Friday, July 20, 2007

Soccer and Empire (ABRIDGED VERSION)

So it's been a while since I posted. I'm prepping a big move (Chicago to LA) and doing some research, but the main reason, I confess, is that I've been watching soccer. In many ways, this has served as an excellent distraction from my uncomfortable vacillation between numbness and rage whenever I look at politics in America. But even soccer, it turns out, is a temporary and ultimately unsatisfactory refuge from political rage. This offers up some insights into America's challenges and duties in conducting foreign policy once the current set of incompetent bullies leaves office.

This is now a long post. It used to be a very long post, but I decided that I was trying to make two separate points. So I've relegated one of those points--my defense of the terms "American" and "soccer"--to the comments section. It's a pretty tight bit of arguing, if I do say so myself, but on re-reading it, I will concede that it may appeal only to specialized palates.

There's been a lot of soccer involving Americans this summer. Among other events, the MLS is in full swing (I'm not going to name the famous English dude since he's been discussed in one or two other places), the world-beating women's national team has looked good in its World Cup tune-up matches. The men's team won the Gold Cup (the North & Central American championship) by beating Mexico 2-1 in the final. The U-20 men's team just finished its successful run in the U-20 World Cup (along the way, they beat Poland 6-1 and Brazil 2-1). And the US men's team played as an invited guest in the Copa América, South America's championship.

There were some handbags at the end of the U-20 US-Uruguay game (the Uruguayans really hate to lose), but the only real controversy the US stirred up this summer in the soccer world was in the Copa América. In order to round out the field, the South Americans invite two teams. One is the previous Gold Cup champion (the US, this time) and the other is Mexico, whose TV companies and advertisers give the South American organizers a lot of money. After losing to the US at the end of a shaky Gold Cup performance, Mexico played brilliantly throughout much of the Copa, but the US tanked, in large part because we sent our B or C team--promising but inexperienced players in their early 20s--and that team lost all three games by a cumulative score of 2-8.

A lot of South American fans then experienced a quandary: should they resent the US for sending the C team or revel in the US's utter defeat? A good number of them thought it over and decided that they could do both. So the US got ripped both for its "arrogance" in not taking the Copa seriously and for the pathetically low level of its men's soccer. (Of course, the South American fans weren't alone in this. A lot of US soccer fans were furious. They wanted the coach fired. They wanted the president of US Soccer fired. They wanted to kidnap and forcibly nationalize Argentina's attacking players.)

Against the background of these specific complaints about the US's participation in this particular Copa América, there were repetitions of longstanding complaints about the arrogance of American soccer. It's those complaints that I really want to emphasize here because they help crystallize how much rebuilding America's image needs abroad. This administration has been particularly disastrous for our international standing, but a lot of these issues go back decades, even centuries.

Resentment #1: A lot of South Americans (and, more generally, Latin Americans) are pissed that we call ourselves Americans. Resentment #2: A lot of Latin American (and other) soccer fans are pissed that we use the word "soccer" rather than "football." Non-Latin Americans and non-soccer fans would be surprised how common and heartfelt that resentment is, but, trust me, for some people it's very real.

The resentment about "Americans" comes from a sense that, by using that name to refer to ouselves, US citizens are pretending to be the only people who live in the Americas. The offended parties point out that there are two American continents (North and South), at least three American regions (North, Central, and South), and dozens of countries in the Americas. The resentment about "soccer" also involves what many see as unacceptable American exceptionalism: the whole world calls it "football" or some variant, they say, so why does America have to extend its middle finger to the world by inventing the word "soccer"?

Both of these resentments, I think, are misguided and even a little silly. As mentioned above, I provide breathtakingly excellent analysis of that in the comments section. Feel free to read, revel, and repeat. Here, however, I simply push onward because


Misplaced though the resentment may be about the terms "America" and "soccer," Americans have a great deal to answer for in much of the Americas, and we forget that at our peril. Most of the anger that gets diverted into these relatively trivial issues of nomenclature has as its real objects bigger and more legitimate grievances.

And those grievances come from the same sort of rage that initially sent me on my soccer-watching binge this summer. One of the people who went after me for saying a version of what I say above said, "What you seem to miss is the fact that we [Latin Americans] perceive your use of America offensive in the context of a rosary of offenses." Another poster appropriately took this fellow to task for claiming to speak for all Latin Americans in the same way that he was taking Americans to task for pretending to be all Americans, but in fairness that sense of grievance is, if not universal, then at least widespread in Latin America. And with good reason. I didn't miss that at all. In fact, I was trying to argue that "that rosary of offenses" isn't always the fair or proper context for understanding American behavior (our soccer fans are some of the most respectful in the world, and for their own sakes people from all over the world would do well to encourage that sort of behavior). But anger over that rosary runs so deep that otherwise thoughtful people can find it impossible to escape.

So what are those offenses? Well, here's a partial history of US involvement in Latin America framed in terms of the Copa América preliminary groupings:

Group A
Bolivia--Not too bad, though we did support General García Menza's short-lived dictatorship.
Uruguay--Until late 1970s, backed the military government that overthrew the legitimate civilian government.
Peru--Not too bad.
Venezuela--Backed coup to overthrow democratically elected Chavez government (which hadn't yet become nearly so authoritarian and which probably is still better for the many, many poor people in that country than the government that it replaced).

Group B
Brazil--Backed brutal military dictatorship in 1970s and 1980s.
Ecuador--Not too bad, actually. Even helped bring peace to a war with Peru in 1942.
Chile--Backed Augusto Pinochet's repressive military dictatorship in 1970s and 1980s. Milton Friedman-inspired neoliberal "Chicago boys" helped wreck the country's economy.
Mexico--Took a huge chunk of its territory (now California and the American southwest) during trumped-up Mexican-American War.

Group C
Argentina--Helped assassinate democratically elected president Salvador Allende and replace him with military dictatorship.
United States--Spent a lot of money supporting these jerks.
Columbia--Financed Panamanian independence movement from Colombia in 1903 so that we could build and control the Panama Canal. Have contributed to country's ongoing civil war in country by financing "war on drugs."
Paraguay--Supported Alfredo Stroessner, the military dictator who ruled Paraguay from 1954-1989.

This doesn't take into consideration other Latin American countries, where in the twentieth century the US supported military dictatorships or oppressive oligarchies (El Salvador), where it actively helped bring about military coups against democratic governments or at least tried to do (Cuba, Nicaragua, Guatemala), and where it actually invaded some countries for some pretty lame reasons (Nicaragua, Panama, Grenada).

So of course a lot of Latin Americans are predisposed to think the worst of America and to see almost anything as proof of arrogance or imperialist intention.

Does that mean we never do anything good in Latin America? Far from it.

Does pointing the finger at the US change the fact that a lot of the dictators we supported in Latin America had plenty of backers at home? Nope.

Does it change the fact that a lot of Latin American leaders, just like a lot of Middle Eastern leaders, frequently combine legitimate US blunders and imperialist interventions with wild exaggerations about the Great Satan in order to distract their citizens from their own crummy records as rulers? Nuh uh.

Does this even mean that we need to stop saying "soccer"? Nah.

But it mean does that we as individuals and we as a country should understand this history when we deal with Latin America. We have not only a perception problem but also, more importantly, a reality problem. We need to act better in Latin America (which as a country may mean acting less) for a long time before many Latin Americans give us credit for doing so.

In Latin America, as in the Middle East, even when we're right, people will suspect us of being wrong. Is that fair? Maybe not, but who cares. It's reality, and this country, we need to start dealing knowledgeably, humbly, and rigorously with reality. We don't have another trillion dollars and 3,000 soldiers' lives to spend on another counterproductive ideological adventure, and we don't have decades more to wait before winning friends and influencing people.

Our wars have been financed by literal debt, and our wars have put us in moral debt. And we need to start paying those debts back, or the interest charges will be too high to meet and our creditors too angry to reason with.

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At 3:40 PM , Blogger Jon E. said...

Here's my explanation of why I think the objections to the terms "soccer" and "American" are off-base.

Let's consider "soccer" first. To begin with, Americans didn't invent the word. The English did. Around the turn of the past century, there were a number of sports that one could call "football" in England (and other Anglophone countries). The big ones in England were "rugby football" and "Association football." The former became simply "rugby" while the latter got shortened to "soccer." Since America already had a domestic game commonly called "football," the word "soccer" caught on here while "football" caught on in England. "Soccer" also caught on in Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, and other Anglophone countries. A lot of people who hate the term soccer point out snarkily that FIFA stands for Federacion Internationale de Football Association and not the Federacion International de Soccer, but they do so without acknowledging that "Football Association" is French for "Association Football," which is of course merely the long form of "soccer."

So all the purist fans of fútbol and futebol and even Fussball are on really shaky ground when they claim that our use of "soccer" is somehow a proof of America's imperialist arrogance. We all took our names for the sport from the English (so if anything, this is British imperialist arrogance). Besides, the whole world doesn't use the term "football." The Italians often call it calcio and the Poles call it pillka. Are they cultural imperialists because they too have failed to pick the "right" British word for it? Nobody seems to think so. In fact, I'd argue that it's a form of cultural imperialism to tell a nation what the proper word for anything is. The Spanish word baloncesto seems to be losing ground to basquetból as the word for basketball, but can you imagine the reaction if Americans were to run around screaming that the use of baloncesto was a form of cultural imperialism? Or that the French had to call pommes frites French fries? (Or worse, freedom fries?)

As for "Americans," I'm not sold on the fact that the term itself is arrogant. First, there are longstanding justifications for using it. Admittedly, some of those are founded in European and (later) US arrogance--the main one being that the British tended to consider their colonies "the Americas" and to ignore the the rest of the continents. But the main reason seems to be simply that "United States of America" got shortened to "America" and its derivative adjectival forms in exactly the same way that "La República de Colombia" got shortened to "Colombia" and its adjectival forms. Colombia, of course, is the Spanish spelling of "Columbia," another term for "America." (Hence, Columbia University, pre-Colombian art, the Columbian Exhibition, etc.) But as far as I know no Spanish-speaker accuses the Colombians of being imperialist bastards for laying sole claim to being Columbian, just as no Spanish-speaker blames the Chinese for calling their country the "Middle Kingdom" (as in, "the kingdom at the center of the world"). Whatever legacy of arrogance and imperialism is built into the words, the words have settled into their current forms and their current forms don't necessarily carry the weight of their past.

I made that argument, among other places, on the excellent soccer blog that the NY Times devoted to the Copa América and the U-20 World Cup. Doing so provoked some angry criticism by people who thought I was being a Yankee imperialist (and some support from people who decided I must be a big believer in neoliberal capitalism).

Those who figured I enjoyed the taste of imperialism in my mouth every time I say "America" to refer to the US solemnly informe me that words have a history, that they're not innocent. But, you know, I do grasp it. The thing is, I think etymology is fascinating and potentially revealing, but at a certain point a word means what it means in everyday usage. "Intercourse" used to mean "interchange" or "conversation, but calling somebody up for "telephone intercourse" now costs $2.99 a minute. The English word "Negro" used to be polite, but sure isn't now. So I think those of us from the US should get to keep "American" for the same reason that Colombians get to keep Colombia (and that Ecuadorans get to keep Ecuador even though there are plenty of other countries on the equator): we've used it for a long time and that's what the word means in our countries. Latin Americans generaly call us Americans estadounidenses (unitedstaters), and I have no objection. It's not pejorative, it beats yanquis and gringos, and, most important, it's a word from their language. But, as with "soccer," there's no reason for unitedstaters to adopt a Latin American term any more than Latin Americans should adopt one of ours.

But, some people would say, some words not only bear traces of the past but also keep that past alive. "American," they say, is one of those words. You know, I'd be willing to grant the point. But in that case, we should acknowledge that we should stop using the term "American" in all its sense because it's simply beyond redemption.

Think about it. Like "Columbian" (from Christopher Columbus), "American" comes from European imperialism, specifically from a German cartographer's desire to honor an Italian explorer's (Amerigo Vespucci's) study of two continents and scores of islands eventually wrenched by various European empires from the peoples who lived there first. All of the "Native Americans" and "pre-Columbians" were in no way "American" until various European empires started naming them as part of dispossessing, enslaving, and killing them. And until very recently, nowhere in the Americas (north or south) were they "Americans" if that designation referred to full citizens of the countries they lived in. Depite being 55% indio, Bolivia only recently got its first "fully Amerindian president; Costa Ricans only recently discovered that there were people living in the area when Spanish colonizers arrived; and the Guatemalan government only recently acknowledged that about half of the country is ethnically indigenous (and most of the rest mestizo), etc., etc.

So all this accusatory finger-pointing by some Latin Americans about unitedstaters' seizing the term "America" strikes me as more than a bit hypocritical and diversionary. Generations of criollo governments throughout Latin America have long seized America itself from the people who lived there first and have then treated those people as second-class citizens. (British, French, and Dutch settlers in the United States and Canada had nothing on their Spanish and Portuguese neighbors when it came to brutality and theft.) That's helped create a legacy of poverty and injustice that still troubles Latin America today, and unitedstaters' taking the name "America" has diddly-squat to do with that.

In fact, remember that all the moaning over American arrogance about the name "America" that I've encountered recently has come during the Copa América, which only South Americans and their two guests play in. If seizing the name "America" is so wrong, they should call the tournament the "Copa Sudamérica," but I see nobody recommending that. Apparently linguistic land-grabs are only wrong if US Americans commit them.


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