Western Imperialism was Alive and Well at the Olympics, but the Wrong Kind

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

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?

Sarah Attar
Brian May and Jessie J

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.

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  • Well said!

  • Jeremy Forbing

    Weird. I both have no idea what point this article is actually making, and simultaneously sense instinctively that I disagree with it. This intrigues me. Part of me wants to ask for clarification, and part of me wants what I just read to remain a vague and meandering enigma.

    Personally, I was more bothered by the closing ceremony, which seemed to imply that British culture (specifically music) ended with the Who, but that’s just me.

  • Rebecca Cusey

    Haha. Yes. I have a problem with it ending at The Who too, although they did highlight a lot of current pop songs no one will remember in 20 years, much less five. Jessie J, while I enjoy that song about counting your money or whatever, isn’t exactly The Beatles.

    Missing? U2. Rolling Stones. Coldplay. Adele.

    As to the other point, well, I’m happy I gave you a vague sense of disquiet at least.

  • Rebecca Cusey


  • DK

    ended with The Who, and began with the Beatles. At least we were spared from seeing John Lydon in sequins snarling “God Save the Queen” (I bet they are wishing they’d thought of that). It’s pretty depressing, actually, that this is what one of the great nations in World history feels it has left to offer the world.

  • Dom

    Timothy Spall, playing Churchill, opened the Closing Ceremony. Did you miss that?
    He was the guy standing on Big Ben. Reciting Shakespeare

    The bit you mention, the statue, was in the Opening Ceremony.
    If we are talking about the Opening Ceremony, then industrialisation, internationalism, women’s liberty, modern sport, art, music, modern democracy and the world wide web were celebrated. Thats not very light weight!

    So I don’t quite get your point.
    If it is that these things should have been celebrated again in the Closing Ceremony, then I think that would have been redundant.

  • Agkcrbs

    Great exploration of the topic.

    I also noticed the divided argument here: that the author both admits the ridiculousness of ‘pop culture’ as the pinnacle of Western development, and celebrates and revels in it herself, identifying it with Western values, saluting its bravery, calling it “prosperity” and “great art”, turning all her hints at a deeper and nobler essence back around to point at the meaningless outcome she has just regretted. She wonders, “Is this the best the West has to offer the world?” But then, “Where were the wild, acid-inspired artists of the Soviet Union? […] Where are the rebellious rappers of North Korea or China?” After seeming to answer her own first question affirmatively, she concludes by again suggesting that this is not really Western culture. It could be the vagueness is in her own mind, and she hasn’t yet answered the question to herself of whether the great and enduring foundation was really worth any more than the foppery now piled atop it.

    The test would be, would innate Western culture and civilisation still be recognisable to us if the superficial cultural excess were all removed? Or do we really think our culture is found on the radio, in fashion shows, and in tabloids? If so, that would certainly explain our slow drift away from the starting point. Our “values” are the things we tolerate. Our “culture” is the things we pay attention to.

  • Ms Cusey in my opinion the Olympics are and were none political and in context of true liberty. People from all over the world were invited to take part. They were welcomed with open arms and treated royally.
    The opening ceremony was planned and executed beautifully telling the story of Great Britain through the ages. In the closing ceremony, whether you like the Spice Girls and other entertainers is immaterial, it was meant to be fun. At the end of the ceremony all the participants mingled and marched around the arena – that was true liberty. Apart from that the security was first class, no masssacres or hostage taking and in this day and age no small feat. In 1936 Germany tried to promote their Nazi ideology. In the Munich Games (Germany again) Israeli athletes were taken hostage and 2 were killed.
    Sarah Attar though finishing last was giving a standing ovation – now that say’s it all – it’s not always the winning but the taking part.

  • Rebecca Cusey

    I kept thinking “I wonder what Margaret Thatcher is saying about this?”

  • Rebecca Cusey

    True, still about two minutes to sort of honor Churchill and Shakespeare at the same time. Hardly a home run. Yes, there were other Shakespeare references. He seems to have made the cut.

    The opening ceremony seemed more of the same to me. Carefully avoided any of the history that makes the British British. Industrialization? Especially as shown, with it being a kind of dreary deveolpment…hardly a point of pride.

  • Rebecca Cusey

    That’s a good criticism. I did think some of the bands highlighted are truly great. Some were just the stars of the moment and won’t stand the test of time. I actually think England should be proud of its music contribution to the world, but it is not the only thing in which it should feel it can admit pride.

    It is Western Culture, and at times great Western Culture, but it must be understood in the context of all that makes Western Civilization great. Otherwise, it’s just a dance.

  • Rebecca Cusey

    I agree with you in the sense that we want to be good hosts and not insult our guests by hammering them over the head with our sense of importance or forcing upon them topics that might make them uncomfortable (Hello, Germany. How about them Nazis, eh?)

    I think there was a way to celebrate British exceptionalism and Western Civilization without being rude. I mean, why do all these people from other countries want to move to the West? Is it just for the pop music? Or is there something deeper that draws them?

  • What draws people to the West you ask – is there something deeper………….it’s economic mainly, jobs, welfare, free health care, better standard of living. Back in the 60’s and 70’s people were arriving at Heathrow airport in droves from, India, Pakistan going to the nearest council offices and declaring themselves homeless. The law of the land stated that councils were bound by the law to house these people either in council houses, (that’s public housing) or B and B’s, hotels. They acquired a much better life. During that period work was plentyfull but that isn’t the case now. Like the USA the UK has high unemployment, and the open borders of Europe facilitate easy movement. The little island is over crowded.
    Unfortunately they don’t assimulate into Society, big cultural differences and they are demanding Sharia law.


  • Love love this post! You nailed it so well. As someone who grew up as an American in Pakistan, you have captured my frustration with much of what the west exports to that part of the world. Well said.

  • Unfortunately Ms. Cusey Our dear lady, Dame Margaret Thatcher suffered a series of strokes many months ago. I believe she would have enjoyed the opening ceremony but probably not the closing one. She was very disappointed she wasn’t well enough to attend the unveiling ceremony (in London) of the statue of her dear friend Ronald Reagan.

  • The Opening Ceremony told the story of Great Britain from it’s pastoral beginings. The Industrial Revololution – ie the start of industry world wide is very much a point of pride to the Brits. Yes there were dreary and difficult times but it put the “Great” in Great Britain. Even the scenery changes were done unobtrusively, the smoke stacks rising from the floor was in itself remarkable. What we have today is built on the backs of generations that have gone before us. The National Health Service was also portrayed and Even Mary Poppins put in an appearance. Trying to include 2000 years of history
    during the short time of the opening show is impossible. Winston Churchill was honoured, – he was voted in the year 2000 “The greatest Statesman of the Century” in the UK. and by the way his mother and his wife were American.

  • Chris

    Great article Rebecca, the same thoughts were running through my head as I watched. To those people that are more interested in DWTS, Kim Kardashian, and “Oh, all those ridiculous people with zero talent who spend their lives making sure everyone knows their name. Those stupid, stupid people.”. . .

    Go volunteer at a soup kitchen or a school or a community center, teach a child to read. Learn about Aung San Suu Kyi, read a book, become educated about the problems our country is facing ($16 trillion in the hole and counting. Anyone?)

    The closing ceremonies are this week’s sign that the apocolypse is upon us. . .

  • Ryan

    Agreed here. “Dreary and Difficult” combined with good doses of “really silly” and “highly successful and industrial” kind of do sum up what Britishness is. The thing is, all that escapism is for a reason- industraialization had a high price tag, and we are still in need of cathartic group therapy to get over it.

  • Rebecca Cusey

    Yes, I know. And I wish her well.

  • pagansister

    The Opening Ceremonies were, IMO, beautifully done and I totally enjoyed them. Was a tiny bit disappointed in the Closing Ceremonies, but since the idea was to just have fun, and party, I think it achieved it’s goal. If the shots of the athletes were any example of who was having fun—then I saw no one who looked unhappy.

  • The article refers to England and not the United Kingdom. That’s the whole problem for anyone trying to represent two kingdoms, a principality, a duchy and a province which all have their own identities and history. The ceremony could quite easily have been dominated by English history and culture – The Tudors and Beefeaters. Shakespeare was English and lived and wrote when the United Kingdom as a nation state did not exist.

    The opening scene showing the passage from an idyllic rural setting to the grimness of the Industrial Revolution is one that G.K. Chesterton might have had some sympathy with. Anyone who has read any Charles Dickens knows the Industrial Revolution came with a great human cost, especially for children who often had to work in factories, mills and coal mines.

    Celebrating the British Empire? I’m sure that would have gone down well with anyone of Irish descent, especially Elizabeth I role in it or Cromwell’s, not to mention anyone in the former Indian Empire or African colonies.

    What did amuse me was a comment I read in a British newspaper which quoted an American who asked why Abraham Lincoln did not have a beard. Of course, because it was the great Victorian British Engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, as played by Kenneth Branagh.

    To be honest, trying to present an opening ceremony that represented what it means to be British was almost a poisoned chalice, especially at the moment when we have a Scottish National Party Government in the Scottish Parliament who are planning to hold a referendum on whether Scotland should remain as part of the UK. Not only that, but the immigration since WW II of people from the former Indian Empire, the colonies in the West Indies, half a million Irish and 1 million poles who have arrived since 2004. Britain, and London in particular, is much more ethnically diverse than it was in 1945 and immediate post war years.

    On the whole, I enjoyed the opening ceremony because I thought there was something for everyone. It showed Britain as it is now, and not just as it was. As for the closing ceremony, well The Spice Girls aren’t my cup of tea, but they are internationally known and part of the popular culture here as much as The Simpsons are part and parcel of popular culture in the US.

    You might have guessed that I’m British, though I see myself firstly of English but I do have a great deal of Irish Catholic ancestry.