Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Small Slam

Display of Anti-Bush Sign Has Competitive Bridge World in an Uproar -A team of women from the United States displayed a small hand made sign bearing the words "We Did Not Vote For Bush" at an awards dinner after capturing the Venice Cup, the women's championship, at the World Bridge Championships in Shanghai last month. The sign has caused an uproar, and the ladies face sanctions, including suspension from tournament bridge for at least a year. The lede refers to the genteel world of bridge, apparently reporter Stephanie Strom has attended few tournaments, but it is true that bridge disputes tend to involve either accusations of cheating or extremely annoying personal habits - not international relations.

So, what's the big deal? I didn't vote for Bush either, although I'm a little surprised the Dixie Chicks even know how to play bridge - much less capture a world championship. First, let's hear what the team had to say for themselves.
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 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.”

“What we were trying to say, not to Americans but to our friends from other countries, was that we understand that they are questioning and critical of what our country is doing these days, and we want you to know that we, too, are critical,” Ms. Greenberg said, stressing that she was speaking for herself and not her six teammates.
OK, As Good As News is critical of Bush too, but you were playing in China. China, a country that's run by a corrupt authoritarian communist party. A country that's poisoning itself while it exports hazards to the rest of the world. A country that views every resource rich country ruled by a genocidal pariah as an opportunity to trade without competition from do gooders like the US. Were all the many great bridge players from China holding up signs saying "I couldn't vote for Bush, or anyone"? No, because they did not want to rot in jail for the rest of their lives. Maybe you could just note in conversation with your many international friends that Bush is trying to stop terrorism and spread democracy. He's facing severe criticism at home for some of the choices he's made in pursuing these goals, criticism you agree with, and his popularity is very low, but at least the US is still a democracy that allows criticism and holds elections that have already started to bring some changes. You don't have to agree with Bush to defend the US.
--If that's too much to ask, then go ahead and pander to your foreign pals in the chit chat between boards. Tell them you think Bush sucks too. Very few will ever know or care what you said. Holding up a sign is not a way to reach the crowd with which you just spent four days gabbing, it's a way to reach the rest of the world, particularly Americans, via photographs - or did you think those flashing lights were some new Chinese invention, a silent fireworks display. Whatever your intention, you have only stirred up resentment and solidarity among the supporters Bush has left.
--Jan Martel, President of the United States Bridge Federation, defends the Federation's right to suspend the team, noting she fears the loss of corporate sponsors. Martel distinguishes between the general constitutional right of freedom of expression and the right of a private organization to regulate speech during an event it operates.
--All that being said, read the sign - "We Did Not Vote For Bush". Not all that inflamatory. Not very patriotic, or tasteful, given the location and timing - the Star Spangled Banner was playing at the Awards Dinner to honor the American victory - but something we accept in a democracy.
--The notion that the United States Bridge Federation can enforce regulations that limit speech in order to protect the integrity of the game (i.e., no conversation that carries coded messages about the hand in play) is unquestionably correct. The same is true for some forms of expression that would offend other players or drive away sponsors - cursing and mooning the crowd during an award ceremony. The Federation, if it is truly a private organization, may even be able to regulate political speech, but did it actually do so? A very brief attempt to search the United States Bridge Federation web site did not uncover much information on the precise basis for the suspension - just a portion of meeting minutes referencing "Actions unbecoming a member...". If there is no regulation specifically barring political expression during tournaments or awards ceremonies, then this very general reference to a ban on unbridgeplayerlike conduct is not much to go on. Note that other players were apparently waving American flags at the same time, with no fear of disciplinary action. Is that puny little sign clearly "an action unbecoming"? Was there any regulation or enforcement precedent sufficient to put the Dixie chicks of contract bridge on notice that they were in peril of suspension? The USBF may have difficulty enforcing this suspension.
--My advice - Think about it USBF - are you really punishing conduct unbecoming a member, or conduct you deem unbecoming an American? If the latter, you may have a point but is it really the Federation's role to enforce patriotism?


Jon Swift said...

If we are too weak to punish a few lady Bridge players for criticizing the President what is that going to do to our image around the world?

Michael J. Hassett said...

Who is "we" and what do you mean by "punish"?

If you mean that we, as Americans acting through our government, should punish a moderate exercise of free speech (albeit one that was poorly located and timed) with fine or imprisonment - then you are no conservative - a Maoist would cheer at your exaltation of the state over the individual right of free speech while Barry Goldwater and Jonathan Swift would roll over in their graves.

If you mean the US Bridge Federation should punish some of its players with suspension for a rules violation - maybe - but it helps to make the rules ahead of time. A vague rule about conduct unbecoming doesn't really say no signs, no politics during the awards dinner. Others were wearing political buttons and waving flags. The USBF can push this, but its about misguided patriotism, not bridge, and it may end up losing an expensive case.

The world will think America is a democracy strong enough to tolerate free speech.

Anonymous said...

You can voice your opinion to Jan Martel, President of the USBF at:

Postal Address
1511 Portola Street
CA 95616 Davis
+1-530-758 4088
+1-901-398 7754
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