The dominant storyline that emerged in the wake of Tuesday’s thrilling victory for the Miami Heat in game six of the NBA Finals was not Tim Duncan’s second half disappearance, Ray Allen’s clutch three, or even the victory of LeBron James’s hairline over his headband. It was the fact that several hundred Miami fans headed for the exits early when it appeared the San Antonio Spurs were on their way to victory, then tried to re-enter the arena upon discovering the game had gone into overtime. The Internet exploded with paroxysms of e-finger-wagging, and justifiably so, for the most part. It’s one thing for Hollywood executive-types to duck out of Chavez Ravine after a couple of Dodger dogs, but it’s another thing entirely to skulk toward your car when Earth’s greatest sportshuman has 30 seconds left in an elimination game.
During the game’s commercial breaks, I browsed cable news coverage of the George Zimmerman trial, America’s most recent instance of centuries of systemic racism distilled into one man doing a very dumb thing with a gun, then cowering beneath the defense of the even dumber Florida law made possible by the dumbest amendment in our Constitution. One pundit decried Zimmerman’s defense attorneys for articulating something akin to an Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer logic in their pursuit of jurors unbiased by media coverage of the shooting last year. “What is going on in Florida tonight?”, the pundit asked incredulously. I then caught snippets of The Daily Show’s coverage of recent immigration reform debates, in which John Oliver lambasted former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and current Florida Senator Cottonmouth for deciding it might be politically expedient to curry the favor of Latino voters in order to re-color Florida red for 2014 and beyond.
I lived in Florida this past year as a visiting assistant professor at Rollins College, a liberal arts school tucked away in a tony suburb of Orlando far removed from central Florida’s exurban theme park sprawl, yet intimately bound up with it economically and culturally. As such, I’ve developed a deeply ambivalent relationship with the state’s perceived wackiness so taken for granted in American media. On the one hand, I’ve been eager to disabuse visitors of the notion that Florida is all beaches and bath salt-huffing loonies, that it has all the same amenities and experiences necessary to sustain the habitus of “enlightened” academic-types. On the other hand, I’ve often been just as eager to join the chorus of pshaws whenever something from the Florida Man Twitter feed makes its way into national news.
More than anything, though, I’ve come to embrace this ambivalence and admire Florida’s totemic hold over the American psyche. Most of us have some version of a love-hate relationship with the place we’re from or where we live, but few outside our respective hometowns have strongly held opinions about these places in the same way non-Floridians do about Florida. It has been strange to absorb outsiders’ misguided conceptions of Florida from within it this year, one that began for me with the state again playing a contested role in the Presidential election and ending with the run up to what will likely be the highest profile American court case since that of O.J. Simpson. But it has been even more heartening to see the extent to which Floridians take outsiders’ diagnoses of their home state in stride.
Florida is such a loaded signifier that any mediated discourse about goings-on within its borders is quickly sloughed off as misrepresentative of a more serious, flattering, or authentic American experience. Zimmerman’s trial thus becomes an opportunity not to examine the country’s continued racial tensions and gun culture, but to excoriate a disturbed vigilante in some lawless backwater. Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush courting Florida Latinos affords us not the occasion to consider the increasingly heterogeneous cultural identities of American immigrants, but the chance to speculate wildly about the 2016 Presidential election and wonder who’ll win the state. And those leaving Tuesday’s game early are not exhausted basketball fans just hoping to sleep six hours before work in the morning, but fairweather scenesters eager to party on South Beach. As I leave Florida next week, I’ll do so with a renewed skepticism of these and so many other snap judgements about the state, knowing that there might not be a more accurate microcosm of what American culture is right now–for better, for worse, and everything in between–and what it is becoming.