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SPORTS AND WAR : Pop Philosophy After The World Cup

07/17/2014 03:01 EDT | Updated 09/16/2014 05:59 EDT

After the double humiliation of Brazil by Germany (7-1) and by Holland (3-0) the depression in the host country of the World Cup was almost total: adults and little kids weeping uncontrollably, dire predictions of national decline, the cherished 'futbal', the nation's favorite pastime, biting the dust.

Was it all worth it? What is the point of all this pain and suffering when Brazilians could have stuck to samba, gorgeous Copacabana beaches and enjoyed delicious mixed grills?

As Monday Morning Pop Philosophers let us muse over the ethics of sports, competition, conflict and its ultimate version -- War.

The most abstract representation of War is the game of chess. Now, we can ask, is chess bad in that it incites humans to play at WAR, or is it good in that it allows us to PLAY at war, with ultimately harmless results? Are Games and Sports a prelude, exacerbator or substitute for armed struggle?

First the commonalities between sport and War. Both excite strong passions of Us vs. Them, of nationalism, of pride in victory and shame in defeat. The language is similar, 'kill, annihilate, neutralize, take out'. Conflict is glorified : to the victor the spoils.

But there is at least one notable difference: what happens to the losers. War has a certain finality in it which sports and games do not. In War when you are killed, that's for keeps. No reset button, no start over. Your stay in this world is gone for ever. While the World Cup teams were staging elegant plays leading to occasional goals, in the name of Us vs. Them, in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq and Gaza, people were dying, also in the name of Us vs. Them.

Even if we set aside death, the treatment of victors and vanquished is very different, in sports and war. The winners of the World Cup get a handsome bonus, while the losers get a slightly less handsome bonus. Some sponsorships may be lost, but the rich losers still stay very rich and live on to fight another day. In War, the vanquished who escape death will suffer occupation, misery and, in the past enslavement or serfdom.

Are sports, then, are a good substitute for War? Yes and No.

In Ancient Greece, battles were sometimes decided by a duel fought by the two best fighters from opposing armies in bilateral combat, thus sparing thousands of other deaths. This was illustrated in the opening scene in the movie TROY matching Achilles to Begreus. It would indeed be an improvement if political struggles could be decided on the playing field with no bloodletting.

But we have to make a distinction between types of hostile games.

Soccer is indeed a 'beautiful' game, marked by the choreography of pretty passes with very little violence, unlike contact sports like American football and Canadian hockey, where violence is an integral part of the game. At the extreme of the violence scale we have boxing, 'ultimate fighting' and the Roman gladiatorial bouts in the Coliseum where defeat usually meant death.

Video games are a special case. The early ones like Space Invaders were abstract shoot 'em up games, divorced from reality. But the contemporary high definition ones are so near reality that they are too close for comfort. By simulating warlike violence they promote it, especially in the minds of gullible teen agers and have often inspired the mass shootings which have plagued American Society, in the past few years. These games have definitely exacerbated rather than dampened hostile passions and must be considered dangerous. Regulating them would make a lot of sense.

But, it might well be asked, should inter-human hostility be considered, a basic need that has to be satisfied, one way of the other, or can we do away with it altogether ?

The partisans of 'empathy' will argue that it is not a basic need. However, evidence suggests that inter-human struggle may be hardwired in our species because of the need to fight in order to survive. This was true when we were facing the dinosaurs, but it is still true when we have to protect ourselves against viruses which are bent to destroy us. Our immune mechanism is programmed to destroy them first. The pugnacity of humans seems to be a survival condition and intra-specie conflict one way to keep this pugnacity alive.

What then is our armchair conclusion after the month long World Cup party?

Competition and conflict is part of the human condition, in culture, politics and obviously economics, because markets will not function without competition.

But let us channel these primal drives towards more convivial and even friendly forms, where after the fight, we party together. Let us have more 'beautiful games' like soccer and less 'ultimate fighting'. Let's celebrate what some have called "la copa permanente" -- an ongoing revelry of competition and celebration where the winners win a lot and the losers lose a little -- leading to a much better world than our present daily diet of medieval killings and executions which are a disgrace to humanity.