Manchester City and the Moral Conscience

Now we come to the key question for City supporters disturbed by Thaksin’s takeover of the club. Can one continue to support Manchester City under Thaksin’s ownership in good conscience, while at the same time believing (if one chooses to) that the new owner is probably culpable for, or at least complicit, in significant human rights violations, and that efforts by future Thai governments to investigate those charges would be fully justified, even welcome?

Several considerations are in order here. First, the act of investing in a football club is in itself, obviously, not a violation of anyone’s human rights.

Second, quite clearly, no one on the playing, managerial, or administrative staff at Manchester City outside allegedly the chairman is accused by anyone of being complicit in anything that happened in Thailand. Neither are any of the supporters.

Third, the doctrine of guilt by association is one that no one can bear and should be rejected. The fact that someone might have a common interest or association with another person does not make one responsible for that other person’s deeds and misdeeds. It is simply not possible to function in the modern world without associating and dealing with persons who have at some point done bad things.

Fourth, it is possible for “bad” persons and bad entities to do good things, even if they are being done for self-serving reasons. Large corporations around the world that can properly be described as nefarious in their business dealings also fund educational, arts, and other worthy institutions. My own employer accepts money from a corporation (Philip Morris) whose products have killed many, many more people than anyone dreams of attributing to Thaksin. Personally I wish this were not the case, and suspect that corporate charitable donations are a ruse to protect those entities from political challenge. Yet the money can do some good. As the saying goes, “the problem with tainted money is there ‘taint enough of it.”

This is not to compare Manchester City to a university; it is to say that a standard by which the club only accepts “pure” investment is practically unworkable under the conditions of modern global capitalism. (Moreover, describing City as morally pure prior to the Thaksin takeover would also be an implausible reach; remember that right-wing media magnate Rupert Murdoch and Sky formerly owned nearly 10% of the club.)

All these considerations tend to the view that supporting City, even now, does not implicate one in alleged human rights violations. This point might be easier to see if we look at others clubs: no one holds the Chelsea fans responsible for Roman Abramovich’s possible misdeeds, or Liverpool fans for the political activities of their right-wing American owners.

And there is one more, even more powerful consideration: the moral conviction and practical reality that it is the fans that constitute football clubs as the enterprises they are, not the owners, and that no matter who signs the checks and collects the profit, the club belongs to the fans. This conviction rings especially true at City, where fans stood behind the club—“laughed in the face of catastrophe,” as the Wizard of Oz might put it—through the indignities of the third division and the horror show of inept management that brought the club there.

That support, plus Paul Dickov’s right foot, resuscitated the club and laid the path for a long-term return to the Premiership. In the process, the club provided a source of community, identity, meaning, and fellowship to its supporters, a cause for joy and grief, consternation and unexpected surprise. To be a City fan is to be willing to get on the roller coaster, go down blind alleys into the highest of peaks and lowest of depths, perhaps getting a little sick in the stomach, then get off and queue up to go back on again.

A new owner with a questionable past and ongoing political legal travails should not deprive City fans of all that, least of all the club’s most conscientious and most loyal fans, those who would support the team whether they were lining up in the Champions League or in League One with equal fervor. The club belongs to the fans who will still be there long after Elano and Sven and Thaksin are gone.

But there is an important caveat to this train of thought: it should be clear that in supporting the club, one is supporting Manchester City, not the political ambitions or legal battles of Thaksin Shinawatra. Moral and political integrity demands that one not paper over the serious complaints against Thaksin or pretend that they are all politically motivated charges generated by the junta.

To be fair, one can point to some of the complexities noted on this site—for instance, the likelihood that for all the problematic aspects of Thaksin’s rule, his regime was preferable to that of an explicitly anti-democratic military junta; and one can point out that he hasn’t been convicted yet of anything in a court of law. But if a democratically elected government in the future does bring legal charges on corruption or human rights violations against Thaksin, one should hope that justice is served, whatever the consequences (good or bad) for Manchester City.

Likewise, if the Premier League or the government should at some point revise football’s “fit and proper person” test so as to include human rights considerations, I at least won’t complain, whatever the consequences for City. If the League decides that allowing owners with human rights allegations against them to own the club sends an inappropriate message (on the “expressive” account of moral sensibilities discussed in a previous post), that is their prerogative. It would be an eminently reasonable policy that could spare the league, clubs, and their supporters endless headaches in the future.

In short, in my judgment it’s fine to support Manchester City so long as one doesn’t allow affection for City to cloud one’s judgments about Thaksin and the charges against him.

Psychologically, that’s a tall order. Fans understandably want to think their owner is at least a reasonable guy, and will be inclined to interpret evidence and arguments in ways that put their owner in the most favorable light, especially when the owner in question has the easy charm and intuitive sense of what people like that Thaksin clearly possesses. Believe it or not, it’s an impulse I feel myself. But it’s an impulse that can be resisted by my maintaining a critical consciousness.

To sum up: in so far as supporting Manchester City is in itself an innocent act, it should carry no connotation of guilt; the possible acts of one man do not implicate all those with whom he is associated. But making the success of Manchester City the sole center of one’s moral compass would be a moral mistake. If justice, or the collective moral sense of English football (if there still is one), demand that Thaksin face consequences for past activities, City fans and the club itself must not obstruct justice or delude themselves into thinking it’s all just a witch hunt.

But City supporters have one further positive responsibility beyond this: to ensure that the club is not turned into a political football used to advance Thaksin’s possible political ambitions. There may at the moment be a happy coincidence between Thaksin’s personal interests and those of most of the club’s supporters, namely an interest in seeing the team do well on the pitch.

But City fans and City as an institution has no stake in attempts by Thaksin to shape the future of Thai politics, directly or indirectly. I can support City on the pitch, and be glad City have been provided the resources to acquire Elano so he could set up Bianchi to score, but totally oppose Thaksin’s political ambitions.

The same would be true if it were not Thaksin who had bought the club, but John Major or Margaret Thatcher. In those cases, no one would dream of saying that because I support City, I also vote Tory. And no one would dream that is appropriate to use City’s name and resources to advance Tory political interests.

That same logic applies here. Thaksin’s legal problems and political schemes are his business, and have nothing to do with the interests of Manchester City Football Club and its supporters. Supporters have an obligation (for our own sake) to assure that’s the case, to make sure a firm line is drawn between football and Thai politics. City must not become the UK branch of the Thai Rak Thai party.

Some may say this is a quite naïve line to take. Already City are headline news in Thailand, and Thais will be watching the club’s success (or failure) with an eagle eye. That in itself , it could be argued, is a propaganda coup for Thaksin. And, to push this line of thought further, if City do well, Thaksin’s glory will only expand.

Fair points—which is precisely why it’s so vital that City supporters hold Thaksin to his repeated promises that he is done with politics. If Thaksin, or his wife, attempt to re-enter Thai politics as candidates, he should be pressured to sell the club or turn it over to a blind trust, rather than be allowed to use the club as a tool for his political purposes.

In the meantime, City supporters concerned about Thaksin can take this stance: support the club but don’t glorify the owner or sacrifice one’s critical consciousness about the man, his actions, and his motivations.

This, actually, is not as hard as it might sound. Most folks do this all the time in some aspect of their lives. You can be proud of the company you work for or the work you do and distrust your boss. You can be committed to your church even when your minister does wrong or is accused of doing so. You can love your country even when your president or prime minister does terrible things that cost lives.

And you can love a football club to which you are deeply attached while still being profoundly worried about its leadership, skeptical of its motives, and clear-minded that if the interests of the club or its owner conflict with the demands of justice, one’s parochial interest in seeing a football team do well must give way.

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2 Comments on “Manchester City and the Moral Conscience”

  1. Tim Footman Says:

    As a City fan, I think your conscience is clear. You’re no more responsible for Thaksin’s sins than fans of other clubs that have had iffy bosses over the years (Abramovich, Maxwell, Berlusconi, etc). I’m a Pompey boy, and I know Mr Gaydamak is no angel.

    You have two potential problems, though. The first is the stability of Thaksin’s finances: we know he’s loaded, but we don’t know how easy it is for him to convert that into real cash. He has business interests in some very odd places (eg Burma) and we really don’t know how many other demands might be made on his funds.

    The other is the extent to which he might want to interfere, in particular by foisting Thai players and/or advisers on the club. The obvious comparison is with the plague of Lithuanians visited on Hearts. You’ve got three Thais coming over for trials. They’re not great. If Sven starts to feel obliged to give them more chances than their abilities justify, I can see tears before bedtime.

  2. Marty Says:

    Good post. Shame, though, that Thaksin’s advisors want to confuse joe public by collapsing the human rights/corruption claims into one, convenient handy defence that he is being bullied by his political enemies. We should have none of it. Human rights abuses are human rights abuses. Indeed, my parochial interest in seeing my football team do well has given way until Thaksin faces justice, clears his name or simply buggers off.

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