Monday, August 18, 2014

Colman, Chomsky, and Irrational Attitudes of Submission to Authority

Listened over the weekend to the newest episode of Todd Witteles’s PokerFraudAlert podcast, the first in a few weeks. Always enjoy listening to Witteles discussing various news items and offering his views.

In this week’s show Witteles offered more worthwhile response to the ill-conceived and spottily researched Newsweek anti-online poker screed that appeared late last week (and about which I wrote here and here). He pointed out a few of the article’s inaccuracies while also doing well to explain how damaging such articles can be because of the way others will absorb the agenda-driven message uncritically, simply accepting the opinions (all collected from one side of the issue) as truths and not being able to spot the factual mistakes and misleading juxtapositions.

Among the other items Witteles tackled was the reprise of the topic of “Big One for One Drop” winner Daniel Colman’s similarly negative statements about poker. That topic returned last week following the airing of the “One Drop” final table (a show I was pleasantly surprised to have enjoyed watching). Even Perez Hilton got some mileage out of it, with the blogger of celebrity gossip posting last week about the “super weird reaction” of Colman after winning the event.

During the final table coverage, comments were made about Colman’s unfavorable stance toward poker suggesting both that (1) his views weren’t shared by most, and (2) they may be the result of the 24-year-old’s relative lack of worldly experience. Afterwards and over the course of a half-dozen tweets, Colman disagreed with the assessments of co-host Lon McEachern and Colman’s heads-up opponent Daniel Negreanu that he “doesn’t know who he is yet,” maintaining “I am actually 100% certain in [sic] who I am.” From there Colman went on to provide a few more reasons why he isn’t in favor of poker as an activity worth pursuing and/or glamorizing and using as a means for creating celebrities.

“I find it to be a much greater accomplishment (and necessary) if thru solidarity, we can get everyone at the bottom to all move up,” wrote Colman, adding that “This can be done once we stop idolizing those who were able to make it to the top.”

He then pulled back somewhat from his earlier characterization of poker as a “dark game” that harms many more than it helps, shifting his position from censure to a kind of ambivalence. “I misrepresented myself before when I said I didn’t want to speak to media because of poker being a harmful game,” Colman says. “I do not care about poker... I just see it as a distraction to people, just like any sport/tv show/movie. Taking away the focus from things that matter to people[’]s lives.”

As others have done, Witteles pointed out the obviously self-contradictory position of someone earning a handsome living from poker speaking so critically of it. He also didn’t care much for Colman’s inclusion of poker in a catalogue of other “distractions” he thinks significantly lessen the quality of life for those who indulge in them.

Witteles then pursued an interesting thesis regarding the “guilty winner” as a way of explaining Colman’s views. He defended watching and enjoying sports and being able to balance such recreation with “things that matter.” Finally he noted how Colman’s statements reminded him “of kids in college who like to spout off about how they think they understand how the world works... when in reality they are just clueless kids who mean well, but who don’t understand that they’re being very naive.”

That latter point was one that reminded me of how I’d ended my post on Friday, essentially characterizing Leah McGrath Goodman in a somewhat similar fashion and also likening her to a well-meaning student having gotten in over her head a bit with regard to the subject she had chosen to pursue. I remember being guilty of the same mistaken belief in my own understanding of various subjects, especially when young and in school, but also later as an adult. I’d imagine most of us can recall a time when we thought we knew much more about something than we did (for example, about poker?), then later realized we’d missed an important piece of the overall picture that would’ve caused us to think very differently.

I found myself thinking back to graduate school, a time when those self-realizations seemed to come over and over again as the extent of what I didn’t know was made clearer and clearer to me. Colman’s words and Witteles’s discussion of them also reminded me in particular of how it was during that period -- I’m talking about my early 20s when I was just about Colman’s age -- that I first thought consciously about the relative frivolity of the kinds of “distractions” to which Colman refers.

The idea that watching sports or television or playing poker could be a distraction from “things that matter” I associate with a few different writers to whom I was first introduced then. One was the French philosopher Louis Althusser, a Marxist who wrote a lot about politics, epistemology, and ideology. I won’t pretend to have a great acquaintance with his writings or positions, but I remember being assigned a famous essay by Althusser called “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Toward an Investigation” which opened my eyes to the ways certain cultural “ISAs” like professional sports, entertainment culture, religion, and so forth helped keep the masses in line -- that is to say, distracted them from questioning the conditions of production and helped keep those who controlled them from being challenged.

I knew even then it was a sketchy take-away from a much more complicated argument, but it was nonetheless kind of revelatory. I could see how, say, games distracted us, and in fact those would be the only years of my life during which I turned the television off entirely so I could spend my time more fruitfully (I imagined). Other theorists I was assigned to read further broadened the point Althusser made, helping me to question all sorts of ideas about society and culture I’d previously not even realized were able to be questioned.

Right around then I also began to read some of Noam Chomsky’s writings, another writer who spoke of ideology and the many indirect means by which those in power are able to keep those without power in line. The excellent documentary Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media came out right about that time, too, and as I think about this point I instinctively go back to a sequence from the film in which Chomsky speaks of sports in particular as a way to keep most people -- the percentage he usually cites is 80% -- from thinking about anything that might lead to a questioning or perhaps threatening of established power structures.

The sequence comes about an hour into the film, and the filmmakers cheekily show Chomsky making the point in a speech that they have being projected from a Jumbotron at an empty football stadium -- a funny, incongruous method of delivering the idea. Anyone who has seen the movie remembers it, presented as “Sports Rap with Noam Chomsky” and beginning with the linguist and activist characterizing sports as “indoctrination system... offering something for people to pay attention to that is of no importance.”

“It keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea about doing something about,” says Chomsky. “In fact it’s striking to see the intelligence that’s used by ordinary people in sports. I mean, listen to radio stations where people call in -- they have the most exotic information and understanding about all kinds of arcane issues.”

He recalls being in high school and suddenly wondering to himself why, in fact, he cared if his school’s team won a football game. He had no personal investment in the team’s success; therefore, it didn’t make any sense that he should care one way or the other if they won.

“But it does make sense,” Chomsky concludes. “It’s a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority. And, you know, group cohesion behind the leadership elements. In fact, it’s training in irrational jingoism.... That’s why energy is devoted to supporting them and creating a basis for them and advertisers are willing to pay for them and so on.”

Like I say, I’ve long remembered that idea even if it never did dissuade me from watching NFL football. Even during the preseason.

Now Colman is just firing off tweets and it’s hard to know what exactly he’s getting at grouping poker with other activities like watching football or consuming entertainment media or the like. But I’m guessing the point he’s trying to make isn’t unrelated to the one Chomsky advances, namely, that we’re wasting our lives with these games and thus risking all sorts of detrimental effects. For Chomsky, those effects crucially involve being unable to free ourselves to think about and attempt to correct unjust systems of government; for Colman, they seem more to do with personal relationships and psychological health, but perhaps have to do with broader areas of society, too.

I’ll note one other connection here as I pursue what must seem a pretty idiosyncratic line of thought. Part of what makes the Jumbotron sequence all the more humorous is the fact that Chomsky specifically dislikes the idea of making individuals into larger-than-life figures with undue influence, with the fashioning of celebrity culture (such as Hilton fosters) often serving as yet another way to divert our attention from things that are important. The whole movie, in fact, was made with Chomsky’s (non-manufactured) consent but without his input, and he’d be critical of certain aspects of it once it appeared.

Early in the film an older clip of Chomsky is shown in which he is addressing his disinclination to share information about his family and personal life. “I’m rather against the whole notion of developing public personalities,” he says, “who are treated as stars of one kind or another where aspects of their personal life are supposed to have some kind of significance and so on.” Colman’s shunning of the spotlight as well as that expressed desire to “stop idolizing those who [are] able to make it to the top” again provides a kind of uncanny echo of a position taken by Chomsky.

I don’t know if Colman has had a chance to read Chomsky or any of the other theorists I was first introduced to when I was his age, but I imagine like most of us he has arrived at a point in his life where he’s recently been exposed to a lot of ideas that have led him to question things he hadn’t thought to question before. Some of us never leave that phase of questioning the world around us. Meanwhile some of us never really get there, or at least that’s what Chomsky maintains when referring to “Joe Six-Pack” being too consumed by next weekend’s games to wonder about such stuff.

All of which is to say, I have to admit I’m a little intrigued -- perhaps in a nostalgic kind of way -- by some of the points Colman is making, even if the awkward way those points have been delivered has lessened their effectiveness considerably. His interest in authority and in not adopting an irrational attitude of submission to it is certainly more interesting than what we typically hear from poker players, especially the big winners. That said, I tend to agree with Witteles that Colman’s current position atop the poker food chain lends further awkwardness to his rhetorical position, making it that much harder for him to be convincing with his criticism about poker.

But I do think poker players as a group are actually quite aware and constructively critical of what’s going on around them. That is to say, even if the game can be wholly absorbing and encourage a kind of self-centeredness that makes some shut out the “non-poker world,” I think most who participate in the game do so while understanding it as existing within a larger context that includes family, society, culture, government, and so on.

And when they turn their critical thinking away from the table and onto that context, they often see much more than most about how it is put together and what improvements might need to be made upon it (even if they aren’t always encouraged to act upon such insights). In fact, a lot of the response from the poker world to the Newsweek article seems indicative of such.

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Blogger Aztec said...

Interesting stuff. Personally I don't have a problem with Colman criticizing poker while continuing to play. Seems fair enough to me to take the position that what suits his particular circumstances isn't necessarily good for society as a whole.
As for the Chomsky ideas, it sounds like classic conspiracy theory. My test would be: if there weren't any mysterious forces controlling us, how would things look different? I imagine we would be just as interested in sports & celebrities as we are now. Just because it might suit some people to have things the way they are doesn't mean that they are actually pulling the strings.

8/28/2014 2:40 PM  

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