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Bobo’s Reactionary Mind


Yesterday LGM’s palatial capital region offices received their copy of Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind.   If I understand correctly, one of the book’s main arguments is that attempts to distinguish between a good, reasonable Burkean conservatism and a nasty Randite/Calhounite/Reaganite variety don’t really fly.

I thought of this when I read this emission from moderate, reasonable, thinking man’s conservative David Brooks, which I think might actually be worse than his m,r, t-m c colleague’s embarrassing death penalty argument.   First of all, it gives me the chance to give another plug to Taylor Branch’s must-read article about the NCAA cartel, about which I’ll have more.    Brooks doesn’t dispute any of Branch’s claims, and doesn’t make anything that could properly be called an argument, but does engage in some feeble handwaving in favor of the transparently indefensible status quo:

The other is moral and cultural. A competitive society requires a set of social institutions that restrain naked self-interest and shortsighted greed. The amateur ideal, though faded and worn, still imposes some restraints. It forces athletes, seduced by Michael Jordan fantasies, to at least think of themselves partially as students. It forces coaches, an obsessively competitive group, to pay homage to academic pursuits. College basketball is more thrilling than pro basketball because the game is still animated by amateur passions, not coldly calculating professional interests.

The commercial spirit is strong these days. But people seem to do best when they have to wrestle between commercial interests and value systems that counteract them. The lingering vestiges of the amateur ideal are worth preserving.

What disappears entirely here is that Brooks is defending a system of rank exploitation and illegitimate privilege. Leaving aside the fact that Brook’s judgements about the superiority of college sports as spectator sports are highly contestable, the idea that athletes largely from poor backgrounds shouldn’t be compensated to enhance a very wealthy white guy’s trivial aesthetic pleasures is appalling. And let’s leave aside the question of salaries and the potential practical problems. What we should focus on initially is that college athletes are subject to uniquely harsh and restrictive burdens that prevents them from sharing in the great wealth they create. I have yet to hear a remotely decent defense for the proposition that athletes shouldn’t be allowed to profit from, say, apparel companies that sell jerseys with their numbers. We don’t stop music students from taking paid gigs or journalism students from selling articles. At any rate, big time college sports are already saturated by “self-interest and shortsighted greed”; the only question is who benefits. There’s just no rational defense for a system in which coaches of no particular distinction are grossly overpaid in an uncompetitive market, while players are denied even ancillary benefits from the money they generate.

And what’s particularly striking about this argument is that while reactionaries typically defend illegitimate privilege by invoking “virtue” or  something else that sounds kind of worth preserving, it’s not even clear what inherent value “amateurism” is supposed to have. God knows Brooks doesn’t write or speak for free, so I have no idea what it means to associate amateurism with “morality.”  “Amateurism” is virtually nothing but a flimsy cover for hypocrisy and corruption. When I think amateurism, I don’t of anything noble. I think of, say, “amateur” Olympic hockey tournaments featuring players from the Soviet bloc who were paid full-time to play hockey.  And to the extent that there are things of actual value at stake here, “amateurism” is beside the point. Nobody’s saying that you can’t require NCAA players to meet admissions standards or maintain academic standing; preventing them from hiring agents or getting properly paid for goods sold with their images has nothing to do with this whatsoever. (If the idea is that if players get any kind of compensation the rules will be unenforceable, as Branch’s article makes clear that ship sailed a long time ago.) Invoking “amateurism” is just avoiding an argument, defending a system of rank systematic exploitation that has no rational defense. And, most importantly, invoking this non-principle has no chance of harming the interests of David Brooks, just people of far less wealth and privilege.  What’s not to like?   That’s the reactionary mind in a nutshell: moral restraints are for other people, and they’ll take the naked self-interest and shortsighted greed, thank you very much.

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