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. Sooner or later people will recognize that the cancel culture and CRT are nothing more than a Juvenile attempt to call attention to themselves and to other people who are under achievers.
    It is a truly veiled, shallow, Juvenile attempt to replace affirmative action programs which they realize are being exposed as having had much less than anticipated effect in the last 50 years, and which are coming to the end of their useful lives.
    Instead of proposing reasonable, well thought out programs to fashion relief, in an adult,, mature,, intelligent way,, they throw a temper tantrum and call it fact.
    It will soon pass.

    1. Bill,

      It will only pass at the point of a gun I’m afraid to say. The culture war was lost with the constitutionality of gay marriage. That was the final nail. Like it or not, the times, they are a-changin’. Nothin’ left to do but smile, smile, smile….

      1. The cultural war was lost with the establishment of a nominally “secular” religion that denies women and men’s dignity and agency, and reduces human life to a property. The normalization of trans/homosexual couplets was merely an inevitable consequence of following this progressive path and grade.

  2. The worst outcome of American Imperialism is that it has allowed self-loathing American hating academics to prosper and spread their idiotic and insidious teaching to gullible and impressionable students. That we have universities that pay people like Earle is a sad comment on modern academia.

    1. AlanK says:

      “self-loathing American hating academics to prosper and spread their idiotic and insidious teaching to gullible and impressionable students”

      Perhaps so, but you gotta admit, it’s a cut above Trumpist Q-Anon lunacy.

  3. We are experiencing a mental health pandemic. How sad to see yourself as a permanent victim and live your life as such. Never mind your accomplishments, the long hours of work that brought you to the status of professor. Never mind that your standard of living is the highest in the world. Never mind that you are free to publish hate and division. Never mind that people of color are dying by the dozens every day by gunfire because they do not know how to control their impulses and anger. Oh, it is the fault of the great evil white man with that stupid Judeo-Christian belief system. Because those crackers are responsible for all we have around us. Those bigots who drafted the founding documents with that silly Bill of Rights. The devil white men who are responsible for most prosperous nation in the history of the world. Yeah, people of color should get no credit for all of their contributions. They are just perpetual victims. Makes a whole lot of sense to one suffering from mental disease.

  4. The article however shows a common failure of analysis where loose correlation is treated as causation.

    Maybe schools should teach this principle instead of CRT. The %of people being hoodwinked by this simple truism is astounding.

  5. I read your column in the Hill this morning, it was spot on. Its ludicrous what they’re trying to do in painting everything from the Second Amendment to surfing as racist. Its pure insanity.

    I disagree however and think you’re wearing your new Fox news blinders in kidding yourself that the move to roll back coal limits was not associated to appear “masculine”. Of course it was. It wasn’t a “masculine” move it was a move designed to make a soft, baby soft handed man who spent his life being spoon fed and pampered, who never did an honest days work in his life, …who to him work is walking into a room with a bunch of groveling serfs to agree with his every word and bring him bottled water while he yells at everyone then leaves not having a clue what he just yelled about or any of the mechanics of whatever the project he was hollering about involved. He is a prima donna, and I don’t know what ether permeates the air that makes men think of him as masculine, but he’s the softest, most pampered pansy New York liberal who ever donned a neck tie. The coal ruling, was to make him look tough, evident by his talking about those “wonderful coal mining jobs”. Yea black lung, buried alive, working in the dark like a grub for measly wages and a shortened life span. Something his family doesn’t have a clue on, no one in his family, ..yet everyone just laps it up.

    Coal mining jobs are sh##$. Period. I’ve worked in a mine, for a very short period of time. Have you? They’re sh@$. You wouldn’t want to spend one hour in there, neither would he. My jobs no picnic, but that ones the sh##$#iest.

    And its dirty for our air. Its not about whether or not one “believes” in global warming. Its about whether or not you believe in breathing oxygen. You’re old enough to remember the 70s and what the air was like in West Virginia back then. I sure as hell am, and I sure as hell remember. And it was hell. Now its beautiful thanks to those regulations which I’m glad you support. But please, …it wasn’t a move intended to appear masculine?

    Come on Jonathan. Everything they do with Trump is designed to make him “appear” masculine.

  6. George W Bush must be so proud that he located his Presidential Library at SMU so it could spawn affiliated organizations like this. So proud.

    It strikes me that the logic Earl uses would be similar to saying that because his commanding officer who recommended Corporal Hitler for an Iron Cross in World War 1 was Jewish, “the Jews” were responsible for Naziism.

  7. Guilt, real or imagined, is one hell of a thing, right Mr. Earle. It won’t go away. Keeps him up all night. Won’t let him sleep all day (apologies to Huey Lewis)

    Tsk, tsk, the state of modern “scholarship”

  8. Turley said, “Great sports like great ideas tend to be replicated.“ This is true, from the creation of fire, the wheel, and woven textiles to replace animal skins. Our species learns from other humans, generation after generation, instead of relying solely upon instinct. This is part of what make or species who we are.

    However, activists now label this aspect of learning to be “cultural appropriation”. We are supposed to confine ourselves to our own race in modern segregation, once again pushed by the Left. Imagine if other cultures were not permitted to use fire, and it had to stay within the culture of the discovering tribe. One would consider such a prohibition ignorant, equal perhaps only to the ignorance streaming out of universities today.

    Dressage has its roots in war. The custom of mounting horses on the left, or near side, of the horse arose from wearing a sword on your left. Dressage movements were cavalry maneuvers. Many portraits of generals feature the levade or capriole, designed to terrify or strike out at enemies.

    Yet when we’re watching someone’s dressage test, we don’t say, horseback riding shows are inextricably linked to warfare and we must never enjoy them again because of the blood shed from horseback in human history. Or hunt seat shows are inextricably linked to fox and hare hunting and unless we approve of running a fox to ground to be torn to pieces by dogs, in modern times, we must never jump another fence. Or if we do, we shan’t enjoy it.

    1. “However, activists now label this aspect of learning to be “cultural appropriation . . . We are supposed to confine ourselves to our own race in modern segregation, once again pushed by the Left. Imagine if other cultures were not permitted to use fire, and it had to stay within the culture of the discovering tribe.”

      Great idea. Could one of the many attorneys out there please write up legislation to incorporate cultural appropriation into the principles of intellectual property. I can’t wait to start collecting my share of the royalties owed for the use of fire.

      BTW, I don’t think it is in any way immoral or unethical for members of those other cultures to use fire – so long as they pay the license fee.

      I was thinking maybe a dollar per fire, or $20 for a whole year of fire. But no sharing. If a friend or neighbor, from another culture, wants some fire they can’t have some of your fire. They have to pay the license fee just like everybody else.

      Now, how do we apply this to running water, flush toilettes, automobiles and air planes?

  9. Earle is a perfect example of so many academics, not just someone being financially supported as a “post doctoral fellow,” who display no scholarship — just folks who view EVERYTHING for the purpose of finding racism, oppressors, victims, etc. What a sorry way to go through life!

  10. The “woke” mob always resorts to the laziest common denominator explanations. Ridiculous generalizations and coincidence=causation arguments abound. These pathetic academics and journalists are a measure of how far US education standards have fallen.

  11. Thomas Blake Earle is an ass.

    Can you imagine spouting that garbage?

    Can you imagine taking that garbage seriously?

  12. Texas A and M. That refers to people from Texas who are A holes and Mindless.

    1. After a comment like that,, you need to be mindful in the future. Texas A & M actually stands for AGRICULTURE and MILITARY. There are two groups in America that are a force – farmers and soldiers.

      1. No, it was founded in 1871 as the Texas Agricultural and MECHANICAL College. It has had a strong ROTC presence for a long time but was never a military school in the sense of VMI or the Citadel, and to have founded it as “military” in 1871 Texas would have been deeply weird.

Comments are closed.