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Bridge to Nowhere


Friends regularly ask me: is our nation on the road to becoming an authoritarian state? In a vibrant democracy that wants to keep its bearings, that’s a useful question to keep asking. And here’s a new leaf for the album of the question-askers.

Our papers occasionally feature little nuggets that offer a real insight into the times. One such piece appeared yesterday in The New York Times in the most unlikely setting: it focused on a kerfuffle that emerged from the recent international bridge tournament in Shanghai at which a group of Americans emerged triumphant. A photograph taken at the award ceremony shows one of the women, Debbie Rosenberg, holding up a hastily scribbled sign that read “We did not vote for Bush.” It was a spur of the moment act, they say.

I take it as a given that it is a breach of decorum to interject a note of politics into an event of this sort. Nevertheless, to all appearances, this was a spontaneous gesture done with an air of levity. But the bridge champions say they were motivated by an intense anti-Administration hostility that pervaded the event.

“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.”

At the moment, polls show that George W. Bush has broken through the floor established by Richard Nixon to become the most unpopular Republican president in modern times. So unpopular, in fact, that a current poll by American Research Group shows a solid majority of Americans believe he has committed impeachable offenses. Bush’s support base hovers somewhere under 25% of the population. And for all of that, America is Bush’s bastion. In the balance of the world (excepting, apparently, Albania), his popularity runs consistently within the margin of error (in other words, it could actually be zero). In other words, it’s not really correct to say that Bush is a controversial figure on the world stage. In a sense controversy requires a divided assessment of Bush. But that’s not the case. The assessment is pretty much uniform. He’s reviled.

But for the exception of that 25% per cent pocket of Bushie deadenders lurking in the recesses of Red State America. And lest you wonder where that 25% are, we’ve discovered one of their hideouts: the United States Bridge Federation. They want to punish the winning team severely, including suspension of participation for a year. Some of the players get their livelihood from bridge, so this would have catastrophic consequences. And there are ever more malicious wrinkles in the Federation’s approach. It is insisting that the team members denounce the participant who came up with the idea, and give an exact account of how it happened. Neither the KGB, nor China’s Public Security Bureau, couldn’t top this. . . unless, of course, they were to reach next to detention and torture–tools which are, thankfully, so far not within the Federation’s reach. The Federation and its apologists claim they’re just concerned with keeping politics out of the process. Loyal Bushies saw red over the fact that American players at an international tournament would demonstrate their disloyalty to Bush by advertising their vote in the presidential elections. The Times reports that the accusations included “treason” and “sedition.” This frames things perfectly: stating that you did not vote for Bush is now an act of treason. This is a novel concept of democracy.

“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.”

Martel seems curiously unacquainted with the Bill of Rights–not just the First Amendment, but also norms of procedural fairness. There is no doubt of course that Martel’s proposition would be true with respect to totalitarian societies which field teams in the world of international bridge. But it’s surprising to see the Federation embrace the notion that its members forfeit their free speech rights by joining. That would associate a high cost in civil liberties with membership.

Maybe it’s time for the Federation’s members to take a close look at their rogue leadership. The Shanghai incident was an insignificant nothing… until the Federation’s witch hunt catapulted it on to the international stage and got the Federation its most adverse press in a decade. This doesn’t look like sound management practice to me. It looks like some Loyal Bushies badly in need of treatment for an unwarranted case of political road rage.

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