Posts Tagged ‘19th Century’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

I am just going to put this right out there: It seems to me that football (I am talking about soccer, my fellow Americans) became the sport of the world as a result of English Imperialism.  Why this thought came into goal savemy head the other day, I have no idea.  But, when it did enter my brain, I thought about how this theory seems more than plausible; dare I say that it seems likely.  You see, evidently, games that were football-esque have existed from the earliest civilizations, but modern soccer (what I will use from now on, since most of the readers of this blog are American) is quite a recent invention. The modern rules of the game formed in mid-nineteenth century England.  During this era, soccer gained popularity in lock step with England’s superpower status. England’s naval strength and prowess, and it’s commercial, industrialized economy were central to its position at the top of the national pecking order.  But, what separated the isles from Germany, France, the United States, and other powers, was its massive empire.

English imperial power globalized English culture.  Even where the English empire did not reach, British cultural carriers in the form of English_imperialism_octopussailors, diplomats, explorers, and merchants did.  These nomadic sea-faring hordes in coats and top hats brought British goods, and British practices to much of the world.  Soccer was one such practice.  

Obviously, the European imperial relationship to the rest of the world during the nineteenth century was one of exploitation.  But we must remember that a great many proud imperialists of this era believed themselves to be paternal do-gooders.  These men and women rationalized imperialism by pointing to it’s purported benevolent core.  ‘Native’, ‘backward’, ‘primitive’ peoples benefited from the ‘superior’ cultures they were provided. Albert Beveridge, a US Senator from Indiana stated this quite clearly in 1898.  Running for reelection on a pro-Spanish-American War, pro-imperialist stance, Beveridge stated that,

Therefore, in this campaign, the question is larger than a party question. It is an American question. It is a world question. Shall the American people continue their march toward the commercial supremacy of the world? Shall free institutions broaden their blessed reign as the children of liberty wax in strength, until the empire of our principles is established over the hearts of all mankind?

Have we no mission to perform no duty to discharge to our fellow man? Has God endowed us with gifts beyond our deserts and marked us as the people of His peculiar favor, merely to rot in our own selfishness, as men and nations must, who take cowardice for their companion and self for their deity-as China has, as India has, as Egypt has?

Beveridge

Beveridge

Beveridge felt the American imperial experience would even outshine the British since, as he put it, America was ‘a greater England with a nobler destiny’.

In 1898, America was playing catch up to other European powers, and to England in particular.  England had brought its laws, its government, its religion, its commerce and its language to the world. England also provided the benevolent gift of soccer.

As the twentieth century commenced, many of England’s imperial holdings rebelled against English power, and often, English culture. But, soccer remained and flourished. Instead of rebelling against the imperial game, the peoples of the world embraced it.  They made the sport their own, creating specifically national styles of play.  This may be an example of cooptation and transformation of the European cultural hegemony that often marked the decolonization movements of the mid-twentieth century.  Rebels such as Ho Chi Mihn, Mao, and Che Guevera took European ideologies, transformed them, and used said ideologies against the imperial powers that be.  

Defeating the imperialists in the streets was necessary, but often deadly.  Defeating the imperialists on the pitch was safer, and undoubtedly almost as fulfilling. 

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I think soccer being understood as an imperial force may solve a major conundrum regarding the sport; why is soccer so popular everywhere in the world, except for the United States.  The general response most Americans give is pejorative.  Soccer is just too boring to watch, as this Simpsons clip humorously illustrates:

But, this explanation doesn’t hold water. Americans religiously watch boring sports all the time.  No matter what you think of baseball, it is hard to argue that the game is not one marred by hours of stasis.  Though for true purists of the game, pitchers’ duels that lead to 1-0 scores are the epitome of the sport, for those on the outside looking in, such a three-hour ‘spectacle’ can seem mind-numbing.

Boring soccer is not the answer as to why the sport never captured the American imagination. Instead, I venture that nineteenth century beliefs about American cultural exceptionalism may be behind Americans’ general tepidity towards the ‘beautiful game’.

During the time of soccer’s viral spread, as England ruled the waves, Americans were often quite distrustful, and even disdainful, of the ‘old-world’.  Cultural and political figures in America were a paradoxical melange of feeling historically inferior to Europe, and yet, socially/culturally superior to the old world. Americans viewed their nation, their people, and their land as different from the decaying world across the Atlantic. America was supposed to be exceptional. Our sports were no different.

Thus, baseball would become America’s game at roughly the same time that soccer was taking over the rest of the world. Baseball would become a symbol for America itself.

Even today, this prejudice against European and worldly culture retains its power for many Americans. As in the past, America feels Europe can keep its English invention of Imperial Football. We now have our own imperial sports to ‘provide’ the world.   

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By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Evidently I am on both a biography, and a leftist revolutionary kick.  Immediately after finishing Service’s Lenin biography, I picked up Jonathon Sperber’s new biography of Karl Marx. Was this just a natural evolutionary 20130707_inq_bk1marx07-areading choice; finished with Leninism, now go for Marxism? Perhaps. Or, perhaps I decided to look into Marx for another, more convoluted reason.

Jump back to last Thursday. It was the second day of my American History course, and I offered up a quick and easy classroom assignment to get my students thinking about important cultural and ideological trends in American life. I asked the class to get into groups, and think about words and phrases that come to mind when they hear the word ‘America’.  After a couple minutes, I had them shout out to me what words they thought of, and as they did, I made a list of their responses on the board.  The words were predictably recognizable, with both negative and positive connotations, which was exactly what I wanted and expected.   On the negative side, students provided such terms as “oppressive”, “arrogant”, “greedy” and “lazy.”  On the positive side, they came up with words like “opportunity”, “industrious”, “freedom” and “equality”.  These descriptors led to classroom discussion about the complexity of American history, culture, ideology, etc.

But, this Thursday I had one quite surprising response from an unknown student.  As I wrote down the terms, I heard from the back of the classroom a descriptor that I had never gotten before doing this exercise: ‘Socialist’.  I was a little taken aback, but, I said “okay” and wrote it on the board. I had my back turned to the class, so I didn’t catch who said it, and hence, I didn’t look for clarification, and instead, I just kept writing as the other terms were shouted at me. Once we started to investigate some of the responses, I focused upon the words and ideas that have been central to American History from our national origins, and still form most of our idealistic portraits of America: Liberty, equality, opportunity, merit, hard work, immigration, etc.  Then, we also examined words that pointed to the negativity and hypocrisy of the American past: Racism, nativism, prejudice, injustice, etc.  I really didn’t even ask about the ‘socialism’ comment because it seemed so out of place.

As the class ended, and I started to clear the board, I paused at the scribbled word ‘socialism’.  It made me ponder.  After giving it some thought, I came to the assumption that the student who yelled out the word meant it as a ‘negative’ and not a ‘positive’ aspect of America, simply because today the term socialism is generally utilized by the right-wing as a political attack.  A socialist would not say America is socialist.   Those on the left generally see the nation and the economic story of America as the antithesis of socialism, and unfortunately so.  If anything, an outspoken socialist would say the problem with America is that we have never had enough socialism, not that America is analogical to socialism. In our political situation, when someone shouts that America is socialistic he/she means that the country has moved away from it’s roots; it’s true essence.  Hence, the far right wing, and the Tea Party especially, attacks President Obama by calling him a socialist; or a Marxist; or a communist. Such language is intended to smear him as an outsider; as not a true American.

socialist-leagueUsing ‘socialist’ as attack rhetoric seemed to have a rebirth during the 2008 presidential election. At that point, it struck me as odd and outdated.  Calling someone a socialist was a political slur of the 195o’s or 1980’s, not the early 21st century.  But, after starting Sperber’s Marx biography, and with the help of this nameless student’s usage of the term ‘socialist’ , I had a realization.  We are stuck in a social and political lexicographic timewarp that we can’t, or don’t want to escape.  We live in the 21st century, but we think in 19th century parameters.  After all, ‘socialist’ actually isn’t a 1950’s term; it is an 1850’s term. Sperber’s biography makes this clear.  He points out in his introduction that he wants to study Marx as a nineteenth-century man, with nineteenth-century ideas, in contrast to how later hagiographers and smear artists depicted him as a man who foresaw and intentionally created the tragic 20th century Soviet and Maoist future.  Sperber hopes we are far enough removed from such dark 20th century history to appreciate the 19th century Karl Marx.  Unfortunately, after erasing that board, I don’t think that is the case.  Just look at the list below, and you can see that  19th century social and political concepts still control our discourse, and hence, much of our thought.

  • Socialism: First used as a term in 1832.
  • Capitalism: First used as a term in 1854.
  • Communism: First used as a term in 1843.
  • Liberalism: First used as a term in 1819.
  • Nationalism: First used as a term in 1844.
  • Race: A bit earlier in 1780, but becomes biologically based in the 1870s or 80s.
  • Democrat and Republican: Obviously these are older terms, but in American political parlance, both major parties were formed in the mid-1800s.
  • Liberal: First used as a political identifying term in 1820
  • Conservative and Conservatism: First used as a term in the 1830s.
  • Progressive:  First used as a term sometime between 1840 to 1880.
  • Radical (political sense): First used as a term in 1802.

Our political world is still carrying the weight of 19th century mentalities.  Our political identity, and our political attacks are often 150 or 200 years old. I wonder what our politics would look like if we were just a little more original?