Not For The High Jump

In the Farmleigh gallery at the moment there’s an exhibition of Korean art that I plan on visiting at some stage, titled To Have or To Be, based on the book by Erich Fromm that explained how humans must struggle between two separate modes of existence – that of ‘having’ and ‘being’. I read it a few years back, and was impressed by it. Seeing the wall-to-wall coverage of the Olympics this last couple of days, I recalled that he made mention of the Olympics in it, so I hoked out the book:

It is not necessary to prove that the history of Europe is a history of conquest, exploitation, force, subjugation. Hardly any period is not characterized by these factors, no race or class exempted, often including genocide, as with the American Indians, and even such religious enterprises as the Crusades are no exception. Was this behavior only outwardly economically or politicially motivated, and were the the slave traders, the rulers of India, the killers of Indians, the British who forced the Chinese to open their land to the import of opium, the instigators of two World Wars and those who prepare the next war, were all these Christians in their hearts? Or were perhaps only the leaders rapacious pagans while the great mass of the population remained Christians? If this were so, we might feel more cheerful. Unfortunately it is not so. To be sure, the leaders were often more rapacious than their followers because they had more to gain, but they could not have realized their plans were it not that the wish to conquer and to be victorious was and still is part of the social character.

One has only to recall the wild, crazy enthusiasm with which people participated in the various wars of the past two centuries- the readiness of millions to risk national suicide in order to protect the image of “the strongest power”, or of “honor,” or of profits. And for another example, consider the frenzied nationalism of people watching the contemporary Olympic Games, which allegedly serve the cause of peace. Indeed, the popularity of the Olympic Games is in itself a symbolic expression of Western paganism. They celebrate the pagan hero: the winner, the strongest, the most self-assertive, while overlooking the dirty mixture of business and publicity that characterizes the contemporary imitation of the Greek Olympic Games.



8 Responses to “Not For The High Jump”

  1. 1 Longman Oz August 8, 2008 at 4:17 pm

    All of which recalls George Orwell’s fantastic essay on the same theme:

    Fundamentally, we are all tribal by nature, I guess. At the same time, I do think that some writers’ comparisons between sport and war do get a little bit shrill and overreaching at times. Maybe in a few more centures, we will reach some form of Star Trek like utopia where such barriers are gone from our society. By then we will be battling aliens with either pointy ears or enlarged foreheads of course! Wonder what the Klingon version of cricket is like? 🙂 (Its the weekend…)

  2. 2 Hugh Green August 11, 2008 at 8:13 am

    I don’t know if we really are fundamentally tribal by nature. Two pieces of evidence against would be the massive amounts of propaganda required to convince a populace that war is required, and the fact that I myself am pretty sure that I’m not tribal by nature. Maybe some set of circumstances might arrive wherein I would feel myself forced to hew to some tribal identity (say, the threat of loss of life), but another set of circumstances might force me to dress up as a woman. That would not mean that I’m fundamentally transvestite by nature.

    That’s an excellent essay by Orwell, which I’d never read before. So thanks for that.

  3. 3 Donagh August 11, 2008 at 1:24 pm

    Did you ever read W or the Memory of Childhood by George Perec? It touches on some of the points mentioned above, except that it describes a state that is run as if its permanently hosting the Olympic games. Reading it, you slowly realize (the sports state is described in alternating chapters) that the competitors are actually Nazis.

  4. 4 Longman Oz August 11, 2008 at 2:06 pm

    What I meant is that we all ultimately defines ourselves as into camps of “us” and “them”. This is not limited to sport and war. It is also the nature of our economic systems, of our political systems, of our educational systems, of our religious systems, etc. I believe that this is driven by two key things – firstly, that we are social animals and, secondly, that we all compete for scarce resources. Hence, we have a need to belong to a collective (using the term in a general sense), but also define ourselves by who we exclude from that collective – people that we deem to be rivals for the same goal or resource.

    Another thought that occurs to me (mostly to block out mental pictures of your transvestitative ways!!) is that war is frequently started by a whipping up (or exploitation) of a sense of national pride. The base element is there. Propaganda, as you say, does not create that base element, it leverages it, e.g. the whole notion of patriotism.

  5. 5 Hugh Green August 11, 2008 at 2:26 pm

    Well, I don’t know if we do ultimately define ourselves into camps of us and them. Sure, there some sort of ontological process in operation by means of which I know that I am not you, nor am I the Queen of the Netherlands, and this can function in collective terms as well, especially when you have different languages spoken.

    But there is a difference between this being a natural function of being a human, and something brought about by certain conditions. That is, we all have the potential to realise that whatever collectives we might be inclined to identify ourselves with, we also have the capacity to transcend them. In terms of the competition for scarce resources: this is one condition under which people may be inclined to form collectives, but it is merely a condition, rather than a natural fact. For instance, I am not in ‘competition’ for scarce resources with my son.

    So I must also take issue with your figure of a ‘base element’: if anything, what we seem to be talking about here is really a mere potential for acting in a certain way as the result of the managed application of certain stimuli, effective only under certain circumstances (threat of war, natural disaster, economic collapse). If the desire to identify with a national group were something basic to each human’s character, one would expect that propaganda -not to mention measures such as conscription during wartime- would be scarcely needed at all.

  6. 6 Hugh Green August 11, 2008 at 2:27 pm

    Will have to check out the Perec book – cheers for that Donagh, sounds good.

  7. 7 Longman Oz August 11, 2008 at 4:22 pm

    But there is a difference between this being a natural function of being a human, and something brought about by certain conditions.

    If by “certain conditions”, you mean Man’s continued existence on this planet over the last number of millennia, then we are in agreement! 🙂

  8. 8 Hugh Green August 11, 2008 at 5:24 pm

    Heh, well, certain conditions meaning that there’s nothing inevitable about it.

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