George Will, in an insightful column on Russia’s invasion of Georgia, Russia’s Power Play, makes the best comment I have seen on the opening ceremonies of the Olympics:
For only the third time in 72 years (Berlin 1936, Moscow 1980), the Games are being hosted by a tyrannical regime, the mind of which was displayed in the opening ceremonies featuring thousands of drummers, each face contorted with the same grotesquely frozen grin. It was a tableau of the miniaturization of the individual and the subordination of individuality to the collective. Not since the Nazi’s 1934 Nuremberg rally, which Leni Riefenstahl turned into the film “Triumph of the Will,” has tyranny been so brazenly tarted up as art.
Harold Meyerson offers a reading of the event, which he thinks will be turning point, with the world turning away from American-style democracy in favor of Chinese-style omnipotent and benevolent authoritarianism:
If ever there was a display of affable collectivism, it was filmmaker Zhang Yimou’s opening ceremonies, which in their reduction of humans to a mass precision abstraction seemed to derive in equal measure from Busby Berkeley and Leni Riefenstahl. (Much of Berlin’s 1936 Olympics, we should recall, was choreographed by Riefenstahl to fit the fascist aesthetics of her film “Olympiad.”) The subject of Zhang’s ceremonies was a celebration of Chinese achievement and power, at all times stressing China’s harmonious relations with the rest of the world. Its masterstroke, however, wasn’t its brilliant design but the decision, during the parade of the athletes, to have Chinese flag-bearer Yao Ming accompanied by an adorable 9-year-old boy who survived the recent catastrophic earthquake that killed many of his classmates, and who returned, after he had extricated himself from the rubble, to save two of his classmates. When asked why he went back, the NBC broadcaster told us, the boy said that he was a hall monitor and that it was his job to take care of his schoolmates.
That answer may tell us more than we want to know. He could have gone back because his friends were still inside. Instead, he went back because he was a responsible little part of a well-ordered hierarchy. For all we know, he might well have gone back even if he weren’t a hall monitor, but his answer — whether spontaneously his own or one that some responsible grown-up concocted for him — works brilliantly as an advertisement for an authoritarian power bent on convincing the world that its social and political model is as benign as any democracy’s.
What Russia did last Friday was appalling, but it ultimately poses no systematic challenge to the world’s democracies. What China did last Friday was entrancing, but its cuddly capitalist-Leninism, already much beloved by our major banks and corporations for its low-wage efficiency, poses a genuine economic challenge to the messier, unsynchronized workings of democracies. A nation that can assemble 2,000 perfectly synchronized drummers has clearly staked its claim as the world’s assembly line.
China has found how tyranny and economic prosperity can go together. If China really is the nation of the 21st century, what the USA was in the 20th, that kind of authoritarianism really may be the wave of the near future. Dictatorships really can be more efficient than Democracies in “getting things done,” which is what even Americans now want from their government. We are not sure what we want done and we citizens do not want to be bothered with figuring it out, preferring to leave that to the experts and to state power. Greek democracy was abandoned; the Roman republic gave way to Emperor. Couldn’t that happen with us too?