What kind of question is that?
Hard to say what was more fun — watching the Olympics or reading Anthony Lane’s two-part report from Beijing, published by the New Yorker and available here and here. Lane’s account is full of close observation, amusing trivia, and the kind of stories that the television coverage mostly overlooked. And of course it is all presented in Lane’s almost perfect prose, with its lovely turns of phrase, its wit, and its virtuoso metaphors. Lane usually likes to keep things light, but at the end of the second piece his thoughts return to another aspect of the Games mostly overlooked by NBC, for obvious reasons:
China has taken the gamble of seeking to make people rich before it has made them free. By the standards of the Enlightenment, that is either an illusion or a cruel con, though a free marketeer might argue that the liberties bestowed by trade and consumption—the strange half-freedom of the television commercial, for example, which enslaves us even as it promises the wealth of the world—are not to be sniffed at, and may, indeed, be what most of us ponder and pursue. (We shouldn’t worry more about the price of gas than about human rights in China, but we do.) As I dined, one day, on a Big Mac in a thunderstorm, seeking and failing to find refuge in a packed McDonald’s beside the Olympic Green subway station, I heard the Olympic theme song, playing on a tape loop inside, and watched a Chinese teen-ager in the doorway. She sucked on her milkshake and then sang along, swaying; she was, at once, everything that the capitalist corporation could hope for, and everything that the Communist Party had planned. I tried to talk to her, but she spoke no English; besides, what young person wants to be asked if he or she feels free? What kind of question is that? I thought of the sign I had seen on the first full day of the Games, in the Forbidden City, as I headed back from the cycling. “Hall of Earthly Tranquillity,” it read, and then, at the bottom, in smaller letters, “Made Possible by the American Express Company.” One world. One dream.