Jeffrey Sonnenfeld of the Yale School of Management has a well informed insider’s view of the Olympics, “Olympics Reveal East-West Divide.” (Forbes.com August 20, 2008) which starts with Rudyard Kipling’s classic 1889 “Ballad of East and West“:
Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet
‘Till Earth and Sky stand present at God’s great Judgment Seat.
Sonnenfeld argues that the Beijing Olympics demonstrates that Rudyard had it right: “There is more than a duality between East and West inherent in these games; they embody a paradox between the collaborative spirit of global unity and the patriotic spirit of nationalistic competition.”
Beijing offered “flawlessness” and “manufactured perfection” where prior Olympics in Atlanta and Athens “proffered raw authenticity, pluralistic interests, democratic voices and transparent decision-making.” Such flawlessness, though, is exactly what betrays the “real divide between East and West.”
He concludes that perhaps “the sacrifice of individual pleasures for collective achievement is acceptable to the people of China and other Eastern cultures in a way it isn’t in the West.” Since the next Olympics will take us to Kipling’s London, “we are likely to see a return to chaos, confusion, conflict and spontaneous joy.”
Sonnenfeld surely has a point, but like most who quote the Kipling poem, he leaves out the next lines:
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!
Sounds like the Olympics to me.
But what caught my eye is how Sonnenfeld illustrates the argument my piece on “Lies.” (August 28) which talks about the role of concepts such as authenticity, individualism, and well, lies.
My point was that we need to avoid the assumption that others act because of their age old cultural values. At just about the time that he wrote “East is East,” Kipling exhorted the US to “take up the White Man’s Burden” of colonial rule in the Philippines, tipping us off to the racism lurking here. Kipling’s Gunga Din praises the native subaltern: “you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.” This is fine, since Kipling uses the same standard as he uses to judge both the “other” and himself, but not so fine in that the standard is a British standard, that of “manliness.”
I agree, though, when Sonnenfeld explains things in terms of differences in situation, that is, that China is large, newly proud and united nation. This is a reasonable approach (though the particulars can still be debated) rather than insisting on “East” vs. “West,” two units of analysis which are undefinable and lead to self-confirming assertions.