Sunnyvale is a mid sized city in the San Francisco Bay Area, about 50 miles from San Francisco. We have our high tech firms and a diverse ethnic population that has worked hard and achieved a lot of things in many fields, but “The City”, as we call San Franscisco, still holds a large place in our hearts. Last week, at my work in the Sunnyvale Public Library, all the talk was about the Olympic relay event in San Francisco and the protests that accompanied the relays. On Thursday, coworkers would stop each other to see the latest news and to pipe in on their opinions of the rightness or wrongness of the demonstrations. The consensus of the opinions that I heard was that my coworkers had mixed feelings about the protests. On the one hand, they felt that the Tibetans had every right to protest. On the other hand, the protesters shouldn’t be physically manhandling the Olympic relay runners, who had nothing to do with China’s record of human rights abuses, and that the Olympics in general should stay away from politics.
I don’t totally agree, but I can see their point. In all the talk about the protests and the Olympic relays, no mention was made about the 40 years of Chinese occupation of Tibet, Chinese human rights abuses within its own country and its toleration of human rights abuses in countries that it has an influence over. I personally think the protesters should demonstrate during these Olympic relays, but how they demonstrate is just as important as the cause in which they demonstrate about. The whole purpose of these demonstrations should be to highlight the abuses of the Chinese government, to enlighten people of the totalitarian nature of the host nation of the Olympics and its enabling of the genocide in Darfur.. Protests that divert attention to their cause and instead bring sympathy to a Communist China that doesn’t deserve it are counterproductive in my mind.
I think any Tibetan who cares about their country and is dismayed by the occupation of their country by China should protest these Olympic relays. They have an opportunity to do something that their counterparts in their country can’t do because of suppression by Communist authorities: voice their displeasure at the way their country is being run. China now has occuppied Tibet for 40 years, and in those 40 years, peaceful negotiations and diplomatic overtures have had little effect in changing Chinese policies. In America, we have a tradition of protest and grassroots actions affecting change in our government and society. The great Civil Rights protests of the 1960s, the Freedom Rides and the Sit-Ins, highlighted the unfairness of segregation laws and the prejudice that African Americans faced to a nation that had ignored these injustices previously. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and the women’s suffragists protested and demonstrated for the right of women to vote. History has shown that governments do not change unless they are pressured by mass movements. Some have criticized the Tibetans and activists for protesting during the Olympic ceremonies, but if they cannot practice their right to freely assemble and voice their opinions here in the U.S., what does that say about our faith in democratic ideals?
Scott Herhold, an editor for the San Jose Mercury News, wrote a good article the day after the Olympic relays went through San Franicisco. Herhold wrote:
“The Olympic Games and the torch relay have been about politics for decades.
So there was nothing wrong when thousands of protesters showed up Wednesday to protest the Chinese government’s policies in Darfur, Tibet and Myanmar.
In fact, there was a lot right. In the absence of the flame, the protesters- and the pro-Chinese demonstrators who arrived to counter them- came closer to dialogue than warfare…
But anyone who things that all messiness- all passions- can be avoided in discussing issues like Tibet or Darfur is unrealistic at best and repressive at worst.
A little history lesson is in order: The modern torch relay got its start in 1936 as a propoganda stunt for the Nazis, who saw a torch run from Greece to Berlin as a way of building interest in the Games and burnishing Hitler’s regime.
Leni Riefenstahl filmed it. Joseph Goebbels used it. And the Olympic movement , which was never as much about peace and harmony as people think, embraced it.
Are the Olympics really just about sports? …In truth, governments, corporations and protesters know the Olympics are a stage to be seized.”
Perhaps the protesters should have found a different way to voice their grievances against the Chinese government than to try to douse the Olympic torch. But they had every right to be present and to exercise their right to protest that the Chinese government does not give them in China or in Tibet. Dissent is important, to point out inconvenient facts that society would otherwise rather ignore. Cass R. Sunstein wrote in his book Why Societies Need Dissent:
“The problem is that widespread conformity deprives the public of information that it need to have. Conformists follow others and silence themselves, without disclosing knowledge from which others would benefit. This was the problem with the invasion of the Bay of Pigs; it also produces large losses for member of investment clubs. Hans Christian Andersen’s fable ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ is an ingenious illustration; because everyone follows everyone else, people do not reveal what their eyes plainly perceive. We shall shortly see that ordinary people in scientific experiments behave like the adults in Andersen’s tale. When injustice, oppression, and mass violence are able to continue, it is almost always because good people are holding their tongues….
There is an ironic point here, one that I shall stress throughout. Conformists are often thought to be protective of social interests, keeping quiet of the sake of the group. By contrast, dissenters tend to be seen as selfish individualists, embarking on projects of their own. But in an important sense, the opposite is closer to the truth. Much of the time, dissenters benefit others, while conformists benefit themselves.”