From an early age, I have been a total sucker for the arts and sports. I never complained about going to the Nutcracker when I was young and I use to get so excited for Redskins’ football games I was literally scared of what I might do to myself. My excitement for both has tempered a little these days, but I still find I can get excited for both. I won’t turn down a chance to go to the theatre and sporting events are nearly the only thing on television that make my eyes well up with tears.
These days they are both playing important roles in the world. Specifically, the New York Philharmonic’s visit to Pyongyang shows how the arts can and will cross borders, regardless of how the two government’s feel about each other. Something seems strange about one of our orchestras visiting Korea while our current commander-in-chief only wrote a letter.
The Philharmonic’s entourage marks the biggest group to travel to North Korea since the Korean War ended in 1953. The only US president to ever visit North Korea was nuclear physicist turned human rights advocate, Jimmy Carter. And that was in 1994 during the Clinton Administration.
Then there is the Olympics in China. This event has not even commenced and already an interesting dialogue has started. Steven Speilberg dropped out of helping as an artistic advisor because China won’t involve itself in the conflict in Darfur. China gets a lot of its oil from Sudan (Darfur is in western Sudan) but turns a blind eye to the genocide taking place there. This is not to mention the problem people have with China’s domestic affairs.
China apparently is trying to tighten the screws on the athletes asking them not to publicly protest at the Games. “Our main concern is that the Olympic Games is a great gathering event of the Chinese people and world people and they shall not be politicized or boycotted under some political excuses,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said earlier this week. I would have to say to Liu, good luck with that.
I think the politicization of the Olympics makes it worth having. Sometimes it takes bringing the
world’s attention to wrongs that influences countries to examine themselves. Most famously for me was when American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists on the medal podium in 1968 to bring attention to civil rights issue. They were also barefoot to protest black poverty and wore beads around their necks to protest lynching. Avery Brudage, the late head of the U.S. Olympic Committee stripped the two men of their medals and sent them home. This week Liu sounded a lot like Brundage did forty years ago. “They violated one of the basic principals of the Olympic Games,” argued Brundage in 1968, “That politics play no part whatsoever in them.” Smith and Carlos caught a lot of heat in the aftermath, but their stand was still powerful and still mattered.
If they listened to Brundage then this big moment would have been lost. And to keep politics out of the arts and sports paralyzes our best form diplomacy. That is the beauty of these creations, not only do they embed important issues into our conscious, but they also begin dialogues we as human beings can sometimes be reluctant or unable to start.