Most people who watched the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing were astounded at the sheer spectacle, the grandeur, the enormity of the effort the Chinese expended in presenting their nation and their heritage to the world, and not a few said to themselves, “Wow, what a tough act to follow!” How could England even hope to compete?
Academy Award-winning director Danny Boyle chose not to compete; indeed, he stated that the “Beijing games liberated us.” Instead, he gave the world the quintessence of all that is British: the stiff upper lip in the face of near-insurmountable odds, the indomitable will that drove history’s greatest empire and foremost proponent of human rights, and the cultural domination of modern civilization, all juxtaposed with the purest expressions of England’s national psyche: self-effacing humor and whimsy.
Much of the world, and particularly those in China, had to be wondering at the chutzpah of the British who had the utter gall to introduce rock-n-roll and hip-hop to a ceremony steeped in history and tradition. They had to be shaking their heads at the Voldemort blow-up doll, the “doves on bicycles”, and above all, Mr. Bean. But to those who understand, who have a clue when it comes to the British mindset, it was brilliant. Piers Morgan said it best: “I love this already — mainly because it’s so British it will be confusing the hell out of the rest of the world.”
But there was an underlying theme to Danny Boyle’s presentation, one that any longtime player of Sid Meier’s Civilization should immediately recognize: the cultural victory. John Bull was tapping Uncle Sam on the shoulder and saying, “Excuse me, old chap, but perhaps you should check the score. You see, I’ve already won.” In Sid Meier’s Civilization, A “cultural victory” represents the degree to which a civilization has spread its culture throughout the rest of the world, whether by trade or conquest or clever use of the media.
That’s precisely what England showed us all last night: from human rights to tuxedos and top hats, from rock-n-roll to Harry Potter, from the Industrial Revolution to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, there is not a civilized corner of this planet that has been left untouched, that is not to at least some extent dominated by English culture. If the sun never set on the military dominion of the Union Jack in centuries past, it is true now more than ever that the sun will never set on the cultural dominion of the British Empire. All the proof one needs to see is the ubiquity not only of modern music and formal attire, but of the English language, of modern democracy itself.
It had to be circumstance, mere happenstance at this moment in British history that Mitt Romney was busy embarrassing himself and the GOP, and an even greater irony was Danny Boyle’s celebration of the NHS, England’s National Health Service that helps the English, that enables England to remain at thirteenth on the list of nations by life expectancy, where seven out of the top twenty nations are current or former members of the British Commonwealth. One couldn’t help but compare the success of the NHS to America’s joke of a system that has consigned our nation – the richest in human history – to thirty-eighth on the same list. Did Danny Boyle deliberately include the NHS in the ceremony as a shot across America’s bow? We’ll likely never know for sure, but it sure seems that way.
Sadly, this lesson will be lost on most Americans, particularly those of conservative bent. Few of us will comprehend the lesson that Danny Boyle was giving us, that while America’s influence in this world is currently unmatched, we stand on the shoulders of a cultural giant, at varying turns in the metaphorical form of a Beefeater, a bulldog, or a lion, but always proudly emblazoned with the Union Jack. We Americans should regard them with deep respect and admiration. Our current president understands this. The GOP’s current nominee for president obviously does not.