Bridge Too Far

I always thought that people who play Bridge, a needlessly complicated card game, were harmless enough, though they certainly could be making better use of their time. But I had no idea that that the world of competitive Bridge was a hotbed of anti-American feeling. Last month at the world Bridge championships in Shanghai a team of women representing the United States did something shocking when they went up to the dais to receive the Venice Cup, the award for the best women's team. One of their members held up a hand-lettered sign that said "We Did Not Vote for Bush." This act, which has led some bridge players to accuse the women of "treason" and "sedition," has brought back memories of other Americans who have dared to criticize this country abroad, such as Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks in 2003 and Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who gave a black power salute after winning medals in the 200 meter race at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. The team's nonplaying captain Gail Greenberg claims, "There was a lot of anti-Bush feeling, questioning of our Iraq policy and about torture," at the tournament and calls her team's action "a moment of levity," but there is nothing funny about treason.

"This isn't a free-speech issue," explains Jan Martel, president of the United States Bridge Federation, commenting on what the organization refers to as the "Shanghai Incident." "There isn't any question that private organizations can control the speech of people who represent them." A statement released by the USBF reiterates, "This situation is not about free speech; it is about determining whether the USBF has a responsibility to its membership to impose sanctions on those who have acted contrary to the best interests of the organization and its members."

The United States Bridge Federation has an excellent opportunity to show the world what America stands for by punishing these women. Some people have the wrong idea about what the Bill of Rights really means. In America you have freedom of expression as long as a private organization doesn't own your expression. Peaceful protests are fine as long as they don't embarrass organizations that depend on corporate sponsorship and take place on American soil behind police barricades where they can be videotaped for future use in any trials that might arise.

In Pakistan we can already see the tragic results that can occur when some people misunderstand what America stands for. Americans don't think that just anyone deserves the right to free speech and democracy. These are rights that have to be earned after years of being under the thumbs of U.S.-supported dictators. Once the people of these countries have demonstrated that they are not going to vote for Communists or Jihadists, then we allow them to have democracy on a trial basis, with the understanding that the CIA might have to start a coup and put another dictator in place if things get out of hand.

The United States Bridge Federation has threatened to suspend these women for a year, which would send a powerful message to places like Pakistan that freedom of speech is not a recipe for anarchy. Not surprisingly, the French also seem to have the wrong idea of what freedom means to Americans. The French team sent an email in support of the women, which said, "By trying to address these issues in a nonviolent, nonthreatening and lighthearted manner, you were doing only what women of the world have always tried to do when opposing the folly of men who have lost their perspective of reality." Leave it to the French to turn it into a sex thing. Of course, this is not the first time the French have misunderstood American ideals. When they gave us the Statue of Liberty with that terrible poem that begins "Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…," a lot of people took those words much too literally, leading to the immigration problem that still haunts us today.

Thank goodness the USBF does know something about American values. Drawing on the best of American tradition, they have had their lawyer, Alan Falk, send the women a questionnaire trying to get them to snitch on the team member who first broached the idea of holding up the sign and he has threatened them with worse punishment if they don't cooperate. Already three players, Hansa Narasimhan, JoAnna Stansby and Jill Meyers, have started to crack, expressing regret that the action offended some people. But Debbie Rosenberg, Jill Levin, and Irina Levitina--the Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver and Stokely Carmichael of the Bridge team--remain defiant. How weak will the United States look to the rest of the world if we can't even scare a few lady Bridge players into backing away from criticizing the President?

"Freedom to express dissent against our leaders has traditionally been a core American value," Ms. Rosenberg, who held up the sign, wrote in an email that should be turned over to the FBI for investigation. "Unfortunately, the Bush brand of patriotism, where criticizing Bush means you are a traitor, seems to have penetrated a significant minority of U.S. bridge players." It is almost as if she is daring the President to have her executed for treason.

Champion Bridge player Robert S. Wolff disagrees with what the team did. "While I believe in the right to free speech, to me that doesn't give anyone the right to criticize one's leader at a foreign venue in a totally nonpolitical event," he said. Apparently, Ms. Rosenberg and her teammates are completely unaware of the criticize-one's-leader-at-a-foreign-venue-in-a-totally-nonpolitical-event exception to the First Amendment.

The First Amendment does not give people the right to yell anti-Bush slogans in a crowded theater, or even to talk during the movie at all. If we let a few lady Bridge players criticize the President, it could spread. The next thing you know Democrats in Congress will start opposing the President's appointments, passing laws against torture or defying him on funding for the Iraq War.

The future of this country may well depend on the action the United States Bridge Federation takes. Ms. Rosenberg claims that she earns a living from Bridge and suspending her for a year would be a financial hardship. The USBF maintains, however, that it "has no obligation to coddle, foster, or protect any person’s ability to earn professional fees." But is refraining from "coddling" their professional fees really punishment enough? Although I'm much too lazy to do it, I'm sure my friends in the conservative blogosphere are already digging up negative personal information about these players and trying to learn their email addresses and telephone numbers and where their children go to school so that they can spur their readers to attack and harass these women and ruin their lives. Soon small towns around America will be aglow with bonfires as members of local Bridge clubs toss their playing cards into the flames in protest. And Congress will take some time away from less important business to sponsor a resolution condemning these women, which even Democrats will vote for because they don't want to seem un-American. These lady bridge players will learn soon enough what freedom of expression really means in America.

Crosposted at Jon Swift

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