The tenor of the times resonates across many cultural sounding boards, and this week we learned that Floyd Mayweather will fight Conor McGregor in a sort-of boxing match in late August. This is noteworthy mainly because Mayweather is an actual boxer, and McGregor is a fighter of another ilk, called “mixed martial arts,” one invented in the recent past, like “American Ninja Warriors” or “Survivor,” out of whole cloth to make quick TV money, rather than having any connection to history or traditional formalities of sport. I was reminded of a similarly degraded and degrading sports spectacle of the 1970’s, the famous Bobby Riggs/Billie Jean King “Battle of the Sexes,” but at least they were both professional tennis players.
Millions will pay big bucks to watch this latest farce, because it’s the kind of manufactured spectacle that we seem unable to ignore in these ignoble times. And in this regard it is a mechanical, reflexive extension into sports of the disregard for standards on which Trump’s electoral victory was hinged, and on which he depends for his continued purchase on the office of the presidency. So in this sense it is a perfect mirror of civic life in general.
We manifestly have ceased to respect the simple concept of formality, the idea that there are styles and rituals, distilled over generations, that give dignity to our endeavors and our quotidian daily lives. These could be simple conventions of civility, like opening a door for another person, or shaking hands when you meet someone, or removing your hat when you enter someone else’s home. Airy, insubstantial standards of interpersonal behavior, that stand or fall on a facial expression, a gesture, a tone of voice. They’re easily forgotten.
Or they could be grander, more lasting gestures of respect and seriousness, like hockey teams lining up to acknowledge one another after spending an entire game in bitter, sometimes violent competition, or raising your hand to swear fealty to an idea when you join the legal bar or enter public office, or crossing a stage in an ancient costume to receive a certificate of academic accomplishment.
These formalities are more than merely gestural, however, since they are the product of years of training, either at the hands of parents who simply wished to pass on to their children the standards that eased their way through life, or in the crucibles of academic and professional apprenticeship that enable and justify certain kinds of personal distinction. These formalities are in an important sense exclusionary; you don’t get to participate unless you’ve internalized certain rules. Time is the fundamental currency of life, and those who have spent years mastering a craft or a set of professional standards have literally paid with their lives for their expertise.
We don’t care about standards anymore, either because mothers and fathers don’t teach them to their children, or because we have literally forgotten what they once meant, literally forgotten, at a basic cultural level, why expertise is valuable, why one behavior is more honorable, more desirable, more admirably human, than another. It took centuries to refine and elevate and emulate these standards of behavior. And now we’ve forgotten what they mean.
Boxers don’t fight street fighters, because boxers spend years of their lives learning to fight in a different way, one restrained and shaped by rules and standards. You don’t get to grab and kick, you have to stand and move and jab and parry, and the man who does this better than the other man will be deemed to have won. The strictures of the rules that both men have to follow are what make the victory meaningful. If it were a free-for-all, anyone could do it.
Anyone can do it now, or so we seem to believe. We’ve forgotten why a TV personality shouldn’t be president. We don’t care whether the man in the ring is a boxer or a brawler — we just want to watch a fight.
And so we get the entertainment — and the government — we deserve.