Beyond a Windmill

Former Australian PM Bob Hawke recently told Ashley Mallett about an exchange he had in 1970 with Don Bradman. Bradman was then a senior cricket administrator, and, of course, the uncrowned king of Australia. Hawke, in contrast, was a labor union leader, quite far from the Prime Minister’s office. He was then trying to persuade the Australian cricket establishment to stop playing against South Africa. When Bradman greeted Hawke with the familiar shibboleth that sport should not be sullied with politics, Hawke retorted that it was the apartheid regime that had done the sullying by blocking non-white players from representing their country. Bradman, apparently, was both startled and persuaded by the argument: the forthcoming South African tour of Australia cancelled, and replaced by a Rest of the World team that included individual South African players. The result was a magnificent series, with legendary performances by an aging Garry Sobers and a young Dennis Lillee. The result was also a two-decade period when South Africa became a sort of twilight zone of cricket: missing, but present at the other end of a wormhole of race, money and gambled careers.

Hawke may have overstated his own role, and that of Australia, in the boycott of apartheid South Africa. The Basil D’Oliveira crisis (in which South Africa refused to accept the presence of the colored, South-Africa born, D’Oliveira in the England team) had already moved England closer to a boycott. The non-white Test-playing countries – India, Pakistan and the West Indies – had of course not played against South Africa at all: their boycott was existential as well as ideological, and it is telling that we don't use the term 'boycott' until England, Australia and New Zealand came on board.

Within Australia, anti-apartheid sentiment was not unknown in 1970. The country was, after all, a part of the global half-revolution of 1968, with its student radicalism and protests against the Vietnam War, in which Australian troops fought. All that informed the agenda and methods of the South Africa campaign. Nevertheless, there was something heroic, almost quixotic about Bob Hawke’s stance. Bradman’s surprised innocence was by far the more typical response, and not just in Australia. In England, the D’Oliveira affair had generated more irritation than real outrage: it was as if D’Oliveira had ruined a perfectly good thing, otherwise known as the apolitical purity of sport and the solidarity of the white Commonwealth. We tend to forget that organized sport in modern societies is nearly always a reactionary edifice, aligned with the interests and identities of those who take privilege for granted and associate the presumption of authority with banalities like purity and innocence. Administered from closed circles of feudal, Tory and then corporate power, cricket is more reactionary than almost any other spectator sport. Bradman was hardly a bad guy: he remains, in many ways, one of the most sympathetic greats of the modern game. It had simply not occurred to him to push the comfortable envelope of whiteness, until Hawke pushed it for him.

It is in that light that we might see the years of the South African boycott. It was one of the most extraordinary, and successful, instances of political boycott in recent times, laying the groundwork for the divestment campaign of the 1980s and substituting for the diplomatic isolation that Western governments refused to deploy. It was extraordinary because it was always the agenda of a minority: the English, Australian and New Zealand cricket establishments, including the cricketers, never really believed in it. They went along with it because of a peculiar convergence of pressures, some emerging in their own radicalized backyards, and some coming from outside. Those external pressures – the opinions and attitudes of a non-white world of cricket – were vital, and they were not fully acknowledged in their own time. Had the Anglo-Australian establishment not acknowledged a South African problem when it did, the fiction that world cricket could be represented by an imperial council made up of pink dinosaurs, even in 1970, would have cracked like an egg. As it happened, it did crack, albeit gradually. Since the 1990s, and especially since Jagmohan Dalmiya’s abrasive tenure at the head of international cricket (and a host of related issues, including match-fixing, ball-tampering, chucking, umpiring and on-field behavior), there has been much grumbling in England and Australia about the rise of the ‘Asian bloc,’ with its apparently genetic tendencies towards corruption, touchiness, money and disregard for tradition.  But arguably that rise began earlier, over South Africa.

It is still useful to ask about the ‘nature’ of pro-boycott sentiment in the non-white Test-playing countries. That there was nothing uniform, predictable or reliable about this sentiment becomes evident as soon as we look at India and the West Indies. It would be going too far to say that South Africa was immediately relevant to most Indian cricketers, fans and administrators: many, I think, would have shrugged and accepted ‘normal’ sporting relations, and gone to see Barry Richards, Mike Proctor and the Pollock brothers play against Pataudi, Prasanna and Gavaskar. The position taken by the Indian board reflected the apartheid regime’s own misgivings about playing against non-whites, and the heroic, quixotic foreign policy initiated by Nehru, in which anti-colonialism, non-alignment and boycotting South Africa found a new but surprisingly natural mutual compatibility. It was, in other words, a top-down, state-guided idealism. Foreign policy tends to float slightly above public opinion in most large countries, and India was no exception. But in India, cricket was a largely middle-class affair, and that middle class was genuinely – if casually – hostile to racism of the sort represented by the South African regime. That hostility, moreover, was integrated with the politics of the organized Left, and its imprint on policy: it is difficult to imagine South Africa being allowed to play in Calcutta in the years of ‘Amar nam, tomar nam, Vietnam’ (‘My name, your name, Vietnam’) demonstrations.

In the West Indies, the politics of the boycott had deeper soil. Through a combination of writing, activism and play in the 1950s and ‘60s – the overlapping phenomena of C.L.R. James and Learie Constantine, Griffith and Hall, Frank Worrell and Garry Sobers – racial self-assertion and dignity in cricket had become the basis not only of a politics of justice, but of a sport-based nationhood found nowhere else in the world. Yet the West Indies, along with England, Australia and Sri Lanka, provided apartheid South Africa with a steady dribble of ‘rebel’ cricketers in the years of the boycott. These included not just those on the margins of the big time, like Sylvester Clarke and Collis King, but those who were sought out by the South Africans precisely because they were stars: Colin Croft, Alvin Kallicharran. In South Africa, they faced predictable racism, tried to come to terms with the dubious privilege of being classified as 'honorary whites,' and accepted the unreliable affection of white crowds that appreciated this remarkable complicity of pariahs. One of the ironies of the South Africa boycott is that the same white nation that contemptuously refused to share a field with Basil D’Oliveira suddenly became eager to play against Lawrence Rowe, and would have given anything to have Viv Richards.

There is, in this reverse supply of black bodies from the New World to Africa, one of the barely acknowledged tragedies of modern sport. Even after Packer and World Series Cricket, the rewards – counted in the tens of thousands of dollars in the 1980s – were modest in comparison with what professional cricketers stand to earn today. The contracted periods were limited not only by the shelf-life of athletic ability, but also by the endgame of apartheid and the politics of world cricket. It was never enough to compensate for the destroyed careers and reputations. None of this concerned South African plotter-poachers like Ali Bacher, or players like Proctor, whose lives were not adversely affected by their innocent games. They remained respectable even after the end of apartheid, shielded by the aura of sport itself.

For Caribbean players, however, South African cricket was like a dangerous drug that left a trail of moral ambiguity and real damage. It is, after all, difficult to blame professional athletes in an economic backwater for responding to the cash available in South Africa. This is especially true of those on the margins of the phenomenally strong West Indies squad of the 1980s: they had not benefited from Kerry Packer’s circus, and their reward for not joining the circus had been snatched away by their own cricket board when the Packer players returned to the West Indies fold. They cannot be easily compared with English and Australian players who joined ‘rebel tours’ or signed up to play domestic cricket in South Africa; their earnings in their own country were precarious, and the enticement of financial security more compelling. And unlike the middle-class milieu of the Indian game, Caribbean cricket included the poor, who had skills to sell and mouths to feed. Not going to South Africa came with the danger of sliding into squalor. Ironically, going to South Africa and then being ostracized for having gone often had the same effect. Caribbean cricket, C.L.R. James pointed out many years ago, is played within a powerful class-based code of propriety. Breaking the boycott was highly improper, and the repercussions are unsurprising.

In the 1970s and 1980s, cricket was not yet played in a weirdly skewed universe in which a Third World country was also the goldmine and power-center of the sport. It was an embattled imperial order, and the poorer, relatively vulnerable, black scabs paid the price: white players who went to South Africa were, by and large, rehabilitated far more easily into the cricket establishments of their homelands, and faced little in the way of earnest opprobrium. Graham Gooch, Mike Gatting and the inappropriately-named Geoff Boycott were imbedded within populations that generally saw the boycott of South Africa as a trivial bit of political correctness: an artificial agenda promoted by uppity natives who do not understand the innocence of sport, especially cricket, with its mythology of village greens, spotless whites and permanent hegemony. Unlike the West Indians, they were fundamentally innocent.

April 28, 2014

God and Country

British Prime Minister David Cameron recently raised a few eyebrows by declaring that Britain is a Christian country. Cameron and his allies in the Church then explained, somewhat defiantly, that Christianity had supplied the core of Britain’s culture and history, and that to ignore the contribution was untruthful. This need not be especially controversial. Cameron is a Tory, after all, and the enshrinement of the Church of England within the official structure of the British state is not new. Still, Cameron’s remark and the reaction that has followed are worth unpacking, for what they suggest about secularism in democracy. For while Cameron may simply have repeated an old bit of dogma, he also highlighted the instability of the opposition between ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ nationhoods, and the place-specific nature of the instability.

Is Britain a Christian country? It is less ‘Christian’ today than it was ten, fifty or a hundred years ago: a much smaller percentage of the population identifies itself as Christian. In 2001, seventy-two percent of Britons identified themselves as Christian, whereas in 2011, the percentage figure was fifty-nine. By 2030, Christians will be a minority in what a Church of England official emphasized was ‘their own land.’ There are too many people around with names like Hasan and Patel, and obviously Cameron was dog-whistling to a beleaguered Little England of people with names like Smith, Jones and Morrissey. As a political tactic, it has its immediate roots in the rhetoric of the National Front and BNP (not to mention Margaret Thatcher): this is our own land, not theirs/yours. The sharp reaction is a commendable, if unsurprising, refusal by liberal nationalists to accept such naked racism. But it is also a sign of a problem within supposedly unproblematic white Britain: if Albion is a Christian country, then it has shrunk by as many as four million souls in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

While naked and clothed racists usually spotlight post-1965 immigration from Asia and Africa, implying that it threatens Anglo-Christian culture, there are other reasons for the apparent dwindling of the flock. The Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conference for England and Wales noted recently that the nature of British Christianity and Christians has changed. In the past, the bishops pointed out, Christianity was both a ‘culture’ and a ‘religion.’ People who never went to church and gave no thought to the Gospel nevertheless claimed to be Christian. Christian identity was for them a loosely worn cultural cloak, made up of a family name and shared experiences: chapel attendance at school, nuns with canes, Sundays off, Christmas trees, knowing the words to a hymn or two, and having no particular objection to God saving the Queen. This is not necessarily what the Church of England means by Christian culture and history, but it is nevertheless a real cultural fabric, interwoven with Britishness. This fabric has become less meaningful in Britain: Christian identity is now asserted only by the true believers, i.e., the church-going Evangelical set.

Under the circumstances, the Christian element in Britishness recedes even if immigration by Muslims, Hindus and Rastafarians is discounted. Like much in 'British culture,' British Christianity has become American: a matter of personal faith (albeit with public claims), rather than a diffuse form of ethnicity, which is how religious identity functions elsewhere in the modern world. In India, for instance, ‘being Hindu’ does not require any particular belief, let alone a specific notion of heresy, and ‘being Muslim’ is entirely compatible with being agnostic. Nehru and Jinnah are the best examples among public figures, but the formulation is ubiquitous. The fact that Khushwant Singh wore a turban all his life never led anybody to doubt his fondness for whisky, but it did identify him as a Sikh. My being Hindu has almost nothing to do with the specifics of my views on God: it derives, rather, from the fact that I am familiar and comfortable with a ‘culture’ that includes language, stories, holidays and food. Its boundaries are neither precise nor fuzzy: they are functional, or adequate to the needs of dealing with other Indians of various religious affiliations. Not so with Americans, who tend to insist that since I assert a specific religious identity, I must have specific religious beliefs. (The major exceptions are Reform Jews, whose understanding of the connection between ethnicity and religion can be very South Asian.)

On the face of it, the Indian ‘system’ may seem to better fit anti-fundamentalist understandings of diversity and tolerance. That appearance can hardly be straightforward, since Indian voters are currently in the process of electing a distinctly intolerant man and his political cohort to form the next government. These are men and women who claim to represent the ‘Hindu majority,’ dismiss anti-Muslim pogroms with the metaphor of running over puppies (which is expected to evoke not horror or remorse, but nonchalance), and strategize openly about forcing Muslims out of ‘Hindu neighborhoods.’ A portion of this constituency is perhaps made up of Hindus of ‘faith.’ But a great many others are Hindus in the same way that I am Hindu: they belong to the cultural, rather than doctrinal, circle of religious identity. They are uninterested in my relationships with God, women or Scottish distillers, although connections with Muslims or Pakistanis are another matter. It could be argued that the Indian dynamic is in some ways the opposite of what has happened in Britain: a largely secular culture of Hinduness has expanded, become more stable in its content and its utility, and consolidated its claim upon national identity. ‘Believing’ Hindus – or fundamentalists – have become, if anything, even less relevant to questions of who-is-Hindu than when Bhudeb Mukhopadhyay (a believer and a conservative) and V.D. Savarkar (agnostic) downplayed belief in religious identity.

I am suggesting, here, that writers like Pankaj Mishra, who have pointed to the Semiticization of Hinduism since the nineteenth century – i.e., its transformation into a single, compact faith – and connected that streamlining to the rise of parties like the BJP, have got it slightly wrong. It is not that there was no streamlining of dogma. But that dogma is not especially relevant to the body politic. What matters more is the consolidation of cultures identified as Hindu, Muslim and Sikh, which can lend themselves as easily to the Congress or the CPI(M) as to the BJP or the Akali Dal. They are, in that sense, simultaneously secular and threats to secularism.

We thus have, on the one hand, an Anglo-American crisis of the secular state, in which the assertion of religious nationhood comes from an increasingly narrow community of believers and their allies among the racists and the cynical. On the other hand, we have a model of majoritarianism in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka (Pakistan’s problems now fall in a different category), in which the comfortable fusion of culture, religious identity and nationhood threatens to eradicate marginal locations and identities wherever these might be found. The former is a whine (by the religiously identified) against history; the latter an expression of affinity with history, in which the alignment of culture, religion and nation-state constitutes a climax.

Is one worse than the other? Clearly, declarations of ‘Christian Britain’ and ‘Hindu India’ both raise the question of whether  a nation can  have an identity that is autonomous of the population. If nearly half the British population is not Christian, and Britain is nevertheless a ‘Christian country,’ it puts Britain in the position of a Balkan state like Kosovo, if not ‘Greater Israel.’ There must then be, openly or tacitly, a hierarchy of citizenships. Similarly, the Hindutwit vision of India leaves no doubt about the provisional status of non-Hindu citizens. But the Indian predicament is arguably more violent and oppressive than the British, because although India is officially secular and Britain is not, the Christians of ‘Christian Britain’ must negotiate politically with the heathens. In India, where there is no contradiction between being secular and being Hindu, the negotiation with Muslims is over, although negotiation within ‘Hindu society’ continues, and constitutes a part of the substance of Indian politics. (Which is one reason why India may not be declared Hindu rashtra anytime soon.) As late as the 1930s, Indian politics had a discourse of ‘Hindu-Muslim unity,’ which implied a political relationship between two substantial, if not numerically equal, entities. That discourse has been replaced entirely by the discourse of ‘communal harmony,’ which is essentially a rhetoric of law and order. The potential for fascism is accordingly greater.

All the same, I prefer the expansiveness of religious identity in South Asia. Religion is too rich to leave to the peddlers of dogma, and I generally find religious people to be less inclined than atheists to shallow cleverness. When I was fifteen, my mathematics teacher and high school tennis coach was a tough, slightly tragic Irishman named Dr. Waldron. He caught me reading James Joyce one day, which gave us a bond of sorts. I would ride in his car on the way to tennis practice. He didn’t care much that I had no talent for either tennis or math, and taught me a few things about Parnell and Irish-republican politics, and the right way to pronounce Sinn Fein. Dr. Waldron, I discovered, was a lapsed Jesuit. Having previously gone to a school where the Jesuit headmaster was impossibly remote, I seized the opportunity to interrogate one up close, curious not only about what was involved in being one, but what might be involved in leaving a very serious club. (Leaving serious clubs was relevant to an emigrant.) The ex-Jesuit did not, of course, go into the details of a crisis of faith with a teenager, suggesting only that a conflict had arisen between beliefs and allegiances. Pleased to have found a fellow-rebel, I blurted out that I was an atheist. Dr. Waldron was amused and less affirming than I had expected. “Ah, my atheist,” he chuckled affectionately, and changed the subject. God and church remained frustratingly unexamined, but I had a glimpse of the possibility that doubt can be nested within religion, even belief.

My teenage atheism has left a residue of tension. To put it bluntly, I recoil from displays of religiosity that are both personal and public: yarmulkes, puja tilaks, beards. (Sikh turbans are exempted.) But the secularism of the modern Indian, which I find I have retained, also makes publicly displayed religiosity legitimate. Besides, everyday life in New York City is based on accepting people you find annoying. The French insistence that public space be swept clean of religion strikes me as, well, fascist, not to mention discriminatory, because such a decisive separation of culture and religion is inevitably more hostile to some religions than to others. My ambivalence also has to do with how much – and what – information is conveyed by religious signs. Not all signs are as empty as a patka. Some are, or appear to be, texts of intolerance. A Hindu with a tilak on his forehead is possibly a Hindutwit who donates to the VHP and sees me as ‘pseudo-secular’ (which is the Hindu equivalent of a ‘self-hating Jew’). Skullcaps and beards suggest other politics of intolerance. Between the bushy-faced Pakistani cricketers of Inzamam’s generation and the clean-shaven ones of Imran Khan’s, I know which I might have a drink with. (Does Imran still drink? Not in public, I imagine.) But these texts are also easy to misread. The bearded batsman might be Hashim Amla: not exactly a fire-breathing fanatic. The guys with kippah might be Naturei Karta. And I do know Hindus who might enter a temple and leave with a tilak, but who are also totally opposed to the politics of Hindu domination.

April 23, 2014