to boycott or not to boycott, is that the question?

(“the beautifying lie.” – Milan Kundera on fascist kitsch)

Sochi opening ceremonies; Russia’s Police Choir Covers Daft Punk’s Get Lucky

I’ve been very conflicted about whether to watch the Olympics in support of LGBTQ athletes, or not in protest against Putin and the corporate sponsors of the games…I was leaning toward the former in hopes that we will see some political action transpiring as has happened in past (despite charter’s rules against it) though haven’t watched anything yet. I am reminded, of course, of Jesse Owens in 1936 winning a medal and being publicly congratulated by a German athlete, a statement the whole world heard. When I posted about my ambivalence Saturday nite on FB, the responses were interesting.

Photographer Ruben Natal-San Miguel commented without hesitation: “Not watching it dear. NBC and Russia can suck it!” As did others in some form or another. Some echoed this interesting op-ed in the Guardian by Heidi Moore, who looks at the issue in economic terms, and concludes not watching will have the biggest impact.

Protest in London

Many felt otherwise, of course. That support of the athletes was the way to go, or that it didn’t matter anymore given it was all taped anyway (ie, we wouldn’t see them “live”). One friend, the erudite, Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt, who was watching the opening ceremonies, reported: “Tchaikovsky’s swan lake {Gay composer who was coerced into committing suicide in Czarist Russia} was the BEST music in the Socchi opening ….the rest of it had a mega-kitsch fascist hyperbolic look to it….i’m gonna re-read Clement Greenberg’s denunciation of Hitler Kitsch….” while another, Hannah Liden, reported this: Today two swedish activists and a bunch of russian activists were arrested in Moscow for displaying a Rainbow flag on the red square. The cops ripped the flag into pieces within five seconds.” Rene August shared: “I’m conflicted about it all, Jane: on the fence, as they say. And yet, I would also wager, that, there are athletes, who, are also representing at least three-of-the five letters of the LGBTQ acronym. And so, if that’s true, then, they deserve our support while we simultaneously reject the Hate Laws and Crimes of the assface in power of the former Soviet Union: imagine how Ukrainians feel, once again.”

Someone also reminded me privately about the upcoming Manifesta 2014 in St. Petersburg and the calls to boycott that, which led me to find related commentary by Dmitry Vilensky who made a point hard to argue with IMHO: “boycotts are important to my mind, even if they are doomed to failure – as they make the organizers aware of the need to rethink their politics.” But are the Olympics, as Jason Torpy persuasively argues in American Humanist Association, different: “It seems very dangerous to let the Olympics be used in politics. There is global visibility and international representation, but that will be diluted and lost if the spirit of cooperation is replaced with a platform for political struggle, no matter how noble.” This principle is part and parcel of the Olympic Charter, which declares, “The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity, and fair play.” Torpy brings up Johnny Weir, the figure skater, who I LOVED watching perform in the last Olympics, and whose strong advocacy for having athletes go to Sochi started over the summer. Apparently, he’s just published a tourist guide for Russia, and works as an NBC analyst. Revolution from within?

German atheletes don rainbow uniforms

In the end, my ambivalence remains.

I should mention here that I love watching the Winter Olympics. A lot. And have only missed a few (though having given up my TV, would have to watch online). I also admit I have a perverse desire to spectate, bear witness. And as someone else pointed out, I could just watch edited clips, avoiding the onslaught of advertising by sponsors who said nothing to condemn a law that incites violence against gay people, setting back civil rights for EVERYONE. I’ve made sure not to consume any corporate sponsors’ products, and that has been my definitive boycott. Still, days later and I’ve not watched anything….

What’s funny is how quickly my conflict found relief when the question of whether to boycott or not is removed, and art and politics come together to offer a way around it. I just love this project inviting artists to design Olympic tracksuits, proceeds of which benefit Russian LGBT Network. I found out about it through Robert Melee whose contribution I happen to think is the best (but I’m biased).

Robert Melee

Postscript: Another update from someone watching, Steven Day, that made the opening ceremonies sound scary: “The opening ceremonies, at least on TV, was strange, very strange. Sure, there is always some propaganda. But this was exceptional! First, the new Olympic president gave a speech about tolerance and acceptance which seemed to be directed at Putin. But After that little slap on the wrist, it was all Putin. The depiction of Russian 1000 year history according to Putin! We might as well be in Berlin in 1936. This is real autocratic power! I admit I was curious how they would depict the Russian revolution, and it sort of made me cringe to hear nbc announcer refer to Malevich as a great artist and a Constructivist. Thats fine, ok, a sports commentator said the word Malevich. But then it gets weird, really weird. They depict Post war Stalin Russia with dudes with Pompadours dancing with women wearing skirts playing 50’s rock and roll in convertibles. What? This is post ww2 Russia? Putin just bobsled past Stalin death camps as if he and the Soviet Union were next to a Burbank diner in the 1950s. What was interesting was to see the glorification of the Romanov era. As if that was the golden age of Russia? They depicted the collapse of the Soviet empire with a little girl in the sky letting go of a red balloon. I kid you not. Then just before a commercial break, in Contemporary Russia, Russia’s opera star sings to Putin, as if we are all living back in the golden age, 19th century. The closing music is to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, and their are ballerinas everywhere again twirling around now in the 21 century. This is a cultural void, and Putin’s Russia is completely out of sorts with any sense of reality. Never mind the depiction of LGBT community at the olympics, its also the opposite sex, the role of women in today’s society he’s still grappling with. In the end for Putin, the Olympics in Sochi is to promote a billion dollar resort investment project for private profit. It really should be in Moscow.”

And so it continues…