Through the years Olympic opening ceremonies have grown in scale and complexity, providing the host nation a chance to showcase and celebrate something unique about itself and its contribution to the world. Britain should have no trouble in this regard — its history is crowded with heroism of every sort. From great soldiers and warriors like Henry V and Horatio Nelson to moral thinkers like William Wilberforce and John Stuart Mill, the British People have given the world no shortage of heroes. It was Britain’s Scottish philosophers which laid the intellectual framework for the American Republic. It was Britain’s Royal Navy which (in total disregard of the international community) first took serious action to end the slave trade. It was Britain which bravely fought alone against Nazi Germany between the fall of France and the entry of Russia into the Second World War.
What, then, of these heroic achievements did Britain choose to celebrate?
Socialized medicine and pop culture.
Well, that is a somewhat exaggerated way of looking at it. The performance was divided into two parts, the first describing British history and the second Britain today. The first half was excellent with an inspiring depiction of the rise of industry culminating in the pouring of molten metal into the shape of an Olympic ring. Respectful emphasis was given to those who gave their lives defending Britain in the military. The second half of the performance, though still brilliantly executed, bore a slightly more disturbing message. In a somewhat terrifying glimpse at the colossal scale of the British bureaucracy, real NHS employees were used in a monumental 10 minute tribute to the NHS. This was followed by tributes to Harry Potter, Rock and Roll, Britain’s first televised lesbian kiss, the campaign for nuclear disarmament with appearances from James Bond, Mary Poppins and Mr. Bean.
Despite my initial shock, I realized that this second performance was actually quite well done. The second half of the opening ceremony promised to say something about the nature of Britain in the present day and it did just that. Britain in the 21st century has denied itself every defining characteristic leaving nothing to celebrate but leftism and pop culture.
What immediately struck me about the political angle of this performance was how un-British it was. While the UK certainly was an early pioneer of socialized medicine, there is little uniquely British about a government program which a great many other countries also have. Similarly, it is hard to find anything uniquely British about a televised lesbian kiss when gay rights movements exist to some degree in every western nation.
Nevertheless, it is telling that the government program chosen to represent Britain as a nation is not its military, but rather its socialized healthcare system. It is easy to forget just how vast and imposing the British government is. In modern day Britain, one in five citizens work directly for the government (with government spending accounting for over 50% of the GDP). Citizens can be arrested for crimes as innocent as suggesting that homosexuality is sinful or, as Cinnamon Heathcote-Drury recently discovered, for helping a Muslim woman carry her groceries. These are far from an isolated occurrences. According to Conservative MP Dominic Raab, there were 18,249 violations of the law banning publicly “offensive” behavior in 2009. But there is no need to go in search of such stories when the heavy hand of the British Government can be felt on any of London’s street corners where 11,000 CCTV cameras watch your every move. In light of all this, a tribute to statism doesn’t seem so inappropriate after all.
But statism, even if it has become a fixture in British life, still isn’t a distinctly British concept. So what is? That’s a difficult question to answer, since so much of British culture is off limits to those who don’t want to be accused of “racism” or “elitism.” Modern Britain is so devoted to the idea of multiculturalism that it has a hard time admitting that any sort of behavior is more desirable than another, making celebration of any particular value difficult to say the least. As Theodore Dalrymple put’s it:
“What has caused this collapse of civility in Britain, which was, within living memory, a civil country? In my view, it is a demotic version of egalitariansim, allied with multiculturalism.
Even middle-class people now behave in an increasingly uncouth and rough fashion in Britain because they think that by doing so they are expressing their solidarity with the lower reaches of their society. Imitation, they think, is the highest form of sympathy.”
He goes on:
“Multiculturalism is damaging because it denies that, when it comes to culture, there is a better and a worse, a higher and a lower – only difference. The word culture is used here in its anthropological sense, that is to mean the totality of behavior that is not directly biological. Hence any conduct – lying scantily clad in a pool of vomit for example – is part of a culture and since all cultures, ex hypothesi, are of equal worth, no has the moral right to criticize, much less forbid any kind of behavior. And if I have to accept your culture, you have to accept mine, if you don’t like it – tough”
In such circumstances, one can hardly advertise Britain’s famous civility and chivalry without appearing elitist. For the same reason, Britain cannot celebrate it’s empire without seeming racist. Cambridge recently had to change the name of its “Empire Ball” because a group of so-called “anti-fascists” found the name to be “distasteful and insensitive” because of the British Empire’s association with “slavery, repression and exploitation.”
So what does that leave us with? Rock and Roll, Harry Potter, a televised lesbian kiss and James Bond or, to put it simply, pop culture. Perhaps it could be said that when a culture is destroyed, pop culture is the debris left behind. Britain’s true cultural achievements have stood the test of time. People still read Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales 600 years after they were written. Will people 600 years from now bother to remember James Bond or Harry Potter or the music of some punk rock band?
I may not agree with the political views of Danny Boyle, the artistic directer of the opening ceremony, but I do commend him for his depressingly accurate portrayal of Britain in the 21st century: a culture of trivialities presided over by an ever more intrusive and radical welfare state.
Will McMahon | University of Missouri | @WilliamAMcMahon