The Olympics hadn't even started yet when the disgraces began to pile up. First the International Olympic Committee, plainly loath to offend Muslim governments, ruled out a moment of silence at the opening ceremony for the Israeli athletes murdered in Munich forty years ago. Then last Wednesday, when South Korea's flag was mistakenly displayed instead of North Korea's at a women's soccer game, Olympics officials fell all over themselves apologizing to baby tyrant Kim Jung-un's henchmen for the error. On the same day, it emerged that Taiwan's flag, which has been barred from Olympic venues since the 1980s for fear of offending Communist China, was also removed, on the advice of the same Olympics officials, from a display on Regent Street in downtown London – that is to say, not at an Olympic venue. And on Friday, hours before the opening ceremony, Lebanon's judo team refused to share a training space with its Israeli counterpart – so officials, rather than telling the Lebanese to go peddle their papers, obligingly put up some kind of screen to separate them from the offending Jews.
Reading about these disgraceful matters, one found oneself asking: are the Olympics, when you get right down to it, really nothing more than the United Nations with basketball courts and swimming pools – that is, plenty of pretty rhetoric about international brotherhood, and underneath it a craven bureaucracy all too ready to appease Muslims and totalitarians?
Given these unpromising prefatory problems, one scarcely knew what to expect of the opening ceremony, conceived and created by filmmaker Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire). Its first minutes, however, proved auspiciously tuneful, touching, and patriotic: children's choirs in the stadium, and in rustic settings in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, sang, respectively, Blake's “Jerusalem,” “Flower of Scotland,” Welsh composer Ralph Vaughan Williams's stately hymn “Cwm Rhondda,” and “Danny Boy.” The James Bond bit with the queen was amusing. As the show in the stadium began to take form, moreover, one could not help being exceedingly impressed by the mise èn scene – the evocative pastoral scene transformed before one's eyes into an unforgettably graphic vision of the industrial revolution, complete with a group of capitalists in top hats and –
Hey, wait a minute, one started to wonder, what's going on here?
Eventually it became clear that what we were watching was intended as a brief summary of British history – which, in Boyle's retelling, essentially began with capitalists' transformation of (to quote from Blake's “Jerusalem”) “England's green and pleasant land” into a country of “dark satanic mills.” Which raised the question: what happened to 1066, Magna Carta, Henry VIII's break with Rome, the Spanish Armada, and Oliver Cromwell – just to name a few random highlights that predate the rise of industry?
In Boyle's vision, what followed this grim transformation – and redeemed Britain – was, quite simply (and reductively) protest: by, among others, trade unionists and suffragettes, groups of which we saw on the march. And also medical care, on which there was an almost exclusive emphasis for the better part of a half hour. After a small army of nurses and kids in beds made their way into the stadium, some of the lit-up beds spelled out the initials GOSH, which (as most international viewers would have no way of knowing) are the initials of the Great Ormond Street Hospital, an institution for sick children founded in the early 1800s. J.K. Rowling read aloud from Peter Pan – the royalties from which (as, again, few people outside the U.K. would be likely to know) J.M. Barrie donated to that hospital in 1929. The apex of this portion of the show was the rearrangement of illuminated beds to spell out NHS, for National Health Service – a glorification, in short, of socialized medicine, and an implication that the NHS is the natural culmination of centuries of advancement resulting from leftist agitation.
After the best segment of the show – the laugh-out-loud contribution by the always hilarious Rowan Atkinson, a.k.a. Mr. Bean – came a long, busy, rather confusing and all-over-the-place tribute to the British youth culture of recent decades, notably rap music, and to contemporary social media, centered largely on the love story of a young black couple and featuring Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, at a laptop. What Boyle was doing here was painting a picture of demotic life in today's U.K., as he apparently sees it, and suggesting that it is the triumphant consummation of everything that went before.
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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