black armbands for the Taliban

So it seems to me to be straightforwardly and superficially the case that the Olympics, while a lot of fun, are a corrupt nightmare as an institution. Their apolitical stance, meanwhile, is absurd on its face; everything about their presentation is drenched in competing nationalism, and as usual, the denial that an event or expression is political is just a way to play politics. Like most people, I’ve been inspired not just by the implicit politics of competitors like Jesse Owens but by the explicit protest of Tommie Smith and John Carlos. I think an international stage like the Olympics is a great opportunity to demonstrate against repressive governments. All of that said, I think the current hand-wringing about the IOC’s denial of Ukrainian athletes’ request to wear black armbands, in support for the protesters involved in the brutal conflict in Kiev, demonstrates the Western media’s inconsistent and self-interested support for political protest.

To the degree that the support of a powerless American like me matters, I support the protesters in Kiev, although I have necessarily limited ability to really understand them. But that’s just to say that I have the politics I do. If the right to protest is merely dependent on the whims of white social progressives in the western media, then it is no right at all, and instead merely another way in which the west assumes its right to dictate political right and wrong. So take the thoughts of Travis Waldron of ThinkProgress, an organization which I would nominate as perfectly typical of general liberalish sentiment.

He writes,

The IOC gains plenty out of the perception that its Games foster global harmony and understanding, which is why it has no interest in making that perception a reality. Reality is ugly. In the world where the Olympics don’t naturally cure all ills and problems, living up to the Olympic Charter requires action or at least the accommodation of it. It means allowing “Free Tibet” posters in Beijing and LGBT rights protests in Russia. It requires standing up to governments that jail dissenters and kill protesters. It means accepting more John Carloses and Tommie Smiths, more “Under Protest” banners, and more questions about appropriate costs, security policies, and basic rights.

So I ask: would Waldron support the right of athletes from Afghanistan to wear black armbands in support of the Taliban, to memorialize their dead? If not, why not? After all, the supporters of the Taliban see them as an organic resistance movement fighting against a corrupt and undemocratic government that was enforced from above by imperialists. I have no idea how popular the Taliban are in Afghanistan, although an armed resistance movement could not have persisted for decades, including the past 12 years against the might of the American military, without some popular support. It happens that I also don’t like the Taliban, at all. But both of these points are irrelevant, if we’re really making a claim about the principle of a right to protest by all peoples. Waldron maintains that the armbands would be an apolitical memorial to everyone killed in the protests, but I doubt even he would defend defining such a display as really apolitical, if pressed. You can’t sneak out of these issues that way.

Would Waldron support, say, the right of athletes from the Palestinian territories to commemorate the Munich attacks of the 1972 games? I doubt it! Would the IOC ever tolerate a commemoration of the Viet Cong’s resistance against destructive occupying forces from France and the United States? I doubt it! Waldron name checks Free Tibet protesters, but doesn’t consider Chinese counter-protests, which would be inevitable given that the occupation of Tibet is very popular in China. I think that’s a mistake, but again, my opinion is irrelevant. Waldron mentions LGBT protests in Russia, but says nothing about Ugandans protesting in countries where gay marriage is legal. He’s presented an argument about the principle of a right to protest and yet only invoked issues that his American readership is likely to agree with.

Now if the idea is just “I’m Travis Waldron [or any of the other people who are mad about this] and I like the Kiev protesters and not the Putin government,” then fine. Just say that, then. Say that you support the right of protest when you agree with the protesters and not in other occasions. But when you claim to argue from principle, but only actually support that principle when it supports the interests of the United States government, you’re full of it. Just as the US government was full of it when it claimed to support democratic elections in the occupied territories and then dropped that support the minute elections resulted in a majority for Hamas. Be a part of the ample American propaganda effort, or argue for the neutral principles of free protest, but don’t do one and call it the other.

1 Comment

  1. I dunno. It seems to me that either you accept the premise of the Olympics or you don’t. It’s either an occasion where we gather together in some sort of universal celebration of sport and athletes, setting aside everything that divides us, or we get into an unresolvable debate about which country or which government is “good enough” for the Olympics. I get that the Olympics isn’t hermetically sealed from nationalism or politics, but neither is what the Olympics is primarily supposed to be about. Is the IOC supposed to be involved in vetting who does or doesn’t get to protest or dissent based on the underlying politics? Do we want it to? Is it so wrong for the IOC to say, in effect, can we keep the Olympics about, you know, sports? If individual athletes want to protest in the face of that and deliver a message, I can’t fault them for wanting to do that, but I can’t fault the IOC either for wanting not to lose the primary focus of the Olympics, a gathering of athletes to perform the amazing shit that they do.

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