Columns, Opinions

Steinman ’19: Time for some cautious optimism

By
Opinions Editor
Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Over the year that I’ve edited this section, I’ve come across a number of columns that include a variation on the phrase “now more than ever,” including plenty of my own. A dysfunctional administration coupled with far more concerning long-term trends like climate change, an uptick in racism and xenophobia and attacks on the very concept of truth have extended past the political and cultural spheres to give a sense that every moment is weighed down by the impending apocalypse.

The 2018 Winter Olympics, which began in Pyeongchang, South Korea, on Friday, don’t fit this narrative. How can the world be mired in division and destruction when 92 governments are willing to send 2,900 of their most talented citizens, not to mention key political leaders, to an arena just 50 miles from the nation supposedly poised to destroy us all? The very existence of this paragon of cooperation, of this celebration of common human achievement, is hard to reconcile with the gravity of “what’s going on in the world.” Attempting to do so highlights the problem with our “now more than ever” mentality: It leaves little room for genuine celebration and accomplishment and makes progress feel disingenuous, creating a culture of cynicism that could take decades to undo.

During the opening ceremony, when athletes from South and North Korea prepared to enter the arena under a common flag depicting a united Korean peninsula, an NBC commentator wondered aloud if this was a genuine step toward reconciliation or the last show of friendship before tragedy strikes. True, it’s easy enough to imagine images of that unified parade accompanying every news story in the world if the unthinkable did happen in Korea. It’s also a more comfortable concept to speculate about if you live thousands of miles away, as the commentator, an American, presumably does. But hearing that doomsday prognosis over the emotional, overjoyed faces of the united Korean team fostered a sense of imminent failure where there should have been cautious optimism. While this moment and the united Korean women’s hockey team’s game the following day were highly choreographed and symbolic, they still represent a meaningful diplomatic accomplishment, not the end of an unsteady peace.

The growing acceptance of collapsing institutions and inevitable conflict will only hasten that collapse and conflict. Though mindful of the persistent inequities and tragedies we still face, we should also take the time to celebrate the strength of the ties that bind us together without speculating on when they might sever. We should recognize triumphs — like the brief moment of Korean unity, and, more broadly, the coming together of nearly 100 nations in the name of friendly competition and glory — for what they are. This doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to conflict or injustice or shifting focus away from immediate problems. But every once in a while, it’s important to break out of the cloud of fear that hangs over nearly every story covered in the media. The Olympics offer us this opportunity once every two years, and we shouldn’t squander it.

Of course, the Olympics have never been isolated from their political contexts, and this has manifested itself in ways both powerful — Jesse Owens in 1936 and Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising the “human rights salute” in 1968 — and horrific — the murder of 11 Israeli Olympians by terrorists from a faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1972. More recently, the revelation of the decades of abuse carried out by Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics doctor, demonstrated that the Olympics themselves need to undergo as much soul-searching as our other formidable institutions to rid themselves of a culture that permits and hides sexual assault. But ultimately, the Olympics represent the best of our liberal democratic order: a diverse community united around seeking some higher triumph and understanding across nations.

I hope that, rather than further complacency about the state of our world, the Olympics can remind us why we must stand up in defense of international cooperation. The Olympic vision — thousands of people of all backgrounds and nationalities standing side by side, advantaged only by their stunning talent and unwavering perseverance — bears little resemblance to the world we live in. But just as the athletes themselves provide a standard of achievement to which us regular people can aspire, we should view these two weeks not as a fleeting diversion from a world gone to pieces, but as a model of greatness that we can surely reach, with luck and years of practice.

Clare Steinman ’19 can be reached at clare_steinman@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.