We’ve all, at some time or another, been trapped in one of these discussions: who is the best there ever was? When we participate in this sort of chatter, or listen to others arguing, we are involved with a conversation of fools. We are fools, shoving an irreconcilable opinion onto others who may have ever bit as much conviction in another as yourself. These debates can be about anything–anything! What is the best food–pizza! No, cheeseburger! You fucking meat eaters! Don’t you know that Miso soup has the best flavor of anything? What about Jerusalem artichokes from Pays de la Loire, tuber melanosporum at $140 a plate? Which is the best of the best? Is it one of those $1000 Japanese steaks, or a bowl of cafeteria macaroni and cheese?
There is really no such thing as ‘the greatest ever,’ because time and history change our perspectives, and we can always assume that different circumstances have altered the competition. And of course we assume our own biases, picking items off that we cannot stomach (I am not a fan of artichokes myself. My children will only eat white pizza, both of them, strangely, loathing anything with tomatoes.) And this sort of debate can go on about any topic.
Who is the greatest President of the United States? Lincoln–no Washington! Fools! It’s Jefferson, who wrote the Constitution! No, that was Madison. James Madison? Didn’t he fuck up the War of 1812? All of you are wrong! Andrew Jackson. He made America what it is today! But that was Polk! He took Texas and California! Manifest destiny, motherfucker! All of you are wrong–just wrong! Nobody talks about him anymore, but McKinney is the one who brought us into the modern–Oh, shut up with that nonsense! Teddy Roosevelt replaced him and–no, his cousin did a whole lot more than him! FDR won World War II and got us out the The Great Depression and–JFK would have been the greatest if only–are you guys all stupid? Ronald Reagan and–Listen! Listen! Richard Nixon obviously has a bad reputation, but if you look at him in international affairs–George H. W. Bush will go down in history as time goes by–Bill Clinton, as slimy as he was, managed to keep–George W kept us together after–Obama! Barrack Obama is the greatest of all time because–Trump! Trump is making America–
This is the sort of increasingly bitter debates people have. They yell and they scream and act very drunk, whether they are drinking or not. It is a superfluous discussion. And most of these debates–most of them, are all about athletes. Greatest in Basketball–Jordan! Kobe! LeBron! Wilt Chamberlain! Bill Russell, if you want to talk about champions! What about Kareem Abdul Jabbar? Each of these choices might be valid, just like in the future Stephan Curry may be in the discussion. But the players mentioned were the most dominate forces of their individual eras. And yet you have to wonder. How would Kobe Bryant fare against Wilt Chamberlain? How many more times might the ball be slapped out of his hands? Or Jordan versus Kareem? LeBron James embarrassing Bill Russell not just on the court, but outplaying him even strategically. All of these conflicts are possible. It makes an absolute declaration impossible.
The only sport where there is a general agreement on the greatest of all time is hockey. Wayne Gretzky. Does anyone even come close? But all the others–baseball: Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, Ty Cobb. Of course none of those players played in racially integrated leagues. Such changes in the game add Willie Mays, Hank Aaron–shit, Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols (whose first ten years are even better than Ted Williams’ first ten–oh yeah! What about Ted Williams?), and on and on and on. And this does not take into account all of the great pitchers! Cy Young. Walter Johnson. Bob Feller. Sandy Koufax. Satchel Paige. Bob Gibson. Randy Johnson. Nolan Ryan. And the lists go on and on. We generally just pick a favorite. It has nothing to do with being “the best there ever was, and the best there ever will be.” (https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?isbn=&an=bernard%20malamud&tn=natural&n=100121503&cm_sp=mbc-_-ats-_-used
Yet these arguments will never stop. When I was teaching sometimes shouting matches over the most frivolous things would lead to fistfights. Chairs might be thrown. The students threatened to kill one another. And we can attribute all this to the hormones of youth if we want, but I don’t think that’s fair. Because we all react this way. Our most sacred and truly held beliefs are being challenged–sometimes even mocked! How dare you! How dare you!
This is the same absolutist thinking that plays such a crucial role throughout history in both our religions and our politics (and within this discussion we can say that they are exactly the same thing). Wars are started over different beliefs in God and Government. Millions of people have died in their names. The history of the winners write off all this endless, wholesale slaughter as a grim patriotic duty and paint, every last victim as either a martyr or a villain, no matter who they were. The victors are led by the greatest king, or greatest pope, greatest general, greatest statesman, greatest leader, demigod, messiah. Someone always has to be the best ever in the born-again mind.
And so we return to the absurdity of the premise: There is no such thing as the absolute best ever at anything. It is another example of opinion’s triumph over facts. And the reality that no one agrees with each other–at least not for the same reasons when they do–makes the small, petty and fun arguments about athletes and movies and books and presidents into a reflection of the much larger and far more consequential beliefs. The Master Race; Gender superiority; My God is better than your god.
It is within this small bit of nonsense, the childishness of being a fan, that we can spot the unraveling of the entire world. And, each of us having our own favorites, there are no solutions in our midst.