Danny Boyle’s Olympic Minstrel Show

london olympics openingOriginally published in The Nation

In the category of “debates I never thought I’d be having” comes a rager about whether or not the Danny Boyle–directed opening ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics constituted some sort of left-wing creative masterpiece: Fantasia as directed by Ken Loach.

It’s understandable why some are so enthralled. As opposed to China’s 2008 ceremonies, which were a bombastic tribute to their own military might, Boyle went with a decidedly different tack. His spectacle included nods to suffragettes, strikes and an extended tribute to the National Health Service with actual nurses dancing joyously in front of a global audience. Boyle also chose to make it a multiracial affair, showcasing mixed families and presenting the reality of the diverse London of 2012. Many were thrilled by it all, most notably Alex Wolff of Sports Illustrated, who praised Boyle’s vision as “a celebration of protest and dissent.” Meanwhile, this musical tribute to the social safety net upset all the right people. Aidan Burley, a Tory Member of Parliament, tweeted that it was “leftie multicultural crap” worthy of “Beijing, the capital of a Communist state.”

The conservative tabloid the Daily Mail put their racism to paper, writing (and then editing after an uproar): “This was supposed to be a representation of modern life in England but it is likely to be a challenge for the organisers to find an educated white middle-aged mother and black father living together with a happy family in such a set-up. Almost, if not every, shot in the next sequence included an ethnic minority performer…. This multicultural equality agenda was so staged it was painful to watch.”

It’s understandable why the ceremonies upset supporters of neoliberalism and the growing movement of Britain’s white nationalists. It’s even more understandable why many left-of-center people in the United States took to twitter in praise of what was on display. After all, any acknowledgement in mass culture that there is such a thing as a working class or a history of protest would be radical in this country. The mere concept that there is such a thing as a “National Health Service” and its existence is something to celebrate must also be seen as further evidence that we were getting a glimpse into an alternative universe. Just imagine if the economic elite of the USA had underwritten the opening festivities. We would have had “The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders Salute Our Nation’s Wealth and Job Creators.” They would have then engaged in full stage-combat with an army of evil teachers unions. Then the healthcare tribute would be headlined by “The Dance of the Pharmaceutical and Insurance Company Lobbyists” and end with a touching scene of people dying in a church hospice while Jennifer Hudson sings “The Circle of Life.”

But even understanding how different Boyle’s tribute was from anything we’d expect in the United States, the ceremony should be seen as a colossal sham. There is the awkward fact that Boyle chose to tell the story of the United Kingdom without any mention of its history of empire, conquest and barbarism. (This absence of imperial recognition didn’t stop CNN’s resident pustule Piers Morgan from tweeting, “We need to be an Empire again — seriously.”] But even if Boyle had only proceeded with script approval from Billy Bragg and ended the proceedings with giant puppets calling a general strike organized by John Cleese, it failed. It failed because all of this celebration of working-class sacrifice, multiculturalism and the glories of national healthcare was done at the service of an Olympics that deliver the harassment of black and brown Londoners, ballooning deficits, austerity and cuts to the very programs like the NHS that Boyle was choosing to celebrate. This helps explain why the people orchestrating those cuts and the intense police surveillance, like Prime Minister David Cameron, lavished praise on the opening ceremony. London’s conservative mayor Boris Johnson also called the Tory critiques of Boyle’s story “nonsense”, saying, “I’m a Conservative and I had hot tears of patriotic pride from the beginning.”

This is the Olympics as nothing less than a neoliberal Trojan horse. Seeing the queen sit in observance of pantomime protests and Cameron cheer the very NHS he aims to slash is actually quite perverse. It’s like watching people in Washington, DC, cheer a football team called the Redskins: dancing on the remains of what was once proud but has been ruthlessly conquered. That’s not a “celebration” of a culture.

That’s a minstrel show.

Richard Seymour, not the NFL player but the British political writer, excoriated the affair as “Labour Nationalism” and wrote the following:

Whatever the creators’ intentions, whatever people now do to appropriate elements of this spectacle for their own agendas, the fact is that it’s major achievement was to induce people to forget temporarily what a disgrace the Olympics are; how hated they are in the East End where the Olympics Green Zone has been implanted, protected by rooftop missiles that residents don’t want; how poor people have been drive out of their homes as they always are when the Olympics comes to town; how much our civil liberties have already been attacked in the name of suppressing criticism of this ugly metro-plasty.

dave zirinHere’s hoping people of the UK enjoyed the tribute to the National Health Service. If there isn’t a fight when the Olympic bill comes due, that tribute might be all they have.

Dave Zirin
The Edge of Sport

Posted: Wednesday, 1 August 2012

About Dave Zirin

Named one of UTNE Reader’s “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Our World”, Dave Zirin writes about the politics of sports for the Nation Magazine. He is their first sports writer in 150 years of existence. Winner of Sport in Society and Northeastern University School of Journalism's 2011 'Excellence in Sports Journalism' Award, Zirin is also the host of Sirius XM Radio’s popular weekly show, Edge of Sports Radio. He has been called “the best sportswriter in the United States,” by Robert Lipsyte. Dave Zirin is, in addition, a columnist for SLAM Magazine and the Progressive.

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