TCS Daily


The Sports Fan's Guide to Foreign Policy

By Douglas Kern - October 21, 2005 12:00 AM

I'm a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers -- and, like most fans, I have no good reason for my allegiance whatsoever.

Oh, the actual reason for my Steeler support is pretty easy: I was living near Pittsburgh when I first became interested in professional football. But that explanation doesn't justify my current pro-Steeler inclinations.

Consider:

        -     I don't know any Steelers personally.

        -     I've never worked for the Steelers, or been the recipient of any 
              Steeler largesse.

        -     I was never an athlete, and never aspired to play for the Steelers.

        -     I only lived near Pittsburgh for a short time.

        -     The Steelers do not embody any particular moral, philosophical, 
              or religious tenets that I hold dear.

        -     They do not reflect any uniquely admirable qualities (courage, 
               tenacity, cleverness, etc.) more than any other pro football team.

        -     Many Steelers don't maintain a permanent residence in Pittsburgh.

        -     Very few Steelers are from Western Pennsylvania.

        -     All of the Steelers would play for other teams if offered better 
              money or perks in order to do so.

        -     Many of the Steelers have played for other teams in their careers, 
              and many more will play for other teams in the years to come.

        -     The team itself would probably move to a different place if offered 
              sufficient financial incentive to do so.

I have no significant connection to the Pittsburgh Steelers whatsoever. Even the Pittsburgh Steelers have no significant connection to the Pittsburgh Steelers. So why am I dancing around the room like an idiot when they win, and punching pillows when they lose? Why do Steelers games involve me so emotionally that sometimes I find it less draining to simply avoid watching them altogether?

I'm not the only sports fan to make this kind of bogus emotional investment in a team. You can go to any city in America and find sports fans who adore teams from cities not their own. Sometimes, these allegiances are inherited from parents; sometimes, these allegiances spring from fond childhood memories; sometimes, these allegiances spring from how cute the starting quarterback from five years ago was. (A female acquaintance of mine roots for the Dallas Cowboys just for this reason.) We attach ourselves to these teams for trivial reasons, and allow their successes and failures to affect our moods more than most major news stories ever will. Why?

Some aspect of the human heart wants to love loyally and blindly. We don't embrace these loves despite their irrationality, but because of their irrationality. This is the essence of loyalty: to pledge your love and allegiance even when the recipient of that loyalty may not be entirely deserving of it. To be sure, loyalty ceases to be a virtue when it leads us to evil, or to self-abasement: I would not act justly in pummeling Raiders fans, nor would I act wisely in cheering for the Steelers if they ransacked my home and mocked me on the Jumbo-Tron. But neither is loyalty a virtue when it is calculated and self-serving. If I supported the Steelers simply because they tend to be a winning team, my loyalty would be contemptible. A true fan supports his team in good years and bad, not because a true fan finds the bad years particularly lovable, but because love means never having to say you're sorry about not making the playoffs.

The value of loyalty informs the debates between neo-conservatives and paleo-conservatives, particularly as those debates touch upon the war in Iraq. Paleos accuse neos of weighing loyalty too heavily in favor of calculated, rational self-interest. America is more than just a clever plan for public policy, the paleos remind us; it is a particular nation composed of certain people with a specific history. Loyalty to America means loyalty to the American people first and foremost. And as a free people precede a free society, it is madness to "build a nation," expecting that freedom will produce free citizens.

In response, the neos contend that if America is nothing more than one tribe among many in the world, no thinking person owes it any special allegiance or adoration. Furthermore, they argue, America was built upon certain universal principles that assume (or impute) a profound dignity to all men. Loyalty to America means loyalty to America's dreams and aspirations, as well as to those institutions and habits which nurture those lofty goals. And as America is a nation consecrated to the belief that freedom transcends race and creed, we should extend the blessings of the freedom to foreign people when it is just and prudent to do so.

To draw a caricature: paleos want us to cheer for the home team because it's the home team, whereas neos want us to cheer for the home team because it wins lots of games. Which kind of loyalty is better?

I believe that the paleos are right to assign loyalty to people and places -- to real tangible things, rather than airy abstractions. And I agree that America's freedom rests primarily in her people. If America were to switch laws and economies with any dictatorship you care to name, I believe that the dictatorship would run itself into the ground within a year, whereas Americans would rise up against the tyranny and recreate freedom. Laws alone cannot make or unmake a virtuous people.

But I also believe that Americans understand themselves to be a people devoted to universal propositions about freedom and human nature. You cannot genuinely love the American people without accepting that Americans revere the origins of their liberty in law. From the Civil War to the World Wars to our current conflict, Americans have consistently fought and died in support of "airy abstractions" -- even when it would have been cheaper and safer to stay at home. Since John Winthrop told the Puritans to be a city upon a hill, Americans have felt compelled to hold out their success as a model for the world to follow. The distinctive quality of Americans is our refusal to believe that our qualities are distinctive. We really do hold these truths to be self-evident. We believe that truth and justice are synonymous with the American way. We believe that our institutions and economic policies make us free -- not our membership in the American people. And we conduct our foreign policy -- and our wars -- accordingly. To love Americans without loving their evangelizing impulse, as some paleos do, is to love an idea of Americans, not the real thing. How very...neoconservative of them.

Preaching the gospel of freedom to other countries is what we do, as Americans. It's in our national DNA. But can we build virtue in Iraq adequate to meet the demands of the laws and economic structures we have given them? That choice may rest with the Iraqis, not with us. But it will not be the neoconservative plans that make Iraqis' free. It will be the Iraqi people who accept or reject virtue. We will succeed in Iraq only if the neos and paleos are both right.

The Steelers play this weekend. I'll be cheering for them, not because they're the best team (although they will be once Roethlisberger and Ward get healthy), but because they're mine. And, this weekend, Americans in and out of uniform will fight to promote American values of freedom, democracy, and prosperity among a foreign people ill-accustomed to such virtues. I'll be cheering for those Americans and for those virtues, because they're mine, too. We love the things we are ordained to love, not through reason but not in spite of reason. I love America and the Steelers. Further affiant sayeth naught.

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