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Learning the ugly truth about America’s icons of grit

Learning the ugly truth about America’s icons of grit

Mike Ditka took to the airwaves Monday to straighten out the all the misinformation about supposed oppression in America. His comments were a masterpiece of the drunk uncle genre and I wrote about them at Forbes. There are dimensions to that interview that most reports glossed over. His comments are interesting not just for the usual whitewashing, but for the subtly insulting tone he took. He deployed a whiny old rhetorical tool commonly used during the civil rights movement, suggesting that the whole subject is just a fascination of certain people who concern themselves with these otherwise meaningless questions. I’m surprised he didn’t use the word “agitators.”

Beyond the comments though sits a much more depressing reality. America’s iconic tough guys have virtually all proven worthless. We once imagined that gritty figures like Clint Eastwood or Mike Ditka were part of America’s uniqueness, symbols of a national reserve of character, strength and independence that helped assure that “it can’t happen here.” Faced with a real threat to the survival of the American project, our tough guys have folded faster than Superman on laundry day (thanks for the reference, Bart Simpson). All that supposed strength meant nothing when they were faced with a bigger bully. Now, like a bunch of whining nancies, they cry about political correctness and complain about how badly they’re being treated by the media. There may be nothing about our era quite as depressing as watching our icons of grit and candor break down into neurotic whinging over their insecurities.

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of talking and writing about race. Unfortunately, that issue is now the bottleneck behind which every other element of America’s 21st century agenda lays stalled. We are now going to reach consensus on whether America will be a pluralist country, or a country in which all of our institutions are slanted to give special protections to white people, particularly white men. Starting with the Tea Party and continuing with Trump, aging white America has decided to hold the country hostage until they get assurances of their special status. None of the other matters facing the country will get a hearing before we resolve this question. And our supposed symbols of American strength are all AWOL when we need them.


  1. Hannah Arendt’s concept of ‘superfluous men’ describes how people discarded of having both a role and a stake in society start grab whatever resources they can from the margins and then seek the absolute destruction of anything they can’t take. If given actual power, they create parallel social structures and parallel governments and parallel police forces and essentially hallow out the remaining institutions, eating everything from the inside until nothing is left but abjection. She’s describing totalitarianism. Not argued by Arendt but what I would add myself, is that totalitarianism without a ‘nation’ (a central geography with pre-primed ordinances) is the sort of terrorist death cults like ISIS. Either they’re a totalitarian government, or a terrorist sect.

    Taken as a whole, the investigations into the young men who compose the bulk of the ‘Alt-Right’ show men who felt their voices being washed out by other perspectives, and who found their way to this new ‘tribe’ via memes, jokes, and trolling they didn’t fully embrace seriously. Their indoctrination by the Alt-Right is the same stories you hear about cults. Self-doubt and isolation lead a person to the people who will say “We’ll listen, just do this one thing for me…”.

    It’s hard to intervene in these sorts of situations. It’s difficult enough to recognize it — observe the number of Boomer written OpEds about “I didn’t even realize what all this was about until I saw my son marching in Charlottesville.” Enough of what I’m reading about the Alt Right also matches cults in the sense that membership in the group not only asks exclusion of other groups, but also isolates from opportunities and socialization because other groups don’t want to be associated either. This sort of thinking feeds on persecution complexes, further exasperating intervention. You can’t intervene when the mere act of trying is seen as an attack of attempted mind control.

    These groups of various stripes require a level of attention and care to recover from that it’s best described as therapy; and therapy itself is anathema to the idea of personal strength and mental fortitude. To be aware of the need of therapy requires the strength to acknowledge weaknesses, and the strength they seek by definition doesn’t recognize weakness.

    Who knows where it would have gone without 45, but among the many ways in which his mere win is a crisis to civil society is that it suddenly alerted all of these men to a new feeling:

    “Holy shit. WE actually have power!”

    And now all the trolling and memes are serious, because it not only gives them a sense of belonging in a community, but also because they can see a path to access power. Even if 45 was impeached tomorrow and the federal government did an epic political reset, the knowledge that this kind of thinking can and will get them power if they fight for it will make them fight for it essentially for the rest of their lives.

    If 45 hadn’t won, I’m not saying they would have gone away; but they certainly wouldn’t be operating under the assumption that they could earn power on the bully pulpit. That knowledge can’t be undone.

    High talk and Arendt references aside, these are people who were lead to join the great national Internet bullying league out of a sense of personal grievance that women and minorities were making them feel bad about their lazy asses just when the economy got hard. Now that that’s actually their platform of revanchism, their model for signalling is to scream their emasculation at ever higher pitches.

    And so now I’m essentially stuck with these people for the rest of my life. Jeff Sessions was in his early 20s during the Civil Rights era. The men who are in their 20s will still ‘Memba when?’ in 2067, and at that point have worked up into places of power in various institutions.

    It’s pitiful, honestly.

    1. EJ

      I think that’s a very good summary. There’s two things I’ll suggest adding to it.

      Firstly, in 2012 and 2014, there were incidents within the online atheist community and the online video gaming community that in retrospect look like dress rehearsals for this. Not many people in the offline world noticed or cared about either of those, but they helped not only to radicalise white male activists towards what we now call the alt-right, but also served to coalesce an audience around them. People like Spencer, Yiannopoulos, Valizadeh, Auenheimer and Molyneux were nobodies until they surrounded themselves with young men who were angry that “feminists were taking atheist activism away from them” and “SJWs were taking video games away from them.” The rhetoric and the networks that were developed there are now core to what we call the alt-right.

      Secondly, I’m amazed at the extent to which mainstream culture is still willing to bend over backwards to avoid condemning the alt-right for what it is. We still expect compassion and understanding to be shown to them, even while we deny those things to their victims. This may be just an example of the extraordinary leniency given to anglophonic white males, or it might be a mark of the reluctance of governments to oppose nationalism head-on, or it may be because the people they’ve picked on so far have been disadvantaged. Regardless, this leniency has been to their benefit, as it’s made it difficult for resistance to gather effectively. The only groups who have made sustained and effective attempts at resistance are those who already have non-mainstream networks in place (for example the communist, anarchist or SJW movements.)

  2. Here’s an alternative view of the public divide on kneeling during the anthem. Note that the author suggests T has played the issue perfectly and that the black players will lose if they haven’t already lost. It may not be “right” (for the record, I don’t think T is right), but in a time when people are making personal judgments purely from the gut because, well, that’s what seems to be working, it is difficult to know how to protest a legitimate wrong. This man has sullied every single thing he’s touched, in the process hurt people unnecessarily.

  3. Here’s the thing that most blows my mind about Ditka’s whitewashing- he played in the NFL from the early 60s to the early 70s. There was plenty of discrimination going on against Black players at the time- the Washington team was sued over failure to integrate, and the thought of a Black guy playing QB was heresy. How could he have no noticed these things? It would be charitable to say he took too many hits to the head, but I think Chris’ accusation of moral cowardice is the more likely explanation.

    Ditka is in at least his mid-70s, so he was around when Emmitt Till was lynched, 4 young girls were killed in a church bombing in Birmingham, Bloody Sunday happened, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, Jackie Robinson went through hell to break the MLB color barrier, MLK was assassinated, Eisenhower called in the National Guard to Little Rock, etc. etc. etc. And then the gall to ignore the price Mohammed Ali paid for his civil disobedience or the people who cheered Jesse Owens in Berlin but wouldn’t treat him like a fellow citizen im America.

    This level of willful ignorance truly frightens me.

    1. It’s because “Ditka” made it. He doesn’t have to accede to rules of civility. Privilege. White privilege to be exact.

      I think Jerry Jones’ outrage the other day staging he would bench any player who didn’t stand for the anthem falls into the same class. I heard this am on NPR that the NFL is going to meet on this issue in a week or so. When he heard the news of the meeting, Trump immediately applauded them for standing up for standing up…Turns out, he was a little quick in his presumption that the decision would go against the players’ right to kneel. I wonder how many games Jones would be willing to lose if his best black players were benched?

      1. So many eyes will be on the national anthem this Sunday. I hope a whole bunch of players kneel as a big F-U to Boss Tweet. It will be interesting to see what the superstars too. Would Jerry bench Dez Bryant or Dak Prescott if they knelt? What about Jason Whitten. Winning games matters for a team’s bottom line.

        And yeah, it’s very easy for me to hope they kneel-that’s not costing me anything be data usage on my phone. I won’t condemn any player who stands, as I’m all for the right to choose on this issue.

    2. Ditka has apologized, sorta:

      The excuse is that he was talking about football, not American society. But as I noted above, racial discrimination was happening when he was a player. Also the protests aren’t about football, but American society.

      But unlike too many other conservatives, he at least has a vestigial sense of shame left.

      1. He clearly didn’t apologize to black professional football players. With the fall of several white, rich, “privileged” men (think FOX group, Weinstein, and for all others I can’t recall and those still out there bullying people), I say it is time. I am proud of our black athletes and entertainers and others who are standing up for their race and I’m proud of those who have been maligned, sexually abused, and harassed for speaking out. It isn’t easy. But it is important. What kind of example are we teaching our children when they see and hear comments like Ditka made or Jerry Jones power play…I hope his entire team kneels. The tragedy is that for many of these black athletes, they are helping so many more in their family than themselves….by what they’ve achieved and by what they are willing to sacrifice.

        When I watch old video of the Selma march and see the clubs, dogs, and fire hoses spraying at people dressed in their best and peacefully marching, I marvel at their courage. I don’t know if I could have done what they did – risked sure bodily harm. It is no wonder to me that black people are angry and hurt at a nation that has been made their lives so difficult. I hurt for them and I sure as hell have zero respect for those who care so little about “why” their players are kneeling.

        Malcolm Jenkins video (I linked before but I will link again) is the most sincere, honest, humble outreach by a person I have ever seen. Why wouldn’t a coach be touched by this? Care about the hurt of his players? Are they simply men in uniforms? Without feelings? Compare this 3′ statement by Jenkins with Ditka’s ‘apology’ and Jones’ threatening demand. Who is the better man?

  4. I read your post first on Forbes and have shared it with several people via email and on FB. Here was my opening paragraph to introduce your post:

    COURAGE – It takes more than sacrificing one’s body for millions in football entertainment.
    CLASS – It takes more than being successful in one’s career.
    HONESTY – It takes more than spouting the same old rhetoric that some in our society find so acceptable. Chris Ladd is calling out some of America’s heroes for their feet of clay. Here’s the story on none other than, Mike Ditka. But it could be any number of older, white, iconic men whose self-image is so much greater than their sense of decency.

    Who do Americans have to look to today?

    1. EJ

      Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen have both won a substantial following among millenials for their decades of activism and exemplary conduct.

      Stewart famously said: “People will not listen to you unless you are old, rich white and male; and since I am all of those things I must speak up.”

    1. Who would have thought it would be Swartzenegger from that generation of actors who turned out to be one of the more stand up guys.

      As Chris writes, it’s so easy for these guys to fool us (and probably even themselves) that they have strong character, when there has been up until recently so little adversity to face. Our current times are generating much opportunity to reveal what’s inside each of us; the things coming out of the mouths of people that I thought I knew well are startling. Now, there’s nowhere to hide. As ESPN is finding out, even the sports world cannot hide from politics in this Drumpf era.

      1. Arnold is kind of gropey too, but at least he has applied many of his latter years to pretty good political projects for California, and is a powerful contrarian voice keeping the GOP in California somewhat sane.

        I hope he has kept his nose clean since around 2000 though. His record from before that is piggish.

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