Militarism and Sports – Part II (A Response)

Militarism and Sports – Part II (A Response)

Tyler Shipley

A couple of years ago, I wrote a short article expressing my discontent at the unveiling of a new logo for the Winnipeg Jets that was designed in collaboration with the Canadian Air Force.  I was quickly called “a fool” in an op-ed in the Winnipeg Sun newspaper, which included me in its list of “dishonourable mentions” for 2011, claiming that criticizing the Jets logo for supporting the military was “idiotic.”

I probably owe the Winnipeg Sun some gratitude for demonstrating precisely the point I was making.  As the NHL and its associated clubs, institutions and broadcasting partners have integrated themselves deeper and deeper in the apparatus of pro-military propaganda, they have effectively shut off any space for a critical perspective within the hockey world, with regard to North American militarism and the ever-expanding presence of North American armies all over the globe.

Indeed, even my small article in an independent publication was enough to unleash the fury and discipline of a mainstream media outlet.  Breaking from the pro-military line, then, comes with consequences, even for a relatively minor infraction.  The Jets franchise, for its part, chose to become legally obligated to give the military (and the Queen) good press.  All of this is a clear indication that the space is being closed off for any discussion of whether it is appropriate to celebrate the new militarism; for instance, should we really be applauding soldiers who are returning from a violent occupation in Afghanistan?  Are we safer for having our soldiers drop bombs on children on the other side of the globe?  Can we even ask the question, without being out-shouted by a chorus of “support the troops?”

What Are We Appreciating?

On Saturday, March 16, the military fanfare was on prominent display in CBC’s nationally televised game between the Jets and the Toronto Maple Leafs, on what was designed as “Canadian Armed Forces Appreciation Night” at the Air Canada Centre.  Before the puck was dropped, audiences across the country in one of Canada’s highest-rated TV programs were subjected to the spectacle of soldiers rappelling from the rafters, a decked out Tiger Williams on a humvee delivering the game puck to a Canadian General, and the announcement that tickets to the game had been specially set aside for members of the Canadian Forces.

A captive nationwide audience tunes in to watch boys play a game on the ice and, instead, get treated to the spectacle of military gymnastics.  It looked so cool in a hockey arena but, then again, they weren't shooting at us.

A captive nationwide audience tunes in to watch a game on the ice and, instead, get treated to the spectacle of military gymnastics. It looks so cool in a hockey arena but, then again, they aren’t shooting at us.

This was just one small piece of the increasing collaboration between the institutions of professional sports and the new militarism.  While this kind of fist-pumping, aggressive nationalism may be old hat south of the border, it is still jarring in Canada, where up until recently we still considered ourselves an international peacekeeper.

This may have been more myth than reality, but it spoke – at the very least – to the idea that Canadians did not want to be Americans.  We watched Uncle Sam dropping napalm on Vietnamese villages and decided that if young Americans didn’t want to participate in that war, we would take them in, because we didn’t want anything to do with it either.  We lobbied our government to take a principled stand against U.S.-led death squads and terrorism in Nicaragua in the 1980s.  We shook our heads at the notion that America was a beacon of freedom even as it systematically bombed Iraq throughout the “peaceful” Clinton years.  We distinguished ourselves from the jingoism and blind obedience to the patriotic line, which led our southern neighbours into accepting the torture of prisoners in Afghanistan or the total destruction of the once-great city of Baghdad, on pretexts long known to be false.

Of course, we were naïve if we thought that Canada was so much better than all that.  After all, we submitted our own prisoners to torture in Afghanistan and participated in both wars against Iraq, too.  But something has shifted in the mainstream Canadian discourse about war, militarism, patriotism and Canada’s role in the world and it was summed up poignantly last Saturday.

The Times They Are A-Changin’

It was almost exactly a decade ago that Hockey Night in Canada’s Ron MacLean and Don Cherry famously got into an argument, in the prime time “Coach’s Corner” segment, about whether Canada should participate in the invasion in Iraq.  (The video is curiously absent from the internet, despite causing major controversy.  Only a sanitized reflection on the incident can be found.)

MacLean may not have been a very convincing advocate for peace, but the fact that he at least expressed disagreement is significant in light of the silence that has fallen over the Canadian mainstream.  Suffice it to say, MacLean had nothing but gushing praise for the Canadian Armed Forces, a decade later, despite the fact that they did participate in the war he opposed and have been implicated in torture and terror across the globe in the past ten years.  Indeed, MacLean should have infinitely more reason to be uncomfortable with the military fanfare today than he did in 2003.

And yet, to watch the CBC’s most popular program on Saturday night, you would think that everyone in Canada was united in support for the Canadian military wherever it went and whatever it did.  The argument – hurled at me every time I criticize the military celebrations – that we should “support the troops” even if we don’t support their particular mobilizations has become the mantra of Hockey Night in Canada, the Winnipeg Jets, and the rest of the pro sports world.  Never mind that this is an absurd exercise in abstraction; as if we are to somehow say “what matters is not who our soldiers kill, but simply the fact that they are willing to kill whomever a General asks them to kill.”

Military appreciation nights are not the exception, anymore, they are a league-wide standard and they cut across all of the professional North American sports leagues.

Military appreciation nights are not the exception, anymore, they are a league-wide standard and they cut across all of the professional North American sports leagues.

What about those of us who don’t think our soldiers should be killing anyone?  What about those who think that Canada’s armed aggression in Haiti, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya or Mali – or Canada’s support for violent regimes in Honduras, Israel or Colombia – is actually making Canadians less safe in the world, not to mention implicating us in a whole variety of crimes against peace, security and humanity?

It’s Our Game Too

In Part I of this call-and-response, Guelph students Peter Miller and Daniel Lyder offered a powerful sketch of the overwhelming collusion between professional sports and the new militarism and called for community mobilizations against it.  In this response, I would like to insist that we rise to this challenge and build the capacity to reclaim sports as a space that – at the very least – honestly reflects the diversity of opinions and perspectives towards Canada’s new militarism.

That is, while we may have a long term goal of actually reining in Canadian militarism itself or, indeed, even radically restructuring the Canadian polity such that capitalist imperialism and its attendant military aggression would no longer be part of the equation, a necessary first step will be to force open a dialogue within the primary cultural institutions of this country.  Professional sports is surely among the most important and wide-reaching cultural institutions and it is incumbent on those of us who engage in the world of sport to force an anti-war politics into the mix, giving space to the many athletes, organizations and fans who might support such a politics if not for the rapid and effective disciplining of dissent that currently pervades the sports world.

This is not, then, a call to push an unpopular opinion on people who disagree.  Rather, it is to insist that the sports world be less a propaganda campaign for one position and more representative of existing divisions on the matter of Canadian militarism.  By 2011, the Vancouver Sun reported that over 80% of Canadians wanted an end to the occupation of Afghanistan.  Indeed, different polls with different wordings have consistently come back demonstrating that a majority of Canadians do not support Canada’s most visible military adventure.

The illusion that Canadians, let alone Afghans, unanimously support the occupation is so patently false that one wonders how the CBC imagines it is fooling anyone.

The illusion that Canadians, let alone Afghans, unanimously support the occupation is so patently false that one wonders how the CBC imagines it is fooling anyone.

Needless to say (or is it?) most Afghans never supported the occupation – or did so only very briefly in 2001 – of whom some 75-85% consider the occupation “bad for the Afghan people,” according to an ICSD survey in 2011.  In fact, the list of countries with grievances against Canadian aggression is growing; the victims of Canadian guns and bombs are, however, invisible in the celebrations of our soldiers’ bravery.

Bravery and Cowardice

This last point needs emphasis.  The discipline of the pro-military line constantly reminds us that Canadian soldiers are brave, and that their courage keeps us safe in an otherwise dangerous world.  To demonstrate against the Canadian military, then, is “cowardly,” because we only have the right to demonstrate thanks to the soldiers who “fight for our freedom” abroad.

There is no question that it takes a certain kind of courage to put oneself in a position that could lead to terrible pain or possible death.  But there are plenty of people who demonstrate that kind of courage – the tens of thousands of Afghans who have fought against Canadian occupation, for instance, who put their lives on the line everyday – whom we are not expected to support.  There are Guatemalans who work in Canadian-owned-mines who have given their lives trying to express their communities’ discontent with the mines.  Indeed, there are even activists in Canada who have shown the courage to face up against violence at the hands of police, and yet, we are not expected to “support the activists,” simply because they were brave enough to expose themselves to violence from police who are rarely held accountable.

So the particular circumstances under which people put their bodies on the line does matter.  We are not abstractly applauding “bravery” when we are told to “support the troops,” we are celebrating their particular actions.  So where does that leave those of us who do not support their actions?  Is it “cowardly” to insist that we examine the evidence of what has actually happened in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Libya, in Haiti?

And what of this notion that the Canadian military is protecting our “freedom” when it invades, occupies or interferes in foreign countries?  Was Afghanistan planning to invade Canada and install a fundamentalist government?  If so, those plans still haven’t come to much.  Yes, Canadian soldiers are being killed in Afghanistan.  Because they are occupying Afghanistan.  My freedom of speech has very little to do with it.

And on the subject of my “freedom,” to the extent that it is protected, it has been fought for and won not by the Canadian military but over centuries of struggle against police and militaries.  Limited though they are, liberal democratic rights – freedoms of expression, assembly, suffrage, etc – were won and protected in the streets, in general strikes, in popular mobilizations, in defiance of the military and police that were often called in to break them.

We're lucky that the military is killing civilians in Afghanistan who would have threatened our freedom to protest against policies we don't like.  Here, police in Toronto "kettle" protestors, guilty of no crime, for demonstrating against the G20.

Should we really thank the military for killing civilians in Afghanistan on the pretext that they threaten our freedom to protest against policies we don’t like? Here, police in Toronto “kettle” protestors, guilty of no crime, for demonstrating against the G20.

Indeed, if the Canadian military is protecting our freedom to protest in Afghanistan, something is going terribly wrong, because that freedom has been shrinking rapidly.  In 2006, the Canadian government ramped up its infiltration and undermining of Indigenous organizations protesting to protect land that is legally theirs.  In Toronto in 2010, protestors were arrested by the thousands based on secret fake laws.  In Montreal in 2013, students were arrested for simply planning to protest, with the police openly declaring that Canadians do not have the right to protest.

Facing the Facts

The reality is that Canada’s increasingly aggressive military posture has nothing to do with protecting our freedom or keeping the peace.  It is rooted in the broader shifts in Canadian political economy that have made an expansion of colonial adventures necessary for the continued growth of Canadian capital.  Canada’s growing military presence in the world allows it greater capacity to police those regions where Canadian capital is increasingly invested and where the greatest threat to profits comes from the communities who are organized in opposition to Canadian business.

The Canadian military funds, trains and assists officers in the Honduran armed forces in killing and terrorizing the people who protest against Canadian companies like Goldcorp, Gildan and Life Vision Properties.  Having known people who have been killed and tortured as a result of their opposition to Canadian companies, I’m not prepared to thank the Canadian military for its efforts.  And I am not the only one.

Resist Canada's ongoing participation in the new colonial apparatus.

Resist Canada’s ongoing participation in the new colonial apparatus!

This is only the tiniest slice of the new Canadian militarism, and it is telling that it requires such intense ideological discipline to present its best face to a sceptical Canadian public.  Opposition exists, but it is being made invisible in the rigid presentation of patriotic militarism in professional sports.  As Miller and Lyder demanded last week, “progressive-minded and peace-loving people must not shy away from pushing back against the pro-military agenda on the sports field, arena, or court.”

In the spirit of that call, Left Hook responds by asking people to participate in an open discussion of the encroaching militarism in the Canadian sports world and how we can organize a response.  The first discussion will be held on Wednesday, April 24 at 7:00 pm, in Toronto, at OISE (Bloor and St. George, Room # TBA).  This will be an open forum with the long-term goal of developing a visible progressive, anti-military and anti-colonial presence in Canadian sports.  All interested in such a project are invited to participate.

Tyler Shipley teaches at York University and is the founder and editor of Left Hook.

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