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Friday, April 11, 2008

A Beautiful Disaster

Like anyone who appreciates film and, especially, photography in film, I have a love/hate relationship with documentary filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. A visionary fimmaker, Riefenstahl created what many consider to be the best documentary of all time -- Triumph of the Will.

Unfortunately, Triumph of the Will was also a masterpiece of nazi propaganda. This was the genius of the nazi movement -- they understood that the most successful propaganda had to either be really, really scary or really, really cool and they went with cool. Riefenstahl helped build the nazi movement into a national campaign and later claimed she didn't know about all of the horrific crimes the party committed. Her access to the highest levels of the party makes this claim hard to believe. When Riefenstahl died at the age of 101 in 2003, I thought it proved the old saying -- only the good die young.

Another great documentary by Riefenstahl is Olympia, a film about the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Like Triumph, Olympia was pro-nazi, using the Olympics to showcase Hitler's vision of a physically perfect people and casting the nazis as the direct descendants of the ancient greeks who were seen as the creators of western civilization. Nazi design looked Roman for a reason -- you were supposed to see a direct line from Athens to Rome to Berlin. The propaganda had it that Germany was the last, proud stand of the civilization that the Greeks began. Nazi supermen were the next step in the evolution of western civilization.

There may be two kinds of propaganda. There's the N. Korea "Everyone on Earth wants to kill you" model and the nazi/soviet "Trust this government, we're the best thing that's ever happened to humanity" model. Some governments, like the Bush administration, use a little of both -- although, in Bush's case, it's mostly the former.

All of which brings us to the Olympic torch relay. That's all Hitler. He turned the 1936 Olympiad into a "best thing that's ever happened to humanity"-style propaganda outlet. Olympia's breakthroughs in film technology, like mobile tracking cameras on pulleys and cables (which are still used in filming sports today), were meant to show the genius of the Master Race. And the torch relay was meant to symbolize the passing on of the torch of civilization from the ancient Greeks to the modern nazis, not the passing on of the Olympic ideal. Ignited by a parabolic mirror using "the rays of Apollo," the torch supposedly carried the light of civilization through benighted Europe to its new home in Berlin.

In other words, the torch relay has jack to do with the Olympics. It was born as propaganda and continues as propaganda's twin sister, marketing. The Greeks never did anything remotely like this.

So, I wouldn't lose any sleep of the politicization over the torch relay on its way to Beijing. It's nothing but an ad for the 2008 Olympics and a marketing campaign for China. It's meant as spectacle, so kick back and enjoy the spectacle. Adding to the fun is that this spectacle isn't the one that Chinese propagandists had planned for it to be.

Things went bad right off the bat. The lighting ceremony in Athens was disrupted by protesters and things went south from there. From London, to Paris, to San Francisco, the torch relay has been met with protests and chaos. It goes on to Buenos Aires, where protests are likewise expected.

In all of this, the torch has been treated like a fan-dogged celebrity, hiding out in warehouses and taking routes different than had been announced. In a stroke of bad news for the marketing gimmick, Japan has announced it won't allow the torch relay's guards into the country (not surprisingly, they've been accused of being a little too physical in protecting the sacred flame). The torch will travel the streets of Nagano without it's six-foot bodyguards. From there, it goes on to Canberra, Australia where it won't be treated any better than it has been anywhere else -- if that leg happens at all. In a tremendous middle finger to the world, the torch will go through Tibet and up Mt. Everest.

There are few nations on Earth that deserve to have their big marketing/propaganda campaign take such an embarrassing turn as China. The protests are in response to a lot of crap the Chinese government has done over the years. Most high-profile at the moment is the crackdown in Tibet, but supporters of the Falun Gong movement, protestors of the suppression of Muslim Uighurs, and critics of its terrible human rights and environmental record in general are all showing their lack of support.

And, like the 1936 Olympics, Beijing 2008 is a propaganda outlet. It's China's announcement that it's now a nation among nations, not the world unto itself that history remembers. The modern world meets the modern China -- forget the streets filled with bicycles, they've got cars now. It's like Japan, only bigger and without all that democracy and freedom stuff. Friendly, modern China seeks new trading partners and a bigger place on the world stage.

But friendly, modern China is finding that it takes a lot more than a big show to get people to like them. UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown will join German Chancellor Angela Merkel in skipping the opening ceremonies. John McCain, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton all say that Bush shouldn't attend. China is finding that they're as popular as a fart in an elevator right now.

For his part, Bush says he'll attend. It's not extremely surprising -- I mean, what could he say? When it comes to human rights and the rule of international law, he has no moral authority. If he did anything but attend the opening ceremonies and clap like an idiot, he'd be a hypocrite. McCain, who would continue Bush's policies without interruption, apparently has no problem with his own hypocrisy.

In fact, Olympiad XIX is turning into a disaster for China. The whole thing's coming down around their ears. International Olympic Committee chief Jacques Rogge says the Olympics are in crisis, but will rebound.

As much as you or I might hate to see the Olympics politicized like this, remember that it was China who opened the door to that politicization by using the games as a propaganda tool.

And think about how awesome it would've been if the nazi ubermenschen-sponsored 1936 Olympics had gone all to hell and embarrassed Hitler. Jesse Owen was one thing, but having the whole thing turn into one big PR disaster would be another. It might not have changed anything, but it sure would be comforting to know that it happened.


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