Of the 225 countries that watched the Super Bowl, nearly none play American football. Not familiar with the rules of the game, they were merely staring at a spectacle. Of all American sports, football is one that has not spread overseas. It doesn’t translate well. The amount of equipment required excludes poor countries, which are most of the world, but there is perhaps much in its nature that precludes universal attraction. It is extremely violent. On every play, someone is knocked down, but he doesn’t writhe and grimace, as in soccer, but gets right back up. With his padded shoulders and helmeted head, a football player appears more than human. He is a machine. A robot. A mascot for NFL broadcasts is a hulking, dancing robot. With his thick neck and imperviousness to pain, a football player is the opposite of your weepy feely, pencil-necked intellectual. He is no wuss.
The objective of every football play is to gain real estate. For tactical reasons, a soccer player often passes a ball backward, sometimes even to his own goalie, but in football, there is only the forward thrust. In fact, a backward pass is illegal. Gaining yards is so important that it defines the success of every play, and of every player who touches the ball. A running back had a successful day if he gained 100 yards, even if he never scored and his team lost. In no other sports are statistics kept of yards gained. A soccer or basketball player can dribble the length of the field or court without tallying anything, but in American football, each yard must be counted.
This nearly continent-sized country has always defined itself by rapidly expanding, by gaining yards and miles. Settle the coast, then foray inland. Move the natives out of the way. Get rid of them. Kill them. Half of Mexico was swallowed up, then Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Guam, the Philippines, on and on, until now, America has at least 700 military bases in 130 countries. That’s a lot of yards gained. Granted, there are no people that have not engaged in territorial warfare with their neighbors, but the relentless reach of the United States is unprecedented.
Much more than land, America invades minds. There is scarcely a brain alive that’s not constantly titillated and harassed by American culture. Worldwide, people wear hats and shirts with American words and slogans they don’t understand. They listen to American lyrics and babble English words, even to themselves. In Vietnam not too long ago, a woman asked if I liked the song, “Aleet Beeper.” What she meant was “Careless Whisper.” Whatever its title and whatever it meant, she liked that song. Also in Vietnam, I saw “POLO” stickered onto a Japanese motorbike. This man had Americanized his modest rice cooker, since America is glamorous and cool, much more so than Japan or anywhere else, for that matter.
Humans are warm but machines are cool. Notice the ubiquity of “cool” to denote anything positive in American English. Americans aspire to become hard, tough, and efficient machines that feel no pain. More specifically, they identify with their car, that carapace that enwraps them daily and gives them personality and status. Spending more time with his car than anything or anyone else, the American’s best friend is his automobile. Nowadays, it can even speak and tell him where to go. Year in and year out, car commercials dominate the Super Bowl. Becoming anthropomorphic, they can drive themselves and chat to each other. One can say that the main objective of each Super Bowl is to sell more wheels.
Clueless of the rules, foreigners still tune in to the Super Bowl, since empire exudes not just power, but a kind of sexual allure. The alpha male also demands vigilant attention. He is dangerous and you can’t hide from him. By his cold-blooded calculations or whims, a person in the remotest place may just die in his sleep, killed by a plane or drone, even without knowing why. A recent report revealed that only eight percent of Afghan men had even heard of the attacks on 9/11 of 2001, America’s pretext for invading their country.
Even more than usual, war lurked behind this Super Bowl. Before Christina Aguilera botched “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Lea Michele sang “America the Beautiful,” so there were two national anthems, so to speak. Troops with flags were arrayed behind these singers. As Aguilera fluffed and mumbled, we caught a glimpse of a grinning George W. Bush. Our war-criminal-in-chief would appear again later, as would Condi Rice. After Aguilera’s last note, military jets roared overhead. During the game, we were suddenly introduced to Sergeant Salvatore Giunta, a decorated veteran of our invasion of Afghanistan. He stood with other soldiers beyond the end zone, waving. As has become customary, the announcers thanked all of “our troops” worldwide “for all that they do.” Earlier, there was a shot of American soldiers watching the Super Bowl in Afghanistan.
America is beautiful, but so is every other country. None can match her in mass media allure, however, in collective hypnosis. In a 1997 article for the US Army War College, Major Ralph Peters sums up America’s cultural edge, “Hollywood goes where Harvard never penetrated, and the foreigner, unable to touch the reality of America, is touched by America’s irresponsible fantasies of itself; he sees a devilishly enchanting, bluntly sexual, terrifying world from which he is excluded, a world of wealth he can judge only in terms of his own poverty.” And, “The films most despised by the intellectual elite–those that feature extreme violence and to-the-victors-the-spoils sex–are our most popular cultural weapon, bought or bootlegged nearly everywhere. American action films, often in dreadful copies, are available from the Upper Amazon to Mandalay. They are even more popular than our music, because they are easier to understand.”
America is seductive. In fact, the further one is from America, geographically, culturally or economically, the more alluring she can become. Without an actual experience of her, America is pure fantasy, a fabulous rumor.
One of history’s oddest ironies is the name Mỹ Lai, which means “half-American” in Vietnamese. Mỹ is “American.” Lai is “of mixed race.” If a person is “Mỹ lai,” he is half-American. Further, Mỹ in Vietnamese also means beautiful. In colloquial Vietnamese, America is the beautiful country, and Americans, beautiful people. In the half-American village, of a country that called America “beautiful,” American troops killed around 500 unarmed civilians on March 16th of 1968. Nearly all were women, children and the elderly. America seduced, then killed. During one of Israel’s episodic massacres of Arabs—there have been so many, I can no longer remember which one—I saw a photo of a dead child wrapped in a Mickey Mouse blanket. Murdered by an American bomb, she would be buried with her beloved American icon. An American talking rat accompanied her to eternity.
Watching the Super Bowl, Americans and foreigners alike can come away with these clear messages: Fun is not free. We must kill constantly so cars can be sold. We are a virile and vital nation, at least on television. The seats at this spectacle are way out of reach to you, even those who dwell right here, in the cartoony belly of the beast, but your seats at home are free, as long as they haven’t been bombed. Lastly, you can never be like us, the beautiful creatures you see on our shows and movies, but you’re free to stare, stare and stare.