Charmingly incoherent

An opening ceremony for a "self-analysing" people.

 

Last night’s Olympics opening ceremony provoked some interesting comments on Twitter. Highlights include the Spectator journalist Harry Cole tweeting: “Not even communist China were so brazen as to extoll their nationalised stranglehold on their country so blatantly”. Meanwhile the Conservative MP Aidan Burley wrote: “The most leftie opening ceremony I have ever seen – more than Beijing, the capital of a communist state! Welfare tribute next?” While other Tory MPs distanced themselves from their colleague, Burley followed up with this additional reflection: “Thank God the athletes have arrived! Now we can move on from leftie multicultural crap. Bring back red arrows, Shakespeare and the Stones!”

Like most of us on Twitter that night, I too was contemplating the ways in which the Olympic Games have always balanced carnivalesque with depoliticised celebration – the creative spontaneity of the director alongside socio-political rituals binding both audience and performers, openly linked to citizenship. The opening ceremony of the Olympic games is always a commentary on the construction of community.

The ceremony can be an unambiguously aggressive glorification of the state. China’s version at the Biejing games in 2008 attempted a kind of direct indoctrination. Its regulated spectacle celebrated “shengshi” – the age of prosperity before 19th-century decline. Tellingly, it lacked any real idea of individual artistic merit. And yet in many ways it worked. While pro-Tibet sympathisers interrupted the journey of the Olympic torch in Europe and North America, the issue was quickly forgotten once the bombast of the opening ceremony took hold. Many misread China’s intentions as tending in a liberalising direction. But the 2008 Games marked the start of even tighter political control, exemplified by the fortunes of artist Ai Weiwei, one of the designers of the Bird’s Nest Stadium. “I don’t believe in the so-called Olympic spirit," he wrote in a recent Guardian article. “The state and the Olympic committee failed to take a position on many major social and political issues”

Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony last night surprised many. It was transgressive in parts, and avoided the kind of explicit constitutional praise that marked China’s Olympics. His paean to the NHS, the evocation of the chaotic upheaval of the Industrial Revolution, the inclusion of the suffragettes and the MV Empire Windrush – the ship that brought the first postwar West Indian immigrants to the UK – allowed some to accuse him of making a selective, left-wing reading of British history.

There was a charming incoherence, too, about Boyle's cultural mashup. I’m not sure how Kenneth Branagh, delivering Caliban’s speech from Shakespeare’s Tempest – “Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises” – while at the same time dressed as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, would have resonated abroad. The music meandered from the nostalgic pastoralism of Elgar through to Dizzee Rascal, by way of noisegaze artists Fuck Buttons.

But perhaps the beauty of Boyle’s creation lay precisely in its ambiguity. For this was a ceremony that attempted to show the British as a “self-analysing people” – a conscious decision after the spectacle of Beijing. Not everyone is convinced, though. More than 100 people were arrested outside the Olympic Stadium last night after a cyclists’ protest.

Fireworks during the Olympic opening ceremony in London (Photo: Getty Images)

En Liang Khong is an arts writer and cellist.

Follow on twitter @en_khong

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
Show Hide image

Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.