Either/Or… Neither? Looking Beyond the False Binaries of the Catastrophist Present
Andrew Keen is Wondering How Much Room There is For Gray
It’s been an either/or kind of week on Keen On. Either Lionel Messi or Christiano Ronaldo. Either a digital or analog future. Either evangelical support for or opposition to abortion. Either GM or Boeing. Either Gorbachev or Putin. Either good or bad Jews.
It’s been that kind of Kierkegaardian week. Either/or. And sometimes neither.
Certainly neither when it comes to either Lionel Messi or Christiano Ronaldo, the two most iconic individual stars in football (soccer). With fans counting down to the World Cup next month in Qatar, ‘tis the season for football books.
In their new Messi vs Ronaldo, the Wall Street Journal reporters Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg argue that the either/or of these two global brands reflect our own value systems in determining historic greatness. The Messi camp values the romantic ideal of God-given, unquantifiable individual genius; Ronaldo fans, in contrast, value the measurable Protestant ethic of self-made achievement.
But, as Jonathan Clegg suggested, when he appeared on Keen On this week, Lionel Messi and Christiano Ronaldo are parodies of their former selves, both on and off the pitch. Instead of the either/or of greatness, these two men are equal symptoms of the rottenness of the sport formerly known as the world’s beautiful game. Messi and Ronaldo have, in fact, merged. They are the same men.
Football, Clegg explained, has been corrupted by the neoliberal economics of winner-take-all super clubs and Messi/Ronaldo style celebrity players. The big-time losers in this globalized show are the local fans for whom watching games is now like squinting on their smartphones at packaged Instagram or Tiktok influencers. No wonder the World Cup is being held next month inside air-conditioned stadiums built by neo-slaves in the petrochemical state of Qatar. A feudalized Disneyland in the Gulf: outside geography, outside time. At least Messi, Ronaldo and their marketing retinues will feel at home there.
The choice of Messi or Ronaldo, of romantic genius versus self-made man, is a familiar either/or trope. It’s Zeus versus the robot which, in 21st-century terms, means the all-too-familiar and now rather boring “digital vs analog” debate. And it got played out, once again, this week on Keen On this week in two separate interviews about the future. One, with the Canadian writer David Sax who insists that the future should be analog. And the other with the American-Israeli law professor Orly Lobel, who argued that the future must be digital.
Yawn. Listening to Sax and Lobel similarly idealizing or trashing the digital revolution is like watching Messi or Ronaldo “play” in Qatar. Neither bear much connection with reality; both are way past their best. Once upon a time, the either digital or analog debate was interesting. It even sold some books, including a few of mine. But it’s obvious that today, in late October 2022, the future should be both analog and digital. The baby is going to get split here. Zeus and the robots—or, as Kazuo Ishiguro correctly put it: Klara AND the Sun.
Where are you on Roe vs Wade? That’s a black and white either/or on which there doesn’t appear much gray. Just as you can’t be half-pregnant, you can’t have half an abortion. No splitting the baby here. But for Becca Andrews, the author of No Choice: The Destruction of Roe vs Wade and the Fight to Protect a Fundamental American Right, the abortion issue is more complicated than even she might admit.
The thing about Andrews, as she acknowledged on Keen On this week, is that she herself has a foot in either abortion camp. Having grown up in a Southern evangelical family, she is intimately familiar with the religious nature of the anti-abortion argument. I wonder if Becca “NO CHOICE” Andrews (as she describes herself on Twitter), hasn’t given herself much choice on the either/or of America’s most divisive issue. In her life, she’s either been religiously for or against the right for a woman to have an abortion. One answer which both sides will, no doubt, angrily reject is to see the issue in anything but religious terms.
Keep morality out of the womb. That’s a tricky one.
Either GM or Boeing? While that sounds like a sedative, it’s actually an intriguing either/or for anyone interested in the reinvention of iconic 20th-century American corporations. As David Welch, the author of Charging Ahead: GM, Mary Barra and the Reinvention of an American Icon, told me on this week, General Motors has been able to reinvent itself as a credible EV manufacturer because of Barra’s leadership skills.
Either Mary Barra or Elon Musk? Barra is the anti-Musk, Welch explained, in her (female?) focus on collaboration. Which might make GM a smarter long-term bet than Tesla in terms of which company leads the reinvention of the 21st-century American automobile industry. Barra has heart, Welch argued. One day, perhaps, she could even run for American President. I wonder where she stands on keeping morality out of the womb.
Mary Barra is transforming GM into not just the anti-Tesla but also perhaps the anti-Boeing of corporate America. As Peter Robison, the author of Flying Blind: The 737 Max Tragedy and the Fall of Boeing, told me on Keen On this week, Boeing epitomizes all the worst qualities of late-stage American corporate capitalism. Most of all, Robison argued, Boeing has been led by a procession of faceless male executives, all cut from the same heartless Jack Welch-style, MBA cost-cutting neoliberal cloth. Not an innovative Mary Barra amongst them. Thus the 737 Max tragedy. And thus the company’s fall.
Either Mikhail Gorbachev or Vladimir Putin? That might seem like a no-brainer. But in the hands of Vladislav Zubok, the author of the Cundhill-prize finalist Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union, it’s actually a more complicated either/or. As Zubok told me this week on, Gorbachev’s greatest political sin was his inability to understand power. The last ruler of the Leninist Soviet Union, Zubok explained, forgot to read Lenin. Thus the power vacuum in the post Soviet Union and the fall from Gorbachev to Yeltsin then to Putin, a former KGB officer all-too-well versed in the Leninist literature of power.
And finally, either good Jews or bad Jews? The irony of Emily Tamkin’s new book, Bad Jews: A History of American Jewish Politics and Identity, is that it’s actually about how to be a good Jew in the early 21st century. As Tamkin seemed to suggest to me on Keen On this week, contemporary American Jews can be ecumenically sensitive and culturally tolerant and retain some essential Jewishness, even if, like Tamkin herself, they choose to marry out of the faith. I’m not so sure. Emily Tamkin, it seems to me, wants everything—both the either/or of exclusive and universal Jewishness.
A better either/or question would be Tamkin’s Good Female Jew versus Philip Roth’s Bad Male Jew. Nathan Zuckerman or Emma Goldberg?
The funny thing is that bad Jews often turn out to be quite good. A couple of weeks ago, Jerry Stahl, the transgressive fiction author (a Zuckerman on drugs) and self-styled bad boy American Jew, came on Keen On to talk about Nein, Nein, Nein, his new memoir of doing a bus tour of Auschwitz. Think of it as the reverse of making Aliyah. Oddly enough, the death camp bus tour transformed Stahl, to his amazement and embarrassment, into the kind of good, sensitive Jew of Emily Tamkin’s moral imagination.
Stahl got off the bus to Auschwitz as a new man. I wonder if Lionel Messi and Christiano Ronaldo should experiment with equally transformative journeys. Going to Qatar next month isn’t going to help. Maybe they should begin by reading Soren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or. I suspect they both have more of a future as existential philosophers than they do as footballers.