Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Football violence: the Catch-22

The problem with American football is that, with increasing evidence of its dangers, especially to young players, people still love it, even some of those doing research on brains impacted by the collision sport.

It was the legendary coach Vince Lombardi who said, "Football is not a contact sport; it is a collision sport."

David Maraniss, himself a devoted fan, opens his review of several key books and documentaries about football violence with this quote. Like so many other American writers, he is torn by his devotion to the game and the guilt he feels about its effects. (NY Review of Books 2-11-16)

He says the game has never been more popular, even as evidence against it mounts. The NFL alone brings in about $11 billion a year, and hundreds of universities depend on football to secure alumni loyalty and income, even while those in the know remind them that no helmet can defend the head against the kind of impact that the brain jostling inside the skill endures.

Neuroscientists now say that rather than concussions, it is the accumulation of successive blows to the head that lead football players to experience depression, dementia, and other long-term damage, sometimes resulting in suicide.

Chris Borland is one of the few NFL players who quit the game last year at age 24, alarmed by the statistics. He wanted to live to be a healthy 75, at least. Most players, says Maraniss, say that playing the game, usually for big bucks and fame, is worth the price.

Yet the question remains: why does the most popular and unifying game in  the U.S. keep causing so many players to suffer brain damage? It's hard to change when even a researcher like Ann McKee, whose pioneering studies of diseased brains of deceased players at Boston University revealed horror stories, remains loyal to the game she loves.

At least Mike Ditka of the Chicago Bears says he won't allow his son to play the game. If only more dads would follow suit, starting with high school parents. Why should a Steelers player, Randle El, be suffering, at age 36, memory problems?

As David Remnick says in this week's New Yorker, many football fans today live in a world of denial, in which reason, science, and statistics aren't yet enough to convince them to give up the game they love. He alludes to the famous line from the Confessions of St. Augustine: "Lord, make me pure, but not yet."

So the theme seems to be, Let's do something serious about football. But not quite yet.  How sad.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Reading in a screen-based culture

Much is written, with alarm, about the death of the book, the bookstore, and serious reading in general as the result of digital books and our screen-based culture.  I have participated in the hand wringing since change is always challenging.

If serious reading were doomed, I would not have published my novel on Kindle nor would my wife, Lynn Schiffhorst, have used the same e-book format for her many stories.  There are many advantages to online reading, especially the immediate networking available as one reader shares his or her views with many others, joins a discussion group, or links to a website. Writers and readers become part of a new global community, with access to a vast array of titles available via the Internet.

Yet, as Michael Dirda wisely observes in a valuable article last month (in the journal Humanities), the new technology poses some serious problems. The kind of reading we do online encourages skimming rather than the deep immersion associated with holding a printed book in the hand.  For most people I know, nothing beats the traditional printed book: it is always there, not subject to the fluctuations associated with many online publications. Who is to say, Dirda asks, if some censor will alter the texts of certain classics to make them politically correct? 

Factual errors are commonplace in online reading and have to be double-checked against the more stable medium of the printed work. Beyond that, book lovers like Dirda and me value printed books because of their reassuring presence in our lives. They allow for browsing (in libraries, in bookstores) that leads us to find related books or ones whose covers invite investigation. This is hard to replicate online. "Human beings are tactile creatures," Dirda writes, "and we find ourselves drawn to things we can touch and handle."

He also worries about the way online reading, which I see as a valuable adjunct to print reading, involves an excessive concern with the present and its demands for conformity and political correctness, with the past too often viewed as irrelevant.  In other words, the screen-based culture is youth-oriented in a way that will never satisfy those of us beyond the age of forty who seek an engagement with more than the present culture.

And this returns me to the main concern, the loss with online texts of what has been called the spirituality of reading: the ability we have with a printed novel in our lap to enter worlds and cultures other than our own, to savor the characters and language in a well-crafted story and lose ourselves there. I hope this kind of interiority is possible for some readers on Kindle and similar media; I have found some short pieces online that encourage deep reflection, yet these websites are part of an electronic world filled with meaningless Internet chatter on a multiplicity of distracting, constantly changing sites. It is hard to pay real attention to such reading.

In short, there is nothing like a traditional book: its advantages continue to outweigh the benefits of the newer technology.

Friday, January 1, 2016

A wish for the new year

My wish for the new year may sound simple but actually is impossibly complex: I wish for a dose of common sense among Americans in 2016.  Read on to understand the challenges involved.

1. The first area where common sense is needed is gun violence. As of today, Texans will be allowed to wear guns in public; and the wide availability of weapons in the U.S. plays into the hands of psychos, terrorists, and other malcontents with alarming results.  At issue: the American Rifle Association and its fundamentalist reading of the second amendment to the Constitution, to the delight of those making money selling weapons.

2. Another area of fundamentalist madness is the willful denial of man-made climate change by such groups as the Heartland Institute, which uses quack science (here I quote from Anthony Annett of Columbia Univ.) to mock the idea of climate change while upholding the virtues of unlimited use of fossil fuels. This, as many observers in other countries know, is a uniquely American issue driven by (guess what?) financial interests.  Annett's article in Commonweal goes after George Weigel, who writes skeptically of the UN's global warming guidelines, pretending that the issue is actually subject to debate.  He is a Catholic intellectual who fails to take in the encyclical on this topic by Pope Francis.

3. Finally, there is religious fundamentalism itself, which Francis has attacked (press conference on Nov. 30): "Fundamentalism is a sickness that is in all religions," he said, noting that Catholics are not immune as when they believe they have the absolute truth and proceed to attack others "doing evil."  Literal, fundamental readings of sacred texts has led many decent people into extreme behavior, as we see with Islamic terrorism.

As Richard Rohr has written, literalism is the lowest and least level of meaning. People who merely want to be right and have power can easily turn sacred texts into dangerous documents, as when, in the past, Christians have advocated slavery, apartheid, consumerism, nationalism, and other "isms."   Jesus himself knew, says Rohr, that not all scriptures are created equal and that certain punitive or exclusionary texts in the Hebrew tradition should not be read on the same level as those offering inclusion, mercy, and honesty.

What is needed is the Big Picture, the broad vision which puts into perspective the narrow literalism that exists on many levels. It so happens that Pope Francis, having written and spoken wisely about the dangers of violence to man and the environment, having called fundamentalism a sin, and having privileged mercy and forgiveness, is one of those who might hold a key to the common sense we need.

If only we would listen and practice what such leaders say and do instead of retreating into the fear, control, and power-seeking that results from fundamentalism.  If only we would work for justice, we might have what we most want: peace.