Totem and World Cup - How British Broadcasting Corporation patronises England

Why can't the BBC talk about football like the French? oD's Editor-in-Chief asks why the Corporation's flagship morning news programme Today makes a fascinating question so dull.
Tony Curzon Price
Tony Curzon Price
7 June 2010

The mystery cult of football has one of its great festivals coming up. It is amusing to hear John Humphries, leader of another national cult, the BBC's morning news program, trying in all good humour to undermine the competing religion through superior dismissal.

But the conversation that followed was dreadful, and dreadful in a way that I think is quite representative of a dangerous anti-intellectualism in British thinking. Compare the emptiness of what Tim de Lisle (The Economist) and Julian Norridge had to say about why football is so popular to the answers you got to the question on Finkielkraut's France Culture Replique program, "Le désamour vis à vis de l'équipe de foot de France", with sociologist Paul Yonnet and sports journalist Karim Nedjar.

de Lisle and Norridge were happy to nod gently as they agreed that more marketing expenditure creates more demand for sporting events. That was about the extent of their explanation of the world football phenomenon.

On the other hand you know you're going to learn something from Paul Yonnet when he matter-of-factly reminds us of Durkheim 1.01 (minute 11.50): football is a sacred ritual in which a community expresses itself and dramatises its understanding of the social world. Society makes its values real in the moment of the national football match. The invisible unity of the nation becomes visible. We need the sociology of religion to understand football. Why is this the character of popular world religion today? Will the synecdoche by which the team represents the nation be trumped by x-factor or ... got talent communal individualism? Are we at a football peak? How do screens and technology change the metaphor of society that sport represents? And, of course, is the religion manipulated by the powerful?

de Lisle and Norridge seem to refuse anything but the most mechanical account of social phenomena. Their content, the quality of what is lived, is utterly absent. And yet that is what is important and interesting. And this intellectual blindness is not just sad in itself. It leads to a mechanical view of the world in which incentives replace understanding, causes replace meanings. And the way we understand the world eventually shapes it.

I want a different cult for my morning ritual.

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