Let’s try to imagine how a diplomatic boycott might work in your own life.
You told your neighbour that you’d go over to her house for her annual New Year’s Eve party. Then you found out that she runs a dog-fighting ring or some similarly heinous activity on her property.
You are so morally repulsed that skipping the party isn’t enough. You feel the need to get on the neighbourhood group chat and announce you’ve come to a difficult decision. After a lot of soul searching, you’ve determined that no decent person should be seen to support such a person and their party. With that in mind, you will not be attending this year. Instead, you will stay home rubbing your rosary beads. You’re not going to go so far as to call anyone else who would attend such a party lower than a serpent’s belly, but it’s implied.
Also, in unrelated news, your kids will be going to the party. They’ve been looking forward to it all year and you can’t bring yourself to let them down.
Yes, there may be dog fighting and assorted other violence going on while they are in the house. Maybe they’ll be able to hear whimpering from the garage. But you don’t want to be the ogre who ruined everyone’s night out.
You heard there’s going to be a raffle at the party. What if your kids win a bunch of stuff and bring it home? Well, what can you do? You can’t stop them from winning. As much as it pains you, you’ll have to enjoy the spoils with them.
In summation, this party is wrong and you are against it.
This isn’t exactly what Washington has done in announcing an ersatz boycott of the upcoming Beijing Olympics. What it has come up with makes less sense than that.
America’s long-rumoured halfway measure – the diplomatic boycott – was officially announced on Monday. It doesn’t amount to much. It’s a more impressive sounding way of saying you are eliminating Olympic junkets. Now all the sad, second-rate pols from North Dakota and Maine won’t get flown private to Beijing so they can take a bunch of ego shots with Auston Matthews.
In the announcement, America’s rationales for taking this action were cast by White House spokesperson Jen Psaki in Second World War terms: “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity.” It is difficult to imagine more serious charges.
Yet elsewhere in the same remarks, Psaki sounded the executive air horn on behalf of her boss: “We will be behind [America’s Olympic athletes] 100 per cent as we cheer them on from home. We will not be contributing to the fanfare of the Games.”
That. What you did right there. That is fanfare. Fanfare’s what you call it when you root publicly for athletes. Eliminating the fanfare would mean saying nothing at all.
Fanfare is what this is about, though not the usual sort. We are speaking of political fanfare – controlling and redirecting the sporting kind so that it lands on the right politicians.
This is a leadership looking to be congratulated for doing the right thing, while getting to do what they self-evidently believe to be the wrong thing.
Take earlier comments about the proposed boycott from Robert Menendez, the senator who chairs the foreign relations committee. He called it “a necessary step to demonstrate our unwavering commitment to human rights in the face of the Chinese government’s unconscionable abuses.”
I’m sure the people suffering those abuses can discern the difference between American athletes holding up the Stars and Stripes on Beijing podiums and the American VIPs who will no longer be whooping it up in the stands behind them. Perhaps “unwavering” means something different in Menendez’s district.
You can’t be said to be taking a stand unless it involves some sort of sacrifice. What has America given up here? Nothing. Less than nothing. This move saves them on airfare.
This isn’t moral leadership. It’s outrage mitigation. Washington needs to be seen doing something, but nothing so substantive that it might interfere with everyone’s fun times. Unable to boycott and just as unable to not boycott, America has chosen a boycott that isn’t a boycott. Except it has called it a boycott. Cool trick.
Playing silly buggers with language makes it possible for everyone to oppose China as party host, while still enjoying the jingoistic boost that comes from attending China’s party.
Had America said nothing about a boycott and quietly ordered officials to stay home, its position would at least be logically consistent. That would have allowed them to give the athletes, broadcasters, corporate sponsors and voters/fans what they want, without confronting the implications of what that means. It wouldn’t be very honourable, but would at least make some sense.
Putting a name to America’s semi-absence reveals it as a hypocrite. What else would you call accusing someone of mass murder, congratulating yourself on your own bold truth-telling and then helping yourself to their hospitality?
Now we’ll see what America’s allies do, and what China does in turn. Beijing has already promised “firm countermeasures.”
Would it be possible for an Olympic host to pull out of a Games a few weeks before they start? The idea would not have even occurred to me a couple of weeks ago, but it’s beginning to feel like a lot of impossible scenarios are now possible.
For those who are still Beijing or Bust, there is good news. Despite all the hot talk, we are still in the posturing stage. No one has yet done anything to put the Games in doubt.
For those who had hoped for a moral stand on this file, there is no news at all. Just more of the same nonsense meant to obscure the fact that no one wants to take any position that might force them to tell the kids they can’t go to the globe’s most lavish and beloved circus.