Friday, April 29, 2005

Nobel Prize, World Series

According to a column by Derrick Z. Jackson in the Boston Globe, Wole Soyinka is being honored by Harvard University's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute. In case you, like me, are among the ignorati who have never heard of Mr. Soyinka, he's a Nigerian playwright, novelist, and poet who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986.

He's obviously sensitive to the opinions of the Harvard worthies who are recognizing his genius. As Mr. Jackson wrote,

Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka used to ask people not to exaggerate the insularity of Americans by saying things like: "Can you imagine the Americans? Nobody else plays baseball and yet they call their series the World Series." He used to say, "C'mon, that's not the issue. That's superficial."

He does not defend us anymore. "I'm sorry," he says, chuckling. "I've come around to the conclusion that it's not superficial at all, that it is an index we better be aware of."

Mr. Soyinka now believes that "Americans are now among the most insular and least curious people in the world." He says,

The basis of it is a lack of an integrated exposure to other societies. This is one of the most insular societies I've ever encountered anywhere. And I'm not talking just about ghetto kids. Professors . . . parents . . . legislators. It's across the board. That is something you do not find to that extent in the rest of the world.

And, of course, he delivers the de rigueur attack on President Bush, comparing him to McCarthy, among other things. He says we're too far gone to simply read books as the first step to critical thinking. What we Americans need to do, he says, is study geography. He goes on to say that in Nigeria,

The way we were taught geography, it is what made us so confident in the critical assessment of other nations. We know them, I mean, you don't know them all the way, but we know them in a way that is fundamental to the relationship of humanity to the natural environment.

Well. Let's think about this for a minute. According to The World Factbook, Mr. Soyinka's homeland, Nigeria, has about 129,000,000 people, although "estimates for this country explicitly take into account the effects of excess mortality due to AIDS." Nigeria is an oil-rich country whose people mostly live in poverty. It is further characterized as

a transit point for heroin and cocaine intended for European, East Asian, and North American markets; safehaven for Nigerian narcotraffickers operating worldwide; major money-laundering center; massive corruption and criminal activity....

According to Human Rights Watch, in Nigeria all manner of abuses of people and their freedom and dignity are routine. These include torture and killings of critics of the government. Mr. Soyinka, famous critic of the backward United States, himself spent a couple of years in jail because the government didn't like his attitude. Things are worse in the substantial parts of Nigeria controlled by Nigerian Muslims. Women are sentenced to prison, stoning, or even death for being raped or having sex outside marriage, often on evidence coerced from witnesses by torture; flogging and amputations are routine. (I realize President Obasanjo is currently seen as better than some other African leaders, but that's relative.)

It's also worth noting that the U.S. is the largest direct bilateral aid donor to Nigeria, followed closely by the UK. We're also the largest contributor to other sources of aid and financial support Nigeria receives, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. This, despite Nigeria's fabulous oil wealth. Maybe they should spend less time studying geography and more time managing their own affairs and fighting corruption.

So, Mr. Soyinka, save us your gratuitous criticism. I realize that Americans aren't perfect. We don't know as much geography as we should, and I wish we were better educated in general. And I realize you're just pandering to the smug liberal Harvardians who decided to honor you, a few of whom may actually have read something you wrote. But before you undertake to stand as a guest on American soil and declare that we are "now among the most insular and least curious people in the world," I suggest you go home and try to clean up your own country. Then maybe someone other than Harvard dons will take you seriously.

NB: If you're tempted, dear Reader, to make a smarty-pants comment to the effect that the World Series is really named for the New York World newspaper because it originally sponsored the tournament, don't bother. It ain't so, Joe. We really do think the winner of the World Series is the best baseball team in the world, and we're right. How's that for some geography?


Blogger Esther said...

Well.........if no one else plays, then I guess it would make the winner the world champion, right? But I thought baseball was popular in Japan? Or is that just in the movies? I guess I really should read a book about it. ;)

6:27 PM, April 29, 2005  
Blogger Tom Carter said...

Esther, you're right that folks in countries like Japan, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, etc play a lot of baseball. However, there's no chance they're able to field teams better than whichever of our teams wins the World Series in any given year.

The basic historical point is that when the term "world series" first came into use in the late 19th century, even before the modern World Series started 100 years ago, baseball wasn't played in other countries. Far as I know, anyway.

7:31 PM, April 29, 2005  
Blogger Hatcher said...

At times, I'm inclined to agree with the "insular" criticism, though I do remember when "foreign news" once meant Canadian hockey scores. As more and more Americans find themselves working for multinational companies, importing parts from foreign suppliers, etc., insularity has dropped greatly over the past 30 years.

But I'll strongly dispute allegations of "lack of curiousity!" Americans have to be among the most curious people in the world. They, as a nation, are usually ready to turn over the next rock, to stick their heads around the corner, simply to see what's there. They have great curiousity about foreign countries and cultures and are honest enough to admit that they might not know a whole lot about some place or other.

9:08 PM, April 29, 2005  
Blogger Kevin said...

My guess is that you are right about pandering to the Harvard hosts. I have never gotten the notion that we are much different than the rest of the world. I think after 20+ years of traveling the rest of the world, I think I'm going to spend some time discovering the majesty of America.

I like you have a problem with people speaking about things inwhich they know absolutely nothing about. having been to Nigeria, the entire country is worse than our worse city. And guess what most Nigerians do not know where the next villiage is, but they know what America is.

8:31 AM, April 30, 2005  
Blogger MaxedOutMama said...

I cracked up. A good one, Tom. And I'm with Esther - the fact that the man doesn't know that other nations do play baseball is indictment enough.

His is the faux sophistication of someone who has sat around too many tables with the sophisticated crowd, who are stunning in their intellectual insularity. These are the type of people who sneered at the idea that the Iraqis could set up their own government. These are the types of people who are currently passing around the idea that the US is only concerned about Sudan and Darfur because of oil.

If I have to choose between being part of the soccer-playing majority or being part of a country who still believes that we owe help and support to the people of the rest of the world, I'll take the second option, especially considering the sentiments soccer fans are bawling out these days.

If not being a anti-Semitic dictator-loving denizen of the world means insularity, I'm proud to be insular. I am impressed by the vast achievements of the Nigerian educational system as demonstrated in the lives of the Nigerians themselves. Maybe they should try studying baseball and see where it gets them?

8:05 PM, May 01, 2005  
Blogger Tran Sient said...

The Yomiuri Giants have had some teams that could have given an mlb team a run for the money on a Japanese field. They limit their teams to 3 foreigners apiece which also limits them. Baseball is also big in Korea and Taiwan for anyone counting baseball countries.

10:24 PM, May 01, 2005  
Blogger Dingo said...

I will agree some and disagree some.

First, I do have to agree that Americans are some of the least curious about the outside world, especially of the developed nations. He is talking about curiosity of foreign culture, geography, etc. I have traveled extensively, and this is something I noticed a long time ago. Maybe it is because we are such a large nation, but we definitely know less about world affairs that the average person living in foreign nations. But, I will agree that the Nobel Prize winners remarks are hypocritical. I will defer to you analysis.

Second, when you are talking about the world series and "there's no chance they're able to field teams better than whichever of our teams wins the World Series in any given year." You are forgetting the national origin of many of the players in MLB. You take away all of the foreign players on any one MLB team, and it is not nearly as good. Don't forget that we lost in the first round of the Olympics in baseball. If you were to field national teams (like in the world cup of hockey or soccer) we may not fare all that well against the DR or Cuba. The NHL team that usually wins the Stanley cup is American, but the Canadian National team regularly cleans our clock in world cup play. That's because the NHL teams are largely foreign players

2:40 PM, May 02, 2005  
Blogger Kevin said...

I'm not sure your analysis of having foreign players is correct. We regularly win these type of sports in the Olympics and many of these foreign players play for their home countries.


2:10 AM, May 05, 2005  
Blogger Tom Carter said...

Well, a Bronx raspberry to all those who prattle on about foreign players. You'll notice that by and large they come to the U.S. to achieve greatness, along with obscene salaries. On a given day the best Japanese team might beat the last winner of the World Series, but it would be a fluke.

And if we ever decide to take up soccer in a serious professional way, we'll dominate that sport, too (but we won't call it "football"). So there!

8:20 PM, May 05, 2005  

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