Sunday, August 15, 2004


The Olympic rings

In my last post, I wrote that "the Olympics place in stark relief how intertwined cosmopolitanism and patriotism can be." What better symbol of this entanglement than the official Olympic symbol?

The symbol suggests a kind of internationalism in which nations remain autonomous and distinct. There are five discernible rings, each a different color, and yet they cannot be pulled apart. In this picture, national distinction and interdependence are not incompatible. (FYI, according to this, the rings represent continents.) More pedantically, the Olympic symbol is a Kantian picture of cosmopolitanism--instead of subverting the very existence of the Westphalian state system, it suggests that states can maintain their sovereignty and nonetheless be inseparably linked.

The vision of internationalism represented by the Olympic rings can be contrasted with other cosmopolitan visions. If you want to suggest the idea of "one world," undivided by nationalistic animosities, why not simply draw one big circle, instead of five different ones? The picture's meaning would also be very different if the rings symbolized not continents or nations, but individual people; the image would then suggest "citizens of the world" joined at the hip and yet retaining personality. Or one could view the rings as spheres of responsibility and then draw increasingly wider circles around an individual, representing a person's duties to family, then to local neighborhood, then to country, and then to the world. You can convey very different worldviews by arranging the rings differently.

To understand how different, consider some quotations from antebellum reformers. First, here is Charles Sumner, a Radical Republican in Congress, in a speech before the American Peace Society in 1849:
Let me not seem too confident. I know not, that the nations will, in any brief period, like kindred drops, commingle into one; that, like the banyan-trees of the East, they will interlace and interlock, until there is no longer a single tree, but one forest ... but I am assured, that, without renouncing any essential qualities of individuality or independence, they shall yet, even in our own day, arrange themselves in harmony, as magnetized iron rings--from which Plato once borrowed an image--under the influence of the potent, unseen attraction, while preserving each its own peculiar form, all cohere in a united chain of independent circles.
Compare this with George Thompson, a radical British abolitionist, in an 1837 speech:
There is a law of mutual influence, by which the conduct of one man may affect his fellow-men, to the extremities of the world, and the end of time. Every individual may be considered as the centre of a moral circle, which is connected by links of more or less power, and includes the whole of mankind. Do any ask, 'Who is my neighbour?' I answer, every human being. 'What do I owe him?' Love. 'Thou shalt love they neighbour as thyself.'
And compare this image again with that of Elihu Burritt, an eclectic peace reformer, in 1846:
[Slavery] cannot co-exist with the centralizing idea and tendency of human brotherhood. That and all the lesser concentric circles of the new solar system of humanity, will repudiate all sympathy with slavery.
Contained within these arrangements of circles--interlocking circles, concentric circles, moral circles in which individuals stand at the center--are slightly but significantly different ideas. Another way of putting my last post is this: the Olympics are closest to Sumner's vision of internationalism, both in symbolism and in spirit.

Collective Improvisation:

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