A. J. Liebling, “The Sweet Science” (Part 2)

The second half of The Sweet Science consists mainly of descriptions of major fights, but these stories, which would otherwise be largely uninteresting to general readers without a strong aptitude for sports, build on many of the themes hinted at through the first hundred pages of A. J. Liebling’s epic analysis of mid-century boxing. Essentially we are given a portrait of the rapid rise and fall essential to democratic capitalism.

I forgot to include a picture of the LOA volume last time.

I forgot to include a picture of the LOA volume last time.

I must point out at first that I am not a believer that “democratic capitalism” is what most people think of when they think of either democracy or capitalism. Nor do I think it is a a likely replacement of the brutal corporate-dominated system we sometimes call “late capitalism.” Rather, we can see it as a truly more democratic economic arrangement than corporate or institutional capitalism. Let’s simply define it as a participatory economy made up of individual producers whose success and failure are largely determined by their individual capacity. Of course, we can notice immediately that this has never existed (and as Liebling shows us, it is not a proper description of even the brutal equality of the ring). Yet, it is a useful exercise to read into the ring this ideal of the so-called anarcho-capitalists, and recognize its potential and failings.

In what ways does the “Sweet Science” parallel at least some aspects of the cutthroat American economy?

1. As Liebling’s use of Pierce Egan shows, it was a long-standing part of the American tradition going back to the early republic. If anything, it is in that period that the perfect model of boxing emerged. Like our myth of democratic capitalism, rooted in the revolutionary and the early republic, boxing had a past golden age that contemporary observers can always look back to, a time without the corruption of institutions.

2. No matter how corrupted by outside forces there is a certain brutal equality to the ring.  Whether this existed at any moment (at least for white men) in American history, I will let historians decide, but I am certain that is is central to the mythology of the US economy. Our revolution was intended to destroy the inequality in conditions brought by birth, rank, title, or blood. It did that to a degree (certainly abolishing a formal aristocracy). Unfortunately, the ring can never replace real life. Even if two boxers, trained down to pure strength, can stand or fall on their individual merits, few of us in the real world can escape family, talents, psychology, and other things we have limited control over.

3. The ring also enforces a lack of entrenched power. Champions rise and fall with the seasons. Listen as he describes the end of the Moore-Marciano fight that ends his book. “Moore’s ‘game,’ as old Egan would have called his courage, was beyond reproach. He came out proudly for the ninth, and stood and fought back with all he had, but Marciano slugged him down, and he was counted out with his left arm hooked over the middle rope as he tried to rise. It was a crushing defeat for the higher faculties and a lesson in intellectual humility, but he made a hell of a fight.” (223) Such was the almost random fate of all great fights. And this is perhaps the best that democratic capitalism can offer us. Even the best vacuum salesman can fall due to a new model or the rise of a retail giant.

4. We can also see the eager participation of the entire community in the games. In many ways, this is the central point of The Sweet Science. Liebling, too fat and old to fight anymore, enjoys boxing like most us do, as a part of a mass audience fully invested in the battle. Setting aside the role of the audience as a democratic space in itself (with much more radical potential than the ring itself), it can be interpreted as a function of consumer society in which consumers get invested in the success or failure of their favorite products, television shows, or films. (Scan the Internet for five minutes if you do not believe this is true.)

Of course, this is not an ideal model for us to embrace. First, it only seems to suggest a more rapidly changing ruling class and provides some hope to those at the bottom of society. For those on the sidelines, there is only vicarious success. If equality of opportunity only creates a Darwinian world of brutal competition, social instability, and continual anxiety about self-worth caused by our failings or lack of success, we are not that much better off. It may only provide some benefits over institutional banality in that it is a bit more exciting.

We should, perhaps give up on the idea that capitalism can be reformed into something democratic and see it as best as a winner-take-all free-for-all, with brutal consequences for any losers and only fragile, material, and ultimately unsatisfying rewards for the victors. The democratic capitalism of the ring is no better than the brutal equality of the Roman gladiators. One of the great successes of the television series, Spartacus: Blood and Sand was its ability to capture some of these same themes.

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A. J. Liebling, The Sweet Science (1956). Part One: A Democracy in the Ring

A. J. Liebling was one of the most significant American journalists from the middle of the twentieth century. He was born and raised in New York City in an Jewish-Austrian immigrant family.  From the time of his youth, he traveled heavily visiting Europe twice before he was ten. He started writing journalism for his school newspaper in his teenage years as he followed World War I. His early adulthood showed many signs of a strong contrarian and democratic spirit that would inform much of his journalism. Most notably he was kicked out of Dartmouth College for not attending required church services and fired from The New York Times for faking names in stories.  He would eventually settler at The New Yorker, but only after his vibrant 20s, where he moved around between New York and France, taking and quitting jobs, and writing freelance. At The New Yorker, he would produce his most significant war writings as a foreign correspondent, following the Allied War effort.  The works collected in the Library of American volumes on Liebling are in two groups. The first (which I will examine later) are his World War II works.  The volume open in front of me, looked at his varied works written in the last twenty years of his life, covering topics as diverse as boxing, Southern politics, and journalism (amazingly he predicted the one-newspaper down and the current decline in the role of newspapers due to centralized media ownership).

A. J. Liebling Sitting at Desk

The Sweet Science is about boxing and collects many interesting pieces about the rise and fall of different champions such as Rocky Marciano and Joe Louis. More than sports journalism, however, The Sweet Science tells us one story about American society, culture, values, and character in the middle of the last century.  When Liebling started watching following boxing, the United States was entering a period where we can really start to talk about a national culture, thanks to national sports leagues, the movie industry, radio, and the “Americanization” of immigrant communities. Many of these trends are evident in Liebling’s own life.  He not only participated in the creation of mass culture, but he also became a firm supported of the United States during the first and second world wars. Boxing was part of this mass culture that brought in people from different classes, ethnic backgrounds, and races into one building to observe and in many ways participate in the fights. Liebling also lived through what Michael Denning called the “proletarianization” of American culture during the Great Depression.  It was during this epoch that working-class values infected American culture at many levels.

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Liebling takes considerable time thinking about his predecessor, the compiler of Boxiana, Pierce Egan, who documented the boxing world of the early nineteenth century.  Through this, Liebling is able to show an interconnected world that existed at the margins of legitimate culture but provided a historical continuity to the very beginnings of the republic. It is boxing, not baseball, that is the American pastimes.

One striking aspect of Liebling’s account of boxing is his description of its participatory elements. In fact, his book begins with an analysis of why it is better to see a fight in person.  His main reason is that you can participate through shouted advice.  Its democratic character  is suggested in the following quote. “Addressing yourself to the fighter when you want somebody else to hear you is a parliamentary device, like ‘Mr. Chairman . . . ‘ Before television, a prize-fight was to a New Yorker the nearest equivalent to the New England town meeting. It taught a man how to think on his seat.” (16)  Not only was it participatory, but it was diverse as well.  Liebling’s ability to converse about boxing with a driver is suggestive of its important place in the development of a mass participatory culture. The requirement that mass culture be participatory is something that Liebling takes for granted.  He correctly predicts that television would sap this potential. Now, people see fights–if at all–at home, losing that democratic forum. “Television, if unchecked, may carry us back to a pre-tribal state of social development, when the family was the largest conversational unit.” (17)  He later compares television fights to the Irish potato: cheap and quickly adopted at the expense of a more nourishing diet.

match

Boxing is also a working-class sport in every way.  Its heroes were commonly from the streets, its greatest fans were from the same streets. The shouting from the audience revealed that the crowd saw themselves as coming from the same world as the fighters. Early in the account he describes the origins of several champions, all of whom invariable come from working class towns. The second World War undermined the craft by sending those working class boys to war rather than the unemployment lines and then the gyms.

There is also a brutal equality to the ring, that seems to reflect the cutthroat nature of American capitalism. “The division of boxers into weight classes is based on the premise that if two men are equally talented practitioners of the Sweet Science, then the heavier man has a decided advantage. This is true, of course, only if both men are trained down hard, since a pound of beer is of no use in a boxing match. If the difference amounts to no more than a couple of pounds, it can be offset by a number of other factors, including luck.” (51) This actually reads to me like a fairly realistic depiction of democratic capitalism. In both capitalism and boxing there is a gap between the ideal and the reality, but at least in boxing the working class kid could, through training and motivation, having a good chance of being “trained down hard.” Capitalism is so thoroughly unfair that no amount of training (college, perhaps) can give us a fighting chance.  Perhaps this is part of the attraction of boxing.

Listen with me, as Liebling describes the nature of the boxing crowd. “It was a might crowd–paid admissions 47,585, and, counting deadheads like me, a total attendance of more than fifty thousand.  There were fifteen hundred occupants of working-press seats alone, including a major general in uniform and Joe Louis. As is usual at big outdoor fights nowadays, platoons of young hooligans from the bleachers stormed down on the field in successive waves, to take over better seats than they had paid for. Legitimate ticket-holders who arrived late managed as best they could. In some cases, with the aid of ushers and special cops, they expropriated the squatters.” (93)  Ah, a class war for seats.  How wonderful.