I always root for Americans at the Olympics. I’ve never heard of most of the American athletes at these Winter Games, but I want them to beat other athletes I’ve never heard of, who happen to come from other countries. The German TV commentators we are watching root for German athletes. The Berlin paper writes about every German athlete who does well. It’s a crude but harmless form of nationalism that infects people across the world.
The modern Olympics were conceived as a way to reduce nationalism, to promote peace through sport. They haven’t worked out that way, but nevertheless every two years the opening Olympic ceremonies hopefully proclaim the ideal of world unity.
The opening ceremonies at PyeongChang in South Korea last Friday were marked by spectacular special effects under the title “Peace in Motion”. Peace is particularly important in Korea, whose Cold War division constantly threatens to explode into war. The South Koreans decided to make peace the symbol of these Winter Games, with dramatic images of white doves everywhere. Lee Hee-beom, president of the PyeongChang Organizing Committee, said, “We hope that the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 will spread that message of peace around the world in the coming weeks.”
The decision by the two Korean governments to field one slate of athletes was an unexpected effort at unity through sport, the most hopeful sign in decades of a possible reduction in hostilities.
The decision by the two Korean governments to field one slate of athletes was an unexpected effort at unity through sport, the most hopeful sign in decades of a possible reduction in hostilities. Athletes from North and South Korea carried a specially designed “unification flag”, displaying the entire Korean peninsula as one unit. Four Korean singers covered John Lennon’s ode to peace and unity, “Imagine”.
Olympic symbolism can only temporarily obscure reality. A half century of Korean division and the wild threats to world peace made by the North Korean dictator will not disappear because North and South Korean women play some ice hockey games as one team. South Korea’s President reacted hesitantly to the invitation extended by North Korea to visit the North for talks after the Games. In a poll last week in South Korea, only a minority approved of using the unification flag.
Outside of the Olympic venues, the world is bitterly divided. The Cold War between the communist East and the democratic West is only a memory, but a new cold war is developing within Western democracies between a resurgent populist right and the democratic center. Democratic norms long thought to be beyond criticism are being repudiated by extreme conservatives with increasing popular support. Right-wing parties with fascist overtones are challenging democratic structures across Europe.
While Americans might come together for two weeks to root for our athletes in PyeongChang, after the Olympics are over, we will return to an angry partisan political confrontation at home. Negative feelings about the other political party have been growing in the US for a long time. The proportion of both Democrats and Republicans who feel “very negatively” about the other party has tripled since 1994. A majority of voters from both parties believe the policies of the other party are a threat to the nation. Most Americans recognize these tensions. Two-thirds of both Republicans and Democrats say the conflicts between partisans are “very strong”, a significant increase over the past 5 years.
It would be wrong to characterize our division as right versus left: triumphant conservatives in the wake of Trump’s victory are attacking the American middle. Led by Trump himself and cheered on by what used to be a weak and mostly despised right-wing fringe of KKK fans, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists, conservatives are assailing our fundamental democratic institutions: a free press, law enforcement, higher education. A Fox News poll last August showed that two-thirds of Republican voters believe the news media are a bigger threat to the US than white supremacists. Most Republicans believe that American universities havea negative effect on our country.
Trump’s constant vilification of our nation’s basic structures and his demonization of anyone who does not support him contribute to the growing partisan divide, but are not its major cause. American conservatives have been drifting into opposition to the society we live in for years. Trump’s labeling Democrats as “un-American” and “treasonous” for their opposition to his policies merely echoes the name-calling of prominent conservatives like Ann Coulter and Alex Jones, and publications like the National Review and Breitbart News. Those ideas used to be on the wacky fringe of American politics, along with Nazi worship and white nationalism. Trump has brought them into the White House, and he uses his speeches and Twitter account to push this polarization ever further.
America has become a battleground. Our political leadership deliberately stokes the fires of partisanship and hatred of all those “others”. Building walls is more important than building roads.
Olympic nationalism will temporarily cover up the war among Americans. We can not hope to be a great nation if we are so divided against ourselves.
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