Washington Post: Olympic Surfing is Embedded in American Imperialism

My column today discusses new claims that the Second Amendment was the product of slavery and how “racism seems to be the most common denominator of today’s political controversies.” The media relishes work that explain how common practices or traditions are really relics of repression. The Washington Post this week illustrates this trend with the outrage du jure. Many (including myself) have been thrilled in watching the new Olympic competitions of surfing, including Hawaii’s Carissa Moore who won gold. Moore used the victory to celebrate her state’s long and cherished history of surfing.  However, The Washington Post  did not let such moments to pass without a familiar reframing. It published Texas A&M professor Thomas Blake Earle who explained that we are enjoying a sport shaped by American imperialism. It is not virtual signaling but virtual shaming of others. So enjoy but remember to be ashamed.

Earle is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University studying American politics and the environment.  He has a history of reframing public debates in racialized terms. He previously denounced the rollback of Obama-era coal limits (which I also criticized) by writing that the change was “less about energy than about white masculinity.” It could also be about a difference in viewpoints on the environment, a long-standing divide in the country. I long opposed Trump’s environmental policies are environmental, not masculine, mistakes.

His column shows how easy it is to reframe issues for public shaming — and easy publication. Earle explains that the popularity of surfing is due to “centuries of U.S. imperialism.” However, a closer review of his evidence leaves you in what surfers call “the mush.”

Surfing is, of course, most associated with the Hawaiians who like Moore are deeply and legitimately proud of their association. The sport, as Earle notes, immediately awed outsiders like the surgeon on the British Captain James Cook’s ship The Resolution who wrote he “could not help concluding that this man felt the most supreme pleasure while he was driven on so fast and so smoothly by the sea.”. That was in the late 18th century, long after the establishment of this sport on the island. However, surfing is traced back to as early as 200 CE . . . in what is now Peru.

That does not make it easy to reframe the entire sport as another example of oppression or racism. Earle accomplishes this by noting that Calvinist missionaries did not approve of surfing. That is not surprising. Calvinist in the late 18th and early 19th century did not approve of a wide array of practices inside and outside of Europe. Calvinists in Europe moved to limit dancing, gambling, and other pursuits. Thus, it is hardly surprising that they did not take to naked Islanders on wooden surf boards.

Earle faced another dilemma. While missionaries did not approve, surfing was later embraced by Americans and the media. The spin however is easy. They were supporting this traditional Hawaiian sport to bring Westerners to the Island to colonize the island. Done. Surfing is the product of American imperialism and your column is eagerly run in the Washington Post.

While Earle agrees that surfing is “thrilling” to watch, it is important to do so with a sense of guilt and self-loathing:

[T]he Olympic movement has faced criticism for corruption, scandals and the tacit endorsement of governments that regularly violate the human rights of their citizens.

The history of surfing similarly shows that the sport is embedded in a history of imperialism. Surfing, much like the Olympics itself, would not exist as it does independent of how nations use sports as a tool of international relations.

The column captures much of what we have been discussing in relation to the dominant narratives on campuses and the countervailing intolerance for dissenting views on issues that touch on racial justice or social inequities. Theories like Earle’s are readily advanced in publications and conferences while those who oppose them are often ostracized or shunned. To question a claim like modern surfing is a product of imperialism is to declare yourself as a reactionary.  The article however shows a common failure of analysis where loose correlation is treated as causation.

There are often valid historical points of reference. Surfing was opposed by some missionaries and it was later supported by some figures eager to highlight Hawaiian culture. However, that does not mean that the sport is the product or a relic of imperialism. During the 19th and 20th Century, there was an exponential rise in international travel.  Foreign correspondents highlights exotic practices and cultures.  Earle focuses on the second half of the 19th century when there was an increase in American investment in Hawaii. He is certainly correct that corporations began to exercise huge power over the monarchy and, in 1898, there was a coup with the assistance of the Marines.

However, what does that have to do with surfing? Well, that is where correlation is enough. Earle notes how figures like Alexander Hume Ford wanted to increase investment in the island and he quotes historian Scott Laderman who noted “when [Ford] found surfing and the incomparable thrill it represented, Ford found a lure for drawing white immigrants to Hawai’i.”

Ok, putting aside the question of relying on this one figure and observation, the highlighting of a native sport does not mean that modern surfing is somehow the product of American imperialism. It does not mean that imperialism is any more relevant to the sport than monarchial rule. Many cultural practices have become more popular from exposure to the world at large. For example, Japan is famous for kabuki and its cuisine. Both became draws for tourism after interactions with the West but they are not products of imperialism despite the defeat and occupation of the country after World War II. They were preexisting cultural norms or practices that became international sensations.

Various traditional sports took hold and entered the Olympics due to their inherent value as sports, not the role of occupations or imperialism. Karate, tae kwon do, judo, and other sports are obvious examples. Consider for a second if figures like Ford did not publicize the thrill of surfing. Would surfing not have become popular in countries ranging from Australia to South Africa? Of course not. Great sports like great ideas tend to be replicated.

Moreover, Earle does not mention that surfing was already popular outside of Hawaii. Indeed, it is believed to have started with Polynesians outside of Hawaii. This included surfing cultures in Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands. Indeed, Earle mentions the surgeon on The Resolution but does not mention the accounts from other ships to Tahiti, including one in 1767 as well as on Cook’s first voyage with The Endeavor to Tahiti.

Moreover, Peru has claimed to have independently developed surfing based on pre-Inca Moche pottery.  Such conflicting facts are ignored because they interfere with the narrative. Surfing was likely to be embraced by the wider world as information and travel increases — just as kayaks may have started with the the InuitYup’ik, and Aleut but eventually took hold around the world.

That however would just leave people enjoying the sport without identity or national guilt. Instead, the real thrill is found in claiming that”the sport is embedded in a history of imperialism.” So “while we may marvel at the athletes riding waves at the Games, this history will also be on display.”  Or maybe … just maybe … it is a great sport and what is on display is athleticism at its purest and most graceful state.


66 thoughts on “Washington Post: Olympic Surfing is Embedded in American Imperialism”

  1. Earle can watch Surfing with both thrill and self loathing if he pleases.

    He can not dictate how the rest of us experience it.

  2. “less about energy than about white masculinity.”

    A classic symptom of schizophrenia — “dysfunctional integration” (aka random associations)

  3. I am waiting for someone to say, “You are on Candid Camera.”

    What a bizarre place this world has become in the past few years, especially now. A novelist in their wildest imagination could not dream this up.

  4. The Second Amendment was for the right to arm bears. Not bear arms. That means black bears, brown bears and white bears.

  5. Turley should be ashamed of himself.
    What he has shown is how we’re a nation of ‘cultural appropriation’. Stealing and taking credit for the Brown / Asian man’s sport and using it for imperialism.
    Oh the humanity of our sins!

    (Do I really need to add the /sarcasm tag?)

    I wonder if these so called ‘journalists’ actually believe what they are writing… or are they trying to be ‘shock jocks’ of the written word?


  6. Natacha asks:

    “Why doesn’t Turley address Laura Ingraham accusing the Capitol Police officers who testified of acting for the cameras”

    Simple. Because Turley is mortified by her rage directed at these 4 innocent police officers. Turley believes in law and order. You may recall that he initially had proposed that Trump be censured by both parties for his conduct on 1/6. Yet now one of his Fox colleagues spits on members of the D.C. police rank and file, and he ignores it. Says nothing. Not a word.

    Turley though can evade all accountability for his silence because he is able to avoid any meaningful contact with anyone from the MSM who might ask him an inconvenient and uncomfortable question. Because he cannot and will not defend the hateful commentary of Hannity, Levin, Ingraham and Carlson, Turley pretends to hear nothing and see nothing and consequently says nothing. But we know HE KNOWS. And in his soul, he knows WE KNOW.

    One can only guess how much Turley now truly regrets being associated with Fox. And when he departs quietly out of shame, he will not announce it. Nor can he hope to avoid a reckoning for his hypocrisy in not holding Fox to the same journalistic standards he held its media competitors. One day, Turley must answer for it.

    1. The officers died of natural causes. One unarmed woman was murdered by a capitol agent. Pelosi denied the President’s offer to carry out crowd management. Capitol police invited a peaceful assembly, then surreptitiously, perhaps aligned with the murder, pulled the rug out from underneath.

      1. “Capitol police invited a peaceful assembly, then surreptitiously, perhaps aligned with the murder, pulled the rug out from underneath.”

        What in blue blazes are you yammering about?

        1. Jeffslobberman ~ watch the video you moron…..unless one of the censorship companies you probably back wholeheartedly already evaporated it. The video also wasn’t
          allowed in the trial.

          1. Ms. Hollenbach,

            The name is Silberman; and I’ll thank you to remember it.

    2. Natacha…

      I didn’t realize any were charged with a crime?
      (Although that black officer who shot the defenseless unarmed white woman (Ashley Babbitt) should have been…)

      They have claimed to have been tortured.
      Were they waterboarded?
      Stripped naked, tied to a chair and then had jumper cables attached to their scrotum?
      Whipped? Flayed? or otherwise beaten?

      No, there appears to be no evidence of any torture.

      These officers should be mocked by their brothers who faced Antifa protests on the West Coast.


    3. Solid points, Jeff. It’s why I refer to Turley’s reality as being sort of tragic.. He must cringe if he ever takes a spin through the comments section here.


      1. Eb,

        If only Turley could be confronted by the animosity and the misunderstandings of the majority on this blog, he would publicly acknowledge that he deplores 90% of it. You and I know, for instance, that Turley rejects Mark Levin’s “American Marxism” screed, but he does not want to make waves with his employer, Fox, so he dutifully ignores it. If he praised the book, is there any doubt that he would laud it by writing a complimentary review or blog post? Turley’s silence though fosters the misimpression that he does not disapprove of it. The fact that he does not take any steps to disabuse those Trumpists here who wrongly think that his opinions endorse their rage against Leftists is absolutely unforgivable.

          1. I will read it if you will get vaccinated. Is that enough incentive for you?

        1. The omniscience of left wing nuts like you is beyond beleif – You “Know” how Turley thinks about something he has not expressed an oppinion on – and then go on to claim to know why Turley does not express that oppinion that you devined from Tarrot cards in a subject that has no interserction with this blog.

          When did Turley do ANY book reviews here ?

          And then you jump to telling us all what Trumpists think that Turley thinks, again about something never expressed.

          Tarrot cards on top of ouija boards. Do you wish to add some astrology to the mix ?

          Lots of people are getting angry with the left.
          Modern leftism is at its core immoral – and self righteous about its own immorality.
          Of course people are enraged.

          If you do not want others to be angry with you quit pretending you can read their minds, and making false moral accusations against them.

          Finally what do you think all this is some game ? “Can I claim Turley on my side ?”

          Lots of people here – mostly not on the left – both agree and disagree with Turley.
          They make arguments often good ones, that correctly note that While Turley is constantly reporting on some of the many instances of egregious misconduct by the left, he is still blind to the magnitude of the harm the left is causing.

          But you make that case very well thank you.

  7. Jonathan: At first blush we would not associate surfing with US imperialism. I grew up along the beaches of Southern California. I always marveled at the grace and athleticism of the surfers at Malibu. One of my high school buddies was an avid surfer. He had 2 longboards strapped to the top of his 1950-ish Ford “woody” station wagon and convinced me he could teach me the sport. He was unsuccessful. He said: “You have no sense of balance”. Besides that for me swimming has been all about staying alive when you are in the water!

    Modern day surfing in Hawaii can be traced to white settlers from the US who came to the islands to make their fortunes–of course at the expense of the native population. Mark Twain even tried the sport but, like me, failed. That’s one reason Twain is my favorite American writer. Anyway, white settlers dominated Hawaiian politics after they got a foothold in the islands. In 1893 Sanford B. Dole (born on Kawai) organized the “Committee of Safety” ( a misnomer if there ever was one) and led a group of white sugar planters and, with the aid of US marines, overthrew the monarchy of Queen Lilinokalani . Almost immediately the US recognized Dole’s government and proclaimed Hawaii a US protectorate–something you only mention in passing. Hawaii is a good example of how US imperialism conquered new territories–see also Cuba and the Philippines. In 1897 Williams College awarded Dole an honorary LL.D degree–in recognition of his service in overthrowing the monarch and bringing western white “culture” to Hawaii. In 1908 Alexander Hume Ford founded the “Outrigger Canoe and Surfing Club” in Waikiki. Local Native-Hawaiians were not admitted. The Club was de-facto white-only. Women were not admitted until 1926. Local Hawaiians had to form their own club and they helped spread the sport worldwide. The white power structure in Hawaii wanted to promote Hawaii as a tourist destination and for business investment so they extolled surfing which they appropriated from the locals. It is clear the legacy of racism and US imperialism in Hawaii is the backdrop for the development of surfing.

    There are a lot of movies about surfing–mostly promoting it. The 1979 movie “Apocalypse Now” takes a different approach. The movie was based on Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” about European colonialism and imperialism in Africa transferred to Vietnam. In one episode Robert Duvall portrays a LT. Colonel who loves war. He loves the smell of napalm. He is also a surfing fanatic. He attacks a Vietnamese fishing village with helicopter gunships. On one helicopter he attaches surfboards so one of his grunts can surf in the midst of napalm reigning down on the villagers. Those epic scenes are a metaphor for, not only the insanity of the Vietnam war, but how the US sought to impose Western values on the Vietnamese. Just like what the White settlers actually accomplished earlier in Hawaii. In an ironic twist the northern Philippines fishing village where the scenes were filmed has become a surfing mecca! Talk about American influence!

    But you think we should enjoy the thrill of surfing “without identity or national guilt”. This sounds like an advocate of American exceptionalism–the view that US foreign policy has been benign and benevolent–promoting only “democratic values”. Now I don’t feel any “guilt” in watching surfers in the Olympics. but I am prepared to recognize how surfing developed in an era of spreading US imperialism. By raising the issue in your column you are unintentionally promoting an examination, a recognition of how even surfing played a role in spreading American hegemonic values around the world. I certainly didn’t think of surfing and US imperialism as being connected until you brought up the subject in your column. It’s called the law of unintended consequences. No one who reads your column will think of surfing in the same way again. It’s like telling someone NOT to visualize an elephant!

    1. Kid, American Exceptionalism is the why the world is not controlled by national Socialists or Marxists Communists which you feel great resemble and attraction. Weird that the racist party in America that fought to keep slavery intact against Republican Lincoln, and later on fought to re instituted Slavery after the civil war is as a party intact today. America has to bear the sins and evil of the democrat party, but as Americans the blame have to be always pointed out not to the flag or system, but to the racist democrat party.

      Who cares if surf came from US imperialism or Persia or African kingdoms. Every civilization has wrong actions, but people learn from it and improve their own civilizations base on those mistakes, and then they are proud of what was good about their empire, kingdoms, countries and all the advantages it left for the future.

      Tell me kid, wouldn’t you learn German because it was the native language of the national Socialist leader ?
      Wouldnt scientist use technological information coming from Communists to improve medicine or rockets because they were Marxist oppressors ?
      The left today is utterly dumb, fragile, and deeply ignorant no wonder why their IQs are so low.

    2. It wasn’t imperialism. It was obligations and expectations that uniliterally changed from king to queen. She had different ideas of reconciliation from her brother.

  8. Oh dear, my friend, age 70, said she felt so sad seeing America reveal itself as so full of stupidity. Not hopeful. Me neither. Degeneration.

  9. Washington Post: Olympic Surfing is Embedded in American Imperialism

    It published Texas A&M professor Thomas Blake Earle who explained that we are enjoying a sport shaped by American imperialism.

    If it is true that Olympic Surfing is Embedded in American Imperialism then Washington Post and Texas A&M professor Thomas Blake Earle are assuredly practitioners of the lurid and lowly art of yellow journalism.

    Careful dear readers you may have inadvertently stepped into a steaming pile of Earle and need some Washington Post to wipe it off your shoe.

  10. More of Turley’s attacks against non-Trump media. The Washington Post publishes lots of op ed pieces, of which this is one. That does not mean that WaPo endorses the viewpoints of the author, and to imply that it does is not true. So, what should WaPo do–refuse to publish controversial material? Wouldn’t that be censorship, something Turley is opposed to? This piece is just another item on Turley’s checklist of assignments: attack the WaPo or other non-Trump media, finding things the disciples will find outrageous, so as to deflect attention away from the outrageous things Republicans and Trump are doing and saying.

    Why doesn’t Turley address Laura Ingraham accusing the Capitol Police officers who testified of acting for the cameras, or the refusal of McConnell and McCarthy to even watch the officers’ testimony, much less express gratitude for them taking beatings so as to allow them to escape from the Trump mob? Oh, that’s right. Not on the assignment list for Turley.

  11. Wondering what WA PO and Earle have to say about this hit HBO show all about Hawaii.

    On TelevisionAugust 2, 2021 Issue
    The Brilliant, Biting Social Satire of “The White Lotus”
    A couple at a hotel reception desk
    Mike White’s HBO tragicomedy is one of the best shows of the year.

    By Naomi Fry
    July 26, 2021

  12. This supposed professor is a great example of the saying “an nescis, quantilla prudentia mundus reqatur” . Ignorance is Bliss my apply to the Professor, but ignorance can be defined as judging another, or entire community, of a bias, as evil and spreading falsehoods to suit your arrogant point of view. He may be of the mind that “If Black is Beautiful, and Tan is Grand, Then White is the Color of Big Boss Man”.

    1. MC:

      “A guy who uses 3 names probably wears water wings in the bathtub.”
      Naw usually a serial killer! LOL

  13. Anyone that thinks common denominators are a reality of the human condition should probably be fired post haste. Is there anything good about progressives or the democratic party in the 21st century? I understand that our host believes in real, classical liberalism; to pretend that the modern DNC represents that is plain and simple whistling in the dark. And yet, progressives just vote ‘D’. And here we are. Personal grievance was more a factor in the last election than is likely in all of recorded history, and it’s different than sad; when you shoot ourself in the foot repeatedly until you are standing on bloody stumps, that is actually sickness.

  14. It wasn’t that long ago that surfing would have been identified as cultural appropriation. If only there were a time in American history that we could study that proved what the evils of actual racism looked like, especially if they were an adopted philosophy of a major political party, with laws and policies that segregated our citizens by race. One would think that to be a useful study to advance as a civil society.

    1. Diversity [dogma] (i.e. color judgment) breeds adversity.

      That said, diversity of individuals, minority of one. Baby Lives Matter

  15. Wokeism–the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.

    1. Wokeism – The haunting fear that anything, anywhere is not the result of racism – And the desperate need to convince themselves (and everyone else) that everything everywhere is the result of racism.

    2. I don’t have an account, but yep, you nailed it. Heaven forbid a single one of us non-entirely-white people have achieved a magnitude of happiness when we are supposed to be so squished under the boot heel of something ephemeral that no one understands and that only a naive child could believe in, not unlike Santa Claus. I *like* this comment.

      And to the trolls: your email address, your IP address, even the make and model of the device you post on is visible to the mod (thank you, sir), who knows exactly who you are, who I am. Thinking that you are ‘anonymous’ is pretty dang funny. Respect the fact that they let you post regardless, because they do. That is the level of commitment to unfettered openness here in this space.

    3. Thersites,

      You should attribute your paraphrase to H.L. Mencken:

      “Puritanism—The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

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