Voyeurism and violence at the track: Ancient American Traditions

Posted by Brian Connor

This past September, as the racing season came to a close and the Fall semester began, a friend and I took a group of first-years on a pre-orientation trip to the racetrack. To make things more interesting, we took a little trip of our own. We strolled around the track and the paddock underneath the mellow late-summer sun, which cast a strange glow on the scene, simultaneously nostalgic and melancholic, as families came out to picnic for the last few races and old raspy-voiced, wrinkly-faced horseplayers tried to recoup their staggering season-long losses.

We wandered, dressed in our finest threads, though still confined to roam the general admission areas, as the owners and elite lounged above in their boxes. Psychologically indisposed to responsibly supervise the first-years in our care, we abandoned them, procured beverages and managed to place several completely random impulse bets before joining the masses near the post. As the tension within us rose to a fever pitch, synergistically enhanced by and channeling the crowd's pre-race tension, the starting gates blasted open and they were off.

The crowd erupted as the horses battled around the far stretch and the vicious faces of the potentially impoverished yelled over our shoulders, their beer sodden spittle dowsing our clothing. The crowd was awash in waves of ecstatic glee and vicious desperation as these giant beasts, muscles tightening and rippling, jockeys furiously egging them on, crossed the finish line.

And then, about 50 yards from the finish, a horse at the back of the pack suffered a massive heart attack, flipped over, planting its head in the dirt, its enormous torso crashing down after it, throwing legendary jockey Kent Desormeaux several yards onto his neck, breaking one of his vertebrae. A deafening silence fell over the crowd and all the emotional outpouring was instantaneously stopped in its tracks and crystallized in the thick summer air. The wide-eyed first years looked confused and frightened. I was shaken very badly.

I fumbled through my betting stubs, hoping these numbers and dollar amounts would somehow make sense of the situation before me. Nobody really knew what to do or how to feel. A truck came out onto the track, and officials gathered around the felled horse, preparing to put it to sleep. To my side, I heard someone yelling. I turned to see my aforementioned friend, a shocked look in his eyes, shifting his gaze between the crowd and the scene on the track, yelling to no one in particular, "they're ANIMALS!," "these are ANIMALS!," "these are f***ing ANIMALS!"

I was too bewildered at the time to understand his pronouncements, but when I ran over a turtle on perimeter road later that evening, I began to understand. The turtle lay there, its broken belly spurting out greenish brown bile, its legs beating trying to turn itself over, and I was transfixed as I watched, gripped simultaneously by hollowing sorrow and visceral, unflinching curiosity.

In each of us there is a repulsive, yet completely innate, infatuation with death and violence. The racetrack, my friend had observed, is an exhibition of these innermost primitive longings. Though thoroughbred racing is popular around the world, the American racing industry is infamous for its lax policies on performance enhancing drugs. The horses are pumped up on intense steroids and then forced to compete against each other in unnaturally taxing capacities. And human beings come to watch and exchange money on these twisted, forcefully imposed, drug-riddled displays of physicality.

At the racetrack, the line between human being and animal is obscured. The "animals" my friend was speaking of, the "animals" he became acutely aware of at that moment, were all around him. All of the spectators, who came to gamble and watch the beasts compete, all of the owners, who, despite their cocktail party chatter about breeding and pedigree, sacrifice the horses' health for profit and celebrity, were animals, indulging in primitive, base voyeurism. We are the animals, and this fact is more evident than ever in our new sadistic internet culture.

"Don't tase me bro" was the desperate cry for mercy uttered by a University of Florida student who, invoking his 1st Amendment rights by posing questions, on Constitution Day no less, was tased and physically removed by police from a lecture given by Senator John Kerry. This incident, the video of which went viral on YouTube, should have been regarded as a deeply disturbing incidence of police brutality, but was instead trivialized and made into an internet meme, setting off the "bro" craze which brought us "bro rape," "bros icing bros," "brosemite Sam," "bro-Nameth" and the general prominence of "bro" in the American lexicon.

The video did spur some serious discussion over 1st amendment rights and appropriate use of force by police. Major networks chimed in, and the event became a rallying point for some radical civil rights groups. On the whole, however, the event was buried under an inane avalanche of popular culture renderings on T-shirts and in remixed YouTube videos.

Even students in the audience, witnessing this horrific act first-hand, can be seen goofily guffawing at this man's cries for help and his screams of pain at having electricity shot through his body. The backwards way in which this video appealed to young internet-faring American audiences, as a "bro" to be laughed at for being such a "bro" and provoking violence, rather than as a gross injustice, exemplifies our prevailing culture of voyeuristic sadism.

When Tyler Clementi's roommate streamed his sexual encounters over the internet, he was indulging in that same technological sadism. This was the tased-bro situation with a fateful and telling twist: rather than the police perpetrating a wrong upon a person while a second party captured it and a third party, our culture, looked on and laughed, the roommate assumed all three roles. He was the cameraman, the perpetrator and the cruel voyeur. But this time, no one was laughing and a sick culture was briefly exposed. But, for all its importance as a symptom of an ailing culture, the Clementi incident did not have nearly as much lasting power and internet presence as did the "don't tase me bro" incident.

Clementi's suffering and resulting suicide was talked about briefly as an example of a potential homophobic hate crime and the definition of privacy in our uber-information age was discussed, but our innate longing for sadistic voyeurism remained intact. The cries of despair uttered by the student who gets tased — like the electric current that swept through his body — instantly triggers the animalistic pleasurable response in which our synapses are wired to indulge in.

A month after that grisly scene at the racetrack, after that turtle's demise and after Clementi's suicide, Paul the Octopus, the German World Cup predicting animal, died. He correctly predicted seven matches as well as the final result of the 2010 World Cup. He was cremated, a shrine was erected in his honor, and the rest of the animal kingdom, humankind included, continued its eternal competition, trudging through life and making sure to slow down and rubberneck here and there, to stop and smell the anguish.

Brian Connor is a senior American Studies major from Brooklyn. He spends his summer nights at Siro's and his winter mornings in bed.

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