The World Cannot Afford to Subsidize Hate – The Case Against Sochi 2014

Russia athletes protesting 'anti-gay propaganda' laws - photo credit to Reuters
Russia athletes protesting ‘anti-gay propaganda’ laws – photo credit to Reuters

I guess I’m a bit late to the party, so to speak, but I’ve had a hell of a time wrapping my head around this one.

I guess I’ll start from square one.

I studied history voraciously in university. I was of the mind that the better you knew the past, the better you can anticipate the future. Humanity is an evolving species and change is certain, but we’re also highly predictable creatures of habit with a penchant to try and convince ourselves we aren’t evolving, that the past is irrelevant because it exists in a different time and context. I see things differently – ours is a history of error and success, and in my humble opinion, the scales are tipped heavily towards error. of course it would; biologically our species hasn’t advanced much past the ‘terrible twos’. Those who think we’re going through our adolescence are optimistic, and ultimately aren’t taking the long view. If we survive ourselves, we may be around for a very long time indeed.

But it’s extremely frustrating, having all this historical knowledge, as you begin to see just how frequently we repeat the errors of the past, and just how incapable so-called ‘leading nations’ are at actually preventing the massive man-made cataclysms that have so characterized the last few centuries of our collective experience. What we were supposed to have learned once and for all during the 20th century is that the policies of hate, the dehumanization of minority groups wherever they may be found, and the disenfranchisement of people based on their race, creed, gender, sexual-orientation, religion, class etc. is simply wrong, inexcusable.

The society I grew up in was one filled with survivors and the progeny of survivors. Survivors of the most terrifying conflagration humanity ever created and triumphed over, ours is a nation unfortunately forged in war. Whether a survivor of Dieppe or the concentration camps it didn’t matter much, the lessons learned were supposed to be universal.

Today it seems as though we’ve learned nothing at all.

Across Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia nations which, twenty years ago, were under the iron grip of a massive empire begging for freedom and democracy are today ‘choosing’ to head off down the road of dictatorship, petty nationalism and human rights abuses that would make any self-respecting Canadian’s – regardless of local political orientation – skin crawl. In Hungary the government and other far-right parties are openly discriminating against Jews and Gypsies, if not persecuting them outright. Nazi-inspired political groups terrorize immigrants in Greece while far right nationalists do the same in the United Kingdom. Ugly conservatism has reared its head in France, mobilizing hundreds of thousands to riot in the streets of Paris against marriage equality for homosexuals, while in Turkey it aims to set back the clock on what was once the leading light of secularism in the Muslim world. The most powerful militaries in the world sit out the carnage in Syria and Egypt as political instability in those countries lead to the creation and empowerment of various Islamofascist organizations vying for control in increasingly complicated asymmetrical civil wars.

And on top of all this mess a small group of Nordic countries, arguably among the wealthiest and most developed in the world, are supposed to go to a Black Sea resort early next year to participate in what is supposed to be a great human endeavour – the Winter Olympics. It is marketed and popularly understood to be an opportunity for people of diverse backgrounds to come together, look beyond their individual differences at the underlying bonds of the human condition and enjoy the peaceful competition of sport. And I suppose to enjoy each other as well – the Olympic Village in London ran out of condoms in two days last year…

Unfortunately, and following a discriminatory trend popping up all over the globe these days, the Russians have recently passed laws that criminalize ‘homosexual propaganda’, and these laws will (at least according to some senior Russian officials) be applied to the fullest extent. In effect that means athletes from the LGBTQ rainbow of sexual diversity will have to keep their orientation to themselves (hiding who they are) for fear of arrest, to say nothing of potentially getting beat up by the anti-gay gangs that have quite suddenly popped up. Russia is, at least at a government level, increasingly homophobic and Christian supremacist, and this is on top of their already notoriously poor human rights record, corruption, lack of transparency and democracy.

Now some might say ‘too bad, it’s their laws, their culture, and they’re inviting us, so follow their rules’. This is a position that has been made many times over by elements of the conservative fringe in this country, in addition to a number of people who really haven’t spent much time actually thinking about what’s going on.

And I said before, this is another instance of history repeating. In 1936 it was patently obvious Nazi Germany was becoming exceptionally problematic from a human-rights perspective. Their anti-Jewish laws had been on the books for some time by the time the games began, the Nazis themselves had tried to prevent Blacks and Jews from participating, and had cleared all of the Roma to a concentration camp prior to the opening ceremonies. Though they would ultimately make small concessions to the international community to avoid a total boycott, this amounted to little more than taking down anti-Semitic signs in Berlin and letting foreign Blacks and Jews participate. The policies that would lead directly to the Holocaust were still very much in effect, and the leading nations of that time opted to do nothing at all. And keep this in mind too – just a few months before the games began, Germany had violated the Versailles Treaty by occupying the Rhineland. A few months after the games ended, they’d violate it once more by sending the Luftwaffe to assist General Franco’s fascist coup against the elected Socialist government of Spain. Germany’s assistance allowed Franco to triumph over the Socialists by the time Germany invaded Poland in September of 1939.

Then, as now, many argued that there was no place for politics at the Olympics.

Suffice it to say I disagree, the Olympics are by their very nature intensely political, not to mention an ideal arena to push political agendas, particularly when their aimed at calling out renegade nations for their abusive practices.

Consider it this way – there’s a reason there have so far never been any Olympic Games in South America or the Middle East – there’s plenty of money to make them happen (and indeed Brazil will get its opportunity in three years), but politically these nations are either currently too abusive towards their own people or have been up until quite recently. This is supposed to be one of the key lessons from Berlin 1936 – don’t give the games to nations with piss poor human rights records run by authoritarian dictatorships. It seems like a pretty straightforward rule to follow too, no?

Is Russia a dictatorship with a piss poor human rights record?

Sorta.

On the dictatorship front I would argue it’s increasingly looking that way, though in a fashion that’s not too different from what we see in the United States. The Russians know this very well. Whereas the United States is managed by a somewhat populist plutocracy processing legislation through a thoroughly morally corrupt and totally ineffective legislative body to give the appearance of multi-party representative government, Putin systematically eliminates any and all opposition for ‘moral corruption’ to ensure he and his group of populist plutocrats are the only viable option left. Sometimes I’m not sure which system is worse.

As far as human rights are concerned, they’ve put themselves in an enviable position by supporting Edward Snowden’s asylum, part of what is doubtless an effort to portray itself as the global defender of individual privacy, though I think we’re all sophisticated enough to see this for what it is – more leftovers from the Cold War and a chance for Putin to relativize the discussion of individual rights vis-a-vis government interest. We’re dealing with an extremely intelligent, calculating and ruthless man. Quite frankly I think Putin is a problem the United States is intellectually incapable of handling, but that’s another issue.

My main concern is what Canada should do.

While I would argue strongly in favour of boycotting the Sochi Games, I recognize this certainly won’t do much to improve relations between us and the Russians, and that there is a strong case to be made for competing and protesting in various ways on their turf, though of course this too is problematic.

It would be best of all for Canada to lead a global boycott (i.e. try to convince other nations to follow our example) and also provide an alternative to the Sochi Games. As it stands our country is well suited to host a Winter Olympiad, as at least three of our largest cities have the infrastructure and facilities necessary to do so. Moreover, boycotts and alternative games are nothing new – Barcelona proposed a ‘Peoples Olympiad’ in protest of Berlin 1936 up until the Spanish Civil War broke out. Twenty-eight largely African nations boycotted the 1976 Montreal Games when the IOC failed to suspend New Zealand for participating in a South African rugby tournament. Later, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 the Western powers (under Jimmy Carter’s leadership) quickly boycotted the 1980 Moscow Summer Games. The Soviets in turn boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Games and as a result various other competitions occurred, such as the Liberty Bell Classic, the Goodwill Games, the Friendship Games etc. We’re not exactly through the looking glass here.

I believe we should register our disapproval as officially as possible – we should make it clear to the Russians we don’t approve.

But regardless of the Tory’s official position (they’re so far saying they won’t boycott), we the people can do our part to register our complaints – people can boycott Olympic sponsors and simply choose not to watch the games. There’s nothing unpatriotic about it, the athletes don’t really need your support – they, much like the soldiers, are well taken care of by government up to the point they’re deemed no longer useful. Feel free to support them then.

Making it clear to corporate sponsors the people won’t buy their products may be the quicker way to accomplish something – I doubt McDonald’s or Coke (and just how the fuck did they become Olympic sponsors anyways?) would want to face that kind of bad publicity. Perhaps it is wiser to target the sponsors…

I’ll close on this as I feel this post is going off in too many directions.

There are rumours John Baird, Canada’s foreign affairs minister, is gay. If this is true I would hope he comes out as quickly as possible – there’s no reason to stay closeted and I honestly don’t think he’d lose any support from his base – at least I’d hope not. Baird has been vocal about his disenchantment regarding Russia’s ‘anti-gay propaganda’ laws and has been vocally critical of other hate measures adopted by other nations. He has been especially critical of ‘kill-the-gays’ bills introduced (often with a lot of assistance from American conservative evangelical missions) in various African nations. A few weeks back, an organization that apparently represents the socially conservative base of women voters in Canada (aptly named, à la Fox News – REAL Women of Canada) came out and blasted Baird for using government resources, tax-payers money and his office to push ‘his personal values and views’ on a sovereign nation. Read this interview by rising-star journalist Justin Ling to get an idea of where this fringe hate group is coming from.

This sentiment was somewhat echoed by Montreal’s own Ted Bird a few weeks earlier when he wrote that Russia’s so-called anti-gay laws was in fact a moral and not political issue. Bird argues that a boycott would ultimately prove futile and that the measures enjoy broad support in Russia. Further, Bird said that Russia will evolve at its own speed, and that it always has, but that we shouldn’t push a boycott simply because the Russians won’t approve of personal displays of affection between athletes in the Olympic Village.

What an interesting idea – that Russia is evolving. From a socio-political and socio-cultural perspective they seem to be regressing. Their life expectancy has dropped, unemployment or chronic under-employment has increased, class distinctions are more apparent, far-right organizations have popped up like mushrooms on mouldy carpets and whatever progress they made becoming a democratic participant in the affairs of the First World seems to have been cast aside for a return to a new aristocracy and benevolent dictatorship. Putin is the new Czar. Russia legalized homosexuality in 1993; twenty years later they’re making moves to re-criminalize it. What the fuck happened?

I personally feel it is entirely within Canada’s right to tell other nations what to do – especially when it comes to human rights. Call it one of the advantages of having a nearly clean human rights record, a working democracy and an ultimately humanist society – we get to call the shots when it comes to human rights and it’s entirely within our right to tell others when they’re no longer meeting our minimum standards. It’s wholly within our responsibility as a nation to speak up and to push what we believe is right – it is in the interest of all the nations of the world to have Canada as their friend and support our efforts regarding improving the human rights situation worldwide.

And while I can’t imagine we’ll also start boycotting Saudi Arabia, Israel or China for similar human rights abuses, this doesn’t mean going after Russia now is hypocritical. What matters is what we do next, what happens now and after Sochi, and how we conduct ourselves moving forward.

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