When a punch is not just a punch: vigilantism, fascism, sport and fiction

July 10, 2016

Superheroes conflate goodness with hitting things. For the superhero genre, the best person in the world is the one with the greatest power; beating evil is a matter of hitting it harder. A world in which force and goodness are one and the same and both always triumph is a world in which you’re essentially worshipping force…

(Berlatsky, 2013)

[Warning: this piece contains movie spoilers and the examples portray real and fictional violence]

Yesterday Chris Froome punched a spectator during a Tour de France stage. I was surprised to see many commentators (both professional and amateur) supporting this violent act: in summary, they argued, fans get too close to riders and are endangering them in their workplace, therefore a punch is justified through the principle of self-defence. I found myself disagreeing with this rationale as I do not think such actions are justified in general or in this particular instance. The punch was, I would argue, both disproportionate (the fan seemed to be presenting a potential rather than immediate threat) and a vigilante act outside the expectations of rider behaviour. The race jury agreed with me, and the video evidence might form a fairly good basis for an assault prosecution in other circumstances. Whilst some have characterised the blow as an elbow/forearm strike, it certainly isn’t a push or a barge, and is clearly premeditated – unlike George Bennett’s collision today (with an almost stationary fan on a bend) which looks almost reflex and unavoidable.

I do not intend to dwell on all that though. Opinions are cheap. The more interesting debate to be had is around the collision between sport as a fictional spectacle and the reality it occupies. Froome and the fan are real people: their altercation resulted in physical consequences. Many of those who were excusing and even praising Froome’s actions seemed to be revelling in a vigilante approach to fan control. The argument goes like this: if the fans are dangerous and can’t be controlled by the authorities then this is justification for taking the ‘law’ into one’s own hands. There are two components here: the right to take action as an individual and the extent of this action. Whilst many might find a shove or barge acceptable in relation to the first component, the escalated level of response in this case seems to tap into a desire for disproportionate action: punishment rather than self-protection. And this takes us, depressingly, to the links between vigilantism and fascism.

Before getting all serious though, we need a detour into the pure fiction of the superhero, away from the hybrid fictional reality of sport. We’ve been here before of course. I’m not the first person to associate champion cyclists with superhero narratives. Take seemingly inhuman performances, add technological and biological performance enhancement, and you just need morally self-righteous violence for the superhero analogy to be complete. And we all know what happens when the morality turns out to be fake: Armstrong looked like a superhero until he was exposed as a bully and fraud. What concerns me is that in these days of the hyper-real the violence of Armstrong  (mainly psychological) or Hinault (rather more err… direct) isn’t just entertainment or spectacle, but also real: the victims (Simeoni; French trade unionists) are real, and although we can treat these events as fictions to be amused by or learnt from, they actually happened.

In a recent piece by Chris Yogerst in The Atlantic an attempt was made to argue that our fictional superheroes are not fascist, and that their vigilantism somehow aligns with more liberal tendencies. Benjamin Welton, in a slightly more sophisticated piece, contrasts the actions of Dirty Harry of Magnum Force with Frank Miller’s Batman: the former, while on the edge of the rules, works to maintain them, whereas the latter undermines and eventually destroys them. Noah Berlatsky unlocks this further: for him superheroes may represent fascism, but the stories they are embedded in allow us to critique the logical consequences of their hyper-vigilantism. They are stories about the roots and consequences of vigilantism/fascism and the desire for power through violence and can be read as propaganda and/or critique. Some of the more deviant superheroes  (Wonder Woman, The Comedian, Deadpool) are written to more explicitly expose this critical tendency: in turn they show how you can be a superhero who isn’t a man and wants peace, how a superhero ends up a sadistic and amoral government stooge, or how you can be “super, but… …no hero”, revelling in comic nihilistic carnage.

 

But this is all fiction, not sport. Unlike the commentary on the Vietnam War in Watchmen, Froome’s punch is not just a fictional act, a signifier which connects him with the “hard men” of yesteryear. It is a real punch, probably born out of frustration, but nonetheless the exercise of excessive violence given the context. The surplus is symbolic, a message to all fans: get too close and you’ll get what’s coming to you. I’m happy to watch fictional violence when there is some effort to do more than just glorify it, but in real sport, no thanks. The fictional Jonathan E in Rollerball couldn’t tell the difference between sport and reality, and look where that takes him: the conventional reading of the apocalyptic ending of this movie is that it is a triumph of the individual over a corrupt dictatorship of corporate evil. But Jonathan E merely becomes a focus for undifferentiated glorification of a brutal spectacle, which when stripped of its social purposes and the rules that map onto these is just a sporting Lord of the Flies

We live in an age where fascism once again seems possible as a mass political movement. Trump, Brexit, ISIS, Putin and the like point inexorably towards the idea that folk is good and might is right. The frustrations of riders towards race organisers and federations over safety are real, but they do not justify any violence at all unless one believes that violence is the solution to frustration. It is all too easy for the powerful to co-opt our frustrations and their violent expression.

It may just be a punch to you but to me it symbolises all that can become wrong with sport. Froome may be super (and his winning attack certainly was), but he’s no hero…

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