Leg Before Democracy

Posted by sepoy on May 03, 2005 · 7 mins read

First, read this. Sunday, we went to the Sox game, which was great. While shivering in the stands, Mian Ji Rajeev tells me that there is an Op-Ed in the NYT that I will enjoy. On cricket, he says, with a smirk. I haven't stopped steaming since. In my irritation, I even co-penned a letter to the editor and will pursue this hogwash when I see The American Sociological Review.

Why am I so steamed? Allow me to share my rant with you which is completely filled with snark and not very collegial at all. Orlando Patterson and Jason Kaufman, sociologists at Harvard, give a logically and historically flawed narrative in their Op-Ed. In their desire to present a catchy slogan for the Administration's policies of "installing democracy from above", they blatantly mis-characterize both the history and practice of cricket around the globe.

The article is rife with the most common tropes of colonial Orientalist literature - tuned up for the American Imperium. The North Americans societies had a fundamental "egalitarian ethos" while the natives were cursed with a "rigidly unequal" ones. North Americans had a "constant anxiety about their elite status" while the "native allies never had any anxieties about their status". Luckily, the "rigidly unequal" masses in the colony got "civilized" by their enthusiastic adoption of the "complex Western cultural practice" of cricket. In their haste to appropriate democracy as fundamentally western and the imperialism of the Administration fundamentally right, the authors cannot conceive that modernities or histories are not as hegemonic as they would like to imagine and that cultural practices transmutate as they cross boundaries.

They make, essentially, two broad points. One, that a cultural practice [a complex Western one, natch] can be imposed from above and flourish [viva democracy]. That is the naive bit. Two, that there are fundamentally constituted cultural practices in the West that can be adopted by the East without any agency on the part of the natives. That is the offensive bit. Bearing the argument's basis is their dialectic reading of baseball and cricket. Which is just misinformed and factually wrong. Let's start at the beginning. The British bring cricket to the globe and it spreads in most parts but not in North America. Why not? Even though the British had a special relationship with North America. The "special relationship" that goes unmentioned by the authors is "colonialism". Which, by necessity, happens to "require the point of a gun".

There are plain factual errors in their reading of this history. Cricket was imported into the colony as a game for the officers and sepoys of the British military encampments. The British did not promote the game to the natives as a vehicle for civilizing the masses. On the contrary, the Indians were considered too uncivilized to participate in the game as equal opponents. We can trace cricket in India to the mid-18th century but the first real instances of native cricketing does not come until the late 19th century. If the British were so "actively" promoting this game, why did it take them over a century to get any response? The native elite who took up the game did it for the prima facie nationalist reason of beating their colonial masters. And we can add the history of wrestling into this category as well. Further, they state that cricket is a complex game. Agreed, but how do we know this? Because it has a "dress code"! I guess they call it "uniform" in baseball. The elitist cricket could flourish in the strapped-in-caste Indians because cricket does not require any extensive contact between players. Sadly, cricket does require extensive contact between players - high fives even! And Muslim and dalit teammates often went on the shoulders of Brahmin teammates. Anyways, let's leave other errors about Parsis and lowly bowlers and fielders aside for some other time.

Before I get to the top-down v bottom-up, let me say a word about cricket v baseball. The authors contend that the reason cricket never took off in North America was egalitarianism and marketing. Both of these are highly questionable claims. If egalitarianism is so inimical to the spirit of cricket than how did a Maharaja play alongside an untouchable? If egalitarianism so imbued in baseball, how do you explain the Negro Leagues? If marketing killed cricket in North America, then how does one explain the true rise of global cricket in the 70s and 80s as a game designed for TV markets? No one knows marketing since Spalding? Kerry Packer would seriously get annoyed with that claim. Just for the sake of ending, Canada, in fact, does have an international cricketing team, that competed in the World Cup, as well as a robust national tour.

Finally, to this issue of ways in which ideas and practice move from culture to culture. Their support of the top-down model is touching insofar as it may get them some credence with the WH [I can see The Chosen One cocking his eye and going, "Well, they play cricket, don't they? Freedom to play Cricket"]. But, I am afraid that cricket or democracy or McDonald's all diffuse from the bottom-up. We need only look at the evidence of McTandoori Chicken to know that even corporate templates have to be modified to reach the stomachs of the masses. The poof you heard all over the Eastern Bloc was top down Sovietism vanishing in the early 90s. The adoption of cricket by native elite and by the mass has to be understood as emerging from competing nationalist and self interests - both subversively and overtly against the colonial masters. Democracy, when it will emerge in the Middle East, will be their own democracy - which tastes a little like hummus, I believe.


Saurav | May 03, 2005

I read both, and while their sunny tone is much nicer to read, there's nothing like a good takedown. I don't have the background to evaluate the partciular arguments, but I did almost laugh when I saw them throw in "top down democracy" at the end of their op-ed. I have a sense that things like sport or fashion can be introduced in a top-down way since they rely on people buying into the tastes of the elite, but democracy--to the extent that the term has any meaning--relies on a very different (one might say "opposite" for sake of simplicity) process. It's elites recognizing the power of the people underneath them or because of other circumstances (like having their military and economic strength sapped by war so they can no longer maintain a global empire). Since when has any elite willingly given up its power without external conditions forcing it to?

Badmash | May 03, 2005

What? No mention of the Bollywood narrative (Lagaan)?

Ikram | May 03, 2005

Ok. I read both. Of course, I love the chapati. Lagaan and all that. But before you write your letter, note that cricket is a marginal sport, at best, in Canada. We do have an internatioanl team, but we do not have a robust national tour. Curling is far more popular. Lawn Bowling is played more widely. Cricket is reserved for immigrants from Britain, South Asia, and the West Indies.

Sin | May 04, 2005

I personally find cricket immensely boring, but baseball even more so. Methinks that a dialectic is in place, with the onus of everything placed on the desperation of academics to write (right?) wrongs...

wanderer | May 04, 2005

sometimes snark is good.

Rob | May 04, 2005

Great post, Sepoy, although I wince a little because Jason Kaufman is a friend. My own ill-informed take on the matter is here.

sepoy | May 04, 2005

Rob: Thanks for the link to your post. I remain steamed with no personal animus towards your friend or sociology as a discipline.

Rob | May 04, 2005

That's entirely fair. Colonialism is almost as touchy a subject, it seems, as sports.

Abdul-Walid | May 04, 2005

Rob, I object to your reference to colonialism as a "subject." Who are you subjecting, eh? OK, I'm joking. But I'm not joking when I say both baseball and cricket are undercooked, and the real flavor is in association football. The people of the world have spoken, and there is only one real sport. Actually I'm joking again. But in a serious sort of way.

Roblog | September 12, 2005

A Zooter from a Googly Way back in September, the very second post in this weblog was an account of lunch with Jason Kaufman, a smart young sociologist at Harvard who wanted to talk to me about the comparative history of Canada and the United...