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OFF THE HIGH HORSE
- Mixed feelings about the Olympic torch

Aamir Khan is in trouble for being slippery about running with the Olympic torch. He made the mistake of saying that even as he celebrated the spirit of the Olympics by participating in the torch relay, his prayers would be with the people of Tibet. This seemed such a transparent bid to have it both ways that the poor man was drowned in a tsunami of scorn.

Aamir was unlucky; around the same time as he was trying to show that he could hold two thoughts simultaneously in his head on a single issue, Bhaichung Bhutia, India’s football captain, politely but firmly refused to carry the International Olympic Committee’s torch through its Delhi leg because he wanted to stand by the people of Tibet and their struggle. No prizes for guessing whose stand seemed more principled. Where Bhaichung seemed the quiet athlete willing to offend the sporting powers-that-be for the sake of a just cause, Aamir looked like a shallow, self-serving celebrity, trying to milk a sporting tamasha for publicity, while giving the public a quick peek at his bleeding heart.

The moral of this story is that it’s a PR mistake to air mixed feelings in public. The trouble with the derision heaped on Aamir Khan, though, is that it seems to teach another lesson: namely, that it’s feeble-minded, unprincipled and immoral to not have a list of correct, categorical views on Everything, that if you’re tentative, less than encyclopaedically informed or ambivalent about a particular issue, you shouldn’t talk about it in public. This is a bad lesson to teach and a worse one to learn.

Aamir’s defence, that the torch and the Games didn’t belong to China but to the Olympic movement in which the whole world came together, isn’t self-evidently absurd. It might be naïve to believe that an organization as crass and self-aggrandizing as the IOC represents the Corinthian ideal or the fuzzy utopia of a world brought together by sport, but it’s no more deluded than still voting for the Congress because you believe, despite its nepotism and corruption, it represents the pluralist ideal of the freedom struggle better than the BJP does.

If Eric Hobsbawm could remain a member of the the British Communist Party despite the Soviet invasion of Hungary, out of an ancient loyalty to the emancipatory promise of Marxism, without being sneered at, Aamir Khan can be given the benefit of the doubt for believing that the flame he was scheduled to carry on behalf of the IOC was meant to illumine the spirit of sport, not to torch Tibet.

Why is it so hard to believe that a person can sympathize with Tibetan suffering and also support the Games in Beijing without being a hypocrite or an idiot? The Dalai Lama, who we can safely assume is a Tibetan partisan, wants the Games to go on. He doesn’t want them boycotted because he doesn’t want to alienate the Chinese public. You might, like the Dalai Lama, be anguished by the swamping of Tibet by Han Chinese settlers, by the loss of cultural autonomy, by the desecration of Tibetan Buddhism by an intolerantly atheist State, and still not see the point of baiting that State by disrupting the extravagant sporting jamboree that means so much to it.

So how is the Dalai Lama’s opposition to boycotting the Olympic Games (despite the fact that he virtually embodies the Tibetan struggle) different in principle from Aamir’s reluctance to boycott the Olympic torch run (despite his sympathy for the struggles of the Tibetan people)?

The short answer to that could be that the Dalai Lama has a rather longer record on Tibet than Aamir Khan does. So while his stance on the Games will be be seen as a strategic position in a long struggle, Aamir’s position is likely to be seen as expedient fence-sitting. It’s hard for a stranger like me to know if Aamir Khan was sincere in what he said, but not to give him the benefit of the doubt seems, well, just mean-spirited.

When Steven Spielberg withdrew as an overseas adviser for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Games, he cited Chinese complicity in the dreadful suffering being endured by people in the Darfur region of Sudan. There are two ways of understanding Spielberg’s withdrawal.

One would be to argue that since the killings in Darfur and China’s aid to the Sudanese government predated Spielberg’s involvement with the Games, the timing of his withdrawal was a sign that he had let himself be used by an orchestrated Western campaign to embarrass China. The second (and in my view the more accurate) interpretation of Spielberg’s change of mind would be to see it as the result of a process during which Spielberg was lobbied, pressured and educated about Darfur by people who knew more about it than he did when he took on the job of media adviser. We are free to disagree with his decision, but it’s unnecessary to argue that it was made in bad faith.

There are some issues in the world about which there’s only one moral position: racism, for example, or untouchability or ‘ethnic cleansing’ or genocide. With most others there’s no obvious high moral ground, which means that people of goodwill can reasonably and civilly disagree. It’s hard to think of many substantial countries who could host the Olympics without being pilloried for oppressing peoples within or beyond their borders. India would be called to account for Kashmir, Russia for Chechnya, the US and Britain and Australia for the destruction of Iraq and Afghanistan and their complicity in the dispossession of the Palestinian people. If Brad Pitt was named as the torch bearer for the Hollywood leg before the start of the Olympics in London in 2012, would he seem hypocritical or stupid if he said that he’d be thinking of the travails of the Iraqi people as he ran? I don’t think so.

Aamir Khan has tried in the past to engage with public issues with mixed results. His solidarity with people displaced by the Narmada Dam was neither wholly thought through nor perfectly informed, but there’s no reason to believe it was insincere. He certainly paid a price for his gesture — the ruling BJP banned the screening of his film, Fanaa, in Gujarat — which is more than what most pundits risk when they set the world to rights. If there’s a lesson contained in this self-righteous ripple in the papers, it is the editorialists who need to learn it. And the lesson is this: there’s something peculiarly unattractive about leader-writers fingering filmstars to confirm their own clear-sighted virtue.

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