Somebody has to be the skunk at the picnic, the kid who spoils the emperor’s fashion show, the morning-after pill, the 13th man. And since no else will, I’ll wear out whatever welcomes I have left in this town and say: The Seahawks Jubilee was a great bender, but it leaves a nasty hangover.
Okay, it was quite the party. Seattle can now claim to be the only city in the country to shut down for not one but two general strikes. The first, which started on this day 107 years ago, was staged over things that mattered: wages, work conditions, workers’ rights, even (in the eyes of a minority of supporters and perhaps a larger share of opponents) the prospect of another American revolution. The authorities brought in troops from Fort Lewis, deployed machine guns downtown and enlisted 3,000 extra police officers and “special deputies” (UW frat boys), but the strike proved entirely peaceful.
The Feb. 5, 2014 general strike wasn’t entirely peaceful or particularly violent; the usual rowdies and vandals carried on. Seven hundred thousand people — the largest crowd in Seattle history — packed downtown in freezing weather. That’s more than 10 times the number who walked off their jobs in 1919. Back then, the rest of the city couldn’t get to work because the streetcars shut down. This time we couldn’t because the trains and platforms were packed to bursting with riders wearing blue and green.
And for what? A football game. A four-day-old sporting event. Eleven youthful millionaires weaving around, passing over and charging through eleven slightly older millionaires. Their team’s owner, the former Rodney Dangerfield of multibillionaires, now gets tons of respect, even love, for “giving” Seattle its first bowl title and second “world championship.” No one bothers to remember how he unctuously (“I can’t do it without you”) extorted a half-billion bucks from taxpayers to build the former Qwest Field. At least MetLife Stadium, where the Seahawks creamed the Broncos, was actually built by the teams that used it. But that’s another era in American sports economics, never to come again.
Okay, I’ll admit, Marshawn Lynch, Russell Wilson, and, yes, Richard Sherman, seem like great guys as well as great players. Pete Carroll may not be such a great guy, but he clearly did a great job. And I did my best to get into the spirit. I skipped the game-day party across town, but I did troop down to the local in Columbia City. I high-fived and fisted-pumped and loved my neighbors, even if I couldn’t match the big guy who was crying with joy. I even prepped for the occasion decades ago, though I didn’t know it at the time, when I got a couple concussions playing backyard football and was just proud that I didn’t drop the ball.
And there’s the rub, or the rub-out — the reason I hadn’t managed to sit through a whole football game in 20 years: It’s a brutal blood sport, and to pretend otherwise is like pretending they’re shooting blanks in Syria and Afghanistan. Even in this relatively clean game you had to wince again and again and wonder, will this young battering ram be a brain-battered basket case in 20 years, if rage or epilepsy or ALS doesn’t kill him first? Football players play a strange dual role in the socioeconomic dance: They’re pampered 1-percenters and sacrificial victims. And we love the game for its mayhem — OK, you do, or they do, ’cause I don’t anymore. The biggest, bone-crunchiest collisions get the biggest cheers. This has got to be desensitizing, an inoculation in violence.
Yeah, yeah, heard it all before, you say — isn’t it still wonderful that we can come together as a “community” like this, share the pride, bask in the world’s envy? But do you really think the world will respect a city of rabid sports fans more than it does the city of Nirvana and Macklemore, Amazon and (more or less) Microsoft and Boeing, orcas and salmon and Cascade volcanoes? All we seem to have gotten is a bunch of snooty Californians and Easterners huffing about how now Seattle may finally shed its (nonexistent) inferiority complex and San Francisco envy.
And some “world championship.” The Seahawks are number one in a cartel — er, league — that doesn’t let anyone but U.S. teams compete. FIFA may be even rottener than the NFL, but at least Ghana, Greece and everyone else gets a shot at the World Cup.
The value of “community” lies not just in how much noise it makes or how many bodies it turns out but in what idea or cause it forms around. More than a million Germans felt a grand communal glow at Hitler’s 1934 Nuremberg rally (as indelibly recorded by Leni Riefenstal). Today we call it mob mania.
Yesterday’s Seahawks rally marks a new high in numbers and a steady devolution in meaning, in this Washington and the other one. Fifty years ago a quarter-million people mustered to “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” galvanizing epochal civil rights and antipoverty legislation. Over the next four decades tens of thousands marched in Seattle to protest the Vietnam War, Cambodia bombing, Iraq invasions and Rodney King trial verdict. The highwater mark in local political protest came in 1999, when 50,000 union members marched outside the World Trade Organization meeting and other, less decorous protesters shut the WTO down.
These days, “you can barely get 100 people to turn out for an anti-war, or civil rights, or human rights march or rally,” one envious environmental activist grumbled after the Magnificent 700,000 rallied downtown. Just wait, the boosters say: The new Seattle Spirit that the Seahawks have unleashed can now be turned to all sorts of worthy purposes.
I hope so, but it feels like more mass distraction to me. Come together? Been there, done that. Now we can go back to watching the games and tweeting them on our little lonely screens.