The Olympic Games or how Stalin was finally proven right
21 August 2008

On 8 August 2008, the People’s Republic of China taught the world about Stalinism. 

During the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, Yang Peiyi, the voice of “Ode to my Motherland” was literally relegated to the background for having bad teeth, whilst the more telegenic Lin Miaoke took center-stage.  A few days later, as the world was still swooning over that same ceremony, news of this switch-a-roo broke.  The reaction was the usual liberal outpouring of how this is unfair, discriminatory, inhumane and such.

The fatal error of the officials was not so much that they had made the swap – after all, neither girl was known to anyone, and after a few weeks, no one will remember them any longer – but that they had been caught: the scandal was caused not so much by the fact that the organizing committee had been superficial in choosing Lin based on her appearance, but the even worse crime of shattering our illusion that we can see beyond superficialities.

Even as the liberals are beating their chests over this incident, they might consider that fact that no one likes ugly people on television.  The only times they are allowed to appear on screen is either when a role directly calls for a feature-impediment (since we are in the game of political correctness these days), or when the person is in a comedic role, ideally poking fun at themselves.  In either case, we accept their presence on screen as they allow us to feel normal: in other words, we cast them as freaks in order to normalize ourselves.  There is no accident that the massively successful Ugly Betty is a comedy: one can laugh at Betty, played by America Fererra, whilst maintaining a safe distance from her.  In order to laugh, one has to maintain an ironic distance, and it is this distance that allows us to feel safe: after all, it is she who is ugly and not us.  It is also no accident that Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks was wildly unpopular (there were street protests leading to the film being withdrawn from cinema screen): no one likes to see actual freaks living normal lives, lives just like the rest of us, for if their lives are no different from us, how can we differentiate ourselves from them. 

We experience horror not when there is a difference but when we are no longer able to differentiate ourselves from an other.  This is why the classic horror movie scene is when the monster takes off his mask, only to reveal that under the mask is exactly the same face.  In this way, not only are we unable to tell which is the real monster, by extension, we are no longer able to trust our phenomenological senses and hence all our abilities to discern are lost: and our very selves, our notion of self, is called into question.  The fatal error that is made is of course the attempt to unmask the monster: in order to defeat it, all one had to do was to maintain a proper distance from it, and destroy it.  However by attempting to see the face of the monster, by attempting to see too much, everything is lost, including one’s sense of self. 

In fact, the typical liberal politically-correct stance about not discriminating by looks shows precisely this: appearances have been raised onto the level of the absolute; it is no longer open for negotiation, discussion: in fact it is best if no one talks about it at all.  This unwillingness to engage appearances suggests that appearances are so important that they are beyond discussion: but more that that, they are so important that they must remain secret.   

And this is precisely the lesson of Stalinism: even if everyone knows that it is a performance, it is crucial to maintain appearances.  This is why even at show trials, it was mandatory for the condemned to confess to their crimes.  The fact that everyone knows that the verdict is pre-determined is unimportant: Stalinism recognized the important of performance, which was that it allowed everyone to maintain the illusion that there was a trial taking place.  There is nowhere that the importance of the illusion was more clearly shown than at the 20th Party Congress in 1956, when Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin in what has become known as the ‘Secret Speech’.  There was widespread pandemonium after the speech with many officials suffering from severe shock.  It was not as if no one knew of the horrors of the Stalinist regime – all of them lived through it and experienced it first-hand.  The shock was precisely in the revelation itself: the veil of illusion was shattered and it was this that caused the chaos.                   

It is not so much that we can live with lies: it is more so that it is lies that we need in order to live.  It is not that we cannot tell that it is an illusion: it is that this illusion is crucial, not just to sustain a fantasy, but the very reality which we live in.

And it is this shattering of our illusions that the People’s Republic of China is paying for.  If the organizers of the opening ceremony had left Yang Peiyi on stage, we would have all commented on how she had an angelic voice but pity about her teeth.  By getting caught swapping, the organizers made it too clear to us that we would not have been able to see past her teeth.  How they have shattered our own illusions about ourselves; how we are going to make them pay for it …     

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