Simone Biles, and the Right-Wing Media Heads Who Exist to Make You Mad
Taking on Charlie Kirk and Matt Walsh is not about Owning Them With Facts. It's about making the case to everyday people that these guys are just hollow profit-hogs.
Simone Biles’ decision to pull out of the Women’s Team Finals and Individual All-Around Gymnastics events has, if nothing else, shown how fundamentally cynical and hollow cultural conservative figureheads act. Biles is broadly considered to be among the sport’s greatest athletes of all time (enough that Olympic judges are ill-equipped to proportionately score her monumental physical feats). But you’d hardly think of Biles’ prowess if you strictly paid attention to some people’s knee-jerk reactions to her personal decision to protect her well-being.
Some, like Turning Point USA founder and vapid culture-war talking-point spewer Charlie Kirk, are fuming at the idea of Biles shaming the nation on the world stage. Here’s Charlie Kirk – a man whose personality currently seems limited to ginning up cynical outrage among the public – calling Simone Biles – one of the most decorated athletes in history, admired by young people everywhere – a “selfish sociopath:”
“Simone Biles, you're representing your nation…you selfish sociopath. You kidding me? Today, it's like ‘you know what, I'm not gonna do something stupid and get hurt. It's just not worth it. Especially when you have like three amazing athletes that can step up to the plate and do it.’ So you know who has the gold medal? Russia. Russia. I have to go look at these four-foot-eleven Russian Olympians chewing on their gold medals, smirking at the Americans. I'm not okay with that. But honestly, that's where we're headed. We are raising a generation of weak people like Simone Biles. Again, if you got all these mental health problems, don't show up. She's an incredible athlete. Of course. She's an incredible athlete. I'm not saying — I just said she's probably the greatest gymnast of all time. She's also very selfish, she's immature, and she is a shame to the country. What kind of person skips the gold medal match? Who does that? It's a shame to the nation. You just gave a gift to the Russians.”
The Olympics as it exists now is a site of contradiction. On one hand, the games bring together an array of talented, dedicated, and unbelievably awe-inspiring athletes, all displaying the fruits of their crafts and showcasing the beautiful potentials of the human body. On the other hand, the games provide a selection of countries – namely powerful members of the G20 – a platform to capitalize on the world stage, and affirm their place in the world as Very Important or even Most Powerful. It’s a seasonal, megalomaniacal UN get-together where athletes both amaze us with their collective virtuosity – and implicitly participate in nation-revering spectacle, whether they’d like to or not.
What makes this a problem is not just whether athletes necessarily want to be propped up as ambassadors of the nations they come from, but also that because they are seen as ambassadors anyways, some view athletes as somehow “owing” the nation, essentially, their livelihoods. They are not just exceptionally talented human beings; they are flag-bearers, representatives of a nation’s power, foot-soldiers for political projects. They’re pawns for us to watch from afar, as almost video-game-like figurines to exalt when they do our bidding, or rage at when they don’t do what we expect them to. And in a culture that already generally treats athletes and artists and entertainers as personal little game pieces, the Olympics only further corrupts our already broken conceptions of the intrinsic value and beauty of athletics and performance. How disappointing, especially since so many rightly decry social elites for treating the general public as pawns; and yet we, as members of our culture too, contribute to attitudes that echo that same behavior.
Others, like Matt Walsh – who, similar to Kirk, gets his buck mainly by stirring up outrage as a right-wing commentator – have focused on the supposed societal damage done by “celebrating” an athlete taking agency and choosing to bow out when they feel the necessity.
“What makes the Simone Biles story troubling is not that the women’s gymnastic team had to settle for a silver medal, but that our cultural powers that be want us to celebrate cowardice. As always, it is not enough to merely tolerate another person’s decision or to be compassionate towards their struggles. We are meant, now, to rise to our feet and joyously cheer what all people throughout history, and most people living in the world today, would consider shameful and unfortunate. It is one thing to say: “Simone Biles quit, but let’s have some empathy.” It is quite another to say: “Simone Biles quit. Isn’t that so brave?”
No, no it is not brave. It may be human, it may be relatable, but it is the opposite of brave. To be brave is to refuse to quit precisely when most people would. That is why we admire people who persevere: because they are rare.”
Walsh blames “cultural powers” for apparently obligating us to “celebrate cowardice,” contrasting this supposed compulsion against some sacred historical and contemporary status quo that would consider Biles’ actions “shameful.” Of course, he’s just trying to rile up reaction here. This is against our history! Simone Biles – and the “culture” – is actively trying to destroy our Tradition! All the while, Walsh glorifies perseverance as some “rare” trait that only few among us have – as if millions of people across the country aren’t persevering through an array of societal failings ranging from climate devastation and economic inequality to deeply-baked racism; he surmises that “we” admire persevering people because of this supposed rarity.
It’s safe to say a world-class athlete likely doesn’t flippantly choose whether or not to compete, particularly at an event they’ve spent years of their lives preparing for. Walsh’s simplification of Biles’ decision belies the delicate stakes of performing at such a high level – particularly with the caliber of moves Biles performs – and echoes the aforementioned dynamic of treating athletes as game pieces that must execute their prescribed moves, or be dismissed as useless. This simply leaves no regard for Biles’ personhood, or the potentially dangerous mental barriers she was experiencing while competing.
Walsh conflates public support and solidarity with celebration, again to stir up outrage. Instead of allowing empathetic sentiments resembling “Look how we can see these phenomenal athletes as human beings who share similar struggles to us. It’s important to see them as such, and not simply as giants – or pawns – that live to entertain us,” to permeate, Walsh and company want to incite reaction: “Why are we celebrating failure? Aren’t we the best country in the world? We can’t lose! And quitters are losers!” You got to hand it to him. Great move if you’re hoping to keep people ensnared in hollow rote patriotism, and away from seeing their fellow human beings as just that: fellow human beings.
In the face of such cynicism, and disregard for people’s lived experiences and inherent personhood, applauding an athlete for challenging such dis-spirited traditions and overwhelming expectations is far from some apparent moral or existential crisis. Even then, this is under acceptance of Walsh’s claim that culture at large is broadly celebrating Biles, and not simply expressing empathy and solidarity with her. Given how many culture warriors like Walsh are going after Biles, and how many people might simply be heightening their statements of support for Biles in response to that barrage – this claim is a bit obscure.
Tracking where Walsh’s insipid and limited engagement with people’s lived and material experiences actually comes from is instructive in understanding why he misrepresents – or intentionally disregards – Simone Biles’. Walsh has actually spent a great deal of attention on the discussion of mental health, arguing that society instead faces a “spiritual crisis”:
“I do not deny that depression has, in some cases, a physical element to it. We are physical beings, after all. What happens to our bodies and in our bodies matters. Yet we are also spiritual beings. We have souls as well as brains, and the two do not work independently of one another… By reducing depression to nothing more than a chemical event, we have reduced the human conscience to nothing more than a chemical event. By taking a materialistic view of depression, we take a materialistic view of humanity.
Speaking of materialism, it is no wonder that depression is so common in a culture governed by a materialist philosophy and inhabited by those who subscribe to it…The godless life is a despairing life. It is a life of pointless suffering and misery. In a world without God, what is there to feel but despair? We are dust and our existence amounts to nothing and leads to nothing. There is no beauty, no joy, no redemption.”
“Those who seek happiness by following the well-worn paths will inevitably fall into this pit. If you do what everyone else is doing, and live how they live, and walk in their footsteps, you will end up in the same darkness. You will begin to feel that there is no hope and no point and no real beauty or joy to be found in life. And this is the state in which so many of us are living. A great, great many people in America are wallowing in this nihilistic despair and living hollow lives devoid of substance. They struggle and flail and reach out for help, but so often the hand that grabs hold of them will only drag them deeper into the pit.”
Notwithstanding Walsh’s insistence that life without God is meaningless, it is remarkable how he can be so close to the point without getting it. Yes: we do have souls, as well as brains! And yes: we can’t really pin down mental struggles to just the psychological realm, that indeed there is a confluence of spheres which contribute to people’s struggles (which is why things like holistic therapy are great!). And yes: if we seek happiness by following the “well-worn paths” in our individualistic society that is concerned chiefly with production and consumption, we may not ever feel actualized!
It’s just such a shame that Walsh somehow gets so close to describing the soul-less nature of our social conventions, and still finds a way to prescribe the issues to a lack of religious tradition in culture, and not a lack of general interconnectedness between and among people. He may be describing a “spiritual crisis,” but his formulation refers primarily to a need for complete deferment to Christianity, and not a need for committed and soulful compassion and empathy for every single fellow human being around us – the kind of dedication that nearly any religious, spiritual, or humanistic tradition would be proud of.
Frankly, revering national athletics as they stand now is the real issue here. Imagine going out of your way to defend conventions and traditions embedded within a power structure that has: produced abusive officials including, but not limited to, Larry Nassar, who abused hundreds of athletes including Simone Biles herself; protected Fencer Alen Hadzic, who has an allegedly vast track record of sexual misconduct and violence; and been connected to numerous other issues with the Olympics broadly, such as how every single locality that “wins” the chance to host the games ends up repressing workers, destroying communities, and implementing new and pervasive security apparatuses. And this is all alongside how nationalistic parades like the Olympics have only furthered social attitudes that position athletes and entertainers as our personal pawns, rather than fellow human beings. The idea of national athletic competition isn’t inherently bad – but the mechanisms we operate and traditions we uphold to carry it out are.
In a vacuum, people likely wouldn’t even think that Simone Biles choosing to take care of herself represents some sort-of moral crisis percolating through society. If anything, they would probably empathize with her, perhaps in also craving relief from constant expectation and demands of our power structures. But so much of political and social discourse is removed from material realities and how other people feel and experience the world, and is much more concerned with picking a side and sticking with it. Because of this, talking-point manufacturers like Kirk and Walsh exist to draw the lines in the sand, and rev up the outrage machine to ensure anyone sympathetic to their ideals is led to believe this is a social crisis. The resultant idea boils down to viewing the Olympics, and sports and performance generally, as a means of exerting and maintaining power, and not a celebration of the human spirit.
Critics of people like Kirk and Walsh often wonder what the point even is to engage with actors who, after even a smidgen of thoughtful interrogation, can be dubbed unserious. The issue here is that Kirk, Walsh, and company are taken seriously in mainstream discourse by virtue of their massive platforms, and seriously among the people who engage with their content. Of course, a majority of the time culture warriors like them engage online, it’s just bait to get clicks, attention, and exploit social media platforms’ mechanisms that denotes stupid online culture war BS as breaking news. So, the merit of engaging with Kirk and Walsh and the like isn’t to Own them with Facts and Logic; obviously, they don’t operate in that realm, given their mission is to simply profit off of people’s insecurities and instinctive defensive reactions. But those people themselves are still worth fighting for, and still worth engaging with.
The problem with figureheads like Kirk and Walsh aren’t just their cold-hearted takes on Simone Biles – it’s that their outrage-spinning allows them to maintain and justify status quos that only aim to divide people and maintain power structures. These people are sometimes presented as serious actors to be engaged with, when in reality they should be dealt with as empty shells who have no interest in creating a better world for people to share and live in. But that can’t happen by just routinely quote-tweeting their dumb tweets, or ignoring them either. It requires making the case to the people they’re trying to profit from that, indeed, these guys just don’t care about you.
In the meantime, I’m happy Simone Biles is taking steps to take care of herself, and that more athletes too may recognize their power and that their intrinsic personhood is more valuable than any arbitrary traditions or expectations we place upon them. Biles’ teammates will do just fine in the interim. She’s cited her trust in them as a reason for being more comfortable taking a step back, and that trust is well-founded. Just look at her teammate, Minnesota native and Hmong American Sunisa Lee, who made history in her gold medal win in the all-around competition. These athletes will continue to amaze, inspire, and share their wonderful talents with us – whether Biles is on stage, or alongside them, cheering them on.
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