Of Snobbery and SoccerTHEODORE DALRYMPLE
An acquaintance of mine, whose opinions I generally respect, once said that snobbery is a vice, but a very minor one. I am not so sure.
I doubt whether there is anyone in a modern society who is entirely free of snobbery of some sort, straight or inverted. After all, everyone needs someone to look down on, and the psychological need is the more urgent the more meritocratic a society becomes. This is because, in a meritocracy, a person's failure is his own, whether of ability, character or effort. In a society in which roles are ascribed at birth and are more or less unchangeable, failure to rise by one's own achievement is nothing to be ashamed of. To remain at, or worse still to sink down to, the bottom of the pile is humiliating only where a man can go from log cabin to White House. Of course, no society is a pure meritocracy and none allows of absolutely no means of social ascent either; thus my typology is a very rough one, and is not meant to suggest that there is ever a society in which the socially subordinate are perfectly happy with their lot or are universally discontented with it. But it does help to explain why justice, of the kind according which everyone receives his deserts, might not necessarily conduce to perfect contentment. It is obviously more gratifying to ascribe one's failure to injustice than to oneself, and so there is an inherent tendency in a meritocracy for men to perceive injustice where none has been done.
It is not altogether surprising, then, that small slights are often felt far more grievously, and burn for longer in the mind, than large or gross injustices. A burglary is more easily forgotten than a disdainful remark or gesture, especially one made in public; one might consider this foolish, but it is irreducibly so.
That is why snobbery, when openly expressed, is so hurtful and dangerous. Even quite mild people become furiously angry, sometimes to the point of violence, when too clearly disdained. To let people know that you look down on them, ex officio as it were, is the surest way to provoke their antagonism. By contrast, exploitation (within quite wide but not infinite boundaries) is relatively easy to tolerate.
The antagonism that European colonialism evoked in Africa, for example, was caused more by the evident disdain of many colonialists for the local population than by grosser exploitation. Of course, in some instances the exploitation was so gross as to provoke rebellion; but by the end of colonial rule, when antagonism to it was at its most popular and widespread, the grosser forms of exploitation had been eliminated. Moreover, antagonism to colonial rule was as great in countries which clearly benefited from it economically as in those which it did not. Even economic retrogression in the post-colonial era did not result in calls for a return to the palmy days of colonialism: for no one likes to be an inferior in his own country merely by virtue of having been born in it. Colonialism was experienced as snobbery incarnate, institutionalised disdain, and therefore disliked intensely by those who experienced it.
Nowhere has this been more so than in France, where a veritable crisis has been caused by the utter failure of the national team. That team played lamentably badly, failed to win a single match, lost against the most mediocre opponents, was eliminated from the competition at the first hurdle, and worse still behaved abominably.
In 1998, the French team won the World Cup and there was a burst of national euphoria as a result. The team of 1998 was composed of blancs, beurs, noirs – that is to say, whites, Arabs, blacks – and this was taken, briefly, as evidence of the success of France as a multicultural and multiethnic society. Huge crowds greeted the successful team as it paraded in the modern equivalent of a Roman triumph. Preposterous triviality could go no further.
Twelve years later, when the French team lost miserably in the same competition, the opposite sentiments were widely expressed, at least in the newspapers and on the air. The team was now predominantly black and Arab; anyone who knew France only through its national football team would place the country somewhere between North and Equatorial Africa. One prominent white in the team, a spectacularly ugly and thuggish-looking man, so ill-educated that he could barely string a few words together, let alone a sentence, in his native language, had converted to Islam. Another white in the squad, a blonde Breton who was notably better-educated than his colleagues, had to be excluded from the team because none of the others would co-operate with or pass the ball to him.
When the Marseillaise was played before a match started in which the French were to play, the team refused to sing it or accord it any respect. While it is perfectly normal for many Frenchmen not to know all the words – which is probably as well, since they are horribly bloodthirsty, and include the hope that the impure blood of aristocrats may irrigate the ploughed furrows of the peasantry – almost all know at least the first four lines. The players appeared to be expressing their disdain for the country they supposedly represented and that had enabled them to become multi-millionaires by the age of 20. At the root of their resentment would not be injustice, but remembered slights, real or imagined.
A player named Anelka then insulted the team manager because the manager criticised the performance at half-time. The words used by Anelka were so gross that I will not translate them; the manager excluded him from the team and sent him home. Outraged by this assault on their inalienable right to freedom of speech, the team went on strike and refused to train for a day. It was hardly surprising that even sixth-rate teams were able to beat them.
Whereas the victory in 1998 was taken as proof of the success of French society, the defeat in 2010 was taken as proof of precisely the opposite. How was it that the country had raised up a generation of resentful, ill-mannered, ungrateful and thoroughly spoilt youths, who weren't even very good at what they had been paid enormous sums to do? (One of the better-behaved and more dignified of them, a man called Thierry Henry, is paid more than $20,000,000 a year, before his advertising and publicity revenue.)
Of course, if the team had been successful, if it had repeated the success of 1998, no one would have raised these questions, and euphoria rather than depression would have been the mood of the moment. As it was, the team was the best propaganda possible for Jean-Marie Le Pen, of the Front National.
A parliamentary enquiry is to be held about the state of French football; the president himself has expressed his concern. Many people have said that debacle reflects the state of French society. Against all this, one writer in Le Monde did manage to point out in a short article to the effect that football is only a game, after all, and the whole spectacle a trivial one; but the opposite view of its importance prevailed.
I confess that I was surprised by how the French showed themselves as stupid about football as the English. It is true that the behaviour of the French team was used as a metonym for the horrible, resentful culture of the suburban housing projects that surround every French town of any size; but it was hardly necessary for the French team to have behaved so badly or to have lost for the latter to be widely known. It is also true that if you compare the faces of the English football team of, say, the 1950s with those of the team today, you will see the decline in civility of English society as a whole. But what really mattered to people in France was victory or defeat in the sporting contest, not the state of society. Football was more important to them than anything else, and a victory – or at any rate, a more dignified defeat – would have anaesthetised their thoughts about the country's social problems.
It seems to me very odd, and not at all reassuring, that a country such as France, with a practically unrivalled history of achievement in all the major fields of human endeavour, should have been precipitated into an orgy of self-examination by something as trivial as a failure in a football competition, when it is utterly indifferent to questions of incomparably greater importance: for example, why it is completely incapable, after a continuous and millennial history of wonderful architecture, of erecting a decent building, one that is not an eyesore? (It is not alone in this, of course.) I have never seen this question so much as raised, let alone answered, though I do not think any reasonably alert person could drive through France without asking himself it.
The decerebrating effect of football (and no doubt other sports as well) is illustrated by a story that my French brother-in-law told me recently. A couple of months after France won the World Cup in 1998, he went to Tibet. He went to a Buddhist monastery that was two days' hard trek from the nearest road. There he met young novices, some of whom spoke a few words of English. They asked him where he was from and he told them.
"France," they said. "World Cup. Zidane."
The glory and civilisation of France was thus reduced to eleven men on a field successfully, and admittedly with great skill, kicking a ball about. Zidane, incidentally, was a player of Maghrebian descent, the great hero of the 1998 competition and a man who looks considerably more intelligent than any of the players today; he blotted his copybook slightly when he head-butted another player, an act that he explained by saying that you can take a boy out of a slum, but you can't take a slum out of a boy.
On the subject of football, I am a snob. I do not detest the game as such, for I accept that it can be played with skill and achieve a kind of beauty, but rather the excessive importance attached to it by millions and hundreds of millions of my fellow beings. Try as I might to expunge the thought from my mind that this enthusiasm is a manifestation of human stupidity, I cannot.
Of course, we are all of us snobbish about something or other; the important thing is to control ourselves and not express our snobbery openly, so that we do not give offence by it. I am therefore always careful to disguise my contempt for enthusiasm for football from enthusiasts. Besides, if I were to reveal it, they might hit me.
Theodore Dalrymple. "Of Snobbery and Soccer." The New English Review (July, 2010).
Reprinted with permission of the author, Theodore Dalrymple.
Copyright © 2010 The New English Review
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