My adopted home The Great American Southland has contributed much to the American Culture - the Blues, Barbecue, Moonshine and . . . NASCAR ! ! !
Mind you, as a transplant from the British Commonwealth, it took me a long time to understand and appreciate NASCAR for what it really is.
When I first came to the South, I simply did not understand NASCAR - it is nothing like the Grand Prix, or my favorite the Le Mans 24 Hour Road Marathon. In fact I didn't get it until fairly recently, and of all people it was a Birkenstock-wearing Earth Mother-type professor of Ancient History who explained it to me: "You think your modern professional sports franchises are something? The longest running professional sports franchise in history was Roman chariot racing. It went for over six hundred years, continuously, and it had all the same components of modern team sports. In fact it's still going on."
"You ain't never heard of NASCAR?"
I never looked at NASCAR the same from that point on. When Special Forces saw fit to send me to driving school - they called it Military Mobility Force Protection but really it's Demolition Derby meets Mad Max - I came to appreciate NASCAR from the drivers' point of view; swapping paint at speed, drafting right up on the bumper of the guy in front. Sure, it takes nerves of steel, but once you understand exactly how much air you have to work with between the outer body and the critical components - radiator and tires - and the fact that even if the guy you're drafting on totally locks up his brakes, he'll still be moving forward at a significant rate of speed - it puts a whole new perspective on your daily commute.
This year's NASCAR season went out with some notoriety when First Lady Michelle Obama was booed by the crowd at the Homestead-Miami Speedway for the Sprint Cup finale.
This event was the subject of some rather heated dinner table conversation over Thanksgiving dinner this year - unlike last year, however, guns were not present. My hosts were scandalized that the First Lady of the United States was booed by the crowd. My position is that you've got to know your audience - what happened at NASCAR should be no more surprising than going to a hockey game and seeing a fight break out.
Let Them Eat Arugula
Michelle Obama conducts herself like Marie Antoinette, with her opulent vacations and lifestyle - the difference being that the Queen of France was on her own dime; you and I paid for Michelle jetting four hundred of her friends to the most exclusive resort in Spain and putting them all up for a week in $2000 dollar-a-night hotel rooms. The First Lady and her husband carry themselves in a certain manner that seems to be summed up by comments Barack himself uttered when he thought the mikes were off:
"You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them . . . they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."
The crowd that booed First Lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, the wife of the Vice-President, are the Bitter Clingers. I myself am a Bitter Clinger; in that I like guns, I am religious, and unlike Michelle, my better half didn't have to run for President of the United States for me to be proud of my country.
I am also a student of ancient Greece and Rome - the Classic Era - and remarkably, what happened last week at NASCAR has parallels in the ancient world.
The ancient Roman and Byzantine empires had well-developed associations, known as demes, which supported the different factions (or teams) under which competitors in certain sporting events competed; this was particularly true of chariot racing. There were four major factional teams of chariot racing, differentiated by the colour of the uniform in which they competed; the colors were also worn by their supporters; these were the Blues, the Reds, the Greens, and the Whites.
The team associations represented various social and political issues of the society. They combined aspects of street gangs and political parties, and frequently tried to affect the policy of the emperors by shouting political demands between the races. The Imperial forces and guards in the city could not keep order without the cooperation of the circus factions.
Things came to a head on January 13, 532 AD. Iin Constantinople - seat of the Eastern Roman Empire - a tense and angry populace arrived at the Hippodrome for the races. The Hippodrome was next to the palace complex from where the Emperor Justinian could safely watch and preside over the races. From the start the crowd had been hurling insults at Justinian. By race 22, the partisan chants had changed from "Blue" or "Green" to a unified "Nika" (Nίκα) meaning "Win!" or "Conquer!"). What happened next was the crowds broke out and began to assault the palace. For the next five days the palace was under virtual siege. The fires that started during the tumult resulted in the destruction of much of the city.
Justinian, in despair, attempted to flee the city by ship, but his wife Theodora met him at the dock and is said to have refused to go, saying, "Purple (the color of the royal robes) is a good color for a funeral!" This is possibly the origin of the saying: "Behind every great man is a great woman."
The conclusion of the riotous rebellion involved about thirty thousand rioters reportedly killed, Justinian's political rivals also executed or sent into exile, and the total consolidation of Justinian's rule over what became the Byzantine Empire.
For the record, I do not endorse the behavior of the race crowd last week in Miami. My point is that the next time the crowd turns ugly on a political theme, it will not be the first time. And Michelle Obama should be aware that if she is going to behave like Marie Antoinette, she should not forget how THAT particular episode of history played out.