Monday, August 25, 2008

Coming up...Costas! Phelps! Mao!

I'll have more to say about NBC's coverage of the Olympics in a day or two, but I wanted to call out one thing in particular: for NBC to display the Tiananmen portrait of Mao Zedong right next to the head of Bob Costas was unconscionable, and perhaps their greatest violation of integrity while in China. (One wonders if perhaps it was a dig by the production team at big-dog Costas, but I can't prove that.)

Providing local color is one thing, but to have one of the major images of the Games be a huge rendering of one of the greatest mass murderers in the history of the world shows remarkably poor taste. I don't recall Jim McKay, during the Munich Games in 1972, sitting with his face perched next to a picture of the spritely Adolf Hitler.

Some will say that many of the Chinese people still hold Mao in awe, that he is admired, that at worst they call him a great leader who made a few mistakes. But you have to ask yourself, if the majority of the people decided they didn't want the picture there, would it come down? Surely our acceptance of China as a sunny happy place doesn't extend to the fantasy that democratic action would bring down that picture.

I think, though, there's something larger at work here than just the cravenness of the division of a large multinational shying away from casting aspersions on any aspect of the society of a major customer. It is, rather, a tendency to collapse history into a single, easily-digested, safe point of reference. We have taken the sadly large and messy history of "Evil in the 20th Century," and collapsed it down into the person of one badly-mustached Austrian. We've taken the most unambiguous exemplar of evil, Hitler, and turned him into the sole member of his class.

It certainly makes it easier to learn history. We don't have to make judgments on Mao or Stalin; oh, they made their mistakes, but Evil = Hitler - nice, neat, and tidy.

We, as exemplified by the too-often lazy media, do this time and again. Bill Gates (no, I'm not comparing him to Hitler) is seen as the creator of the PC, when of course he was no such thing. Vinton Cerf is called the father of the Internet, which omits the reality that the American taxpayer actually is responsible for it.

I can understand why we do this when history is remote or murky. We focus our attention on a small number of Founding Fathers, on Washington and Jefferson, when there were so many more who contributed (I've been amused by the reactions to McCullough's book on John Adams, then to the miniseries; it's stark surprise that anyone else was actually around and doing stuff - perhaps Madison will be "reborn" next). We look at only a small number of British kings as being significant. Attila's the only Hun who retains serious street cred.

But Gates and the many other people who were part of the amazing rise of the computer are still around, and we don't set the record straight. Mostly this is pretty benign; I actually find Gates-worship fairly amusing for the most part. Occasionally, though, this becomes harmful, as we expect Gates to have all of the answers for our labor problems, and we let him spew self-serving poppycock to a worshipful Congress.

And it's especially harmful when we use this tendency in order to rewrite history. You can put Mao on a T-shirt, or put his poster on your dorm wall, or use him as a backdrop for Olympics coverage, but that just shows your ignorance. He was a loathsome, horrendous killer, one of the worst in the history of this planet. That he may have been slightly less loathsome than Hitler, an arguable point, doesn't mean that we should happily participate in his rehabilitation. I really think NBC blew it here.

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