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Empire in Waves
by Scott Laderman

Reviewed by Tim Paulson


Published:

Published by University of California Press, 2014   |   256 pages

On the morning of 16 October 1968, competing in the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico City, American sprinter Tommie Smith set a new world record running the 200-metre in just 19.83 seconds. The feat was quickly forgotten when Smith, and his teammate John Carlos, who placed third, took the medal podium. Smith wore a black scarf symbolizing black pride, and carried a box containing an olive tree sapling for world peace. Carlos unzipped his tracksuit for solidarity with blue-collar workers and wore a beaded necklace for all black victims of white American slavery and Jim Crow. Both men went shoeless for black poverty in America. Most dramatically, as “The Star-Spangled Banner” began to play in celebration of victory for the athletes and their nation, Smith and Carlos bowed their heads and raised black-gloved fists in the instantly recognizable black power salute. Australian Peter Norman, who had finished second, also wore a human rights badge in protest of his nation’s “White Australia Policy” restricting Asian and Pacific Islands immigration. It was one of the boldest political statements in twentieth-century sports, and was met with booes from the crowd. This protest lasted less than two minutes, but the reaction was as swift as it was uncompromising. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) was enraged and ordered that Smith and Carlos be expelled from the Games for violating the apolitical spirit of the Olympics, and the Australian Olympic Committee was so disgusted that they chose not to send a single male sprinter to the 1972 Olympic games rather than let Norman run again. All three men arrived home to widespread public condemnation

Nor was the politicized nature of this event unique in the history of the Olympic games. In contrast to the IOC’s contention that the Olympics are a special institution outside and above world politics, the games have been regularly mired in political controversy: from Adolf Hitler’s infamous Nazi games in 1936 in Berlin, to Vladimir Putin’s bold display of authoritarian Russian power in Sochi in 2014. In a sense, the Olympics are tailor-made for political controversy because they pit individual athletes and teams against each other in symbolic struggles between nations—often allies and enemies. “Only war is more effective—and even that is debatable—in exciting people’s passions,” writes Scott Laderman in Empire in Waves. But what about activities that nations don’t play, that don’t necessarily involve winning or losing at all? What about, that is to say, surfing?

Native Hawaiians invented surfing long before the arrival of the American Christian missionaries in 1820. The sight of men and women riding waves on heavy wooden boards both shocked and mesmerized the white American newcomers. Outraged, on the one hand, by the free mingling of the scantily clad sexes the sport encouraged, it was nevertheless impossible to deny the frisson of excitement generated by the surfers’ agile bodies in their weightless path across the waves. “I should like nothing better,” one missionary exclaimed in 1851, “if I could do it, to get balanced on a board just before a great rushing wave, and so be hurried in half or quarter of a mile landward with the speed of a race-horse, all the time enveloped in foam and spray.”

Surfing in Hawaii declined during the 19th century as a dual result of puritanical disapproval and the precipitous decline in the islands’ native populations due to violence and exposure to diseases of European origin to which they had no immunity. Ultimately, however, the allure of the waves could not be suppressed. Surfing revived in Hawaii in the early 20th century, spread to California in the middle decades of the century, then went global—via the great cultural machine of Gidget, the Beach Boys, Gilligan’s Island, etc. A definitive event in the history of surfing was the 1966 release of Endless Summer, a documentary which knit the whole surfing world together via its documentation of the travels of two teenage California surfers to Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, South Africa, Senegal, and Ghana. By the later twentieth century, surfing spanned the globe and was beloved even by the non-surfing population, who read its stories, watched its movies, wore its clothes, etc. A good, clean, innocent time to be had by all, right? Not so fast, cautions Scott Laderman in Empire in Waves, an impressive historical and sociological analysis of the ways in which surfing “is not a mindless entertainment but a cultural force born of empire […] reliant on Western power, and invested in neoliberal capitalism.”

From its first encounter, the colonial mind deplored surfing for its excess of freedom. White American missionaries in Hawaii attacked surfing as part and parcel with native Hawaiian’s nakedness and perceived lasciviousness, while landowners deemed surfing incompatible with the rigid timetables of the plantation work regime. Power is cunning, however, as Foucault has documented, and it wasn’t long before the forces of colonialism began appropriating surfing to their own ends. Enthusiastic white residents at the turn of the twentieth century used surfing to attract “desirable”—meaning white—settlers to the archipelago. Surfing became a leisure sport and a means of detoxifying and thus tolerating the very same industrial work regimes it had originally been perceived to existentially threaten. In the second half of the twentieth century, surfing figured prominently in US cultural diplomacy during the Cold War. Surfing, it was argued, expressed the freedom and joy of life under free-market capitalism.

More nefariously, after evolving in the 1960s and 1970s from a sport into an individualist philosophy centered on the pursuit of new waves and purer (meaning natural, uncivilized, wild) experience, surfing came to function as a tool of the interventionist Western foreign policy elite. The famous scene from Apocalypse Now, of Lt. Col. Kilgore laying Napalm on a Vietnamese beach so that he can go surfing, is revealed to be shockingly realistic in the light of anecdotes Laderman unfurls of surfing in war-torn corners of the world. His strongest illustration of this concerns Indonesia in the 1960s, the “Golden Age” of Balinese surfing. “We were completely and utterly just blown away by not only the quality but the consistency of the surf and the lack of people,” recounted an early Australian to visit Bali. As it happens, 80,000 Balinese had just been killed in the 1965 massacre of Indonesian Communists by the Suharto regime and its constituents. The CIA, which supported Suharto, would later acknowledge that it was “one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century”! But the surf was amazing, and before long Bali was crawling with Western tourists, so much so that surfers had to push on to further islands. In 1975 Indonesia annexed East Timor and oversaw a genocide of the East Timorese, and surfers followed in its wake.

Surfing, Laderman argues, is politically effective precisely in proportion to the degree that it acts as a sort of anti-politics machine. James Ferguson coined the term “anti-politics machine” for modern international “development” (as in the distinction between “developed” and “developing” nations) which, he argued, is an image cultivated to mask the imperialist and colonialist structures of power it seeks to impose on the “developing” world. In many ways, Laderman explains, surfing was neatly compatible with this project:

“There existed at that time a broadly shared sense that surfing was more than just an athletic endeavor; it provided a means of attaining spiritual transcendence. And as a spiritual pursuit, more earthly matters of politics or social injustice were verboten.”

Surfers were, in fact, so good at attracting Western visitors and dollars, and helping people forget politics, that the Indonesian army was holding foreign surf competitions by the 1980s. In this way, surfers became “shock troops of mass tourism” and pawns in the cold war.

The exception that proves the rule was the boycott, starting with Australian Tom Carroll, of the South African leg of the professional surfing tour from 1985 to 1992. Laderman praises the individual surfers who refused to overlook the injustice of apartheid, and used their positions as athletes to add global pressure against South Africa. In historical fact, however, the vast majority of the response to the boycott, even from within the surf community, was virulently against it. The tour continued in South Africa throughout, and many professional surfers continued to participate. As the letters to Surfing magazine reveals, many opposed the boycott fiercely on the grounds that “Mixing sport with politics is absolute crap.” “To boycott South Africa was political, in [the letter writers’] estimation, while to compete in South Africa was somehow apolitical,” Laderman writes, continuing: “In fact, both positions were political. One was simply more lucrative for professional surfing.” The same was true, of course, of the International Olympic Committee’s condemnation of Smith, Norman, and Carlos in 1968—which was led, incidentally, by IOC President Avery Brundage, an American Nazi Sympathizer—as referenced in this review’s intro paragraph.

I live in Southern California, and I carried Empire of Waves for travel reading on my first trip to Australia some weeks ago, reading most of the book from the beaches of Sydney, Melbourne, Santa Barbara, and Los Angeles. It was fortunate, since the book made me rethink the experience. The beach is a place I go to escape the harder aspects of my work-a-day life; it calms me, permits me escape from the pressures of work, and the stresses of contemporary politics and nationalism. In light of Laderman’s book, such a naïve reading is rendered impossible, with days at the beach now seen as enabler of work as much as antidote to it, as much a mechanism of the status quo than an escape from or protest against it. Empire of Waves is the best (anti-)beach book I’ve read in a long time. I highly recommend taking Laderman on vacation with you—he’ll absolutely ruin it.


Tim Paulson is a grad student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he studies environmental and economic history. His research is on cattle ranching and beef trading in North America, Australia, and Asia, and he is very curious to see how surfers react to the inclusion of surfing in the Olympics in 2020.

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