Where Will You Be On Super Bowl Sunday?

In spite of all of football’s woes, I expect to watch

Source: Wikipedia

A couple decades ago, a Swedish foreign exchange student of ours couldn’t understand why we Americans watched the Super Bowl. The game is violent; the TV production is too talky, noisy and overdone; the rules are silly and obscure; the militaristic overtones unsettling, and the whole thing takes far too long. Better, she thought, to read a book.

Of course, she was right.

Still, come Feb. 11, I expect we will be glued to our oversize screen, watching the racist-named Chiefs and the environment-wrecker-named 49ers pummel one another for all our enjoyment. We’ll hope for clever commercials and probably be disappointed. We’ll be happy when our team crushes the other.

Why will we watch? Well, I can answer only for myself, and my answer involves a lot of questions.

Brock Purdy on the run, source: USA Today

For me, the game is an amazing display of athleticism and physical and mental intelligence. How do quarterbacks such as Patrick Mahomes and Brock Purdy toss that odd-shaped ball so well, usually less than 3 seconds after taking the snap? How do they get it to where their receivers will be, threading the needle among defenders to put it exactly where it is needed? How do they do this while several hundred pounds of humanity converge on them, lusting to shove them into the turf?

For that matter, how do receivers such as Travis Kelce and Brandon Aiyuk know exactly where to go, anticipating the pass? How do they snag that moving bullet, on the run, while beating other talented men to pull it out of the air, often diving or leaping to do so? How do they then pivot to run, braving hundreds of pounds of flesh that try desperately to rip them to the ground, trip them up or shove them into the dirt?

Isiah Pacheco, source: Remezcla

Beyond those balletic folks, how can rushers such as Isiah Pacheco, a fellow Jersey boy and Rutgers grad, and Christian McCaffrey slip through the meaty grasps of so many human titans to advance on those crucial runs, sometimes breaking free to take it to the house? How do their bodies survive those crushing blows, only to bounce up and do it all again?

And for all the players, how can they keep the dizzying complexity and number of plays in their minds, summoned in the few seconds in the huddle and immediately afterward, knowing where they need to be and what they must do? The intellectual challenge that the coaches invent and pose for them is as extraordinary as any master game in chess.

Yes, the game is disturbingly violent. The injuries that these men suffer are unacceptable, hardly making up for the sometimes exorbitant pay they earn. Some seem even more cruel than the fictional fatalities of the Hunger Games because they last decades and burden everyone around them. For this reason, their careers can be astonishingly short, after lives dedicated solely to the sport. The NFL hasn’t helped with its often-shameful treatment of its veterans.

It’s unsettling, too, that so many of the players take their violence off the field. Criminality haunts the NFL.

And, yes, the hype around the game is absurd. The militaristic themes are ridiculous, especially when people are dying in real wars, when real American soldiers are at risk. Moreover, the announcers, backed up by arrays of statisticians, bludgeon us all with too much trivia.

Still, the real human stories behind many of these athletes are moving. Mahomes’s biracial background is heartening, a testament to America’s ability to bridge ethnic gulfs. Similarly, Aiyuk’s Cameroonian ancestry makes a statement about American inclusivity (some 125 players in the NFL hail from Africa or were born to African parents). Indeed, the multiracial camaraderie and teamwork on the field should be an example to us all.

Purdy’s status as the last pick in the 2022 NFL draft after his Iowa State career, moreover, smacks of Horatio Alger, a modern come-from-nowhere success story. Pacheco’s mixed Puerto Rican and Black background, coupled with his losses of two siblings to violence (one a stabbing, the other a shooting), make his life story poignant. Sad as his family story is, it’s a bit of unsettling real life in some parts of America.

Kelce’s telegenicity on programs such as Saturday Night Live and his romance with Taylor Swift give him an off-the-field cachet. And Coloradan McCaffrey’s athletic family legacy and the brainpower that got him into Stanford make him an extraordinary example of meritocracy. Indeed, all these men earned their spots in the NFL, one of the toughest proving grounds in American culture.

Mahomes, source: Sports Illustrated

So, our Swedish exchange student wasn’t wrong. But she saw only the dark half of the story. On Super Bowl Sunday, I will be aware of that half, but I will focus on the rest. I will take delight in the same passion that brings these players onto the field and has done so since their Pop Warner days. I will engage in a bit of harmless tribalism, a force that I recognize can be both a blessing as a curse. I will watch, vicariously experiencing the players’ intense emotions. Putting it simply, I will have a lot of fun.

Ugliness on Campus

A deeper look at the Israel-Hamas war protests

Source: Harvard Crimson

As we all know, many colleges erupted in protests and counterprotests following the October 7th atrocities in Israel. Some universities in areas with substantial populations of Jews and Arabs, particularly Palestinians, slipped into violence from scuffles, thankfully minor in most cases. Members of both groups raised alarms about fearing to walk on the campuses or even attend classes because of the tensions and some people even sued about it.

While most schools seem to have settled down, as the war goes on and the new term wears on, it’s reasonable to expect still more unrest. Pro-Palestinian student groups, including reorganized unofficial ones that replaced those banned at some schools, were disrupting classes at Harvard as recently as last month. At best, we can hope the tactics of such groups remain peaceful.

As I’ve prepared for a Jan. 24 presentation about the campus reactions for the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, I’ve been struck by a few key points about these protests. Let me share a few:

First, it is stunning that the pro-Palestine students refuse to condemn Hamas, both for the vile attacks of October and for the group’s heartless approach to the innocents of Gaza. Even women have turned a blind eye to the savagery targeting Jewish women. Hamas knew, of course, that it was inviting the retaliation it has gotten, seemingly unconcerned and willing to treat its own people as welcome cannon fodder.

Source: Spectre Journal

Instead of protesting against the terrorists, the demonstrators seem to either ignore their monstrous actions and their perversions of Islam or to celebrate them. It’s one thing to stand up for one’s people — the innocents in Gaza caught in the crossfire — but it’s another to misplace the blame. It’s as if the demonstrators’ moral calculations are upside down. And we see absurdities such as LGBTQ community members defending Hamas, a group that would toss them from the highest buildings if they lived among them.

Source: Nemo

The moral inversion of these protestors is just as perverse as South Africa’s claim that Israel is guilty of genocide and its backwards arguments before the International Court of Justice. To argue that a nation defending itself against terrorism is intending to wipe out a couple million people even as the terrorists continue to hold that nation’s citizens hostage is obscene — especially when that nation, Israel, has repeatedly warned Gazans to leave Hamas-infested areas. Why is Hamas not on trial instead for its barbarism?

Second, I’m struck by how widespread the ignorance about the complex history of Israel-Palestine relations is, particularly among young people. When they chant “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” many don’t seem to realize that is a call for the eradication of Israel, that it is the ultimate in antisemitism. As a recent column in The Wall Street Journal noted, many of the students chanting this nowadays don’t even know what river or sea are being referred to.

In addition, ignorance about the Holocaust is extraordinary only 80 years after that monstrosity. One-fifth of U.S. citizens between the ages of 18 and 29 believe that the Holocaust is a myth, according to a poll by Economist/YouGov.

And, as the Israeli military has grown into one of the most powerful forces in the region, there’s also a peculiar underdog sympathy taking hold – one that affects Jews worldwide, not just in Israel. A Harvard-Harris poll in December reported that 44 percent of Americans ages 25 to 34, and a whopping 67 percent of those ages 18 to 24, agreed with the statement that “Jews as a class are oppressors.” By contrast, only 9 percent of Americans over 65 felt that way. This is concomitant with a rise in antisemitic incidents, including over 500 on campuses since early October.

Derek Penslar teaching about the Middle East, Source: Penslar via Inside Higher Ed

On the positive side, some schools have seen a surge in interest in courses dealing with the Middle East. Among these are Bard College, the University of Washington, and the University of Maryland. Even at Harvard, Derek Penslar, a professor of Jewish History, has seen substantial demand for a course he teaches, for instance. “The students who walk in my door are not necessarily the same ones as those who are in Harvard Yard screaming,” he told Inside Higher Ed. “More often than not, my students are curious, intelligent, and they usually do have a political view at one point or another. But they’re open-minded or else they wouldn’t bother taking my class.”

Third and finally, the problems on campuses are both short-term and long-term. In the coming few months, the challenges will be to allow for free speech — an essential part of a university experience — but also to assure student safety. Both Arab and Jewish students need to be able to feel physically safe and comfortable enough to have civil conversations inside and outside class. The war is ugly enough without bringing its effects here.

Longer-term, the challenge is for universities to teach more students — especially those most in need of knowledge — about the complexities of the Middle East and about the ugliness of antisemitism. One approach is to improve diversity, equity and inclusion programs to include mandatory sessions about Jewish and Arab history, much as they do now about Blacks and whites. After all, what is higher education about, if not education?

We’ll have a chance to look in depth at these issues in the upcoming FJMC webinar. It’s likely that this will be a sobering look, but an informative one, I hope.

What Can Make Trump Fail

Can the media, doing its job, show voters the fatal flaws of their hero?

Source: Bloomberg via Getty Images/Axios

Despite scores of news stories about his astonishing legal woes, Donald J. Trump seems likely to coast in on a smooth glidepath to the Republican nomination for president. As the National Review noted, he is polling above 60 percent nationally and leads the field by 30 points in Iowa, where caucusing takes place Monday night.

In the face of his four indictments, 91 criminal charges and two impeachments, his supporters seem only to rally behind him. They seem persuaded by his claims that he is a victim of persecution, much as they feel victimized by the economic, racial, ethnic and social change he seems to stand against – he is their King Canute.

A short time ago, The Wall Street Journal ran “Trump’s Businesses Got Millions From Foreign Governments While He Was President,” a piece detailing how various governments enriched him with official stays in his hotels in Las Vegas and Washington and spending at his New York properties. When I posted a link to it on Facebook, a journalist friend sadly wrote: “Story after story, year after year, decade after decade, yet no legal team can put TFG away,” wrote BusinessWeek veteran Joan Warner. “From tax evasion to misuse of funds to election tampering to insurrection to rape, he gets away with is. The one truthful thing he ever said was that he could shoot a guy on Fifth Avenue and it wouldn’t make a difference. He was right.”

The disdain Trump’s supporters feel for the legal system is mind-boggling, of course, as is the system’s seeming inability to nail him (even as a clutch of his underlings, deserted by him, have been jailed or face criminal charges). Equally unsettling, though, is the disregard among the MAGA faithful for journalistic work that that has illuminated his perfidy – before, during and after his presidency.

Source: The Washington Post

Story after story seems to roll off their backs or, bizarrely, to deepen their enthusiasm for him. Are they simply not paying attention? Or, worse, do these pieces just entrench the idea that the elites – in the “fake news” media that Trump derides to great effect – are just unfairly coming after their hero again?

For journalists, the question arises: does any of that painstaking, diligent work make any difference? Indeed, might be it counterproductive?

Back when Trump was spreading lies about Barack Obama’s birthplace, researchers described the “backfire” effect. As NPR put it in a 2010 piece, this was the idea that “we base our opinions on beliefs and when presented with contradictory facts, we adhere to our original belief even more strongly.” University of Michigan researcher Brendan Nyhan, who did much of this work, said “it’s threatening to us to admit that things we believe are wrong.” And the way people – both liberals and conservatives – deal with the cognitive dissonance of facts versus beliefs is to “buttress that belief that they initial held.”

Of course, it helps if one can find media outlets that reinforce such beliefs. In the case of Trump, think Fox News, Newsmax, conservative talk radio and the like. They stand in counterpose to legitimate media, feeding their audiences a steady pro-Trump diet that flies in the fast of the steady anti-Trump coverage of the mainstream folks.

Source: YouTube

And then, of course, there are Trump’s own blasts on social media. One of his most recent jaw-droppers is a reposted video, “God Gave Us Trump,” made by a group of his supporters and featuring the AI-created voice of Paul Harvey, a voice that would resonate in MAGA world. While a bright person might think this a parody, it’s anything but. Trump followed that with a birther attack on Nikki Haley, reposting a piece that claims she’s not a citizen, even though she was born in South Carolina, because her parents were immigrants. With that, he attacks perhaps his most palatable rival – one who polls better against Biden than Trump does – and smears immigrants, all in one fell swoop.

But there is reason to believe that continuing revelations about Trump’s shortcomings, along with the legal actions, could undo him. He may sail into the GOP nomination because so much of the party has been highjacked by the far right, but his luck in a national race could run as dry as his bankrupt casinos of old if the media continue to highlight his canyon-deep flaws. The best evidence, of course, is President Biden’s election in 2020. While Trump drew an amazing 74.2 million votes in that race, Biden still bested him with nearly 81.3 million. And the Electoral College tally was an impressive 306 for Biden to just 232 for Trump.

Back then, the media had reported for years about the legion of missteps by Trump in the White House. And in the election coverage, journalists delivered a nonstop barrage of coverage of his dismayingly broad array of problems. The media there clearly made a difference, as they did in the midterm elections in which Trump-backed candidates fell hard.

So, will the media tip the scales again? Well, a sharp new focus on the perversions to our system Trump is likely to deliver if elected may help. Publications such as The Atlantic have drawn attention to how much damage he could do to institutions ranging from the military and regulatory agencies to law enforcement. The New York Times has opened a window on what he and his minions plan, from wielding the Justice Department to attack his enemies to upending trade policy.

More such coverage of life under Trump 2.0 may stir up more Biden support, even if it doesn’t peel away Trump backing, going forward (Trump’s fans don’t read such publications, it would seem). Indeed, it would seem unlikely that the Trump base will shrink (it had grown from 62.96 million votes in 2016), unless reports are true that many of his backers would flee him if he were convicted of crimes.

Seeing him hauled off to jail may rally his most diehard backers, perhaps dangerously so, a la Jan. 6. But that could strip away some of the less deluded among his crowds. Of course, he’s doing his best to delay trials that could lead to such convictions, betting that he could quash the federal efforts, at least, if elected.

But what remains puzzling is just why so many people continue to back him. His railings against immigrants and minorities, his barely concealed white supremacism, his disdain for globalism and his thumb-your-nose views of coastal elites all seem to find traction among his devotees, overriding his yawning gaps. His personal immorality continues to be a non-issue for evangelicals who see him as their deliverer.

No matter how much economic stability and restored global influence Biden brings, these other matters seem to make Trump unassailable among many of his supporters. Why is he their avatar, their flagbearer?

Source: Facebook

Part of his appeal seems to lay in the simple ignorance that seems widespread among his backers. He has long been cherished by the under-educated and our system of primaries seems to turn heavily on them. As The New York Times reported, college-educated people have long been deserting such important primary states as Iowa and other states in the Upper Midwest, leaving behind those Hillary Clinton memorably described as a “basket of deplorables.” Such folks may read little of anything, in fact.

More troubling, part of his success has to do with flaws in our version of democracy. Recall that Clinton actually beat him by a fair number of popular votes in 2016, garnering nearly 3 million more votes at 65.8 million nationwide. But she lost the Electoral College vote 306-232 because that probably outdated institution gives more power to voters in small states than they deserve. Indeed, there continues to be a sharp media focus on so-called swing states, as intelligent cries for abolition of the Electoral College continue to go unheeded.

Moreover, the two-party system puts the choice of our presidential contenders in the hands of an astonishingly small number of people. As a Brookings Institution commentator broke down the figures, some 10,000 people – split between 8,567 delegates to the Democratic and Republican conventions and the members of the parties’ national committees – choose the two contenders, the only real prizefighters in these elections. Most of those folks are representative of primary voter choices, of course, but those primary voters are always a fraction of the general electorate.

There remains hope that enough people can be persuaded – either in the primaries or in the general election – that we will be denied the continued hauntings of this supremely vindictive racist narcissist in the fall. Democracy, at least our flawed form of it, could prevail. It’s possible that even the legal system will rise to the occasion, despite him playing it like a fiddle.

Source: Partisan Issues

What of the media’s role and effectiveness? More recent research about the “backfire effect” suggests that even deeply held beliefs may not be set in concrete. As researcher Nyhan put it, “corrective information is typically at least somewhat effective at increasing belief accuracy….” Misperceptions may persist for years, but he suggests that carefully targeting information and breaking what he calls the linkage between group identities and false claims can be effective.

In other words, if the Trumpists begin to see him as a failure, his hold on them may slip. We can only hope he fails in the courts, in time, and in some key primaries, and that the media can drive home word of such slipups. By shooting straight with honest decisions and reporting about a man who reviles them, judges, juries and journalists can make a difference, but all have their work cut out for them.

Non-resolution time

What promises are you making for 2024?

Source: Newsweek

I have always avoided New Year’s resolutions. Partly, that’s because the holiday always struck me as a hollow, made-up affair, with forced excitement and too much drinking. Unlike, say, Christmas or Rosh Hashanah, it really seemed like nothing more substantial than a turning of the calendar. No Times Square cavorting for me.

Moreover, such customary vows as losing weight and exercising would likely prove short-lived or temporary, at best. Old habits die hard and just screwing up one’s resolve only to disappoint oneself in time — often in a very short time — seemed self-defeating.

But now that the calendar seems to turn faster and the road ahead is shorter than the road behind, I wonder if it’s time for me to revisit my reluctance. In whatever time remains, perhaps some goals, and knowing I have the means or ability to reach them, might be useful.

Source: BuzzRx

A new friend, who recently retired as a professor of nursing, told me the other day that she now has one job in life – to keep herself healthy. For her, that has meant dropping weight, a lot of it, and committing to a personal trainer. She spoke of how she celebrates every small achievement nowadays, whether it’s maintaining her new slenderness or bragging about the new definition in her arm and leg muscles (that trainer has been invaluable).

For my part (and for many of you, I expect), one job is far too small an estimate. We likely have myriad obligations as spouses, parents or grandparents. We may have commitments to volunteer efforts or to projects (writing-oriented ones or others). And all those come atop a basic need to stay healthy, which is quite the challenge in these Covid-will-be-with-us-forever times.

So, this brings me back to resolutions – or, perhaps, they could better be called aims or goals. One can fail in pursuing a resolution, after all, but if one falls short in an aim or a goal, one can still claim partial success. And one should always aim high, of course (consider the adage that one’s reach should always exceed one’s grasp).

Here are a few aims for me:

— Treat family members, particularly my devoted and superb wife, better each day than the one before.

— Be kind to strangers in need. This would apply to people I help as a volunteer at a ski resort and to folks such as the homeless who, sadly, seem to be proliferating everywhere.

— Make time for healthy diversions, such as exercise and hobbies such as honing those guitar skills.

— Be available for friends. Set up those for-the-hell-of-it dinners or lunches.

— Be fair-minded and open to alternative viewpoints.

— Avoid dwelling on toxic influences (that includes Donald Trump). And this one doesn’t contradict the prior one, since some things remain beyond the pale.

— Be kind to oneself, including being forgiving when falling short of such targets as those above.

Source: Bhavana Learning Group

Okay, so a skeptic may say these aims are vague. Better to promise something such as “drop 10 lbs. by Feb. 15” or “compliment my wife at least three times a day” or “write that damn novel, already.” But, that sort of specificity invites failure. Such detailed commitments smack of resolutions, not aims (see above).

So, fresh from a delightful New Year’s Eve gathering last night with friends (which wasn’t at all made up, but was wonderfully warm and fun), I set down these aims. Let’s see how well they stand up over the coming 365 days.

I hope your resolutions, aims or whatever, go well. Happy New Year, all.