LOS ANGELES, Calif. Aug. 10, 2001 (UPI) -- Los Angeles is a city so divided by complex ethnic suspicions that in June white Republicans allied with black Democrats to prevent the election of a Mexican-American mayor. Yet, this week sixteen thousand Southern Californians of all races and languages gathered peacefully in a multicultural celebration of an institution that finally unites rather than divides this most diverse of American cities: namely, the World Wrestling Federation's "Smackdown!"
The Smackdown! audience in the gleaming Staples Center offered almost a scale model of LA's ethnic composition: about half Hispanic, but with large numbers of whites, blacks, and Southeast Asians. The only groups not well represented were other Asians and Jews.
LA's most celebrated philosopher, Rodney King, once asked, "Why can't we all just get along?" At Smackdown!, everybody got along famously (except the wrestlers). The WWF fans were far better behaved than, say, the notoriously drunken and hostile mob at the 1999 Ryder Cup golf tournament at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass.
After the headlining match between Stone Cold Steve Austin and Kurt Angle had ended in chaos, I became frustrated with how slowly we were all filing out up the stairs. "Hey, can we get a move on up there?" I shouted. Only then did I notice that we were moving haltingly because the people in line ahead of me were politely waiting for a man with a crippled leg to haul himself along with his arms.
Interestingly, race and ethnicity have become less blatant aspects of pro wrestling storylines. In the old days, the bad guys (known as "heels") were often evil foreigners, such as The Sheik or that godless Russian Boris Malenko.
This promoting ploy has almost died out due to the decline in world tensions. Also, universal immigration to America makes it risky to pick on any foreign country for fear of offending its immigrants in the audience. Only white foreigners are fair game these days. At this week's show, the one bad guy (or "heel") who was booed for his nationality was Lance Storm of Canada. (By the way, one has to admit that as preposterous as the name "Lance Storm" sounds, it's still far more plausible than the name of America's real-life cycling hero: "Lance Armstrong.")
Old time promoters liked to match representatives of rival white ethnic groups, such as Bruno Sammartino and Ivan Putski. Today, America's increasingly multiracial population has largely lost interest in these old battles for bragging rights among white nationalities.
Even in the past, however, promoters tended to prudently shy away from hyping matches that could be construed as a battle of the races. Big city arenas attracted a combustible mix of blue-collar types from all races. No impresario wanted a race war to break out in his stands.
Indeed, by the 1960s, nonwhites frequently played heroes ("babyfaces") defending America in struggles with Foreign Menaces. African-American pioneer Bobo Brazil's long running war with the anti-American and racially prejudiced Sheik was a famous example. Further, American Indian wrestlers were always noble and true.
Race, of course, remains a potential danger spot in any American enterprise. Fortunately for the WWF, it has found the perfect post-racial man in its biggest star, "The Rock," the wrestler who bills himself as "the most electrifying man in sports entertainment."
A third generation pro wrestler, The Rock (born Duane Johnson) is a hybrid offspring of America's two most muscular racial groups. His maternal grandfather, Chief Peter Maivia, was the first Samoan star, while his father Rocky Johnson was the WWF's first African-American Tag Team champion.
Yet, The Rock looks neither Samoan nor black. Instead, he gives the impression of being some sort of future human, a superbly handsome specimen from a race that will someday evolve from all that is most formidable in existing humanity.
The popularity of the WWF among minorities raises intriguing questions about assimilation into American culture.
Professional wrestling remains largely a white institution. Typical wrestlers, such as Chris Jericho or Triple H, resemble a young construction worker's dream of how he'd want to look. As heavy metal power chords crash through the arena, longhaired men with massive muscles crammed into tight leather jeans stomp down the runway, looking like Aerosmith on steroids.
Yet, judging by who visits wrestling websites, nonwhites are even more fascinated with pro wrestling than whites. According to Chicago-based marketing research firm comScore's panel of 1.5 million computers that use the Web, Hispanics were about 40 percent more likely to visit WWF.com than Anglos in July. Asian-Americans' interest levels were similar to Hispanics. And, African-Americans were the most enthusiastic group of all.
TheRock.com skews even more heavily toward minorities than WWF.com. In contrast, the website of the number two star, beer-guzzling redneck Steve Austin's StoneCold.com, attracts a somewhat whiter audience..
Wrestling's strongest appeal is to the least educated, with high school dropouts viewing WWF.com 60 percent more than the average web surfer. (Still, pro wrestling is reasonably popular even with holders of graduate degrees: they visit wrestling sites half as often as the typical Internet user.)
In California, a state where 26 percent of the population speaks Spanish at home, many Anglos worry that Latin American immigrants have attained the critical mass that makes it convenient for them to avoid learning English. Still, they may be underestimating the gravitational pull of American pop culture institutions such as Smackdown! Those concerned that minorities will choose not to assimilate into American mainstream mores might be pleased to learn of the multicultural popularity of the WWF.
Although Mexico's flamboyant professional wrestling style called "lucha libre" (or "free fight") - which features wrestlers in masks and capes risking quadriplegia with flips from the top rope - is popular among LA's Mexican immigrants, it can't match the WWF's big budget entertainment firepower.
Pro wrestling has evolved significantly over the last decade. WWF owner Vince McMahon's decision to finally admit in interviews that pro wrestling was bogus liberated it from its reputation as a "sport" only fit to be watched by morons too dim to notice that the wrestlers were pulling their punches.
The WWF now puts on "sports entertainment." At the Staples Center, it seemed perfectly appropriate that Arnold Schwarzenegger was sitting ringside so he could admire the remarkable showmanship of The Rock, his fellow entertainment conglomerate. In fact, just as Schwarzenegger made the transition from the freak show sport of bodybuilding to action movies, The Rock recently wrapped up starring in "The Scorpion King," a prequel to "The Mummy" movie franchise.
McMahon has pointed out, "There's no other place you can go where you can see a soap opera, action-adventure, rock show, talk show, comedy, all that stuff rolled into one. Every format that is successful in television, we dabble in that." In a particularly post-modern note, on his TV broadcasts, McMahon (number 260 on the "Forbes 400" list with $1.1 billion) himself plays a scheming billionaire character named "Vince McMahon."
Nineteen percent of California's population admitted to the Census Bureau in 2000 that they speak English "less than very well." Luckily, the WWF foments an urge to learn English. After all, one needs to know the language of America to understand such verbal gems of The Rock as his enormously popular catchphrase, "Do ya smell what The Rock is cooking?" Lacking all the rigidity and pretensions of classical art forms, McMahon's wrestling shows can try practically anything in their search for the lowest common denominator entertainment.
Yet, while we might well be pleased that Smackdown! encourages immigrants to learn English, something seems amiss. Developing a taste for Smackdown! isn't exactly what most Americans mean when they say they want immigrants to assimilate. Further, the growth of the WWF vulgarizes American culture as a whole.
This leads to a difficult question about the value of diversity.
It was widely assumed by intellectuals that since ethnic diversity is a good thing, more diversity would automatically do great things for American culture, such as make it more artistic, refined, and sensitive. With the representatives of all societies here to instruct us, we would create a new cultural synthesis that drew from the best the world had to offer.
In the field of restaurant cuisine, immigration-driven diversity has indeed largely proven to be a great cultural boon, exactly as advertised. Yet, in much else, increased diversity seems to have mostly encouraged lowest common denominator entertainment. While there are worse things we could do with their time, diversity was never supposed to be about people of all ethnic groups getting together to watch Smackdown!
Nor was multiculturalism supposed to have helped usher in movies that are simply previews for theme park thrill rides, and television shows that, in the tradition of "Baywatch," are cast primarily on the basis of who has had the most plastic surgery.
There are exceptions to this pattern. For example, East Asian immigrants, such as Korean cellist Yo-Yo Ma, now comprise a large proportion of America's classical instrumentalists.
A more far reaching counter-argument, however, might be to point out that what’s distinctive in America's cultural heritage seldom grew out of artistic delicacy, but instead is the result of the kind of tawdry energy that Smackdown! exemplifies.