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Subdued Colors

Two weeks ago, while sipping drinks in a friend’s home, I had an alarming thought about the direction this country …

Two weeks ago, while sipping drinks in a friend’s home, I had an alarming thought about the direction this country is headed in. I was ensconced comfortably on his Navajo-style sofa, my feet planted firmly on his Hopi-style woven carpet, my eyes gazing around the room at some ceremonial masks imported from Polynesia. On a desk a few feet to my left sat Aztec-influenced clay figurines; on a shelf was a book about the lost treasures of the Etruscans. Suddenly I had a thunderbolt of insight about the decor: Every artifact in the room had either been produced or inspired by a civilization long since overwhelmed, superseded, or wiped out by a mightier one. In short, my friend had furnished his home entirely in a style best described as “Early Vanquished.”

Far be it for me to suggest there is anything wrong with furnishing your house with pottery, sculpture, wall hangings, or recliners whose principal stylistic influence is a civilization vanquished ages ago by Spanish conquistadors, French trappers, English redcoats, or Roman legions. But the fact that the room was furnished entirely in a style commemorating the civilizations of defeated peoples made me wonder if it wasn’t subliminally, subconsciously an expression of its owner’s abiding doubts about the values of American civilization. I raise this point because of the nation’s current obsession with sporting equipment associated with teams that do not win. Wherever you go these days-the mall, the beach, the movies, the grocery store, Disney World-you are likely to see a man with a huge beer belly sporting a black-and-teal “gimme” cap bearing the legend San Jose Sharks. The San Jose Sharks, you may recall, are a pathetic, geographically ludicrous hockey team that managed to win 11 of the 82 games it played last year.

But the Sharks are veritable 1927 Yankees compared to the Colorado Rockies. The Rockies, who made their major league debut this spring, are one of the worst teams to ever navigate its way onto the diamond, losing games regularly by scores of 18-1 and 14-0 and 15-3. Yet go anywhere in America, and you will see the flamboyant colors of these colossal bums gracing the bodies of teenagers, overweight adults, and even movie stars appearing on the “Arsenio Hall” show. Indeed, one of the saddest moments in the history of the republic occurred last May: During the Western Conference semifinals of the National Basketball Association’s play-offs, George Karl, head coach of the exciting, upstart Seattle Supersonics, turned up at a post-game press conference wearing a Colorado Rockies outfit, an outfit so absurd that even the staid, discreet New York Times described it as “ludicrous.” Here, for all the nation to see, was the coach of a gallant basketball team on the precipice of dispatching the Phoenix Suns-who finished the season with the best record in the NBA-thus clawing its way into the finals. Yet how did the coach of this heroic squad see fit to dress himself when he met the press? Not in the appealing colors of the heroic Supersonics, but rather in the garish colors of the clownish Rockies.

The donning of athletic uniforms associated with bozos, stooges, and losers truly has reached epidemic proportions in this society. And, yes, once again, the blame for this lies squarely on the shoulders of the generation that came of age in the 1960s.

Until the 1960s, children were taught to wear sweatshirts and “gimme” caps that bore the names of winners, such as the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Celtics, Montreal Canadians. Children were taught to identify with proven winners. All that changed in the 1960s, when large parts of the nation developed a weird affection for the pathetic New York Mets, with their bewildering cast of Marvelous Mary Throneberrys. Once people felt it was OK to wear the colors of a team that lost 120 more games than it won, the floodgates opened. Soon, people started wearing Houston Astros and San Diego Padres uniforms: preposterous costumes that make even the most muscular athlete look like a refugee from a medieval Punch ‘n’ Judy troupe. Although the majority of the population stuck with proven winners such as the Celtics, the Lakers, and the Dallas Cowboys, a creeping fascination with losers began to assert itself in the 1970s and 1980s. Today, Americans from all walks of life think nothing of appearing in public wearing lurid merchandise sold by the pitiful Florida Marlins, the absurd Cleveland Indians, the horrible New England Patriots, and the unredeemable Ottawa Senators.

What does all this say about the workings of our national psyche? I think it says we are forgetting what got us here in the first place. In fact, we are forgetting what got us into first place in the first place. The pioneers who risked their lives crossing the Great Plains in Conestoga wagons did not build this great country by emulating the people who finished second-or fifth. The immigrants who poured into Ellis Island early in this century built this country by teaching their kids to imitate George Washington, not George Armstrong Custer. This country is the handiwork of people who thought of themselves as New York Yankees, not New York Rangers; as Dallas Cowboys, not Dallas Mavericks. Think of that the next time your kid wants to buy a “gimme” cap. If he says he wants to wear the colors of the Chicago Bulls or the San Francisco 49ers, tell him to buy an extra one for his proud mom or dad. But if he says he wants to wear the colors of the Colorado Rockies or the San Jose Sharks, break his legs.

He will definitely thank you for it later.

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron’s and The Wall Street Journal.

About Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.