The imperial narcissism of the F1 boycotters
The activists who say the race shouldn't be staged in Bahrain are only interested in displaying their decency.
The way some politicians and commentators are talking, you would think that the fate of Bahrain hinged on whether or not this weekend’s Formula One (F1) grand prix goes ahead. Cancel it, and Bahrain’s repressive monarchs, the Al Khalifa family, will have to face up to the failings of their autocratic reign. But proceed with it and F1 might as well have crushed the Bahraini people’s democratic aspiration itself.
There have been some people willing to forego the hyperbole. ‘It’s a car race’, said F1 driver Mark Webber: ‘There are a hell of a lot of people in the world who don’t have a clue there is a grand prix in Bahrain next weekend so let’s not get too wrapped up in our own bubble about how important it is.’ In fact, one of the few places where the Bahrain grand prix is not being trumpeted as the Most Important Sporting Event Ever has been among those involved in F1. Its chief executive Bernie Ecclestone offered a typically phlegmatic defence of F1’s willingness to go ahead with Sunday’s grand prix: ‘It’s another race on the calendar, it’s not our business running the country. If it was a pop singer they would be there. People are there carrying out their business as normal, I am told.’
Ecclestone’s assessment of the state of Bahrain is certainly questionable. While life does go on for the 600,000 people of this tiny gulf state, there is little calm beneath the surface. Instead, the conflict between a politically and economically disenfranchised Shia majority and the ruling Sunni monarchy continues to simmer. Saudi troops may have helped Bahrain’s own security forces to quell the most explosive manifestation of this conflict last spring, but the arrests, torture and sometimes killing has continued. In the past fortnight alone, three teenagers were shot dead.
Yet as Panglossian as Ecclestone’s view of Bahraini society is, his larger point still stands: ‘it is not [F1’s] business running the country.’ And that’s the problem: too many commentators and politicians are so ‘wrapped up in their own bubble’, to quote Webber, that they believe that the question of whether or not a car race is staged in Bahrain is incredibly important; it is their business running the country. The grand prix is no longer just a car race: it has become a vehicle for exhibiting one’s moral credentials.
Few, it seems, have missed the opportunity for a spot of moral grandstanding: ‘[The decision over whether to hold the grand prix] is about justice and history’, declaimed The Times in a recent editorial. Several UK MPs agreed, with Labour’s Jerry Sutcliffe stating: ‘Sport can do so much to influence people’s lives for the good. Here’s a powerful worldwide sport that gets attention from all around the world, and there are times when you have to do something.’ Indeed, ‘doing something’ has very much been the order of the day. The executive editor of the Huffington Post (UK) also agreed that ‘doing something’ was paramount: ‘Can we really all ignore what’s taking place just because it isn’t anything to do with us? Are the thousands dead in Syria not our concern either? At what point should matters of personal (in)convenience be replaced by social - and global - responsibility?’ ‘Despite the protestations of Formula One’s paid lobbyists’, argued the Observer‘s editorial, ‘it is not divorced from the moral world and this event, and Bahrain’s continuing behaviour, demands our disapproval’.
This seems to be the prevailing rationale behind the calls to cancel the grand prix: it is all about showing disapproval, striking a moral pose. Bahrain, a country increasingly seen, thanks to the press offices of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as a photo-essay in state brutality, is little more than a convenient background against which to act righteous. Of course, the calls for F1 to boycott the Bahrain grand prix are not recognised for their essential vainglory; they are presented as compassionate. For the advocates of a Bahrain boycott, those willing for the grand prix to go ahead are the callous, self-interested ones. By staging the grand prix, they are tacitly approving of, and legitimating, the rule of the Al Khalifa family.
But who does this disapproval benefit? Who is this display of moral opprobrium for? It’s certainly not those in whose name the grand prix could be cancelled: the disenfranchised majority in Bahrain. After all, if the grand prix does go ahead, it won’t legitimate or validate the regime in their eyes. For those indulging in running-street battles, for those with no political freedom, for those who experience life under the al-Khalifa autocracy on a daily basis, the presence or absence of F1 will make little or no difference. Their lives will still be marked by a ruthlessly enforced unfreedom.
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But this isn’t about the people of Bahrain. The current displays of virtue are far more narcissistic than that. Not that those currently issuing shrill calls for the grand prix to be cancelled think in those terms. They are convinced that sporting boycotts, not to mention economic sanctions, can play a key role in changing Bahraini society. Sustaining this illusion is, of course, the putative role of boycotts and sanctions in bringing down Apartheid South Africa. Here some myths need to be dispelled: Apartheid wasn’t brought down by sporting exclusions, cultural boycotts or even economic sanctions. It was bought about by a confluence of factors, the chief of which were an increasingly organised black working-class movement, and later the flight of capital which found it could no longer enjoy the economic fruits of a rationalised and brutalised labour force which was fighting back. By the 1980s, Apartheid, once the key to South Africa’s postwar boom, had become the major cause of its bust. As one economist put it, ‘South Africa’s most debilitating economic problems largely predated the imposition of economic sanctions’. It would then take the fall of the Soviet Union, and the loss, therefore, of a major supporter of the ANC’s insurgency efforts, for President de Klerk to seize the opportunity to deal with a far less threatening political movement in 1990-91 and manage the end of Apartheid.
Just as the boycottistas deluded themselves as to their role in the fall of Apartheid, so those currently calling for the grand prix to be cancelled are convinced that they are the primary political actors in Bahrain. So, in a letter to The Times, an assortment of peers, plus Green MP Caroline Lucas, argued that ‘the government of Bahrain must do more to persuade international events and corporations that Bahrain is a stable place to do business’. A broadsheet editorial likewise concluded that once the Bahrain government has demonstrated to its newfound international audience that it has implemented genuine reforms, then the grand prix can return ‘with triumphant fanfare’.
The tragedy of this type of imperial narcissism is that the only people who can really determine the future of Bahraini society, that is, the Bahrainis themselves, are bypassed.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.