The Identity of Upset

The other day, a friend stopped by my office with some surprising news. She had been a staunch New England Patriots fan for as long as I could remember. In fact, we usually talked football regardless of the initial context of our conversations. She always spoke admiringly of Tom Brady. Now, standing at the door of my office, the first thing she told me was that she had decided to root instead for the Green Bay Packers and Aaron Rodgers. She was no longer a Patriots fan.

I let this percolate in my mind for a while, and then I texted her this message: “Did you forsake the Patriots because Brady, Kraft, and Belichick are friends with Trump?”

She replied, “Yeah . . . that had a lot to do with it.”

I have to admit I’m a little disappointed in knowing that our future football conversations might never be the same. She had always seemed like a real Patriots fan–knowledgeable, devoted, perceptive–and I respected that. I suppose the Packers are as good a replacement team as any when politics get in the way, but I’ve always thought of sports as something to spirit us away from the grim realities of life, a shared place for fans to harbor a form of pure innocence they should never lose. Were I to abnegate every sports team I’ve ever rooted for due to ideological differences or dislike for certain players’ behaviors, I think all I would have left is Little League baseball, and the last time I paid any attention to a Little League baseball game was when I played in one. 

I understand how these things can happen. Some people are firmly rooted in identity politics that bleed into all aspects of their lives, and narrowly selected social and cultural concerns can go well beyond what Americans just saw in this last presidential election. I remember sharing a conversation about musical composers with a colleague in the lunch room years ago. Everything was going along just fine. Then, when I mentioned Wagner and the love death in Tristan und Isolde, she shot me a tense, angry look, cut me off in mid-sentence, and snapped, “I hate Wagner. I don’t listen to him. He was an antisemite. My family went through hell in Germany in World War II. I have no respect for him or his music.” Then she got up and stormed off.

The thing is, she was always angry about something. She was never pleased with her workplace superiors. Her colleagues frustrated her. She stewed over her ex-husband’s behavior. Her son was a disappointment. And she was very politically active, constantly lamenting that City Council was ruining the community. Her Facebook wall was a stream of accusatory propaganda. I found her hatred toward her political opponents disturbing, especially given that I didn’t share many of her ideological views.

Being consumed by bitterness is a terrible waste of focus and energy. Life is too short for that. Why engraft political disappointment onto other people and things based on idiosyncratic notions of guilt by association? Many who use identity politics to vent their indignation are really just letting heretofore hidden anxieties and miseries surface in public behaviors that they somehow find redeeming. Some of the grotesque displays of aberrant behavior we see at mass protests should make us search more carefully for the reasons behind why anyone would adopt a mob mentality. The right to public protest is essential to protecting our democracy, one of our First Amendment tenets. Still, a protester can reveal motives that don’t always relate to the object of derision. Sometimes, condemning others is an act of self-identification, a reaction to the adversary within.

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