Tuesday, November 11, 2014
The Eternal Yesterday and England's Dreaming
"The German sociologist Max Weber cited three reasons for citizens to obey their rulers: 'the authority of the eternal yesterday,' or historical prestige; 'the authority of the extraordinary personal gift of grace,' or the ruler's charisma; and 'domination by virtue of legality,' or order and justice."
To put this another way, "the eternal yesterday" means that traditional authorities receive loyalty because they continue and support the preservation of existing values, the status quo.
OK, so we know where I'm going with this. But first, a detour.
When I was a junior at Michigan, I took History 321, Britain since 1945. My final paper for that class was a brief history of English Football since 1945. There is no paper I wish I could go back and rewrite from my college years more than that one, not because I got a bad grade on it, but because I could do so much better with what I have learned in the last 15 years.
What I now understand so much better (and would have understood without the intervening 15 years of history, though those 15 years certainly crystallize it) is that England's National Team is a fight against the one shining moment of triumph, on home soil, for a country that invented the game (just ask them). A pop culture annus mirabilis of modern British culture framed against this singular victory left a generation of Britons seeking to recapture the moment, telling their children about the feeling, and hoping to feel it just once more.
In "Three Lions", David Baddiel and Frank Skinner use a comic touch to get at the core of the notion that England is just waiting for that moment again, and maybe with Euro '96, on English soil, those thirty years of hurt would be over. But the underlying notion is that English fans, since that fateful day in Wembley in 1966, have been waiting for the other shoe to drop, because it inevitably does, a notion reinforced perpetually by a media driven narrative. In this version, instead of being comforted by the victory, 1966 haunts England like a specter, the glorious past that recedes ever faster into the shroud of gray that accompanies time.
And yet, through all that, the chorus speaks to unshakeable optimism: "Thirty years of hurt never stopped me dreaming." It's that essential English optimism, that true belief that the ecstasy of the moment overrides everything else.
There's a fascinating disconnect among Michigan fans of various generations in recent years, and it is best understood by looking at the origin of the word nostalgia. It comes from the Greek root words nostos "return home" and algos "pain"; essentially nostalgia is "acute homesickness". We are only nostalgic for the things we miss from a previous time. We tend to block out all of the bad things, we blast past them, hands over our eyes, focusing only on the good things, and overlooking the bad. We're nostalgic for those 40 years when 6-6 and 7-5 were "years of infinite pain". We tend to forget that we start the clock in 1969, when Michigan went 8-3 under Bo, forgetting that Michigan went 8-2 in 1968 under Bump. The difference, of course is, one of those years ends 50-14 because Woody couldn't go for three against the #4 team in the nation, and one of those years "ends" on 24-12 because of the Upset of the Century by the #12 team in the country over the defending national champions. (OK, it actually ends in the Arroyo Seco with Bo in the hospital and USC holding Michigan to a field goal in 10-3 Trojans victory.) But Bo is the savior, but so history gets rewritten by The Victors.
This is not to take away from the joy of the 1969 season, not in the least. It is to merely point how dangerous it is to choose a starting point and say "This, and ONLY THIS, is what Michigan football is." Admittedly, it is a good starting point, from 1969 to 1974, Michigan went 58-7-1 over those six years. No other school in the country did as well during that six year period*. And yet, no national championship, 2-3-1 against Woody, 56-4-0 against everyone else. The modern landscape of college football is so utterly different, however, that era might as well be Yost's 55-1-1 from 1901 to 1905 for all of its relevance to today.
(*-Michigan's 96-15-3 clip from 1969-1978 is the longest consecutive run in the early Bo period where Michigan was the best team in the country. Basically, if you needed a regular season football coach during the Nixon/Ford years, you call Bo.)
So we want Bo, because Bo was larger than life, or as Weber might say, he possessed "the authority of the extraordinary personal gift of grace." Bo won, a lot. As Geoff once said to me, the only thing that Michigan fans like more than winning is winning a lot. It's true. As much as I believe that Michigan fans ultimately like not losing more than winning, we are in love with winning. Add to that that Bo represents the values of toughness, grit, hard work, straight shooting that are as Midwestern as rivalry trophies and the term "pop" to describe carbonated beverages. We know those aviators, we know that headset, we know that New Era cap, we see that and we know that everything is going to be OK. We know our collective football in loco parentis is home, if you will.
But Bo himself, or should I say, the collective vision of what Bo was, wouldn't work today. Bo's sideline fury would lead to day long breakdowns on SportsCenter and discussions of Bo's brand of "leadership". Bo couldn't "throw kids off the team" like he used to without it becoming a social media firestorm. Wanting the Bo that lingers in our eternal yesterday is longing for the results and wishing that the world were still such that the process could be the same too, all the while knowing it's not. This, in turn, creates a psychic tension that cannot be broken because we are not ready to admit that this past is gone, because we worry that our letting that go will diminish the memory.
We long for the authority of our eternal yesterday because the reality of our present does not resemble the glorious past. We long for Bo because we have memories of him, as fans either remembering the greatest glories under Bo, or growing up with him as our first coach. We are confronted with a new generation of students for whom Michigan's 1997 National Championship might be as foreign as their 1933 National Championship. For whom Lloyd is their first coach, for all of the ups and downs of what it means to have Lloyd, the accidental emperor, (our own George VI, if you will) as your first coach completely alters your perceptions of Michigan football and the past.
So, please let me say that Michigan football is in need of a Renaissance, a small Renaissance, but a Renaissance nonetheless. It needs a new ruler for a new era, one who can bring stability to the land, who can recapture the spirit of 1901, the spirit of 1969, and yes, the spirit of 1997, but in their own particular idiom. Perhaps it a Prodigal son, not a direct heir, but a branch of the tree. Perhaps it is new blood, a vision of what Michigan can be again in their own particular style. But we need this moment because the only way we can truly appreciate the way forward is to appreciate each era on its own merits and in its own contexts. The past never leaves us, but it cannot block our path.
In this way, it's not unlike the debate over the Legends jerseys. On the one hand, it's great to honor the people who built Michigan football into what it is today. On the other hand, today's players should have the same chance to make their numbers their own, write their own legacies. In the last seven years, we've tried a little bit of both, and the results have been less than spectacular. But it should not stop us again. There are no guarantees in life. But if we choose wisely, if we choose well, and if we can get behind a new vision, if we are patient, understanding, and hopeful, we might just have a chance to succeed.
Let us celebrate the past as a link in a chain towards a brighter tomorrow, not one sinking toward the seabed and an anchor without purchase, drifting ever closer to the shoals of imperial decline.
"I know that was then, but it could be again."