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Archive for the ‘Provocations’ Category

The Summer Olympics are almost upon us, which means Olympic fever the world over. Soon, people will be glued to their TV sets to watch feats of human athleticism. I’ll admit that I enjoy watching many of the events, particularly track and field, gymnastics, swimming, and judo.

Unfortunately, the Olympics represent much that is wrong with the modern sports and entertainment apparatus, and a troubling blend of nationalist jingoism, shortened attention span, and corporate exploitation. Rather than a celebration of human achievement, they are increasingly a competition of sponsors, heavily subsidized national training programs, and unpaid labor.

Why do the Olympics suck so much?

  1. The athletes get hosed: Today, the Olympics no longer cares about only admitting amateur, non-professional athletes, which is fine, I guess. Unlike professional meets, the Olympic-organized events do not offer a purse for winners (some countries, like the U.S. do), which means that unless you’re Michael Phelps, you’re not getting steady income. Meanwhile, corporate sponsors for the Olympics (not to mention the highly corrupt IOC… which is such a foregone conclusion that it doesn’t even warrant its own bullet point) make tons of money off of the Olympics ($4B for the 2001-04 quadrennium), along with the various ancillary businesses that surround the Olympics. The only people not making money on the billions in revenue are the people competing. “OK,” you say, “but isn’t it great that the athletes are motivated by more than money?” I do, indeed! But that is all the more reason to making it easier to do what they love, rather than forcing them to beg for sponsorships to continue competing for our benefit.
  2. No one cares about these sports outside of the Olympics: Outside of, say, basketball, tennis, and maybe boxing, no one cares about these sports. They are amazing feats of stretching human achievement to the limit, but we pretend to enjoy them once every four years anyways. And why? Because they are “our” team, or because we like the way they look, or because they have a great narrative. But once the lights dim, our attention flits elsewhere. It’s a great international corporate lovefest, but it’s all a short-term fling, one that vanishes as quickly as it appeared.
  3. It professes apolitical ideals, yet encourages jingoism: Yeah, so I’m a big party pooper. Yelling “USA!” at the screen is half the fun! But I’m bothered by the fact that politics is carefully managed at the Olympics in a way that encourages only a certain kind of nationalism. These days we just gleefully cheer for our colors–the ones we had no part in supporting in a game we don’t care that much about. The narrative of triumphalism in athletics as triumphalism in foreign policy leads to all sorts of unfortunate ties between athletes and the countries they represent, as if someone’s most important identity were the flag over their head rather than their personal achievements. Meanwhile, when the “wrong” type of politics makes an appearance at the Olympics, there is always hell to pay. It’s a white-washed version of the world that not only ignores, but denigrates those who dare to speak out. Making an statement of protest = bad; kow-towing to nation-states and stereotypes = good.

Watch this (somewhat melodramatic) documentary on the 1968 Olympics’ black power salute to get an idea:

And if you think this kind of thing is over, Peter Norman, the silver medalist Australian who shared the podium with John Carlos and Tommie Smith, was not even invited to the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Last year, these clowns still won a silver medal.

In short, the Olympics exploit athletes, have only fleeting connection to its “fans,” and obsessively censor any sign of political unrest or turmoil. No wonder totalitarians everywhere have always loved them.

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Do they need our charity?

President Obama has released his tax returns–that ever-strange feature of American politics. Yet, the tax return gives us an interesting view into one bit of our tax law that needs substantial reform: the charitable donation. As you’ll note from my shoddy circling, President Obama donated $5,000 to Sidwell Friends School. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because the President’s daughters attend that school.

Now, Sidwell Friends School is a private school with high tuition ($31,960 a year). Do they really need additional funding? Or perhaps, put differently, do they deserve tax-deductible charitable giving?

Furthermore, to what extent can this really be considered charitable giving? Presumably, this is much closer to a quid pro quo relationship — the school, I imagine, strongly encourages parents to donate additional money to the school. Might those parents donate expecting special or different teacher? Might the school have incentives for treating the students of donors differently than those who merely pay tuition?

I’m not impugning the President’s motives here, but his public tax returns give us an opportunity to take a magnifying glass to someone’s tax returns other than our own. Consider that the President and First Lady gave as much money to Sidwell Friends as to any other charity, save the Fisher House Foundation (an excellent organization that runs comfort homes for military and VA hospitals). Does an elite private school really deserve an extra $5,000? Does an Ivy League university? And more importantly, should the American taxpayer be partially financing these types of donations?

We have a system that encourages charitable giving, but does not interrogate closely the reasons or purposes of the charities themselves. As a result, non-profit organizations and charities can easily serve as tax shelters to fund trips, meals, and other expenses for their operators.

The charitable deduction is not necessarily a way of funding charities; it is definitely a way to subsidize (mostly) the rich to make decisions about investments they wish to make. After all, only the rich benefit substantially from the itemized deduction; those of us taking the standard deduction (about 70% of taxpayers) don’t deduct much for our charitable donations. Should we really allow people to deduct for donating to, say, the opera (an organization that overwhelmingly benefits the rich)? The Center for American Progress or the Federalist Society (essentially political advocacy organizations)? Churches and other religious organizations? A private dinner club?

Again, I’m not saying that giving to charity is bad; I myself donate to charities. But, we do need to think more about why we subsidize charities and the outcomes that those subsidies create. Are we OK with subsidizing the ability of the rich to give money to organizations they like? Are the bad outcomes (such as non-profit bloat, fraudulent organizations, tax shelters, and charities that benefit the rich and privileged, etc.) worth the good ones (such as civic participation, communitarian values, market-driven donations, and charities that benefit the poor and underprivileged)? Like I said, I don’t know the answer to these questions, but it’s important that we ask them rather than act as if the charitable deduction must be a universal positive.

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Meryl Streep won the Oscar for Best Actress yesterday for her role in The Iron Lady, a bad movie. People have variously justified her win over Viola Davis as a de facto lifetime achievement award for all her great work that has gone unrecognized. After all, she’s the “best actress of her generation.”

But is she really that good? Considering that most lists of “best actresses of the last 30 years” would put her at or around number one, how good were her performances? Last night, as I tried to list her best performances, I found them variously lacking (more on this in a bit). She’s a bit like a Barry Larkin — consistently good but never “the best.” Certainly she belongs in the pantheon, but her brilliance rarely rose to the level of her predecessors or contemporaries.

Slate has a good rundown here, but I’ll point out that my favorite Streep performance is probably one of Adaptation, Kramer vs. Kramer, or Angels in America. And yet, these are not in the same stratosphere as, say, Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs, or Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive, or Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, et al. Even in each of those movies, Streep’s performance is arguably overshadowed by one of her costar’s work (Nicolas Cage in Adaptation, Dustin Hoffman in Kramer vs. Kramer, and Al Pacino in Angels).

I think Streep’s pedigree is part of the problem here. Her choice in films tends toward the prestige project or the indulgent (Devil WearsPrada, a fun but unnecessary movie; Julie and Julia, a movie that I enjoyed for its Streepness). When she goes off the beaten path, it’s not in search of an unusual new director or a bizarre indie picture. Instead, it’s for Mamma Mia! or A Prairie Home Companion.

Again, I like Streep’s work, and I enjoy the way that she fully embodies her characters. She’s clearly a sharp woman with phenomenal talent, but she’s cautious with that talent, which may lead her away from the most intriguing roles.

Perhaps I can’t blame Streep for her choice in movies, which is to some degree out of her control, but she’s Meryl Streep! She has her pick of movies! She could star in (almost) anything she wanted, and can play comedy, drama, thrillers, etc. Yet, she cannot help but hew towards the conventional.

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