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The fake politics of World Cup haters

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Soccer is a sport, and the World Cup is a party. Let's just watch that.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

SB Nation's 2014 World Cup Bracket'

You do not need to know anything about Umbros. You do not really need to know that they were soccer shorts cut for a lower body that does not exist among human beings ever to have lived on earth, let alone worn shorts, or that they were constructed out of a material that might be described as Extra Flammable Tyvek, But See-Through. This is all irrelevant. No one wears them anymore.

Knowing all that, it may surprise you to know that the ideal male look at my New Jersey middle school included Umbros. Here, somehow, is how cool kids dressed: tragic haircuts, nascent and far sadder mustaches where possible, a Big Johnson t-shirt with some thudding cock-pun on it. All that and then a pair of Umbros, preferably with boxer shorts hanging out the bottom, on which underpants would be, say, an all-over print of the Georgetown Hoya spinning a basketball on one anthropomorphic paw. This was my youth, and because I was the age I was, I spent a good deal of time and energy trying to look as much like everyone else as I could.

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The good thing about getting older, which is so good that it just about evens out the newly excruciating hangovers and the noisy joints and various existential conundrums, is that you no longer care quite so much about being swaddled in the right signifiers. We still notice, because we've been taught to notice, but eventually it begins to matter less, and then even less than that. It starts to seem like a sort of imprisonment to hide yourself away inside various branded costumes, to be reduced to the sum of your consumer preferences.

At some point, we notice that no one is really worried about what we're wearing, and realize that it is better and easier and more honest to look like ourselves than it is to look like anyone else. After that, it's just a matter of moving through the world doing the various things we do, as a person who is more and more like the person we actually are. This is a relief, and it's a relief that grows as we continue to grow in it, and let ourselves do and not-do what we want.

It's different, in mostly sad ways, for those public people who are strident for a living. It is their job to be neater, louder, not-quite-themselves versions of themselves. This pays well, in many cases, but all this relentless playing to type seems awfully heavy, and awfully limiting, and awfully awful. To always be one way tends to kind of hollow out and robotize a person; pundits that have done their jobs for too long can seem to have more in common with a defective Teddy Ruxpin than with other humans.

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I want to stress, here, that I am not asking you to feel any sympathy for Ann Coulter. But consider for a moment Ann Coulter's job. It is to find the most rightmost public position on whatever is trending on Google News and then to declaim, through progressively smaller megaphones and in increasingly desperate tones, a position slightly to the right of that. Naturally, she'd need to write a column about the World Cup.

And so she did. It's not good, which will surprise only those readers that have forgotten who we're talking about. Coulter transparently does not know or care much about soccer, which is of course her right; as it happens, I'm a tourist here myself. Anyway, knowing isn't really a big part of her job. Caring mostly isn't, either.

Really, it's a matter of style. The result are columns that could have been written as Mad Libs.

Coulter plugs in the usual culture-war critiques about the game -- that soccer is somehow socialistic and immigrant-ish and faintly fruity; you know this song. She gets her jokes off like the pro she is. But she is, as usual, mostly writing to remind readers of where they should stand. That is, that the people her readers have defined themselves against really like this stuff. That is her whole argument against the sport, finally.

Coulter's gambit, which is not hers alone, is to create a violent binary out of a fairly happy continuum. Her jokes are flat and her argument mostly nonexistent; you do not need me to tell you that Ann Coulter is a sinking garbage barge, but there it is. That hardly matters, though. The point, though, is neither the jokes nor the arguments, such as both are. It is the incantatory repetition with which she pounds away on that binary -- they like this, we like that, and so on until the given column inches are filled. This is hackish, but it's the gig.

Coulter is not alone in this approach.* It's also what veal-cladded sports radio disapproval machine Mike Francesa is doing when he pretends total, abject ignorance of the sport on the radio for hours at a goddamn time. It's what Dan Shaughnessy does when he writes his grumpy refusal-to-care-about-soccer columns basically every time the World Cup happens. This is business as usual: boring public people at work doing the boring things they do, and doing it unhappily. More's the pity for them, and mostly who cares.

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Sports don't exist beyond or outside politics, of course. The fan-sided partisanship of home and away is never closer to the surface than it is in the World Cup, where the scoreboard presents as a sort of friendly (and sort of not) series of international incidents. But this scowling, performative declaration that I DO NOT LIKE SOCCER is not political so much as it's politicized, or politicesque. It's unpolitical in the same way that our national politics are increasingly unpolitical.

Really, it's a matter of style. Coulter's main message is, "soccer is a thing enjoyed by people you don't like, and so it is bad," but it's worth noting that the better part of her gig involves writing the very same sentence and replacing "soccer" with literally any other hot-button cultural or political topic as needed. It is not -- it is never -- about the thing itself. It's always about that thing's perceived affinities and fans.

The result are columns that could have been written as Mad Libs. "The same people trying to push soccer on Americans," Coulter writes, "are the ones demanding that we love HBO's 'Girls,' light-rail, Beyonce and Hillary Clinton." Never mind who is doing the pushing and demanding in that sentence. Never mind what any of those things have to do with each other, let alone the World Cup.  Replace soccer with anything you like, the sentence scans the same. That's the idea.

The game is to tell a bullied readership what they can and cannot like, buy and be, and then to sell them things that prove those allegiances. This is dreary work, this process of turning every aspect of public life into a campaign-style wedge issue. Still, it's hard to argue with its success; the wary smugness and hair-trigger desperation of our popular culture is a testament to how well it works.

Which is a different thing than saying that it functions. To see the world this way is to not see it at all; it's an excuse to be small, to stay home, to pass on seeing Paris because you've heard the waiters are jerks.

This is a lousy way to be, mostly, and one that seems sillier and sadder still amid these great games and all this cheering. All that self-conscious signifying that I Am Not Like Those People is, generally, a petty and self-thwarting thing. But here and now, in the middle of this brilliant, batshit World Cup, it just seems like such a waste, like a good time missed for bad and badly understood reasons.

The theatrical turning of the back and furious fussing with the Umbros, this righteous refusal to care or know a new thing -- it all just seems that much sillier when cast in opposition to something as big and weird and spontaneous and good as the games of this World Cup. There is something pathetic about it, even. All that work in hopes of not appearing to be a certain way, and all when the world is not watching; when everyone is rapt and roaring and elsewhere, watching something so much brighter and so much bigger.

* NOTE: This article has been edited to remove a quote wrongly attributed to Sarah Palin.