Thursday, April 10, 2008

Confronting Propaganda with Chutzpah

I realize that I may be accused of local bias in assigning this week's Chutzpah of the Week award to San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, but I view this as more than "a local thing." Besides, given how bad things are, I figure every opportunity to give the award for a positive connotation of chutzpah should be seized. Furthermore, the award is intended, at least in part, to compensate for the editorial in this morning's San Francisco Chronicle, which took Newsom to task for turning yesterday's Olympic torch ceremony into a "keep-away game," thus cheating "thousands" of the opportunity to "express their passions, positive and negative, about the upcoming Games." This may have made for good editorial grousing; but it missed out on the most important point, which is that Newsom managed to come up with "a cunning plan" to extricate the torch ceremony from the political arena and give it back to the relay runners.

By way of context, had Newsom not played his "keep-away game," that political arena could well have been more contentious than the events we had already witnessed in London and Paris. This context was provided by C. W. Nevius in his column for this morning's Chronicle:

For all the talk of protests leading up to the Olympic torch relay, we didn't hear much from the supporters of China.

We learned why early on Wednesday morning. They planned to take over the event.

By 10 a.m. at AT&T Park, where the torch run was supposed to begin, it was obvious that the fix was in.

Thousands of supporters were already there, unloaded from dozens of buses parked across from the ball park. (One torch relay insider told me some in the crowd had been bused from as far away as Los Angeles.) During the day Chronicle reporters were told by some supporters that they had been bused into San Francisco from the South Bay, the East Bay and Sacramento by the Chinese Consulate and Chinese American groups.

They were waving thousands of huge, red Chinese flags or holding up identical, professional-looking placards that read "Beijing, 2008, torch relay."

This was the situation that confronted the organizers of the torch ceremony and Mayor Newsom. Here is how Nevius continued his account in terms of the need to neutralize an explosive situation on both sides of the ideological coin:

By 1 p.m., the appointed time for the torch runners to begin the relay, the crowd had grown even bigger. China supporters far outnumbered any human rights protesters, and anyone from the small pockets of "Free Tibet" protesters was quickly surrounded by the crowd and shouted down. When a Tibet supporter held up a sign, a Chinese supporter would sidle up, the wind would catch his flag, and it would obliterate the sign from the view of the cameras.

"We suspected that the Chinese government would want a public relations spectacle," said Kate Woznow, campaign coordinator for Students for a Free Tibet. "Something that they could broadcast back home."

Those inside the command center say city officials and Mayor Gavin Newsom watched the spectacle with growing concern. Although there was a brief scuffle with "Team Tibet" supporters around a bus early in the morning, the vast majority of the crowd was flag-waving China supporters. Sending the torch down those streets would have been like providing the Chinese government with a made-for-television commercial to show that hardly anyone in San Francisco - or North America - had any qualms about human rights abuses in China.

Newsom won't come out and say that, but he did concede that he took the decision right down to the final minutes.

"Literally, at 1 o'clock, we had two choices," he said in a phone conversation en route to the closing ceremony at the airport. "We could cancel the event or move forward in a different manner. We went to the torchbearers themselves, and overwhelmingly they said they supported the change."

Taking the torch to the other side of town and skirting the whole enormous pro-China crowd at the ballpark might have improved the chances for public safety, but it also gave the torch back to San Francisco. Suddenly, it was back to the original idea, a run through the streets with a symbol of the upcoming Olympic Games, not a carefully planned political charade.

Thus, while all Jacques Rogge and his International Olympic Committee colleagues have never been able to get beyond vacuous jawboning over depoliticizing the Olympics, Newsom achieved just that on his own turf, simply by diverting media attention from any site where confrontation could have become explosive. By his actions he demonstrated just how feeble the IOC has been while finding a way to honor the athletes, who seem to have been totally ignored by the IOC in its obsession with resolving tensions through statutory neglect.

According to the news I heard on the radio this morning, Rogge expressed satisfaction that the San Francisco ceremony had not been as ugly as the preceding events in London and Paris. However, I do not think he got the point. He seems to want to live in a blissful world of political denial, which makes him just as delusional as any politician who willfully ignores any sense of reality. Newsom saw the "rough beast" for what it was (an Irish mayor deserves the phrase of an Irish poet!), gambled on pulling a fast one by evading it, and thus avoided a really ugly scene. If the Chronicle wants to take him to task for disappointing the fans, that may help them sell papers this morning; but this ceremony was not for the fans any more than it was for the IOC. Those who were supposed to benefit from the event did benefit; and they did so by virtue of Newsom's "cunning plan." For that he deserves one of those rare positive-connotation Chutzpah of the Week awards!

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