In the 1920 Presidential Election in the United States, a corrupt and terribly incompetent man named Warren Harding won the election with a campaign which promised a return to normalacy. After years of censorship and propaganda and a bloody war, the people of the United States wanted a return to their normal and private pursuits, and the voted accordingly with their votes and their pocketbooks, paying lip service to Prohibition while going to speakeasies, paying lip service to morality while behaving corruptly, without a great deal of desire for being restrained by government.
This weekend, the rulers of Bahrain  , Sunni rulers over a majority Shi’ite state, have been seeking to use a Formula 1 race to show that life in that troubled microstate has returned to normal. So far it hasn’t worked. Angry Shi’ites are protesting, the government has responded by attacking them in their own neighborhoods with tear gas, and the protesters have responded with petro bombs . The rulers of Bahrain, who are still facing strong accusations of human rights violations, as well as discrimination against the Shi’ite majority in areas like jobs, education, and housing, are using the Formula 1 race to attempt to show the world that things are back to normal . So far it’s not working.
One team, for example, Force India, canceled a practice session and had two of its crew members already go home because of the violence . So far no one involved with the race has been killed or injured, but the situation is clearly tense. The organizers of the race do not want to give in, because to lose the race to delay or cancellation would be to accept the fact that life is not ‘okay’ in Bahrain, and give the world another reason to criticize the little but geopolitically important island. Nonetheless, the fact that large demonstrations and uprisings are threatened as soon as cameras are on Bahrain, race or no race, is clearly a sign that Bahrain’s government lacks legitimacy in the eyes of a substantial (and peeved) portion of its population.
Sports are an element of propaganda. Holding a major sporting event is a sign (whether deserved or not) that an area has its stuff together and is able to support with its infrastructure and security an event of importance, whether it is the Olympics or the World Cup or a racing or cricket or football or soccer event or anything of that nature. The challenges are fairly similar–you have to house the athletes, provide a good transportation infrastructure to get the teams, athletes, and fans to the venues, and provide safety for all of them during their time there. If a nation cannot do that (and it appears that Bahrain is not able to do that to the satisfaction of everyone right now), then that nation is not truly alright.
What are the goals of a nation in pretending normalacy, even when it does not exist? For one, there are internal benefits to their own feeling of security. It is not so much the reality of security and legitimacy but the ability to believe it to exist that lowers stress and tension for leaders. So long as the people are pretending that they respect and support a leader, the reality of such matters need not ever intrude into anyone’s mind. In addition, there are material benefits that come from the illusion of normalacy, including the absence of sanctions and the money one gets from advertising and free publicity and tourism and trade and investment. These monetary benefits are threatened with insecurity, as insecurity tends to drive away businessmen and tourists, who tend to be mostly risk-adverse by nature.
There is often a desire to sweep problems under the rug, do pretend they do not exist, or to think that force alone will preserve one’s rule. This is done because people do not handle prolonged stress and tension very well as a general rule. Since we are so prone to deceive ourselves about reality, and to believe pleasant illusions, it is no difficult matter if most of the political life in a nation like Bahrain (or elsewhere) is largely a matter of pretense and simply keeping up appearances. It is a small wonder that this is the goal of the Bahraini government, given that it is a fairly ordinary practice around the world.