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The Real Cultural Revolution


First of all, I'll admit that China hasn't been high on my list of places I want to visit—it was well below India, Peru, Argentina, Ethiopia, Maui, and Falling Water. But watching the Olympics at odd hours and absorbing Beijing and its surroundings has piqued my interest. That and a commercial showing that you can get something good to eat 24 hours a day in some neighborhood called something like “Ghost Town.” And I must say that the incredible architecture of the Olympic venues has totally impressed me—from Herzog & de Meuron’s sublime “bird’s nest,” to “the cube” where the water sports go down.


It’s ironic that Mao called his repression a cultural revolution, because the real cultural revolution is what’s happening in China right now, with the blooming of art, fashion, and nightlife, and a general revival of individual spirit in a place we had just assumed to be a permanent monolith of totalitarian boringness.

Even the protesters are hot! I want to go to China and do some business.


As for the Olympics, well, it has been interesting. It’s a little easier to watch than it was four years ago when just about all we saw between events and national anthems was documentaries about small-town Americans who conquered incredible odds—crippling diseases, parental alienation, learning disabilities, eating disorders, combination skin, the heartbreak of psoriasis, whatever—only to triumph on the world stage. Boring! Save it for the Special Olympics. At least this year we got some backstory on the poor unfortunates who aren’t Americans! What a breakthrough!

The best events I’ve seen have been the basketball, where Team Endorsement actually played some D under Coach K, and the sprints where the dread Jamaicans have been so amazingly triumphant. Usain Bolt is phenomenal. I wonder if he could catch a Brett Favre pass? The dude blew everyone and the world record away and started celebrating with ten meters left. The astounded TV interviewer asked what he thought he could have done timewise if he hadn't started hamming it up and bowing way before the finish line and he said “I don’t care.” He had the gold medal and he got it with one shoe untied and a belly full of Chicken McNuggets. That’s the Olympic Spirit if you ask me.


The one thing we haven’t heard much about is theories about how every swimming record is being shattered. I have been watching all of this amazing swimming on TV, watching that green line that is the world record pace crawl across the pool trying to catch seemingly several swimmers in each heat. It reminds me of…well it reminds me of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Of course we know that the swimmers are probably clean, since they have to pee in cups regularly, so what is it? What is it about Michael Phelps that enabled him to win 8 golds and shatter all the records?

Bob Costas explained it one night. Michael Phelps apparently owes it all to his long arm span, big hands and feet (size 14), and the relatively long torso and short legs of his 6’4” frame. If that’s the real reason I don’t know why I haven’t broken any swimming world records. I’ve got the same thing. My petite wife has the same inseam as me and I have size 12 feet and I can palm the rock. I can make it all the way down the swimming pool and back without stopping, but I’m sure not a medal contender. I’m thinking maybe I need a new swimsuit. I just remember the Nike spot with Spike Lee as Mars Blackmon asking Michael Jordan, “Is it the shoes?” and I want to ask Michael Phelps, “Dude, is it the suit?”


I like the suits. The Speedo LZR suits remind me of the bathing costume my grandpa wore in the roaring twenties. Back then guys wore tops, and I can’t help but think how that might improve the look of our beaches today, in an America where 65% of the population is overweight or obese. So many dudes need to wear a “bro,” or a “mansierre.” But I also dig the sort of cubist stars and stripes design of those American suits, and I’m not a lapel pin kind of guy. But aesthetics aside there is evidence that the water repellent fabric and laser bonded seams dramatically reduce drag, and apparently they also improve oxygen intake.



The Speedo suit, fear of which induced several national teams to drop longtime contracts with major sporting goods companies, has led some to charge that it’s “technological doping.” Of course everyone can wear the suit and nobody has to hide it, so it’s not really a valid analogy. It’s more like the sixties when pole vaulting records were shattered as we entered the age of fiberglass. It just goes to show you that all records are good for is breaking, by any means necessary.

When Mr. Phelps broke Mr. Spitz’s record, and pictures of Spitz were flashed all over the place, once couldn’t help but wonder what kind of times he might have recorded with a Speedo LZR, not to mention a shave on his lip and head. Ah, but those were different times. There’s always an asterisk. It’s just usually invisible.

It’s funny, but at the opening ceremonies I finally realized just how much I wanted to hate this Olympics. I was expecting the usual broadcast boosterism of all things American, and I was harboring a definite post-Tiananmen Square disregard for China’s government, but then the Olympics opened with the greatest spectacle since Jean-Paul Goude’s French Bicentennial Parade, staged by the director Zhang Yimou. Sure, there was a little goose-stepping, but it seemed more like it was out of the merry old land of Oz than the Third Reich.




Totalitarian? More like Totalarama! I’ve started to think that there isn’t anything wrong with China that can’t be fixed by fashion, art, entertainment, and consumer-branded materialism. Look at Russia. John McCain can rant all he wants about how Ronald Reagan brought down the Iron Curtain, but we all know it was Hollywood and Seventh Avenue. And the Olympics opening ceremony was the world’s biggest fashion show.

As far as I’m concerned the Africans won the opening ceremonies handily, with their jazzy ethnic regalia.






The Americans looked snappy this year in their Ralph Lauren blazers and Ivy League caps—all except for the guy out of uniform.




Good post, thank you. The fascinating thing about China is how they try to merge communism and capitalism. None ofte above nave worked really well over the long term. Perhaps by slowly intergrating the new capitalistic china into the old communist one a free socialist idea can be created. It will only be possible in China. We could not, as far as I can see, adopt a more socialist view here in North America because the markets are driven by open capitalism where excess is everything. Unfortunately we now have reached a point where the holes have appeared in the bucket and it is draining faster than it can be replaced. Maybe a secong look at what is happening in China would be a good idea.

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post got me thinking

great post


PS Great post, got me thinking.

PS Great post, got me thinking.

I propose a greater overall Olympics event that will work something like this: alternate olympic locations between authoritarian and democratic states, then every 8 years decide who 'scores'. China's is probably better than Greece's in terms of aesthetic appeal, records broken, public interest, occurrence of crime, etc. so it gets one point. After London we should give it to a country like Zimbabwe or a genuine dictatorship like North Korea. It will be a running tally which I fear may not be won in freedom's favor.

Everyone knows you need a little order to throw a good party. The Chinese, with their 'protest zones', their CGI fireworks, their cuter-girl lip synching, and their athlete training compounds, have shown what you can do with a LOT of order.

To be fair though, mainland Chinese people today are on the whole freer than they've ever been in their entire history. So if it's not quite so awesome the next time they host one of these things, it may not be such a bad thing.

great post, Glenn!

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