Brandon Howard: Wrestling Is More Politics Than Politics

Wrestling fans often beg that the conversation stay away from politics. This is their much needed escape.

Even if pro wrestling must be an escapist artifact, it is nonetheless part of the world. It contributes to our culture and values as much as any other form of media seen by as many millions of people around the world every week.

Perhaps pro wrestling is so light-hearted, so absurd that it cannot negatively affect how anyone perceives the world. Perhaps it exists in a vacuum, totally isolated from every other part of culture, unable to influence even the most impressionable.

But that is also the sort of willful blindness hatred needs to thrive. True politics in our time is not explicitly stated in words of politicians’ speeches; we know the forces of critical thought are paying attention when rich men of power approach a podium. Rather, political evils like racism and xenophobia bloom and reveal themselves only when they think we are no longer paying attention, when the consequences of evil supposedly don’t matter anymore, when we think we are consuming mere entertainment, and when we are prone to groan and roll our eyes at anyone who dare says otherwise.

No wrestling promotion, promo or angle lives on an island unto itself. We feel the emotions we feel when we are amazed by pro wrestling because of the wider culture that gives the action or words their meaning.

Indeed, being able to see wrestling as a mere entertainment that has no social or political bearing is a privilege of those who are not harmed by the related injustices. It’s my radical view (and maybe this is where so many of my fellow citizens and I part) that we should care about others, which includes caring about the injustices that affect others, even if we ourselves are not affected.

The legitimacy of the humanity of others isn’t a complex political issue about which intelligent people can take opposing sides.

Though we may wish otherwise, there are no non-political spaces, not at this particularly sad time in American history, nor any other. Supposing there are non-political spaces such as in the consumption of pro wrestling as entertainment is as false as the supposition of an addict who resolves only to succumb to his addiction when he comes home from work and on weekends.

Pro wrestling need not be your occupation to recognize that the customs of whimsical stereotype -- and, yes, social hatred -- are all but a part of a tradition in pro wrestling of contributing to the worst aspects of the larger culture the medium lives in. In other words, a reasonable person, regardless of their expectations of a given pro wrestling event or promotion, should be able to see the danger posed by an exercise of xenophobia such as the one demonstrated by WWE’s presentation of Jinder Mahal on August 15, in Providence, Rhode Island.

Mahal's promo on September 19 in Oakland, California, was different but no more defensible (and apparently stricken from YouTube by WWE itself). Instead of provoking fans to boo him because of his ethnic background, he tried to get heat with a racist promo directed at Shinsuke Nakamura. Instead of provoking the live crowd to exercise their own racism, the heel character exercised his. There will be no storyline consequence for this as there would be in most any other mode of real public life. Mahal will not be fined, suspended or fired as a result, in storyline or otherwise. These are merely places wrestlers have always gone in the medium’s extremely slow crawl toward moral enlightenment. Even as fans in Oakland groaned and chanted "That's too far!", bigotry continues to be fodder for provoking fans in WWE and elsewhere, even as the United States and other countries have not yet resolved centuries of habitual racial prejudice.

(Editor's note- Mahal would also speak in Punjabi, saying, "These people who love you right now, used to love me before but now hate me. They will hate you too in the future. You are nothing compared to me. In Hell in a Cell, I will remain the WWE Champion, Jinder Mahal." Thanks to Koel for the transcript.)

Yet there are people in the business who see no problem with wrestling’s history of exploitation, who would deny the aforementioned characterization to begin with, who are perhaps blinded by the income the business gives them and that income’s dependence on the regularity of the status quo.

Further, some fans feel that detractors who have the gall to describe bigotry in wrestling are ruining the fun by bringing this up. On the contrary, it is those who deliberately exploit social problems in the first place who are harming wrestling -- morally and, yes, economically -- even as WWE wages a contradictory “The Hero in All of Us” marketing campaign to salvage low ad rates: ad rates that are low in large part because of pro wrestling’s socially irresponsible legacy.

WWE’s executives want it both ways. They want diversity and affirmative action. They also want to grab low-hanging fruit to get the strong, provocative reactions pro wrestling relies on. In this need to provoke, the most powerful bookers expose their ignorance by reaching for what’s easy and cheap. They repeatedly demonstrate they are too lazy and narrow-minded to create the more expensive, thoughtful heat that comes from good storytelling.

WWE has an opportunity to diffuse the social problems that those in the company have instead chosen to contribute to. Jinder Mahal could be a character that has depth, who happens to be Indian, who is either booed or cheered because of his unique personal qualities. Instead, he’s a caricature who is booed primarily because he has a heritage and skin color that differs from the whiter, more nationalist occupying ethos which are enough generations removed to forget they too emigrated, either before or after centuries of genocide and slavery.

Even our beloved NXT-ushering Paul Levesque doesn’t get it -- or is at least willing to carry WWE’s antisocial corporate defense when he talks to the New York Times.

“We keep our finger on the pulse of pop culture,” Paul Levesque told the Times in August. “But we’re more worried about entertainment and pop culture than we are about politics and pop culture.”

White privilege means you get to boo Jinder Mahal without really having to worry about it. It means getting to brush off a racist promo as “just entertainment”. And it means getting to care more about entertainment than politics.

Follow Brandon on Twitter at @BrandonThurston. Email him at [email protected]. He co-hosts Wrestlenomics Radio, a podcast about wrestling business.

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