Not since the U.S. Olympic hockey team took on the Soviet Union in 1980 has a sporting event been so linked to a clash of cultures. As America exulted that night, the forces of goodness prevailed over evil, and look how great everything has turned out since.
Once again, however, such a battle looms. This Saturday, half a continent away from Southern California, the No. 1-ranked Trojan football team will play the No. 14 University of Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Already, the battle lines are drawn -- the urban sophisticates meet the dull traditionalists from the heartland. You can read it in the papers and hear it on sports talk radio.
Which side will win? Which way of life is better?
The Times is so interested in the social ramifications that it is sending its chief diplomatic correspondent, T.J. Simers, to spend a week in Nebraska leading up to the game. He’s going to spend at least part of the week, he says, on a farm in Burwell, where I’m guessing he’ll find that life is slower than in Los Angeles.
Simers is going because he has often noted in print that people from the Midwest are a bit slow on the uptake with too much time on their hands. And as if to prove his point about their sophistication, people from the Midwest often react to him with Promethean fury.
For instance, Simers noted on July 31: “A stop in Wahoo at the Wigwam Cafe is probably a good start, but I was thinking it’d be interesting to stay with a real-live boring Cornhusker family, somewhere out on the prairie so I can feel what it’s like to have nothing to look forward to in my life other than a Saturday afternoon football game.”
Oh, does that make Nebraskans see red. One letter-writer from Lincoln, while inviting T.J. to his home, retorted, in part: “What gang does he belong to? I would hate to have the wrong color bedding in the guest room. . . . Will he be bringing his own smog for breathing. . . ? Oh yeah, will USC alum O.J. Simpson be coming along too? If so, I might take a few extra precautions.”
Now do you grasp the no-holds-barred nature of this culture clash? And why the Husker-Trojan contest is so important?
With no disrespect to either Simers or his Big Red respondents, this war has been going on a long time. From the nation’s beginnings, heartlanders have believed they embody the nation’s virtues; urbanistas flaunt their hipness and progressive impulses.
“He is a tedious fraud and ignoramus, a cheap rogue and hypocrite, the eternal jack of the human pack.”
A letter to the editor about Simers?
No, newspaper columnist and essayist H.L. Mencken writing about farmers in 1914.
Chicago columnist Mike Royko once described downstate Illinois farmers as “hayseeds, bumpkins, boobkins and village idiots.”
I’m sure he was kidding, just as I’m sure T.J. is kidding. He has a shtick that some folks just don’t understand, and when he says he got 1,400 replies to his Nebraska column, maybe you see the method to the meanness.
He’s an old softy, as evidenced by the occasional schmaltz in his column and all the money he raises for his favorite hospital charity. Wouldn’t surprise me at all if, at this very moment, he’s glazing a ham on that Nebraska farm or listening to Lawrence Welk reruns wafting out onto the porch where he’s sitting and watching the cars out on the four-lane.
But because the nation can’t seem to declare a winner in the city-country war of words, we let sporting events do it. After all, if the Huskers stop USC inside the 10-yard line in the fourth quarter to win the game, won’t that say something about Midwestern purity? If USC runs roughshod over the Huskers, doesn’t that validate the West Coast way of life?
Works for me.
I grew up in Nebraska and have spent the last 20 years in Southern California. Each side’s arguments can be as daffy as the other’s. Relatively speaking, I didn’t see any more or less virtue in Hamilton County (where I spent part of my boyhood) than I have in Orange County.
Nor have I seen any more social conscience or sophistication in Newport Beach than I have in Lincoln.
With my bipolar Midwest/West Coast affiliations, however, I’d like to think I can speak to both sides.
If I could say anything to Nebraskans who feel put down, it would be: Lighten up.
If I could say anything to T.J., it would be: Go Big Red.
Dana Parsons’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at email@example.com. An archive of his recent columns is at www.latimes.com/parsons.