August 25, 2008

Nationalist Spectacle

I flipped on the tube last night and caught a bit of the closing ceremony of the Beijing Olympics?an event far less exhilarating, and much more cheesy and Las Vegas-y, than the thrilling opening ceremony of two weeks ago. Some highlights can be seen here.

David Brooks?s fretted over the anti-individualistic mass mechanization of the August 8 performance. What was striking to me was regisseur Zhang Yimou?s manifestation of the continuity of Chinese civilization: He created scenes of the Chinese ruling the waves?gesturing back to the explorers and forward to contemporary global commerce; the electro-light drumming was a mix of traditional instruments with contemporary technology. Sure, the whole thing was bombastic, propagandistic kitsch. But unlike most every other public spectacle, this one expressed a reverence for the past. It?s good Steven Spielberg pulled out and Beijing chose one of its own artist to direct. 

It?s also worth noting that when the city of London made its little ?Cool Britainia? contribution to the closing ceremonies, it offered no gestures towards the glories of British history, but instead presented a bunch of brightly dressed hipsters doing a completely stupid dance while waiting for a bus.

Each ethnic group in multi-culti London got full representation?there was even a guy in a wheelchair! I was waiting for one dancer to depict the Islamicist Imam with ties to al-Queda who?s received official ?refugee? status and is on public welfare. But then it’s also important to note that London didn?t find it fit to include a cockney among the dancers, nor a dandy, nor a working-class 5-pint-a-day guy, nor an aristocrat, nor a soccer hooligan, nor a tweed-clad Oxford Don?that is, all the colorful figures that make Britain British (or at least in this American?s imagination). Instead, on display was the Benetton world?one in which everyone is young and attractive, dresses in the same fashionable way, thinks the same tolerant thoughts, and differs only in skin tone. While China might have given us a mass, London offered nothing but conformist individuals. When the bus door opened and a little Indian girl popped out representing ?London,? who was then handed a symbolic soccer ball by a Malaysian girl depicting ?the children of the world,? I reached for the barf bag.

The Beijing Olympics was about triumphant nationalism, a people with that ?rising feeling,? who see that their day is almost here. The London games, on the other hand, will offer us lots of images of global nowhere-ness and reminders of just how much the British nation is in decline.

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