From the Archives: Noam Chomsky on Fandom

Without divulging too much about my personal political sympathies, I will admit to being an admirer of Noam Chomsky. In addition to being a man of letters with an impressive oeuvre spanning a wide range of topics, he is a native Philadelphian — something with which I can identify.

This fact recently prompted me to wonder whether Noam Chomsky is a baseball fan and, if so, whether he is a fan of the Phillies, which would be just another reason to add to the already long list of reasons that he is a cool dude. Well, as it turns out, Noam Chomsky’s brain is too big for him to be beholden to any one team. Thanks to the power of Twitter, I was pointed to this transcription of an exchange from his 1993 appearance on the talk show Pozner and Donahue (my efforts to locate video of the show were unsuccessful) in which he discusses the cognitive dissonance that is inherent to being a sports fan:

DONAHUE: There’s a part of the documentary which has you on the podium, reliving the experience of going to a high school football game when you were in high school. And you sat there and you said, “Why do I care about this team? I don’t even know anybody on the team.” Here, Professor Chomsky, you go too far. You are cranky, you’re anti-fun. We wonder if you ever knew the experience of a hot dog with mustard and a cold beer. And it is much easier, then, to dismiss you as the Ebenezer Scrooge of social commentary. Go away. You’re not a happy man. You’re scolding us for rooting for the high school football team.

CHOMSKY: I should say, I continued to go root for the high school football team — the reason I bring it up is, it’s a case of how we can somehow live with this strange dissonance. I mean, you conform to the society around you, and you’re part of it, and you have the hot dog and you cheer for the football team. And in another corner of your mind you notice, “This is insane. What do I care whether this …”

DONAHUE: What is insane?

CHOMSKY: What do I care whether this group of professional athletes wins or that group of professional athletes wins? None of them have anything to do with me.

DONAHUE: I don’t know. I grew up with the Indians [baseball team], I was a kid in Cleveland … it was a social experience, it was the smell, this huge Cleveland stadium. … Those are memories. What’s wrong with this? Why wouldn’t you want to celebrate this?

CHOMSKY: I did the same thing. I can remember the first baseball game I saw when I was 10 years old, I can tell you what happened at it — fine. But that’s not my point. See, if you want to enjoy a football game, that’s great. You want to enjoy a baseball game, that’s great. Why do you care who wins? Why do you care who wins? Why do you have to associate yourself with a particular group of professionals, who you are told are your representatives, and they better win or else you’re going to commit suicide, when they’re perfectly interchangeable with the other group of professionals. …

DONAHUE: You had a relative in New York City who had a kiosk which wasn’t quite on the main street, it was behind the train station. And God knows what kind of radical literature he was selling. And you’re there, this little kid listening in — no wonder you grew up to be such a radical who doesn’t like high school football.

CHOMSKY: Unfortunately, I did like it. I’m sorry for that.

As a devoted fan of specific teams myself, I found this to be a rather unsettling thing to read. As Socrates once said, however, “The unexamined fandom is not worth living.”

If we accept the notion that the players we root for are ultimately interchangeable, then fandom can be reduced to rooting for an article of clothing or the more abstract concept of “the franchise.” Rooting for an article of clothing certainly seems no less absurd than rooting for a group of interchangeable professionals. But, of course, the word “fan” itself comes from the word “fanatic,” which by definition means an irrational zeal for a particular cause. Here again we reach that state of cognitive dissonance where we as (mostly) rational people must defend and justify what is by definition an irrational practice.

Chomsky raises an interesting set of questions that would perhaps be worth asking more often — preferably before we resort to violence against others based on little more than their allegiance to a rival team.

A tip of the mortarboard to @BobbyBaseknock for the link.

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Eric writes about the Phillies at The Good Phight. Follow him on Twitter.

28 Responses to “From the Archives: Noam Chomsky on Fandom”

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  1. Seamus says:

    Pretty sure you are admitting to being uber-liberal, if you say you’re a fan of Noam Chomsky!

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    • Eric Augenbraun says:

      Maybe I’m just a fan of his work in the field of linguistics…

      Anyways, being labeled a “liberal” makes me cringe.

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      • waynetolleson says:

        “Anyways, being labeled a “liberal” makes me cringe.”

        Why? What’s so bad about caring about improving roads, bridges, tunnels, railways, levees, and dams?

        What’s so bad about investing in schools so children have a safe place to go where they can get a quality education?

        What’s so bad about breathing clean air and drinking clean water?

        What’s so bad about investing in renewable and alternative energies so we aren’t so reliant upon Middle Eastern oil?

        What’s so bad about the most wealthy, privileged, elite members of society paying tax rates something along the lines of what they paid under Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford?

        And what’s so good about wars, death, job loss, economic stagnation, polluted air and water, failing schools, a radical “Christian” agenda, and a $15 trillion national debt?

        (I put “Christian” in quotes because Jesus Christ was a poor, humble carpenter who preached peace, non-violence, charity, giving people the shirt off your back, and, most importantly, not judging others. Conservatives and mega-churches are far closer to being embodiments of the anti-Christ than they are to representing Jesus’ teachings.)

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    • LarryCT says:

      Being against endless war and the total control of a nation by a small, moneyed elite makes you an (apparently derogatory) liberal. Welcome to the end of America.

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      • Eric Augenbraun says:

        Suffice it to say that I am very left of center and the term “liberal” doesn’t adequately describe my politics.

        I object to it being used synonymously with “on the left.”

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        • LarryCT says:

          Very true. Democrats and Republicans both generally support liberal ideas while being on the right, and far-right of the political spectrum.
          I can see why you didn’t use the ‘S’ word because of the negative reactions it inspires in so many.
          In truth, the United States is one of the most socialist countries in the world – if you are wealthy or part of a large corporation – your needs and interests will be taken care of by the corporate nanny state.
          Anyone else? Pull yourself up by your own boot straps, just like all those banks and oil companies did.

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      • The FatCat Plutocrat says:

        You’re a dead man!

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        • LarryCT says:

          Whoa, easy, man. I still buy tickets for your baseball team. I admit they are in the nosebleeds, and sometimes I smuggle in food, but you still own me.

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          • The FatCat Plutocrat says:

            Your opinions have hurt me emotionally. To call it even, I suggest you come over and clean my squash court.

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          • LarryCT says:

            Sure. Don’t bother paying me, of course. Wouldn’t want people to think I’m a socialist.

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    • waynetolleson says:

      “Pretty sure you are admitting to being uber-liberal, if you say you’re a fan of Noam Chomsky!”

      It really depends on definitions of “liberal” and “conservative.” Today’s Republican Party, which is commonly described as “conservative,” is not actually the least bit conservative.

      For example, the idea that we could invade two countries in the Middle East, create a new government agency (DHS), cut taxes, and balance the budget ALL AT THE SAME TIME when NO COUNTRY IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD had done such a thing, was not in the least bit “conservative,” ideologically or fiscally.

      In fact, to say we should raise taxes back to what they were under Nixon, stop fighting costly Middle Eastern wars entirely of choice, put some of that money towards paying off the debt, and spend the rest improving American schools, infrastructure, transportation, etc… is actually a far more pragmatic, practical, CONSERVATIVE plan.

      Of course, we live in an “up-is-down, black-is-white” world. Today’s Republican politicians aren’t “conservative.” They are merely well-compensated advocates for the corporations and special interests that bankroll their political careers. Just because you take a few million dollars from Halliburton and cast some votes to send American soldiers to kill and die in the Middle East doesn’t make one “conservative.” These people are function as mere subsidiaries in Washington, D.C. for their parent corporations on Wall St., and for weapons manufacturers and private contractors, the people who profit from all the blood being spilled.

      These terms like “liberal” and “conservative” have been created and are exploited to confuse and divide us. The top 10% of this country controls 84% of the nation’s collective wealth. This group of people have been sucking money and resources out of our economy via wars, government subsidies for their private interests, and reckless and unaffordable tax breaks for themselves.

      At the same time, they have been cutting spending on goods and services on which American people have come to rely, goods and services THAT WE PAY FOR via our tax dollars. Then, they use their spokespeople on NBC, ABC, CNN, CBS, FNC, MSNBC, talk radio, the Internet, etc… to create a divisive discourse where the 80% of us who are seeing our jobs disappear overseas and our wages plummet and stagnate are left fighting over the crumbs while the top 20% makes-off with the whole pie.

      And we foolishly keep falling for it again and again.

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  2. LarryCT says:

    Here, is a video in which Chomsky makes similar points on the role of sports to create ‘irrational attitudes of submission to authority’.

    One of the best articles I’ve read on sports and politics can be read at (open twice to get past sign up info).

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  3. Shaun says:

    So fandom is probably as much about geography and being a fan of a particular sport than it is about articles of clothing. But is rooting because of geography and the appeal of a particular sport any more rational than rooting for articles of clothing?

    Also, is irrationality always the same thing as insanity? What if one looks at a piece of art and has no connection to the artist, he or she doesn’t know the artist, but he or she likes the piece of art? Does that make that person insane?

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    • Dan says:

      I would use a comparison to music as a good parellel and base my example on it, because it is still a popular artform.

      For the sake of argument I am going to stereotype. Most people in there formative years like the music that they like because:

      Their friends, or older siblings like it.

      There is some external factor, for instance the singer is cute, which doesnt make the music any better or worse, but something clicks in a 14 year old girls head when they hear justin beibers voice now that they know he is cute.

      It is familiar. (You can probably think of an example of a song you or a friend didnt like initially but after a few listens or months enjoyed it.)

      A Geographical tie. ( a band that is from your area you are more likely to have an opinion of for better or worse)

      I would say the same is true of Baseball. Being from the Boston are most of my friends and family are Red Sox fans. There reasons for being a fan are pretty much those listed.
      Dad\Grandpa is a Sox Fan
      Jacoby Ellsbury is Cute
      Everyone else is a fan, so it grows on you.
      They are from New England

      As a music fan\baseball fan. I find the above listed reasons to appreciate a song or root for a team to be superficial at best and i think that is the point Chomsky is trying to make.

      Most people arent realated to, or friends with the players on their favorite team. Whether or not they agree with the organization philosphies implemented by the front office does not matter. Nor does the players themselves. If Daivd Ortiz plays for the yankees, no longer is he the favorite player of many bostonians. If Mariano Rivera were to come to the sox, no longer would he be booed at fenway.

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      • Eric Augenbraun says:

        Thanks guys.

        When I posted this I did so mainly because I thought it would be good food for…thought.

        This is exactly the kind of discussion I was hoping to generate.

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      • CF says:

        I think it also has something to do with the fact that sports are fertile ground for narratives/stories, and humans love stories. Music is a good example, but movies or books might be better examples. People cry at fictional movies all the time, but “rational” humans should know that the lines were made up by some screenwriter dude, recited for screen by actors, and projected onto a wall in a big room with seats. Why exactly should we care about those characters, if we’re such rational people? Because the things they do or say resonate with us, and with events/geography/people in our own lives. I can’t really explain it, and I’m sure as hell not going to do a literature review on the subject. Our reaction to sporting events isn’t rational, it’s human, just like so many other things in life.

        As for sports, sports are like movies, where the story is being written right in front of us.

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        • Dan says:

          I didnt use movies or literature as an example because they tend to have a stircter relatable story line. The concept of hitting a 2-2 88 mph curveball to deep left for a double is not something that litteraly occurs in the life of most fans; like wise a Gminor Fminor Cminor Eflat chord progression is not something that literally occurs in real life.

          A movie is more instantly relatable because even though a large portion of a movie may not be a normal occurence there is usually an underlying story that is. The hero in the action movie is simultaniously also trying to get the girl, which is something most people can relate to.

          Song tends to be more abstract. The music and melody is conveying a general emotion, and even most lyrics arent a strict story but phrashes that are open to interperation.

          Also one of the points i was trying to make is that most people learn to like\appreciate a song the more they hear it. As is the case of peoples fandom with a particular team. The first time i watched Dumb and Dumber I laughed my ass off. My appreciation for the Braves was not an instantanious thing, the same can be said for my love of Pet Sounds. Though there was an initial enjoyment to a degree, it grew exponentially with every listen\game.

          I could have written a 20 page essay on the topic (including the reasoning for choosing music), but instead chose to post something a little briefer.

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  4. subtle says:

    We, as a society, are usually interested in answers. We want to argue whether something is right or wrong. Chompsky is interested in questions. He wants society to ask itself why it acts in a particular way. I think that’s why it takes a particular kind of mind to engage Chompsky’s writing whether you like his opinions or not. There are a lot of reasons why I disagree with Chompsky on a lot of subjects, but I keep reading because he asks a lot of great questions I usually haven’t taken the time to consider for myself.

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  5. LarryCT says:

    Like many things, I think sports are stupid, but love them.

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  6. TMS says:

    I used to root for the Yankees. Then while they were busy winning the World Series in ’99, their 3rd in 4 years I realized that I wanted the other team to win, in this case the Braves who had been so good for so long but only won 1 World Series in that stretch. It didn’t seem fair. So I half-heartedly rooted for the Yanks that World Series, got little joy from their victory and some guilt and actively started rooting for the Mets and whoever was playing the Yankees from then on. I think this is more rational than blind loyalty to a team forever. I had a reason, fairness, to root against the Yanks. If you like a sport you can find reasons to root for teams. Not like they are all that great – not as good as caring about something because it benefits you and your loved ones – but better than nothing.

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  7. Adrock says:

    Interesting to see.

    One tangential note: It’s my understanding that the etymology of “fan” is that it derives from “fancier” a common term used to describe those in the 19th century who enjoyed the game, rather than “fanatic”, which seems to be a later development in describing the watchers of baseball and other sports.

    I have not bothered to look this up, but if anyone has an unabridged Oxford English Dictionary, I am sure they can find out for us.

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  8. tdotsports1 says:

    Never thought I would see Noam mentioned on Fangraphs! Love it… When is the Bill Maher piece, complete my fandom.

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  9. Fantastic bloody post.

    I’d love to break bread with Chomsky.

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  10. The Usual SusBeck says:

    Sometimes I think I enjoy watching sports simply because I like watching people execute at the highest level. And then my team scores and I’m high-fiving strangers and I realize its not the only reason.

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