What's Tony Thinking

From A Distance, America


Sometimes when you’re right in the middle of something, it can be difficult to see it with clarity. When you get some distance on a situation you may be able to see it more clearly.

For now, life has given me some distance on my native land. As regular readers of this blog know I am serving a two-month stint as minister-in-residence for a congregation in San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico. And, again, as you regular readers know San Miguel is a special place, a UNESCO World Heritage site city, beloved by international and Mexican visitors alike.

It would be easy to do comparisons of San Miguel and, say, Seattle, where we live, but it would be unfair. Unfair because I really don’t know San Miguel deeply at all. And at this point it is easy to take shots at a once enviable, now beleaguered, Seattle.

Visitors typically describe San Miguel as “magical.” The architecture, the art, the colors, the public squares all make it, yes, magical. But the word I would use is “gracious.” Take yesterday. We were riding home from church with a friend when I saw a place that I had walked by and thought intriguing. We jumped out and went in. It was a small hotel with a restaurant in its beautiful interior courtyard.

We treated ourselves to a lunch that was a bit on the expensive side. When we walked out, a jazz singer and pianist had just set up in the square across the street. We found a bench and took it all in. Kids were dancing around the square. Photographers, including Linda, were setting up shots (her photo at right).

Bougainvillea cascaded down nearby walls and terraces. Pedestrians drifted by, some stopping. It was magical. It was also gracious. A gift of public life and beauty we shared with strangers, some gringos like us, but mostly Mexicans enjoying Sunday in San Miguel.

These days I don’t often use the word “gracious” to describe my native land. “Fearful” seems more apt. There’s a sense of menace about life in America these days. We have become an anxious people in the land of the free and the home of the brave. People are wary, and not without reason. A shared public or community life seems more the exception than the rule. Strangers aren’t those with whom we share life and place, but more often objects of suspicion.

A story in yesterday’s New York Times seemed to capture at least some of this. And I do not refer to the most recent mass shooting story, at the Q club in Colorado Springs, though the steady, appalling drumbeat of these mass shootings in our country, and an armed and carrying citizenry, is certainly one reason for our dis-ease.

The story that struck me was one of several from a Times investigation into sports betting, which thanks to a Supreme Court decision in 2018 that green-lighted sports betting, is rapidly growing. The particular story I noted documented the way that universities have colluded with what is benignly termed “the gaming industry” to pimp out their students in what the Times called “the Caesarization of the college campus.”

Schools like Michigan State, The University of Colorado and Louisiana State University have led the way in giving the Caesar’s Sportsbooks of the world ready access to their students, with promo codes, discounts and deals designed to hook students on gambling. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

“When the University of Colorado Boulder in 2020 accepted $1.6 million to promote sports gambling on campus, a betting company sweetened the deal by offering the school an extra $30 every time someone downloaded the company’s app and used a promotional code to place a bet.

“[Such] deals were part of a far-reaching but secretive campaign by the nascent online sports-gambling industry. Ever since the Supreme Court’s decision in 2018 to let states legalize such betting, gambling companies have been racing to convert traditional casino customers, fantasy sports aficionados and players of online games into a new generation of digital gamblers. Major universities, with their tens of thousands of alumni and a captive audience of easy-to-reach students, have emerged as an especially enticing target.”

In America today most everything is for sale, even apparently a university’s students. Of course, some would say that such hucksterism is nothing new in America, and they have a point. But America’s public universities were once one of our nation’s greatest achievements, a crown jewel of democracy. Free to inexpensive higher education in truly great institutions. But over the last forty years, public universities across the land have been beggared by politicians whose only program is cutting taxes (chiefly for the already wealthy). In the same period, for another example, America’s national parks — once our common inheritance as citizens and free to all — have been tattooed with fees for entry, parking and use permits, even as their maintenance has lagged.

Universities justify their promotion of gambling as a needed source of revenue, just as state lotteries have justified themselves as funding sources for public schools. But we know, in our heart of hearts, that gambling eats away at us, addicting thousands, destroying lives and families and fueling organized crime.

That said, this latest scam is only one example of our willingness to monetize our common life. Each step in that direction divides us further into a society of the haves and the have nots, as well as a society of heightened anxiety and suspicion. The spaces and behaviors one might characterize as “gracious” have, in America, been steadily eroded.

From a distance the “land of the free,” while still enjoying freedoms we ought neither forget nor take for granted in a world of autocrats like Putin, has become increasingly “the land of the fearful and the edgy (and not in the hip sense).” It’s what happens when civic life and a sense of community is sacrificed to putting most everything, even a university’s students, up for sale.

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