Yesterday, the BBC released a documentary called “Euro 2012—Stadiums of Hate,” an investigation of racism among Polish and Ukrainian football fans. Many Poles and Ukrainians called the report biased and outrageous.
Here’s my letter to them.
Dear Poland and Ukraine (or perhaps you prefer Polska and Україна),
I thought about you a lot yesterday. I saw the documentary, and I gotta say—OUCH. I can imagine how you must be feeling right about now: angry, embarrassed, and possibly, a bit singled out.
I know what you’re thinking. Something along the lines of, “Seriously? An Englishman is pointing the finger at @$$hole football hooligans acting the fool?”
I get it. The feeling you’re having right now? Extremely familiar. Because my part of the world often finds itself similarly accused, similarly examined by the self-described guiltless, similarly labeled and dismissed. I remember how I felt just a few weeks ago when I read Martin Amis’s essay about shameless bigots in one of my universities. I felt a little unfairly singled-out then, too. I felt as though a man decided to define me by my single ugliest feature and ignore the rest of me, for all time.
But the thing is, baldfaced racism happens, even when sanctimonious people say it does.
By the way, I’m part of America, more specifically of the Southeastern section. To be precise, I’m a long, skinny state called Tennessee—a place in many ways like your own lovely countries, full of friendly folk, delicious fatty delicacies, a certain amount of poverty relative to the whole, and a whole lot of sport-loving, churchgoing folks who generally mean well. I am, however, quite a bit warmer, climatically speaking.
Pleased to meet you.
I’ve had a lot of the same thoughts you’re having right now. Thoughts along the lines of, Get real! Find me a corner of the world without idiots, racists, bigots, sexists, classists, and the full gamut of jack@$$ed isms known to mankind, and I’ll show you an ice floe-littered seascape. I mean, seriously—go to any populated place and find the poorest, darkest-complected, wretchedest-looking schmucks there, and ask them what a raw deal looks like. Ask Chinese Uighurs, Australian Aborigines, Rwandan Tutsis, Croats in the Balkans, Egyptian Coptic Christians, Ecuadorian Quechua-speakers, the Garifuna in Belize, and Arabs, Gypsies, or Turks practically anywhere in Europe, ask what life is like for them and whether people are fundamentally decent. And quit pretending that American Southerners are the biggest sh*t-for-brains, mulletheaded bigots in all the world.
I admit it, sheepishly. I’ve had those thoughts. Quietly, to myself.
But guess what? Racist @$$holes in China, Ecuador, Rwanda, Egypt, and France are not my problem. My skies don’t rain on them. I can’t fix them or worry about them. What I can worry about is me, my streets and cities, my Appalachian hollers and growing universities, my too-full prisons and urban ghettoes, my neighborhoods and farms and homes, and the hearts of the people who live atop my soil.
My history. My now. My tomorrow. Those are my problems.
Because when I drop the defensive posturing and turn the examining eye back to me, I have to admit: things are not as they should be. Granted, my people don’t own other human beings any more, although it wasn’t really so long ago that they did. Most of the people who live in me do not do stupid-@$$ bullsh*t like burning crosses, setting churches on fire because a certain kind of person attends them, or plotting to murder a president because of his race. Most of them don’t use racial epithets that begin with an N.
But a few do. And a few are too many. And it only takes one complete idiot erecting a hideous statue of a former Confederate general, surrounded by Confederate flags a-waving, to convince the world that I am exactly the sort of state it thinks I am. Aided and abetted, I might add, by a posse of legislators who have never seen a wrongheaded, cornpone, fearmongering, anti-somebody bill they didn’t love. And let’s not even pretend that the cards are dealt equally to all the players up in here. Just have a look at my schools and prisons. Then look at my boardrooms and city councils and country clubs. You’ll notice a problematic trend or two. There’s even a terrifically cynical political strategy named, famously, after my region of America. It was a brazen power grab that exploited the prejudices of a whole swath of the “Home of the Brave.” And utterly craven though it was, it actually worked (I’m embarrassed to admit). Sound familiar?
So here’s where the tough love comes in, Poland and Ukraine. Thing is, who knows? It’s possible you may actually have been unfairly singled out. Maybe the guy hammed it up just a bit in the storytelling. Maybe there was “bias.” Because as I pointed out earlier, ism schisms are not your personal creation. They are ubiquitous; they are the human condition. You are not alone in the fact that some people within your borders are acting like semi-literate, hating sh*theads on camera, for all to see. (No! It’s not a Nazi salute! They were pointing! Yeah, pointing in the direction of the opposing team! -actual quote from Kharkiv politician)
And I’ll admit, I had to laugh at the ironies and idiocies that connect our lands and our similarly deluded rednecks when I watched the scene inside the skinhead hideout in Kharkiv. Because amongst the Hitler portraits and Nazi flags, there was, hanging in a corner, a Confederate flag. (head shaking with ‘no way;’ a rueful, embarrassed smile)
The question is, what’s your next move?
Because I’m here to tell you this: I’ve tried the whole defensiveness thing for about 150 years now, and it JUST DOES NOT WORK. I find that the more I poke New York and Arizona and Texas in the chest with the whole, “Physician, heal thyself” line of reasoning, the more I look like a complete @$$hole, and the less anything actually improves. Like I said, those places’ racial profiling issues, jackboot immigration policies, and eagerness to execute (in which non-white races seem inordinately represented on the wrong side of all that lethality) are not, directly, my number one priority. As a state, that is. (Even though it all makes me rather sad.)
So currently, my strategic thinking vis-à-vis the world’s judgement is looking more like, “You know me, Sir.” Because I’m more worried about my people’s bias (and how it lands squarely on the chins of some poor sods) than I am about possible bias in some BBC report. And as we three know, there’s a whole lot more than a grain of truth in what people say about us. Rumors of our racism may be exaggerated, but they’re not wrong. Own it. Admit it. And then we can start to fix it.
I highly recommend this course of action. Because the thing is, here on my rolling green miles, between a big muddy river and a chain of very old mountains, some seriously bad sh*t has been done. A type of person we have called many names over the years, but whom we currently, tentatively call “African American,” and another we refer to as “Native American,” have received just about the worst screw job in the history of a country that loves to view itself as relatively kind, gentle, and evenhanded. And right here, a short half-century ago, my citizens were still behaving quite abominably towards those categories of person.
We have a great deal to answer for. And here, people’s mamas teach them, “Worry about yourself. See to your own character.” And so that is exactly what I plan to do.
I’m finally starting to grasp that crying “Unfair!” and pointing an accusing finger at other jerkheaded wrongdoing locales isn’t getting me anywhere as a state. And here’s where the tough love portion of our correspondence comes in: Poland and Ukraine, the same goes for you and those classist, pompous-@$$, sanctimonious Brits, with their empire and their coal dust, their Ireland troubles and their persnickety BBC documentarians. (Actually, Brits and BBC journalists, I quite like you. So if you’ll forgive the preceding digs…)
Because actually, they’re not your problem. They’re just the shiners of light in this instance. Your real problem? Redneck @$$holes who shout “Jewish whores” at the opposing team, make chimpanzee noises at African footballers, and raise their arms in a Hitler salute en masse. They are what you should worry about, just like we need to see to our idiots here who dress up in sheets and try to push people around. They are all making our world worse.
And the toughest thing of all to grasp about bullies and racist @$$holes who dress up in sheets and neo-Nazi t-shirts and wave anti-semitic banners? That they cannot exist without the tolerance of an oddly quiet majority too frightened or apathetic to tell them to shut the f*ck up and get a nice hobby. That kind of “tolerance” often amounts to tacit approval. And it only takes a few brave people—including the kind of people who dress up in suits and stand behind podiums—to stand up and say, “We’re not going to put up with this kind of thing anymore. Let’s put a stop to it, together”—to start the ball rolling.
Give it a try. Use your words, Poland and Ukraine. Speak it: “You know me, Sir.” Do it once, and it gets easier. Next thing you know, people will start saying reasonable things like, “Yeah, those White Power @$$holes need to shut up and go home.” Then folks will start painting over the White Power crosses and swastikas on your city streets. Who knows? Maybe some upper-level politician will even say something like, “Yes, that’s a problem, but we’re seeing to it.” And then people actually will see to it.
Truth and self-awareness are laser beams that melt away bullsh*t. It’s the only remedy. Because pretending there aren’t any dumb@$$ Neo-Nazis swastikaing up the place and beating up Indian students in the football stands is not going to make them go away. And let’s be frank: Hitlerian Fascism, in case a few of your (and our) shaved-head guys haven’t heard, is not actually a coherent philosophy. Its tenets cannot withstand laser beams, nor even pen lights. And anybody who professes to espouse it should be laughed back to their caves.
(I mean, Poles and Ukrainians saluting Hitler?! Did they SEE what Hitler did to Poland and Ukraine? Despite the bizarre crush a few of your more memory-impaired young men may have on the man, HE’S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU, POLAND AND UKRAINE! To review, what was his pet name for Slavs? Answer: Untermenschen.)
And the same goes for our dear Southern rednecks, from the farm to the state legislature. Bless their hearts. (Not really.) We must police them ourselves, by laughing directly in their faces when they spew their whack-job bile, whether it’s from the classroom, the pulpit, or C-SPAN. We have to look right at them and say, Nope. Not only am I not afraid of you. I’m finding you hilarious and absurd.
Imagine the power of thousands of people, of multitudes, laughing at Hitler shaking his fist, at his comical little combover flapping in the breeze. Would the tanks ever have rolled in the first place if people had instantly seen the absurdity of that impotent little man?
Poland and Ukraine, it isn’t going to be easy to do this. But I implore you: sit down and watch the video. Get mad. Get embarrassed. And then, move on. Clean house. Let your wrongheaded rednecks know that you think they’re complete jack@$$es, and you’re not going to put up with the swastikas and the ridiculous anti-semitic t-shirts and the incoherently designed hatemongering banners. And then, you can welcome the world to your cities for Euro 2012 and show them who you really are.
And by the way, I am NOT IN ANY WAY saying that I, as a state, have all this figured out. Clearly, my people have a long way to go. But as one pork-loving, churchy, slightly retrograde geo-political unit to another (2), all of us well-accustomed to being snubbed by elite, moneyed, and supercilious types the likes of Connecticut, Switzerland, and France, I’m just saying: forget ’em, Poland and Ukraine. Just be yourselves. Your real selves, minus the skinhead @$$holes and their nutjob symbols and fistfights. And we’ll work on doing the same.
All my best,