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What the World Could be Like: Lessons from the Olympics

Here are the things that impress me about this year’s Winter Olympics:

1.     The variety of events: the inclusion of what were once known as “extreme sports,” such as various snowboarding and freestyle skiing events represents a flexibility in allowing a traditional activity to incorporate modern styles of sport and remain relevant to both older and younger generations.

2.     The acknowledgement that, while Russia’s doping behaviors were apparently sanctioned by its Olympic authorities, many Russian athletes did not participate in such doping, and allowing them to join the Olympics as Olympic Athletes from Russia, is a model of applying sanctions where needed but not with such a broad brush as to penalize the innocent.

3.     The ethnic diversity of the American team, although some ethnicities remain underrepresented, is a testament to the central role that immigrants and their children play in our society and even in our view of who we are and what we can be proud of.

4.     Almost miraculously, given recent tensions between North Korea and South Korea as well as North Korea and the United States, the ability of both North and South Korea to choose to emphasize their common heritage over their differences and form a “unification” team,  is a model for how to put  the value of sharing a common humanity above local pride and fear.

5.     The beauty and skill of the performances.

Americans, and probably people all over the world who are paying attention to these things, have widely divergent opinions on the value and meaning of the North and South Korean rapprochement over the Olympics. Even within South Korea, the welcoming gestures of President Moon Jae-in have gotten mixed reviews, with a sizeable portion of the South Korean population being critical of his actions. The main issues for those who oppose such cross-border cooperation have been that they lend legitimacy to a repressive government that violates the human rights of its people and that they are a ruse by Kim Jong-un of North Korea to distract the world from his rogue nuclear program and to drive a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea.

In an article I wrote for Civil American, called “Humanizing Monsters,” I made the argument that it is a mistake to fail to see the common humanity in those to whom we attribute horrific intentions and deeds. I was arguing against an interviewer’s question of whether it was dangerous to “humanize” those who belonged to terror groups such as ISIS. I argued that it is more dangerous not to humanize them, because the behaviors they show and that we despise are ones of which we are all capable, and the motivations that lead to those behaviors, are ones to which all of us could, in the right circumstances, fall prey. But those human attributes that lead us not to participate in such horrific behaviors nor even to sympathize with them, are also attributes of those who do, and to change them, we need to bring this side of their humanity to the fore. For South Korea to join with North Korea  in a mutual endeavor, such as a joint women’s hockey team, or in singing a common popular folk ballad from their mutual heritage, or for South Koreans to join the North Korean “cheerleaders” in a chant, signals a recognition that people on either side of their border are not that different from one another. As a sixteen year old South Korean student said, after watching the North Korean cheerleaders, “…being this close to them tonight has made me really understand that we are the same people.” South Koreans, and everyone else in the world are perfectly capable of keeping in mind the crimes against their citizens that characterize the Kim Jong-un regime, while realizing that the people they are sometimes urged to fight are very much like themselves—something that can be said for most of the people engaged in wars with one another in this world.

But aren’t both South Koreans and the rest of the world, including many naïve Americans, being duped by North Korea’s “charm offensive”? Does anyone really believe that friendliness at the Winter Olympics or the charm of a smiling and polite woman ambassador to the games (Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong) confuses the rest of the world about the nuclear intentions and threat of North Korea, or their repressive government policies? North Korea’s willingness to talk to South Korea and to engage in a mutual endeavor, such as the Olympics, are real, not sham gestures, which despite the odds being against them, at least have some chance of reducing tensions on the Korean Peninsula and, perhaps—just perhaps—allowing South Korea to influence the behavior of its belligerent northern neighbor. We can be suspicious, but the potential gains from such a reduction in tension far outweigh the dangers of being fooled by the North Koreans. Deciding to talk to one’s adversary is a necessary step in resolving differences. It does not need to entail lowering one’s guard against their real threat to either their neighbors or the rest of the world.

The 2018 Winter Olympics have been a breath of fresh air in a pessimistic, fearful and dangerous world. Let’s not let our own cynicism and paranoia, disguised as "realism," cause us to miss seeing the positives that are right before our eyes, even as we acknowledge their limitations.




Reader Comments (4)

Beautiful post Casey. De-humanizing another only de-humanizes us.

As your srticle refers to nuke conflict and as nuclear threats are growing each day I would like to recommend the most horrifying book I have ever read...Doomsday Machune by Daniel Ellesberg. Ellsberg looks at the rationale behind our war plan which seems to have been static since the Eisenhower era.

All out first strike planned, fire on warning, de-centralized command/control (defacto0 to the individual nuke delivery site... various dead-hand strategies to inforce total war. Almost immediately one third the planet dead. (cleverly not counting USA casualties which woul probably be total. (Even a USA planned first strike won't get all the Russian arsenal)

All this is at a time when it is known that even a 100 warhead exchange would crete nuclear winter leading to the fall of civilization and possibly the extinction of human life

I think it's great the Koreans are getting together in peace. I remember arter the cold war discovering that the Russians are folks very similar to us too. Maybe we could do the same.

February 13, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDariel Garner

"The ethnic diversity of the American team, although some ethnicities remain underrepresented, is a testament to the central role that immigrants and their children play in our society and even in our view of who we are and what we can be proud of."

The race and ethnicity of the athletes is relevant only to people who judge people based on their heritage, place of origin or skin color. I acknowledge that people have different backgrounds and skin tones and that these factors are quite irrelevant to athletic pursuits. What is relevant is their prowess, their dedication, their artistry and their creativity. None of these things are dependent on ethnic origins or the color of a person's skin. Please stop promoting group identity as if it was a significant aspect of character. Identity politics is the overwhelming form of racism in this country. I'm guessing there are more than ten million neo-racist progressives promoting their divisive rhetoric in the United States; vastly more than the few thousand neo-nazis that that horrid ideology can seem to muster. I'm aware that it takes a powerful mirror to see the hypocrisy inherent in one's supposedly enlightened viewpoint but there hopefully will come a time when everyone can simply be recognized as unique individuals as opposed to being marginalized as just another muddled aspect of an ever-increasing, ever-stratifying, ever-polarizing identity collective.

February 13, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMark Wheeler

Mark, I could agree with you if I didn’t believe that our current sdministration’s goal in their immigration policy was to limit the number of immigrants and to decrease immigration based on variables of ethnicity and national origin. But I do believe that is the aim of Trump policy and it is based upon mistaken and prejudiced views about the contributions of people based on these characteristics. That is a narrative that needs to be challenged by examples of the accomplishments of immigrants and their children of a variety of ethnic, racial, National and religious backgrounds. You underestimate the ethnic and racially based bigotry in our society.

February 13, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterCasey Dorman

There's no doubt the current administration and a significant majority of Americans want to slow down the rate of immigration. That's a perfectly noble thought. I don't see any evidence there is a racial element to the Trump administration in the manner with which potential immigrants are favored or disfavored. What President Trump has primarily stated is that he wants immigrants who will "love our country," a concept which seems fairly sound. President Trump has also stated he wants "talented people" to come to the United States. Neither of those two preferences make reference to skin color or country of origin. The RAISE act makes no reference to skin color or country of origin. As for anyone underestimating the the amount of bigotry in this country, I will contend that the exact opposite is true. Outside of the liberally-driven agendists that seek to create racist oppressors and oppressed victim classes, the overwhelmingly vast majority of people have no desire to engage in racial politics nor hold ethnically-driven motivations. In fact, they find those attitudes both despicable and abhorrent.

February 14, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMark Wheeler

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