OF AMERICA IN ’90s
The writer is a US-based author of Alive and Well in Pakistan and Home Free: An American Road Trip, among other books.
When I first left America to live and work in Asia, as a young man ambitious for experience and adventure, my corresponding negative motivation was to escape what I felt as the suffocating membrane of a bland and smug American middle-class consensus. America in the 1990s was very pleased with itself. We had “won the Cold War” (as many Americans saw it), the economy was great, we were poised to export what we called liberal democracy to all the less fortunate countries worldwide. The long-term damage wrought on Afghanistan and Pakistan by the Afghan war against the Soviet Union was yet to be acknowledged. When I wrote a whole book manuscript about the severe political and humanitarian crisis in Haiti, a literary agent in New York sent me a rejection letter asserting (correctly but tellingly) that “people’s interest in Haiti has peaked.” How long ago that now was, yet how familiar. My choice of historical moment to live overseas was ironic and, for me in some ways, counterproductive. For it was just then that America chose to inflict its obsession with itself on the rest of the world in the form of the O.J. Simpson murder trial. 1994 was the year of the U.S. invasion of Haiti and the Rwandan genocide, but in the USA all anyone wanted to hear about was whether the famous retired football player had murdered his ex-wife. That obsession was abetted by the fact that Simpson was black and his ex-wife was white, and amplified by the then-recent advent of 24-hour cable television news in the form of CNN. As never before, electronic media had essentially unlimited air time to fill, a 24/7 audience to feed, so the American public was treated to a never-ending parade of “experts” endlessly debating every last minor detail of the Simpson affair.
I was spared the main brunt of that because I was in Asia, far from the madding American crowd. Yet I still vividly remember the morning I stumbled out to the street in the tropical sunshine to buy that day’s Bangkok Post and was stunned to learn that the jury had found O.J. Simpson not guilty. It was a sobering lesson in just how far America’s obsession with itself – and with its own obsessions – can reach, as well as in how the price of paying ground-level attention to the world internationally included disconnection from one’s own hyper-media-driven society.
The O.J. Simpson episode proved to be prototypical of how media in 21st-century America, now of course including (and even driven by) social media, magnifies, accelerates and weirdly refracts all of the unhealthiest and most destructive American proclivities. Fast-forward nearly a quarter-century, and we confront the recent tempest over the behavior of the tennis star Serena Williams during her championship match at this year’s U.S. Open. The racial aspect was present again, of course. And a friend recently made to me the interesting point that today’s pop culture mavens treat celebrities the way sports fans tend to treat their teams: with quasi-tribal loyalty that includes a knee-jerk tendency to rise to their defense, regardless of the merits of the case.
For my part, I’ve been a fan of Serena Williams ever since she and her sister Venus burst on the tennis scene two decades ago. The Williams sisters were role models for my racially mixed British stepson, as I used tennis to help instill in him discipline, integrity, dignity, a work ethic and other virtues that I knew he would need in adult life. He’s now an adult, and I’m happy to report that he turned out well. For their part Venus and Serena went on to win 30 Grand Slam women’s singles titles between them, of which Serena has won 23. This year’s U.S. Open might well have been her 24th, had she not spectacularly melted down emotionally on court, at a point when she was actually winning the second set of the championship match.
So, yes, I’m actually a big and longtime Serena Williams fan. And, as the controversy over her meltdown unspooled on Twitter and elsewhere online over the days following the match, I took to heart the points made by the great Billie Jean King about how women are penalized more than men are for anger in the workplace, and by the excellent Guardian journalist Gary Younge’s condemnation of the “glaring bigotry” of a controversial cartoon about the incident by Australian political cartoonist Mark Knight. I’m also all too well aware that I’m a white man, so therefore anything I say about a debate concerning a black woman is, well, only the view of one white man.
Still, I do have something to say, and that is that Serena would have served herself better, as well as her fans and professional tennis, not to mention her young opponent, by meeting what she perhaps rightly saw as the umpire’s poor and provocative officiating with dignity and restraint. But she is also a highly successful and wealthy athlete and, at age 37, an extremely accomplished one who is a role model for young people ranging from my stepson to 20-year-old Naomi Osaka, whose first Grand Slam championship will now be remembered for the wrong reasons.
As impressive as the Williams sisters’ well-known rags-to-riches story is, it’s worth remembering that, while it began with them picking up used needles from public tennis courts in one of the worst neighborhoods of Los Angeles, it has had a very happy ending. Serena has more money and fame than most of us can ever dream of. So it behooves her to comport herself with dignity, even – or especially – when she feels she has been wronged. And being black and female doesn’t entitle her to whip out the victim card whenever an umpire’s call goes against her in an important match. And, as much as I love tennis, what’s so important about a tennis match – even a championship – anyway?