“Interactive Wagering” as a Poetics of Masculinity

Sunday, February 3, 2019

The evolving legal status of gambling, according to a recent NY Times article, includes a rebranding of the activity itself: “interactive wagering” would now become the sanitized legislative nomenclature; the whispered adjustments to pending bills at lunches with lobbyists would fawn on this discreet disguise. The bottom line, however, is that government revenues dependent on the “vigorish” of gambling amount to an indirect taxation on working people. Perhaps “democracy” is the political magic act of giving “the people” what they want. If they want a carousel of carousing currency, of liquor with loose cash as a flotation device, then it wouldn’t be a good idea for a politician to rebuke this deplorable inclination.

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Compulsive gambling can infect anyone, regardless of gender, but the elusive object of desire in sports betting is not neutral. Rather, it all too often reflects what is now called “toxic masculinity”: violent competition imbrued with phallic hubris. Today’s “Stupor Bowl” offers a magnified glimpse at this perverse carnival. It is hard to see how legalizing gambling on sports events such as professional football would not also valorize the very thing that is currently denounced as abhorrent in its social effects. Since the games that would primarily be bet on are played by men, their values as athletes are precisely what would be underwritten by the insurance policy of impulsive contingency, aka betting. (I would note that I am also highly suspicious of the ease with which “toxic masculinity” as a term has been vetted by a group of over-privileged psychologists.) The gender imbalance is precisely one of my major concerns: there is no mention in the recent article that anyone would ever bet much on women’s sports. How often do you think you’d hear, “I’m putting a hundred on her to win the NCAA 100 meter race.”

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Now to play the devil’s advocate for a moment, I can understand the extraordinary appeal that one aspect of gambling must have. Just as critics have pointed out how a film such as “Toy Story” is about the “downsizing” of an economy and the ramifications of losing one’s job, no doubt the encroachment of AI (artificial intelligence) will only make people want to gamble more. If algorithms can be made to serve those who depend on predictability, then why not give of ourselves to something that often has the unpredictable as its outcome? “In a year of the improbable, the impossible has happened.” At any given instant, in a sports event, the allure of those odds and its payoff is almost overwhelmingly irresistible.

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Perhaps there is no way to forestall this movement towards interactive wagering, and maybe poets should get hip to its possibilities. Maybe the NEA could raise money for creative writing fellowships by instituting a wagering window: if you think a poet or fiction writer deserves a fellowship, then put your money where your poetics claims to hold down your corner of imagination and demand that you be given decent odds on her or him winning an award. And that’s just the small-time stuff. Consider the possibilities of legal betting on the Nobel Prize. Put a thousand dollars down on an obscure writer in Vietnam, and you might well win more than the Nobel Prize itself. I believe, in fact, that “interactive wagering” on the Nobel Prize already takes place in more enlightened countries. It’s time for the United States to catch up with the rest of the world.

The Laureate sweepstakes! The West Coast Trifecta! The California Arts Council will look back on its parsimonious days under four terms of Governor Jerry Brown and savor the transformative power of long-shot financing.

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Of course, there are other things to mull over, eh?


Listen: Is our universe a hologram?

To which the only appropriate response is: “Who’s taking bets?”

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