Despite the brazen rulebreaking and manipulation of its world audience (which I discussed in Part 1) China has gotten what it wanted: the attention of the international community through its slick hosting of the Olympics and its cache of 51 gold medals, reportedly the biggest haul since the Soviet Union took 55 golds in Seoul 20 years ago.
That the United States came out on top with 110 total medals to China’s 100 (although a distant second in golds with 36) is no surprise. The US stands alone among modern nations — now that the USSR is no more: no other existing country has won the total medal count since Hitler’s Germany in 1936.
It’s ironic to note that Germany, which did so well back then, garnered only 41 total medals and 16 gold, and that once-dominant Russia came in a distant third with 23 gold out of a total 72. Although the US often comes in second, it is perenially either second or first, where other nations have their moment and then decline, much like the history of the world.
And so I wonder: why does the US often miss out on first place but always manage at least second?
What did Fascist Germany, Socialist Russia, and modern China with its bizarre hybrid of capitalist-socialism all have in common? They were totalitarian, which is an often used and equally often misunderstood term.
Totalitariansim is not merely dictatorship. It is a system in which the state assumes total control — like socialism on steroids — often with the intent of benefitting the people. In many ways, Hitler, Mussolini, Lenin, and Mao were idealists, truly believing that they would create a paradise for their people even as they wrought misery all about them.
Such a system can be effective in the short run. All these countries had, as China currently has, a period of economic, political, and military dominance. But these flares of prominence and prosperity don’t last long, because the state cannot affect lasting success — that must come from the people themselves, who must be motivated to make it happen. Over time, totalitarianism leeches away all personal motivation.
In contrast, the United States, for all its faults, has always been a meritocracy — those who work hard usually succeed through a mix of talent and discipline. Over time, America and Americans usually come out on top. And so, although the state-sponsored training programs of Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and contemporary China tend to succeed, the programs themselves don’t last because the system that makes them work doesn’t last itself.
It’s interesting to note that the system of Torah government is also a meritocracy. Yes, the Torah provides the rules and guidelines to protect the poor and the weak, but it is left to Jewish society as a whole — not just the leaders — to make the system work. In this way, every Jew shares the responsibility for a healthy society, and society fails when too many individuals fail to carry their own weight.
Whether training for Olympic gold or spiritual greatness, it is individual effort — within a structure of collective responsibility — that carries the day.