Can we Feel OK Watching the Olympics?
By Omar Baddar
Putting aside the shenanigans about the digitally-enhanced fireworks & the obscuring of the supposedly-unattractive singing child for a bit, a friend of mine recently drew protest from a friend of hers when she talked about how great the opening ceremony was for the 2008 summer Olympics in China. "You mean you're not boycotting the Olympics?"
As a human rights activist and organizer, I'm generally sympathetic towards calls of boycott and divestment that are related to human rights violations. But the idea that it's wrong to watch the Olympics because of China's (admittedly bad) human rights abuses [political dissidents, Tibet, maintaining a friendly relationship w/ Sudan...etc.] is misguided on two levels.
Yes, boycott campaigns can be useful when realistic goals are set. But what's the strategy here exactly? Getting a couple of hundred liberals in the US with no political power to change the channel on their TV sets will not improve the life of Tibetans. Why should anyone be given a hard time for not taking part in a useless ritual? No, you have not lived up to your moral responsibility by excluding yourself in an imaginary and purely symbolic sense from "supporting China" (keeping in mind that China is more than just the top government policymakers we have a problem with; let alone the international athletes). Stop treating causes like fashion statements. Take off your "I support human rights" t-shirt and start DOING something to support human rights.
I think of this as a chronic condition in the American left, and not specific to the Olympics. Whether it's the anti-war movement, environmentalists, animal rights activists, or what have you, there is this tendency to load our cars with provocative bumper stickers (if not abandoning these gas-burners altogether in favor of our bicycles), shop at our health-food stores for organic chives and tofu, show up to our monthly demonstrations, and organize lectures and workshops where only we attend and we all nod at each other in agreement and then go home feeling fulfilled. That last part is the disease! Being healthy, environmentally conscious, socially responsible, and enjoying our internal discussions are all fine things. But feeling fulfilled when we haven't engaged the mainstream in an effective way in order to shift public discourse on the issues that we care about in order to actually improve them is a serious problem we need to confront.
But let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that it is reasonable to recommend the boycotting of the Olympics because of China's human rights violations. Where would the Olympics have to be held in order for us to be able to watch them? Suppose they were held in the US. What portion of the "save Darfur" crowd would boycott the Olympics then?
In case you're confused: yes, the US is a major human rights and international law violator. From being condemned by the world court for terrorism against Nicaragua in the 1980s and refusing to adhere to the court's ruling to pay compensation, to the illegal aggression against several nations (the illegal Iraq invasion in 2003 being the latest), to supporting Israeli Apartheid in Palestine which is systematically destroying Palestinian society, to the unapologetic maltreatment and torture of prisoners committed in Gitmo and elsewhere...etc. Unlike China's atrocities, Americans are actually responsible for America's atrocities because we pay the taxes that fund such crimes. So, to hear American athletes who have never said a word about American atrocities going on about how we must "raise awareness" about China's behavior can seem a little odd. To quote (or paraphrase) Jesus, we should start by removing the log in our eye before attempting to remove the speck from others'.
In conclusion, yes we absolutely should be very critical of China's human rights violations, as well as many of their other problems. But if we're going to do something about it, we need to better organize and employ more effective tools than keeping from watching some gymnastics competition during our spare time. And a more honest and admirable place to start in organizing against human rights violations would be to start with our own.