¶ Republican weakness

I don’t celebrate what has become of the Republican Party in America. In becoming a joke party, supported solely by people who believe in archaic forms of justice and morality, they have hurt American democracy by failing to act as a force of legitimate opposition. And I’m hardly the only one who thinks so.

There isn’t much to the GOP’s plan for America. One need only watch Mitt Romney’s nomination speech from the RNC. Light on facts, light on policy, and heavy on one singular message: let’s go back to when things were simple. To the GOP, this equates to smaller government, lower taxes, and fewer restrictions on land ownership and business practices.

If all the GOP were after was a ‘simpler’ America without many rules, they wouldn’t have been trounced so poorly in the last election. Taken at face value, “smaller, smarter, simpler” is a pretty good pitch. If their talking points and policy choices focused on economic conservatism and common-sense approaches to business (as they love to purport) they’d be doing a lot better.

Unfortunately for the GOP and US politics as a whole, the party has become overrun with some of the most backwards political statements in modern memory.

Republicans lost the election because they were against things no modern member of society need be against.

They wasted their time on ancient pro-life policies, and were outed over and over in 2012 as having no idea what they were talking about on the subject. They likened rape to having children out of wedlock, claimed rape as an act of God, and had lots to say on what happens in the event of ‘legitimate’ rapes.

Republicans failed to coerce minorities to vote for their platform as well, partially based on a number of painful choices over the last few years. The Republican immigration policy is a tawdry mess of mixed messages, and the lack of diversity in the ranks is pathetic. Most of all, they believe that nearly half the country are moochers.

Finally, republicans have fared poorly in the one area they stereotypically (though not historically) peacock about: the economy. As of late, Republicans believe that it’s been wise to hold the economy hostage. In 2011, Republican tactics got the US downgraded by Standard & Poor’s, and as I’m writing this congress has essentially given up trying to fix the fiscal cliff issue. It’s been an embarrassing couple of years for a party that would like to appear responsible with people’s money.

The point of this article is not to poke fun or deride Republicans for no reason. The point is to articulate that by focusing on the wrong things for the country, Republicans have become a much weaker party. In a 2-party system, having one weak, deluded, and hampered party doesn’t just mean that one side will more easily win—it means that it isn’t really a democracy anymore. At least, it’s not a competitive democracy living up to the potential of the idea.

“It is fine for the opposition to take on the role of a spoiler, exploiting all opportunities to damage the governing party but it hurts if now the damage is directed at itself and the country. It should distinguish between harm and harm not done to the country.”

That line was actually written about Botswana by Mmoloki Gabatlhaolwe, but it accurately describes the issue facing Republicans today. It’s more than fine to resist things. One could argue that resistance is the only real card that can by played by an opposition party. But continually and so stubbornly refusing to evolve arguments and make compromises damages the democratic conversation, simply by eliminating one voice from the discussion. Obama and the Democrats won the election not because their ideas were great, but because they were less asinine than those held by Republicans. That really shouldn’t be good enough.

America certainly isn’t alone in this. Tunisia, Russia, the previously-mentioned Botswana, and my own country of Canada and others share this problem. Sure, the degree of weakness varies wildly, but the problem is the same. If the dominant opposition of the leading party is weak, then the leading party isn’t properly challenged.

There’s a phenomenal paragraph by Thamsanqa Mlilo in regards to weak opposition in South Africa that sums up this point entirely:

I believe strong and credible opposition can provide a real challenge and scrutiny to government activities and provide a viable ideological alternative to the electorate and ideally provide a platform for democracy. A government kept on its toes by a vibrant opposition is likely to keep its policies and goals in check and, hopefully in sync with the needs of the population. However, the opposition itself has to be built on democratic foundations and if operating within a structurally permissive political environment it can foster national democracy.

The sad fact is, the Republican Party is incredibly important to the health of US politics. But their act isn’t even close to together, which means they’re nowhere near where they need to be. I hope they at least see where they went wrong, but evidence suggests they don’t really see it yet (link goes to Amazon for David Frum’s book Why Romney Lost. Here’s the Kobo link). Much like how a fight is only really worth watching if both combatants are evenly matched, democracy only really works when the debate is even, tough, and intelligent.

Let’s kill wrestling commentary

I’ve had this idea in my head for a while, but it really began to chime when I read Holzerman’s live account of Raw:

I think another thing that helped the experience was that the announcers were inaudible. Even if it were Jim Ross and a late-‘90s Jerry Lawler calling it, I think the experience would have been more enriching watching the matches with only the crowd and the people around me as a soundtrack. The fact that it was Michael Cole and late-’00s “I ain’t care” Lawler at the desk made it even better. I didn’t have to watch that main event trying to drown out the cacophonous serenade of “NERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRD” cries from Cole. I was enraptured in the moment, watching my favorite wrestler in the whole wide world right now teaming with two of my other favorites against three more of my favorite guys.

I think WWE audio stinks. It’s one of the aspects of the show I really have no real respect for.

This is a multi-threaded argument, and I’m going to go into detail, but I want to provide the thesis up-front: I think people uninterested in hearing what Michael Cole or any announcer has to say should modify the audio when watching WWE television, and let WWE know why. Switch it to Spanish, turn the sound all the way down, or find some way to not hear the English commentators at all.

Isn’t the audio an integral part of the show?

Originally, audio in sports broadcasts existed because a large enough portion of people watching the game at home weren’t watching at all—they were listening. For a long time, the only way to get live coverage of a game was through radio. This was true for boxing, and true for wrestling, as wrestling was broadcast and treated like a real sport for a long time. The commentators were there to provide play-by-play analysis for those who literally couldn’t see a thing. The audience watching the game in the stands didn’t get that audio, and they still don’t. Audio commentary was and is, in many ways, a ‘hack’ to get more people involved.

Audio commentary also helps in sport because sometimes the camera is far away by necessity (like in soccer or hockey), so it’s the commentator’s job to tell you just who has the damn puck or ball or whatever. Audio commentary is very, very useful when there’s 22 guys on a playing field and they’re all wearing the same helmet and jersey. It’s not so helpful when a half-asleep child can figure out that Randy Orton is just going to win all the matches forever.

Audio as the show itself

Over time (during the 20th century, before everyone had more than 5 channels at home), radio broadcasts of sports events, audio plays, and the like became quite popular, and in many circles still are. There are still people out there who prefer their entertainment to be audio-only. Perhaps its just habit, but I like to think it’s because an audio broadcast sparks imagination in a similar way that reading does: by providing only part of a thing, your brain has to paint in the rest.

The best play-by-play commentators in the business work with this audience member in mind, and there is an entire industry (niche as it may be) that strives to make incredible radio for sport and fiction lovers alike. Though there isn’t a lot of documentation on this, I have no doubt that wrestling enjoyed the same kind of treatment: I bet wrestling announcers made some great radio in their day.

But have you listened to the audio of WWE television without watching the video? It’s downright schizophrenic. The announcers rarely talk about the events transpiring in front of them, and when they do, it’s with a vague broad stroke that would break the heart of any true broadcaster. Individual moves are named from time to time, but it’s such a rarity to hear a string of them, I almost can’t remember the last time that transpired. This is structurally inexcusable from an audio-only standpoint, unless the match in question is Kane vs Chavo from Wrestlemania XXIV.

The ratings problem

Audio schizophrenia in WWE programming has been a staple for a long, long time. Long before Michael Cole became the standard voice of WWE television, they have abandoned audio clarity for layered narration. I’m not saying there isn’t value in the way that works, and I understand the motivations behind it. By layering talking points between the action on-screen, the action that happened earlier in the show, the action that will happen later in the show, and the action that will happen at the next show, viewers are kept abreast of an overall short-term timeline of events.

The decision to make the audio this way had merit. Every moment of the show is at once a reflection on the past, present, and future of the product, and the viewer is never confused (in theory) about where they are in the narrative. This is something that doesn’t really work for scheduled sport (as games have a schedule independent of player interaction) or featured sport (marquee boxing events used to occur only due to player interaction). Due to the nature of sport, sticking with in-the-moment broadcasting makes the most sense.

But with wrestling, context is hyper-important. What is happening is often because of what happened, and will affect what later happens, and these things need to be explained. In the case of WWE, the general practice is to over-explain and dumb down to the lowest common denominator. Instant replays don’t help, either, as WWE will often take the opportunity to simply play the whole scene again, with the commentators adding yet another layer of context over something they just talked about. WWE wants to make sure that even if you’re only barely paying attention, you didn’t miss anything.

But ultimately, WWE’s audio choices are built out of ratings; specifically, ratings in the Monday Night Wars. Much like the monthly PPV format, WWE’s audio choices are weapons from a war that doesn’t exist anymore. Older WWE programming wasn’t like this. Up until about 1994, the broadcast journalists in the WWE booth were much looser and allowed far more chances to improvise. Gorilla Monsoon, Jesse Ventura, Bobby Heenan, and even Vince McMahon were far more palatable to listen to, because they weren’t at all concerned about you changing the channel on them. You were watching wrestling, and there was nothing else on quite like it. They may not have made the best audio-only experiences, but they were at least fun to listen to (and we should be all about breaking rules if the result is fun, which says a lot about wrestling fans and our expectations).

“Don’t go away,” is a mantra lots of TV shows utilize, and many networks are annoying about it. I’m not going to go into a much larger argument about TV’s attempts to stop you from getting off the couch or changing the channel (“If you could just sit there and stare forever, that’d be good”, says the TV exec, who doesn’t quite understand that you sometimes have to go out and buy the things you learned about in commercials), but needless to say, the Monday night wars escalated the use of this particular instrument by an insane factor. It wasn’t unprecedented to have two similar shows compete directly against one another, but no two competitors were more cut-throat than WWE and WCW (Letterman and Leno may not have liked one another, but Leno never came out and told everyone that Letterman “was going to win with the superkick, so don’t bother watching”).

The “Shawn wins with the superkick” jab was only one of many shots between the shows, and it’s important to note that these particular weapons were often dealt by the commentators. Because commentators had always existed a little outside the show, it was somewhat natural for them to sometimes comment on the larger world around them. In the case of the MNW, the larger world included their competitors. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t (“Mick Foley is going to win their world title. Huh, that’ll put butts in seats”), but both companies believed it to be important.

The live experience

Holzerman’s Raw account illustrated something about the live experience of wrestling that few have managed to really capture: not only is it refreshing to watch a WWE show without the audio commentary, but it might just be better. If the audio is only there to get you to keep watching, and you’re going to keep watching anyway, what’s the point? They aren’t teaching you anything about pro wrestling that you don’t already know (a wasted opportunity), they aren’t telling you anything the wrestlers don’t already say in their monologues (which they shouldn’t talk over), and they aren’t enhancing the visual product in any tangible way, why do we need them?

Or, think about this: what if you only watched WWE wrestling live? What if you followed the show around, and the only thing you knew about the show was what they presented in the ring? Would you really be any worse off? According to Thomas Holzerman, and according to the hundreds of thousands of screaming fans that buy tickets every year, the answer is that you would in fact be better off.

Back in the summer, WWE began allowing live customers to buy earpieces that let them hear the commentators. I haven’t heard anything else about this, and I don’t think it’s proven very popular (this is conjecture, but silence in this case is telling). I think given the choice between audio and no audio, live customers don’t want Cole yelling in their ear.

Switching the audio

As of next week, all my WWE viewing will be done by listening to the Spanish audio. I don’t speak or understand Spanish, so really all I’m going to understand is crowd noise and wrestlers speaking. To understand what’s happening, I’ll have to pay attention. I think I’m going to enjoy the show a lot more.

Of course, that’s not ideal. But what would be? It’s simple: a live experience option. There is absolutely no technological reason why WWE can’t give us an audio feed of the arena, so we hear everything the live audience hears. No more, no less. It would be like watching ballet or Cirque du Soliel on television: you hear the creak of the stage and the accompanying music, but some idiot isn’t telling you that the white swan just got corrupted. You figure it out yourself, because you’re a bright fella. Wrestling commentators exist because people in the wrestling business never took that into consideration.

Fair to Flair: I Enjoy Wrestling

Fair to Flair: I Enjoy Wrestling

Left and Leaving

“There is only one success — to be able to spend your life in your own way.” — Christopher Morley

When did simply going home and staying there become a thing we sought after? I don’t remember, but I certainly feel it. A lot of people feel it. Maybe the last generation wanted to punch out their boss. Maybe back then Stone Cold Steve Austin made them feel really good, because they could imagine what it would be like if they could act like he did. But today, these days, it’s about going home. That’s all any of us want, it seems. We want to sit on our couch and cuddle our girl and watch HBO. We want to lazily wander around at home and chat with our friends and Tumblr for hours. We want to be left the fuck alone and only dip into society when we goddamn feel like. So of course CM Punk is a hero. 

CM Punk left. He beat John Cena for the WWE Championship, blew a kiss to Vince McMahon, and ran off into the beautiful Chicago night. The last five minutes of the show was a beautiful silent short. In retrospect, what a strange thing to present us. A villain wins, a villain leaves, a villain gets everything he wants, and in that moment we all wish we were him. We all wish we could grab the prize and walk away. We all wish we could go see a damn ball game while our dictator employer is fired on live television. 

CM Punk left. Even twenty-four hours after Punk ran up the stairs past the shocked masses, nobody knew for sure if he was part of WWE anymore. We didn’t know if he’d signed a contract. As far as anyone could piece together, Punk was actually gone. They were going to crown a new WWE Champion and pretend he never existed. 

CM Punk left, and in leaving truly defined his principles. The strongest wrestling characters are ones whose principles never waver, who are loved or hated due to circumstance and well-tuned conflict. Punk had always been strongly defined—a straight-edge asshole, a tattooed degenerate who insulted your heroes for their hypocrisies — and those by themselves would have been fine. But by leaving, Punk evolved. He is now, and perhaps from now on, a man who wants to go home. He is a man who loves his friends, his city, his couch. You can see it in his eyes, in his step. He’s tired, and he wants to just do this thing. So of course CM Punk is a hero. 

CM Punk left, but then he came back. He returned because the new boss talked him into it. Presumably, HHH did whatever he could to make Punk sign. We don’t know the specifics of the deal, but we also don’t know what the WWE Championship means, either. WWE likes to leave these kinds of thing open — not because they’re lazy, but because they like the audience to fill these kinds of things in themselves.

The WWE Championship means something different to different people. Hell, it means different things to different performers. Sometimes it’s a thing you win. Sometimes it’s a thing you steal. Sometimes it’s a thing you break with a hammer. Sometimes it’s a thing you almost forget on someone’s sofa. Sometimes it’s a thing that more than one person gets to have, if only for a few weeks. 

CM Punk left, but we’ll probably never know if he left “for real.” Though Punk has insisted that he was going to go home and stay there, we don’t know the particulars of his contract, when he re-signed, and whether  his contract was ever in danger of expiring. If I had to guess, I’d say Punk re-signed before they ever began the story. I’d like to think WWE is a little better organized than to let someone actually main-event an important show without signing a contract, but I don’t know. You don’t know. Nobody knows. And we likely never will. 

CM Punk left, but he came back and immediately became the anti-authoritarian figure to the new, shiny authority figure. It’s likely that the next few months will be about that struggle. It’s an old story, and one that so far hasn’t produced new beats. Whether they do or not is the true test: does WWE acknowledge the true desires of their fans? Do they realize just how much Punk speaks for us? Do they realize the changes they have to make in order to keep this story relevant? If they do, they know this: It is vitally important that the threat of Punk leaving is always there. It is paramount that Punk’s goal is to get on his couch, away from the road, the toil, and the performance. Punk needs to go home. They can throw all the roadblocks in his way that they want, but he needs to keep that couch as a goal. If they let him forget that, if they let him just be another superstar competing for a metaphor-filled macguffin like everyone else, then they’ll have lost our desires, too. 

The best wrestling characters have strong principles, but they also need strong desires. Sometimes, winning the belt is that desire. Sometimes it’s becoming a myth. Sometimes, like the case is with Punk, it’s the desire to go home and be able to stay there. Punk wrestles so that one day he won’t have to. He left, and he will always be leaving.