I Blame The Killjoy
It’s exceedingly rare that Real Life publishes something I don’t bother to read, but this week’s newsletter perhaps should have been one of them. In it, the anonymous letter-writer seems to think they’ve discovered some sort of nascent fascism in crowds at a baseball game.
I had never directly seen how a wave got started before, and it gave me an ominous, unsettled feeling. People suddenly seemed that more conditioned to obey. Those who are initially indifferent or even annoyed eventually just go along with the crowd. The fact that the individuals who initiate these events blatantly have no other purpose than gratifying their ego and proving that they can command others is no deterrent. People obviously like to have leaders uncovered in their midst and submit to them. […]
In the midst of it, I was transformed from an average ordinary home-team fan, cheering and booing at the appropriate times in response to the action on the field, to a conspicuous abstainer, a potential scapegoat, an easy target for whatever inchoate violence was aimlessly being stirred up. The wave wasn’t a containment operation, dispersing the energies of the crowd; it was showing them instead what mark they could make if they concentrated their energy and focused it just on that, getting itself noticed. I clung to the game as if it could protect me. But there are riots after teams lose and riots after teams win.
To be clear here, we are talking about the wave, not The Wave (or even We Are the Wave). Also to be clear, your average baseball game prompts nothing even close to a riot. More than anything else, this particular Real Life missive reads as nothing so much as what we might term the thoughts of a leftist killjoy.
Pair with Arthur C. Brooks (I’ve linked him before, less than flatteringly) writing for The Atlantic about sports being pointless, and therefore great. Brooks, like me, inherited his baseball fandom from his father (him the Cubs, me the Red Sox).
But that is precisely what makes it ideal for forming relationships. In a transactional world, our relationships with others tend to become part of a web of useful alliances. But such alliances make for the least satisfying relationships. If you are finding that your closest bonds of friendship and family leave you feeling empty, the solution is not to make your relationships more practical. It is to organize them more around things that aren’t useful at all—like baseball.
If sports are pointless in the way Brooks describes (which is to say, not entirely), then the wave for sure is kind of stupid, but it’s not about some sort of crowd submissiveness to a take-charge leader. It’s more like a weird sort of swarming behavior, and I can’t help but wonder if murmurations of birds or fish (do fish murmurate?) aren’t in fact experiencing a similar sort of endorphin-fueled elation.
So, no, anonymous Real Life letter-writer, the wave isn’t “a parable, about the instability of crowds maybe or the opportunistic nature of the will to power”. It’s a harmless nonsense in the sense of not being entirely nonsense after all, but rather a somewhat ridiculous expression of what Brooks calls “a common love for a third thing”.