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Here is why I love the World Cup: Every four years, it creates a perfectly controlled environment, one in which national characteristics are suddenly illuminated and easily compared. There is none of the chaos of the Olympics, with its confusing mixture of sports and its nationally biased TV transmissions. With only one sport and one tournament, everybody has to watch at the same time, and everybody has the same conversation. This year, that conversation is about fumbled saves, bad penalty calls—and the vuvuzela.
For those who haven’t been following, the vuvuzela is a longish plastic trumpet that produces a buzzing noise, something like an overgrown pennywhistle. When thousands of people blow them all at once, they make a very loud buzzing noise, something like a massive swarm of bees. When played in a World Cup soccer stadium, they create an irritating background hum—one that is capable of ruining the sound on a billion television sets around the world.
In the United States, we Americans have responded pragmatically to this nuisance, treating the vuvuzela as a slightly mystifying foreign addition to a slightly mystifying foreign game and quietly posting online technical advice for those who want to filter out the buzz. But for the Germans, the vuvuzela creates a moral problem. Some angrily demand a ban. Others call the plastic horns “traditional instruments of South African football” and oppose a ban on the grounds that this would demonstrate unacceptably Eurocentric disdain for other cultures. * The center-right Die Welt denounced “the intolerance of those who are annoyed by the vuvuzela” and instructed its readers to accept the fact that “vuvuzelas belong to South African football like battle songs belong to German games.” The center-left Die Tageszeitung bluntly told its readers to “turn the sound down” on their televisions if they can’t accept this foreign custom. Presumably, German archaeologists and anthropologists are already on their way to southern Africa to begin the hunt for ancient sources of colored plastic.
In France, by contrast, the vuvuzela presents an aesthetic problem: If you can’t ban them, integrate them into the artistic canon. Le Monde suggests treating this plastic horn as a genuine instrument, even providing its online readers with links to vuvuzela works composed by one Pedro Espi-Sanchis (“Pedro the Musicman’), a musicologist, musician, and Spanish teacher resident in Cape Town, South Africa. The newspaper Libération last week absorbed the term into its art criticism, condemning a particularly noisy set of installations as “vuvuzelas de l’art contemporain” (“vuvuzelas of contemporary art”).
For the South Koreans, the vuvuzela presents complex issues of etiquette. One Korean columnist feared an outright ban would be rude to the host country. But perhaps other “traditional” instruments might be substituted? “Sometimes when percussionists in the stadium are flashed up on the television screen, I ardently wish to hear the sound they make,” he wrote. Then he made an attempt at gentle persuasion: “I sincerely hope our African friends will put down the horns and take up other instruments.” If persuasion should fail, however,” one can find solace in the fact that the games will be adjourned in three weeks.” As for the North Koreans, we don’t know what they think: Although their official news agency has conceded that the national team is indeed playing in the World Cup, no additional information—not on vuvuzelas and not on rumors that some players tried to defect—is available.
No such reticence is evident in Britain, where the tabloids accuse the instruments of causing hearing loss, swollen lips, even windpipe rupture. Worse is predicted: British supermarkets are said to be selling out of the instruments, with tens of thousands more on order. These are expected to arrive just in time to ruin the English soccer season next autumn, possibly forever.
This vuvuzela invasion will not be coming from South Africa, of course. For some nations, the vuvuzela is an opportunity, not a problem. Instead of making noise, complaining about noise—or, like the Argentine goalie, blaming the noise for one’s mistakes—the Chinese have been manufacturing the noisemakers like crazy. A million vuvuzelas have already been shipped from Zhejiang and Guangdong to South Africa, and more are on their way to the rest of the world. The Guangda Toy Factory in Yiwu has already raised its production to 20,000 per day, according to one report, and the owner says she will continue to produce them “as long as there is market demand.”
Which there will be, at least until someone has the good sense to ban them.
Correction, June 22, 2010: This article originally contained a misquote from Die Tageszeitung. (Return to the corrected sentence.) Like Slate on Facebook. Follow Slate and the Slate Foreign Desk on Twitter.