Extinguishing the Flame
The last week has seen so much news about the Olympic Torch and its tribulations in Europe, that it seems almost inevitable that I write this post now. Some of the images were quite inspiring, I felt, particularly the Golden Gate Bridge scenes, with protesters flying banners on the side of the bridge. Others were quite gruelling, like the images of a protester in Paris with blood around his mouth, still crying out for freedom in Tibet. The small snatched images of protesters for other causes, especially Burma and the Falun Gong; People standing up to state-led oppression that lacks the draw of the Tibet campaign.
The sight of the flame being extinguished and bundled onto a bus several times was in some ways exhilerating, but in others it was just a reminder that the visibility of injustice often stems more from the over-confidence of states and corporations that perpetuate injustice than anything else. The flame was being held aloft by athletes coopted to a world-wide political status quo by a lack of any other option, available or perceived. In holding it high, it was made vulnerable, but as soon as that vulnerability was made clear, it was taking into safety; into hiding.
It reminded me, in a much shorter time frame, of the process by which WTO and G8 meetings have become further and further hidden from view, simply because they were shown to be moments of vulnerability. While it was a sign of the effectiveness of the protests, it still felt a lot like those in power had the upper-hand; that they would still carry on defiant, but behind thicker and thicker walls.
The presence of NGO rallies, reported to be agreeing only with the message but condemning the tactics of others, was also quite familiar. I very much doubt that the majority of people at those rallies actually opposed the disruption; in such cases, the reasons for not taking direct action include work and family commitments, lack of training leading to lack of courage to take such steps and the almost-terminal lack of initiative which plagues much of our society when it comes to political action. To create a false divide between direct action and passive presence protesters is just nonsense. Some might disagree, but the majority are likely to feel at least some sort of sympathy.
We have also been told about the “Olympic Spirit”, which I must confess I fail to understand. It seems that that Olympic Spirit is one of negative peace, in which countries simply acknowledge each others existance, in which the populace of each holds blind patriotism towards a national team who might be seen to represent the country, but who have no other role in changing it other than to provide a distraction, separation of power and visibility, to emblemise the nation with feel good vibes like the stereotyped mother in a convenience food advert is used to ignore the reality of suffering in meat factories, and the plight of farmers even in the Western world who are forced to deal with fewer and fewer, and thus more and more powerful, buyers.
This Olympic Spirit of Peace seems to have been present in our corridors of government at the time the Serious Fraud Office closed the case on BAE and the Saudis: it was more important for the British State to remain at peace with the Saudi’s, to create a sense of cordial friendship, than to make better the lives of people within Saudi Arabia, who are the victims of some of the worst human rights infringements on Earth, including lack of freedom to redefine one’s faith.
The Olympics is about Nation States. It is about the right of Israel to perform on the world stage and look respectable, safe in the knowledge that Palestinians will never be allowed that ‘honour’. For China, vis-a-vis Tibet, it is the same, and likewise for the Spanish and the Russians. It has been proven impossible, by an American appauled at Washington’s behaviour I believe, to perform at the Olympics without stating a national affiliation. It is about Great Britain performing as one; the Welsh and Scottish spirits subjugated to the vision of a United Kingdom whereby the dictats of Westminster must be obeyed by those who would not even share a common language were it not for cultural violence and repression.
The Olympics is about Peace as experienced by Nation States, deaf to the cries of those individuals they practice violence against. It is about the view that we should only experience International Relations through our governments, rather than through our own forging of relationships with ordinary people in those other countries, who’s experiences may be strikingly familiar, and who’s struggles for dignity might look familiar, but who must be interpretted to us through the lense of being of another state, as if they are the property of that entity, not its constituent parts and certainly not capable of existing aside from it.
The Olympics is about Peace for Corporations, about the kind of stability which allows workers lives to be made volatile simply to protect profits and for communities to suffer from the effects of those products; the peace that permits arms companies to build weapons that will be used to violate populations around the world without a single moment of disruption to production activities. It is about the acceptability of companies like Coca-Cola and Addidas.
I find it almost weird that the Olympic Authorities have decided not to call into question the wisdom of a torch relay in 2012. Perhaps they haven’t learnt their lesson yet. For when it is the turn of Britain’s human rights record, its economic justice record, its war record and its environmental record, to be commented on by protesters, then I am in no doubt that the torch that heads our way shall be the target of much reaction. And I have no doubts that that reaction will be equally direct in its execution.
Today I saw 4 Masai Warriors running the London Marathon to defend their lands and their identity. They cannot represent themselves in the Olympics, even if they were able to run at twice the pace! I feel there is something truly tragic in that, as the torch makes its way across Africa, the continent most violated by the creation of national boundaries and states, left broken and incapacitated by wars and forced into both physical and economic slavery to build other empires, there will be almost no resistance. But then, as they face these harsh realities daily, perhaps they have less need of a symbolic relay to awaken them to the reality of the violence of states together.