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Explaining John Rocker
(Courtesy of Cashill Newsletter - February 19, 2000)
By Jack Cashill
As has become apparent to the world, Atlanta Braves relief pitcher, John Rocker, does not like riding the New York City subway. As he confided to a Sports Illustrated writer, he finds it "depressing" to share so confined a space with "some kid with purple hair" or "some queer with AIDS" or "some dude who just got out of jail" or a "20-year-old mom with four kids."
As Rocker also notes candidly, "I'm not a very big fan of foreigners." It depresses him too that New York is rife with "Asians and Koreans and Vietnamese and Indians and Russians and Spanish people" who don't speak English. No doubt about it, Rocker's remarks are crude, insensitive, and xenophobic. But they are not exactly racist, nor particularly novel coming from an unschooled 25-year-old. Truth be told, you can regularly hear this kind of talk not only in the sports bars of Rocker's Macon, Georgia but in those of Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, even Harlem.
What's novel--and frightening--is the reaction to John Rocker from New York and the nation. Rocker has already had to submit to Maoist-style public self debasement and a Soviet-style psychiatric exam ordered by Major League baseball. Indeed, if the most fevered of his critics have their way, he will be banned from the game for life.
Much of the heat is coming from New York, both from the corporate honchos who travel above ground and from the workaday grunts who move below. For Rocker to get roasted by the libs in a city that Jesse Jackson once described with near impunity as 'Hymietown" and that only this year sponsored the scurrilously anti-Catholic "Sensation" exhibit comes as no surprise. To expiate their guilt for never riding the subways--for many of the reasons John Rocker cites, though more artfully explained--they have long scapegoated New York's working classes. More troubling is that the usual suspects, the subway riders from Bensonhurst and Bay Ridge, have joined in the hang-the-racist hysteria. This, they have never done before.
I know something about about NYC and its subways, more than John Rocker does. At 13, I started taking the Lexington Avenue IRT on a daily basis. I boarded at Fulton Street. Folks who don't know any better ask me if I did my homework on the train. Subway riders don't ask this question. They know better. I never did get a seat when boarding this train. Never even got close. Not once in four years.
If, as John Paul Sartre claims, "Hell is other people," A rush hour NYC subway is utterly infernal. The rider is immersed willy-nilly in a steaming cauldron of humanity. Those of us who started young learned diversity before we recognized it as a virtue. Besides, as a sweaty, pimply adolescent from Newark, awash in teen self-loathing, I was in no position to patronize anyone, and I knew it.
That's not to say we loved each other. Far from it. Xenophobia, the fear of foreigners, comes as easily to the subway rider as it has to the rest of humanity throughout history. The connotations of the Greek word for stranger, "barbaros," suggests that the crafty Odysseus would have felt no more comfortable his first trip on the Number 7 train than did the infamous Rocker.
For all their forced intimacy and cosmopolitanism, subway cars are unfriendly places. We endured each other's "otherness" because we had to. We bonded only when the subway was invaded by someway more "other" than any of us: a vomiting drunk, squabbling drag queens, a street gang.
From Fulton Street I headed back to Newark, and that's when the going got seriously rough. Many a night I found myself the only "other" on a downtown Newark street corner waiting for the always-late 34 Market. On one occasion, in the pouring rain, a young guy pulled over in his van and offered me a ride. Thinking it was a white guy-white guy kind of thing I accepted his offer. Bad move. After I rejected his advances, he threatened to kill me. I talked him out of it. I didn't tell my mother. I had given up reporting anything to anyone after I got mugged and robbed at nine, and the mugger's friends returned to "jack me up." I didn't even tell any one when I got held up at gunpoint at age 12. Or at 14 when I got mugged--on the very bus that was taking me home.
To make matters worse, those of us who lived in the fray knew that if we complained, those who lived above it would call us racists or homophobes or worse. That's how the libs alienated us and the Dems lost us. As a role model, all the media could give our parents was Archie Bunker, a condescension that still rankles.
Yet despite the inevitable friction among the various ethnic groups, we were still all subways riders. That was the bond. We may have distrusted one another, but we didn't condescend. Like city cops or EMTs, we used humor to ease the tension. Whites told jokes about blacks, blacks about whites, and everyone joked about Arabs and Indians and Jamaicans and Gays and whoever else strolled into the cultural crosshairs. As Americans, we knew we were supposed to transcend the cultural rifts, and if humor helped, so be it. Transcendence didn't come easily.
New York City has long had a tolerance for the rough and tumble of cross cultural humor. Howard Stern rose to immense popularity in New York City because he dared to joke publicly about the things that had previously been joked about only privately. He captured the city's Zeitgeist, and he was funny. His high ratings bought him a stunning degree of immunity from the sensitivity police.
To go national, Stern understood that the ethnic stuff wouldn't play well much beyond Newark or Nassau County. The working stiffs might get it, but their betters surely wouldn't. So he began to focus almost exclusively on sex, a topic that does not offend liberal media mavens. Thanks to Stern and all too many others in the national media, one sex and drug and violence related taboo fell after another.
To be sure, Sports Illustrated's parent company, Time Warner, helped grease the decline.
The 90's were a demoralizing decade by any standards, especially in sports. If Jimmy the Greek Snyder's artless remarks about slave breeding killed his career, a sexual assault rap only slowed Marv Albert's down. Guys like Steve Howe got hero's welcomes every time they "beat their addiction," even if for the seventh time. Running back Lawrence Phillip's could drag his girl friend down the stairs by her hair and still find any number of suitors in NFL. Unrepentant sleazeballs like Pete Rose got bigger cheers than Ted Williams or Henry Aaron. Scores of start athletes fathered babies and abandoned them without consequence. And if he "nation's first fan" committed a rape, that was just a mistake, as Al Gore has famously noted, that we "should just put behind us."
New Yorkers seemed particularly tolerant of past peccadilloes. They embraced coach stranglers like Sedale Threatt and chronic druggies like Darryl Strawberry, and all too many of them egged on OJ in his berserk flight and cheered empty-headedly when he was acquitted of two brutal murders.
But these same fans have turned on Rocker big time. Part of it is because they're still smarting from the Mets' loss to the Braves in the divisional series. Part of it is because Rocker attacked their town, a town of which they have once again become proud thanks to their homie, Rudy Giuliani Part of it is because they think he's so stupid for saying out loud what they have long since learned to keep to themselves.
But part of it, the scary part, is that they too may have finally signed on for the racial scapegoating in which the American left has indulged itself for the last generation. Weary of being whupped in the Media's relentless racial morality play, they decided to join in the whuppin.
The only New Yorkers not represented were those who could afford not to, but more on that later.
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