Tuesday, August 26, 2008

"Let's not kid ourselves."

Today's extended analysis at SPIEGEL ONLINE, written by Ullrich Fichtner, Maik Grossekathöfer, and Detlef Hacke in German and translated into English by Christopher Sultan, is the sort of retrospective view of the Beijing Olympics that I had been hoping to see (and was pretty sure that I would not find in any American source). The mood of the piece was best captured by its subtitle, "Olympics-Sized Delusions," which made for an appropriate introduction to the first interview subject in the article. That subject was Thomas Bach, an International Olympic Committee (IOC) vice president (the Committee has four), described by the authors as "a potential candidate to succeed Jacques Rogge as the organization's president." Here is the first Bach quote from the article:

There are two grand delusions in sports. The one delusion is that sport has nothing to do with money. And the other one is that it has nothing to do with politics. Both lead to unnecessary and sometimes disastrous debates.

It is unclear whether this statement was an attempt to clean up the egg on Rogge's face or to attribute that egg to the fact that Rogge should have known better in deliberating over some of the decisions he made. The SPIEGEL authors gave a nice capsule description of Bach:

Bach is the sort of person who, when asked difficult questions, begins by saying: Let's not kid ourselves.

We see this personality in Bach's own words, but that does not necessarily inform us of his motives. Is he trying to restore confidence through clarity, or is he just trying to exude a thicker smoke screen? Like a certain Republican Presidential candidate, he wishes to give the impression of embracing "straight talk;" but, when we (including the SPIEGEL authors) start digging into the words of his text, we find them so twisted as too accommodate whatever motives our fantasies might assign to him. Perhaps we should just accept that this is "business as usual" at the IOC and that, without such "business as usual," there would be no Olympics. In considering that proposition, we would do well to address what the SPIEGEL authors had to say about this year's audiences:

In Beijing, it became clear that audiences had begun splitting into new groups. There are still those who naively believe in the goodness, the beauty and the purity of sports, even if it goes against their better judgment. On the other end of the spectrum are those who have given into despair and turned away from sports entirely because they no longer trust it. A third group blindly worships the winners, no matter how their victories came about -- perhaps even admiring them for their clever, underhanded methods.

From the IOC's point of view, only the second group is "bad for business;" and the best strategy is probably to pitch to the third group, since the first group is already hooked. Let's not kid ourselves.

Ironically, of all the people interviewed by SPIEGEL, the one who seemed best at not kidding himself was the Chinese artist, Ai WeiWei, "who played a decisive role in the design of the Bird's Nest stadium." Here is the account of that interview:

He lives and works in an enormous stone house, an oasis of levelheaded style in the colorful, post-urban cacophony of Beijing. Cats stroll through the garden and employees walk silently so as not to disturb the master of the house, talking in whispers and serving green tea in beautiful glasses.

Ai WeiWei calls the Bird's Nest a "showcase of propaganda." It is a good building, he said, but one that was utilized by the wrong people. In the West, said Ai WeiWei, everyone was excited about the opening ceremony and China in general, and yet every second of these games was poisoned by ideology, and by hidden messages to the Chinese that foreigners were unable to decipher.

"On the day after the opening ceremony, it said in the paper here that good Chinese watch the games on television," said Ai WeiWei. "It was an unconcealed warning not to go out into the streets."

He said that he didn't really watch the opening ceremony. He was in a café with a friend on that evening and happened to see a few images from the event on a wall-mounted TV. But those images, he said, were nothing but the empty productions of an anxious, extremely nervous government. "The state has no vision of what China should be," said Ai WeiWei, "and the games only helped postpone the problems that are now coming."

He contradicted himself several times in the course of a half-hour conversation. He spoke of hidden messages to the Chinese people, but he also said that the games were not meant for the domestic public at all. He argued that China wanted to demonstrate its strength to the rest of the world, but then he claimed that the Beijing leadership couldn't care less about what the world thought of it.

My own reading of this text is that those contradictions had less to do with whether or not Ai was trying (and failing) to kid himself and more to do with that lack of "vision of what China should be." In other words those contradictions were a symptom of his personal anxiety, which, in turn, could probably be attributed, at least in part, to anxiety at the national level.

Of course we (whether individuals or nations) do not like to have attention called to our anxieties. That only makes us more anxious. So we kid ourselves about them, not because we are averse to "straight talk" but because we can only live with those anxieties by cloaking them in delusion. This is the key theme of Eugene O'Neill's play, The Iceman Cometh, whose protagonist tries to tear off all of those cloaks, only to reveal an anxiety of his own that drove him to kill his wife. Of course China has anxieties. So does Great Britain. Perhaps the best cause the United States has for changing "We're Number One!" would be in the extent of its anxieties (if not the abundance of its delusional cloaks, one of which happens to be charging ahead in full force this week)!

Let's not kid ourselves about Bach, then. Every time he says, "Let's not kid ourselves," it's just one of his rhetorical moves to kid us. Do we really want it any other way? Let's not kid ourselves!

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