Ethically, you can watch the Olympics!


Phantom erudition: We're so old that we attended "the greatest track meet of all time."

The aforementioned "greatest meet" took place in July 1962 at Stanford Stadium. Thanks to the generosity of a friend and his family, we were there both days. 

We were 14 at the time—just over 14 and a half. By the time of our senior year, our friend was a 9.8 sprinter himself, though that was 100 yards.

Back to the greatest meet, which you can also read about here:

Bob Hayes won the men's 100 meters; Wilma Rudolph won the women's 100. Valery Brumel set another world record. On overall points, the Soviet team prevailed.

On overall points, the Soviets won; Tamara and Irina Press won their standard three events (shot put, discus, low hurdles). That said, at the end of the second day, the athletes of the warring nuclear nations circled the track, arm in arm, as the capacity crowd applauded and occasionally wept.

Three months later, the Cuban missile crisis occurred. NAME WITHHELD, our high school's most spirited cheerleader, said this to us on one of those days, and she was completely sincere:

"I'm afraid I won't get the chance to grow up."

We're fairly sure that a tape recoding would have recorded those very words. Three months earlier, we'd watched Bob Hayes win the 100.

Track and field was very big in the California high school world at that point in time. At the 1968 Olympics, four gold medal winners had come out of the California state meet during the years we'd been in high school. 

(The years in question were 1962-1965. In 1968, gold medals in Mexico City went to James Hines in the 100; to Tommie Smith in the 200; to Lee Evans in the 400; and to Bob Seagren in the pole vault. Earl McCullouch would have been favored to make it five, but he'd gone to the NFL.) 

We loved the Olympics back then, to the extent that it was accessible. We don't watch the Olympics today. Over the years, we came to hate the bloated corporatism which came to define the games, along with the increasingly silly way the games were broadcast, at least here in the U.S. 

Also, we've learned something in the years which have passed. We've learned that a whole lot of children, all over the world, don't get a chance to grow up. 

They may die alongside their parents, under bombs or out in the sea. In other circumstances, they may be forced to live in conditions which are an insult to the notion of human dignity.

We've learned about this state of affairs as the years have passed. We've also seen that very few of us—almost no one, in fact—ever commit themselves to doing as much as they possibly can to respond to this state of affairs.

Concerning which, there's this:

In the spring of our senior year in high school, we were suddenly enormously in love. We spoke for hours, every day, to the very wise person by whom we were suddenly overwhelmed. 

From 3-5, we could pretend that we were watching the swimming team work out as we sat there endlessly talking. From 5-6, it was just us and the custodians, plus the occasional tumbleweed.

(We had to be home for dinner at 6; we lived across the street from the school. Her family ate at 9. We hailed from somewhat different cultural frameworks. That was instructive for us.)

We spoke for hours every day, but we can remember only one specific exchange:

We had just learned about Dr. Tom Dooley, the medical missionary who had lost his life in southeast Asia. If you know that people are suffering, you're obligated to address it, we told our new friend one day. We told her that if someone was dying in the street in front of her house, she'd feel obligated to do something about it, and that there was no difference here.

"It just isn't like that," she wisely said. She was wiser and saner than we were, for which we're still grateful today. But in all those hours of conversation, that's the only specific exchange we can recall.

We don't like the bloated monstrosity the Olympics has become. For that reason, we haven't watched any coverage this week.

Others feel differently about these matters, and there's no reason why they shouldn't. Other people are watching the games. Yesterday, thanks to the New York Times, we learned that their conduct is ethically permissible.

We learned that in an op-ed column by an assistant professor. For reasons which go unexplained, she's described in the Times' identity line as "a moral philosopher." 

We have no doubt that the columnist is a thoroughly good, thoroughly decent person. That said, her column appeared beneath this silly headline:

Are You a Bad Person for Watching the Olympics?

That was the headline on the column. In our judgment, the column is a prime example of "phantom erudition," the type most likely to appear in the New York Times.

In our view, the fact that the column was written—much more strikingly, the fact that the column was published—helps us see how limited our human judgment is.

Given the major moral quandaries we're currently facing in this nation, it's hard to believe that a major newspaper would think this question was worth exploring in the erudition-rich way this column did.

That said, the assistant professor undertook that task. In her column, she notes a few of the fairly obvious problems with the way the Olympics now operates, then states her column's reason for being:

Of course, viewers aren’t watching the Games to intentionally endorse a corrupt system or the idea of profit over public health. They’re watching to celebrate our common humanity, to be awed by athletic excellence and to witness the drama of Olympic dreams being dashed or realized. But by opting to watch the Olympics, do we give a tacit thumbs-up to the entire spectacle, ethical problems and all?

At the heart of this worry is the idea that merely by choosing to be entertained by something that involves wrongdoing, we become complicit in it. But just how worried should we be? To answer this question, the idea of complicity needs unpacking.

For the record, some viewers are watching the games because nothing else is on. But let's not linger on such side issues. At issue is an ethical question: 

Readers, have you become "complicit in wrongdoing" by choosing to watch the Olympics? That's the question the New York Times ate valuable space to explore.

Have viewers become complicit in wrongdoing? At this point, the assistant professor says the idea of complicity "needs unpacking." 

Very long story short! Powering ahead, she tells us that Olympic watchers aren't guilty of "participation complicity." She then proceeds to the more difficult questions, wondering whether such viewers may be guilty of "tolerance complicity." 

All in all, the erudition was hard to miss.

In the end, the TV viewer gets a pass. "Just because all complicity is bad does not mean that it is always morally criticizable," the assistant professor says. Believe it or not, this is the way her exegesis ended:

[T]he Games are underway, and for most of the world’s population, there is only one moral decision left to make: To watch or not to watch? If you are one of the many who view the actions of the International Olympic Committee, the television stations and sponsors, and the nations competing as morally wrong, is it ethical for you to tune in?

Olympic athletes offer us an ideal of achievement and determination in the face of adversity. Knowledge that we are always, in some measure, complicit offers us a kind of moral adversity that we overcome not through the pursuit of an impossible moral purity, but through renewed efforts to engage in our deeply flawed world. Choosing to watch the Games, for all their faults, is perfectly compatible with these efforts.

Watch away.

There is only one moral decision to make—whether or not to watch. And yes, we're always complicit to some extent, the assistant professor contends. 

But according to the assistant professor, it's "ethical for you to tune in." All complicity is bad—but that doesn't mean that it's always "morally criticizable."

"Watch away," she cheerfully says as the column ends.

Amazingly, yet not amazingly, editors at the New York Times thought this example of "moral philosophy" was worth publishing. They even published it in yesterday's print editions. 

That doesn't make them bad people! The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but even among the elites of Our Town, human judgment is very limited.

Many children, all over the world, don't get the chance to grow up.  They often die beside their parents. Or they may live in conditions which insult any notion of human dignity.

Also this: Very few of us ever make a full commitment to fully addressing such facts in the ways we live our lives. 

It may be that Dr. Tom Dooley did. (His story turned out to be more complicated than was known at the time.) 

Meanwhile, at the Times, they're puzzling over participation complicity versus the tolerance version of same. In our view, they're offering the phantom erudition which largely defines the intellectual way of life in our own self-impressed town.

It's like this on "cable news" every night. And no, we don't mean over on Fox, where the human shortfall can perhaps, to Our Town's delight, seem to be even worse.

Permission to watch the games has been granted. "Watch away," The Voices have said.

Swimming song: Swimming was also big in the California high school world of that time. 

Donna de Varona, a teenage gold medal winner, was right down the road from us at the Santa Clara Swim Club. From 3 to 5, you could pretend that you were just watching the swim team swimming their endless laps.

In 2005, we attended our fortieth reunion. Due to geographic separation, we'd hardly ever been back.

At one point, we listened as the 13-year-old son of a classmate enthused, in some detail, about the water polo team at Bellarmine High, 30 miles to the south.

What a madeleine moment that was. We remembered being that very same kid, right on those same teenaged grounds!

(In 1964, the Associated Press and United Press International voted de Varona the "most outstanding woman athlete in the world." She was 17 years old at the time—an Olympics record-holder.)


  1. Somerby: I object to the Olympics because they represent bloated corporatism, but you can watch if you want.

    NY Times: I object to the Olympics because they represent an endorsement of corrupt systems or the idea of profit over public health (‘bloated corporatism’ anyone?), but you can watch if you want.

    And Somerby attacks this.

    1. That’s not an accurate summation of the tenuous and asinine rationalization argued in the NYT, mh.

      Saying ‘I don’t watch the Olympics because it’s utterly commercialized, but that may not be a thing with you and that doesn’t automatically make you a bad person’…is different from the argument of…’Sure the games have been corrupted into a days long product placement advertisement, but watching them despite this fact means that we are bravely engaging and struggling with a venal world in a way that is similar to how the Olympic athletes have dealt with human fallibility, imperfection, and adversity.

      Learn to read.

    2. No one said anything about “bravely engaging” in anything. Except, of course, you. Try to make a point legitimately. First learn to read,

    3. Somerby actually says that we cannot be moral if we watch the Olympics because a child someone on our planet may not reach adulthood.

      I'm not sure how that applies only to the Olympics. We cannot morally draw another breath, bask in the sunlight, enjoy our favorite breakfast cereal, listen to music, or engage in any other pleasurable or semi-pleasurable experience as long as any child dies before puberty.

      Somerby pretends this is a moral stance, but I think he is just carrying Catholic guilt a bit too far. The priest would tell him that is a sin of pride.

    4. No, Somerby is mainly upset because a female person, a woman, dared to say it is moral to watch the Olympics. It is bad enough they allow girls to compete, according to Somerby, without them making moral judgments. Next they'll think they are actual people.

    5. Unamused , “bravely engaging” is exactly the implication of this silliness:

      “Olympic athletes offer us an ideal of achievement and determination in the face of adversity. Knowledge that we are always, in some measure, complicit offers us a kind of moral adversity that we overcome not through the pursuit of an impossible moral purity, but through renewed efforts to engage in our deeply flawed world. Choosing to watch the Games, for all their faults, is perfectly compatible with these efforts.”

    6. Your highly stilted interpretation.

  2. "To answer this question, the idea of complicity needs unpacking."

    It's like your zombie cult's dembots are testing you, dear Bob. Is there anything, any amount of dogshit, any shitty word salad they feed you that will make you vomit?

    And we say "you, dear Bob" because no one else reads this shit.

    But you, dear Bob, just swallow another dose of it and type another post about the failings of humynity.

    Tsk. It's fascinating, in a way.

    1. I don’t watch the Olympics. I don’t watch sports. People have tried to explain the rules of football and basketball to me, but it doesn’t stick. I think I do have a sense of what’s going on in baseball. The games seem endless though.

      Why can’t people who do enjoy this stuff, just watch it? Don’t analyze every freaking thing. Just enjoy it.

    2. Having trouble with the “rules of basketball”? A seven year old can appreciate the game in minutes. “Don’t analyze every freaking thing” presumably refers to keeping score in this case. Next time I go to MOMA and run into a guided tour I’ll be sure to tell them not to analyze everything. A lot of people don’t enjoy sports. Those who do don’t venture to tell them how not to. That would be condescending and stupid.

    3. Learning the rules of basketball should be a prerequisite to reading Stephen Hawking on special relativity.

      Is there relative motion on a football field? Ask the people in the stands.

    4. “Those who do don’t venture to tell them how not to. That would be condescending and stupid.”

      Oh, it’s not a condescension for anyone to suggest that turning sports into an ethical dilemma is how not to enjoy sports.

      Unless you’re starring in your only little morality play head trip.

    5. Excellent criticism of Somerby's essay, Cecelia.

    6. Anonymouse 10:46 pm, congratulations. You are an Anonymouse who can actually read.

    7. To most of us it takes a few years to understand the rules of sports.
      To others, even with coaching, it is the equivalent of understanding Einstein's Theory of Relativity.

    8. I’m certainly the latter. You could coach me and I could explain back to you the rules of basketball and football for about an hour.

      After that, gone.

    9. That's very sad. It suggests you wouldn't be able to learn to play bridge either.

    10. Hadn’t thought about that.


  3. Somerby keeps talking about tribe as if it were a bad thing -- because that is how some right-wing political thinkers have characterized it. But there are many others, including anthropologists, who consider tribe to be positive and important to our survival.

    Here is an example from Sebastian Junger, who wrote "Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging" which looks at the psychological benefits of tribe (from Amazon):

    "We have a strong instinct to belong to small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding--"tribes." This tribal connection has been largely lost in modern society, but regaining it may be the key to our psychological survival.

    Decades before the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin lamented that English settlers were constantly fleeing over to the Indians-but Indians almost never did the same. Tribal society has been exerting an almost gravitational pull on Westerners for hundreds of years, and the reason lies deep in our evolutionary past as a communal species. The most recent example of that attraction is combat veterans who come home to find themselves missing the incredibly intimate bonds of platoon life. The loss of closeness that comes at the end of deployment may explain the high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by military veterans today.

    Combining history, psychology, and anthropology, Tribe explores what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty, belonging, and the eternal human quest for meaning. It explains the irony that-for many veterans as well as civilians-war feels better than peace, adversity can turn out to be a blessing, and disasters are sometimes remembered more fondly than weddings or tropical vacations. Tribe explains why we are stronger when we come together, and how that can be achieved even in today's divided world."

    1. Somerby is a member of the tribe that likes to gripe about tribalism while never questioning that this society's basic institutions deliberately promote individual differences over our common humanity. The idea of a common humanity would threaten the owners, the people who run the institutions that keep the system going and the wealth flowing to them. Somerby is a member of the tribe that is dedicated to ignoring the fact that this powerful tribe runs everything.

  4. Symbolic morality is all the rage today. During periods of reality, morality might involves risking one's life to go help needy people. In today's fantasy world, it's easier. One just has to watch or not watch the right TV shows. No wonder our world is a mess. :(

    1. "De-fund the police" is a terrible slogan, if you aren't going to actually do it.

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  6. Found on Facebook:

    "In an anti-intellectual society, people who know nothing about a subject are emboldened to ridicule experts who have spent a lifetime studying it." -- George Kiser, Professor Emeritus, Politics and Government, Illinois State University

  7. The Olympics is a celebration of hard work, uncompromising dedication, and meritocracy that allows its athletes to ultimately transcend their countries’ politics and embrace each other as human beings. I think it is compelling . Bob casts a wide net and dismisses it as bloated. The female assistant professor who he unsurprisingly denigrates repeatedly makes the point that the Olympics athletes transcend whatever it is about the Olympic Committee that deserves censure. The product can be criticized as overly commercialized but the individual stories of these athletes and the events themselves surmount that for me. Later, in bed, I have nightmares about the dead children I neglected for beach volleyball.


    1. The professor went beyond saying that the athletes, in their quest for excellence, are worth our attention despite the commercialization that renders them as being products.

      To go around her dim view of the corporatism and marketing (from which the competitors can reap immense benefits) she suggests that her personal dilemma in engaging as a coveted audience member, conveys upon her a similar moral justification that the athletes receive by actual (rather than figurative) engagement via hard work, adversity, and true compromise.

      It’s bunk. Somerby referenced it because it is the perfect example of post-modern-think.

      Lady, just be honest enough to tell the truth that you find the Big Show entertaining and inspiring despite (and often due to) Capitalism, Inc.

    2. Ass-bitting is the strict province of Anonymices, not concepts.

    3. You projections about what this person wrote - for the second time now - are not what she wrote. She made zero commentary about her having been conveyed a similar moral justification as the athletes. You just made that up.

  8. The next time I read a blog, I hope that it doesnt disappoint me as much as this one. I mean, I know it was my choice to read, but I actually thought you have something interesting to say. All I hear is a bunch of whining about something that you could fix if you werent too busy looking for attention.
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