What's Tony Thinking

The Olympics in Context


This is a follow-up on my post of yesterday, “Apocalypse Now, Sort Of.”

In it I argued that the pandemic has been an apocalypse not in the conventional understanding of the word, i.e. “the fiery end of everything,” but in the theological sense of a revealing of what has been hidden.

I quoted Ed Yong of the Atlantic to this effect:

“America’s mishandling of the pandemic has been a bipartisan failure. . . Both wrongly assumed that biomedical solutions like vaccines could end the pandemic alone, without addressing the deep-seated social vulnerabilities that make the U.S. so weak against a fast-spreading virus.” (emphasis added)

Some of you thought this unfair to the Biden administration, which I will grant. But the point is that the pandemic revealed “deep-seated social vulnerabilities that make the U.S. so weak against a fast-spreading virus.” In other words, the weakness of our societal immune system allowed the virus to wreck havoc.

What has this to do with the Olympics?

Well, the Olympics are China’s attempt to put an alternative solution to handling “social vulnerabilities” on display. The alternative? Authoritarianism. China brags, with some basis, that it handled the pandemic better than we did because it was able to require strict adherence to preventative protocols.

The point was underscored when Russian President Putin visited China’s Chairman-of-Everything, Xi Jinping for the opening of the Olympics. Both argue that democracy can no longer handle the immense challenges facing nations and the world in the 21st century. Democracy is too slow, ineffective, and subject to a tyranny of the minority.

This is essentially the Donald Trump position. We need an authoritarian strongman to “make America great again.” And yet, Trump claims to be such a great American patriot. His followers claim the same. The January 6 rioters were, they argue, really the true patriots. How does that work? Here’s how: their commitment isn’t to American democracy. It is to American nationalism.

My spouse asked me the other day if I were interested in watching the Olympics. I said, “not particularly.” I do admire the athletes for their dedication and their incredible skills. But these Olympics seem to me even more a vehicle for the aggrandizement of the host nation than previous ones. National pride, I can appreciate. National propaganda, not so much.

It has been noted,  moreover, that the International Olympic Committee, has a preference for authoritarian nations as Olympic hosts. Why? No protests. No messiness. Bribes are easier to process. All thanks to  the autocrat’s heavy hand.

The larger point, following on yesterday’s blog, is that almost every society (including Russia and China) face great social vulnerabilities and dislocations in the current time. Climate change promises to only accelerate the instability. The call for an authoritarian strong man will grow here in the U.S. The other day, Heather Cox Richardson, noted that the billionaire co-founder of PayPal and major stockholder in Facebook/ Meta, Peter Thiel, had resigned from the Meta board in order to devote himself full-time to electing Trumpist candidates in 2022.

Thiel has famously said he doesn’t believe freedom and democracy to be compatible. I think that means U.S. democracy is not compatible with the freedom of people as wealthy as he is. The authoritarian threat is not just from outside. It is from within.

This is what led me, several weeks back, to endorse Tom Friedman’s idea of a national unity ticket of say Joe Biden and Liz Cheney for 2024. The standard interpretation of politics through the lens of liberal vs. conservatives is not really adequate now. The real issue is democracy versus authoritarianism.

What was it Ben Franklin said when as the Constitutional Convention closed he was asked, “What kind of government have you given us?” Franklin answered, “A democracy, if you can keep it.”


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