Post-Imperial Football Guilt

June 23, 2010

For those among you who don’t follow sports, or news, or the stricken faces of football fans of varying teams, the French football team imploded yesterday in front of millions of viewers, in its last group stage match at the South African World Cup. Their opponents, South Africa, managed to net two goals but will still not be continuing in the tournament because of previous losses. Had it not been for a second-half French goal, the host nation’s team might have continued a fairy tale run with the hopes of a whole continent on its shoulders.

For this is supposed to be Africa’s World Cup, despite the fact that only six of the 32 teams are African, and they are all among the lowest-ranked. This is the first time the tournament’s been held on the continent, and pundits the world over are hoping for a victory for the perennial underdogs, because it seems fitting. Even Shakira is getting in on the action, with her official tournament song, subtitled “This Time For Africa,” which shows delightful snippets of the world’s best players touching their hearts and wearing t-shirts with the African continent on them, all while traditional African dancing (led by Shakira, of course) goes on in the background.

All this, and that nasty French team had to go and ruin it all by scoring a goal – one goal, when they were likely going home anyway! – to stop the momentum and dash the hopes of so many. Surely they are the villains of the piece (certainly they are to the Irish), for all the “neutral” viewers are behind South Africa and its continental brothers.

But why? Why should the immense pressure under which the French team (and many others as well) succumbed be so delightful, so seemingly just? In part, it is because we love the story. Which former world champion, awash in cash and world-class talent, won’t even get out of the group stage this time? It is a kind of ironic pathos that those in other nations (especially those who have fallen by the wayside along the way) can revel in.

It is perhaps also in part because we want to compensate, in some way, for a history in which Africans were underdogs in more significant ways than in football rankings. The big teams, with a few notable exceptions in South America, are all former colonial powers: wealthy, powerful, and Western. England, Spain, France, Germany, Portugal, the Netherlands – all countries that did and still do impact the fates of African nations in important ways. A victory for Ghana, or Côte d’Ivoire would be, in a word, revolutionary, an upset to the old order.

For football, like economics and militarism, can also be imperialistic. A fascinating post I read recently talks about how the World Cup is only reinforcing football imperialism: the most talented African stars leave their home countries to play in the big European leagues, leaving behind weaker players who lack the same experience and have little hope of getting it in impoverished African leagues and a generally weakened sporting culture. They are then re-imported to be the stars of their teams, all the while implicitly reinforcing the idea that European/Western is better, and that the place where African talent should migrate to be “discovered” is Europe. Even in countries that are seeking to bolster their footballing hopes for the future, the reflexive bent toward playing for European teams being the apex of a career is evident. In Nigeria, for example, a former national star has set up a school to find the most promising children and train them in football – but also in English and accounting, to prepare them for “making it big.” It aims to perpetuate its success by selling the best graduates to rich European teams.

I wonder if an element of our support for the African teams, however unconscious, comes from feelings of “white guilt,” the uneasy emotion that blogs like Stuff White People Like play upon. A thought-provoking post I read recently goes into more detail about white guilt in films from Dances With Wolves to Avatar, but the same concepts can be applied to football: white people feel that they are, in some ways, contributors to the continuing debasement of ex-colonial (footballing) culture, so to assuage their guilt they go against their traditional allegiances and support the “other,”  the underdog.

Am I extrapolating too much? Perhaps. But the fact remains that it will never be “Time for Africa” until a lot of cash and a thriving sporting – and general political – culture combine with the requisite amount of luck and natural skill involved in winning a World Cup. In the meantime, the answer is not to cheer for France’s demise – unless, of course, you are Irish.

MARGINALIA: In a stroke of marketing genius, Pizza Hut in Ireland gave out 350 free pizzas every time a team scored on France at this year’s World Cup. The “Handball Campaign” continued with more free pizza to celebrate France’s ouster yesterday.  I guess they don’t feel the need to grow market share in France.

G20: What’s the Point?

June 22, 2010

All anyone is hearing or reading about this week is the disruption caused by the impending G20 summit in Toronto: rapidly mounting security costs, Orwellian-sounding “free speech zones” surrounded by large fences, tourist attractions closed, chaos on the roads, and that infamous fake lake. So what’s the point? Why would the government squander the little remaining political capital it has on something that is surely designed to be inconvenient and unpopular for citizens?

According to the City of Toronto, the main benefits of our hosting the event are an increase in tourism and  more global exposure to our cultural, environmental, and financial leadership. But who is doing the touring, and who is being exposed? It cannot be the delegates, many of whom hail from countries with far more economic and political clout than Canada, and who won’t be stepping outside of their securely fenced-in hotel zones to experience the “real” Toronto culture that inhabits our somewhat out-of-the-way neighbourhoods anyway. And it’s hard to know to whom Canada needs “exposing.” Presumably the idea is to attract the confidence and admiration of wealthy and influential figures in other countries by how successfully we handle the onslaught of delegates this week. Such positive press would surely result in Canada having more of a global role, a seat at the proverbial table, the thinking goes.

But, as a professor of mine once pointed out, there is having a seat at the table, and having a seat at the table. There are the seats from which your voice can be heard and you can be seen. And then there is the seat behind the pillar which you are expected every so often to vacate in order to get everyone else coffee.

It seems Canada’s principal economic/military allies – those in the G8, say, or perhaps NATO – consider us to be lightweights. Is it our poor record on environmentalism, as one opinion leader is quoted as saying in the above article? Doubtful. It is more likely the historical holdover that marks Canada as proportionately smaller (in population and GDP) and more likely to follow a course already set by Britain or the United States. It is a chronic underestimation that stems from the main knowledge of Canada abroad consisting of beer, winter, and politeness. Hardly the stuff of global leadership.

On the bright side, it seems that emerging global powers like Brazil, Russia, China and India believe Canada has, and perhaps more importantly, deserves a seat at the global decision-making table, and not just as a serving boy. The Globe and Mail seems to suggest that this is because of our participation in the G20, but the fact that the majority of residents in any country couldn’t name more than two or three members of the G20 would seem to contradict this argument.

The positive global opinion of Canada in these countries is no doubt because of our massive immigrant populations from these countries.  Looking around the city, I see as many (or more) flags in support of the teams in the World Cup that are from developing, non-G20 nations as those who are traditional powerhouses. This immigrant goodwill is a smaller, slower more grassroots swelling of popularity and influence, but the opinions immigrants and their families hold are no doubt more positive and substantial than any based on how well zoned our protesters are for the next six days. Immigrants form significant connections between their new and old homes, and feed exactly the kind of information the government would want to spread about Canada back to their relatives in the old country: about freedom, about security, about stability, and about the opportunities here. These are the reasons people come to Canada and spend money here – not because of our global leadership in risk management.

Like the Vancouver Olympics earlier this year, the G20 is just another PR exercise, fraught with the usual allegations of overspending and political posturing, but unlike the Olympics, the G20 has no warm fuzzy feelings of pride or nationalism. There are no G20 red mittens. And I would challenge anyone to think of a positive correlation they have with a previous G20 host city. The government, for all its good intentions, would do better to spend its earmarked G20 budget on better career counselling, benefits, or English/French language instruction for new Canadians – they’re much more likely to appreciate their efforts and relay the goodwill to their captive audiences around the world.


G20 Red Mittens

Warm fuzzies: G20 Red Mittens

Themes and Trends from the British Election: Part II

June 9, 2010

Yesterday I wrote about the positive aspects that the Cameron-Clegg-led coalition might have on British (and perhaps international) politics in the short and long term. In this post I will focus on two of the more worrisome trends that have run through international elections in the last few years, including the most recent British one.

  • Televised posturing has spread to Britain.

This was to be the television election, and Nick Clegg was to change the face of British politics with his excellent debate performances. It was to be the triumph of the underdog thanks to the massive exposure he got from standing on stage as an equal to his Tory and Labour counterparts. The first election with televised debates had the potential to bring the most pressing questions of the day into many millions of living rooms and inspire a new generation to connect with politics as they do with Corrie.

But it was not to be – despite his pleasant way of getting to the point and an early surge in the polls, Clegg’s Lib Dems actually lost seats. And the debates at times veered toward a North American-style focus on style over substance (not that Gordon Brown wearing a purple tie isn’t newsworthy, of course).  Brown was expressly instructed not to use so many facts and statistics, presumably in favour of sweeping narratives. The trouble with television, of course, is the temptation to compete with things like Big Brother. The result is spin, manufactured “winners” and “losers” and very few real policies.

It is perhaps worth noting that the first televised debate in the US also resulted in the triumph of a charming and dapper fortysomething over a grizzled second in command – a coincidence?

Hopefully the success of Cameron (and even Brown) over Clegg in the election does not mean a trend toward more tales of woe from old immigrant women in Portsmouth and nurses in Newcastle.

  • Ignominious ousters seem now to be the norm.

Poor Gordon Brown. And, in the same vein, poor Paul Martin. No matter how ideologically opposed you might be to their policies, it’s hard not to appreciate the almost Greek tragedy that was their political careers: waiting as competent second-in-command to a charismatic Prime Minister for years only to succeed him in the midst of financial and/or political crisis and have minimal social and campaigning skills to fall back on. “Kamakaze” Brown  was even willing to self-immolate if it meant the continuation of his beloved party’s time in office; alas, it was not to be.

But what really bothers me is not that Mr. Brown, much like Mr. Martin, will continue on the lecture circuit for years wearing the same sad, defeatist expression he always has (and did throughout the campaign when he wasn’t wearing his “you should all be seriously afraid of the Tories” frown). I’m disappointed in the short attention span and minimal threshold for failure against which we measure our public figures these days. In the glory days of British politics, Gladstone and Disraeli battled each other for years. Disraeli was PM twice; Gladstone four times.  Their parties didn’t abandon them wholesale (or force them to tender their resignations) upon defeat, in a cloud of finger-pointing. And with each defeat, they got wiser, politically and interpersonally. Disraeli’s second ministry saw his party pass important bills in food safety, health care and foreign affairs. It also gave him a much larger number of seats than his party had previously had. Gladstone’s many years in opposition and in government shaped his convictions and strengthened his ability to pass significant legislation laying the groundwork for the major shifts toward redistributive wealth in British society in the early twentieth century.

In Canada, we haven’t tolerated a repeat PM since Trudeau, and had he not been permitted to run again after losing to Joe Clark, he would never have passed what was arguably his defining legislation, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In contrast, Stéphane Dion was given a few months to learn everything he could about being a leader and managing a political campaign, then unceremoniously shown the door after an unsurprising (but hardly devastating) loss to an incumbent PM. Should his replacement in the next elections fail to make any gains, he will also be turfed and sent back to Harvard. Why?

For all we tell children that failure is a good thing and necessary for growth, we have remarkably little tolerance for it in perhaps the most important decision-making arenas in the world. (The same is undoubtedly true in the business world, but this is not a post about CEOs.) Winning is everything, and younger, newer models who are “untainted” by a history of defeat are more desirable. Politics, once the sphere of crusty old men in suspenders and wigs, is now the domain of a new sort, though one that is certainly no more diverse, and very likely less so.  This brings me to my next trend to watch:

  • Career politicians are on the rise.

Diversity isn’t just a nebulous buzzword used by major corporations. When the aim of government is to effectively represent the population, diversity has to apply to gender, race, and ethnicity – yes – but also age, experience, and outlook. To return to a theme, Disraeli was a published novelist before becoming an MP. Gladstone trained as a lawyer. Today’s crop of leaders, from Obama to Cameron/Clegg to Harper, despite their obvious differences, all share a commonality: they have all been actively involved in politics from a young age, which undoubtedly led to their uncommonly young ascension to the uppermost echelons of power.

They are all clearly bright, capable, and talented. They all work hard. But they represent a very small faction of what government needs, in just the same way as a university can’t entirely be made up of philosophy professors: it needs administrators, and groundskeepers, and all manner of other academic backgrounds.

Part of the opportunity presented by a coalition government is that of building an inner circle that reflects a plethora of experiences, backgrounds, and viewpoints. In some ways, this is what Obama achieved by selecting Joe Biden as his running-mate: an older, ostensibly wiser counterpart to balance his thinking and reassure the electorate that they wouldn’t be getting a Cabinet of latte-swilling yuppies from the big city. David Cameron and Nick Clegg are both from upper-middle-class backgrounds, well educated at public (in Canada, private) schools and Oxbridge. (There was a hilarious article in the Times Online recently asking which of two is posher; do check it out to find out which of the two has a spy in the family, and which likes to read cheap paperbacks.)

And, at 43, they are both very young, as are many of their advisors. The Economist ran a fascinating piece recently that noted the fact that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is younger than the man England will likely field as its primary goalkeeper at this month’s World Cup (no comment on which job I’d less like to have, in terms of national scrutiny and potential for eternal hatred). These men were certainly creative in getting around paying their dues, though I wonder what kind of precedent it sets for the future.  It seems oddly out of sync with the rest of the world that individuals with little breadth of experience outside of politics should succeed where their counterparts in the business worlds are needing to plan to increasingly varied careers of lateral job moves into different areas.

So all in all the election and subsequent coalition presents a balanced scorecard, and is certainly more interesting than the prospect of a party going back to the polls in a few months having accomplished nothing.

What do you think? Did you watch and enjoy the debates? Do you like hearing about nurses in Newcastle? Would you go and see Gordon Brown if he came to do a sad-faced political lecture in your area?

Themes and Trends from the British Election: Part I

June 8, 2010

After waiting a few weeks to see how it would all shake out, I remain quite pleased with the outcome of the British election. The David Cameron-/Nick Clegg-led coalition seems to be functioning both effectively and efficiently, having presented its main aims while in office in the May 25th Queen’s Speech and managed to find a way to compromise on hot-button election issues like Europe and voting reform – at least for now. While coalitions in general are often seen as failures-in-waiting, or awkward combinations of strange bedfellows who can’t stand each other for long, such a future is certainly not a foregone conclusion.

There are a few encouraging themes and trends that have come out of this election and subsequent government, and a few I wanted to highlight as potential cause for concern. I’ll start in today’s post with what I see as the positives:

  • The coalition narrows focus.

No government can accomplish everything. Past governments – and, more importantly, voters – seemed to understand this. Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier’s Speech from the Throne after he took office in 1896, for example, was about half a page long, and discussed the forthcoming compromise to the Manitoba Schools Question (regarding whether English and French/Catholicism would both be taught in schools in the province), and a minor tariff.  Student council presidents set out longer and more ambitious plans today.

Yet a large part of the trouble with modern elections is that they are never really fought over one issue, but many. The British one, for example, had several major themes, including the fiscal deficit, immigration, Britain’s supposed “broken society,” irresponsible MPs, and the ever-present concern over education funding and support for the NHS. Political parties want to be everything to their voters, even when those things are contradictory.  And they inevitably disappoint when they are unable to radically change society as they say they set out to do.

But it seems that this government has a natural focus, given that its main players had to agree upon key priorities before they even took office together. In the British political Venn diagram, there are many ideological areas in which the Tories and Lib Dems overlap, particularly when it comes to the best way to deal with the current financial situation. It’s refreshing to see that, in the areas in which they don’t agree, they are staying relatively silent – for now. Perhaps counter-intuitively, this narrowing of focus will result in a more efficient government that can overcome the stereotypes of bureaucracy and actually achieve the major reforms that are necessary.

  • There is a new emphasis on commonalities over differences.

I’ve never really believed that political parties line up neatly on a spectrum, especially if we take an international view. (Try explaining to a devout American Democrat, for example, why it would in many ways be ideologically analogous to vote Tory in Canada. Impossible task.) Each country has its own quirks, and the plurality of special interest groups masquerading as national political parties in modern elections makes a two-dimensional continuum an especially outdated concept.

Canada, for example, has intense regionalism which colours all party politics, so that a moderate might as likely vote Liberal in British Columbia as Conservative in Ontario, all the while believing in essentially the same basic tenets of sensible fiscal policy and social freedom. But a moderate in Quebec will often vote for the Bloc Quebecois, because that party is able to take a popular stand that makes sense to a broad base of people and distinguish itself from the other main parties on a single issue (namely, separation).

I abhor this explosion of single-issue politics, as it creates an artificial divide between ideological positions that are actually quite similar. In the American context, for example, this hair-splitting has reached an almost farcical level, with the rest of the world looking on in disbelief as two parties that are both far to the ideological right of the rest of the world bicker over to what extent the Bible can be taken literally or which ignorant, nativist bigot can more legitimately be styled a “conservative.” These of course are the burning questions that affect our world in 2010, no?

In Britain, the political “spectrum” can more easily be conceived of as a triangle. Labour under Tony Blair moved quite far toward the right, and David Cameron, a self-styled Blair follower, brought the Tories out of the still-unpopular Thatcher/Major territory and planted himself some distance to the left of his predecessors. The Lib Dems float about in the middle of the two, but somehow the three have not landed on top of each other on a political continuum. They all have different opinions about Europe, nuclear deterrence, and education, for example, and they never completely agree.

But with the coalition comes the promise of some kind of appreciation that there are many basic beliefs that the Tories and Lib Dems hold in common, and that their supporters do too. Hopefully this will set the example that in politics, as in life, people who have differences of opinion can still work together effectively keeping in mind the things they do agree on.

  • This is an opportunity for the post-election mudslinging to happen behind closed doors.

Hopefully Labour’s defeat, and Cameron and Clegg’s exemplary harmonious relationship, will teach its MPs that the public airing of dirty laundry about a leader – no matter how Scottish and growly and supposedly unable to run the country – will get you nowhere. Electoral mutiny is unacceptable and unwise in a first-past-the-post system that gives equal weight to a vote for a local MP or national leader. M. Bernier, you might be wise to take note of this as well.

What do you make of the new government? Are you as hopeful as I am about the prospect of government actually achieving something? Will this coalition pave the way for future amicable multi-party cabinets? And could other democracies learn something from Britain?

Stay tuned – Part II comes tomorrow.