The Fuzzy Chinese Face That Transcends Political Divisions

a sleepy panda bear that seems to be smiling
Photo by popofaticus via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In New York City, Representative Carolyn Maloney and 450 rich people gathered at the Waldorf Astoria to raise money toward the one thing that brings everyone together: adorable, roly-poly panda bears. Politics be damned: everyone loves a panda. Carl Swanson wrangled an invitation to the Panda Ball to give you the inside scoop in New York magazine.

The event was to raise money — $50 million is the estimated goal — to bring a couple of pandas to live in Central Park. The dream had proved unbelievably flexible: Democrats for pandas, Republicans for pandas, and, above all, New York (and Chinese) money for pandas; pandas as cuddly “Can’t we all just get along?” political metaphors and icons of world trade; pandas for peace and mutual respect, and the branding opportunities that could bind rival empires together, but in any event pandas who could never be pressed into military service over the islands in the South China Sea. Pandas as crowd-pleasing trophies of city pride (the D.C., Atlanta, San Diego, and Memphis zoos have them, but the Bronx Zoo last had them, and only briefly, in the late 1980s); pandas as paragons of a kind of toddlerlike, clumsy innocence — we must protect them! — and of conservationism (there’s a reason the World Wildlife Fund has a panda as its logo; without human support, it’d be hard for them to even survive the Anthropocene). This is all besides their being such adorable plushie fluff (for those fluffy people who were hoping to make their world a little fluffier again). Who knows why we are supposed to care about these sleepy-eyed creatures, really — though we instinctively tend to — much less how practical this grand panda dream is. The important thing seemed to be that, emerging bleary-eyed and anxious from the election season, New York’s powerful people had to care about something uncontroversial, had to gather together at charity galas and sit in those faux-bamboo chairs at the benefit for some reason. And suddenly the list of inoffensive causes had shrunk so radically that it seemed maybe a couple of fat black-and-white bears — who eat almost exclusively what is the world’s least nutritious vegetation and who take a rather lackadaisical approach to procreation — were the only thing these people could agree on anymore.

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