Go as Far as Possible

Jay Michaelson

On the subway a while ago, I noticed that the promotional posters for the U.S. Open feature the four celebrities who ended up in the tournament's finals: Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, and Venus and Serena Williams. On the face of it, this is perhaps not surprising; the quartet includes some of the biggest draws in contemporary tennis. But considering that Agassi was seeded seventh, and Sampras was widely given no chance of reaching the finals -- and considering the availability of highly photogenic new stars such as deliciously twinky Andy Roddick -- the coincidence of the four poster players being the four finalists raised my suspicions. Was the U.S. Open fixed?

Anyone who watched the Agassi-Sampras final would agree that the matchup was exhilarating. Two aging stars, longtime rivals, defying the odds. Giving it one last turn. Sampras's serve was astonishing; Agassi's tenacity inspiring. The energy in the crowd was so intense that it seemed to spill into my mother's TV room, where we sat watching the game while digesting Rosh Hashanah turkey and brisket. I'm not sure what the ratings were for the final, but the card was surely a promoter's fondest dream. Was it too good to be true?

I have no real idea whether the Open was fixed or not, but I do know the question evokes a strong default assumption. Most of us raise our skeptical eyebrows almost instinctively. Fixed? The U.S. Open is, unlike wrestling or even boxing, a "respectable" sport. The sponsors are Lincoln/Mercury and several insurance companies. The upper crust pay hundreds of dollars for courtside seats, where they sip Perrier and pat their perspiration with silk handkerchiefs. So, to speculate that this type of event, with this type of people, is fixed is to render an indictment against a much larger swath of mainstream-elite American culture. No way.

But others of us have an exactly opposite reaction, on the same grounds. Shortly after the Open, my friend Fysche (who also writes for Zeek) was staying with me for a few days, including September 11. She told me on the 11th that she thought Bush was involved -- basically, that 9/11was fixed. Now, I've thought and written many things about September 11, largely criticizing the American press and public for not understanding why people could be so angry with us, and I certainly have a very low opinion of the Bush/Cheney self-enrichment machine (see this month's politics piece). But I never seriously entertained the idea that Bush/Cheney murdered 3,000 of their own to Wag the Dog.

Possibly some of my refusal to do so stems from the world's leading 9/11 conspiracy theory -- that the Jews did it. Saying there's a vast Right-wing conspiracy behind the attacks seems too close to saying there's a vast Jewish conspiracy behind them, and so I am suspicious of the move for my own ethnic reasons. But I think the reticence is deeper. I think there's a more fundamental trust that I have, still, despite everything, that the sort of deep evil it would take to engineer 9/11 for political gain just does not exist. To be sure, Dick Cheney is the embodiment of evil as I understand it -- venal and selfish greed, destruction of nature, moral hypocrisy, outright theft, fraud, and violence. And I have even wondered, as we read of secret courts okaying covert spying on Americans, and learn of one of the most disgraced military men in history, Admiral John Poindexter, leading the charge, whether the whole crisis is an Orwellian campaign to create a police state. But I still resist the conclusion, because of that mysterious trust. It's not a reasoned opinion; it's an assumption, based on my life experience, my personality, my race and class. Before I'd even look at websites talking about flight patterns or security breaches, before I'd even entertain a rational discussion about whether Bush did it, I'd have an enormous and fundamental doubt to reconcile.

This possibly-misplaced belief in mainstream culture, the place in my heart that still trusts authority, is part of how we make judgments all the time. For example, I believe that going to a hospital will help alleviate heart disease because lots of seemingly smart people in white coats tell me so. Have I really read up on the science myself? Of course not. And yet I know many people who are certain that going to a hospital will not help any illness, and will likely make matters worse. And while these people and I can debate the merits of angioplasty versus biofeedback and herbal remedies, the fundamental difference is that I still trust the men from Harvard and they don't.

Which is odd, because I often consider myself a refugee from Harvard (or Yale) culture myself. I felt much more at home dancing naked at Burning Man than I did in a suit at a company meeting the following week. Teaching Kabbalah in a djellabieh felt more like "me" than writing a law article on climate change ever did. And yet -- I still believe in the dominant culture's basic decency and the conclusions of their science. Am I still on the fence?

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Image: AndyRoddick.com

December 2002

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