“Americans left baffled by left-wing tribute to free healthcare during Opening Ceremonies,” reads the Daily UK Mail. You mean where Lord Voldemort and an assorted set of baddies were defeated by the National Healthcare System (NHS) of Britain along with an army of umbrella waving Mary Poppins-es? Sigh. Of course we were.
Watching the London ceremonies outside of the US, I didn’t have to suffer through what my mother called “the annoying self-absorbed American media coverage”–who did interviews of Americans during the presentation of other countries, talked over half the ceremony about everything American and then spent an endless amount of time cheering on the American team. Even at an event meant to highlight the diversity of the world, we are a nation of navel-gazers.
Instead, I watched the ceremonies while on a former Caribbean colonial holding of England through a BBC broadcast. The most I had to suffer through was dry Brit humor. And while the island republic is fiercely proud of its independence (August 31st will mark the 50th anniversary), the ties to the former “mother country” are more recent than in the US. Here, cricket and
soccer world football dominate sports; some English foods (black/blood pudding) are still delicacies and nearly everyone (self-included) has a host of relatives who call the United Kingdom home. The home football team is rooted for first and foremost without exception; but Manchester United jerseys remain popular. It’s an island where Shakespeare and Longfellow were part of the normal school curriculum (my father can still recite both) and most older citizens can still remember singing “God Save the Queen.”
And of course, as in all colonial dealings, the influence was not one-sided. Culture and currents crossed the Atlantic, striking the metropole–as popular sports saw definitive changes (cricket would never be the same) and forms of music, language, cuisine, religious worship and politics shaped what it meant to be English.
In true modern British fashion, the opening ceremonies at the 2012 Olympics in London attempted to capture all of this. There were more than a few shortcomings–most notably a history lesson that skirted past the looming imperial age, and its vast importance to global history. No empire where the sun never sets here. Instead we get a Shire-ish English past (seriously, I thought I saw a Hobbit) that transforms over time. There were also however some positives, most notably the casting of a very multicultural Britain, where West Indians, Africans, Asians and others have added their unique histories to the map of Englishness. Viewers saw an England moving through a Victorian Industrial Age right out of a steampunk tale (enough costume ideas there to keep cosplayers geeked for months), filled with a colorful array of faces. A modern Britain was shown to have musical influences that ranged from American Soul to Reggae (Ska) to Indian rhythms, with a time-traveling love story told from the point of view of POC. A white mother is shown walking to her home with a mixed-race son, and nary a question asked. If pale and pasty and inherently bad teeth were the only ideas one had of the British, the ceremonies hopefully put that idea to bed.
But speaking of beds, that’s what this blog was meant to discuss. There was a lengthy part in the dramatic history of Britain, where none other than the NHS–Britain’s National Health Service–was not only featured but given high tribute. Nurses danced and did the swing as they administered free public health to children in rolled out sickbeds. And look mum, no death panels!
The NHS was in part the brainchild of a coal-miner’s son, Aneurin Bevan, who, joining with other Britons after WWII, sought to revamp the country’s relationship with its citizenry. A large part of this was the setting up of a healthcare system that could see to the needs of individuals from the cradle to the grave. “No society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means,” Bevan would famously declare. And the NHS was born in 1948, becoming both the largest and oldest single-payer healthcare system in the world.
It was stunning to witness that much national pride not over a war, a military exploit or some other act that has to do with subduing and killing–but instead over free universal healthcare. It was especially a breath of fresh air, coming from a country where a half-measure attempt (Obamacare) that doesn’t even come close to the NHS, turns people into frenzied nutjobs clamoring on about their freedoms, government plans to kill grandma and a host of other claptrap. Willfully misinformed American detractors of universal healthcare love to make a boogeyman of the NHS, citing any fault they can (because no system is perfect) to make it seem as if Britons live under some government healthcare tyranny. In truth however, most British not only overwhelmingly support their public government-run healthcare system, they think the US is completely insane (nutters to the core) to not see the benefits.
As the saying goes however, freedom ain’t free. And in the punishing round of austerity measures unleashed on the British populace during the global economic
slowdown bank-driven meltdown, there have been calls for restricting the NHS and the sacking of healthcare workers. Any right granted fought for by a society has to be vigilantly protected by its citzenry.
The highlight of the NHS tribute came when a host of actual boogeymen (pulled from British literature) burst onto the scene, threatening the children, nurses and by extension, the NHS–from One Hundred and One Dalmatians‘ dog-skinning Cruella de Vil to the evil Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, to none other than the dreaded Voldemort of Harry Potter. They are thwarted by the arrival of dozens of flying Mary Poppins-es, who shoo them away (umbrella style!), saving both the children, nurses and the NHS.
Some cynics (American of course) have already pointed out that Mary Poppins is a private nanny, who had to come in and do the job. I suppose that’s one way to look at it. Yet what I saw was one of England’s most cherished heroic icons, swooping down to save one of its most proud and valued treasures.