A Bridge Too Far
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.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:
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.
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.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.
“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.”
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.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:
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.”
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.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.
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.