Alex Massie

War Minus the Shooting is Not Actually War

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that the pundit seeking heft to support his argument must eventually turn to George Orwell. This is, for sure, often a wise decision since much the most remarkable aspect of Orwell's writing is how much of it remains vivid and even valid today. But not all of it since Eric Blair was as capable of talking through his hat as the next intellectual. Thus John Quiggin, writing about the Olympic torch's travels across Australia, cites Orwell's view that:

Even if one didn’t know from concrete examples (the 1936 Olympic Games, for instance) that international sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred, one could deduce it from general principles.

There's a missing "can" there whose omission condemns Orwell. To observe that Situation A can lead to Situation B is far from the same thing as claiming that it must. True, we can all cite examples that might seem to confirm, albeit on a superficial level, Orwell's thesis: the Soccer War, football hooliganism and so on... but these are, in point of fact, rarities. Sport can be illused but that says more about the users than it does about sport or competition itself.

In his essay, The Sporting Spirit, Orwell suggests that:

If you wanted to add to the vast fund of ill-will existing in the world at this moment, you could hardly do it better than by a series of football matches between Jews and Arabs, Germans and Czechs, Indians and British, Russians and Poles, and Italians and Jugoslavs, each match to be watched by a mixed audience of 100,000 spectators. I do not, of course, suggest that sport is one of the main causes of international rivalry; big-scale sport is itself, I think, merely another effect of the causes that have produced nationalism. Still, you do make things worse by sending forth a team of eleven men, labelled as national champions, to do battle against some rival team, and allowing it to be felt on all sides that whichever nation is defeated will "lose face".

It's true that Olympic-partisans make too much of the idea that the games represent some glorious global festival in which we celebrate our common humanity and all the rest of it. Much, perhaps even most, of this is humbug. But not all of it. Orwell complains that even a game as supposedly genteel as cricket can unleash fierce passions. He cites the threat to UK-Australian diplomatic relations by the 1932-33 Bodyline Series to support this point. But this is precisely wrong: such a threat, like the other occasions in which politics intrude, is a diversion from the main point, not an example supporting Orwell's contention.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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