The Super Bowl: The real ‘State of the Union’

Around 30 million more Americans (myself among them) watched the Super Bowl than watched the presidents State of the Union Address. Considering the nations pronounced viewing preference and the Super Bowls exalted place in the civic religion, its not too great a stretch to say that the Super Bowl telecast offered an alternative state of the union, albeit mostly implicit, with much greater public currency than Bill Clintons. Our football fanaticism, the bewildering halftime entertainment and the much-anticipated commercials send mixed messages about these United States. On the positive side, we have a great many dreams, some of them worthy and urgent, such as harmonious multiculturalism. On the negative side, we seem to lack the resources or commitment to achieve our dreams, willing to trust our collective future to fate instead.

As the commentators reminded us again and again, the Super Bowl itself is what dreams are made of. (Other people’s dreams, of course.) Nobody watching the game had any chance to influence the outcome, but millions were glued to their television sets to watch the clash unfold. For a few scary minutes an injury to Tennessee player Blaine Bishop punctured the dream-like aura of the game, but as soon as the paramedics carted him off the field, the game resumed for its ultimate storybook ending of dreams fulfilled and dashed. Pride was on the line but little more, since all of these guys make millions and besides, it’s only a game.

The stakes are much higher for the vast majority of Americans, who earn less than the NFL minimum salary, and the bizarre halftime show, “Tapestry of Nations” made a muddled attempt at evoking the dominant themes of present day life in America. If one could struggle past the extreme weirdness of the performance – the giant space and nature puppets, the Captain EO drum corps, and the huge totem looming in the background – some important themes emerged. First theme, multicultural community – the five principle performers, a progressive mix of one white man, one black woman, one latina woman, and two latino men, took their turns and then all sang in harmony. (As a side note, ABCs shots of the stands showed an overwhelmingly white crowd.) Second theme, dreams – narrator/MC Edward James Olmos encouraged viewers to celebrate your dreams, and the entire production had a very surrealistic, eco-techno quality. Third, fate – Phil Collins sang “Let Fate Decide on the Lives We Have Chosen,” a song from Disney’s recent movie Tarzan. I was not expecting an intelligible, intelligent message, but the more I thought about the entertainment the more disturbing it appeared. Is letting fate decide any way to realize dreams, especially ones like multicultural community that requires great cooperation? Fate is okay for the fictional monkey man, but not as a basis for national life. If the organizers of “Tapestry of Nations” had trusted their show to fate we might have missed the indescribable joy of abstract puppet ballet.

The barrage of eagerly awaited, incredibly expensive Super Bowl advertising played on many of the same themes as the halftime show and only increased my consternation. Commercials are all about selling dreams. The FedEx ad used one of America’s most enduring dream worlds, the Land of Oz. Most other ads had some connection to our newest dream world, cyberspace. One of these, Monster.com presented a multicultural cast delivering a disjointed, bitter-sounding narration of Robert Frost’s popular poem celebrating the path less traveled. Ironically, it looks like almost everyone will be traveling the information superhighway in the near future. Nuveen Investment Assistance advertised the achievement of dreams such as healing spinal cord injuries and showed Christopher Reeve walking again to drive home its message: good investing makes dreams real.

While intricately organized football teams collided on the field, the halftime show and commercial breaks offered alluring but deeply flawed images of community. We saw two unappealing variants of cybercommunity: Monster.com’s surly lot and the nation of salesmen envisioned by epidemic.com, a business that will pay you a commission on purchases made through e-commerce links you send friends, family, everyone. (I can see a tidal wave of spam not far from shore.) These might constitute a community in the sense that millions of people are doing something similar – i.e., staring at a computer monitor — but in terms of sharing something deeper, real human contact, both appear empty. Finally, both leave out the millions of Americans who are not active e-citizens. So much for the virtual community. The smiling, diverse army of halftime performers, singing in multicultural harmony, looks more inviting, but letting fate decide wont bring us any closer to that ideal state of the union.

Achieving our dreams requires much more than shrewd private investments, the invisible hand, and capitalism’s fate. It takes real, concrete cooperation, including but not limited to constructive engagement in politics. Individuals’ spontaneity makes life (and the Super Bowl) unpredictable, thrilling and ultimately promising. But no Super Bowl team puts total faith in spontaneity: they plan and practice exhaustively. Likewise, a society that does not coordinate constructively endangers its continued existence. Collective activity always runs the risk of over-planning and stifling independent actors so we must tread carefully. But if we really care about the outcome of the game the stakes are too high to trust it all to fate.