Extinguishing the Flame

Sunday, 13th April 2008 at 23:55 UTC 6 comments

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.


Entry filed under: Asia, China, Culture, democracy, Human Rights, Olympics, Peace, Politics, Sports.

No time to loose “That’s Catholic” is no excuse

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. tiggs  |  Monday, 14th April 2008 at 13:39 UTC

    Graham, some how I knew you didn’t like the Olympics…


  • 2. Greg  |  Tuesday, 15th April 2008 at 13:26 UTC

    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 … 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.

    Lack of initiative plays a part, but so do current protesters’ methods. Outside of the bubble of peace studies students you’ve occupied, protesters have a severe image problem with is at least partly their fault. To combat this, you need to make sure that events do what they say on the tin, and only do that.

    What do I mean? Well, just because you may see climate change, the economic situation, nuclear disarmament and neoconservative interventionism as part of one whole package, doesn’t mean that others do. I don’t. And yet in my limited contact with protests and activism, I’ve heard plenty of shouts about nukes and about quitting Iraq, when those issues had nothing to do with the stated aim of the protest, and I’ve heard you imply that caring about the climate is the preserve of left wingers. None of this is good. If one forms part of a crowd that hurls insults at (for instance) George Bush, one’s presence shows support to those insults. I don’t want to insult Bush, so I’m put off joining crowds that are likely to do that. Similarly, the activist community should definitely silence people like the ‘acaw'(?) guy you talked about last night. Most people don’t want to bring down the system, they’re just discontented with one bit of it. Most people don’t want to buy into an alternative neohippy anarcho-leftist way of life. Most people don’t see the state as an oppressor and don’t feel like playing disruption games with the police, but that’s what a lot of protests seem to offer. While you continue to see activism as some sort of community people can get drawn into, you’re not letting people protest about issues they care about without being co-opted. I resent that, and it will keep you small.

  • 3. Hannah  |  Wednesday, 16th April 2008 at 2:47 UTC

    I know I keep falling into arguments I can’t hope to keep up with, but here’s my view on this piece.

    There are more issues that China needs to address, more problems that the outside world needs to talk about, than just Tibet. Many of these were highlighted as the torch went past. Everyone is watching, waiting for the protesters, so of course they’re there. Good for them.

    There are other reasons against direct action than what you describe. To be considered peaceful. To avoid the intervention of the law. Embarrassment. Maturity. Apart from grabbing headlines, what does extinguishing actually do? The headlines were there already. For these reasons, I can see how plenty of people would wish to be passive.

    I understand that consideration of the Olympics will lead to a consideration of the nations themselves. No country has a perfect past, which has led to many problems in the present. These problems will not solve themselves overnight. Meanwhile, we can sit back and watch the traditional festival of Zeus, and wonder how it became globally accepted.

    The Olympics, and other sporting events like it, are one of the few times we see people representing a wide range of countries not talking politics. Admittedly, they tend to be out of breath, and not talking at all, but the point stands. The Olympics are a sign of “Why can’t we all just get along?”, and although not quite all are there, it’s a start.

    I like watching athletics.

    I too wonder whether 2012’s torch relay will face similar protests. There’s a heap of issues that the British government should have dealt with, but haven’t, and probably still won’t have. At least we know of what has been done wrong and badly, whilst the majority of the Chinese population just won’t know what the protests are about, if they know of the protests at all.

    And to Greg:

    Acab – also standing for “Always Carry a Bible”. But not in this case. The way Acab is silenced, at least from the descriptions Graham was giving, is that once he’s been arrested and got out of the way, the protest can begin.

  • 4. Greg  |  Tuesday, 13th May 2008 at 22:58 UTC

    While I’m at it, let’s get something straight. Injustice isn’t perpetuated by ‘states and corporations’. It’s perpetuated by people, and you and I both play a part in that. You can’t separate the world into us and them, and you can’t just heap the blame on the left’s favourite convenient scapegoat of ‘states and corporations’ and thus shed your own share of guilt. Everyone’s depraved and everyone’s responsible.

  • 5. Greg  |  Monday, 19th May 2008 at 22:50 UTC

    Ooh, this is interesting. Hannah wrote her comment before I wrote mine, but I didn’t see hers when I wrote it. Graham, do you have any idea why this happened?

    Hannah, I’m not sure what “maturity and embarrassment” have got to do with things? While I may think that ‘acab’ (thanks for the correction btw) should get over himself, you sound like you’re placing ‘a bit of peace and quiet’ as the highest virtue. Which would be all very well, except that TIbet doesn’t have peace. No country has a perfect past, but China’s present is worse than most. It’s a country where censorship and religious oppression are rife and which has massacred its own citizens within living memory. Tibet has had it worse than most parts of the PRC ever since it was invaded 50 years ago, and to be frank I’d be embarrassed if nobody thought that was bad enough to be bothered getting a bit undignified. (And yes, I’m embarrassed that I didn’t make it down to London for the protests.) People’s lives are worth more than peace and quiet.

    You say that the headlines would be there anyway, but I seriously doubt it. I didn’t see nearly as many headlines about the torch going to Athens or to Sydney as I have done this time round. The protests have forced the issue. Just think, nobody noticed Tibet until the monks started protesting. Before that, everyone was harping on about China’s arms sales to Sudan.

    I like watching athletics too, but were I a top class athlete (I wish!), I’d be doing a lot of soul searching about going to Beijing. We can’t just put politics aside, because it is about people and people don’t just get put aside. Tibet is still being culturally cleansed and its civilian citizens are still being shot. I reckon China would like the western world to think that it’s a liberal democracy like us, and if we can hurt its image by boycotting, that’s good, since China cares about its image. ‘Why can’t we all just get along’ means that we turn a blind eye to the atrocities China commits. It says that we actually think a good 100m sprint is more important than the things we’re ignoring. False peaces like that are hypocritical and I want no part in them – I’d prefer to get even more undignified, and work towards a proper peace.

    Whew! Can anyone tell I’ve got a report to write?!

  • 6. Graham Martin  |  Wednesday, 28th May 2008 at 9:46 UTC

    Response to Greg:
    The delay was due to Hannah being held in moderation. The idea that injustices are only perpetuated by individuals falls short because it fails to understand the deeper rooted aspects of injustice. Ideas kill, but only with the help of people; people kill, but usually only on the back of a set of ideas, most often predjudicial. “Following Orders” is no defence, but we have to tackle the root problem, perhaps?
    Other than that, your response is pretty agreeable, for once!


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