Friday, 1 April 2016

Tibor Machan: Sports and Doping/ Ethnicity and Related Nonsense



In tribute to our recently departed friend, I thought I’d begin posting a few of the many columns Tibor Machan wrote for our Free Radical magazine. He had a knack for writing very simply, but leaving you seeing the world differently thereafter…

Sports and Doping
WHEN MY GOOD FRIEND EXPRESSED to me his views on the doping at the Tour de France, I wrote back to him: "I don't care." He was a bit upset but didn't protest too much. Why, indeed, should one care about everything that's going on in the world? Economists' claim that there is no disputing taste applies to most things, and sports are probably what taste applies to most uncontroversially. I like tennis a lot, you baseball, she swimming,
and so on. None is superior; I don't care how much you are attached to it.
    But getting back to doping, why is that such a big deal? My friend, who is a very smart cookie, had a few insightful things to say about this that may be worth considering for those who do care. As he put his point,

Why do some folks oppose doping? We only watch when the athletes do things that people shouldn't even be able to do. The drugs only facilitate this 'supernatural' power.
Take a sport, like football. Clearly the athletes like the dope. The team owners love it. The spectators love it. Who is against this?
A question was asked of high school athletes: If drugs guarantee a ten year career in professional sports at the price of shortening your life by ten years, would you take the drugs? To my amazement, only 70 percent said yes. Maybe the 30 percent are, like, really stupid, or they were questioned in the presence of some adult—maybe a parent—and lied.
If TV says we will only buy your stuff if you eliminate dope, then dope would be gone. That would require that the advertisers boycott drugged sports. Not sure that will happen.
For some reason cycling is trying to police 'performance enhancing' actions. Why? No one else is trying. Vino was charged with getting a blood transfusion. This is a routine action inside a hospital, probably routine in sports (a lot of trouble though); seems like a tricky thing to test for, much better to catch the guy in the act….

For me, in contrast to my friend, the more telling issue is that in nearly every area of life people make ample use of artificial enhancements. They wear makeup, eye glasses, toupees, high heels, shoulder pads, and hundreds of other items that they believe will help them do better at various tasks, more or less important. Such is what comes from our ability to be creative and to apply this capacity to self-help. So what? Why protest? If the kind of authenticity that the opponents of doping want were really a great human good, why not object to all these artificial enhancements?
    Maybe there is some entrenched bureaucracy at work here that makes a good living off the monitoring, testing and punishing of doping but I do not see why bother. If we all knew that there are no bans against doping, and if we made it evident that going to excess is dangerous, what else is needed?
    I suppose the myth of "clean" sports is a powerful one and among the officials highly prized, though for the life of me I cannot see what the point is. Not when we consider how ubiquitous artificial self-enhancement is among people and how little is the harm that comes from it, all things considered.
    I did start by saying I do not care and, yes, I don't. I shall not send this missive to officials of the Tour de France or any other sport. But I respect my friend's contributions to debates about matters of widespread concern to members of the public and so I thought I would air his views, along with my own, to stir up a little forthright thinking about the matter.
    Yes, yes, doping can be harmful but everything, really, can be when overdone. So I suggest that we just stick to sensible warnings and leave the matter to the athletes and their consultants. And then those who do have an interest can be forewarned and enjoy the sports knowing full well what is going on.

Ethnicity and Related Nonsense
A YOUNG WOMAN ASKED ME the other day what I thought her ethnic background might be. After declining to guess—mainly because I don’t care about such stuff and know even less—she kept pressing me and I said, “I guess you may be Turkish.” Whereupon she took major offense.
    I didn’t even ask well, what is it? I just turned around and left her standing. I was in no mood to go into why I think taking offense at something like that is utter nonsense. But, yes, it is.
    First of all, even if you think most of the Turks were scum throughout history, what does this have to do with Turks today? Not a thing. One is Turkish or Bulgarian or Armenian completely involuntarily and so cannot be held responsible or being one. Maybe if you emigrated to Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union to become a citizen because you loved the official ideology there, that can be held against you. But having been born Turkish or Greek or Afghan simply hasn’t thing to do with your identity except accidentally, for better or worse.
    In the case of human beings, as distinct from breeds of dogs, one’s ethnicity is irrelevant to who one is unless one makes it so. I was born in Budapest, Hungary, of German parents, actually, but I liked many aspects of Hungarian culture, so despite my being unusually tall for Hungarians, as well as blonde, I made it a point to absorb much of the Hungarian atmosphere around me—to a point. In time I discovered America, through novels and movies and eventually in person, and that is what I chose to become insofar that's possible. My identity wasn’t going to be determined by forces I couldn’t control. At least as far as those aspects of it one can do something about were concerned.
    Later, in my academic career, this identity thing became a big deal, politically hot and such. I could never get behind it. What is the significance of such accidental stuff when there is so much of oneself that one has under one’s control? What about what you have done—your scholastic record, your friends, your taste in the arts, your religion or philosophy or politics? Those always seemed to me far more significant than the place from which one hails or the ethnic membership of one’s parents and so forth.
    But maybe it is this bit about belonging that is at the bottom of ethnic, national, racial, and similar identities. Or perhaps it is about artificial self-esteem. People seem to need to have a decent estimate of themselves but so many of those who speak out about human affairs consider it selfish, hubris even, to think well of oneself. It is regarded to be conceited to have pride in one’s achievements—just watch how at the Academy Awards everyone is squirming when accepting an award. It is always others who have merited it, never the recipient. No one ever says, “Gee, finally, I got my reward, something I earned fair and square.” Humility is one of these terrible pseudo-virtues that tends to make liars of people, not to mention psychological wrecks.
    If it were more encouraged for people to not just achieve things but to be proud of their accomplishments—which isn’t to say everyone ought to become a braggart—all this escaping into one’s group so as to steal some self-esteem could well diminish, even disappear. Of course, that assumes that people do in fact accomplish worthwhile feats.
    Since not everyone can end up at the top of the heap, it is best to acknowledge that even small achievements matter. Over a lifetime of decent works and with a little bit of courage to take credit where credit is due, that should not be too difficult. And with recognition of one’s worth, one’s having been creative and productive in one’s life, reliance on ethnic or racial or national pride may in time become pointless. I certainly recommend it, given the mayhem that all this ethnicity and identity politics evidently wreaks across the globe.

            ~ Tibor Machan

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