Ah, the Olympic games! They evoke awe, admiration, pride. They speak of excellence and gold medals, set new records which we equate with what is best. After all how many people break an Olympic game record? Those who do have to be the best. We stop there in our analysis usually satisfying ourselves that the best means the highest humankind can achieve and we redouble our adulation for the individual who has thus broken the record. And if this person happens to be from our own country, then he or she is a peerless hero.
Yes, Olympics athletes are the best, but the best in a delineated context, one that is as human and as worldly as it gets, the best at getting the body to perform. They stretch the limit of physical prowess, but what about its counterpart, the spirit?
I know all about team spirit and all that, but the Olympics are not really about team spirit, they’re about winning, they’re about competition and how many gold medals a nation will win–things that do not strengthen one’s relationship to whatever is grander than ourselves. Spiritual realities emphasize cooperation, unity, equality. Like it or not, it does suggest that the Olympics for all their glory and their achievements do not nurture the part of us which link us to what is greater than our physical self.
Perhaps there is progress, modern Olympics can be more than physical prowess. They have become a form of international summit, a foreign policy event, if not a tool where messages are sent and diplomacy is tacitly or overtly practiced. Opening and closing ceremonies, for example, can be times when differences are put aside and some sense that we belong to one humanity is as present as it ever is. Still let’s not go too far in our hope that the Olympics will fulfill a larger spiritual purpose. The games are after all big business. Cities compete to be hosts, and spend millions of dollars for the honor, banking on tourism, publicity and prestige to eventually help bring in more than they spent. This year, NBC paid almost a billion dollars for the broadcast rights. And yet, one must hope that as they deal with a globalized world, as the issue of technological enhancements is addressed and as the human body without those extras rebecomes its natural self, meaning there will only be so far it can go, that the games will look to other criteria and stand for something besides the sheer physical feats that are now heralded.
There’s a scene in the movie “Zorba”, where Bouboulina is dying and the women of the town don’t even wait for her to draw her last breath before they take everything. Listening to the media each time a public figure has an affair reminds me of that scene which might as well be called “the vultures descend”. Having an affair is wrong, but when a public figure has one, does it give us the right to have a gossip fest? It seems every commentator, blogger, et al, can’t wait to have a say, to condemn, to judge, to criticize, to chastise, (however disguised through the art of punditry) forgetting that the same spiritual code that tells us an affair is wrong also tells us that these behaviors are just as wrong. We talk as if we are above weakness, as if we had never made a big mistake, as if we had never hurt anyone. What ends up being on display as people keep on talking is the lack of compassion, of understanding, of reasons behind the action, of context, of intent, of forgiveness, of many of the values which make people good Christians, good Buddhists, good Muslims or good Jews. We tend to loose ourselves in our own pronouncements and as we do seem to loose sight of what’s important. Suddenly the transgression is magnified as if the individual involved could not have done anything worse. We then justify our form of voyeurism by telling ourselves it goes to character, as if there are no better indices, such as votes cast, speeches, stand on issues, life history or how the person in question handled adversity. We quickly forget that politicians go back on their promises, that they tweak the truth to be acceptable to whatever audience they are talking to, fall prey to believing their own hype, all of which are not much different than the kind of lies involved in having an affair. Still, we seem to excuse one and not the other. Perhaps this ought to be no surprise, as long as we allow our morality to be defined by the tabloids. They pay for the tidbits we are all so eager to learn, dangle money in front of poorly paid (sometimes disgruntled) servants, attendants, and others employed by potential subjects. We engage in the gossip, immune to the source and to the fact that our attention, the nation’s, and that of decision makers is being deflected away from more pressing issues.
Now that the buildings in Beijing are finished, and the Olympics are here, it’s been a time to ask questions. Should these architects have agreed to work in China? Doesn’t that mean they are endorsing the system. Oughtn’t they to have said no in solidarity and protest? They are legitimate and necessary questions, which if we are to be true to our own values, we have to ask ourselves. Of course, they are questions with an underside, ought foreign architects refuse to build in the United States if they oppose the war in Iraq? But let’s not unduly complicate the issue. Let’s stick to China’s new buildings for the Olympics.
They are impressive edifices, architectural milestones. Just as Frank’ Gehry’s Bilbao’s museum ushered in a 21st century architecture, these anchor it, expand it, issue a call to celebrate what can now be achieved. With his spare lines and clear concepts, Mies van der Rohe gave us a keynote for the 20th century and now Rem Koolhaas, Pierre de Meuron and Jacques Herzog sound one for the 21st.
To take a building from idea to completion is even at best a very long process fraught with obstacles, setbacks, conflicts, challenges. China in its eagerness to excel streamlined the process and made it possible for the firms involved to work with a bit less hassles. The centralization of the government, for example, made certain permits and the like much easier to obtain. And then there’s the sheer opportunity. How many governments have the resources to undertake such projects? Very few besides places like Dubai. In the private sector, the opportunities may be somewhat more plentiful but doubtful they would be on the scale they’ve been in China.
To some what these buildings are doing for architecture would be enough to eliminate the question of ethics. Nicolai Ouroussoff, the architecture critic of the New York Times keeps an open mind. The National Stadium, nicknamed the “Bird’s Nest”, for example, was created with open spaces and open interactions in mind, allowing people to meet and mingle, and he reminds us that whether the government will allow these uses after the Olympics, or trivialize them in some way is still in question.
But there’s to me a still better gauge: harmlessness. Are these buildings more helpful than harmful? Will they contribute to the fabric of a new society or reinforce the limitations of the old one? Be it China, architecture, the world…do they help more than hey harm?
Sometimes it takes a mirror image to see our own condition more clearly. Having just read about the European Union’s states experiment with various forms of direct democracy, I began to reflect about our own.
The EU members have several ways of accepting, or rejecting, changes to their constitution. Last June Ireland’s referendum on the subject failed, and it was said that the no votes could mean the end of the Union. Since, various European leaders have been looking for ways to redo or rethink the Ireland experience. Meanwhile, the whole idea of referenda and what they mean is also being talked about. One reason is because it is not uniform. There are four models.
- States where voters can call for a referendum and its results are binding for the government: Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Italy and Denmark
- States where the referenda have to be introduced by the Parliament or the government: Sweden, France, Austria, Hungary, Netherlands, Spain
- States where referenda are rare: Germany, Great Britain, Poland, Czech Republic, Belgium, Finland, Estonia and Greece
- States where the constitution in practice contains few or no provision for referenda: Portugal, Romania and Bulgaria.
One’s first reaction may be, no wonder the EU is having such a hard time, but there’s a more fundamental issue, how each state chooses to practice democracy. In the U.S we are so used to using the word democracy, we tend to slide over what it means. We believe democracy is best, superior to any other form of government and then make a jump to therefore equate our way with what is best. We forget what it is that gives democracy its edge, it is political participation. There are, indeed, many ways and many degrees of participation in the political process, all valid if one applies the criterion of consent of the governed, a criterion which has a long philosophical, legal and spiritual pedigree. We erroneously assume that democracy automatically means direct democracy and that our system of election is best, forgetting all the while that ours is not as direct as we often think, but a representative democracy, whereby we elect individuals to participate in democracy 0n our behalf. The voters in the first category above, for example, believe in something much more direct than our system, their vote is directly binding on the government. Any way is valid, it seems, as long as two factors are met, one that there is a level of political participation and second that this level be agreed upon–if not chosen.
Perhaps the next time a President or some surrogate talks about spreading democracy, we can remind ourselves of the underlying questions that raises and be better equipped to either agree or disagree.