This interview, which I conducted with martial artist and writer Sam Yang, first appeared in German in the daily junge Welt, under the title “Die Rechten haben nie mit dem Training aufgehört”. Here, I’m publishing the original English version. Sam runs the podcast Southpaw: Radicalizing Politics and Combat Sports.
When did you start Southpaw and why?
I was going to say last year, but in actuality it was October of 2018. It probably feels that way for me because it really took off after the George Floyd protests. I really started it to offer an alternative to the right-wing slant of martial arts and combat sports which now more people on the Left are aware of.
If you had to describe the purpose of the project in about three sentences, what would that sound like?
The purpose, much like martial arts practice, is ever becoming. Whatever I thought it was and what it is at any moment are constantly expanding upon itself. Ultimately, I want ideas from a liberatory martial arts perspective to be normal. This then isn’t just about combating right-wing elements within martial arts but also fighting hidden reactionary and toxic masculine elements that people, even on the Left, who train may pickup from movies or societal cultural values.
How has the response been?
It’s been all positive. I think we exist in a place where only people on the Left are aware of us. The only conflict has less to do with martial arts and more to do with my perspectives as a person of color. I think any person of color who has a big following or runs a podcast or outlet has some amount of conflict even from within their same political sphere. It’s just what existing as a nonwhite person consists of, especially here in the US.
In Europe, there is much discussion about the strong presence of far-right groups in martial arts and how they are using martial arts for their propaganda. What is the situation like in North America?
There definitely are formalized groups here in the US who train martial arts. But the more dangerous thing here is less about formal organizations but a general air of white supremacy, misogyny, and anti-LGBTQx sentiments that permeate throughout all of physical culture. So I don’t just mean martial arts gyms but all gyms. Some of the worst dog whistles don’t come from someone in a neo-Nazi fight club but from famous competitors from well-established commercial gyms. So if it’s that normal, the need to organize formal groups isn’t as important, as they’ve already won the culture war. Majority of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, for instance, kept their masks off and kept training even during the federal lockdown. Anti-mask and COVID denial wasn’t fringe in the gym but the norm.
Are you aware of many left-wing, socialist, and antifascist initiatives in martial arts to counter this?
In the US, not many but a handful. I think the two main difficulties are one, monetary. With lack of any community spaces here in the US, finding space and equipment becomes the first barrier to entry. The second problem is the oppressive pedagogy that Brazilian jiu-jitsu normalized throughout martial arts here. Even “no gods, no masters” left-wing martial artists with years of experience feel like imposters when considering teaching a class or starting a collective because they don’t have the right rank or haven’t had any professional fights. For whatever reason, we buy into hierarchy and needing to prove our toughness before we think we’re qualified to teach even beginners who want to learn for self-defense. My only conclusion to why it’s like this in the US is because of Brazilian jiu-jitsu’s influence. Maybe this is why it’s not by accident “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by Paulo Freire came out of Brazil.
Have left-wing and antifascist initiatives increased in recent years?
There’s definitely been more interest in creating alternative gyms and training collectives. I get contacted about it semi-frequently and even created a starter guide for people interested. I think we won’t see the fruits of that interest, however, until the pandemic is fully under control. The Right are not conscientious, so they never stopped training or getting each other sick or worse. Whereas the whole point of progressive martial arts is to increase human flourishing. So for now, we wait.
Interview by Gabriel Kuhn
(April 22, 2021)