Wednesday, February 22, 2006

the scapegoat

as the winds of rumor swirl again through cubs camp this spring, it is edifying to watch ownership act upon the currents of popular opinion in an effort to manage the team's image through its mouthpieces. there are few things that so clearly illustrate the methodology of a management as a mild crisis.

so how has tribco responded to the cacophony of angst over mark prior's delayed start? by circling the wagons -- paul sullivan promotes the alienation angle in an effort to emotionalize the issue and draw a line in the sand between Us and Them.

first a bit of reinforcement to set the receptive loyal into a positive mood:

A new season brings new challenges, but the Cubs' goals haven't changed. And with a new attitude, fresh faces and a collective chip on their shoulders, that goal can be attained.

never mind that this team has cut total payroll outlays and is staring down the barrel of .500 yet again -- that goal can be attained! to reinforce the good vibes, sullivan then scribes a few paragraphs of puff centering on the abject joy of centerfielder juan pierre as having reached the nirvana of a 97-year experiment in profitable failure.

stage set, enter the villain -- the bloggers -- and cue the crowd to boo.

While Pierre was relishing the moment, Prior was forced to rehash old comments after an Internet report suggested he looked "weak and tired" and was hiding a shoulder injury.

"It's par for the course now," Prior said. "Everybody seems to want to find something wrong. That's just life. You deal with it. I'm not going to sit here and defend or validate it. There have been a lot of rumors in my short career and this is just part of it.

"I can't control what people write and what people think. That's people's opinions. They have the right to their opinions, and in this country they have the right to make those opinions public."

And because anyone with access to a Web site can pretend to be a journalist, they often do. Prior said he feels good and expects to be throwing off a mound within the next few days.

... "I'm not naive," he said. "I know what my history has been. … Donovan McNabb said it best a couple of weeks ago. Some people like you, some people don't like you and, for whatever reason, a lot of those people have voices."

note how easily prior takes a question of his health -- which arises, one might add, while he should be and yet is not pitching -- and, without warrant, emotionalizes it into a personal vendetta, a manifestation of a presupposed hatred.

so, you see, the problem isn't in prior's arm nor in the cubs' reflexive and repeated corporate dishonesty -- it's in those who would analyze the facts and innuendoes as they are known critically in light of the fact that the problems in the past have indeed been in prior's arm and the cubs' reflexive and repeated corporate dishonesty. these disingenuous evil few, for their part, are presumed to be motivated not by any search for truth but by a twisted and irrational hatred.

sullivan perhaps accidentally makes part of a good point, which is that bloggers are not reporters. whether or not he or anyone at the trib actually understands that is another question -- the company line in demonizing bloggers is clearly that bloggers are frustrated reporters, which is far from the truth. indeed, bloggers are analysts -- reporters (at least theoretically) gather facts and innuendoes and report them. analysts take reported facts and study them for patterns.

as to why analysts should be the problem with the world, one can only wonder -- but this analyst would suggest that the need to demonize close and critical examinations of the intentions of corporate hierarchy intermingle with the role of myth in human societies, in this case cub nation.

jack lule wrote a deeply fascinating book some years ago, based on the work of philosopher and critic kenneth burke, regarding the role of mythology in news media, detailing the great degree of overlap between news stories and seven timeless modes of storytelling that permeate human religion and mythology -- one of which is, of course, The Scapegoat. indeed, it is not too much to say that news media since its advent in a secularizing society has assumed from religion in decline the role of society's primary disseminator of myth and social reinforcement.

philip hunt has quickly elaborated on The Scapegoat, using anecdotal examples from his experience to discuss the role of this mythic mode in reinforcing social norms -- that is, defining Us -- and isolating that which challenges the established order -- that is, defining Them. scapegoating is seen thus as a sort of social preservative in the face of potential disorder -- a way of shouting "la la la, i can't hear you" -- regardless of whether that disorder works ultimately in the service of the ultimately constructive or ultimately destructive because of the high premium we as people rightly put on social peace.

this writer has before suggested in this space that the tribune company is merely the most pertinent example to this page of a human hierarchy that has worked meticulously to create a self-reinforcing society of conformism surrounding this team which it can manage to its advantage and toward its desired ends without regard for inconveniences like reality. its use of mythology and its forms (but particularly scapegoating) is critical, as with any society, in framing the terms of acceptable debate and delineating that which is off-limits -- that is, which is perceived as detrimental to the ends or the society that secures the ends. it is, perhaps, only too ironic to consider the proposition of cultural anthropologist rene girard that sport itself is the cultural codification of The Scapegoat in athletic theater.

however, while this basic social function -- even in the service of creating mass delusions without basis in an empirical reality -- can be tremendously beneficial and even necessary in the service of good and moral ends, it can be equally destructive and terrifying in the service of amoral ends. and if this page knows anything at all about the cubs under the ownership of the tribune, it knows that the ends are utterly without morality.

this is an organization of man which has perverted sport -- that which could affirm within our society the virtues of cooperation, self-sacrifice and dedication to a greater good in the pursuit of the betterment of the whole -- into a mean and ruddy engine of profit, existing for no other purpose than to make money for a few while debasing the faith of those many who naively and in confusion believe themselves in eternal compact with the team rather than the virtues it once was meant to demonstrate and no longer does.

the clarity of criticism as a driving force for reform is badly needed in such a situation if anything about this dynamic is to change for the better. cub nation needs now, more than ever before, a clear-eyed and sharp-edged analysis to strip away the lies and mythologies in the service of this dessicated, perverted institution and expose the rottenness that resides at its core to the light of those ancient virtues which have been expelled from it. if the cubs are ever again to be something worth caring about, things must change. sullivan's mythological article is merely an example demonstrating why.

UPDATE: mlbtraderumors has composed a timeline of events thusfar in the prior-shoulder fiasco.

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