Posted by mike in Religion,Sports at 10:26 pm on March 26, 2009

College sports are big business, and at the nation’s premier athletic schools, it’s exceedingly cutthroat. Fan expectations run correspondingly high, with most fanbases not having much patience when it comes to “rebuilding.” We’ve seen this with Notre Dame football and Ty Willingham, Indiana basketball and Mike Davis, and many other examples. The most recent coach at a big-name program to find himself on the hot seat is Billy Gillispie, who has coached Kentucky’s men’s basketball team for the past two seasons (he was preceded by Tubby Smith, who was coaxed to resign when he didn’t make enough Final Fours to live up to the fans’ standards, despite the fact that he’d won a national championship in 1998… as I said, high expectations).

After his second season at Kentucky ended with a loss to Notre Dame in the NIT, Gillispie was asked about his thoughts on how his performance will be judged, as word of a potential firing was already beginning to spread. He responded,

There’s only one judgment I’ll ever be concerned about, and I hope I pass that judgment. That’s the only one I’ll ever be concerned about, and I’m really proud that that’s the only judgment that will ever have a real effect on me, and I hope I pass that one with flying colors.

(Note that the ESPN article on the matter initially completely missed the point of the above quote, but they’ve since un-editorialized their version of it.)

The statement is obviously a reference to Gillispie’s religious beliefs, his feeling that the only judgment that matters, presumably, being the one that happens outside a set of brass gates that sit atop clouds and is passed by a really old guy with a long white beard. Or something along those lines. The irony is funny enough (he doesn’t plan on being judged on how he’s judged), the apparent belief being that whichever all-knowing weightless cloud-man will ultimately judge him, competence at his job will not be considered as a factor.

This type of hands-off approach to life is actually one that seems to be pretty prevalent among modern-day Christians. The teaching seems to be that, rather than taking an active role in what happens to you or those around you, it’s better to stay out of God’s way and let him do things as he knows best, without your interference. Megan receives forwarded emails encouraging her to adopt this stance from Christian friends of hers fairly frequently, and I always insist that she share them with me, not only because I find it dumb-foundingly amusing, but because it’s useful to remind myself that this is how a large percentage of Americans view the world. (As I try to spend my time with rational people more often than not, this is a sentiment that I occasionally fail to recognize as much as I should.) Here is an excerpt from one such email:

This is God. Today I will be handling All of your problems for you. I do Not need your help. So, have a nice day. I love you.

P.S. And, remember…
If life happens to deliver a situation to you that you cannot handle, do Not attempt to resolve it yourself! Kindly put it in the SFGTD (something for God to do) box. I will get to it in MY TIME. All situations will be resolved, but in My time, not yours.

(The odd capitalization is maintained from the original.)

Apparently people derive inspiration from such messages. I guess I don’t have too much trouble believing that, seeing as I’m really lazy and don’t like having to do things for myself, either (or even having to get off the couch, for that matter). That doesn’t lead me to believe that the solution to my problems is to ignore them and hope that magic will resolve them for me, though. Ignorance is truly bliss, I suppose.

As for Billy Gillispie, he seems to be in the perfect place… for the time being.

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Posted by mike in Entertainment,Politics,Religion at 12:16 am on December 16, 2008

I know I’m a little behind on this one, but here’s a video I think that everybody should watch. It’s 7 minutes from The Daily Show that near-completely summarizes the two prevailing points of view on the gay marriage issue, with Mike Huckabee playing the role of the social conservative with the slight Southern drawl, and Jon Stewart serving—as usual—as the person with the capacity for rational thought.

Huckabee keeps harping on what I think is the worst possible defense of anti-gay-marriage laws: that they are only exemplary of the will of the people. “If the American people are not convinced that we should overturn the definition of marriage,” he says, “then I would say that those who support the idea of same-sex marriage have a lot of work to do to convince us.” Stewart uses what I consider to be the most obvious retort to this type of thinking: “What if we make it if Hispanics can’t vote?” Is there any doubt that if such a measure were put to ballot in, say, Texas or Arizona or New Mexico, that it would pass? Or how about a vote to remove rights from black people in a state like Arkansas—wouldn’t you imagine that, if given the chance, the majority of the people in that state would happily assert their will in such a measure’s favor? (Am I guilty of broadly applying stereotypes here? Of course… but that doesn’t diminish the credibility of the point.) “Segregation used to be the law,” Jon reminds us.

Stewart also takes another stance that’s near and dear to me: “Religion is far more of a choice than homosexuality.” This, of course, is a particularly relevant comparison to make, considering the near-universal religious basis of anti-gay-rights movements as of late.

Huckabee runs through all of the go-to arguments against gay marriage rights. I think one of the most curious to me is when he suggests that were homosexuals given the right to marry, then “we would have to say to the guy in West Texas who had twenty-seven wives, ‘That’s okay.'” And without knowing the details of the story he seems to be referring to (and ignoring the obvious “straw man” nature of the point he’s trying to make in the first place), my initial reaction to that is: why shouldn’t it be? If 28 consenting adults have found an arrangement that brings them happiness, whose business is it to tell them they’re wrong? What about having 27 wives is intrinsically damaging to society, other than the fact that it’s not what white Christian Westerners have been told constitutes a “healthy family”? Perhaps that’ll be a fight that’s waged at some point in the (distant) future. (Or perhaps someone can tell me what I’m missing with this topic… “You watch too much Big Love” not being particularly enlightening.)

Obviously for now it’s all our culture can handle to try to address this current issue intelligently. When there are still people—leaders, in fact; governors, even—trying to assert “the difference between a person being black and a person practicing a lifestyle” it shows just how entrenched most of the thinking surrounding this issue is. Not to mention how fucked up.

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Posted by mike in Film,Religion,Reviews at 7:37 pm on October 19, 2008

Status: In limited release (opened 10/3/08)
Directed By: Larry Charles
Written By: Bill Maher
Cinematographer: Anthony Hardwick
Starring: Bill Maher

The message of Religulous is apparent up front, although for some reason director Larry Charles and writer Bill Maher choose to wait until the end of the film to explicitly state it: religion is a divisive, nonsensical, and damaging force around the world, and if we are to continue to coexist and progress as a species more of us are going to have to come to view all religions as the antiquated hogwash that they are. That I happen to completely agree with them only means I was looking forward to seeing this film, sought it out while it’s in limited release, and will hope that many others see it and—just maybe—are swayed a bit by it. That said, I attempted to view it objectively (as I do all films), and found it to be well made, but not without its problems.

The movie is split about half-and-half between Maher delivering monologues on the subject matter, and Maher conducting interviews with various religious people of various faiths and backgrounds. The balance is pretty decent, although the monologues are shot in a somewhat awkward manner, mostly in the back seat of a car as Maher travels around the world seeking out subjects for his interviews, with him speaking into the back of the driver’s head rather than looking into the camera. At times we see him standing at various religious sites, from Jerusalem to the Vatican to Salt Lake City, and again he’s speaking to somebody beside the camera more than he is directly to his audience. The technique, I suppose, is meant to be flashy or maybe even artistic; instead I feel it detracts from the content of what’s being said, and in a movie like this where any deviance from the message’s primary thrust will be misconstrued as a fault in the argument being presented, I think this is a major sin to commit.

Primarily, though, this is a comedy, and it delivers laughs in spades. The irony of ironies is that for the majority of its audience the laughs will be at the expense of every religion but their own: it’s those other people who’ve got it all wrong, with their kooky beliefs and ridiculous traditions. But of course the joke is on them the most: those who think their point of view is the most rational are also the most adept at serving as living examples of the depth of its irrationality. Maher is an expert at setting up his interview subjects to make fools of themselves, and he is happy to allow them to do so. “I’m just asking questions,” he says early on. The dissent to his argument will surely be, in part, a claim that he is only showing fringe elements of each religion, the bad apples in an otherwise virtuous group. It will quickly become apparent, of course, that this is not the case: Maher spends as much time with religious leaders as he does with the most common followers, and they all exhibit the same hilarious lack of reason in their attempts to justify their unjustifiable beliefs.

If anything, I actually think that Bill Maher goes too easy on the majority of his subjects (a complaint I occasionally have with his HBO Show, as well). “My thing is doubt,” he repeatedly points out. To me this is just an attempt to get his subjects to meet him halfway: they’re not going to admit that what they believe is wrong, but maybe they’ll admit that it’s open to a little more scrutiny than they’ve been giving it. Maher plays the part of the skeptic, but his stated purpose is only to make the point that nobody knows the answers, so maybe none of them should adapt such a certain stance. I think it would be more effective—not to mention even funnier—if he were to uninhibit his point of view, and allow himself to say, “I absolutely know that what you are saying is completely untrue” rather than, “well, we can’t be certain, can we?”

As a comedic survey of the current state of religion around the globe, this is a well made documentary told from the perspective of a skeptical interviewer. As an educational tool, it does a surprisingly good job (I was pretty surprised at how many gasps there were from the audience I was in when atheistic quotes from our founding fathers were presented, as they were lines that I personally was very familiar with, but the shocked response indicates that this must’ve been the first exposure many of these people had to such quotes). As an argument against religion, it presents many examples supporting its cause, but as the interview subjects repeatedly show, you can’t convince people to not hold to their beliefs when they do so without reason in the first place. Rather than getting frustrated by this, however, Maher is always able to laugh and to share his laughter with his audience, and in this he succeeds immensely.

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Posted by mike in News,Religion at 10:31 pm on November 1, 2007

Yesterday, the Westboro Baptist Church was found liable of invading the privacy of a grieving family and inflicting undue emotional stress upon them, to the tune of $2.9 million in compensatory damages and $8 million in punitive damages. This is, of course, everybody’s favorite church, with their always-popular website (note: the site doesn’t always load; apparently God hates reliable web hosting, too). To say I have some thoughts on these people is probably an understatement.

First of all, let’s assume that we believe in a God, and we give a shit about what he thinks (I consider this premise itself to be quite ridiculous, but bear with me here anyway). So based on this belief, we probably also think that he created the universe and everything in it. Suppose, for some reason, that he creates some things that he likes and some things that he doesn’t like; some of his own creations, like “fags,” he even goes so far as to hate. And I guess even after realizing that he hates them, he’s stubborn enough to continue creating them anyway. (One can only imagine the types of self-hatred issues this might cause.) So then we’ll further assume that some of his children on earth, particularly in the great progressive state of Kansas, are actually enough in tune with this god that they are not only aware of his existence, but they actually know which of his creations he loves and which ones he hates (whether or not he is only indifferent about some creations is still up in the air, I suppose). They furthermore know that, armed with this insight, it is up to them to educate the rest of the world about which of this dude’s own creations he hates (they figure you don’t care too much about learning about those that he loves, since those aren’t nearly as interesting). So they take it upon themselves to spread this word, that of God’s hatred of fags. Naturally the most logical way to go about this would be to protest at the funerals of heterosexual soldiers who died serving their country, right?

Okay, so people are free to believe whatever they choose in this country. And they’re free to express themselves, too. But I think these people got off way too easily with only a civil lawsuit. Personally, if I’ve recently lost a loved one and am attempting to grieve that loss in the form of an archaic mourning ritual, and somebody decides to not only interrupt that ritual, but to do so in the form of actually celebrating the very death that I am mourning, that person isn’t going to be walking away from said engagement, and they’re going to be missing at least a few key organs on their way out, too.

Now, of course not many people take the parishioners from Westboro too seriously. But I don’t think enough people are questioning their motives thoroughly enough. The church is led by a man named Fred Phelps, and the parish consists primarily of members of his extended family. So it’s safe to say that what Fred believes, the Westboro Baptist Church believes. And I submit to you that there is nothing in this world that causes a man to have so much hatred for another group of people as the conflict that arises from repressed feelings clashing with indoctrinated religion. And just as the string of closeted Republicans, or the never-ending series of gay priests, are typically the most outspoken anti-gay activists there are, so too does Fred appear to fit the mold of one whose bigotry seems like it could only be the result of his own repressed feelings and his inability to deal with them.

Fred Phelps, cocksucker

Just look at ol’ Fred there, and ask yourself this: how much does he love the thought of sex with men? Do you think he fantasizes about fucking other men every hour of the day, or only on the even-numbered ones? Is there anybody in the world who would be more satisfied by a cock unloading in his mouth than good old God-fearing Fred there? I sure don’t think so.

And if you look at it in that light–as a guy who’s inherently homosexual, but so simple-minded that he can’t accept it, even in himself–then it sort of becomes a sad tale, doesn’t it? And yet, he’s so over-the-top with his vitriol that it makes it hard not to hate him whether you feel sorry for him or not (and remember, hatred is apparently a godly sentiment, so you can feel virtuous in expressing it). Not that the man deserves any sympathy; just that it’ll be sadly satisfying when his own inevitable child-raping stories finally surface. It ends up making me wish that I believed in a silly childish nightmare world called Hell, just so I could picture poor old conflicted fag Fred burning in it.

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Posted by mike in News,Religion at 4:28 pm on June 14, 2007

Massachusettes today shot down an initiative to put a same-sex marriage ban on their 2008 ballot. As such, they remain the only state to have legalized same-sex marriages.

What always gets me about issues like this is how remarkably ignorant the opposition always comes out looking. It’s not just that it’s pompous, idiotic, and against everything that this country supposedly stands for to try to legislate your personal beliefs onto others. It’s also that when you do so, you manage to completely miss the whole point altogether.

“Everybody comes from a man and a woman. That’s the basic fundamental group or unit of society,” said same-sex marriage opponent George Howe, 52. “People get caught up in man-man or woman-woman relationships, they are missing the point.”

I suppose the above would be a valid statement if, in yet another example of Christian beliefs that are not only nonsensical but also downright impossible, “the point” were for every person to procreate. It never once seems to enter into the minds of people like this that “the point” might just be that we–as a people, as a nation, as a society, as a culture–should not stand in the way of each others’ happiness, whenever possible. If what makes others happy does not make sense to you, that’s fine. But it seems like it should be viewed as a much larger and much more detrimental leap than it commonly is for people to then turn and feel justified in using this misunderstanding of others’ happiness as a basis for denying it.

It strikes me as quite ironic that people are so boisterously anti-gay-marriage only a few days after the 40th anniversary of Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court case that legalized interracial marriage in this country. The parallels are remarkably obvious to all but the most bullheaded.

As seems to increasingly be the case lately, Penn & Teller make the most sense on this matter. It’s a pity not everybody gets Showtime, but fortunately for those who don’t, the show is available on DVD, and (obviously) highly recommended.

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Posted by mike in News,Religion at 8:02 pm on May 29, 2007

The Creationism Museum in Kentucky (where else?) opened yesterday, and I can’t think of any surer sign of the diminishing of our society’s general level of intelligence. Here we now have a place for delusional people with archaic beliefs to not only pretend to know what science is (which isn’t that uncommon), but to pretend that it’s actually on their side, as well.

“It’s really impressive—and it really gives the impression that they’re talking about science at some point,” Krauss said. On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being best, “I’d give it a 4 for technology, 5 for propaganda. As for content, I’d give it a negative 5.”

The pictures accompanying the Yahoo article are pretty humorous overall, if you’re the type who can laugh at stupidity (I am). Aside from all of the depictions of the douchebag who started the “museum” demonstrating just how smug his smile can be, I think the one showing a hippie-looking dude in jeans walking beside a dinosaur is my favorite:
Hippies Walked With the Dinosaurs
I can only hope that they open a “Hippies with Dinosaurs” exhibit at some point in the future.

Of course, I do find the tactics used by the museum’s leading opposition to be pretty funny, as well. Good for them, though. I’m glad to see people who are as sick of the “freedom to believe what they want” mantra as I am, and instead focus on their own freedom to ridicule those people for their ridiculous and detrimental beliefs.

Update: I forgot to include this link when I originally posted: Sneak Peak at the Creation Museum.

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Posted by mike in News,Religion at 10:55 pm on April 11, 2007

My absolute favorite author of all time, Kurt Vonnegut, died today. As his ubiquitous characters the Tralfamadorians would say, “So it goes.”

Vonnegut was the author of several of my favorite books, the most dear to me being The Sirens of Titan. The back cover of it refers to “a prophetic vision about the purpose of human life,” and I recall thinking when I first picked it up, “Wow, this Vonnegut guy’s got some balls.” And, of course, he did–not only does the book dare to ask the question of the meaning of life, but it answers it as well.

I remember reading some years back how Vonnegut planned to sue the big tobacco companies, because he’d been a chain smoker all of his life and had yet to die as a result. It’s somewhat fitting that in the end, at the age of 84, the cigarettes still didn’t get to him (a lingering injury from a fall did). I hope as he went, he did so like Bokonon from Cat’s Cradle, “thumbing his nose at You Know Who.”

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

So it goes.

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Posted by mike in Religion at 4:47 pm on January 7, 2007

Today I was led to a video called “Kirk Cameron and Bananas.” It presents what the video’s makers consider to be empirical evidence of God’s existence: the banana (which is referred to as “the atheist’s nightmare”). The clip is taken from Episode 7 of The Way of the Master.

I expect that the futility of the argument being made is self-apparent to my readership, but the ridiculously inept level of reasoning employed by people like this never ceases to amaze me. In The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins refers to the technique used as the “Argument From Personal Incredulity.” It goes something like this:

I, personally, am unable to think of any way whereby the banana and my hand could’ve simultaneously come into existence in such a way as to fit together so nicely. Since I am not educated enough in the ways the world actually works to be able to explain this in anything resembling a reasonable manner, I shall instead leap to the conclusion that it must be because God made them that way. As if further evidence of my misunderstanding of how to present a logical argument were needed, I will then employ the circular reasoning technique of concluding that I have thus proven God’s existence.

(In fairness to Dawkins, he goes a bit easier on his hypothetical subject than I do here, but the gist is the same.)

Examples such as this video would be funny if it weren’t for the fact that the people in it are generally-respected religious role models, and actually believe what they’re saying. It’s even more saddening to think that the majority of their audience presumably buys into the “evidence” being demonstrated.

The ridiculousness of the situation compounds itself even further, though, when you consider that these same people deny the bountiful evidence for the evolutionary history of the human species. The host in the video has even written several books on the subject. Did they really ignore the most obvious mental association with bananas that the majority of their audience would surely make? Do they really not consider that the hands of apes are at least as capably equipped to handle bananas as our own? Do they really not consider what those similarities are actually evidence for?

Of course they don’t, and that’s the whole point. Such an astonishingly small amount of thought goes into presentations like this that it is truly mind-boggling to imagine any potential audience taking it seriously.

After initially posting this, CK pointed me to this Popular Science article, which details the banana’s history of selective breeding in the context of the search for the next version of America’s favorite fruit. “Almost no plant has been cultivated longer by humans,” it states. “After 15,000 years of human cultivation, the banana is too perfect…”

It turns out that the people in the video above couldn’t possibly have chosen a worse example for the point they were feebly trying to make. You’d think they might have put even the smallest amount of research into the truth behind the apparent perfection of the banana before using it as the crux of their argument, but I suppose that’d be giving them way too much credit.

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Posted by mike in Film,Religion,Science at 10:12 pm on November 27, 2006

There have been several times in my life when I’ve been inspired to write something, but been beaten to it by somebody else. The best example of this is Kevin Smith, who has done it twice: first with Clerks, and then again with Chasing Amy. I have no way of proving that I thought of writing a screenplay in either case that would address the same subject matter in roughly the same manner. I furthermore make no assertions that what I would have produced, had Kevin not beat me to it on both occasions, would have been anywhere near as inspired and well done as his films were.

I’ve gotten away from my screenwriting aspirations in recent years, while trying to develop something that resembles a professional career. I’ll get back to said aspirations soon enough, I hope; in fact, part of the reason for starting this weblog was to try to return to the habit of writing out my thoughts in a manner that is at least a bit more planned out than daily conversations or message board arguments, in the hopes that I would eventually progress to more serious writing projects.

The most recent example of somebody beating me to the punch by writing something that I not only think I would have written, but could have written, is Sam Harris‘s Letter to a Christian Nation. In it, Harris has concisely and convincingly pointed out the major flaws with our culture’s ridiculous adherence to archaic religious beliefs. What I admire most about Harris’s writing is that he cuts right to the chase, and pulls no punches. I’d like to think that if I were to address the same subject, I’d be able to keep my cool as much as he does, but in reality I have trouble convincing myself of this.

A great example of his ability to maintain not only his rationality but also his temper in the presence of complete blind ignorance is a recent debate between Harris and conservative radio talker Dennis Prager. I think that the debate itself serves as a fairly accurate portrayal and summary of the issues at hand. On one side, you have somebody trying to illustrate his rational point of view using elementary logic and reasoning. On the other, you have somebody who obviously is unwilling to look at things in a logical manner, even while he recognizes the necessity of framing his perspective as if it were based on something resembling logic.

My favorite part, though, is when Prager decides to turn to attacking our system of education:

“We therefore have two choices about how to interpret these data. One is that the more one knows, the less likely one is to believe in God. That is your interpretation. I have another interpretation—that contemporary higher education increases factual knowledge but decreases wisdom. With some exceptions, I believe that the more time one spends at a university the more foolish he or she becomes.”

I would hope that I am not being too presumptuous to suppose that the ridiculousness of this statement is apparent to anybody who would be reading my blog: the distinction (and implied contradiction) between “factual knowledge” and “wisdom”; the implication that “wisdom” equates to “belief in God”; the nonsensical conclusion that attainment of factual knowledge is equivalent to becoming foolish. The funniest part, though, is the sheer hypocrisy of it: Prager makes it a point to emphasize his own university tenure in the About Prager section of his website, referencing his time as a Fellow at Columbia University and his graduate work he did while there. One can only conclude that Prager himself has arrived at his faith by succumbing to the foolishness that was instilled in him while at the university.

This is pretty indicative, I think, of the kind of self-contradicting nonsense that comes out when somebody attempts to expound an inherently illogical position by farcically pretending to use logic and reason in support of his stance. Personally, I would have infinitely more respect for his position if he just said, “Look, I believe in God despite the fact that there is no logical reason to do so, and that’s that.” Of course, that’s not saying much, mathematically speaking.

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Posted by mike in Religion,Sports at 10:07 pm on October 26, 2006

Tonight is game 4 of the 2006 World Series. I have two major interests in this year’s Series:

  • As a Cubs fan, there is no baseball team I hate more than the Cardinals.
  • Having grown up in Grand Rapids, I have always been somewhat of a Tigers fan, although I’ve always preferred National League ball, and grew up watching the Cubs at least as much as the Tigers. Also, my Dad and extended family (most of which still lives in western Michigan) are Tigers fans, so I’ll be happy for them if their team wins.

Not that I wouldn’t be watching anyway, but having something to root for (or, more importantly, to root against, in the case of the Cardinals) is nice. The downside to being interested in and closely watching the World Series is that you have to put up with the Fox Sports broadcast. In this case, that means dealing with play-by-play commentary from life-long Cardinals fan and son of a former Cardinals play-by-play announcer Joe Buck, and color commentary from former Cardinals catcher Tim McCarver. I doubt anybody has ever accused Fox of being unbiased.

The thing, though, that annoys me the most about watching post-season baseball is the forced and contrived nationalism during the 7th-inning stretch. Since shortly after September 11th, 2001, we are “treated” to God Bless America during the stretch of regular-season games on Sundays, and all post-season games. The connection being made is obvious enough: baseball is our national pastime, and thus a part of what defines us as Americans; somehow it is even a part of our national religion. And of course that last part is where the annoyance lies: not only are we expected to get teary-eyed and patriotic, we are also assumed to be religious, and to furthermore tie our patriotism and religion together in a way that can only be appropriately captured by a cheesy Irving Berlin song.

I’m sure that at least part of my annoyance in this ritual stems from the fact that Wrigley seems to be the only park that still sticks with singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the stretch, as Harry did for so many years. Fans of other teams probably don’t feel as slighted as I do when they are denied that tradition. Moreover, though, the phoneyness of it all is what really gets to me: the falsetto in which “God Bless America” is inevitably delivered; the faux reverence with which it is introduced by Buck; the cliched shots of crowd members with their hats off and their hands across their hearts and their somber faces looking off to the American flag above the scoreboard. It’s as if everybody is in on the act, and nobody’s mentioning how insincere it all is.

At least Joe Buck isn’t able to come up with a way to give Tony La Russa all of the credit.

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