For a moment in Olympics Closing Ceremony, England had the eyes of the world, a chance to present a message to the global community. With athletes from 204 nations in attendance and satellites beaming to all corners of the globe, they sent a message on what the West is all about.
Here it is: Russell Brand.
Russell Brand in striped skinny tights lip-syncing what, near as I could figure out, was an elaborate tribute to Austin Powers.
Is this the best the West has to offer the world?
Music? Fashion? Cars? Giant glowing octopuses blaring dance anthems?
The slightly alarming message of Beijing opening and closing ceremonies was “We are the Borg. We don’t go in much for individuality, but there are an awful lot of us and we make a pretty big noise all together.”
The message of Britain’s ceremonies was a direct answer to that: “We are individuals and reserve the right to prance around in giant loofah sponges and dayglow mumus.”
As a Westerner, I appreciate Annie Lennox and David Bowie as much as the next girl and can really get rocking to some Taio Cruz. But we Westerners instinctively know that such whimsy and in-your-face individualism only happens against a backdrop of free speech, self-determination, and democracy, backed up by a liberty-preserving judicial system and a strong military.
There would be no Abbey Road if there had been no Battle of Britain. There would be no Freddy Mercury if there was no John Locke. And there would be no Eric Idle without a long history of freedom to follow, question, or reject religion.
Where were the wild, acid-inspired artists of the Soviet Union? Show me the great fashion designers of Saudia Arabia. Where are the rebellious rappers of North Korea or China?
Dissidents like Solzhenitsyn or Al Weiwei only prove the point.
Great art, such as rock and roll, flourishes when an artist is free to speak his or her mind and when there is enough prosperity to allow a market to support the arts.
The English Empire created that world and that prosperity, although America took it to the next level. Despite abuses and atrocities, if you take the British Empire in its totality, it was a force for good in the world.
In these Olympics, the complexity and important history of the British people was completely MIA. Beyond the changing of the happy hobbits of agricultural England to the downtrodden trolls of industrialized England in the Opening Ceremony, the unique achievements of the British were given a wide berth. Even widely-recognized heroes such as Winston Churchill were relegated to a brief shot of a grinning statue maniacally waving his hat as the supposed Queen flew over on the way to a fun but silly parachute jump.
And yet, for a production fanatically and desperately avoidant of any mention of the former Empire on Which the Sun Never Set, the opening and closing ceremonies were remarkably oblivious to the cultural imperialism they imposed on the world.
“You will party with us,” it said, “Your teens will listen to this music and dress this way and covet these fancy cars.”
I found myself wondering about the impact on the first Saudi woman to run Olympic track and field, Sarah Attar, who won even though she finished last. As singer Jessie J pranced around in her flesh-colored body stocking, I wondered about Attar’s critics in Saudi Arabia, the ones that don’t let women vote and don’t let them drive and called Attar and her fellow female athletes prostitutes just for daring to compete. If the closing ceremony made it past the censors in Saudi Arabia or Iran, did it do anything more than prove the fears and denunciations correct in their minds?
The self-pleased clueless assumption that this particular fire-works enhanced rock concert was the appropriate global celebration strikes me as either remarkably tone deaf or shockingly aggressive.
We won’t impose our values of freedom, self-determination, or free speech on you, but we’ll be damned if we don’t force you to Shake It with the Spice Girls.
It’s not that I’m ashamed of the Spice Girls (ok, maybe a little bit), but that we, meaning Western Civilization, still have so much more to offer the world. I wish Great Britain had taken the opportunity to extend the invitation not only to party like us, but to do so in a context of true liberty.