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What Happened Today: December 7, 2022
Germany stops coup; Illinois boots bail; Iran kills dissidents
The Big Story
Some 3,000 police officers raided 130 properties across Germany, Italy, and Austria on Wednesday night to apprehend 22 suspects tied to a terrorist cell that authorities say had plans to overthrow the German government. “The suspects are united in a deep rejection of the Federal Republic of Germany, which has in the course of time developed in a decision to initiate a violent coup for which they had made specific preparations,” the German federal prosecutor said. “The members of the organization understood that their endeavor could only be realized by using military means and violence against representatives of the state. This includes committing murders.”
The suspects taken into custody were part of the leaderless Reichsbürger movement. The loosely aligned collective counts more than 20,000 supporters who have created their own schools and official papers as part of their effort to build an alliance that will overtake the postwar German government they view as illegitimate. Members of the group hold to a variety of beliefs, with some who adhere to Nazi ideas and others with ties to QAnon conspiracy theories, though most hold to the core tenant that Germany is currently ruled by a deep state under military occupation that must be overthrown. A former legislator and a sergeant within the KSK, Germany’s special military command, were apprehended along with several ranking former military personnel, some of whom were heavily armed with illegally acquired weapons.
In Frankfurt, police also arrested Prince Heinrich XIII, a minor nobel descendant that the coup leaders had planned to install as the new head of the German state. A real estate developer and one of the few remaining descendants of the House of Reuss dynasty, the 71-year-old prince had long advocated for a return to a global order ruled by monarchs. “If things didn’t work well, you just went to the prince,” he said in a 2019 speech. “Who are you supposed to turn to today? Your parliamentarian, the local, federal, or E.U. level? Good luck!”’
In the Back Pages: The Death of Sport
→ Democrats will have a little more breathing room come January after Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock defeated Republican challenger Herschel Walker by three points in a runoff election Tuesday night. The win gives Democrats a 51 to 49 majority in the Senate for the new 2023 term, a single seat bump from their current bare-minimum majority that will nonetheless yield an advantage on congressional committees in which Republicans will lose much of their leverage over legislative business. The Democrat’s victory also marks the fourth statewide win for the party since 2020, when President Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win in Georgia in almost 30 years. That sets up Georgia as a high-profile battleground state for the 2024 race for the White House.
→ Come the new year, Illinois will no longer have cash bail, as Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the controversial changes to the criminal justice code into law on Tuesday. The shift away from a cash-bail system will put the onus on judges to determine if defendants pose a public safety risk and need to be in prison while they await trial. The move has been championed by criminal justice reformers who see cash bail as a way for affluent suspects to avoid jail time, and it’s been decried by several law enforcement groups that say letting too many defendants back onto the streets will endanger the public. The law will now face a legal battle as a bipartisan coalition of some 60 Illinois state attorneys from various counties argue that the new law is a violation of the state’s constitution.
→ Hours ahead of an impeachment vote before Congress, Peru’s President Pedro Castillo announced a national curfew and the dissolution of Congress, replacing it with an emergency government that will rule by his decree. The coup prompted resignations by officials throughout the government. It pushes the nation to a precarious edge after months of scandals plagued Castillo, with prosecutors accusing him and his family of rampant corruption and abuse of government contracts.
→ Number of the Day: 25
A new Pentagon study found that nearly 25% of all currently active military members faced some form of food insecurity in 2021. Now the U.S. military will make the largest bump to the amount of money given to troops in more than 20 years, increasing the monthly food allowance for active-duty troops by 11%. That increase will translate to about $45 a month, an amount that the Defense Department says should offset food expenses for service members, but not their family members. Critics point out that, besides not being a lot of money for food-insecure troops, the food facilities themselves need improvement, with better hours and healthier options that troops want to patronize.
→ It’s a pricey set of pinstripes for the Yankees, who just inked Aaron Judge to a $360 million nine-year contract, the largest-ever deal for a free agent. Before last season, Judge had turned down the Yankee’s paltry $213.5 million seven-year offer, deciding to see how another season on the field could improve his leverage in negotiations. The bet paid off: Last year Judge put in a historic performance at the plate, hitting for an American League (AL) record of 62 home runs and a major league tie for most runs batted in (RBIs) that propelled the Yankees to an AL East title. The 30-year-old made his major league debut for the Yankees in 2016, when he hit a home run at his first at bat.
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→ A 35-year-old Indiana man Hassan Yehia Chokr was arrested for two counts of ethnic intimidation, a felony, when he drove by a preschool at a synagogue and shouted antisemitic threats at the toddlers, parents, and teachers. After being told at his arraignment on Monday that he was being placed on house arrest with a $1 million bond and limited access to the internet, Chokr hurled invectives and racial slurs at the judge, throwing a tantrum similar to the one he succumbed to at a separate hearing on Tuesday for another case involving an assault against a police officer in 2020. After the outburst from Chokr, who was in custody and appearing in court via a video feed, Judge Regina Thomas placed his screen on mute, which prompted Chokr to turn around and moon the judge, who then revoked his bond. “And now he has removed his pants to show the court his backside,” Judge Thomas said, adding that he “seems to be mentally ill.”
→ At least 21 of the some 18,200 protestors arrested by Iranian police since demonstrations against the death of a young woman in police custody in September are facing the prospect of death sentences, according to Amnesty International. Sahand Noormohammadzadeh, one of six people already sentenced to death for the crime of “enmity against God” following a sham trial, has also faced at least three mock executions, BBC Persian reports, a form of psychological torture compounded by interrogators who told the 27-year-old that he would need to sign a confession if he wanted to see his mother, who they falsely claimed had suffered a heart attack and was on the verge of dying. Though the defendants sentenced to death will have an opportunity to appeal the decision, the judiciary has already announced the executions will take place in the immediate future.
→ Doubling the age of what was once considered the oldest genetic material known to man, a research team of scientists from some Cambridge and Copenhagen universities have decoded 2-million-year-old DNA that had been preserved in Ice Age sediments of clay and quartz found in the far northern reaches of Greenland. The fragments are culled from mastodons, reindeer, and other animals, as well as plants including birch and cedar trees, and should offer new clues of how old ecosystems once adapted to radical changes in the climate. “A new chapter spanning 1 million extra years of history has finally been opened, and for the first time, we can look directly at the DNA of a past ecosystem that far back in time,” said Eske Willerslev, a leader of the project.
TODAY IN TABLET:
Tel Aviv’s Gay Dads by David Christopher Kaufman
As more Israeli gay men become fathers, parenthood is emerging as the great gay equalizer
Mark Podwal’s Tikkun Olam by Ruth Oratz
Celebrating one of our great American Jewish artists
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The Death of Sport
Theaters of play are transforming into spectacles of politicking and financialization
By Hirsh Chitkara
What exactly feels so off about this World Cup? Could it be the last-minute beer ban? The fake fans imported from Lebanon in exchange for airfare and a small stipend? Or perhaps the tournament is haunted by the scores of migrant laborers who died building the $200 billion infrastructure for the four-week event, a fact Qatari officials chillingly attempted to downplay by placing the estimated death toll at 400 rather than the reported 6,500.
The diagnoses vary: The New York Times blamed racist crowds, The Wall Street Journal pointed to Qatar’s human rights record, The Intercept focused on Jared Kushner’s Middle East peace deal, and Jacobin bemoaned the absence of a socialist midfielder inspiring the masses. Taking it a step further, The London Review of Books asked how we could even "justify burning this much of our carbon budget on international football," since this World Cup represents "a gigantic dose of hydrocarbon wealth” being spent on “an immensely carbon-intensive spectacle."
Notably, none of these explanations have to do with the thing itself—the sport taking place on the field and our relationship to it. As sports become increasingly politicized, and as we enter a new era of online gambling, the pleasure of rooting for the home team is steadily being squeezed out by a ruthless logic of instrumentality that leaves sports fans poorer in every sense.
Writing in the late 1970s, social critic Christopher Lasch explained that professional sports offered spectators a unique form of escape, fantasy, and play. The American public craved this play more than ever, as managerial capitalism pushed them into jobs that offered little in the way of creative challenge.
“Games enlist skill and intelligence, the utmost concentration of purpose, on behalf of activities utterly useless, which makes no contribution to the struggle of man against nature, to the wealth or comfort of the community, or to its physical survival,” Lasch wrote in his 1979 best seller, The Culture of Narcissism.
Rather than see this uselessness as a flaw, Lasch understood the lack of instrumentality as fundamental to the appeal of sports. If sports served a purpose, they would lose their charm—we would “perform” rather than “play” them. “The essence of play,” Lasch reminded us, “lies in taking seriously activities that have no purpose, serve no utilitarian ends.” The Catholic philosopher Michael Novak explored the same idea, writing that play provides “the fundamental metaphors and the paradigmatic experiences for understanding the other elements of life.” He knew play was “not tied to necessity, except to the necessity of the human spirit to exercise its freedom.” In this way, Novak placed sports in the same category as religion, seeing both rooted in the “historic response of humans to their own liberty.” In a culture growing increasingly hostile to religion, is it any wonder play suffers the same fate?
Yet Lasch also warned that the degradation of sport consisted “not in its being taken too seriously, but in its trivialization.” He worried about a sporting culture that valued spectacle above all else, and saw this process happening everywhere he looked: in baseball rules changed to stimulate bored fans, the growing dimensions of jumbotrons, stadium trinket giveaways, and attempts to popularize hockey by encouraging brutal fights. These examples look quaint when stacked against this World Cup’s opening ceremony, which was narrated live by Morgan Freeman from an air conditioned stadium and capped off with a performance from Korean pop megastar Jungkook of BTS.
In Qatar, we have all the spectacle money can buy, and yet the soul of the game, its playfulness, feels uncompelling. Politicizing the World Cup has stripped it of its vitality by making it seem as if nothing on the field matters—and judged by the standards of the political, it doesn’t. Oh, Messi scored on a magnificent volley from beyond the penalty box? Well he did so in a stadium built by brutalized migrants, paid for by a government hell-bent on destroying the environment, in front of fans pleading for basic human rights. Maradonna didn’t dig Argentina out of its debt crisis. Landon Donovan didn’t make Americans any less obese. Mbappe couldn’t ease France’s immigration tensions. And when the confetti clears from this World Cup, the gas will still flow out of Qatar while the migrant workers flow in—only the media attention paid to these issues will have changed.
The result of giving sports over to pure politics and spectacle could be seen in the all-out marketing blitz that took over the billboards of New York in 2022 after the state legalized gambling. For months after the initial publicity wave, you would be hard-pressed to walk a single city block without encountering a DraftKings, MGM, or FanDuel ad. The promotions at first seemed too good to be true with promises that financial freedom stood only a $10-deposit-to-your-smartphone away. Some companies offered thousands of dollars in betting credits, assured that new customers would return the favor with loyalty. (Here “customer loyalty” serves as a polite corporate euphemism for “spending enough time on our apps to lose your entire initial deposit and hopefully a whole lot more.”)
And of course, the companies were right: In less than ten months, mobile sports betting companies generated $13 billion in the state of New York. Governor Kathy Hochul boasted of having “opened the door to responsible entertainment for millions of sports fans.”
As a 20-something-year-old male with a bored tic of checking ESPN, I found myself a prime target for these corporations. Yet I also considered myself prudent (some might say stingy) and intuitively disliked the idea of betting on sports. If I loved sports on their own terms, why complicate the relationship with money? Sports betting wasn’t even particularly new. Beginning in the 2010s, any moderately tech-savvy sports fan could list two or three dodgy websites (denoted by their lack of a “.com'' domain) that took advantage of some overseas loophole to facilitate “legal” gambling.
But the onslaught of promotions proved too tempting to resist, and hubris got the best of me. I deposited $20 in one of the apps and decided it would be all the money I ever gambled, drawing inspiration from the family relative who returns from Las Vegas boasting of a single, sober trip to the roulette tables (she went primarily for Siegfried and Roy's Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat, as one does).
In the months that followed, I managed to build my account balance up to around $500. Naturally, I took credit for this excellent rate of return, though it had more to do with the steady flow of promotions undoubtedly intended to flatter my gambling esteem until I developed a habit. When I won, it meant I could buy dinner and feel that it was free. When I lost, well…I only deposited $20, so I was playing with house money anyway.
Slowly but surely, I took note of changes in the way I experienced sports. The first few games pleasantly intensified my viewing experience. But eventually the excitement of the bets took precedence over the games themselves, and the two decoupled: I could watch a spectacular NFL playoff game and fixate only on whether a particular receiver would make his third catch. Conversely, I could watch a complete blowout and be incredibly tense, waiting to see if the total score would surpass 70 points.
The betting stopped “enhancing” games because it superseded them entirely. Team loyalties held since childhood began to fray. I only consciously realized what was happening when, while listening to Cleveland sports radio one day, a professional gambler explained that he couldn’t watch sports for fun anymore. In fact, serious gamblers don’t even watch games based on interest, only those that lend the greatest betting advantage, which could just as well be semi-pro basketball in Japan or pickleball in Italy.
We can look to the extremes to see what’s ahead. As with the alcohol industry, sports betting companies know the real money comes from their most addicted customers. They have had tremendous success finding these users among young men. And while sports gamling has been around for a long time, this wave of seamless app-based betting has been different: Revenues are nearly tripling year-over-year, while the National Problem Gambling Helpline reported a 84% increase in chats during 2021 and expects those numbers will further increase. Wall Street analysts predict a staggering $35 billion will be wagered on this World Cup.
My foray into gambling—limited as it was—convinced me that we are on the precipice of a decline in sporting culture much steeper than Lasch imagined. Betting creates a synthetic substitution for the true joy of sports; it allows us to feel the thrill of a touchdown or buzzerbeater again, only we aren’t reacting to the on-field play itself, but the fact that we correctly predicted it and therefore stand to profit from it. Betting is similar to social media in this way, as both mimic sensation without the underlying substance. And, as with social media, sports betting makes us so accustomed to the synthetic substitute that we eventually struggle to return to the real thing.
Lasch noticed that the “same forces that have organized the factory and the office have organized leisure as well, reducing it to an appendage of industry.” Betting lets young men participate in sports the same way they participate in the financialized information economy. In simpler times, watching sports meant appreciating the virtuosity of player performance; now it means flattering our own presumed ability to navigate a financial market, only one where the derivatives have to do with actions taking place in a stadium rather than the prices of cotton, Bitcoin, or gold. When fantasy remains out of reach, we can only imagine ourselves participating as we see ourselves working—with spreadsheets, data, and steady profit margins eked out patiently over time.
Hirsh Chitkara is a writer living in New York City.