Saturday, September 28, 2019

All Sorcery

Northwestern managed to do something it hasn't done since 2017 and win a home game against a theoretically overmatched non-conference opponent. And then they went out the next week and got grimly buried by Michigan State.  Northwestern's offense has seemed to stagnate; this is not a new issue for the Wildcats, but generally the plan allows the offense to sort of keep busy for a little bit while the defense goes in stagnates the other offense in a mutual Big Ten stagnation and both teams sort of push each other back and forth around the gridiron like an impossibly slow motion sumo wrestling match until somehow Northwestern wins.

That was not the case last Saturday from what I understand (I have not watched this game for the same reason that the Wolf Man does not want to go and watch All-22 footage of his rampages across the Welsh countryside even if he keeps a blog about it)
Look at the head up and knees bent, that's a perfect lurking position in that 
fog there. This guy right here, I call him the Wolf Man because he is afflicted with lycanthropy

One of the central contradictions about Northwestern football is that to follow this team in the Pat Fitzgerald era is to let go of certain assumptions-- that any sort of trend matters, that several games worth of ineptitude has any bearing on any other given game, and just book them to inexplicably appear in a low-rent bowl game in early December under the same logic that sends Ernest to jail or Jason to hell.  Part of this comes from the nature of college football that sees teams careen from world-beating heroism to the depths of nincompoopery repeatedly during the same season, but a lot of it is a phenomenon localized to Ryan Field.

There exists no epistemological case to think Northwestern will suddenly reverse course and start to win Big Ten games other than the fact that we have seen them do it repeatedly and under even more ludicrous circumstances over and over again season after season with no reason for them to do it other than somehow harnessing the forces of chaos.  I have given up on seeing Northwestern as a football team and have instead chosen to see them as a swirling vortex devoid of meaning or consequence that swallows up everything in its path whether it involves losing to a team that appears to be learning about the rules of football as the game goes on or by somehow squatting on a conference opponent.  Northwestern's Big Ten wins tend to be close and absolutely maddening as evidenced by the number of times the Wildcats have left a road stadium under a hail of snowballs or garbage.

The Wildcats travel to Wisconsin as almost 25-point underdogs to a vicious Badger team that should probably win the West.  This is what gamblers and analysts have determined after watching Wisconsin bludgeon and maul opponents included a vaunted Michigan team and Northwestern largely sleepwalk to a 1-2 record.  These analysts and gamblers are approaching the Wildcats as if they are a normal team and not an unwieldy purple tornado.  The early results of the season would lead a reasonable person to expect to see Wisconsin rampage upon them early and often, and that very well may take place.  But anyone who wagers on Northwestern in Big Ten play has ascended to a dangerous level of degeneracy that may very well end with them tearing up their gambling slips as Wisconsin fans prepare a to unload a trebuchet of cheese curds on the officials after they have repeatedly taken away Wisconsin touchdowns.


Northwestern fans irritated by the Michigan State loss can at least take solace that Pat Fitzgerald is in the news again.  Fitzgerald upbraided a reporter who asked him about his gameplan to mention that there are 40,000 fans on twitter calling plays and they should e-mail him at "hashtag i don't care."  This is part of a bit Fitz has been expanding on over the past few years, a sort of sequel to his anti-phone rant from Big Ten Media days where he gets to standoffishly attack hypothetical critics and luxuriate in some Performative Oafishness.  Pat Fitzgerald, who is 44 years old and has likely had an e-mail address for his entire adult life, obviously knows that "hashtag i don't care" is not an actual e-mail address, but it is a delightful callback to the type of circa-2002 joke where Tim Allen would tell his tv wife to go to "meatloaf dot com" and that would be the whole joke, the existence of a dot com whatever that was to an audience of hooting grandparents.  It is the same joke as someone putting the phrase "hashtag get off my case" under a picture of a glowering looney tune on a t-shirt.
The Glowering Looney Tune is an integral part of the early 1990s 
"attitude" t-shirt industry that included ribald double entendre brands 
and for some reason a large number of crudely-rendered Barts Simpson 

But the central question that gets raised by this kind of thing is who is it for? A college football coach is, at root, a salesman.  In this case, the job requires a particularly deranged salesman whose job also involves screaming at teenagers, spending a dozen Saturdays turning 35 percent of the way into the Incredible Hulk on regional television, and appearing in car commercials.  College football coaches spend half their lives on camera, and everything they do-- from jubilantly fistpumping a replay review to going on bizarre soliloquys in the weird and ludicrous press conference rituals that someone at some point thought was necessary so they can talk about fumbles or cell phones or extremely apocryphal historical anecdotes that have been telephoned onto inspirational coaching anecdote websites -- all of this is part of a coach building his brand to ultimately attract recruits or facilities called the R Meister "Grubb" Rowsdower Center for Fooball-Related Grunting.

Is Fitzgerald aiming to dazzle teenagers by sneering at the devices to which they are umbilically connected? Is he attempting to assure their parents that Northwestern is a wholesome place where the coach doesn't know what e-mail is and gets his hair cut with a protractor?  Is he trying to gladhand a few more billionaires into deciding that their fortunes can best be spent making it possible for quartebacks to learn how to elude pass rushers in a fully virtual environment and also if you push this button here I can make the linebacker look like a screeching, beak-foaming pterodactyl?

I genuinely don't know.  Maybe Pat Fitzgerald just thinks he's imparting a helpful message.  Maybe it's working, as the Wildcats have been, for a program with a reputation and history that borders on farce, almost impossibly successful under him.  But there is one thing that we can all agree on, and it is that when Fitz decides it's time to go off on a rant on cell phones or social media or impossibly anachronistic terms for e-mail, or even the concept of communism it is extremely funny and more fun to write about than a boring loss to Michigan State.

Anyway here is a profoundly stupid video that this whole thing inspired:


An earlier blog entry this summer looked at Ricahrd Nixon through Richard Perlstein's Nixonland and Nixon's own bizarre Six Crises.  One of the things that stood out in Nixonland was Nixon's own obsession with Theodore H. White's The Making of the President, a book that pointed out flaws in the Nixon's 1960 campaign and that shaped his controlled and media-focused campaign in 1968.  Nixon, in Perlstein's account, was so alarmed by how he had come off in White's book that he was determined to master the medium that had tripped him up in 1960, television.  He became consumed with his own image.  White was not the only postmortem, but it had been widely read.

Reading early chapters, it was unclear what Nixon could have possibly been worried about.  White, a political reporter who had followed both campaigns, seemed to have been enraptured by Kennedy's campaign, but his reporting on Nixon appeared fairly benign.  But then you get to the chapter on the television debates, and Nixon's reason for enmity becomes clear.  The notion that a telegenic Kennedy defeated a damp, grimacing Nixon through sheer image is a narrative that almost every American is familiar with from high school history class and the osmosis of pop culture.  It provides a literal textbook example of the power of the new medium of television.  And yet I am not so sure that the contrast was as obvious at the time as it has become in retrospect, and I suspect the cementing of the handsome Kennedy/rodent Nixon narrative that endured gained significant support from White's book.  This is because White's depiction of Nixon is so evocative, grotesque, and hilarious that it is almost impossible to think of anything else.  Here is how White describes Nixon at the debate:
The Vice-President, by contrast, was tense, almost frightened, at turns glowering, and, occasionally, haggard-looking to the point of sickness.  Probably no picture in American politics tells a better story of crisis and episode than that famous shot of the camera on the Vice-President as he half slouched, his "Lazy Shave" powder faintly streaked with sweat, his eyes exaggerated hollows of blackness, his jaw, jowls, and face drooping with strain.
In another passage, White makes Nixon out to be a creature from the Universal backlot:
The Vice-President, to begin with, suffers from a handicap that is serious only on television-- his is a light, naturally transparent skin...On television, the camera on Nixon is usually held away from him, for in close-up his transparent skin shows the tiniest hair growing in the skin follicles beneath the surface, even after he has just shaved...(in the later debates, Nixon was persuaded to wear theatrical make-up to repair the ravage TV's electronic tube makes of his countenance)
Nixon had suffered a serious infection from a knee injury he suffered banging his leg into a car door that had kept him bedridden for weeks.  This illness only exacerbated the innate ghoulishness that White described as revealed under the television lights.
White describes the debates as a turning point and spends the next chapter excoriating Nixon's campaign strategy.  He describes how Nixon ignored his brilliant and qualified support staff in order to pursue his own quirky, lonely, campaign style in a way that makes it obvious that this information came from the same support staff who were trying to distance themselves from a losing candidate.  But White goes further to explain Nixon's own speeches as self-pitying, filled with anecdotes of failure and unfulfilled pony dreams and describing his effect on a crowd as a desire to "comfort or help this man who, like so many of his listeners, was one of life's losers."  He mentions that unlike Kennedy, Nixon snapped at hecklers ("Don't try anything on me or we'll take care of you," he said).  In a single day in Michigan he "had been the target for five eggs and three tomatoes thrown at him."  White goes out of his way to mention in a footnote that "Nixon liked Kennedy, which was not reciprocally true.")    

White describes Nixon as almost pathetic and running out of steam.  But perhaps he failed to identify that quality as a strategy.  Perlstein argues that Nixon's own sense of hard luck and scrabbling in the face of people, like the Kennedys, born into wealth and ease formed the basis of his appeal to the large number of Americans who also felt this way.  And, as White scrambled to understand, Nixon survived his vampiric television appearances and simpering campaign speeches to surge into a near lead.  Nixon very nearly won.

There is a final note on the debates that is fascinating beyond the issue of whether or not Richard Nixon appeared to have been roused from a casket.  We accept televised debate and all of its bizarre variations as a central part of presidential elections, but in 1960 the format and rules were less clear.  One of the important questions was how to deal with the so-called "equal time" rule that said that every radio and TV station had to offer the same amount of time to all parties.  This question got raised in 1959 when a weirdo fringe character named "Lar Daly" challenged the doctrine in court to secure equal time not only for the two major parties but for all of the bizarre, hopeless parties gathering on the margins, and was angling to also get on the debate stage.  Here, in my favorite footnote, is a list of candidates running in 1960:

Nixon would learn from White to obsess over his image, especially on television.  As Perlstein notes, that campaign launched the careers of young people such as Roger Ailes, who eventually went on to found Fox News.  Theodore White would lament the nickname "Tricky Dick," seeing Nixon as fundamentally honest but just personally very weird, but by 1968 and 1972 Nixon would learn to wield the mass media like a weapon to smear, lie about, and ineptly burglarize his opponents from his increasingly haunted White House.

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