Basketball, Fascism, and the Limits of Permissible Punditry
I’ve been meaning to write about the 2012 dunk contest for a while now. It remains, five years on, one of the most ludicrous and unsettling spectacles I’ve ever witnessed. It is so thoroughly saturated with signs and messages, along with the obligatory US State Department propaganda, that to do it justice would require a book-length write-up (a project I fully intend to pursue). In the meantime, with the UK general election nearing its conclusion, I would like to begin my formal investigation of the 2012 dunk contest by considering what it can tell us about parliamentary democracy.
The 2012 dunk contest was the first to completely dispense with judges (representatives) and implement a kind of direct dunkmocracy in which the audience voted (via text or Twitter) for their favourite performer. Phrases like “America votes” and “America, you decide” were repeated throughout the broadcast (evidently NBA basketball was not yet a #GlobalGame), but was this really a democratic process?
Even setting aside the obvious fact that its opaque electronic voting system was open to abuse, the democracy of the 2012 dunk contest, like the representative democracies of the United States and those of its allies, is illusory. Fans were permitted to vote for whichever dunker they preferred, but could select only from a field of four (horrible, insulting) candidates that they had played no part in nominating. There exists no mechanism which allows the public to select candidates for the dunk contest, to determine how many there will be, or to alter the format of the contest itself (which changes arbitrarily every year).
Thus, in 2012, audiences watched four obscure and incompetent nobodies stumble about before an almost silent audience as the arena hype man screamed at them that what was taking place was entertaining. The public is well aware that there are other, better dunkers in the NBA than Derrick Williams, but such individuals are almost never invited to participate. On the rare occasions that a superior dunker is permitted to enter the dunk contest, we quickly find that they are curiously unable to perform the very dunks that made them popular in the first place. These populist dunkers invariably find that in the face of the bright lights and insipid pageantry of the dunk contest, their dunking principles either desert them or are downplayed by the pundits on the sidelines.
This is no coincidence, nor is it the result of nerves; the current dunk contest system, by its very structure, prohibits original dunks. As with conventional parliamentary democracy, participants who are dedicated to progressive dunking are refused entry, and those few that do succeed in gaining admittance do so at the expense of whatever radical dunking ideology they may once have possessed.
Consider here Jeremy Corbyn, an ostensibly principled politician who has, throughout his long career, condemned the criminal organisations of NATO and the EU, voted against one imperialist war after another, and campaigned for the UK’s nuclear disarmament. After two years of relentless pressure from the Blairite hordes that dominate the parliamentary Labour Party as well as the craven stenographers of the capitalist press, his party’s manifesto ultimately turned out to be a pro-business, pro-war pile of shit (though, predictably, the usual suspects in the liberal press ate it up). Now that Corbyn’s election campaign is underway, Labour is “committed to NATO,” will ensure UK membership of the Single Market (i.e. membership of the capitalist EU in all but name), will continue funding Trident, and will put an extra 10,000 cops on the streets.
The challenge for organisers and administrators—whether of dunk contests or elections—is to keep the audience engaged in spite of the necessarily unpopular and uninteresting candidates from which they are expected to choose. This is achieved in two main ways. The first involves the inclusion of candidates so wildly inappropriate that the other contestants seem appealing by comparison: just as the 2012 dunk contest included Chase Buddinger, so elections in the US and Europe increasingly feature openly fascist candidates. How, for example, were French voters recently convinced to elect an investment banker as president? Simply by having him run against a repellent fascist.
It is in this way that liberalism and fascism exist in symbiosis: whether voters opt to thwart the rising tide of right wing extremism or to reject the liberal values of the bourgeois media, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen both ultimately exist to serve the interests of capital and of empire. No matter who wins, our class enemies always remain in power, yet the election of Macron—a former finance minister who referred to himself as a political “outsider” (a claim unquestioningly accepted by journalists and, as we shall see, even “critical voices” like Noam Chomsky)—was hailed as a victory for “progressive” values.
Which brings us to the second method by which interest and faith in these spectacles is maintained: the pundits. The 2012 dunk contest was narrated by the usual gang (Kevin Harlan, Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller, and Shaquille O’Neal). Through catchphrases and feigned excitement, their job is to infuse the contest with energy and legitimacy. The fact that it takes a team of five to fill the horrified silence in the arena and give the television audience a sense that something is happening when in fact nothing of interest is taking place says a lot about how boring and irrelevant these contests are to ordinary people.
Likewise, political elections in the United States and Europe would not be complete without an assortment of familiar and beloved journalists and academics whose job it is to mediate these processes for us. The role of these pundits is not to inform, however; it is to lend an air of legitimacy to proceedings, justifying the obviously undemocratic nature of capitalist society, and to help police the boundaries of acceptable discourse. Two of the most famous and highly regarded of these intellectuals-for-hire gave their pronouncements on the UK election earlier this month.
Up first, Noam Chomsky was interviewed for the BBC’s flagship programme Newsnight by Evan Davis, an animatronic puppet with a PPE degree from Oxford who has published books on such edifying subjects as why the privatisation of public services is actually really good and why you should definitely trust the BBC. To his credit, Chomsky managed—to the visible discomfort of Davis—to slip in a couple of salient remarks about class (there exist “divides on all sorts of things, but a fundamental divide is the class divide”). Yet the bulk of the 22 minute interview was spent parroting Tory Party talking points (he agrees with Davis’ assessment that “there’s a sense of a lack of clarity about quite what [Jeremy Corbyn] stands for,” and claims that Corbyn is “evidently not inspiring the population,” despite all available evidence contradicting such a claim) and slowly muttering other insipid and barely audible clichés (Chomsky does not “go along with those who say that we have incipient fascism,” and apparently believes that Emmanuel Macron “came from the outside”).
He is invited to repeat his claim that the Republican Party is “the most dangerous organisation in human history,” but very conveniently elides the innumerable and unforgivable crimes of the Democratic Party, the organisation he has consistently urged American voters to support. As Michael Parenti recounts:
Under one or another Democratic administration, 120,000 Japanese Americans were torn from their homes and livelihoods and thrown into detention camps; atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki with an enormous loss of innocent life; the FBI was given authority to infiltrate political groups; the Smith Act was used to imprison leaders of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party and later on leaders of the Communist Party for their political beliefs; detention camps were established to round up political dissidents in the event of a “national emergency”; during the late 1940s and 1950s, eight thousand federal workers were purged from government because of their political associations and views, with thousands more in all walks of life witchhunted out of their careers; the Neutrality Act was used to impose an embargo on the Spanish Republic that worked in favor of Franco’s fascist legions; homicidal counterinsurgency programs were initiated in various Third World countries; and the Vietnam War was pursued and escalated. And for the better part of a century, the Congressional leadership of the Democratic Party protected racial segregation and stymied all anti-lynching and fair employment bills. Yet all these crimes, bringing ruination and death to many, have not moved the liberals, the social democrats, and the “democratic socialist” anticommunists to insist repeatedly that we issue blanket condemnations of either the Democratic Party or the political system that produced it, certainly not with the intolerant fervor that has been directed against existing communism.
Whoops. Of course, Chomsky is perfectly happy to criticise the Democratic Party provided these criticisms do not undermine his audience’s willingness to vote for them again and again and again. He points out in his BBC interview that, despite the campaign rhetoric in which people were swept up in 2008, “there was no hope and there was no change” under the Obama regime. “The Democrats,” he observes, “gave up on the working class forty years ago. The working class is not their constituency. No one in the political system [represents the working class].” Yet despite this apparently damning indictment of American democracy (a representative system in which the majority of people are not represented is obviously not democratic), Chomsky frames this as an internal problem that the Democratic Party must address by itself.
His assessment of the situation in the UK is identical: the Labour Party, like the Democratic Party in the US, “did not represent the working class” through the neoliberal years, and is currently “split between the constituency and the parliamentary party” (in other words, the working class are not represented by their bourgeois representatives in parliament). Despite explaining in plain language that the UK’s political system is fundamentally and necessarily undemocratic, Chomsky simply declares that “the Labour Party has internal problems it has to deal with,” encouraging viewers to internalise the logic of the political spectacle, identify with their oppressors, and understand this lack of representation as a failure of the Labour Party to market itself successfully and not as an inevitable symptom of a capitalist society. “These are internal problems to these decaying centrist institutions,” he concludes.
I am aware, of course, that Noam Chomsky knows a thing or two about how the media manufactures consent by filtering out critical voices. I think it is fair to argue, however, that if in exchange for being permitted to periodically remind people that class is important Chomsky is obliged to promote the Democratic Party (and by implication America’s sham democracy) and insist that communism is evil and revolution impossible, he is not compromising but collaborating.
A few days after Chomsky’s BBC appearance, Slavoj Žižek was invited to give a similarly enlightening interview for Channel 4 News. Like Chomsky, Žižek appears to have been briefed on the most essential Tory talking points before being allowed on air (Jeremy Corbyn is too “chaotic,” has no chance of winning, no clear vision, and so on and so on). He proceeds to extol the wisdom of inept empire theory (“President Obama, he did many stupid things…”), lament the EU referendum result when in fact it should be celebrated, and, channelling the “erratic Marxism” of Yanis Varoufakis, issue a few of his patented meaningless-but-“provocative” statements (“I’m here a good Marxist—by this I mean…I have a deep admiration for capitalism. Let’s face it, capitalism is a wonder…”).
But the most striking thing about Žižek’s election interview is his obvious and craven policing of the boundaries of acceptable political discourse. “I’m not a Leninist, don’t be afraid,” he remarks early on, before repeating himself later: “we need…a stronger alternative—and don’t be afraid, I’m not talking about some new Leninist party or something.” At no point does he offer any explanation as to why “some new Leninist party or something” would be a bad thing, nor does his interviewer (Cathy Newman, another cardboard Oxford graduate) ask him to elaborate; successful socialist revolutions are simply forbidden territory for these “subversive” academics (unless it is to dismiss them out of hand). Fascism, on the other hand, is apparently a proposition that we must now consider thoroughly, weighing its merits as well as its unfortunate drawbacks…
“The left…doesn’t have an answer,” Žižek continues, embracing the impotent and diversionary hand-wringing that has become a defining characteristic of the celebrity left pundit. “We do not yet have the formula of what to do.” That we do in fact have a tried and tested formula of what to do is something that will never be discussed on national television, either in the UK or in the US, and to say this is not to put forward some sort of fringe conspiracy theory. I have already written about the American press and its troubling relationship with the CIA, but a similar arrangement exists here in the United Kingdom. Defence of the status quo and a rigid anti-communist stance have been fundamental components of the BBC’s ethos since its creation. In 1933, following a Lunch with the Controller of Programmes, Brigadier Oswald ‘Jasper’ Harker, then head of MI5’s counter-espionage and counter-subversion branch, wrote approvingly of the BBC that its
general line is the one which we ourselves try to follow; that is to say that any political views which look upon the ballot box as the proper solution of their problems are reasonable politics; anything that goes outside the ballot box—such as communism or fascism—is considered to be subversive if not seditious.
As Tom Mills explains in his recent book on the history of the Corporation, the BBC secretly and systematically vetted its staff, rooting out suspected communists and pacifists over a period of fifty years and abandoning the practice in 1985 only after a team of investigative journalists exposed what was happening. Of course, political vetting did not cease (the system was “revised and radically changed”), and senior BBC employees maintain close contact with MI5 and MI6, publishing and broadcasting whatever feckless propaganda is deemed expedient by the state.
Since the election was called, the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg has been caught passing off a Tory campaign slogan for political analysis and regularly uses her Twitter account to assist the Tories and smear Jeremy Corbyn. Earlier this month, BBC political correspondent Eleanor Garnier, the daughter of Tory MP Edward Garnier, was sent to question Theresa May. You get the idea.
Faced with a critical and restless public increasingly uninclined to take for granted the credibility and authority of establishment journalism (the European Broadcasting Union has found the UK press the least trusted in Europe), the BBC has resorted to the same sort of desperate appeal we’ve seen from other decaying legacy media, casting itself as “the most trusted brand in news” in a recent advert. There is, of course, quite an important distinction between being trusted and being trustworthy, but I imagine the marketing geniuses at the BBC are very proud of themselves for this clever sleight of hand that will no doubt keep the proles fooled.
It’s not just the big transnational newspapers and broadcasters that find themselves edging towards the precipice, either. Regional newspapers across the UK have invented something called “trusted news day,” a perfectly natural event that you’d expect to see in any free society with a robust and healthy press. My own local newspaper, the Hastings Obscurer, recently published a series of very convincing features assuring its readers that it really is a very credible paper interested in facts and truth and things like that.
It is helpful, in my opinion, to view the election in this context—not as part of a supposed proliferation of “populist” movements in which Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, and Marine Le Pen are all lumped together and cast as “anti-establishment” (not one of them is), but as part of a battle between the working class and their oppressors. The “unexpected” and “undesirable” results we’ve seen in recent months signify a weakening of the capitalist news media’s hegemony, and this is a welcome development. The Guardian, for example, is currently haemorrhaging money as its readers become increasingly perplexed and frustrated by its hollow claims of conducting “independent, investigative journalism” while simultaneously publishing articles in praise of George Bush and Tony Blair. With any luck a Labour victory will finish it off.
What the 2012 dunk contest sought to do (among other things) was establish in the minds of its audience, through procedural rhetoric, the legitimacy of these sham democracies. Dunk contests, along with other kinds of interactive reality television, reinforce the logic of representative democracies in which voters collectively exercise only a limited control over superficial issues and are prohibited from addressing fundamental problems. The dunk contest will be sponsored by Sprite, whether we like it or not, just as the next prime minister of the United Kingdom will be sponsored by BAE Systems.
Thank you for listening.
 Obviously, I would be happier with a Labour victory than a Tory victory (the Tories will kill countless people both here and abroad); the point is that we are never presented with an anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist choice, and thus are condemned to suffer in one way or another under the current bourgeois dictatorship.
 Incidentally, this was the first French election in my lifetime during which I could actually name more than two of the candidates—and this is not because I have recently taken a special interest in French politics. Even here in the UK, it was common for BBC news bulletins to lead with stories about Marine Le Pen, as though she were the most important person in Europe, her election inevitable.
 I disagree. Rather than erroneously referring to them as populists, we should call our political leaders what they are: fascists. The Tory Party is indeed a fascist party. They have rendered UKIP, formerly the UK’s burgeoning outsider fascist threat, utterly irrelevant politically by adopting all of their worst policies. The Tories adhere to any definition of fascism you might care to use. Thus, here in the UK, we are faced with precisely the same dilemma as in France: a fascist or a faux-outsider.
 For all of Žižek’s faults (and there are many), at least he didn’t fall for this one during his Channel 4 interview.
 Some more of Žižek’s greatest hits, from The Fragile Absolute, a few pages of which I occasionally read when on the toilet: “…it is multicultural tolerance and permissiveness which induce real boredom”; “Marx’s fundamental mistake was to conclude…that a new, higher social order (Communism) is possible”; “…the critics of Communism were right when they claimed that Marxian Communism is an impossible fantasy”; “…’actually existing Socialism’ failed because it was ultimately a subspecies of capitalism, an ideological attempt to ‘have one’s cake and eat it’, to break out of capitalism while retaining its key ingredient.”
 This apparently anti-fascist orientation was never sincere, however (or, if it was, it was quickly abandoned). As Mills writes of the BBC’s arrangements in anticipation for the outbreak of war: “Speakers hostile to fascism were barred from broadcasting and Winston Churchill, who was unusual among his class for his antipathy to Nazism if not fascism per se, complained in 1938 that he had been ‘muzzled by the BBC’ following his last broadcast on German rearmament four years earlier.”
If you have noticed something unusual about the 2012 dunk contest or have ever felt as though the NBA were trying to manipulate you in some way, I’d love to hear from you. Please feel free to leave a comment.