Utah’s winter clash of civilizations


A few months ago, I wrote that the danger we all faced during the Cold War was more substantial than the significant danger we now face from catastrophic terrorism. Even in its final years, the Cold War cast a dark and ominous shadow over our lives. Without withdrawing from that characterization, I will tell you now that in many ways and at many times, I miss the Cold War. At no time is my nostalgia for Cold War more prominent than during the Olympics. At Lake Placid, Sarajevo, Calgary and Seoul, national competition meant something in a world divided by global ideological conflict.

Perhaps my first memory of a sporting event was the 1980 Miracle on Ice, when a group of American amateur hockey players shocked the favorite Soviet team and went on to win the gold. The Miracle came at a time when not only our hockey team was an underdog, but our whole country looked like an underdog. The tragedy of Vietnam, the embarrassment of Watergate, two oil crises and Stagflation left the nation no longer confident in its tradition, its ideological course or its future. The heroics on the Lake Placid ice were a shot in the arm for a country that sorely needed it.

I understand that it was not quite fair to root against individual athletes who through little fault of their own happen to represent regimes with repugnant ideologies. After all, the whole Olympic idea rests on finding a peaceful forum for individuals to compete and forget about nationality. But, that argument held little sway for me when I was growing up. You see, in the faces of those smug, angry-looking, doped-up, automaton East Germans who kept winning golds in swimming and speed-skating, one could imagine the horror that totalitarian communism was imposing on the lives of millions of people the world over. Ronald Reagan was right. It was an evil empire. Soviet communism was an ideological contagion and moral cancer that was threatening much of the world. In large measure because the United States had an ideological enemy to root against, we also had a better sense of what we were rooting for. In opposing the wall around East Berlin and the gulags of Siberia, we crafted a stronger commitment to popular self-determination and individual liberty at home. In fact, the great gains in domestic politics of the 1950s and 1960s are better understood in the context of Cold War conflict. The American civil rights revolution and the massive increase in social safety nets came in part because of the challenge of Soviet communism. The United States was saying to the world, “We are not the hypocritical ultra-capitalists that the Soviets say we are.” The Cold War drove us to add real content to our rhetorical promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The absence of bi-polar global ideological conflict has made it harder to figure out who and what to root against in the world, and who and what to root for. When we defined ourselves against the Soviets, it gave rise to a civic nationalism – a national identity based on shared fundamental ideas. Today, some see a world moving away from ideological conflict and towards a clash of civilizations – cultural conflict that defies ideological categorization and state boundaries. So, if there happens to be a hapless Iranian ski jumper at Salt Lake City, he will be harder to root against. Yes, President Bush has identified Iran as part of a new axis of evil, but that characterization does not seem adequate. In fact, our conflict may not be with the entire Iranian state, but restricted the wing of religious zealots who still chant “Death to America” at their weekly prayers. More troubling about our new world is the danger that many Americans will define themselves ethnically in response to a perceived ethno-cultural threat. America’s greatness lies in a national idea that defies a single ethno-cultural categorization. In the Cold War, when I was rooting against the Terminator-like East Germans, it wasn’t really because of how they looked but because of the ideology they represented.

At Salt Lake City, the athletes may be more identifiable by their corporate sponsors than the nations they are representing. I think that is somewhat unfortunate. In the Olympics and in the world, I also worry about the rise of American Dream Teams. Pummeling the rest of the world in certain arenas has made us cocky, and the world resentful. Further, watching our Dream Team take the court, there is little joy in the almost guaranteed victory, only the possibility of shocking and humiliating defeat. I long a bit for Lake Placid.

Gore Vidal wrote that for America it is not enough to win, others must lose. We do need an enemy. September 11 showed us that there is certainly an enemy out there. But, we must be very careful how we define this enemy, and even more careful when we define ourselves against it. So, in the next few weeks, I won’t be hoping for hapless Iranian ski-jumpers to fall on their faces, but I will be hoping for the American athletes to win all the gold they can. Also, I’ll be watching for the Skeleton – it’s like the luge, but head-first. Very exciting.

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