The Diverse Paths of Cultural Diffusion – Baseball Edition

H/T Pierre Maura,

Le Monde has a very interesting article regarding the trajectory of diffusion of baseball around the world and the national social contexts that made baseball attractive (or unattractive) outside of the United States. The article is based on an interview with Peter Marquis who just completed a thesis on the subject.

So, for instance, Marquis explained the fact that baseball never took root in France because of the popularity of other sports, such as soccer (or rugby as well I would add), because of the persistent anti-Americanism, and because American immigrants in France tend to be intellectuals and artists. Whatever baseball teams there are in France were more the product of immigration from Quebec.

On the other hand, Italy and the Netherlands have solid baseball teams. Why is that? In the case of Italy, American occupation after WWII is the main explanation for the popularity of baseball in the post-War era, reinforced by the presence of well-known and popular Italian-American players (Joe Di Maggio) and large immigration. This popularity is no longer the case anymore. For the Netherlands, it has more to do with colonialism and the proximity with cricket-playing British teams. It is in the Dutch Antilles that one can trace the roots of this.

One would think that American occupation is also the main explanation for the strong presence of baseball in Japan. Actually, baseball was introduced there in the 19th Century, at the beginning of the Meiji Era. The Japanese reformers used baseball to open their country to the world but they also saw cultural similarities between baseball and samurai skills and spirit.

And then there is Cuba. Is it military presence as well? Not so. Baseball takes root in 1860 thanks to Cuban exchange students who came back to Cuba as well as American sailors. In addition, baseball was played in opposition to bullfighting, perceived as the symbol of Spanish colonization. Decolonization movements used baseball as a symbol of equality and freedom. As a result, Cuban baseball was always open to black players, as opposed to the US where desegregation only occurred in 1947. So, some African American players from the Negro Leagues would migrate to Cuba to play there, in the national leagues. As Marquis notes, in the 1950s, the Cincinnati Reds even had a branch in Havana, named the Sugar Kings. All this came to an end with the Castrist revolution. This was the end of professional leagues and a return to amateur leagues. At the same time, in the context of the Cold War, Cuban baseball was also used as a provocation: beat the US at their own game.

What this all shows is that whether or not a foreign sport is adopted or rejected has a lot to do with national culture, international cultural relations. As with any type of diffusion, adopting societies might also transform the sport to their own society and change a few rules (as is the case for Japanese baseball). In any events, cultural debate determines whether the sport gets adopted (and in what form) or rejected.

Marquis emphasizes the importance of the media in these cultural discussions. Any nation wants a strong national team especially if that team can distinguish itself in a foreign sport. So, there is no singular trajectory of cultural diffusion from the originating society to the recipient society. Each cultural practice gets translated, adapted or rejected based on a variety of social and cultural factors.

Book Review – King Leopold’s Ghost

KLG Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost – A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa seemed an appropriate book to bring with me to Africa. I don’t know why I hadn’t read it yet since issues of colonialism, neo-colonialism and slavery are never far from my thoughts.

Anyway, I am glad I did read the book. It is indeed a great read and a page turner. It is also a book of horrors: the horrors inflicted upon the Congo by the rule of Leopold, King of the Belgians in the late 19th Century, early 20th Century, out of greed. It is not a surprise that Joseph Conrad wrote his Heart of Darkness about the colonial Congo and modeled his Mr Kurtz based on real agents from the Leopold regime there.

The Congo never seems to make headlines even though it is a tormented country and it is a prime example of what Virgil Hawkins describes as stealth conflicts: conflicts with high death tolls and long-term nasty consequences, but largely ignored by the media. Here is a short introduction on the concept:

Similarly, the horrors of the Congo were by and large ignored in their time, until pioneers in the human rights movement made it impossible to ignore, but to this day, they are still largely forgotten. It is to Hochschild’s credit to have dug up the details of the untold story of King Leopold’s empire of horrors.

It is a kind of detective work that Hochschild engages in as he pieces together the truth about the Congo through a variety of sources (unfortunately, only a few sources reveal the voices of the victims of the regime, the Congolese, of course), and in spite of Leopold’s attempt to destroy the records of his rule in the Congo (in those days, embarrassing documents were burned, not shredded).

What this all boils down to is this: King Leopold (a relatively toothless constitutional monarch) got himself a colony over which he ruled without parliamentary oversight. His goal was not just to match the reach and influence of other colonial powers (and be part of the scramble for Africa) but also to enrich himself personally through the plundering of Congolese ivory and rubber. And of course, how does one lower one’s labor costs? Through forced labor, of course (all in the name of teaching the savages the value of work!).

It is this forced labor component, accompanied by the institutionalization and rationalization of racism, that opened the door to massive and violent exploitation that ultimately killed half the population of the Congo, either through direct elimination, starvation, overwork, disease (which spread more easily when a population is overwhelmingly malnourished and worked like beasts of burden), and a declining birth rate.

It is not like the natives did not resist. Resist they did indeed. Leopold’s rule was constantly challenged by rebellions that were incredibly violently put down through mass killings. The main tool of "order" in the Congo, was the brutal Force Publique that would burn villages to the ground if men refused to work to harvest wild rubber (a grueling work), take women and children hostage until chiefs gave in. And then, private companies had their own militarized forces that tortured and mutilated the natives in the name of discipline and productivity.

It is the productive nature of these atrocities that will ultimately be the downfall of Leopold’s rule as a young clerk for the main shipping company between Belgium and the Congo starts to notice what comes off the ship arriving at Antwerp (rubber and other goods) and what gets exported to the Congo (weapons, mostly) and realizes what is going on there.

The second half of the book is mostly dedicated to the heroes of what became a strong precursor of the human rights movement: E. D Morel and Roger Casement as well as George Washington Williams and William Sheppard . All these men worked tirelessly to expose the atrocities of the Congo and force change. In that last respect, they were not really successful but they did force Leopold (who had managed to fool the world into thinking him a great humanitarian) to divest himself from the Congo.

Because the book is not just a depersonalized account of the regime, but also a story of characters, it reads almost like a novel. We encounter famous characters: in addition to Leopold himself (and his miserable family life), Henry Morton Stanley, but also Joseph Conrad and a few others. Many of the actors involved in the regime in the Congo such as a variety of managers and districts heads appointed by Leopold. Through their correspondence or diaries, we see the banal dehumanization of the Congolese, the ease with which they tortured, exploited, humiliated and killed so many of them without much second thought.

At the same time, the book also makes clear that it is not free market capitalism and free trade (along with higher moral status) that sealed the West’s economic dominance but rather the plundering of the Global South that fueled industrialization and mass production (I would add that this plundering was made possible itself by the luck of the draw and "guns, germs and steel"). It seems that "free market", "free trade", etc. were as much ideological concepts (as opposed to reality) then as they are now. The type of unfairness may have changed (direct plunder is not as obvious now), but the rules of the WTO still guarantee that the Global South is still being exploited and disadvantaged in one form or another despite big talks of free trade.

In the last chapter of the book, Hochschild reflects on the face of the Congo. since the end of Leopold’s regime and the independence. This is a lesson on the long-term consequences of colonialism as well as the lingering influence of neo-colonial mechanisms. Without stating a clear cause and effect trajectory, Hochschild still asserts that Leopold certainly looks like a great role model for dictator Mobutu, all with the blessings of former colonial powers, once the CIA got rid of Patrice Lumumba.

Mobutu’s rule indeed looks a lot like a continuation of the plundering of the country, (then renamed Zaire) along with mistreatment of the population. Ultimately, misrule led to the Mobutu’s downfall and the persistent state of regional conflict at the center of which the now-named Democratic Republic of the Congo finds itself. Should we really be surprised that the social dislocation wreaked by Leopold’s rule has continued to plague the Congo to this day (with other factors, to be sure)? And that the Congo is still being plundered for its resources (not ivory or rubber anymore, but coltan and copper)? And that the world is still largely silent about it?

The Legacy of Colonialism

Formerly colonial African societies are still marked by major racial and ethnic stratification. They are perfect illustrations of the difficulty of overcoming legacies of racial privileges and disadvantages. Case in point:

For the pun contained in the title of the article, see this article on a murder involving a relative of Thomas Cholmondeley (his step grandmother):