American journalists are ungracious whiners. That was my original conclusion based on the torrent of gripes about substandard accommodations in Sochi.
I understand that Americans are grossed out by yellow water and toilets that don’t flush paper. But for people whose job is to keep us all informed, the reporters seemed surprisingly unaware that these conditions are normal for a great part of the world’s population. Having lived in three different countries where no-paper septic systems were standard, my eyes were certainly rolling when a picture of a Sochi hotel room (which included a sign asking guests not to flush paper) went viral. And while I can enjoy the humorous side of cross-cultural awkwardness just as much as the next person, it also seemed like there was rather a mean-spirited tone to this coverage.
I started to think that Julia Ioffe might be right when she suggested in the New Republic that we might be enjoying the screw-ups a little bit too much. Lots of countries have experienced hiccups when it comes to hosting the Olympics, and usually we’re fairly mellow about it. Mitt Romney was excoriated even for mentioning that the preparations for the 2012 Olympics were not completely, one-hundred-percent up to speed. For Russia, though, we throw out the etiquette manual and commence immediately with jeers and gloating. “Idiot Russians! Do they not have plumbers in this country? I’ve stayed in campgrounds that are nicer than this so-called resort!” And so forth.
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No doubt I’m particularly sensitive to this as someone who has lived in the former USSR. Having spent two years in Uzbekistan (and traveled to other countries in the region) I look at the region a lot more than just dictatorial strong-men giving kickbacks to their toady underlings. Those do exist, of course, and I won’t spend even an instant defending them. I have seen the effect of repressive regimes on a struggling population, and had personal conversations with people whose loved ones were “relocated” by Stalin, never to be heard from again. I also know, however, that ordinary Russians are hungry for the world to see that they still have a history and culture that justify attention and national pride. They do.
I hoped the Olympics, for all its profligacy and waste, would at least give them a chance to remember. The Olympics typically present a somewhat Disnified representation of a particular culture, but that’s not necessarily bad. (Remember the section from the Atlanta opening ceremonies that dealt with slavery in a nuanced and meaningful way? Or the time when the Salt Lake Olympics considered at length the complexities of Mormon polygamy? Me neither.) It can be good on occasion to refocus on the best of what a culture has to offer. And while Western journalists should by all means feel at liberty to write about corruption and injustice, it’s also reasonable to ask them to use an event like the Olympics (which is supposed to be about international co-operation and goodwill) to appreciate some of the positives in the country that opens its doors to offer hospitality.
Unfortunately our American representatives seemed almost gleeful in their eagerness to find fault. They showed up with their noses pre-wrinkled, only in the mood to moan about the extreme deficiency of accommodations the local population would surely regard as lavish. During the opening ceremonies the commentators were heavy and grim, while my Twitter feed was a river of snark. Only the barest mention was made of the odd little fact that the show itself was absolutely stunning, and certainly the most beautiful Olympic display that I have ever watched.
It all made me sad. I won’t lose sleep over the feelings of Vladimir Putin, and I do understand the eagerness to prevent the Sochi Olympics from becoming a “political win” for him. But there are 143 million other Russians whose tax dollars amply funded the games, and they deserved better. Still, the savaging of Russia’s Olympic efforts was instructive insofar as it made me consider in a new light how Catholics should approach relevantly similar problems. We know too well what it’s like to struggle with a media that focuses a laser beam on a few negative episodes (Borgia popes! Pedophile priests!), while relegating the many, many positives to the remote margins.
Sometimes silly coverage should just be denounced for what it is. With Pope Benedict we got very used to explaining that most of the headlines they found in his addresses were almost entirely inaccurate. No, the Church doesn’t endorse Holocaust denial. No, it still isn’t okay to use condoms. No, we don’t view Islam as a religion of violent criminals.
It’s much harder when the allegations are actually true. There is a reason why the abuse scandals have damaged the Church’s reputation so gravely. Many of the hideous allegations against priests have actually turned out to be true, and that truth is genuinely appalling. Unfortunately, some people have been so deeply scarred by those episodes that there isn’t very much we can do except pray for God’s grace to heal them and soften their hearts.
For others, the best apologia may be to put the ugly episodes in the proper context. Fr. Robert Barron’s Catholicism series is a wonderful example of the kind of presentation that can help people to realize that the Church is much larger than any particular defective representative. Even Borgia popes can start to look like a minor episode in light of the incalculable good the Church has wrought in the world.
As Russia’s example shows, however, even beauty is not a panacea. Some people will always refuse to be impressed. This is why we must regularly re-commit ourselves to representing the best of our faith and of Catholic culture. We should see every smear as a new invitation to be a light to the world. It will be interesting to see whether Russia’s efforts over the next few weeks will succeed in winning some goodwill, if not from the commentariat then at least from ordinary people who can watch them for entertainment and not just for the political angles. Sometimes persuasion takes time.
As Catholics we have literally all the time in the world to win souls back for Christ, and we can proceed with confidence that we enjoy the protection of the Holy Spirit. These are advantages that, in the long run, cannot be overshadowed even by the obtuseness of an American journalist.