Washington Post: Olympic Surfing Is Embedded In American Imperialism

Authored by Jonathan Turley,

My column today discusses new claims that the Second Amendment was the product of slavery and how “racism seems to be the most common denominator of today’s political controversies.”

The media relishes work that explain how common practices or traditions are really relics of repression. The Washington Post this week illustrates this trend with the outrage du jure. Many (including myself) have been thrilled in watching the new Olympic competitions of surfing, including Hawaii’s Carissa Moore who won gold. Moore used the victory to celebrate her state’s long and cherished history of surfing. 

However, The Washington Post  did not let such moments to pass without a familiar reframing. It published Texas A&M professor Thomas Blake Earle who explained that we are enjoying a sport shaped by American imperialism. It is not virtual signaling but virtual shaming of others. So enjoy but remember to be ashamed.

Earle is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University studying American politics and the environment.  He has a history of reframing public debates in racialized terms. He previously denounced the rollback of Obama-era coal limits (which I also criticized) by writing that the change was “less about energy than about white masculinity.” It could also be about a difference in viewpoints on the environment, a long-standing divide in the country. I long opposed Trump’s environmental policies are environmental, not masculine, mistakes.

His column shows how easy it is to reframe issues for public shaming – and easy publication. Earle explains that the popularity of surfing is due to “centuries of U.S. imperialism.” However, a closer review of his evidence leaves you in what surfers call “the mush.”

Surfing is, of course, most associated with the Hawaiians who like Moore are deeply and legitimately proud of their association. The sport, as Earle notes, immediately awed outsiders like the surgeon on the British Captain James Cook’s ship The Resolution who wrote he “could not help concluding that this man felt the most supreme pleasure while he was driven on so fast and so smoothly by the sea.”. That was in the late 18th century, long after the establishment of this sport on the island. However, surfing is traced back to as early as 200 CE . . . in what is now Peru.

That does not make it easy to reframe the entire sport as another example of oppression or racism. Earle accomplishes this by noting that Calvinist missionaries did not approve of surfing. That is not surprising. Calvinist in the late 18th and early 19th century did not approve of a wide array of practices inside and outside of Europe. Calvinists in Europe moved to limit dancing, gambling, and other pursuits. Thus, it is hardly surprising that they did not take to naked Islanders on wooden surf boards.

Earle faced another dilemma. While missionaries did not approve, surfing was later embraced by Americans and the media. The spin however is easy. They were supporting this traditional Hawaiian sport to bring Westerners to the Island to colonize the island. Done. Surfing is the product of American imperialism and your column is eagerly run in the Washington Post.

While Earle agrees that surfing is “thrilling” to watch, it is important to do so with a sense of guilt and self-loathing:

[T]he Olympic movement has faced criticism for corruption, scandals and the tacit endorsement of governments that regularly violate the human rights of their citizens.

The history of surfing similarly shows that the sport is embedded in a history of imperialism. Surfing, much like the Olympics itself, would not exist as it does independent of how nations use sports as a tool of international relations.

The column captures much of what we have been discussing in relation to the dominant narratives on campuses and the countervailing intolerance for dissenting views on issues that touch on racial justice or social inequities. Theories like Earle’s are readily advanced in publications and conferences while those who oppose them are often ostracized or shunned. To question a claim like modern surfing is a product of imperialism is to declare yourself as a reactionary.  The article however shows a common failure of analysis where loose correlation is treated as causation.

There are often valid historical points of reference. Surfing was opposed by some missionaries and it was later supported by some figures eager to highlight Hawaiian culture. However, that does not mean that the sport is the product or a relic of imperialism. During the 19th and 20th Century, there was an exponential rise in international travel.  Foreign correspondents highlights exotic practices and cultures.  Earle focuses on the second half of the 19th century when there was an increase in American investment in Hawaii. He is certainly correct that corporations began to exercise huge power over the monarchy and, in 1898, there was a coup with the assistance of the Marines.

However, what does that have to do with surfing? Well, that is where correlation is enough. Earle notes how figures like Alexander Hume Ford wanted to increase investment in the island and he quotes historian Scott Laderman who noted “when [Ford] found surfing and the incomparable thrill it represented, Ford found a lure for drawing white immigrants to Hawai’i.”

Ok, putting aside the question of relying on this one figure and observation, the highlighting of a native sport does not mean that modern surfing is somehow the product of American imperialism. It does not mean that imperialism is any more relevant to the sport than monarchial rule. Many cultural practices have become more popular from exposure to the world at large. For example, Japan is famous for kabuki and its cuisine. Both became draws for tourism after interactions with the West but they are not products of imperialism despite the defeat and occupation of the country after World War II. They were preexisting cultural norms or practices that became international sensations.

Various traditional sports took hold and entered the Olympics due to their inherent value as sports, not the role of occupations or imperialism. Karate, tae kwon do, judo, and other sports are obvious examples. Consider for a second if figures like Ford did not publicize the thrill of surfing. Would surfing not have become popular in countries ranging from Australia to South Africa? Of course not. Great sports like great ideas tend to be replicated.

Moreover, Earle does not mention that surfing was already popular outside of Hawaii. Indeed, it is believed to have started with Polynesians outside of Hawaii. This included surfing cultures in Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands. Indeed, Earle mentions the surgeon on The Resolution but does not mention the accounts from other ships to Tahiti, including one in 1767 as well as on Cook’s first voyage with The Endeavor to Tahiti.

Moreover, Peru has claimed to have independently developed surfing based on pre-Inca Moche pottery.  Such conflicting facts are ignored because they interfere with the narrative. Surfing was likely to be embraced by the wider world as information and travel increases — just as kayaks may have started with the the InuitYup’ik, and Aleut but eventually took hold around the world.

That however would just leave people enjoying the sport without identity or national guilt. Instead, the real thrill is found in claiming that”the sport is embedded in a history of imperialism.” So “while we may marvel at the athletes riding waves at the Games, this history will also be on display.”  Or maybe … just maybe … it is a great sport and what is on display is athleticism at its purest and most graceful state.

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