Britain, Officially Over Itself


I wallowed a little in Friday night's ceremony – not just because it was so fresh and so un-Chinese, but because it seemed designed to pluck every single last string in a British patriot's heart. As a madcap, self-confident rebuke to the dour, tight-assed, "disconcerted" Romney, it couldn't have hit the mark more perfectly. Yes, it partook of the version of British history most of us were subjected to: agrarian idyll turned into industrial hell by evil capitalists, saved, eventually, by Fabians and socialists. But I didn't really care. The transition from the Shire to Valhalla – as vast phallic smokestacks tumesced all around – was pure Blake.

Above all: humor. Think of how Queen Victoria would have responded to the idea of (virtually) jumping out of a helicopter with James Bond. Simon Schama captures what seems to me the real point:

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.

Britain's 2012 Olympics were of the anti-fascist variety. Which is fitting, isn't it, since this tiny island nation was the lynchpin in fascism's twentieth century demise. Defeated, in part, by a sense of humor, perspective and a spot of anarchy.

(Photo: A ground view up the skirt of a stuntman dressed to resemble Britain's Queen Elizabeth II parachuting into the stadium during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in London on July 27, 2012. By Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images.)