On ESPN and "Replaceable" People
Was on the way home from Kentucky -- was covering the Rand Paul race -- when I heard something crazy on the radio.
So it seems the whole sports world is abuzz about the decision by the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints players to raise a finger in the air before the season-opening game as an expression of union loyalty -- "We are one" -- in a year in which the players and the owners are negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement. I watched that gesture during the game and knew it was going to inspire the usual sneering (it started almost immediately, with Al Michaels chirping, "There's nothing like starting an NFL season with a labor statement"), as voices from all corners (including, unbelievably, many former NFL players) denouncing the absurdly brief, silent, and inoffensive demonstration as a tasteless interruption of our God-given right to nonstop mindless entertainment.
Forget about people actually supporting unions in a labor disagreement: they apparently don't even want to see them, not if it's going to delay a football game by three whole seconds. There were actually arguments across the media landscape to the effect that NFL players were out of line bringing their labor disagreement into our living rooms, the implication being that any display of union activity is somehow unseemly or ( I love this) selfish. We have a whole reality-show culture celebrating the cause of people eating centipedes and stabbing each other in the back for cash prizes and fame, but football players quietly showing union solidarity is tasteless. If you can explain that one to me, please don't hesitate to write in.
Anyway the NFL players gesture was a significant thing because it was seen by 28% of the country; it's probably going to be the signature piece of labor theater in America this year. For obvious reasons the NFL union is a tough sell to most people. You're talking about guys who get paid millions to play a kids' game, so when they start getting together to talk about holding out for more (although any work stoppage next year will technically be a lockout), most people tune out instantly. I don't agree with this attitude -- if people think the players are greedy, what would they call the owners, who don't even have to get beat up for their money and have the gall to beg taxpayers for stadium money on top of their TV billions -- but I get where it's coming from.
Thus is wasn't exactly a surprise when former "proud union guy" Mike Golic came out slamming the gesture, nor was it a shock when serial hair-care products consumer/ESPN morning host Mike Greenberg insisted that 99% of the calls and emails ESPN got were critical of the players. The sports media establishment bashing player union "greed" isn't exactly a new broadcast meme.
But when I heard loudmouth large-nostriled afternoon host Colin Cowherd go off on unions in general on my way out of Lexington, I nearly had an aneurysm. Cowherd actually came out in support of the NFL players -- although his reasoning there wasn't exactly clear to me -- but he said that in general, he tended to be "anti-union" because unions apparently don't encourage elite performance and creativity, and instead just protect the lazy, the weak, the unremarkable. Then he went into this long rant about how great football players like Drew Brees were remarkable and irreplaceable, as are -- and this isn't a joke -- radio stars like Rush Limbaugh, and appalling American Idol douche-twat Simon Cowell.
Then, to steelworkers and teachers, he said this: "Steelworkers? I love you. But guess what? You can be replaced. You can't replace Rush."
And there's only one Simon Cowell, he said.
Leave aside for a minute the fact that Cowherd's concept of talent and specialness is completely fucked (not only is Simon Cowell not irreplaceable, he should have his head chopped off the next time he opens his mouth on national television) and forget also the obvious provocation of lionizing a fat, racist slob who hasn't worked an honest day in his life like Rush Limbaugh while simultaneously ripping steelworkers and teachers for being lazy. In fact it wouldn't be worth mentioning the views of this half-bright sportscaster at all, except that his underlying point, that the worth of human beings is measured entirely in how much capitalist revenue they generate, is now basically hegemonous in American society -- to the point where even ordinary people who decades ago would have been union workers or at least union supporters believe it implicitly.
Almost everyone who has a job is economically "replaceable," but shit, outside an Ayn Rand novel, there's more to it than that. Does it make economic sense to fire the auto worker who mangles his hand in the factory machinery and bring in a younger guy with all his fingers? How about the secretary who refuses to fuck the boss, isn't she replaceable? Couldn't we put her ungrateful ass out on the street and bring in another, hotter girl to do the same job at the same price? How about a teacher who refuses to pass his failing students on to the next class? How about the worker on the oil rig who complains about his company's safety procedures? The aforementioned steelworker who gets a little too old and becomes too much of a liability to the company health plan? The government civil servant who turns whistleblower?
Yes, Colin, you spoiled little fuckhead, we can replace all of these people. After all, you're right, none of them are truly valuable, at least not like Simon Cowell or Rush Limbaugh, anyway.
But we don't always replace them, because some people in our past spent generations fighting to push us up above the level of savages. Unions aren't perfect, and they don't always pick the right causes to fight for, but they have to exist precisely because the vast majority of workers are replaceable, which is to say not special, which is to say vulnerable. Not that Cowherd would have any reason to know this, but that's what a "job" is, as opposed to what he and I both have, careers -- a job always involves shelving your own personal creativity and ambition to at least some degree, in order to push someone else's idea along for a while.
Measuring people by how much numerical wealth they produce is a kind of psychopathy -- it's that kind of thinking that led to Larry Summers famously saying that African countries are "underpolluted," because poisoning people in low-GDP African states makes less sense than poisoning the relatively more economically productive citizens of Western countries in Europe and America.
That kind of thinking is spreading, because our pop culture priests have succeeded in filling the population with shame and nervous self-loathing to the point where they think of anyone who isn't an employer as a parasite, and anyone who isn't rich and famous, or trying to be, as a loser. People even think of themselves this way, which is why there are so many down-and-out people voting to give tax breaks to the same bankers who've been robbing them for years, and booing when the mere concept of unions shows up for a few seconds in a football game. It's sad, and a lot of it's the fault of mean little assholes like Cowherd. Shame on him.
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