John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


Blood and Iron

Posted on July 7, 2010
The nature of national identity came to my mind as I watched the World Cup yesterday.

South Africa is hosting the soccer tournament, the first time an African nation has been given that honor.  Much was made about the quixotic efforts of Ghana (which beat the United States) to be the first African nation to win the tourney.

Not as much has been made about the fact that the Dutch, who were the first settlers in what is now South Africa, have gone so far in winning the tournament.

When the Dutch first came to South Africa, they had the run of the place.  But eventually they had to adjust to reality.  They later became the Boers, and they fought several wars against British colonial rule to maintain their freedom.  They gave in to the Brits, and eventually, they dismantled apartheid, the systematic discrimination of black Africans which was constructed to keep the black majority out of power.  Whites now make up about 10 percent of the population in South Africa, while black Africans make up about 80 percent.

Not all is rosy in South Africa, despite the World Cup hype.  Crime is out of control, and South Africa’s AIDS epidemic doesn’t seem to be slowing down.  Mugabeism creeps across from Zimbabwe, as black gangs target white farmers for extinction.  Here is a chilling story for more background:

Whites are leaving South Africa at an alarming rate, and while many black nationalists might say good riddance, they probably shouldn’t cheer too much if they care about the future of the country. The Zimbabwe example serves as a clear reminder that replacing capitalism with primitive racist agrarianism is no way to feed the people.

I wonder how many black South Africans are rooting for the Dutch to win the World Cup now that they have gotten to the finals.  I wonder how many white Boers were rooting for Ghana when they were the last, best hope of the Lost Continent.

South Africa still has a long way to go to figure out its national identity.  It is not an easy process.  But it never is.

Otto Von Bismark once said that Germany would not be united by speeches or by majority votes, but by blood and iron.  Bismark fought several small wars so that the German people could finally be united under the leadership of the Prussians, and their unity ultimately led them to the First World War, which begot the Second World War, which begot a country, divided by East and West by foreign powers.  That Germany is together again is testament to the power of the phrase, “forgive and forget.”

The Spanish united only after Isabella and Ferdinand said,  “I do,” when they joined their hands in marriage.  That union led to a successful effort to get the Muslims out of the country in the Reconquista.

That was the same year that Columbus sailed the ocean blue.  Uruguay, the fourth member of the World Cup final four (they lost yesterday, although they already have two World Cups under their belt), wouldn’t be here if Columbus didn’t “find” the Americas.  It has its own tumultuous history, wedged as it is between Argentina and Brazil.  But it seems to have found its national identity, and is now is one of the most prosperous countries in South America.

A national identity is formed through a combination of race, religion, war and sports.

America was founded first by the Pilgrims.  Successive waves of immigrants added their own flavors of religious belief and cultural norms, but the American identity was hammered out through wars of conquest (the Indian Wars, the Mexican War, the Spanish American War) and through wars of liberation (World Wars I and II, Korea, Viet Nam, the Persian Gulf War).

Our national identity has been tested and shaped by war, not unlike the national identities of most countries.  But sports has played its own special role.  Think Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics or the Olympic hockey team in 1980.

Sometimes time heals wounds, but sometimes, it doesn’t.  Just ask the Basques in Spain.  They keep fighting for their own freedom from Spain, but it doesn’t look like they are going to be successful any time soon.

The Dutch once fought an 80-year war to be free of the Spanish Empire.  Once they got their freedom, their entrepreneurial spirit helped them establish colonies all of over the world, the biggest of which was the Cape Colony, which is where you can find Cape Town, the sight on many of the World Cup games.

Sport is a better way to forge a national identity than either blood or iron.  But most nations become nations through war, not through soccer.