Sunday, February 01, 2004

It's Super Bowl Sunday again--and, pardon me, the season is too damn long when the Super Bowl is played in February. Here's a story from Fox News on "the perfect American holiday".

My guess is that the Super Bowl is actually watched by 30 million people or so, real football fans or at least people who casually follow the sport. The rest of the 150 or so million viewers are just kind of there, hanging out at the party and watching the TV commercials.

Here's why I think the Super Bowl is such a big deal:

a) It's a great excuse for a party. Nobody watches the Super Bowl alone. You get all your friends together. And the party is gonna include beer. Lots of beer.

b) It's an unofficial holiday. Official holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas and the fourth of July have their own traditional agenda, and people have family-type celebrations. But on the unofficial ones, like St. Patrick's Day, New Year's Eve, Halloween, and the Super Bowl, people get together with their friends, not their families. And they drink lots of beer, which you really can't do on a family holiday. Unofficial holidays are frequently more fun than official ones. (Note: There are frequently attempts to foment new unofficial holidays. The beer companies have been trying to do it with Cinco de Mayo for years.)

c) It's a unique sports event. In all the other major American sports, the champion is determined by a best-of-seven-game series, which means that to follow, say, the NBA Finals, you've got to watch several different games. Several of the games at least are on workdays, cutting down viewership. The non-fan doesn't get up for the event; he may not even know it's going on. But in the Super Bowl it's all down to one game played on a day off from work. So you can drink lots of beer. (This is even a plot twist in a Tom Clancy novel; the President gets drunk watching the Super Bowl and so he wants to nuke Iran when terrorists destroy the stadium. Jack Ryan has to stop him.)

d) It's a television event. American football is extremely television-friendly. There's a pause between each play in which the announcers can rerun the last one and explain it, so the viewer thinks he really knows what's going on. There are frequent breaks for commercials and for people to get up and pee or go to the fridge. There's usually not much going on away from the ball, so you don't miss any of the action as you do in soccer and baseball. And it's an action-packed, violent game. That sells, as you can see by looking at the success of violent action movies. Beer is also successful.

e) People are interested in TV commercials. (Note: Every English teacher has several conversational gambits ready for when he has five or then minutes to kill. The one that works best is getting students to tell you about their favorite TV ad--but in English, of course. People here in Europe like them too.) It shouldn't be surprising--commercials have terrific production values, are often clever and funny, show people products in an attractive way, and catch your attention and hold it. They're much better made than most of the crap on TV. Well, the Super Bowl has become the traditional launch date for new TV advertising campaigns, and people tune in to see them.

The Spanish equivalent is New Year's Eve, in which everyone watches TV until midnight and then goes out, gets loaded, and barfs all over the sidewalk in front of my house. Each TV channel puts on some big gala spectacular with all the network's stars. Everybody in the whole damn country is watching one of them. And the advertising companies take advantage of it.

This doesn't only happen in America. Freixenet, the cava company, puts out a Christmas ad every year. They hire some big star from America and have a huge production number with bubbling glasses and the like. They advertise for the advertisement--that is, you see full-page ads in newspapers and magazines saying "Tune in for this year's new Freixenet ad at 9 PM Saturday night on TV 1". Also, speaking of beer, Estrella has an annual campaign for which they manufacture a pop hit song every year, along with a big production number. It's shown exclusively on the soccer games, and the song always gets all over the radio for a few months after the campaign is released.

Here's Yank-hating Brit Andy Robinson in La Vanguardia today.

The Super Bowl is much, much more than an American football game in the US, it is the day on which the Americans try to celebrate what unites them although it be a Nike logo, a bag of Lay's potato chips, or a credit card sponsored by the NFL. They make heroic efforts to find signs of identity, even gastronomically, although the result of eating hot dogs slathered with chile con carne, ketchup, and mustard causes ulcers...Corporate brands like Pepsi and Anheuser Busch pay what is asked for the opportunity to hook into the sticky sentimentalism of the Super Bowl.

Note the evocation of three of the standard anti-American memes within one paragraph. The most dangerous is a) Americans are not really a people and do not have a national identity. (That's why they need the Super Bowl to unify them artificially, you see). (FOOTNOTE 1)

This meme is dangerous because it implies that there is such a thing as a people, that a people has an existence in itself which must be preserved, and certain groups qualify, like, say, the Germans, the English, or the Catalans, but that the Americans don't. "Blood and land nationalists" all share this belief about the Americans, and interestingly it's pretty much the same thing they still say about the rootless Jews who possess no authentic culture.

Then of course, there is b) America is the land of commercialism, consumption, and corporate dominance. This meme, I think, is a backlash against what people see in their own societies and they don't like. Well, says the Left, our people would all be good and solidarious with the poor and all, and uninterested in flashy and shallow popular entertainment, if it weren't for those evil capitalists, so let's blame the Americans. If you take this argument a little farther, you start demanding quotas against American popular entertainment, then you start demanding that certain content not be allowed, and then it's not far from there to censorship. And, says the Right, our people would be struggling to realize their authentic national identity and dedicating itself to such national values as hard work and sacrifice for the good of the people and the state, rather than watching TV, which is full of subversive ideas anyway. So let's blame the Americans. If you take this argument a little farther...well, you get censorship. (FOOTNOTE 2)

Then there's c), the most harmless, that Americans eat lousy food. I find it highly ironic that a Brit, of all people, is accusing Americans of eating badly. I mean, this guy Robinson comes from the land of the battered, deep-fried Mars bar, the country of bangers, chips, and mushy peas. (FOOTNOTE 3)

Seriously, my experience is this. Wherever you go, there are decent restaurants with pretty good food. Some places, like France, do it better than others, like Germany, but you can eat perfectly decently in any town in Germany. Also, wherever you go, there are many families who are good at home cooking, and that's always tasty wherever you are.

Now, wherever you go there are also lousy cooks like my grandmother and lousy cheapo food stands. The difference, though, is that in England a lousy cheapo food stand is called a "caff". In Spain it's called a "bar" or a "frankfurt". In America it's called "McDonalds". And at McDonalds they have clean bathrooms and hygienic food preparation, at least. You won't find that in English caffs or Spanish bars.

Also, a couple of points. England is the country where people put ketchup all over everything, and what they don't put ketchup on, they cover with brown sauce. In Spain it's mayonnaise. In the States, the number one condiment is Mexican salsa, and the flavor that keeps intruding where I don't want it is sour cream. Also, real Americans don't put ketchup on hot dogs. They might put chili on, and they might put mustard on, but they wouldn't combine the two. They also might put pickle relish or sauerkraut on. The gross thing they might put on is Velveeta fake cheese. That stuff really is nasty.


1. "When speaking of the German people, we are dealing with a fixed group of people who are defined by their nature and territory. There is usually a "natural" relationship between between a people and its territory, such that naming the people brings to mind a territorial area. On this particular section of the world with its climate, its beauties, and its nature the people's history took place. Here its inhabitants found the source of their strength. Here its cultural landmarks give evidence of its spirit. Here its myths and fables have their roots in the distant past.

Such a relationship between people and space does not exist in the USA. They have no myths and fables, only facts. They jumped right into the middle of history—the only instance in world history in which the development of a governmental system and a "people" could be observed by historians from the very beginning."

From Europe and America: Failures in Building an American People. Anonymous, Germany, 1942.

2. "One is never sure which of two characteristics is more prominent in the American national character and therefore of the greater significance: naivete or a superiority complex. When for example they say things about our region, our surprise at their ignorance is surpassed only by annoyance at their stupid insolence. The less they know about a matter, the more confidently they speak. They really believe that Europeans are eagerly waiting to hear from them and follow their advice. They took our strategic decision not to discuss their shallow culture before the war as a sign of admiration. Their greatest technical accomplishments are refrigerators and radios. They cannot believe that there are cultural values that are the result of centuries of historical development, which cannot simply be bought. It was no bad joke when, after the war, they bought the ruins of German castles and moved them stone by stone to the U.S.A. They really thought that they had purchased a piece of national history embodied in stone, and were naive enough to think that mocking laughter from Europe was respect for the wealth that enabled them to buy what their own tradition and culture lacked."

From God's Country by Josef Goebbels. Das Reich, August 9, 1942.

3. "American housewives can no longer survive without tin cans. They have become so lazy as a result of these tin cans that they can no longer cook like German housewives. When they came home in the evening after visiting the beauty parlor or working in an office, and before going to a cocktail party, they opened a can or two for their family's evening meal."

From America as a Perversion of European Culture. Anonymous, Germany, 1942.

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