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The Spartacus Question

Michael Steele

It is, perhaps, one of the most recognizable moments in the history of cinema: filthy, wounded, depleted and defeated, the last remaining fighters loyal to the slave called Spartacus sit manacled on a rock-strewn hillside and await the judgment of the Romans who have crushed their rebellion. A centurion steps forward to speak, and to their surprise, announces that the rebels' lives will be spared.

"Slaves you were, and slaves you remain,"  he says - but there's a catch: the rebels must give Spartacus over to the Romans. Spartacus, played by Kirk Douglas in what is probably his most famous role, rises to identify himself, but before he can speak, his friend and right-hand man stands with him, shouting, "I am Spartacus!" Then the rebel to his left rises, shouting the same thing: "I am Spartacus!" And another rebel, further up the treeless hillside: "I am Spartacus!"  And another - "I am Spartacus!" - and another - "I am Spartacus!" - until the air positively rings with this cacophonous claim, rebel after rebel rising to shout at their captors, "I am Spartacus! I am Spartacus! I am Spartacus!"

It's an exhilarating moment in a pretty amazing movie. Expertly crafted by director Stanley Kubrick, the scene operates on multiple levels, visually, emotionally and philosophically. (We could spend hours discussing the anti-McCarthyite sentiments in this scene, but never mind...) The approach that interests me, and the one with greatest relevance in this context, is one that reads this scene as an expression of solidarity and defiance in the face of oppression and marginalization. We see this particular strategy at play in our political lives (Occupy protesters holding up signs reading "I am the 99%") and our sporting lives ("We are [insert name of your school here]"). It is an act of sacrifice, an eschewing of individuality in the name of lifting up a common cause and a simultaneous act of identification of throwing one's lot in with this cause or that team. It is an act of intimidation (let's all wear the same color t-shirt to the game tomorrow, guys!) and protection (I'm with them, they're with me, we're in this together). It is a profound expression of tribalism, of solidarity.  It is an exceptionally emotional, powerful gesture.

As we watch events unfold on the screen, we realize that we are in fact watching a bizarro kind of theater, a play in which the audience acts and the actors observe. Look at it: the Romans stand at the bottom of a natural amphitheater, an on-stage position that begs for attention. The rebels sit like ticket holders at a public event, tiered in their seats on the hill. (By the by: Did you know that the word "kop" is Afrikaans for "hill"? So these men are actually observing the action from a Kop! Yay, etymology!) This dynamic flips when the centurion asks the audience to participate; that is, for the rebels to identify Spartacus. The watchers become the watched; the actors demand their audience perform.

I think there are several ways to approach this scene as a Tottenham Hotspur fan. None of these analogies are perfect, but they can be instructive, if you pursue them far enough. For my purposes here, let's use this scene from Spartacus to help move us toward an understanding of one of the most prevalent - and simultaneously problematic - identities claimed by Spurs faithful: "Yid."  

Last year, as a function of their "Kick It Out" anti-racism campaign, the FA produced this video, called "The Y-word":

This strikes me as a perfectly reasonable argument. The y-word is a racist term; racist language is antisocial, hurtful, ignorant and offensive; ergo, we shouldn't use the y-word anymore. But as long-time Spurs fans will tell you, choosing to identify as a "Yid" is a much more complex, meaningful and fraught gesture than the Kick It Out video seems to suggest. It's because of this complexity, as well as the powers and potential pitfalls of tribalism, that the debate surrounding the use of the term "Yid" continues today.  

In his excellent article "When is a Yid not a Jew?: The Strange Case of Supporter Identity at Tottenham Hotspur" in the book Emancipation through Muscles: Jews & Sport in Europe, John Efron, Koret professor of Jewish History at Cal-Berkeley, does the work of tracing the history of "Yid" identity at Tottenham Hotspur, as well as identifying the underlying problems that occur when a fan base which is by and large non-Jewish takes on a racist Jewish name as their identity. Efron is straightforward and compelling in his assessment of Spurs fans and their use of the y-word, and while I want to modify (and probably bastardize) his conclusions for my own ends, you really should read his contribution to Emancipation through Muscles; it's fantastic.  

Let's address the history of the term first. As far as I can tell, those who've written on the origins of the epithet "Yid" in reference to Tottenham fans seem to be loosely in agreement on where the y-word came from and when it was first used. (Efron explores this history with the greatest depth, though you can find more skeletal accounts in books like How Soccer Explains the World.) The summary is this: North London is home to a great majority of London's Jewish population. (For reasons that are not entirely clear, Arsenal has not been identified in the same way, though they, too, have a sizable Jewish fan base.) While the public expression of anti-Semetism in London has a long-reaching history (the hate-filled speeches of Oswald Mosley in the mid-1930s, for example), Efron points to several possible origin points for "yid" becoming synonymous with "Spurs supporter." The first is what Efron calls "the Alf Garnett theory," named after the main character in the long-running British comedy Till Death Do Us Part (1965-75):

In this series about a right-wing English nationalist who constantly laments Britain's postwar decline due to its loss of empire, mass non-white immigration, & the strength of the Labour party & the trade union movement, the protagonist, Alf Garnett, was most often pictured sitting in his London living room, complaining bitterly about the state of the world.  Draped around his neck was the scarf of his beloved soccer team, West Ham United.  He would often launch into tirades about soccer & on several occasions declared that the upcoming match against Tottenham would see his team "go off to play the Yids." (243)

Other origin stories, Efron explains, arise from theories about the Hasidic community's use of Yiddish (as opposed to other London Jewish communities, who would speak primarily English), as well as modified versions of the Alf Garnett theory. That said, regardless of the term's exact origins, by the tumultuous 1970s, opposing fans were using the y-word to identify Spurs supporters, with chants like "Yiddo, Yiddo, does your Rabbi know you're here?" ringing around various terraces. It seems that this was the moment Tottenham fans reappropriated the y-word, taking the moniker "Yid" as their own. One of the most famous stories tells of an away game at Man City; Citizens fans began chanting "We've got foreskins, we've got foreskins, you ain't." In response, a group identified by one City supporter as "well-known Jewish Spurs fans" dropped their pants and waved their "circumsized members" as the sea of sky blue, which diffused the tension and sent spasms of laughter through both sets of fans. Throughout the 70s and 80s, Spurs fans began referring to themselves and each other as "Yids" or "Yiddo." As we know, the name has stuck.  

Reappropriation of racist language is always a tricky proposition. Words, which as any literary theorist will tell you are already replete with infinitely complex meanings, histories and connotations, are further problematized when reappropriation occurs. The questions abound: Who can use a reappropriated racial epithet? When, and with whom? When I tell my students what the "Q" stands for in "LGBTQ" I always shudder a little inside, despite the fact that the American academy has long accepted the term "queer" as acceptable nomenclature for self-identified non-heteronormative individuals. I still can't bring myself to write or say the n-word, and yet, the y-word -- "Yid" -- slides more readily off my tongue. My fingers don't hesitate to type it out in quite the same way. I'm not comfortable with it, I hesitate to say it, but my reaction is far more staid than to the use of other charged terminology. I suspect there are multiple reasons for this, which I won't enumerate here.

Still, it is shocking to me that I come so easily to the term, despite the fact that I'm consistently (even obsessively) scrubbing my psyche of any racist, sexist, classist or homophobic language or ideas I find. This is because, as Efron points out, for non-Jewish persons to use the term "Yid" is minstrelsy, akin to Al Jolson donning blackface. I'm a Mad Men fan, and I squirmed horribly in my seat when Roger Sterling sang a particularly racist version of "My Old Kentucky Home" at a summer party. (You can find video here:  And yet I don't blink when fans chant "Yiddo" from the Park Lane. So what's with the relativity here?  

Let's return to Spartacus for a minute. When the centurion demands the defeated rebels identify Sparticus, he does so because he doesn't know who is Spartacus and who is not. To single out Sparticus is to strip the rebels of the last vestige of their power: the power of anonymity. For a moment, the centurion transfers power back to the rebels; he grants them their lives in exchange for their leader. What makes this scene so magnificent, why it has such currency in our popular culture, is that the rebels take an unexpected third way: they all identify as Spartacus. Instead of marginalizing one of their own, they hoist the mantle of Spartacus' identity upon themselves, which diffuses both the threat to Spartacus' life and deflects the hollow offer of a return to abjection and slavery for the rest of the captured rebels.  

And so it was in the 70s on the terraces of English football. A word used to isolate and marginalize -- in this case, "Yid" -- was taken on by Spurs fans as a way to atomize the hatred being spewed their way, to empower themselves and undercut the vitriol pouring from the opposing stands. It was, for supporters of Tottenham, a Spartacus moment, replete with bravery and selflessness. Right? 

Well, sort of. First of all, a historical reading like the one above oversimplifies the complexities of group and individual identification. We know from experience that the chants of "Who are ya?" shouted from the stands opposite actually cut to the heart of an essentially human, and eternally ongoing, set of questions: "Who am I? What makes up ‘me'? What can I claim as ‘mine'? and with whom do I belong?" These are of course philosophical issues, and so they might seem a little absurd (silly, even) in the context of a blog about Premier League soccer; nevertheless, at the heart of the debate about the "y-word" is a profound question, and that this question has troubled humanity since the beginning and continues to trouble us today, should suggest to us the impossibility of coming to any definitive conclusions on the question of the y-word.  

Secondly, it suggests a purity of spirit and of purpose amongst the Spurs faithful which simply isn't there. There is no way to categorically speak to the intentions of any group, much less such a multifaceted and diverse group as the fans of any club. Let's not forget that Spurs supporters, small in number though they may be, have participated in their fair share of racism and homophobia, so to ascribe angelic motives to an entire group is dubious at best. I say this not to minimize those who would and did stand up for their fellows who were subjected to such vile abuse; rather, I only mean to point out the deeply problematic nature of speaking for a group entire.  

Thirdly, as Efron powerfully argues, identification with other outsiders or marginalized groups "provides structure and meaning to supporter culture." Efron continues by explaining that "the desire to be hated for it [being a ‘Yid']... reifies and strengthens supporter groups" (249). This suggests that Tottenham supporters -- the majority of whom, we must remember, are not in fact Jewish -- at once paradoxically despise and desire racial hatred, as it both degrades and serves to draw the marginalized closer together, to give a sense of community. As Efron states, the fantasy world of the [Gentile] Yid, being the target of abuse & hatred helps forge bonds of togetherness & kinship, constituting, for them, the probable source of an imagined & ill-formed sense of Jewish solidarity.  Moreover, all soccer fans see being a supporter of their club as a form of chosenness.  But in the case of Tottenham, it permits, however unconsciously, a reinforcement of a pseudo-Jewish identity wherein the "Yid" & the club enter into a convenental relationship with one another, thereby recapitulating a version of the Biblical narrative. (251)

Even for Jewish supporters of the club, Efron suggests, "Yid" culture may allow the older generation to participate in that most "English" of traditions -- football -- which in itself is an act of assimilation, while maintaining their Jewish identity, while the younger generation, who Efron suggests may have grown tired or wary of their parent's increasing "Englishness," can reclaim their Jewishness through support of Spurs. (NB. I find these claims interesting and thoughtful, but not particularly well-supported in terms of research; I wonder what the rest of you think, or what your experiences have been...) This is to say that Spurs fans identifying as "Yid" is a two-sided coin; while one can claim a kind of moral high ground by lifting what Spooky of Dear Mr. Levy fame as called the "hefty shield" of protection against anti-Semitism, one is also doing the admittedly less glamorous and more self-serving work of reinforcing the culture one belongs to, and thereby protecting and lifting up one's self.  

Finally, this story we tell ourselves about a proud history of standing up against racism suggests that those torrid days in the 1970s when Spurs fans began identifying themselves as "Yids" to protect their brethren is in some way the end of the story. It's not. I would never suggest that racism has somehow been eradicated; the ongoing "Kick Out Racism" campaign, along with recent accusations of on-field racism by Luis Suarez and John Terry, serve as a reminder of this. Sepp Blatter's laughable claims that racism is no longer an issue in world soccer only solidify the point. But I think we can also say that fan culture in the EPL in 2011 is substantially different than in 1970.

As the times have changed, so have the valences and fluid, flexing matrix of meaning to which the term "Yid" belongs. A fan who calls himself a "Yid" in 2011 is not saying the same thing as a fan who calls himself a "Yid" in 1973. This observation alone suggests that we have a responsibility to consistently reevaluate the ways in which we self-identify, as well as how we identify others. It also suggests that my identity as a Spurs supporter will be different from yours, if for no other reason than you and I come from different places, are different people and have experienced different histories.  

This means, of course, that I'm reticent to prescribe a course of action for all Tottenham fans on the question of the y-word. It means I can only speak for myself, and even that I cannot do with assurance. So what have I decided? Well, I've come to the conclusion that the decision isn't mine to make. I defer. As a white, Protestant, American male, as a recent Spurs convert and a neophyte in the ways of soccer and of cultural studies, I'm unable and unwilling to take the y-word as my own with anything resembling confidence or conviction. I simply don't feel I have the information, experience or authority to take that identity on for myself. In our Spurs-specific remake of Spartacus I'm the waffler in the back of the hillside crowd, the one who cannot clear his throat, the one turning to my fellows, my friends, the one tapping shoulders, bothering the assured, shuffling, mumbling, asking in muffled tones: 

"Am I Spartacus?"  

"Am I Yid?"

Works Cited:

Efron, John.  "When Is a Yid Not a Jew?: The Strange Case of Supporter Identity at Tottenham Hotspur."Emancipation through Muscles: Jews & Sport in Europe.  ed. Brenner, Michael & Guideon Reuveni. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2006.