Mitt Romney, who wants to be President one day, came to England last week on a ‘charm offensive.’ But things didn’t go so well because he managed to offend almost the entire country, and unite even the most radical leftist behind smart put-downs from Tories such as PM David Cameron and London mayor Boris Johnson. (Tories! The very people who should be on his side!). The most right wing newspaper in the country declared that Romney was “on a charm offensive that was utterly devoid of charm and mildly offensive.” Ouch.
Mitt’s mistake was to criticize Britain’s Olympic preparations, saying he was ‘disconcerted’ by a problem that arose with security. Leaving aside the complete mess that was the Atlanta Olympic Games, most Brits wondered who was this guy and who gave him the right to cast aspersions on our work? In one short interview, poor Mitt alienated the country’s media, 80% of the public, and all the politicians.
But to be fair, he wasn’t the only one who was a little discombobulated by the start of the Olympics.
For weeks Brits have been complaining about the games – the cost, the traffic, the corporate influence – you name it, we’ve complained about it. But then Friday night happened. Danny Boyle put together an opening ceremony that made almost everyone glow with pride. (I say ‘almost’ because the one thing you can count on in Britain is that you’ll never get everyone on the same page!)
I can’t tell you how glad I am that I watched that ceremony here in the UK so that when I burst with pride, the people around me understood why. I expect much of the show was lost on people outside this little country and that’s OK. Because this was a performance for the British people – for each and every one of us during this time of austerity and double-dip recessions. A show that we all understood down to the tiniest details and the most obscure musical reference.
See, if you’re in America, you probably won’t understand this but Britain generally doesn’t celebrate itself – on the contrary, we love to put ourselves down and we’re incredibly uncomfortable with shows of patriotism, which we tend to see as dangerously jingoistic. (We had that little problem with the Germans a while go, so you can see where we’re coming from). That’s why it was disconcerting to find that Danny Boyle had created a show that celebrated Britain, and every one of the people in it, but did so in a slightly subversive and brilliantly madcap way, thus giving us permission to shed a little tear and briefly congratulate ourselves for everything from Shakespeare to the Sex Pistols to the Queen (her turn with ‘James Bond’ was perfect).
This article by the historian Simon Sharma struck me as the best description of where Britain is and why a ceremony that confused many foreigners made us all incredibly happy:
Things that flew and things that blew, smoke and lights that flared, and lots and lots of history. It’s the way collapsed empires make peace with their fate: whimsically, affectionately, unsentimentally, secure enough for self-mockery.
Powers obsessed with their present or impending grandeur (or sophomorically threatened by rumors of decline) do opening ceremonies differently, humorlessly: much gorilla chest-beating disguised as epic; pumped-up self-congratulatory bombast, deploying vast numbers of bodies in perfect coordination in the service of kitsch folk ballet; synchronized smiling; selective allusions to precisely the popular homely traditions from which state and corporate power have sucked the lifeblood. A ghastly synthetic simulacrum of national unity, every leg in perfect alignment with the Overall Theme. That’s the way it’s been since Leni Riefenstahl invented the genre for Hitler’s 1936 Olympische Spiele. And though subsequent renditions have been less sinister, they’ve still had a kind of mechanical megalomania about them. You will mouth platitudes of universal brotherhood. You will celebrate the harmonious comity of the ripped.
What Danny Boyle and his team achieved in this was to break open the formula that was getting dinosaur-like in the lumbering immensity of its brainlessness. That’s what the British are still good at: tearing up the convention, starting over, letting the imagination rip, summoning the inner child.
Like I said, SO proud 🙂