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February 03, 2012

The reaction to the deaths of seventy people at a football match in Egypt once again illustrates man's eternal search for freedom from responsibility - argues Theodore Dalrymple

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

Blame football fans not the police for the deaths of seventy people after a football match in Egypt - says Theodore Dalrymple.

The deaths of at least seventy people at a football match in Egypt has confirmed my reasoned prejudice against this sport, whose psychological, cultural and economic effects is so disastrous. Of course, there is nothing in the game itself, apart from its inevitable propensity to injure the players, that is intrinsically deleterious; but all that surrounds it, at least in its modern professional form, is harmful and horrible.

Football rots the mind and ruins the conduct. Among other harmful effects, it deforms the ambitions of young men from poor areas; it deceives them into thinking that it is the way out of their economic problems and the sovereign way to obtain diamond studs for their ears, so essential to their dignity. Their chances of success are not much higher than that of buying a winning lottery ticket and in any case it appears that such young men in England do not even have the elementary self-discipline necessary to compete with foreigners in this activity.

Be that as it may, the Guardian newspaper's report of the tragic events in Port Said was most interesting, and not without wider significance. The beaten team in the match that ended in so many deaths was called Al-Ahly, and the newspaper reported that the following had occurred afterwards:

Fans congregated outside Al-Ahly's ground in the Cairo neighbourhood of Zamalek… Chants rang out in front of the club against the ministry of the interior and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, as fans believed that there was a major lack of security at the match.
An individual fan by the name of Khaled Gad told the Guardian's reporter that
What's upsetting is the huge lapse in security which I feel is purposeful on the part of the interior ministry and the military.
I hold no brief for the Egyptian army or ministry of the interior, but this is surely a most extraordinary exercise in blame-shifting.

I am perfectly prepared to believe that arrangements in Port Said were not all that they might have been - only in Switzerland are arrangements all that they might be - but let us just remind ourselves of what, according to the Guardian, actually happened: or, to put it another and better way, what people actually did:

The violence flared after Al-Ahly, one of Egypt's most successful teams, were beaten 3-1. Television footage showed players running from the pitch chased by fans while a small group of riot police tried to protect the players, but they appeared overwhelmed and fans attacked the players as they fled. Fans of both teams clashed and stormed the pitch and dressing rooms.
Let us pass over the fact that in the first sentence of this account the violence flared as if it were an inanimate object obeying the laws of nature, and that existed independently of the decisions of the people who committed it; for reasons of space and time we have often to use this kind of shorthand, but we should be careful not to let it pervert our way of conceiving the matter.

Surely (if this account is otherwise accurate) the fans who gathered outside the ground in Zamalek should have shouted:

We are fools, we are morons, we are criminally stupid, we are murderously idiotic!
To blame the armed forces or the ministry of the interior for the fact that fans attacked players and each other is, in effect, to grant the armed forces and the ministry of the interior complete authority to supervise and control them. To the above chants, the crowd in front of the ground in Zamalek might with justice have added:
We are like children! We deserve no freedom! We must be beaten with truncheons!
In Khaled Gad's comment there is, of course, an explicit paranoia: that the armed forces and ministry of the interior were not merely incompetent but were malevolently plotting. No theory is advanced as to what they were trying to achieve with their plotting: a demonstration to the world, perhaps, that the Egyptian people are so immature that they need authoritarian herding? But while the paranoia might have something specifically local about it, the general form of thought - that the authorities were to blame for the bad behaviour of ordinary people - is a commonplace throughout the world, and not least in Britain.

Not long ago I published a little book pointing out that Britain is the most littered of any major country in western Europe and suggesting some reasons why this is so. Almost invariably when I introduce the subject into conversation, the first thought of my interlocutors is that there are not enough litter bins, that is to say it is the fault of the authorities that the British are the slovenliest people in western Europe.

Few people, I suppose, are more willing to criticise our public administration than I, but this is going too far. I regularly drive down the A14 from the M6 to Cambridge - a distance of about 80 miles - and the roadside, yard after yard, mile after mile, is indescribably filthy, with plastic bottles, polystyrene burger boxes, long strips of polythene and plastic bags full of rubbish by the thousand and the tens of thousand.

How many people must have thrown their rubbish out of their vehicles to produce this informal linear rubbish-tip, and how many litter bins would have been necessary to prevent it from developing? One every yard for 80 miles? Would people have stopped - illegally - to put their rubbish in the bins? Furthermore, I ask my interlocutors whether, in the absence of litter bins, they dispose of their detritus in this way? You may readily guess the answer; so then I grow furious, and accuse them of talking - rubbish, the kind of rubbish that leads to, and justifies, the most abject authoritarianism.

The form of the argument blaming the ministry of the interior for the appalling behaviour of the football fans in Egypt, and that blaming the British local authorities for the slovenliness of the British in the matter of litter, is exactly the same. Both are manifestations of man's eternal search for the greatest freedom of all, the freedom from responsibility.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and worked for many years as an inner city and prison doctor. Most recently, he is the author of Mr Clarke's Modest Proposal: Supportive Evidence from Yeovil, also available as a Kindle download from and from

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The same insistence on transferring condemnation towards those in authority is used to blame teachers for the poor behaviour of pupils. A teacher who has been assaulted is held to be responsible for "failing to have suitable strategies for managing challenging behaviour".

Posted by: nick ray at February 5, 2012 12:54 PM

In his 1922 classic, Eugenics and Other Evils, G. K. Chesterton blasted this same tendency to treat people as devoid of responsibility for their actions, calling it the atheistic style of writing. Here's a sample:

"The mark of the atheistic style is that it instinctively chooses the word which suggests that things are dead things; that things have no souls. Thus they will not speak of waging war, which means willing it; they speak of the “outbreak of war,” as if all the guns blew up without the men touching them. Thus those Socialists that are atheist will not call their international sympathy, sympathy; they will call it “solidarity,” as if the poor men of France and Ger- many were physically stuck together like dates in a grocer’s shop. The same Marxian Socialists are accused of cursing the Capitalists inordinately; but the truth is that they let the Capitalists off much too easily. For instead of saying that employers pay less wages, which might pin the employers to some moral responsibility, they insist on talking about the “rise and fall” of wages; as if a vast silver sea of sixpences and shillings was always going up and down automatically like the real sea at Margate. Thus they will not speak of reform, but of development; and they spoil their one honest and virile phrase, “the class war,” by talking of it as no one in his wits can talk of a war, predicting its finish and final result as one calculates the coming of Christmas Day or the taxes. Thus, lastly (as we shall see touching our special subject-matter here) the atheist style in letters always avoids talking of love or lust, which are things alive, and calls marriage or concubinage “the relations of the sexes”; as if a man and a woman were two wooden objects standing in a certain angle and atti- tude to each other, like a table and a chair."

Chesterton seems to be more relevant with each year that passes.

Posted by: Michael W. Perry at February 10, 2012 05:34 PM

I find it difficult to believe that a man as insightful as Theodore Dalrymple falls into his very own trap in his first few lines.
This "confirms" (in his eyes, I presume, "justifies") his prejudice against the sport? But is the sport to blame for the actions of individuals? In the United States, for example, football (locally soccer) is considered the more serious sport, for young people who want to excel both physically and academically; the sport in which there is no money to be made, so you can be assured players are in it for love of the game only.

Violent people will always find a reason to riot, in too many cases the stadium has provided a simple excuse. But football, when well played, is highly skillful and can show all the grace and elegance of a Bolshoi production.

Herein I expose my own bias: I love the game of football. In any case, as both a writer and a thinker, I expect more from Mr. Daniels.

Posted by: Rebecca at March 22, 2012 07:32 PM
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