November 15, 2007

Burning the bridge to nowhere

Everyone reacts differently to winning a championship. Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon dances. Argentinians riot. The U.S. National Bridge Team makes empty political statements.

After inspiring millions with their victory at the World Bridge Championships in Shanghai last week, U.S. team members donned their shiny gold medals and smiled in front of a note written on the back of a restaurant menu stating, “We did not vote for Bush.” What should have been a crowning moment in their illustrious careers descended quickly into a living nightmare.

Almost immediately, critics descended upon the team like bacteria in an Ex Libris refrigerator. The New York Times revealed that “by e-mail, angry bridge players have accused the women of ‘treason’ and ‘sedition.’” Setting aside the fact that no one actually uses the word “sedition” anymore outside of biographies of John Adams, and possibly Workers Vanguard, the fallout seems a bit harsh. According to the Times, the four players could face a one-year suspension and “200 hours of community service ‘that furthers the interests of organized bridge.’” Say what you will about waterboarding, but it can’t be any worse than eight days spent furthering the interest of organized bridge.

Just as Facebook has given rise to viral activism in the form of fast-spreading and altogether meaningless protests and petitions (If 1,000 students read this column, I will give $1 to Darfur!!), the fracas over bridge-gate exemplifies the dangers of viral reactionism. The U.S. Bridge Federation and its members are guilty of affording unwarranted significance to impromptu gestures. We can pretend the “Shanghai Four” represent America and act accordingly, but realistically, they just represent 45–65-year-old, middle-class women who own two or more cats. The protest was the middle-aged equivalent of holding up a sign saying “Hi, Mom.”

Because it was such a meaningless gesture, in this case any reaction is an overreaction. As the old saying goes: If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, you don’t fine it for disturbing the peace. However, the protest hints at a larger problem. The practice of non-celebrities creating a one-time-use bully pulpit traces its origins back to ping-pong diplomacy between the U.S. and China in the early 1970s. A sport which, until the ’70s, had little utility outside of family reunions, was suddenly thrust into the national spotlight, and goofy pseudo-athletes in short shorts became our de facto cultural ambassadors. It didn’t turn out too badly—Nixon made his momentous trip a few years later and now we have Yao Ming—but a dangerous precedent was set.

Since then, D-list “sports” celebrities have found a new calling. Russian chess wizard Gary Kasparov, famous for beating a computer (on difficult mode) multiple times, has become an outspoken critic of Russian president Vladimir Putin, and will run as a challenger in the 2008 election. Bobby Fischer, famous for being lost, is wanted by the government for having played an unsanctioned chess match in what was then Yugoslavia (at least we found him).

At this rate, it’s only a matter of time now before the world cribbage champion starts calling for divestment from Sudan, or the top-ranked rock-paper-scissors player holds a joint press conference with the Burmese monks to announce a hunger strike.

We can’t blame them for speaking up when someone puts a microphone in their faces, but we should know better than to react indignantly when we disagree. The lady who held up the sign, Debbie Rosenberg, was just doing what anyone else would do with 15 minutes of fame: act like an idiot.

Every bridge club in America has a member named Debbie, and we’ve all met someone just like her. She’s the one who drives right in front of you in the ’88 Volvo, moving slowly enough that you can read every single one of the “end the war/presidency/embargo/occupation/madness” bumper stickers plastered indiscriminately across the back window. She brings her own paper bags to the grocery store and you’ve probably seen her on television during nominating conventions dressed in red, white, and blue, wearing a gigantic hat in the shape of Kansas (or is it North Dakota? Or just a celebration of the quadrilateral?).

We’ve all met Debbie hundreds of times and found her chocolate chip cookies delicious and her eccentricities endearing. But do we really care what she thinks about the president?

Tim Murphy is a third-year in the College majoring in history. His column appears every other Friday.