Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A Bridge Too Far

There's been a rational resolution to the Women's Bridge Players controversy, but the issue should not be dropped just because the authorities came to their senses. Whether it was true offense or an overdeveloped sense of propriety or merely authoritarian arrogance that led The United States Bridge Federation to feel it was appropriate to punish their members severely for exercising their right to free speech, they should not be let off as easily as all that.

Here's the nuts and bolts of the debate:
In the genteel world of bridge, disputes are usually handled quietly and rarely involve issues of national policy. But in a fight reminiscent of the brouhaha over an anti-Bush statement by Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks in 2003, a team of women who represented the United States at the world bridge championships in Shanghai last month is facing sanctions, including a yearlong ban from competition, for a spur-of-the-moment protest.

At issue is a crudely lettered sign, scribbled on the back of a menu, that was held up at an awards dinner and read, “We did not vote for Bush.”

By e-mail, angry bridge players have accused the women of “treason” and “sedition.”

“This isn’t a free-speech issue,” said Jan Martel, president of the United States Bridge Federation, the nonprofit group that selects teams for international tournaments. “There isn’t any question that private organizations can control the speech of people who represent them.”

Not so, said Danny Kleinman, a professional bridge player, teacher and columnist. “If the U.S.B.F. wants to impose conditions of membership that involve curtailment of free speech, then it cannot claim to represent our country in international competition,” he said by e-mail.

Ms. Martel said the action by the team, which had won the Venice Cup, the women’s title, at the Shanghai event, could cost the federation corporate sponsors.

The players have been stunned by the reaction to what they saw as a spontaneous gesture, “a moment of levity,” said Gail Greenberg, the team’s nonplaying captain and winner of 11 world championships.

There are two very chilling components to this story. First were the conditions that led the bridge players to feel they had to say something:
Ms. Greenberg said she decided to put up the sign in response to questions from players from other countries about American interrogation techniques, the war in Iraq and other foreign policy issues.

“There was a lot of anti-Bush feeling, questioning of our Iraq policy and about torture,” Ms. Greenberg said. “I can’t tell you it was an overwhelming amount, but there were several specific comments, and there wasn’t the same warmth you usually feel at these events.”

Ms. Rosenberg said the team members intended the sign as a personal statement that demonstrated American values and noted that it was held up at the same time some team members were singing along to “The Star-Spangled Banner” and waving small American flags.

“Freedom to express dissent against our leaders has traditionally been a core American value,” she wrote by e-mail. “Unfortunately, the Bush brand of patriotism, where criticizing Bush means you are a traitor, seems to have penetrated a significant minority of U.S. bridge players.”
America means absolutely nothing at all as an ideal or reality if its citizens don't feel free to respond to people from other nations with our true feelings about their opinions of us. Surely, truly free people can do that. I can understand the sense among certain Americans that it reflects badly on all of us for any of us to offer anti-government sentiments to non-Americans, especially in contexts where sportsmanship and a spirit of international competition are the order of the day. I just feel those certain Americans who assume that that position entitles them to infringe upon the rights of others might feel more comfortable living in a state like North Korea.

The second, and most chilling, aspect of the original response by the Federation was the mind-bogglingly fascist effort to bully the women into accepting the original draconian "punishment" for their actions:
[The punishment] calls for a one-year suspension from federation events, including the World Bridge Olympiad next year in Beijing; a one-year probation after that suspension; 200 hours of community service “that furthers the interests of organized bridge”; and an apology drafted by the federation’s lawyer.

It would also require them to write a statement telling “who broached the idea of displaying the sign, when the idea was adopted, etc.”

Alan Falk, a lawyer for the federation, wrote the four team members on Nov. 6, “I am instructed to press for greater sanction against anyone who rejects this compromise offer.”
Even Federation members who were initially offended by the anti-Bush sign came out in force against the organization's plan. Today the New York Times reports:
The United States Bridge Federation has dropped its effort to punish six members of the women’s championship bridge team for holding up a sign that said “We did not vote for Bush” during an awards ceremony last month in Shanghai.

In exchange, the women have agreed to a statement recognizing the federation’s right to request that bridge teams representing the country refrain from using awards ceremonies for anything other than accepting medals. “I feel vindicated,” said Jill Levin, one of the players.
I'm not exaggerating by noting I was initially horrified by the Federation's punishment plans. "What the hell is happening in this country?," I thought. The fierceness of such government loyalty can't have anything to do with the incompetent boob in the White House. It must represent a shift in collective thinking among certain Americans. I suspect it's mostly cowards willing to sacrifice their civil liberties (and faculty for rational thought) to anyone who'll promise to kill the terrorists hiding under their beds, but I honestly don't know for sure. Perhaps they honestly do love Bush, but know he's so fragile that any crudely drawn sign of dissent allowed to stand might bring him down. It's a hideous reflection of our time and place no matter how you look at it. Thank goodness it played itself out the way it did in the end. Still, I feel the Federation owes the country an explanation for its original actions. They scared the hell out of me.

Labels: politics


Blogger hallwalls and elsewhere said...

Hi Ed,

Love your blog. Link to it on mine (though mine is more filler material than editorial content).

But I'm not down with the bridge players and their moment of shallow opportunism. Go here for a couple paragraphs on it:


John Massier

11/21/2007 09:25:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Hey John,

Thanks for the link to your blog...will be adding it to the blogroll momentarily.

Not sure I follow, though, what offended you about how the Bridge players chose to respond to the questions they got from other players from around the world. I take them at their word that it was a spontaneous attempt at levity.

From their descriptions I imagine them moments before they were to be on the stage receiving their award, feeling that the eyes of the other players would be upon them, and feeling that they might bond a bit (the ultimate goal of such competition) by sharing a little moment of empathy with the other players.

11/21/2007 09:33:00 AM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

You hooked me with "angry bridge players" and reeled me in with the idea that the federation wanted the participants to, in essence, name names. What's next? LPGA for the repeal of the Bill of Rights?

A bright punctuation to this story is surely Andrew Card's new book. Surpise, suprise: Ratboy and and his sidekick, the duck hunter, were involved in the Plame leak all along.

P.S. I did not vote for Bush either.

11/21/2007 09:43:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Do you mean Scotty's new book?

PS. I didn't vote for Bush either too.

11/21/2007 09:48:00 AM  
Blogger Lisa Hunter said...

"I can understand the sense among certain Americans that it reflects badly on all of us for any of us to offer anti-government sentiments to non-Americans..."

Why should it? The right to criticize leaders freely is one of the things that -- at least in theory -- sets us apart from non-democracies.

11/21/2007 09:58:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I don't agree with that position, Lisa, but I know enough blindly patriotic Americans to know they're sincere about it. I feel they too have the right to voice their opinions about such actions. Their rights end at ending someone else's though, IMHO.

In other words, I'll defend the right of anyone to express their dislike of the sign and its authors. If the sign-holding players had been booed by other Americans or criticized for their actions, so be it. Free speech is free speech, and I don't have to agree to support it. What I won't tolerate is them trying to curb expression they dislike through punishments or other such responses.

Holding up the sign may not have been the most brilliant statement by an American in our history, and now that I think about it more, I can sort of see where John is coming from with his suggestion that it was opportunistic (I see it more as ill-considered), but it doesn't matter in the end. They had the right to hold it up, and there really shouldn't be any question about that among free people. Whether that earns them enemies or not is a different matter.

11/21/2007 10:15:00 AM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

Duh, yes, Scott McClellan. I get all those Bush-affiliated (current or former) people mixed up. Apparently he's broken from the pack, so I'm going to remember his name now.

11/21/2007 11:16:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Seeing how none of us are in the position that these Bridge ladies found themselves in, I can't see how we can judge properly. Seriously.
Put yourself in their shoes.
I too easily can picture myself at an international event, with people casting ugly glances at me, and judging me, talking shit about me behind my back. I can also picture myself feeling a surge of uproar inside, as I remind myself "I didn't vote for Bush! I personally don't deserve their wrath!". And finally, even though I love living here and all that freedom stuff, I can also see myself wanting to set the record straight somehow.
A desperate message on a rigged sign at a Bridge award ceremony may not be the best way to do this, but I do understand the womens' frustration.
Don't we all? We sure do, or we wouldn't post to our blogs about politics.
I am not saying I agree with the method of the Bridge Ladies' response...I am just saying that I can definitely sympathize with that frustrated need to separate myself from the sad state of affairs in our country.
Did they do the right thing? I can't say. They got people talking...
But to think that we are to get spanked even if we speak our minds is a real democratic bummer, and just another notch on the Bushista pole.

11/21/2007 11:52:00 AM  
Anonymous Jack said...

While I agree that the Bridge Federation’s reaction was over the top, I can’t help but wonder what everyone’s reaction would be had the placard contained something that was critical of the host country rather than of a largely unpopular American President. Can’t you picture an enormous outcry from non-Americans about the arrogance of the action and demands from everyone, including Julie, for punishment and even suspension? I certainly don’t imagine a huge amount of support from people demanding these people’s right to free speech in a situation such as that.

11/21/2007 02:15:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

That's an excellent point Jack, and very likely a very good test of integrity on this topic.

I won't second guess my response to your hypothetical, but will admit I suspect I'd be less likely to have the exact same reaction to it. I would object to a draconian punishment, still, but would very likely feel they deserved the momentary anxiety over their fate.

Again, excellent point.

11/21/2007 02:30:00 PM  
Blogger hallwalls and elsewhere said...

Hi Ed,

I guess I'm just a cynic. It all seemed so trite to me...but here I am still commenting on much for MY high horse.

Also, I'm a Canadian on a work permit, so I couldn't vote for Bush or anyone else.

I certainly don't agree with any punitive actions taken against the card-wielding champs, but mostly because it's just throwing a big wad of unnecessary fat on a small, silly fire.

It also didn't help that I saw this story (and most especially the image reproduced in the Times) a few days after watching Barack Obama equivocate his way through every question on Meet the Press.

We need the B-Man (not the Bridge Gals) to dissent...

11/21/2007 02:40:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Free speech is free speech (period).

In any situation...

I defend it no matter what...

11/21/2007 02:43:00 PM  
Blogger Joseph Giannasio said...

my first question is how much will that sign fetch on ebay?

But to think that we are to get spanked even if we speak our minds is a real democratic bummer, and just another notch on the Bushista pole

That swings both ways. The PC crowd is just as guilty of witch hunts as the neo-cons, I was surprised how few defended Imus' First Amendment right to free speech(usually the liberal left main political staple), and how quickly he was metaphorically speaking lynched, and I heard the lefties using the same arguments about the first amendment not applying because the radio station was privately owned and didn't have to let Imus on the air etc.. etc.., and all kinds of justifications why Imus didn't deserve First Amendment protection, while interestingly enough I don't think the FCC fined him.

There seems to be a desire to find loopholes to the fundamental precepts our founding fathers used in authoring the constitution, or to abandon it's principals when they aren't convenient, anyone whoever worked for a corporation will tell you there is an enormous pressure to conform to the party line, with fear of termination, opposition is economic suicide. So is it surprising that the Corporate mindset is taking over the country, that moral value is gauged by what is profitable opposed to what is humane.

A group think mob jumping on an individual that has differing values has become all too common.
When out of fear people start accepting a belief that their survival depends on giving up their personal liberties, in exchange for a doctrine of a larger group entity they begin to believe that they are defending their own survival when defending the greater entity as absolute, regardless of the liberties of any individual they attack, if they surrender their freedom they believe you too must surrender yours, after all why should you be free while they are not. The Patriot Act may have increased the governments ability to bully, but the real civil liberties were surrendered by the population, under the guise of patriotism.

To quote the old labor organizers

"Freedom is something you assume, then you wait for someone to take it away from you, the degree to which you resist, is the degree to which you are free".

11/21/2007 05:45:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read in the Carpetbagger Report that the corporate sponsorship - the fear of losing this was the ostensible reason for the uproar - was just over $3,500. No, I didn't leave out any zeros. We now know the price of our freedom of speech.

11/21/2007 10:54:00 PM  
Anonymous matt1 said...

In a nutshell there's a time and place for everything.

I think it wasn't the time and it wasn't the place to do what they did. The punishment is rather harsh and, when I think about it, way over the top which leads to the question is a punishment needed? The issue itself doesn't really have much to do with freedom of speech, but rather with the conduct of those that made and held the sign. There's nothing wrong at all with such a statement, but it was the wrong place/time to make it.

11/24/2007 08:01:00 AM  

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