The Cheers of the Gratefully Oppressed
Virtually every aspect of my personality aligns me with the liberated fandom espoused by the founders of this fair site. To give just a few examples, I have a healthy distrust of all institutions, enjoy many things that don’t make perfect sense, am Jewish, and will probably read and write about willfully bizarre novels for a living. When it comes to sports, I feel no special allegiance to a player outside of the enjoyment I get from watching him perform, although that enjoyment can certainly be tied up in other issues. Yet, despite all these points of agreement, I feel no desire to stop pulling for the teams I backed when I used to dress up as a San Francisco Giant on Halloween. With my favorite basketball teams (Golden State Warriors and Stanford Cardinal, for those who give a shit), I can acknowledge certain aspects of a player’s game that I dislike or outright hate, but I still cheer when those same guys make productive plays (in terms of strict output).
I’m usually perfectly fine with contradictions – or pretend to be, at least – but this one’s been bugging me ever since I started reading FreeDarko. The two forms of enjoyment seem to be at such great odds that I’ve occasionally assumed there must be something wrong with me, as if my pinko commie proclamations were somehow covers for a natural fascist streak. At the same time, my refusal to even attempt to divest myself of beholden fandom suggests that there’s something deeper at play, or, at the very least, something missing from liberated fandom that the support of one team provides.
Let me be clear that I do not want to expose liberated fandom as a sham concocted solely to convince a bunch of hipsters that basketball is the new irony. While I’ve always harbored the observational tendencies on which it relies, the system itself – and the work of the other writers here – has made me a calmer and more discerning fan than I once was. During the Mavs/Warriors series, I felt no hatred for Dallas or Barkley; instead, I simply accepted the positives aspects of Dirk, Howard, and the gang – even in the two losses – and analyzed them as I would anyone else. Furthermore, liberated fandom’s lack of emphasis on the final score means that I can now watch teams like the Hawks without feeling guilty, and that should validate it right there.
For the most part, it’s not too difficult to bring these tastes to one of your favorite team’s games. An exciting play is an exciting play, after all, and teams are going to score a certain number of points anyway, so why not wish for a Josh Smith dunk instead of a Tim Duncan post-up? And while it will never be possible to root for a team over time and completely disregard the final score, the liberated view can mitigate any anger that might arise from a particularly close loss. For instance, last Friday’s Nuggets win over the Warriors didn’t piss me off at all just because I knew I’d seen Iverson and Melo at the top of their games.
The far more interesting issue at play when someone practices these forms of fandom simultaneously is that beholden fandom requires cheering for things that would never fly with a purely liberated fan. I got lucky with the Warriors, but I can safely say that I only really like the games of three (maybe four) players currently on Stanford. Still, my passion for the team doesn’t waver at all. My enjoyment of the team never feels cheap or dirty; it is as real to me as anything I get from watching Tyrus Thomas jump. However, if the aesthetic considerations that I bring to other teams don’t always serve as justification for my fandom, then it would seem that I get something entirely different out of the Cardinal’s Right Way defense and structured offensive sets.
I must get to that answer by way of a short digression. This fall, I attended Rosh Hashanah services at my childhood synagogue for the first time in four or five years. In that time, the temple has undergone a number of changes: new rabbis, new cantor, new sound system, and, in the real capper, a full band complete with bongo drums and a guitar has been added to the strings, organ, and choir. Objectively, a few of these changes are improvements; the cantor has a pretty great singing voice and the band is quite competent. What has clearly changed, though, is that the entire operation has been secularized to a degree that even irks a bunch of secular Jews. I am in no way religious and haven’t been for quite a while, but the synagogue always felt holy to me. That’s no longer the case; I have little connection to the place other than that it reminds me of past Bar Mitzvahs and Sunday school.
On the face of it, I shouldn’t logically feel much of a connection to those things that were lost when the temple underwent those changes. However, the synagogue, like the teams I root for, is tied to so many of my life experiences that I must have some attachment to it. I do not believe in nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, but these institutions did somehow shape me into the person I am today, so I cannot feel nothing when they undergo changes. In a way, favorite teams are like family members: we get disappointed at them when they falter, criticize out of love, and hold bizarre allegiances to them even though nothing but geography and similarly random circumstances brought us together in the first place. These attachments become so ingrained that they’re not just difficult to break – they’re ultimately impossible to break because they have been so instrumental in the development of our passions and modes of observation. Frankly, breaking a connection to a team can often feel like a willful dismantling of an identity.
A favorite team also has the draw of a community. Liberated fandom can obviously produce a community of its own – this site is proof of that – but faceless discussion on the internet is much different from screaming along with 20,000 fellow fans or knowing that wearing a particular hat can start a conversation with someone who might eventually become one of your best friends. Beholden fandom offers a feeling of mass productivity, the idea that, if we all work together, we can reach a goal. Writing that sentence made me feel a little sick, but that is really what any group – like this motley band of writers and commenters, to use just one example – tries to do in whatever endeavor it chooses. The goals of FreeDarko might be less defined than those of a group of face-painters, but the differences between the two groups are matters of degree and proportion – not of structure.
Beholden fandom obviously has its ugly side; there is nothing awesome about abject hatred of an opponent just because they happen to wear differently colored clothes. Like any passionate collective, though, it should be judged on both its positive and negative traits. Liberated and beholden fandom may not always intersect, but the fact that I and others are able to practice both simultaneously suggests that the concepts are not as adversarial as they might initially appear. The key is to juggle them without letting each lose its essence, to let each form of fandom inform and add to the other. Just as the beholden fan shouldn’t disregard the legitimacy and interest of the opposition, the liberated fan shouldn’t assume the worst just because someone finds joy in the crowd.