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Somewhere along the way we were treated to a glimpse of men in military uniforms – a fitting memorial to the British armed forces who lost their lives in the two world wars, but a memorial, nonetheless, that carefully avoided seeming to celebrate the Allied victories in those wars. (Mustn’t offend the losers!) In the same way, nowhere in the whole spectacle was there so much as a shadow of a suggestion that there might have been a good side to the British Empire. (Mustn’t offend all those former colonies!)
Boyle did manage to squeeze in a mini-tribute to British children’s stories – complete with flying Mary Poppinses. But it was dismaying to see Britain, which gave the world the very greatest of national literatures, commemorating, as if they were the apogee of its cultural history, the cheesy pop music and lowbrow TV shows of the last couple of decades while ignoring the likes of Chaucer and Milton, Burns and Scott, Keats and Browning. (Presumably Kenneth Branagh’s recitation of a few lines from The Tempest was intended to be the obligatory nod toward highbrow British lit, just as the presence of Berners-Lee was apparently the obligatory nod toward the extraordinary contributions of British science and technology.)
Although the international media were nearly ubiquitous in their praise for Boyle’s efforts, there were a few criticisms, here and there, of the show’s political slant. Andrew Gilligan, in the Telegraph, noted wryly that the ceremony had perhaps marked the NHS’s “final transformation from a healthcare system into a religion.” But the demurral that made the most headlines was probably that by a Tory MP, Aidan Burley, who, on Twitter, described the ceremony as “leftie multicultural crap” and “[t]he most leftie opening ceremony I have ever seen – more than Beijing, the capital of a communist state! Welfare tribute next?” (I had made much the same observation on Facebook, noting that not even the People’s Republic of China had included a paean to socialized health care in its Olympic opening ceremony.)
What was striking was the tsunami of moral outrage that greeted Burley’s honest expression of his opinion: one Labor MP called Burley’s tweet “anti-British”; another called on Cameron to “demand a full apology from Aidan Burley immediately”; a fellow Tory MP ungrammatically averred on Twitter that “us Londoners are rather proud of the diversity of our city”; and, as the Mirror reported, “Downing Street moved quickly to distance Prime Minister David Cameron from the comments, with a senior source saying simply: ‘We do not agree with him.’” A chastened Burley hurriedly walked back his thoroughly legitimate criticism, saying he’d been misunderstood and assuring the BBC that “we all love the NHS” and “that he agreed multiculturalism ‘should be celebrated.’” Sigh. No real surprise there, I suppose, although it’s always useful to be reminded just how rigidly enforced the lockstep devotion to multiculturalism, socialism, and the welfare state is nowadays on both the left and the right in Britain – notwithstanding Cameron’s high-profile declaration, early last year, that multiculturalism had failed.
How utterly, depressingly at odds all this is with the very best part – the heart, the essence – of Britain’s historical legacy: namely, its noble and hard-won heritage of individual liberty, a liberty that has grown and broadened steadily over the generations, and that was enhanced significantly by the three great Reform Bills of the nineteenth century (which, of course, were not so much as alluded to by Boyle), but that is now, alas, endangered and eroding, thanks to the very multiculturalism to which Burley, at the end of the day, was made to feel compelled to declare his allegiance. For all the imaginative brilliance of Boyle’s opening ceremony (which did indeed include a great deal that was beautiful and moving), that heritage of liberty – which has inspired people around the world to fight and struggle to breathe free, and which is still sorely envied in many of the not-quite-free nations whose athletes paraded into the stadium on Friday night – barely seemed to be on Boyle’s radar. Shame, that.
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