That’s misleading. It should say something more like “looking at the 500 year history of European domination and subjugation of non-white peoples”. But that’s too complicated. And we fucking hate complexity.
We’ve been having this discussion for a few years now. It started with the election of Obama which opened the can of worms labelled “racist white people”. And it flares up every time the news decides to report a case of racial injustice. We wring our hands, bemoan our past, and bemoan those in society that hold such abhorrent views. But then a few weeks go by, and we’re back to watching Jurassic World and Modern Family and forgetting about all of this.
This feels different though. At least to me. I think it’s because it was a church. The church is sacred. Atheist or not, a site of religious worship holds a tremendous amount of cultural weight. A site of religious worship is meant to be respected. I feel like it’s one of the unwritten codes in the human condition: don’t kill in the church. Granted, it should actually be “don’t kill”. But beggars can’t be choosers.
I’m just so sad, so angry and so frustrated. Liberal white people will immediately leap to the defense of their kin, and try to argue that it’s an economic issue before it’s a racial issue. They’ll try to argue that poor white people are also getting fucked over by capitalism, and that really, truly, capitalism is to blame. Fuck that. If the shooter was black, he’d be dead. The cops would have shot him. He was white, they peacefully arrested him. There’s no economics there. Just black and white.
Trayvon was walking down the street with a hoodie. If he was white, he’d still be alive. No economics there. In Ferguson, if the protesters were white, the army wouldn’t have showed up. Remember Occupy? Occupy was largely white. The army didn’t show up. No economics there. Just black and white.
Yes, absolutely, economics play a role. After race is negotiated. Economics comes after race. Yes, there are poor white people fucked over by neoliberal capitalism. Brown people too. And yellow people? (fuck this colour spectrum horseshit, can’t we just be fucking humans? Oh wait, we can’t. Divide and conquer forever and always) But people of African descent are consistently targeted by policies, institutions and white society writ large. Because they are black. Not because they are poor. Poor white people kill poor black people because they are black, not because they are poor.
You know, I really do understand how Jon Stewart feels in this clip.
Wringing his hands. Exasperated. I just don’t even know where to turn, what to do, what to say. It’s just painful. It’s so meaningless. It’s a fucking church. You don’t take a gun into a church and shoot people. That’s humanity 101. The church is sacred. Yet…
And I repeat one more time. If the shooter was black, he’d be dead. The cops would have shot him. Now try to tell me that’s an economic issue.
It framed my perspective, and I do agree with most of his opinions.
Dear George Monbiot (and the rest of the older generation),
I do appreciate your opinion. I really do. In fact, I agree with just about everything you say more often than not. Absolutely, late capitalism is pernicious and destructive on so many levels. Its reach is unparalleled, and the way it captures each new generation, and coerces them into working like slaves is profound. But at some point, I would hope you realise your profound privilege. You too went to Oxford, which gives you a leg up on just about every other individual trying to self-maximize in this free market for labour.
This line is the main issue: “Students, rebel against these soul-suckers! Follow your dreams, however hard it may be, however uncertain success might seem.” Easy for you to say brother, you went to Oxford and chose to follow your dreams, namely being a writer and journalist, and because you went to Oxford you were presented with opportunities unavailable to the overarching majority of graduates. Not to say it’s a bad thing, in fact, congratulations on not totally selling out. But dude, it’s totally disingenuous to assume every recent graduate is as fortunate as you, or that every recent graduate went to Oxbridge or Ivy League schools.
Yeah, totally, you can point at a number of your classmates who went to Oxford, and chose to sell out and join The City, against their own best interests, while you didn’t. You chose not to. But you had the choice. It’s a little idealistic to assume everybody has that choice. I mean, at the end of the day, we all still have bills to pay. So say we follow our dreams, and those dreams don’t pay us enough to meet rent, then what do we do? We don’t all have wealthy parents too. It’s disingenuous and unfair to assume that every recent graduate is a trust-fund baby. You know.
And funny thing, this is a very common perspective for your generation. Born in the 1960s, reaped the rewards of the welfare state, and a local economy with the capacity to absorb and remunerate recent graduates with a salary. I, like many of my generation, don’t have a salary to fall back on. I work shifts, each shift pushing me closer and closer to reaching my monthly mandatory minimum to ensure I can pay rent and pay back my student loans. I remember a Bank of Canada exec saying something along the lines of: why don’t the millennials just work as unpaid interns. Experience is experience. They need to build their resumes, stop being so entitled and living in their parents’ basement. That’s the perspective I have issues with, and that’s the perspective bandied about by the older generations. Guys, it was tough in the 80s too, dontcha know? The recession was tough, but we worked hard, put our heads down, and now look at us, property, mortgages, retirement funds. You kids are just lazy and entitled. You think you deserve success without effort. You’re dependent on your parents. Now how is that fair? How many of us are actually dependent on our parents. How many of us have parents that can bail us out, or keep us afloat as we navigate the uncertainty of our 20s in a shit economy. Sure, some of us. But certainly not all of us. And that’s the central issue.
We have these men (sometimes women, but mostly just men. White men) in their ivory towers prognosticating, preaching and portending to both understand and have a solution for the ills of “the working person”. Monbiot comes from the liberal perspective, encouraging us to follow our dreams, and try to subvert neoliberal capitalism as much as we can. The Bank of Canada exec comes from the conservative perspective, encouraging us to literally enslave ourselves in the misguided hope of “building a resume” so that we’re perhaps more hirable in the future. Neither have left the ivory tower, and I would hazard a guess that neither has worked any shift work for longer than a summer. Sure, plenty of the upper crust have at least experienced shift work for a brief amount of time, but I’m quite confident that none have lived shift work for years, and understood the pressures of shift work, the anxiety involved every month. Living paycheck to paycheck. Hoping and praying we won’t get hurt, or sick, thus losing our livelihood.
The ivory tower will keep trying to tell us how to live, without actually understanding what life is truly like for most people.
Thanks for your perspective, George, it’s valuable, but it’s not gospel.
This begins with a confession. I didn’t approach the Women’s World Cup the same way I approached the Men’s World Cup. In the lead up to the World Cup in 2014 I was like a kid awaiting Christmas, counting down the days. I’d even purposely booked off a week of work so I could guarantee watching the first week of games. The soccer websites I routinely browsed were chock full of predictions and analysis. Fast forward a year, and these same soccer websites (BBC, Guardian) hardly mention the World Cup. Sure, if you scroll down a bit you’ll see game reports, but it’s not the main event. And there’s hardly any analysis. So right away, the soccer community wasn’t necessarily engaged with the World Cup in the same way. Despite all this, here I am four days into the World Cup and I’ve watched just about every game. It’s been thrilling. It’s the World Cup after all. The best players in the world trying to be the best team in the world. The passion, the nationalism, the enthusiasm, the energy.
Some observations a few games in:
The Americans are like the playground bully. They are bigger and stronger than most of their opponents. Australia actually put up a really good fight, and were arguably the better team, but the Americans always find a way to win. Plus, they have one of the best players in the world. No, not Abby Wambach or Alex Morgan. It’s Megan Rapinoe. Small, strong, and incredibly skilful with a bag of tricks and a rocket of a shot. Two-footed. Bleach-blonde with short hair, very noticeable.
She was the only American player to really stand out in the game. Well, her and Hope Solo. Easily the best goalie in the world. She made three truly world class saves. The rest seemed to trundle along, trying really hard, but to little effect.
Canada will do well to go deep in this tournament. The Canadians struggle with possession soccer, which means, they rely heavily on Christine Sinclair to provide a moment of magic. Which will certainly work against lesser nations, but even a team like Australia, that passes the ball with purpose and zip would provide plenty of problems.
Take Sophie Schmidt for example, she’s passionate, strong and dedicated, but distinctly lacking in technical skill, yet she plays as a number 10. A position that requires technical ability, vision and execution. If Canada go deep, it will be a combination of luck and Sinclair.
The Swiss were actually quite good. They have this little number 10, Ramona Bachmann, and I think she’s the best player I’ve seen so far. She’s like a little wind up toy. Walks around lots, but then as soon as the ball is near her she’s off like a whippet.
I remember one play against Japan where she picked up the ball at half, ran past four Japanese defenders, took the ball around the goalie, then slipped. Low centre of gravity and such skilful intensity. She was a joy to watch.
The Japanese never really seemed to get out of first gear. They’re all very technically proficient, and have this wonderful high-pressing game, trying to force the opposition into mistakes, but they only turned on the pressing in moments, and generally let the Swiss play, which almost came back to haunt them. Incredibly, they have a player Homare Sawa, playing at her 6th World Cup. I think they’re saving their energy for a deep run again, as they are the defending champs after all.
Sweden were profoundly disappointing. In the lead-up they were billed as the team to challenge the American’s in the “group of death”, but were frankly incredibly fortunate to escape with a draw against Nigeria. Aside from a devastating corner routine, the Swedes offered little. They looked ponderous, slow and overmatched. Apparently they’re an old team, this being the third world cup for a lot of this generation of Swedish women, so I guess it makes sense.
Which brings me to Nigeria. What an incredible game. That 3-3 draw had me out of my seat. Nigeria deserved to win. If only they knew how to defend. (now how often have you heard that complaint levied against an African team) Some of their defending was borderline amateurish. Diving in when they should jockey, playing offside as individuals, not a unit. But then, when they went forward…. FUCK. The Nigerian front four were about as dynamic as any forward group I’ve seen. (eat your heart out Messi, Neymar and Chomper) Such skill, pace, power and technique.
Apparently they’re all in their early 20s, and this is their first World Cup, so they’re only getting better. But it was truly scintillating, when Nigeria would launch attack after attack. If they made better decisions in the final third, the game would have been a rout. Now of course, in classic global soccer style, the Africans were billed as the underdogs and outsiders, and the announcers expressed consistent surprise at their abilities. As always.
There’s a reason of course, and no, it’s not just subtle paternalistic western racism. The Ivory Coast were creamed 10-0 by the Germans. Yes, 10. Granted, Germany are an incredible team. Stereotypes aside, incredibly efficient. But so technically gifted, and every player knew their role and worked hard for each other. Frankly, there couldn’t have been a worse match up for the poor Ivory Coast, who were at their first ever World Cup finals.
The poor women were completely overmatched. It really did look like they’d never played soccer before. Some of the defending was beyond amateurish, and not one player could complete a 30 yard pass. But that’s the point. Just like when Zaire were trounced 11-0 by Yugoslavia all those years ago in 1974, it’s about the experience, it’s about the opportunity, and the Ivorian women will come back stronger and better next time around.
That’s actually been one of the fascinating sub-plots to the World Cup. It’s been expanded from 16 to 24 teams, which has opened to door to more participants, allowing the women’s game to grow. So yeah, when Nigeria took the field against Sweden, everyone expected Sweden to win, easily. Because, you know, African teams aren’t good. On the flipside though, Cameroon and Ecuador were both first time competitors, and Cameroon won 6-0. So there.
Tonight, the French are playing the English, which should be one hell of a game. The French are one of the best teams in the world, and the English are… well, the English. They at least think they have a chance.
Now, one final, and incredibly important thought.
For once, the focus is solely on women, which is unlike most other global sporting events. (specifically the Olympics) It started with the opening ceremonies. Not a man in sight. Just women and girls dancing and celebrating. Mothers, daughters and grandmothers. It was beautiful to see.
Then the teams walk out, all women, the refs, all women, and for once, for 90 minutes, we were watching women play sports. And enjoying it. This almost never happens, except for women’s hockey at the Olympics. It’s the only other time we cheer for our women athletes en-masse. And you know what? Hockey isn’t the same. For one, you can’t really see the women’s faces when they’re playing. With soccer, they’re impossible to miss, hair flowing, faces straining, all the emotion and energy and passion on display for the world to see. For the world to see that women are athletes too, passionate and strong and dedicated and focussed. But also, women’s hockey is just part of the Olympic experience. With the World Cup, soccer is the only event, and the stars are all women.
Sadly, we still live in a patriarchal society, where the women’s world cup is trumpeted as a sign of progress, and rightly so, but that it has to be trumpeted at all speaks volumes. At the end of the day, it’s all about the 8 year old girls around the world watching women perform on the global stage, believing that perhaps one day it’ll be them. 30 years ago this wasn’t possible. There was no Women’s World Cup. And fuck me, every time I write “Women’s World Cup” I feel weak. It should just be the World Cup. Progress is slow.
I’ve been watching football for most of my life. I still remember the moment I was converted. World Cup ’98, and the Dutch National team. I’ll never forget those bright orange jerseys and that distinctly multicultural team. It really resonated with the 8 year old kid living in suburban London. From first sight came first love. I’ll always remember that Bergkamp goal in the quarter final. A long raking pass from Frank de Boer. Bergkamp caressing the ball with the top of his foot, plucking it out of the air, and then in the swiftest of movements stabbing the ball past the defender, and swooping into the net with the outside of his foot. It was a magical moment, borne of sheer skill, imagination, brilliance, and above all else, timing. It was the 89th minute of a World Cup quarter final, and the game was tied.
Fast forward 17 years, and I’m in my living room in Toronto watching Barcelona play Bayern Munich. Champions League semi-final. The footballing world has been captivated by the incredible rivalry between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo over the last 6 or so years. The debate has gone back and forth, each player distinctly aware of the debate, and each doing their utmost to put an end to it. In their own way. The last player outside those two to win the Ballon D’or – the prize for the best player in the world in a calender year – was Kaka, way back in 2008.
In one corner is the machine, the ultimate construction. The ultimate footballer, manufactured to perfection. Cristiano Ronaldo was a skinny kid with a bag of tricks when he left Portugal. He left Manchester United for Real Madrid 6 years later the hulking image of footballing perfection. His work-out regimen was well-known. The efficiency of his game, perfected. Gone were all the tricks and frills, and replaced by a ruthless, skilful, powerful footballing machine. The tricks were still there, but ultimately they had a purpose. Since joining Real Madrid, for a then-world record fee, Ronaldo has hit new heights. He left England, at 24, having finally added world-class goalscoring to his game. In Spain, with Real Madrid, he’s taken it to a whole new level. His goals record at United is 84 goals in 196 games (league only) while in Madrid it’s an astonishing 219 goals in 197 games (league only). Upon his move to the mecca of world football, a diminutive little Argentinian, in so many ways his antithesis, had just started his unparalleled and magical journey, conveniently playing for Madrid’s biggest rival: Barcelona.
Lionel Messi was a runt as a kid. He had a growth hormone deficiency, but was an incredibly gifted footballer. At the age of 11 he moved with his family to Barcelona in Spain, from little provincial Rosario in Argentina. Barcelona offered him a spot in their prestigious academy La Masia and a healthy treatment of human growth hormone. Lionel Messi was also a child prodigy. He tore up every youth league he played in, every youth international tournament. He was hailed as the next Maradona. This squat little left-footed Argentinian, with a magical dribbling ability. Unlike so many child prodigies hailed as the next greatest thing, Lionel Messi delivered. And how. Since his debut for Barcelona in 2004 (at the age of 16), Messi has played 312 games, scoring 283 goals (league only). He became a full-time starter in 2006, and since 2009 has averaged around or better than a goal a game. He recently scored his 400th goal in all competitions in his career. Which is already one of the greatest strike rates of all time, and he’s only 27.
Statistically, it’s hard to separate Messi and Ronaldo over the last five years. Stylistically, however, its fascinating. Where Ronaldo is all power, Messi is all finesse. Where Ronaldo trained prodigiously, turning himself into a goliath, Messi can just dribble and dribble and dribble. This is not to say Messi doesn’t train as hard, or work as hard, it’s more of an aesthetic argument. It’s the moment you see either player dribble the ball. Messi just looks more natural. Like he was literally put on this earth for the sole purpose of dribbling a football.
As you can see with the two videos (you just need to watch a minute or so) Messi glides, while Ronaldo powers. Ronaldo uses his speed and strength and skill, honed and developed. Messi just glides.
I’ve always shied away from the debate between Messi and Ronaldo, always more interested in analysing players like Andres Iniesta or Andrea Pirlo, the midfield schemers, the ones that pull the strings and set the tempo. When I saw Barcelona play at the Camp Nou, I’d felt vindicated. Messi was walking. And this short, balding Spaniard ran the show. Messi would only make a run when Iniesta had the ball. Iniesta was everywhere, always showing himself, always an option for a pass, and all over the field. Deceptively quick, an incredibly intelligent passer, and fantastic dribbler, I always saw Iniesta as the key. With Ronaldo and Madrid, I would always look at the Ozil’s, the Di Maria’s, the Benzema’s, all the players that pulled the strings. But something changed on Wednesday, watching that game between Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
This game featured the two giants of the modern game. One of either Barca or Bayern have made the final in the Champions league in five of the last 6 years. Bayern are coached by Pep Guardiola, the man hailed with transforming world football tactically while at Barcelona. The game was a tactical masterpiece. To the uninitiated, the first 77 minutes would have been boring. I was captivated. Here you had two teams, fully stocked with the best players in the world in terms of technical ability, trying the same tactics against each other. It was a game of few opportunities, and lots of passing. Until a moment. A moment in the 77th minute, and again in the 80th. It shelved my Iniesta argument for good.
The first came from a Bayern mistake, losing possession in their own half, on their left. Dani Alves winning the ball back, deftly slipping it by the onrushing defender and feeding Messi, Messi taking a couple quick dribbles, a couple jukes, and dispatching the ball ruthlesslessy in the bottom corner.
Bayern hadn’t learned. In their desperation to play out of the back quickly they lost the ball again, two quick passes and suddenly Messi has a one on one with Boateng on the edge of the box. Messi shimmies past him, Boateng falls without even making a tackle, like he fainted in an instant of adulation. Then Messi, as he always does, insouciantly chips the ball over the onrushing Neuer. Game over.
In those two moments I realised something fundamental. As much as we like to over analyse, myself included, trying to reason that Iniesta was the difference, and sure, he’s an incredible player and a key component. But he, and nobody else in the world can do what Messi can. Messi can grab a game, in an instant and win it. And he does it with such ease. With Ronaldo, you can see the amount of effort he’s putting in. Straining every sinew to sprint. Messi just glides. He glided towards the box and almost dismissively slotted the ball in the bottom corner. He glided past the best defender in the world, and dismissively, passively lifted the ball over the best goalkeeper in the world. It was all so easy. But all so devastating.
Ronaldo has learned every trick in the book, learned how to finish, how to dribble, how to beat a player. Messi has always just been able to. He hasn’t had to add layers to his game, to transform himself. He’s still the same kid dribbling past everyone because he’s just better.
And the timing. After 77 minutes of tactical Chess, Messi’s magical brilliance punctuated the contest. And again three minutes later. Two moments, perfectly timed. 3 minutes. It wouldn’t have been the same in the first half, it had to be late in the second half.
Such is the importance of timing when we evaluate sports greatness. It’s always a subjective thing, but timing always captivates us more. As sports fans we’ll always take a late winner over a blowout, because of the emotion involved. Timing and moments. The things that define true greatness. Iniesta is constantly present, but never has moments like Messi does. That’s the difference.
All to say, in 17 years of watching football, Lionel Messi is most certainly the best player I’ve ever seen. Cristiano Ronaldo, keep on trying, but you just can’t beat nature.
Here we go again. It seems this happens every few months. Somebody gets “misquoted” in the media and a giant brouhaha develops. This time it was the legendary Italian coach Arrigo Sacchi. His words:
“I’m certainly not racist and my history as a coach demonstrates that … But look at the Viareggio [youth] tournament I would say that there are too many black players. Italy has no dignity, no pride. It should not be possible that our teams should have 15 foreign players in the squad.”
This isn’t the first time. And certainly won’t be the last. In Italy, off the top of my head, I can think of Mario Balotelli, Angelo Obgonna and Stephan El Sharaawy, who aren’t ‘white’ and play for the national team. El Sharaawy has the great fortune of having mixed heritage, an Italian mother, so he’s actually more readily accepted by Italian society.
The path taken by Mario Balotelli is especially fascinating. He’s always been painted as the enfant terrible. Born in Italy to Ghanaian immigrants, he was given up to an Italian foster family at the age of 3 for economic reasons. He was born in Italy but isn’t a citizen, since the law demands children have an Italian parent to be Italian.
Balotelli isn’t the first person of African descent to play on the Italian national team, but he is the first pure-blood. Meaning, he doesn’t have an Italian father or mother. Fabio Liverani was the first black player on the national team, but his father was Italian, so he was relatively accepted. Balotelli isn’t. Hasn’t. And probably won’t be. No matter that he was the hero of the Euro 2012 finalists. No matter that he’s a tremendously gifted athlete. No matter that he refused to play for Ghana.
No matter that he had to wait until his 18th birthday to get Italian citizenship, and promptly stated: not only am I perfect, but I’m Italian too. He was born in Italy. I don’t know what more he has to do to be accepted in society. But there it is. He gets jeered at every away game, the monkey chants creating a haunting cacophony of hatred and intolerance.
Thing is, this isn’t an isolated incident. It’s a fixture of soccer culture in Europe. The monkey chants follow black players across the continent. From Samuel Eto’o and Dani Alves in Spain to Clarence Seedorf and Edgar Davids in the Netherlands. The weapon of choice: launching bananas. Because, obviously people with black and brown skin are monkeys. And it’s not just black players. It’s anyone who isn’t objectively white. The Turkish in Germany, the Moroccans in Belgium and Norway, Brazilians in the Ukraine. The French national team that won the World Cup in 1998 boasting a tremendously multi-ethnic mosaic has been demonised by segments of French society. Specifically, Jean Marie Le Pen, one of the foremost critics of Zinedine Zidane.
There’s a bigger picture here. The global community today was formed by our common history. The one that stretches back to the agricultural revolution, but there have been a few recent events that have framed our current landscape. Western colonial attitudes certainly played a role, as have the post-colonial economic realities of the globalized world. The growth of migration from the global south to the global north is the logical conclusion of the economic hardship experienced by billions since 1945. Over half a million Africans are purported to have immigrated to Europe each year in the 2000s alone. That’s a massive influx of people. And they’re all looking for work, because, there’s no work and no money in Senegal or wherever. We hear the stories about the boat people all the time. Thousands perish in the ocean each year, hoping to escape poverty for a better life. And they come to Europe to work. Anywhere and everywhere. They’ll happily work illegally for illegally low pay. Which prices some native-born Europeans out of the market for jobs. This poisonous mix has been compounded by recent economic uncertainty, and the growing austerity response. I’m not trying to justify the treatment of immigrants, just trying to understand why people choose to be so patently intolerant to other people. It’s understandable that in a climate of economic uncertainty, having grown up in a culture that promised so much, and delivered so little, that you’re bound to be frustrated, and sometimes (a lot of the time) it’s easier to blame other than point the finger of blame reflexively back at society itself.
The Africans in Italy are seasonal workers, picking tomatoes. But aren’t allowed to integrate into Italian society.
One of the common mantra’s around the immigrant communities is: “don’t go into the white part of town”. Football becomes the only means of expression and integration, as football is a language on its own. Football doesn’t see colour, or economics. Football is one ball, eleven people on each side, and perhaps some sticks to mark the goal. Take this excerpt from the wonderful ESPN article about football and racism in Italy:
“Balotelli liked how he felt with a ball at his feet. Across the street from the apartment building where he lived, in between the supermarket and the church, was a pitch. This was his real home. When he stepped in between the lines, he found a place where being different wasn’t bad. All he had to do was go down a flight of stairs, go out the gate, cross the road, and navigate a patch of tall weeds between the street and the stadium. He seemed safe there, creating an Italy where he belonged. Maybe that’s why he’s said he’ll never be forced from a pitch by racist chants. He’d be letting the hatred drive him from his home.”
Le foot, c’est l’expression, c’est magnifique.
And you know, if we think we’re entirely immune to this incredible intolerance here in North America, lets not forget the (shocking) but real abuse levelled at PK Subban recently. Granted this was definitely an outlier case, in a North American sports culture that is dominated by black athletes, but it demonstrated the deeply-held ingrained intolerant beliefs of some people.
And yeah, I’m not pointing fingers at anyone here. Intolerence cuts both ways. I’ll always remember those times I’ve walked through a village in rural Kenya. The children will run around me, chanting wazungu, wazungu, wazungu, which is Swahili for ‘white person’. What you see is what you know. In the Italian case, there was a definite correlation between townies and intolerance. Just like the village in rural Kenya. What you see is what you know. And the children tell it like it is. They saw something rare, something they’re rarely exposed to: people who looked objectively different. They ran around pointing it out. No malice, it wasn’t racist or anything like that. It was just objectively stating: look, its foreigners. The novelty of something different. But that’s how it starts. The novelty of difference soon yields to distrust of difference, especially when twinned with economic hardship.
Much of the literature in Europe on racism and football has focussed on the proliferation of right-wing groups. And rightly so. When a generation of people are raised with a certain amount of expectations, and society fails to meet those expectations (you know, the career, the house, the stability) the generation starts pointing fingers. In the European case, the finger is pointed at those that aren’t white. Those that aren’t objectively and obviously European. In America that finger is sometimes pointed at the Mexicans. Those that aren’t objectively and obviously American. The theme is the same. Blame other.
It’s not like there are deep-rooted structural issues at work.
It’s not like we’re all just trying to survive.
Authors Note: I’m pre-emptively calling this Pt. 1 simply because I know this’ll be a subject I’ll address again. And again. Because it keeps happening. Every few months…
Cry, The Beloved Country was written by Alan Paton in the late 1940s. Paton, the descendent of English settlers, was white. I hate that I have to point that out, but Cry, The Beloved Country is about South Africa. It’s very difficult to have a conversation about South Africa without discussing race. Sadly. And I’ll keep the summary to a minimum simply because the book is incredible, emotional and intense. I don’t want to ruin it for anyone. But let’s just say it’s profoundly tragic, in a devastatingly round-a-bout way. It’s the story of an old preacher-man, travelling from the countryside to Johannesburg for the first time. He’s looking for his brother, his sister and his son. He hasn’t heard from them in years. Running concurrently is the story of South Africa. The story of the people, and their suffering. And it’s written so beautifully. Alan Paton loves South Africa, and rightly so. It’s a stunning country. One of the things I heard often whilst in Cape Town was that there’s a reason the English, the Dutch and the African’s have been fighting over this land for generations. And trust me, there is.
For me though, more than anything Cry, The Beloved Country is a story of progress. From his descriptions of industrialising Johannesburg, to the squalor of the townships, to the value of a black life, the parallels were stark. And then there’s the hammer that drops. The book was written and was set before the official beginning of Apartheid. It’s the elephant in the room, looming over your shoulder. Tapping you from time to time, but sometimes just hitting you over the head. Remember, you think it’s bad? Apartheid hasn’t even really started yet. It’s only going to get a lot worse. That might be the most tragic thing about the book. It details the struggle and the injustice, but before the struggle and injustice became even more pronounced.
And then there’s this: the South Africa Paton describes is the same South Africa I visited in 2010. Right down to the convoys of people walking along the highway to get home. Because either transit was too expensive or because it was too ineffective. I remember it like yesterday. Hundreds of thousands of people, all non-white, walking home to the townships from the City.
Walking for hours, back to their corrugated-tin shack. Walking for hours from their low-paying job. Yet, that was the same South Africa for Paton in the 1940s. Progress?
Johannesburg is a mining town. From the moment they struck gold in the late 19th century, Johannesburg was a boomtown. Just think of our North American gold rush in the late 19th century. Same scramble, same madness, same greed, same desolation. Difference was, the Afrikaners and English controlled the mines, and used labour from the neighbouring townships. African labour. That was paid a pittance.
And here’s the thing. European incursion into the rest of the world during the colonial era inexorably changed the social and economic dynamics of the societies in place. The introduction of a market economy, one that required capital to pay for goods and services. So it’s not like the Africans had much of a choice. They could have theoretically stayed in the country, tried to work the land. But really, that wasn’t an option. Just as in Europe during the industrial revolution, the same processes were at work. Thousands of young men leaving the country side for the city to work. Because there’s no work anywhere else, and mechanisation decimated the agricultural labour force.
And you can’t eat without money. You can’t buy clothes without money. Nor can you afford school, or drinking water. Or in many cases, cigarettes and alcohol. The few pleasures left to the disaffected.
And just as in Europe, the cities became home to millions. But the cities didn’t have the requisite infrastructure. In Europe, it took generations to get up to speed. State-funded education, state-funded sanitation, state-funded security, state-funded housing. But this is South Africa, or, to quote Leo in Blood Diamond: thees ees Afreeka. TIA indeed. One of the central moral dilemmas in Cry was whether or not the White South Africans should be paying to educate and police the Blacks. Pre-apartheid. Again, pre-apartheid.
Here’s a nice little passage from Cry, about the gold rush, and the people affected by it:
“We live in the compounds, we must leave our wives and families behind. And when the new gold is found, it is not we who will get more for our labour. It is the white man’s shares that will rise, you will read it in all the papers. They go mad when new gold is found. They bring more of us to live in the compounds, to dig under the ground for three shillings a day. They do not think, here is a chance to pay more for our labour. They think only, here is a chance to build a bigger house and buy a bigger car. It is important to find gold, they say, for all of South Africa is built on the mines” (Paton 68)
There are some pretty clear parallels with today, if I say so myself. In our current economic situation, the lords of business keep rewarding themselves. Keep buying themselves bigger houses, bigger cars, fuck, bigger fucking islands. While millions, nay, billions around the world toil. From micro to macro, the trappings of wealth and greed remain unabated. Plus ca change…
Back to progress though. Cry, The Beloved Country describes a South Africa eerily similar to the one I visited. So, what’s the verdict? The general consensus around the world is that since 1994 it’s been better. Mandela, they proclaim. And Mandela is a hero. Honourable and just. But here’s the thing, and it’s taken right out of Paton’s sermon:
“Because the white man has power, we too want power, he said. But when a black man gets power, when he gets money, he is a great man if he is not corrupted. I have seen it often. He seeks power and money to put right what is wrong, and when he gets them, why, he enjoys the power and the money. Now he can gratify his lusts, now he can arrange ways to get white man’s liquor, he can speak to thousands and hear them clap their hands. Some of us think when we have power, we shall revenge ourselves on the white man who has had power, and because our desire is corrupt, we are corrupted, and the power has no heart in it. But most white men do not know this truth about power, and they are afraid lest we get it.” (Paton 70)
And that’s the sad truth. The disenfranchised spent generations in squalor, yearning for a bit of power, a bit of freedom, and the moment they grasped it, they refused to let go. This isn’t just a South African phenomenon either, look across the continent of Africa.
Look at all the despots and dictators still ruling their roost, ten, twenty, fuck, forty years later. Museveni… Mugabe…
The thing is this goes back to ethnicity and identity. South Africa has been highly racialized for generations. Today, there’s still a degree of antipathy towards whites from the black intelligentsia, but much more of the ire is directed at Namibians, Zimbabweans and Swazi’s. You know, because South Africa is wealthier, and still has mines, and a lot of the unskilled, low-pay labour now comes from neighbouring countries. In the 1940s the exploited labour force came from the country side, but now, it’s coming from afar. And native South Africans will trot out the usual lines about immigrants taking jobs. Immigrants taking jobs nobody else wants. Immigrants taking jobs where they are actively exploited, generally working for less than a dollar a day. And if we think we’re immune to this, we’re wrong. Seasonal labourers from the Caribbean dot Canadian farms every summer. Mexican labourers in America…
At the end of the day, our system seems to require low-skill, low-pay labour. How else will the lords of business make their outlandish profits? And please, don’t mistake this for something overly Marxian. There are millions of people around the world getting paid less than a dollar a day, while there are thousands of people who make more than a million a day. The only difference today is the displacement. Globalization has given us the opportunity to outsource the undesirable. NIMBY, they say. And fair, as long as we don’t see it, it’s not really a problem. Sure, we see images on TV of squalor and suffering in Asia or Africa, but it’s on TV.
We have movies that also show squalor and suffering, so at least to an extent we’ve been desensitized. Unfortunately.
What was the point of all this? I don’t even know. Maybe just to bring it all full circle again. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. Those with power over others will always have a choice to make. Always. I’m going to finish with one final passage from Cry.
“Yes, that is right about power, he said. But there is only one thing that has power completely, and that is love. Because when a man loves, he seeks no power, and therefore he has power. I see only one hope for our country, and that is when white men and black men, desiring neither power nor money, but desiring only the good of their country, come together to work for it.” (Paton 71)
Yes, yes, it was written in the 1940s, so replace man and men with people, and you get the message. Once we work together for the good of humanity and whilst desiring neither money nor power, then there’s hope. Black, white, brown, turquoise, mauve, and orange, colour be damned. We don’t need more money. We don’t need more power. It’s the want that corrupts. The want that can blind us. It comes down to something simple. Reconciling wants and needs. In my view, needs are linked to survival and “relative enjoyment”. Wants are bonuses. But it’s a conversation we’ve all had at some point, and will keep having with ourselves. Do I want or do I need?
Back in Grade 11 I took a class called “World Issues”. It was taught by this lovely old British woman, with a twinkle in her eye. There were a few of us in the class who all happened to be children of Aid workers. We called ourselves the “CIDA kids”. We smugly thought we knew world issues. I remember learning about the media spotlight in that class. Our case study was the little Buddhist revolution in Myanmar (or Burma, depending on who you’re talking to). This would have been back in the fall of 2007. The media was intensely focussed on the so-called Saffron Revolution for a few weeks. All of a sudden the hidden and secretive junta controlling Myanmar was in the spotlight.
Everyone was talking about them. But then something happened after a few weeks. I don’t quite remember what, but the spotlight shifted, and I didn’t hear anything about Myanmar for years. I’ll always remember that moment. The moment I was taught something theoretical by a teacher, and saw the clear evidence of the theory in practise right before my eyes.
By now, we’re all fairly media literate, and the notion of the media spotlight is self-evident. Every few weeks there’s a new crisis. Here in the cushy and cloistered West, it’s easy to forget the intractable nature of conflicts around the world. Egypt has been in a state of revolution for four years now. Afghanistan has been consistently chaotic since the Soviets invaded in the late 1970s.
Iraq has been a clusterfuck for over ten years. Every few years, we’ll hear a report, or there’ll be an insightful piece of investigative or experiential journalism. Vice News does a better job than any other Western media conglomerate of at least paying lip service to the unreported. And specifically how it affects the people. The people like you and I.
So does this really matter? I mean, none of us here in the West live with intractable conflict around us. Nor blatant injustice. We take the rule of law for granted. The safety. No trade embargos to worry about. We can just pop over to the store and buy whatever we want for the market rate. And then we can hear about conflict and strife in the global south from the safety of our living rooms.
Remember Libya? I’ll admit, I haven’t kept up to date at all. There was a Western coalition in 2011 that ousted America’s old bête-noir, Colonel Gaddaffi. Who had the temerity to question Western Imperialism. A classic cold-war strongman. He ruled the country with an iron fist. But also raised living standards, provided food and shelter to the underprivileged, provided universal education. And the cherry, he nationalised oil. Before the revolution back in 1969, the old king of Libya was siphoning oil off to the West. Specifically Italy and France.
Gaddaffi and the army took over, and nationalised oil. And used the money to develop infrastructure. Sure, plenty was gobbled up through nepotism and corruption, but we can’t be so arrogant here in the West to think that’s not a universal problem. Every job I’ve ever gotten has been through nepotism. People will always help their friends and family, given the opportunity. How can we possibly explain political dynasties (Trudeau, Martin, Bush), or the intractable power of the aristocracy in the UK? And sure, political opponents of Gaddaffi were either imprisoned, or disappeared. But didn’t the same thing happen in Latin America between the 1960s and 1980s? Military Junta’s disappearing thousands of dissidents. Thrown from helicopters into the sea. With tacit western support. We helped Pinochet come to power. We helped him depose the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende and then turned a blind eye when Pinochet started killing. Ideology trumped.
Libya was always chastised for its undemocratic tendencies. Forgetting of course our own long path to democracy. Of how women had to fight for the right to vote.
Of how even today, there are more disenfranchised African-Americans than during slavery. (Yes, that’s true. In gross terms. Link at the bottom, Gary Younge article) Forgetting of course that most countries in the global south were constructed by Western powers over the last 100 years, whilst Western powers evolved relatively organically. But I digress.
I could go into more historical detail, maybe discuss the relationship between Gaddaffi and Reagan in the 1980s. How the Americans bombed Gaddaffi’s presidential palace, and killed one of his daughters. How two Libyan men set off a bomb on an airplane flying over Lockerbie in Scotland. Or maybe how Gaddaffi was one of the main proponents and funders of the African Union. How he became respected as an elder statesman on the continent. How he kept espousing Pan-African unity.
Or perhaps how there was a secret accord between the French and the rebels in early 2011, that guaranteed the French access to Libyan oil, provided they help the rebels overthrow Gaddaffi. Or perhaps how, today, there are two factions fighting for control of Libya’s oil. One group with ties to Islamists, the other with ties to the old Gaddaffi regime. The old theory about strongmen rings true again. The strongman was able to keep society relatively cohesive, keep all the fringe elements at bay, and post-revolution the chaos is palpable. Much like in Egypt. Much like in Iraq.
And don’t get me wrong, I’m not in favour of autocratic dictatorships. But let’s not forget that in our own historical political evolution, autocracy was an important step.
Democracy is the best system we’ve figured out so far. Much like capitalism. But that doesn’t mean it’s unimpeachable, or that it’s the final stage of human political-economic development.
The point of all this, really, is to spare a thought for Western Imperialism. We invade countries in the global south. We have regularly since the 1950s. The media will shine the spotlight whilst we invade. Pomp and circumstance. Who can forget the shock and awe campaign from the invasion of Iraq. We’re all suddenly aware of people, living in conflict, somewhere far away. They might wear funny clothes, speak in different languages, and generally just look different. And for a few weeks, we’re all aware. But then the spotlight finds something else. Much like the eye of Sauron, its focus is constantly shifting.
The thing is though, once the spotlight fades away, we forget. Which is a bit of an issue when you invade a country and remove the political leadership. You know, democratic or not, the leadership of Iraq and Libya had control of their territory. It goes back to Max Weber’s definition of the state: any human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of force within a given territory. But post-invasion, it’s heavily contested. Sectarian conflicts have arisen. And because our western media spotlight no longer shines, we don’t know. We don’t remember. We remember invading, and being told it was for the “right reasons”. Market democracy. We prefer to avoid conducting an autopsy though. Because the autopsy might just reveal something about ourselves and our motivations. That perhaps we’re not the knights of moral justice that we claim to be. That perhaps economic imperatives were central in our decision-making processes. That perhaps a few people in positions of power in the West stood to benefit from an invasion.
Paging Dick Cheney, former CEO of Halliburton. Not like Halliburton won multi-million dollar defense contracts after the invasion of Iraq. Not like the reason for the invasion was entirely spurious. Weapons of mass destruction. Terrorist cells. The irony of course, that the country is now more unstable. An incubator for Islamist cells. Just like Libya.
So why does this matter? Because in our democracies in the west, we are all accountable. At least that’s the idea. Our political representatives are meant to reflect us. Are meant to be responsive to us. So by that logic, we are all responsible, at least indirectly. And that we have a duty, at some level, to explore how and why we chose to invade a country and depose its leadership.
And it especially matters because the fourth estate has let us down. The fourth estate was supposed to be a bulwark against the established powers of government and business. The fourth estate was supposed to be the voice of the people. But the fourth estate is a business. An entrenched business. That only shines a spotlight when it’s expedient. The fourth estate needs to make money, so it sensationalizes. Just turn on the news.
Which leaves the fifth estate as the bulwark. The one to call out the power structures. The one hoping to expose injustices. This whole thought process started when I went to The Atlantic Monthly’s website, and saw an article entitled “The Battle for Libya’s Oil – On the Frontlines of a Forgotten War”. And that’s just it. The fourth estate has been co-opted. But the fifth estate has risen. Edifices like Vice News, saving us all from ourselves, one report at a time. Power to the people, they say.