of categories that support representational and ethical certainties. The ethical stance of its author, Daniel Handler, is complicated-urgent, resonant, distressing-caught in the devious irony endemic to metafictional play and to the sensibility of Generation X. Such irony casts light too on literary criticism's changing treatment of the critical subspecialty of children's literature as well as on its renewed but uneasy interest in ethics as revision of past humanism. A Series offers an ethics of practice, one that recognizes its dependence on the impulses it critiques. Just as the books' postmodern orphans improvise in the face of menace that doesn't stop, Handler's irony pictures a world where ethics can never be more than a provisional entente negotiating impossible ideals."
Of course, the sort of sophistication on display here is different. Whereas the soccer pundits offer predictions and explanations of events, literary criticism typically provides an interpretation of texts. Instead of irrelevant statistics being cited to give a spurious sheen of scientific objectivity, we have references to iconic theoreticians that serve to suggest philosophical depth, up-to-dateness, and, quite often, political relevance. Julia Kristeva is one of the most popular of these: an article on Beowulf in the May 2006 issue of PMLA claims that Grendel's mother is monstrous "in ways that resonate with Julia Kristeva's comments on abjection and the maternal." But names like Lacan, Irigary, Deleuze, Derrida, and Foucault crop up fairly regularly.
I am not saying that the work of Kristeva and co. isn't worth discussing, any more than I'm denying the accuracy of the soccer statistics cited earlier. I am skeptical, though, about whether such work really illuminates the literary texts to which it is applied. To be fair, sometimes it can. Freud's ideas about unconscious sexual desires have been used by critics to uncover levels of symbolic meaning in texts, and we are now accustomed to this and find such claims quite plausible. But often the introduction of heavy theory into literary criticism seems to be pretty gratuitous, motivated more by the critics' concern to establish their intellectual credentials than by genuine relevance to the literature under discussion.
Politics is another area in which one often finds a similar disconnect between the sophistication of expert analysis and what is really justified or needed. Consider this abstract of a January 2011 PMLA article:
"Recent psychoanalytic theories have the historicizing potential to rearticulate discourses relegated to the shadows of institutional and popular psychosocial knowledge. In particular, they can illuminate a shadow discourse secreted in the history of gender politics: a form of masochism that produces political solidarity by mobilizing narcissistic gratifications. Such solidarity derives from masochism's ability to idealize perceptions about collective power—a process legible in first-wave feminism and in the jingoistic imperialist ideals of masculinity that opposed it. This essay argues that feminism has lost sight of a nonsexual form of masochism vital to its own history that could energize its ongoing political projects. Recent relational psychoanalysis emerges as a fertile source for techniques of reading that produce revisionary historicist interpretation. Moreover, reactivating psychosocial dynamics obscured by the historical conflation of masochism with sexuality can reconnect feminism and other political movements with important strategies they may have prematurely disavowed."
I won't try to translate all of that into ordinary English. But the key claim seems to be that feminist causes (its "ongoing political projects" such as, presumably, the fight for equal pay and opportunities, efforts to reduce the incidence of violence against women, or the struggle to increase the number of women in government and senior management) would have been, and would be, more successful if feminists were aware of and embraced a kind of non-sexual masochism. Whether doing this would involve merely a change in they way feminists think or a change in behavior and lifestyle is unclear. But that is beside the point. The point–or at least my point–is that the successes and failures of feminism have little or nothing to do with feminists forgetting or remembering "a form of masochism that produces political solidarity by mobilizing narcissistic gratifications." There are much more obvious and important factors responsible, such as entrenched old boy networks, persisting stereotypes and prejudices concerning women, inadequate maternity leave, the lack of affordable good quality childcare, impoverished and culturally disadvantaged social environments, and so on.
The reasons for excessive sophistication and complexity vary. Media experts on sport or politics perhaps feel a need to say something "expert" to differentiate themselves from the millions of amateur pundits out there watching or reading what they say. Academics need to publish as part of the tenure and promotion game, so they have to try to find something new to say: in the humanities originality can easily matter more than plausibility since the most plausible ideas are often the most obvious and familiar. And intellectuals generally fear appearing naive or simplistic. The love of paradox and the frequent inversion of conventional opinion that has long been a characteristic of French philosophy seems to be fueled by this anxiety, and something similar affects the work of of those influenced by the leading French theorists.
I am obviously not saying that we should eschew entirely sophistication, subtlety, and complexity. Sometimes truth is complicated, and subtle thinking is needed in order to grasp it. Sometimes challenges to the obvious or the familiar lead to genuinely interesting insights. I am not championing simple-mindedness or philistinism. But we should be aware that there are forces at work driving people to develop analyses that go beyond what is necessary, useful, or plausible. And when we encounter such analyses, we should greet them with a skeptically raised eyebrow and a Gallic shrug.
 I chose something from PMLA because I'm familiar with the journal and with its preference for theoretically charged articles of this sort; and I chose this particular example because it concerns a work that many people will be familiar with; many articles in PMLA discuss literature that is relatively obscure.
Monday, May 26, 2014
FC Bayern Munich: Too Jewish for the Nazis
by Jalees Rehman
Konrad Heitkamp was taken aback by the extraordinary ordinariness present in the lobby of the Zurich hotel. In November of 1943, life in Zurich seemed unperturbed by the fact that the countries surrounding Switzerland were embroiled in one of the most devastating wars in the history of the world. Heitkamp realized that as the coach of the FC Bayern München soccer team, he was one of the privileged few who could bask in this oasis of normalcy for a few days before he would have to head back home to Munich. He surveyed the lobby and began waving his hand at some of his players standing across the vestibule. Hopefully, the Gestapo men watching him thought of this as an innocuous gesture, a soccer team coach acknowledging the arrival of his players and performing a headcount. But he could not bank on it.
The Gestapo must have known that for the past weeks, Heitkamp and his players were forward to the friendly match against the Swiss national soccer team because it would give them a chance to finally see their friend Kurt Landauer again. Before the team embarked on their trip to Zurich, the Gestapo had ordered all Bayern München players to attend a special "education" session in Gestapo headquarters of Munich. The team was informed that the Gestapo would accompany the team on their brief trip to Switzerland. The Gestapo explicitly forbade the team members to have any contact with German emigrants in Switzerland.
The Nazis were always weary of any potential contacts between Germans and German emigrants who were seen as traitors and collaborators of the Allied forces. But FC Bayern München was a special thorn in the flesh of the Nazi machinery. Nazis routinely referred to FC Bayern München as a "Judenclub" ("Jew Club"), because German Jews had held some of the key leadership positions. The club won its first German national soccer championship in 1932 under the leadership of the Jewish club president Kurt Landauer and the coach Richard Dombi, an Austrian Jew. Only a few months later in January 1933, Hitler came to power and soon all leaders of Jewish origin were forced to give up their leadership positions.
Kurt Landauer was one of the first to resign from the club presidency. He even lost his job as the manager of a Munich newspaper's advertising department, and was only able to find work in a textile shop owned by a Jewish family. In the wake of the anti-semitic pogroms in the night of the 9th November 1938 (Kristallnacht oder Reichspogromnacht), this shop was attacked and devastated. Landauer was arrested and sent to the Dachau concentration camp. After a brief period of internment, he was released and he used this opportunity to emigrate to Switzerland and survived the Holocaust. Most of his siblings were less fortunate and were murdered by the Nazis.
Konrad Heitkamp and his wife Magdalena are about to walk towards their hotel room, when a bellhop appears in front of them and hands Heitkamp a note. It is a message from Kurt Landauer. Heitkamp tries to suppress his excitement , but it is already too late. Before he can even read the note, a man taps him on the shoulder and says "Gestapo. Give me the note. We know who it is from and we absolutely forbid you to have any contact with that man. We are watching you!"
For the remainder of the trip, the Gestapo closely walls off Heitkamp and his players, making it impossible for them to have any contact with Landauer. But the players still manage to embarrass the Nazis and the Gestapo. Immediately after the whistle is blown to start the game, the FC Bayern München players run up to the area of the soccer field in front of Kurt Landauer and greet their former president from afar.
The book "Der FC Bayern und seine Juden: Aufstieg und Zerschlagung einer liberalen Fußballkultur" (FC Bayern and its Jews: The Rise and Destruction of a Liberal Soccer Culture) by the German soccer historian Dietrich Schulze-Marmeling describes the prevalent culture of tolerance at FC Bayern München in the years prior to the Nazi takeover of Germany. Many members, players and leaders of the club were Jewish, but the question of ethnicity or religion was not even a real issue for the club. All that really mattered was whether or not you were a member of the club. Once the Nazis came to power in 1933, they tried to install their henchmen at leadership positions of all institutions, including sport clubs. TSV 1860, the other big Munich soccer club, immediately acquiesced to the new Nazi masters, allowing SA men to take control of the club from 1934 onwards. Players and members of FC Bayern München, on the other hand, staving off Nazi leadership up until 1943. The Nazis were often frustrated by the recalcitrant "Judenclub" which resisted and delayed the implementation of Nazi ordinances.
I have been an FC Bayern München fan all my life. My childhood home in Munich was just a ten minute walk away from the club's headquarters at the Säbener Strasse. It is not difficult to be proud of its achievements. In 2013, the club won every major trophy that it was eligible for - Bundesliga champions, the German soccer federation cup (DFB-Pokal), the European Champions League and the 2013 FIFA Club World Cup – thus underscoring its dominance as the world's best soccer club. But none of these victories made me as proud of my club as finding out about how my club defied anti-semitism and the Nazis.
Image: The headquarters of FC Bayern München in the Säbener Strasse (photo by J. Rehman)
Reference: Schulze-Marmeling, D. (2011). "Der FC Bayern und seine Juden: Aufstieg und Zerschlagung einer liberalen Fußballkultur". Werkstatt GmbH
Monday, April 04, 2011
Get a grip, India!
by Vivek Menezes
There are a billion and a half subcontinentals who’ve been fed cricket, cricket and more cricket for decades – the very definition of a captive audience – so there’s steady interest here. But look beyond, and we’re talking a very steep, genuinely precipitous, drop-off to England, Australia, South Africa and the West Indies, where “our” sport runs a distant third or fourth to the popularity of football, rugby, basketball, athletics, swimming, etc. And after England and its overseas spawn, you may as well stop counting, because you’re done with all the legitimate cricketing sides in the world. Pretty pathetic, isn’t it?
Indians don’t like to consider this truth, but it’s become quite apparent that most other countries only continue with cricket because India is obsessed with it – they play to keep us company, to humiliate us when the chance presents itself, and, especially, to pick up generous paychecks which would be entirely unforthcoming if India grew up, and concentrated its efforts on real sports, played by a majority of nations, the kind of sports that show up at the Olympics.
But you see, that precise sticking point is the crux of why Indians are obsessed with cricket – it’s another plain fact that we’re really, really horrible at sports where the rest of the world competes, and we hate the Olympics, beacause we get ritually creamed each year (at Beijing, India’s best Olympics ever, little tiny countries like Mongolia out-ranked us. Yes, Mongolia.)
So that’s why you saw – first and above all else - genuine relief flooding Mukesh Ambani and Rajnikanth and Aamir Khan’s faces at the exact same moment in the TV coverage of Saturday’s match.
These guys, three sides of the same spurious coin, sitting in the same front row, had come to roar in glorious triumph, but tiny Sri Lanka gave them heartburn all the way up to the 35th over of the Indian innings. Only then, only when crushing victory became inevitable and all sport had gone out of the occasion – that’s when our heroes in the stands awoke. That's when Aamir Khan started to wave the flag with calculated abandon. It was a moment that comes with ultimate rarity in Indian sports - our guys on top, racing towards a famous victory.
Because, you see, up to and excepting the cup victory, the annals of modern Indian sport are nothing but migraine-inducing, an endless litany of disappointments, failue and humiliations.
We are a billion people grown accustomed to being thrashed on the playing-fields. We Indians celebrate quarter-finals defeats, and fourth-place finishes, the way other countries get excited about actual victories.
In the old days, we took the lickings with a certain resigned acceptance – poor country, no facilities, etc. But now we have that much-advertised, resurgent middle class and all that other stuff that drives Tom Friedman into frothing ecstasies. And suddenly, increasingly, we have bourgeois angst about our national image – look at China, look at South Korea, and what about Mongolia, dammit – and so we have developed a kind of real national performance anxiety about sports.
When that happen, again and again and again, we reach for the only antidote that’s worked - that little blue pill called cricket.
But even when cricket delivers the happy ending, it doesn’t quite satisfy. And this goes beyond the fact that we dominate the sport so ludicrously that it’s probably actually unfair when we take on Sri Lanka. Actually, it's because every knowledgeable cricket fan knows the game’s integrity is in tatters. Over the past few years, it has become increasingly clear that we’re talking about an unusually manipulated and fake sport, with corruption now part of its very DNA.
Why are we so eager to forget the last Cup – perhaps the biggest lurching failure in the history of organized international sports – paid for by an embezzler, studded with obviously thrown matches, and spot-fixing, and garnished with a sizzling murder case? Talk to old-timers, and you'll understand the silence - to a man, they believe the rot is still embedded. And could anyone be blamed for thinking the way they do, when just last week we watched Pakistan spill catch after catch off Tendulkar, any of which would have turned the match the other way instantly? Is this cricket?
Let’s also remember the sport was riven apart again just this past year, when the Pakistani tour of England was interrupted by proven match-fixing that included the captain of the team, and the superb Mohammed Aamer.
Does anyone imagine that it is only the Pakistanis who are prone to the inducement of hundreds of thousands of dollars for bowling a few no-balls, or perhaps quietly running out your team-mate?
After all, where is the money coming from? Isn't it obvious that the trail of corruption leads directly across the border into our own society?
Now, don’t get me wrong, I have all the necessary cricketing bona fides in place, this is an insider’s plea. Born in Bombay, gifted my first bat when just about capable of walking, I worshipped the ground traversed by Sunil Gavaskar’s short, stubby legs, like every other Indian boy my age.
Staying close to the sport through sheer dint of emotion, I bowled spin to inebriated Americans in my college's residential corridors, and then even made cricket my career for the few years that WorldTel tried to dominate the sport from a small suite of offices in New York. There, I put in my time for cricket: tried (unsuccessfully) to nurture the USA to a World Cup berth, and (unsuccessfully) to make streaming cricket video a lucrative Internet business, and (successfully, for a time) to build Sachin Tendulkar a better official website than Michael Jordan’s, etc.
But somewhere around the time that the IPL took off, the shine came off the ball for me.
It was, and remains apparent, that the make-up of this league, and composition of the teams, is utterly fixed from top to bottom. It's racketeering, plain and simple. The administrators of the game are the owners of the teams, and the main beneficiaries of side-contracts to boot. The sport now reeks incestuousness, and the pipeline of pure cash thrown up in this Ponzi-style scheme has completely warped the game we once loved, probably irrevocably.
But it was always the case, only now glaringly apparent – look at a Yuvraj for example – that our cricket players are barely athletic by any objective standard. Even today, I’d bet the American women’s soccer team would whup the Indian team’s ass in collective fitness, flexibility, stamina, and probably co-ordination as well. But add to this the fact that the Indian team occupies a staggeringly disproportionate bubble of comforts. Where the Indian hockey team (hockey is the national sport!) travels by train, and literally has to fight to get decently nutritive food at its training camps, the cricket lifestyle is now five-star all the way, with even the subs garnering crores in commercial deals.
And then, as pointed to above, the Indian cricket team gets to flex its muscles in a non-sport. We beat up on New Zealand’s seventh best set of athletes, and the country goes into hysterics as though it says something wonderful about us. Within hours of beating Sri Lanka, that global athletic power, in a sport almost no one gives a shit about outside the subcontinent, the state and central governments were falling over themselves to hand out incredibly large cash awards to each player, and the coaches as well. Crores each, plots of land, luxury vehicles, the sky's the limit for our cricketers.
But put it into perspective - Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, literally at the same time, won another doubles tournament to earn back the #1 ranking in the world.
You know, tennis, a sport that’s actually played in more than a handful of countries, and where a world championship implies beating genuinely world-class athletes.
I mean, if Sreesanth can get half-a-million dollars cold cash for bowling quite badly, and taking zero wickets, against a team of semi-professional twentysomethings from tiny, war-ravaged Sri Lanka, then my man Lee's prolly taken home at least a billion for his multiple-Grand Slam championships, and Olympic medal, earned against the world's best. Half a billion, at the least. Yes? Yes? Is that crickets I hear?
And so the ultimate truth: cricket has become a pox, a monstrous and pervasive cloud of pure ballyhoo that has destroyed Indian sport across the board.
It sucks up all the money and all the attention, and all of our collective athletic energies disappear into this black hole of a colonialist non-sport, leaving only ashes in its wake.
Imagine if you are Viswanathan Anand (or even Ivana Furtado) – winning chess world championships one after another, against the best minds on the planet, with very little attention paid, and certainly nothing like the obscene bonanza that is currently being poured on the heads of our cricket players. Or Climax Lawrence, stalwart of Indian football, which has exactly one world-class pitch available to it in the entire country (not usable in the monsoons), and remember that Indian football was forced to take a grnt(from the BCCI!) to find adequate training facilities.
Now here's something to root for - treated like dirt for decades, Indian football has developed a core of gritty young players who can hang with the better Asian teams for long stretches, even though they have to beg and fight for facilities that fall short of even high-school set-ups in Germany or Japan.
Indian football has a hope, and a plan, to break into the top 100 in the world within 5 years, a worthy and realistic goal. There are no billionaire cheerleaders, and no Bollywood insiders packing the stands. But it's football, truly global. Now that we've been there and done that with regard to this silly Cup, can we please move on to real sports?
Friday, July 01, 2005
Life begins at 90
At 94, he's run seven marathons (five in London), countless half-marathons and was recently part of the world's oldest marathon team in Edinburgh. Fauja Singh's jogging skills were developed on an Indian farm in Punjab, and then at the magical age of 81, when he moved to the UK, his love for the sport became more "serious". Next up? He's set his sights on being a record breaker.
So any secrets to fitness? Fauja's training regime includes a daily eight-mile walk and run, no smoking or drinking, plenty of smiling and lashings of ginger curry.