One of the wisest columns I have read in recent years appeared in The Guardian. In 2011. It was by Julian Glover, who was saying farewell to the paper; he was leaving to take the job of speechwriter for then prime minister, David Cameron. In his piece, he made an important – evidently memorable – insight. He wrote: “I fear comment, like a strangler-fig, is getting stronger than the politics on which it feeds.”
His insight came back to me last week, as I watched the coverage of the Winter Olympics from South Korea. To cover the event, the media required a number of things. Not only the sporting games, it also needed the political games which would allow them to extrapolate largely manufactured political tensions to fuel their news cycles. To do this there must, of course, be an endless game of “Who’s up and who’s down?”
Her appearance at the Winter Olympics sent the American press into a spin so embarrassing in its enthusiasm, so sophomoric in its crush that it has been widely regarded as the most embarrassing moment for American journalism since Vogue magazine published its 2011 profile of Asma al-Assad (wife to the Syrian despot) memorably titled ‘A rose in the desert’.
Attempting to beat that slavish high-water mark, this week CNN ran a piece on Kim Yo-jong headlined: ‘Kim Jong-un’s sister is stealing the show at the Winter Olympics.’ The piece began:
“If ‘diplomatic dance’ were an event at the Winter Olympics, Kim Jong-un’s younger sister would be favored to win gold. With a smile, a handshake and a warm message in South Korea’s presidential guest book, Kim Yo-jong has struck a chord with the public just one day into the PyeongChang Games.”
Let’s not forget they are describing a leading member of a regime that is running concentration camps at this very moment – camps in which people do not only die by the thousands, but into which thousands are born and are condemned to live often as a result of the ideological suspiciousness of a relative.
Reuters followed suit with, ‘North Korea heads for diplomacy gold medal at Olympics’. And The New York Times managed to exceed it with, ‘Without a word, only flashing smiles, Kim Jong-un’s sister outflanked Vice President Mike Pence in diplomacy.’
At the opening ceremony, the North and South Korean teams marched beneath one united flag. Vice President Pence did not join those in the stadium who gave a standing ovation to this act of unity. The American media who were hostile to the Vice President promptly leaped upon this as precisely the sort of diplomatic mistake that made Pence – and the administration of which he is a part – unfit to serve. Others berated him for pointedly refusing to break into conversation with Kim Yo-jong in the VIP box.
Which brings me back to the strangler-fig. Nobody in the US press or media has any idea more than the next person as to whether or not the Vice President of the United States ought to stand or remain seated when the North and South Korean Olympic teams enter a stadium under a common flag. None of them has thought about it before, even though all became expert on the matter after Mike Pence decided to remain in his seat.
In fact, in almost every imaginable action, the Vice President carried himself as well as anyone could. He did not decide that a single gesture warranted photographs of an American Vice President getting to his feet to applaud North Korean athletes. He did not decide that the mere proximity of a young woman whose ‘light make-up’ was mentioned in many of the profiles of her apparently superlative diplomacy warranted warmth towards the world’s worst human rights violator which is also at present the world’s most flagrant violator of international norms on nuclear testing and development.
In fact, Vice President Pence acted in as diplomatic and principled a manner as it would be possible to act in the circumstances. He used his time in South Korea to meet with defectors from the North. And (though this was lost in most of the coverage) he also brought with him on the trip the father of the American student Otto Warmbier who was detained and tortured in North Korea and whose barely living body was returned to his family just before his death last year.
But more than anything else, the coverage of the games shows a hollowness at the heart of American politics and commentary. The commentary keeps winding itself around the politics, hollowing out the thing upon which it feeds, and with no idea of how to behave or how to survive on its own. Until, eventually, it finds itself set on destroying what feeds it, and fawning on those who would snuff it out.