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Monday, 29 November 2004

Foxhunting Notes

As Americans handwring over professional sport, in the wake of increasing mayhem by a cadre of NBA thugs, Britons are also wrestling with their own version of the putative doom, thanks to sport, of Western cilvilization as we know it. Critics on both shores of the sea agree violence in sport puts their societies at risk. But specific definitions of what entails that violence and differing concerns about who, indeed, are the victims, again underscores how we and and our closest ally can be woefully alienated from each other. In other words, it's not just about Iraq and George Bush.
How about foxhunting?
For most Americans, the notion of foxhunting as an actual sport is only trumped by their ignorance who does what in a foxhunt. How many Americans are aware how deeply engrained foxhunting is (Washington and Jefferson rode to the hounds) and that more than 100 recognized hunts flourish coast to coast? Indeed, how many Philadelphians (OK, Chester County, you're excepted) know the premier hunts -- to name just a few -- in this region, Brandywine, Huntington Valley, and Radnor? 
But to Britons, foxhunting has become the flashpoint for defining the fate of civil rights and democracy in their country. In less than three months, foxhunting will be banned in England and Wales. No longer will Charles, the Prince of Wales -- like his forebears -- and his mistress, Camilla Parker-Bowles, be able to tear through the countryside on horseback in pursuit of the fox.Never mind that the fox rarely gets nailed by the hunt's foxhounds. The point is that the unspeakable (as in Oscar Wilde's memorable phrase, 'the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable') will be denied the joy of seeing a fox torn apart by the hounds.
The ban, finally approved by Parliament last month, was a long time coming. Several years, in fact. In between, thousands have protested against the move. The largest march, in 2002, brought more than 400,000 hunting enthuiasts to London's streets in what was billed as one of the biggest such protests in 150 years. In turn, saboteurs and animal welfare activists have continued to disrupt hunts, often violently.
In some ways, however, the battle of British hunting has a key parallel in this country -- and it's not about slap-happy basketball players and fans. More significant, it mirrors attempts here to ban all forms of small firearms. (That was done in 1996 in Britain with nary a complaint). Cynics might even say that conservative gun lobbyists are actually pleased that the NBA has distracted liberal commentators away from the gun issue. 
Interestingly, hunt ban opponents employ similar language to their American counterparts in the gun lobby. Elimination of their sport would, as would the 'confiscation' of handguns in America, erode basic civil rights, even create economic harm.
'There are a lot of angry people here, people of all ages and from all backgrounds,' declared one critic, Ian Agnew, chairman of the Surrey Union Hunt.
The people tend to be countryside folk, Little Englanders, and members of the Conservative Party (read Red Staters, Good Old Boys, and Republicans). Liberals and urbanites, as in the case of the gun ban here, tend to favor the hunt ban. Perhaps it's also not coincidental that Britain's political liberals, members of Tony Blair's Labour government (read Democrats) are the most vocal supporters of the ban.
As in America, too, the sub-rosa text to the debate pits what is perceived to be an elite against the common folk -- but with a twist. Agrreived hunt supporters are often thought of as wealthy, land-owning aristocrats. Agrreived gun enthusiasts, in turn, are often seen as Middle America commoners.
What is different is that Prime Minister Blair sees politcal mileage in supporting the ban. In contrast, his liberal American counterpart -- that would have been John Kerry in the last presidential race -- didn't touch the gun issue with a 10-foot pole. Instead, frequent photo opps showed the Democratic contender as a gun-toting deer-slayer.
Whither foxhunting in America? It's hard to envisage the sport on the political radar screen. American foxhunting elites know how to keep their sport subservisely quiet. Remember it was wind-surfing that was the 'aristocratic' sport that plagued Kerry. Besides, the last president who rode was Ronald Reagan. And he -- as his critics are wont to say -- was just a cowboy.
(Richard Carreño is a Philadelphia public school teacher who frequently reports on British-American issues).

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