November 14, 2007

Bridge Over Troubled Water

Remember when bridge used to occupy a place in American life where it brought people together rather than pushing them apart? Card games like bridge, rummy, and pinochle formed the center of social interaction in many communities, and gave people a way to connect when other issues divided them. The actions of one group of players in an international tournament has degraded that sense of community and introduced sharp divisions inside their organization (via Memeorandum):

In the genteel world of bridge, disputes are usually handled quietly and rarely involve issues of national policy. But in a fight reminiscent of the brouhaha over an anti-Bush statement by Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks in 2003, a team of women who represented the United States at the world bridge championships in Shanghai last month is facing sanctions, including a yearlong ban from competition, for a spur-of-the-moment protest.

At issue is a crudely lettered sign, scribbled on the back of a menu, that was held up at an awards dinner and read, “We did not vote for Bush.”

By e-mail, angry bridge players have accused the women of “treason” and “sedition.”

“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.”

Not so, said Danny Kleinman, a professional bridge player, teacher and columnist. “If the U.S.B.F. wants to impose conditions of membership that involve curtailment of free speech, then it cannot claim to represent our country in international competition,” he said by e-mail.

The gesture showed immaturity and a need for self-promotion that apparently didn't get satisfied by the tournament itself. These Americans somehow felt the need to show off our differences while representing their organization internationally, rather than conduct themselves with a little class and decorum. Just like with the Dixie Chicks, they chose to pander to those around them who criticized the nation by partially disclaiming their membership in our citizenry.

However, the bridge organization seems to have also overreacted. Rather than scold the players and let them absorb their due obloquy, they have decided to sanction them for their political speech. The sign did not explicitly violate any rule, apparently, but the club will suspend them for conduct unbecoming a member. In doing so, they have transformed these women from immature, sniveling examples of BDS sufferers into First Amendment martyrs.

A boycott of the Dixie Chicks is an example of free-speech reaction to their political activism abroad. Had a governing board suspended the Dixie Chicks from being able to earn because of the incident, rather than consumers making that decisions with their pocketbooks, it would have been wrong as well. If the USBF doesn't want to hire these women again for international competition, that's their choice -- but to put them through a "suspension" goes more than a little overboard.

By all means, these women deserve the criticism they have received. They entered into the political arena, and now they can defend themselves there; to that extent, they have only victimized themselves. The USBF should leave it at that.


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