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Thursday, February 6, 2014

The 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia: “Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire”

In the weeks leading us to watch the Olympics, I suspect I was not alone in thinking, “I just don't like what I see here." Why was I resisting paying even scant attention to the pre-Olympics "coverage" (a.k.a. advertising) as NBC, the American broadcast network covering the games, was getting rather publicly revved up on the upcoming media event. In this essay, I briefly survey the external stimuli, leaving the self-analysis to the analyst’s couch.[1]

First, as the American press reported before NBC began promoting the games in earnest (hmm), there is the “whole gay thing” and Putin. I really think that's a non-issue with regard to the Olympics, given the uniqueness of the Olympic Village. I would not be surprised were the Russian police of the mind that “What goes on in Vegas stays in Vegas,” at least as far as vacations are concerned.

Now, the "not fit for primetime viewing" conditions of some of the hotels putting up the foreign press strikes me as more substantive because of the implicit and likely even explicit rudeness does not go down well, even at a distance. Relatedly, I suspect, the sheer amount of money "padded" into the construction projects, including hotel construction, for kick-backs undoubtedly directed to Putin's major political supporters eviscerates any possible excuse in the tardiness.

In fact, associating Putin at all with the Olympics comes off to me like associating liver with dinner; I instinctively spit out immediately any hint of liver-taste. I must admit I am glad the U.S. State Department put out a travel warning for Americans going to the games. I was also amused to read of the low numbers of non-Russians arriving from abroad in Sochi as of the first day of games.[2] Of course, the modern Olympics hinges on the broadcasts around the world, rather than attendance numbers.

 Even though NBC's studio in the Olympic Village is transparent, the network's tactics may be anything but. (Image Source: David Johnson)

Interestingly, as part of its rather obvious devices to remind/manipulate its general viewership to watch the approaching games (including inserting reporters live from Sochi into CNBC's coverage of the financial markets), NBC strategists may actually have been fomenting the security story in order to draw viewers' attention to the fact that the games would soon begin. Stirring up fear and the hope of visual voyeurism of others’ tragedies is a sure bet for news reporting as advertising.  However, overdoing it can be counterproductive if too much of the ploy is visible on the surface as a duplicitous, otherwise stealth agenda. Yearning to turn the subtropical town on the Black Sea into an international resort, Putin could not have been very happy about the coverage, though may have realized the importance of a huge broadcast viewership even for himself, not to mention covering some of the kick-backs.
Finally, starting particular events including skating the day before the OPENING ceremony may stand out among the various points of smoke above in being indicative of fire skipping fire lines below. Even though Chris Chase of USA Today concludes “it’s a small price to pay for the overall improvement of the Winter Games,” he admits “it still feels strange to start the Olympics before the Olympics technically start.”[3] In the film, Inglourious Basterds, Lt. Aldo Raine wryly clarifies the matter of something seeming odd (or strange).  “Yeah, we got a word for that in English. It’s called suspicious.” 

In spite of his conclusion (i.e., small price to pay), Chase provides a credible case for suspicion. “Television rules all." he states up front as if it were a natural law. "Adding another day of Olympic competition means adding another day of Olympic telecasts. Thursday is traditionally one of the biggest television nights (along with Sunday). With all the money being paid to cover the games by networks across the world, turning 17 days of Olympic coverage into 18 days is a nice bonus.”[4] Regarding the addition of a program of skating, Chase points to a five day interim within the two weeks without any skating scheduled.

In closing, I must let the philosopher in me have a few words (no philosopher ever has just a few words, so please take a bathroom break if you need to). From sheer logic, to begin something before it has begun is a blatant contradiction. As per his categorical imperative, Kant would call the practice unethical. Were everyone to adopt the maxim, “I will start activities before the start time,” it would not make sense to have a start time for anything. The maxim is thus self-contradictory if it (like reason itself) is universalized.

Hume would point out that Kant relies too much on logic and reason more generally in assessing whether a given practice is ethical. A person reading U.N.’s condemnation of the Vatican in February 2014  for having been more concerned about the reputation of the Church as a whole than children’s welfare—a priority that Rev. Joe Ratzinger, or Benedict XVI, put in a letter while archbishop of Munich—may think through the theological implications of priests covering for each other. However, the sentiment of disapprobation (think of my expression as I spit out odious liver) is likely, excepting sociopaths, to be the principal reaction. Emotive rather than of Reason.

When I read of the sports beginning a day before the opening ceremony, I felt a sentiment of disapprobation well up inside me. Because I had been feeling that something just isn’t right about the upcoming games, especially from an vague intuitive sense of NBC’s manipulative tactics as over-reaching at best, I suspected that the rather odd placement of some events before the ceremony also came from the mentality that wants incessantly to squeeze out a few more drops of lemon juice from lemon that has already shed enough.  The sight of this childish demeanor in action is enough for any non-manipulative person to resist going where the manipulations point.

[1] I have in mind here Nietzsche’s thesis that reasoning is really a person’s instinctual urges tussling for dominance—that which overcomes the others (here as obstacles) reaches the surface of consciousness as an idea. I do think about this point regarding philosophy (and particular philosophical systems) in general and how my own psychological background fuels or is otherwise expressed in the ideas and related theories I “intuit” and “create.”
[2] Associated Press, “Sochi Olympics Still Waiting for Spectators from Abroad,” The Huffington Post, February 6, 2014.
[3] Chris Chase, “Why Do the Winter Olympics Start before the Opening Ceremony?” USA Today, February 6, 2014.
[4] Ibid.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

From Ground Zero to 1776 Feet

The glass exterior gives the Freedom Tower a look of unity, such as that which occurred on September 11, 2001. (Image Source: USA Today)

Aspiring to hope again, against the pull of the annualized calls to remember, yet again, a tragedy whose villain had met his fitting end, America could dare to inhale a fresh sense of pride instead of the stale bad air of vulnerability and death that stubbornly would not die under the cover of mourning. New Yorkers with an even longer memory could feel a sense of payback on behalf of their proud city, which had lost the World's Fair to Chicago in 1893. New York's press had dubbed the metropolis of the Midwest "the windy city" for all the bragging there for having been selected over Wall Street's locale. In 2013, New York's bewindowed Temple of Independence beat out the Sears, or "Willis," Tower in Chitown (pronounced shy-town, not shit-own, or, even worse, own-shit) as the tallest building in the Western hemisphere on account of a spire. 

Lest it be said that the sky is the limit for the perpetual Union of shimmering unity, the laws of nature do not allow a Rome or a Washington to rise forever. as if social organization were somehow not mortal. As between us and God, our cultural artifices are unfortunately on our side of the ledger. They are also in continuity with Nature, into whose embrace we mere mortals cannot evade. So what does Nature have in store for the American experiment of a general republic within whose borders semi-sovereign republics reside as though tamed members? Will the U.S. collapse from its own weight, or become increasingly susceptible to enemies foreign and even domestic? 

Our lot is not to know what lies beyond the horizon reflected in the unscratched glass of freedom's tower. We can, however, marvel at the sheer tenacity of a people whose hope, whose light, will not go quietly under the ashes at Pearl Harbor and Ground Zero. For from the extraordinary hardships of brave colonists in the wilderness, on the periphery of the known world, came bubbling to the surface the idea of self-governance, whose practicability and unity require the self-discipline of virtue and civic knowledge,  in 1776.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Target Intimidating Customers by Impersonating Police: Nietzsche on Weakness Seeking to Dominate

In the PBS series Downton Abbey, the Victorian countess, magnificently played by Maggie Smith, delivers a reverberating line as fit for my hometown in the second decade of the twenty-first century as for a village in Britain a century earlier. Referring to the local physician, who had just been raised to the position of military manager of convalescent centers during World War I, the countess remarks in frustration after a rejected request, “We give these little people power and it goes to their heads like strong drink.” This poignant quote fits like a glove in the case of the typical store manager and assistant managers, especially in my decaying hometown in the U.S. a century after World War I. In this essay, I apply Nietzsche's philosophy to a rather distinct pattern that I discovered there decades after I had left for college.

The full essay has been incorporated into (or swallowed up by) On the Arrogance of False Entitlement: A Nietzschean Critique of Business Ethics and Management, available in print and as an ebook at Amazon.