Op-Ed: Football, chickens and conspiracy theories

Op-Ed: Football, chickens and conspiracy theories
The South African Poultry Association has urged consumers to ensure all chicken and egg products are properly cooked before consuming. (Image: Supplied) brooks-conspiracies-subbed.jpg

The FIFA bribery scandal and the negotiations over chicken exports from the US to South Africa gives J. BROOKS SPECTOR a chance to contemplate the South African tendency to see the dark hand of plotters in everything that moves.

In the past week or so, this writer has picked up the growing susurrations of a fascinating movement – actually two of them – of a new, curious kind of anti-American feeling in South Africa. Of course such feelings are not new, and they are not limited to people in South Africa. In fact there has always been a strain of political and economic discourse that finds conspiracies, plots and hidden plans designed to manipulate the international arena. For such people, of course, the obvious global master manipulator of our time is Uncle Sam, the Great Satan, or the Paper Tiger and its miscellaneous running dogs.

Shadowy operatives of the CIA or, less frequently, reptilian managers of mega-banks like, historically, the House of Morgan, or contemporarily Citibank and its neighbours usually populate such tales. On occasion, these forces are joined with big oil as they carry out their misdeeds. Sometimes, the US even gets linked up with the supposed global reach of other financial enterprises like the Rothchilds. Once that happens, the Federal Reserve Bank is then wheeled in to give the financial machinations the final link to the government as well. And every once in a while, yet a whole other cast of characters from do-good NGOs and foundations are part of the plot (as one hears from Vladimir Putin these days, for example).

So, what is it this time that has so many on social media and speaking via call-ins to talk radio stations speaking so darkly about America’s intentions and actions? One of these concerns a rumoured plot to capture international football and traduce it with American values and then subordinate it to American whims and intentions. The other is a sinister, shadowy plan to force South Africans to eat more chicken – but only if it is hatched and raised in America. Really. Seriously.

Let’s tackle those chickens first. This whole thing began with a routine congressional activity, the proposed renewal of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a measure scheduled to expire 30 September 2015. AGOA is US law (not an international treaty) that unilaterally gives qualifying African nations the right to export – virtually tariff free – thousands of products into that vast, lucrative American market. Since the beginning of that law’s existence, South Africa has been one of the continent’s most successful nations at taking advantage of this open door. It has been exporting something like a yearly total of $3.2 billions worth of products into the US in recent years by virtue of this measure. Prominent among those products have been those pricey, luxury automobiles that have been manufactured in South Africa. According to most analysts, these exports have directly created something like 60,000 skilled jobs – and many more indirectly on down the line.

Ah, but AGOA was up for renewal this year, and some of those in the US Congress began to think South Africa had already effectively graduated from AGOA, given its middle income, emerging market status, in contrast to, say, Zambia or Mozambique. AGOA renewal then fell a-fowl of several senators representing states that were home to a significant number of constituents who were highly efficient commercial chicken raisers (or growers or breeders or whatever these farmers are called). Several of these senators, now with their own feathers (and those of their constituents) thoroughly ruffled, threatened to stall passage of AGOA or write South Africa out of the new law – unless something concrete was done about South Africa’s heretofore obdurate stance towards American chicken imports. The South African duty on those US chickens has been much higher than on imports from Brazil or the UK, for example, effectively virtually barring American birds from South Africa’s market.

Ultimately, after some heavy breathing and breast-beating, South Africa’s poultry industry and Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies agreed in principle to accept up to 65,000 tonnes of US chicken imports, even though, to hear Davies and the poultry industry reps tell it, this might well mean thousands of workers will lose their jobs. (That continued inclusion in AGOA will mean thousands of skilled workers in manufacturing will not lose theirs, that the chicken farm workers may well find more skilled work in chicken processing plants, and that chicken prices may even fall for the benefit of consumers with more competition all seems to have been left out of the equation by South African spokespersons.)

But to hear some people on social media tell it now, this whole thing has been nothing but an insidious plot cooked up to destroy the indigenous poultry industry, to throw all those poor people out of work, and – most crucially – force South Africans to eat that horrible hormone enhanced, steroid and antibiotic infested inferior American chicken, rather than good old South African birds (even if those chickens are brine injected before entering stores). For some of the more excitable, this is somehow also tangled up with American businesses like KFC as part of a yet-larger plot to take over the South African food chain, enslaving South African palates to the whims of American agro-business. Scary, that.

But things are much worse than just that relative chicken feed. In the past week or so, at least for some South Africans, there is the horror that US law enforcement agency, the FBI, and its parent body, the Justice Department, have been engaged in a long-term, multi-year investigation of a complex network of tax fraud, wire fraud and bank fraud that began with the multiplying troubles of one Chuck Blazer. Like so many other white-collar criminal investigations, Blazer’s tangled affairs led onward and onward.

In his case, his own affairs led on to his involvement with the Western Hemisphere football federation, CONCACAF, and that led to Concacaf’s Jack Warner – and that, eventually, led all the way back to the Swiss-based FIFA. That, in turn, managed to snare South Africa’s curious financial behaviour in securing their bid for the 2010 World Cup games. Carrying out these investigations took years and years, and, in doing so, the FBI and others were engaged in the sophisticated tracking of a multitude of bank documents, emails and probably a lot more. Maybe even a wiretap or two or three along the way.

But to hear some South Africans reel it out on late-night radio call-in shows, in social media, and over conversations in pubs, this, too, was just a plot by those perfidious Americans to savage South Africa’s international reputation. They were doing this to seize control of the World Cup by invalidating the planned Russian games in 2018 and Qatar’s 2022 games and taking them instead for themselves – punishing the Russians over their Ukrainian adventures and the Qataris over something or other.

The more sophisticated version of this plot also argued that if they, the Americans, had really wanted to clean up the sport, they would have engaged in an all-encompassing investigation of every World Cup bid back to the very first one, and they would have sussed out all the other money that changed hands without benefit of invoices and receipts for all those years. Key to that fantasy, somehow, is the insistence that Americans know nothing about the game, they don’t play it, and they only want to ruin it for everybody else – and especially those on the continent of Africa and, in particular, citizens of the most innocent party of all, South Africa. Whew.

Left out of this web of intrigue are the facts that soccer (that’s what Americans call it) actually is the fastest growing sport in America. Americans play in a widely popular professional league now, by competitive teams at hundreds at universities and thousands of high schools, and even more youth leagues across the country. And their women’s football teams haven’t been too shabby either over the years.

Nevertheless, this presumed plot ultimately hinges on a special version of the belief Americans are somehow virtually omnipotent and omniscient. They know everything and can make anything they want happen, whenever they wish. As a result, everything they do – and everything they make occur – is all designed to fit some grand plan. If only!

And that view, of course, takes us back to the conspiratorial view that there are secret wheels-within-wheels that only the truly informed can explain. From that vantage point, America inevitably reaches everywhere to do everything it wants, and always to the detriment of South Africa. In that perspective, of course, everything is ultimately about South Africa.

From that perspective, the chicken saga would have nothing to do with ordinary American constituents of politicians who must be responsive to those citizens. Meanwhile, from that same perspective, the spreading FIFA scandal would have had nothing to do with American law enforcement officials tracking down some complicated white collar crime and criminals (and their ever-spreading connections). Instead it would have been about a carefully nurtured plot to take over a global criminal enterprise, err, sports body, and to punish the Russians, just for good measure because of some recent unpleasantness.

Over a half century ago, American historian Richard Hofstadter analysed this approach in America’s own history, in his extraordinarily influential article, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” He examined religious and political movements whose members were convinced they had uncovered the secret mechanisms of power that really operated, rather than the benign blather offered by the media and politicians in public discourse.

Hofstadter labelled this phenomenon “the paranoid style”, noting, “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. In using the expression ‘paranoid style’ I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes. I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics. In fact, the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.”

Hofstadter went on to write, “The paranoid style is not confined to our own country and time; it is an international phenomenon. Studying the millennial sects of Europe from the eleventh to the sixteenth century, Norman Cohn believed he found a persistent psychic complex that corresponds broadly with what I have been considering—a style made up of certain preoccupations and fantasies: ‘the megalomaniac view of oneself as the Elect, wholly good, abominably persecuted, yet assured of ultimate triumph; the attribution of gigantic and demonic powers to the adversary; the refusal to accept the ineluctable limitations and imperfections of human existence, such as transience, dissention, conflict, fallibility whether intellectual or moral; the obsession with inerrable prophecies… systematised misinterpretations, always gross and often grotesque.’ In the end, he concluded, that while everyone suffers from the effects of history, “the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.”

The challenge is that for some, historically, American power has been deployed around the world, sometimes for good, sometimes for rather less salutary outcomes. Sometimes it has been used with enormous force and sometimes with insidious, delicate tendrils that can barely be traced, save by those with real vision. As a result, such a stance makes it plausible for some to see those same tendencies in something as anodyne (albeit ultimately cataclysmic for many FIFA folks) as a domestic tax fraud investigation that just grew, or in a US senator’s defence of the interests of US chicken exporters as some kind of plot to destroy South African agriculture and destroy the country’s nutrition, rather than simply negotiations to ensure South African manufacturers will continue to be able to sell their products competitively in the US. DM

Photo by EPA.

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