The XXIX Olympiad

Today the Olympic Games began in burgeoning, triumphant China. And today the Russians rumbled again, questioning the notion that their settlers of 200 years or more, unmoved and in contiguous lands, constitute a diaspora. What significance will this day hold for posterity? China displaying the ascendancy that has been her destiny, or Russia, wounded and dismembered in the wake of their cold war defeat, swollen with carbon revenue and resurgent as well, reminding us of their resiliency and resolve?
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Pelecanus occidentalis

From a strategic standpoint, Russia’s concern with Ossetia is more to do with the plight of ethnic Russians everywhere in the former Soviet Republics, than with Georgia specifically. Millions of ethnic Russians still live in these suddenly sundered lands, and their predicament is analogous to the predicament of suddenly exiled Germans in the Sudetenland and elsewhere prior to WWII. By no means are Russia’s concerns invalid, and how they are dealt with is also of concern – in ways not immediately appreciated. Russia’s abandonment of direct governance of their peripheries of empire, their historical sphere of influence, has lead to destruction of wildlife on a scale orders of magnitude greater than they were under the USSR. From Siberian tigers to Caspian sturgeon, the absence of Russian control has many faces, not all of them illustrious.

That someone would choose the opening day of the XXIX Olympics to escalate their fight shouldn’t surprise us too much. Somebody was going to try to steal the show as Beijing began their Olympic opening spectacle. With hundreds of thousands of closely monitored street cameras and plainclothes officers patrolling in equal number, challenges to China’s management of the Olympic games will be far away – because just as it was in 1936, the swarms of drones aren’t in the skies just yet, and the greatest global capitals remain tranquil.

Should China be the focal point of this day, as war erupts in the Caucasus, midway between the Balkans, the Middle East, and the tumultuous and seething ferment that is Central Asia? All of this is far, far away from Beijing; only distant murmurs can be heard from Xinjiang and Tibet, or beyond the borders, but Beijing celebrates, as they should. Should China’s human rights record be assailed here today? Why go down that path? Why not simply observe that the admiration many of us rightfully feel for China’s “can-do” attitude, their ability to take decisive collective action as a society, is also reminiscent of the admiration many in the west felt for Germany in the early 1930′s. And as one still might say, am anfang alles gut war. How do we channel all that energy and keep it good – can China process their paroxysms of nationalism better than many of their predecessors on the global stage?

Is it only a gratuitous digression to mention the son of Albert Speer designed the grand boulevard that connects the old city to the Olympic complex in Beijing? Why, when so many of us like wide boulevards? Was Albert Speer Sr. so bad, or just deluded, or trapped in a system that changed into something he’d never imagined? In any case, today’s boulevard emanating from the mind of a Speer is not only realized this time, unlike Hauptstadt Germania, but is green and cutting edge, instead of nostalgic and grandiose. Both are exceedingly evocative of national pride.

As technology enables a plethora of emerging or resurgent nations to aspire to leadership in a multi-polar world, what faces of totalitarianism will the peoples of the world endure? The Soviet example, where the regime saved the Siberian Tiger from extinction, and the sturgeon from genocidal slaughter? Today’s Chinese example, where within months mountains are moved into the sea to create a flat plain big enough for an Airbus A380 to land, and new dams on the Yangtzee contain a flow sufficient to generate nearly 18.0 gigawatts? Or the Western scheme, to regulate and ration production and consumption of carbon as if it were pollution instead of life for flora? Would only the best of all three be too much to hope for?

China, unlike Russia back in 1989, is unlikely to ever bow before the economic might of the west. But the power that fuels China’s prosperity is capitalist entrepreneurship, and there is no greater force for pluralism and democracy and economic growth than capitalist entrepreneurship. Prosperity breeds literacy and individual agency, which in turn fosters self-actualization, which impels individuals to demand more individual freedom along with more economic freedom. In these days of technological productivity putting prosperity within anyone’s grasp, it is only when a society discourages enterprise that prosperity eludes a critical mass of individuals; only when enterprise is overcome by corruption and control does pluralism give way to tyranny.

What road will Russia choose, reasserting themselves, possessing massive reserves of carbon, deep and world-class technology, and millions of sudden exiles who they still care for? Will the Russians join Nato? Will they attempt to reconstruct elements of the bloc they once commanded? Or will they find functional integration, well under way, sufficient imperative to form stronger alliances with Iran and China?

Then again, can the aspirations of China and Russia, and other rising nations, be embraced within a world where the price of war exceeds the price of peace, and therefore some overwhelming combination of forces always agree not to fight, everywhere? Where America’s leadership, combined with European commitment, convinces China and Russia to coexist with the west and the rest? To do this, the aspirations of nationalities must be balanced and policed; Russians in Georgia, Tibetans in China, or gross Deutschland in any 21st century incarnation, however innocent or otherwise, however contiguous or dispersed, in this high-density, pedestrian friendly, teeming and frighteningly finite global village.

Despite today’s mixed messages, it is neither ignoble nor absurd to hope a peaceful scenario is the fate of the world, that conflagrations are contained, that empires benignly collude instead of catastrophically collide. Hopefully the Olympic games, the exaltation they embody, the industry they inspire, the triumph of teams and individuals in peaceful competition, is what defines our future, as we merge fitfully but ineluctably into one global people.

3 Responses to “The XXIX Olympiad”
  1. Brian Hayes says:

    Ed, this is an excellent piece for 8-08-08, a true rhetoric of hope, and realism too.

    Spiegel published their recent interview with Solzhenitsyn. He sweeps a few of his insights over several of Russia’s chapters and offers a mature view.

  2. Ann Greenberg says:

    Great piece Ed. You answered my nagging discomfort at seeing a shot of Bush leaning in to laugh with Putin during the opening games. How dare Putin laugh and enjoy himself? Well, how dare we all? Children dying in Georgia, in Baghdad?

    Lord Acton’s quote “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely…” is applicable. In all we need to remember the “human scale” which is afterall, just a byproduct of global scale; constraigned and defined by the Earth. The balance between the two guiding policy and power. To me the most powerful image of human scale is the photograph of the unknown rebel standing infront of the tanks in Tiananmen Square. But the Earth isn’t a tank. A global people will unite in love and not war.

    Beware wide boulevards that require something other than the human scale to inhabit. Large columns of tanks will fill them up; filling the need to balance an over-reaching agenda and aspiration.

  3. Sie schreiben als Obama sprechen, mein freund. The last two paragraphs of your post “The XXIX Olympiad” inspire mich. Vielen dank. Tell me, did you fail to capitalize the g in Gross Deutschland inadvertantly or deliberately?


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