Friday, August 8, 2008

The Heart of the Matter

The Olympics start today.

Sports have always resonated with me. I don't know why. There is something elemental in sports that I key in to, and as a result, I've always taken interest in the Olympics. I don't watch every event and I don't have the attention span for an entire Opening Ceremony, but I enjoy what I do watch. I particularly like the Olympics because it's usually all about athleticism...there's no irrational hyperfandom, there's no ugly fanbase. It's about people who have taken their extraordinary bodies to the absolute pinnacle of competition, and they are spectacular to watch. It's also very often a chance for the host city to display itself at its finest hour...Sydney comes to mind as a particularly wonderful host city.

China is...a problem.

More than anything, I blame the IOC. Beijing never should have gotten the nod, simply because it guaranteed that the Games would be overshadowed by political problems. China's social problems are notorious, and the pollution is no small issue, either. Athletes at this level are more machine than human - they need a basic environment to perform to the best of their ability, and that environment simply cannot include choking smog and epic pollution. My guess is that we will see slower competition times and increased injury in these Games, and that is a damn shame. The civil rights abuses...where do you start? Tibet? Falun Gong? Policies on population control? The abuse of eminent domain? Crushing economic policy? We've all discussed them.

China is a difficult country for the United States. They own a massive part of our National Debt and all you need is a spin through your closest big box store to see how much of our economy they truly control. We are addicted to the low prices that are the product of the aforementioned human rights abuses. Take a moment to consider just how disposable our lives are - everything is available cheaply and in abundance. Rather than repairing things now, we throw them out and buy replacements. It is in large part China's willingness to at best bend their population to the greater economic and governmental good and at worst force them into what is little more than indentured servitude that allows us this supply. It's easier to ignore their sins when we are in a rush and need a cheap teeshirt, and it's easier to do it when everyone's telling us we're supposed to be focusing on the Olympics.

What I find particularly disturbing is the hypocrisy of the US's public statements (most frequently from President Bush, though I don't necessarily blame him for them) in light of their athletes' and state figures' attendance at the Beijing Games. There have been a lot of damning statements issued about the state of Chinese human rights, yet Bush is still there, because to not attend would be offensive to the Chinese. Well...yeah, Mr. President. That's the point. The point is to show that you do not approve of the state of affairs. The point is to stand up and voice your disapproval.

I have to wonder when we got like this...when ease of progress began to trump moral fiber. Honestly, it can't be that long my parents' lifetime, people were at least willing to go out and protest. Even I got some of this ethic instilled in me along the way. I'm probably more sentimental than most, but I think most people relate to a certain morality of public action, otherwise we wouldn't hold up supposed American ideals like truth, honesty, freedom, and liberty as such essential qualities.

We have spent so much time wrapping ourselves in Old Glory and thinking about bald eagles that I'm afraid we have come to think that's enough. I think somewhere along the way we decided that just telling everyone that we were right and we were the bright shining Way, it would be true. It's not enough. It's not enough and it wasn't enough for the men who founded the country. We wax poetic over the period of the Revolution and the Founding, but we have strayed so far from that time that we are almost unrecognizable. China is a terrifying world power. To not admit that is ignorant foolishness. However, we do ourselves a massive disservice by not dealing with them honestly and standing behind what we know is right. To say one thing and do another not only removes the veracity of the spoken word but demolishes the ability of the speaker to ever be regarded as truthful, strong, and convicted in their belief. It destroys who we are.

I read a book called America's Constitutional Soul this summer (which I advise all of you to run out and buy immediately because it is phenomenal), and in it, the value of formality is addressed by its author, Harvey Mansfield. His main concept is that we dress up to indicate what's important to us...we dress up to celebrate major events. The same idea can be applied to politics. We as a country revere and almost idolize "Superman values"...truth, justice and the American way. We scream at the top of our lungs the importance of freedom and equality. We bellow about Democracy. The risk, though, is to forget that we must do more than simply shop for party dresses and beautiful suits - we actually have to put them on and go to the party sometimes. Just owning them does not demonstrate their beauty. Just saying we're right doesn't prove we are. Just saying someone else is wrong doesn't prove they are.

I haven't watched much of the Olympics - we only watched the March of Nations, Rich providing the trenchant comments and I adding the Model UN nerd color commentary - and do not plan to. I can't stop thinking about the whitewash commenters are giving the situation, and I just wind up torn between a desperate wish that the phenomenal athleticism could regain the center stage and a deep desire to see the true depth and malice of the Chinese government's behavior towards its citizenry laid bare. It's just an awful lot to think about to watch some volleyball.

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