Sunday, April 20, 2008

Extinguishing the Olympic Torch of Hope

by Larry Mongoss, guest blogger

It is often said that all effects are side effects and that seems to be true for the passage of the Olympic torch. The tradition of running the torch through different countries is intended to promote the games, show the inextinguishable nature of the Olympic spirit and, of course, promote the host country. I have never followed the torch relay very closely in the past, but was still struck by how worrisome it must be for those bearing the torch to not let it go out. I picture myself doing it, falling face first in a mud puddle valiantly holding up the torch only to have it put out by the water splashing up as my face goes under. The whole world gasps and I am the link that breaks the chain that holds together the games.

The pressure, it turns out, is not quite so great. There is a backup plan, a “real” torch that is kept burning in a nice dry place just in case the bearer has a mishap. Likely the backup has been invoked before, but it was not until the recent chaos in France that I found out about the dirty little secret. Symbolism – if it is going to be real shouldn’t it have to be fragile too?

That is a different topic, the side effects I am talking about relate to the goals of giving voice to the “Free Tibet” movement and embarrassing the Chinese government. By striking at that oddly honored Olympic symbol, this primary goal did meet with some success. The embarrassment, however, was not restricted to the Chinese government and the International Olympic Committee. Many people in and from China, especially young people, have taken these statements very personally. Intended or not, they see the whole thing as an attack on their motherland, not just the government that controls it. The words “Shame on China” go directly to the heart.

Worse still, and I think this is one reason the anger is so great, they see it as racial statement against Han Chinese. Though many were hoping that the Olympics would be an opportunity to increase freedom and curtail human rights abuses in China, that inclusive goal has been lost. The loud voices no longer carry a global message. Instead, what comes across loud and clear to Han Chinese is that they are being blamed for the conditions of other ethnic groups within China. When perceived in this way it suggests that the rights of those groups, especially ethnic Tibetans, trump any claim that Han Chinese have on free speech or other civil liberties. Given this interpretation, I am not surprised that so many people in China seem to be so mad.

Some, presumably a small portion, of young Chinese activists have become quite extreme in voicing their anger. They are hunting a particular protester and declaring people (including some of their own) enemies in a manner reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution, an event they are too young to have any firsthand knowledge of. Whether this worrisome behavior is condoned by their majority remains to be seen. Still, the young people of today are the rulers of tomorrow and the attitudes currently being engendered will be with them when they come into power.

So far, the anger generated seems to be directed at those directly involved in helping mire the torch in the mud. I am relieved at this; the scale of suffering that ethnic retribution within China could cause is overwhelming. But that anger, and its focus on outside influences is still troubling. The Olympics may indeed be the catalyst that aligns the attitude of the Chinese government with that of the Chinese people. Unfortunately, the emerging alignment is that the people are remonstrating against the rest of the world with exactly the same voice that the government has had for decades.

There is a tendency, especially prevalent in America of late, to label countries as good or bad. You can try to finesse that by saying what you will of the people making up that country but what comes across is: America (or substitute your country name) is evil! It is kind of hard not to be upset by such a blanket statement. Such absolutism, absolutely is bad.

I am not sure who will bring home the Golds at the upcoming games, but I have a feeling many of us have already lost. #

Also by Larry Mongoss:

Finding Silver in the Cloud of CO2
Paterson the Blind New Governor
Also on Literal and Literary Truth
Disagreeing with Smart People
Decreasing Readership among the Corn-Fed

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