“Of all things he could have focused on in the Olympic opening ceremonies, Danny Boyle, the frivolous leftie director of Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotters, had to pick universal health care.”
At least, that’s the take of many American conservatives, a few like-minded Britons, and some painfully myopic reporters about the tribute to the United Kingdom’s National Health Service during the runup to the summer 2012 Olympic Games. Some of the headlines and tweets that emerged:
- A fatuous link on American television between the National Health Service and Obamacare (NBC)
- Opening Ceremony London 2012: Did director take shot at US on health care? (Christian Science Monitor)
- There was one bit of the Olympic opening ceremony that did not thrill Republicans…. (Gather website)
- Bizarre Scene As Dumbfounded Freedom Fighters Watch Olympic Opening Ceremonies Pay Tribute to NHS (FreedomWorks)
- Not Sure I Can Stand Opening Ceremonies About Virtues of Obamacare
- (tweet from THE FLA CRACKER, self-identified with the philosophy of American Thinker)
- Olympic Opening Ceremony Celebrates Socialized Medicine (both The Blaze and thoughtsfromaconservativemom website)
- Olympic Ceremony Hyped Socialized Medicine (Washington Times 24/7)
However, you can safely resist the temptation to join these pundits in interpreting the NHS tribute as a billion-viewer poke at the most expensive, entrenched, and inequitable health industry in the world. Sure, Danny Boyle would have to be a man from Mars to miss its implications about the money war over medicine in the United States. But wagging a finger across the sea was far from the main point of Boyle’s extravagant production.
New pressures on the U.K health system
First, a strong national focus underlay Boyle’s message. For years, the British health system has undergone a protracted struggle to make some large changes of its own. Queen Elizabeth II formally set these changes forward among her priorities for the coming parliamentary year in a speech on May 9.
Less than three weeks ago, the government of the United Kingdom proposed the details of the draft plan for reform, perhaps the most important since 1948, when the NHS began. The public comment period on the law closes in mid-October, when a Parliamentary committee will review the issue, finishing in early 2013.
While still relying on the same method of generating revenue (taxes), and the same bottom-line funding amount, the new British plan should achieve these goals:
- consolidate at least a dozen existing laws
- simplify the system and its processes
- allow more local innovation and input
- open a path for contribution from private markets
- ensure a focus on people’s needs, rather than existing local resources
- provide more support for the underserved and overlooked
- clarify available services to help citizens find assistance and plan for the future, and
- put more decisions in the hands of health care professionals rather layers of bureaucracy
NHS the prime example of recent British world leadership
Danny Boyle’s Olympic tribute began with poet William Blake‘s tribute to “a green and pleasant land” and carried through the nation’s history of world leadership, innovation and environmental degradation during the Miltonic “paradise lost” of the industrial revolution, two excruciating and empire-crumbling world wars, and into a positive revolution in health that lifted up the millions of broken and bruised British and repaired the nation’s physical and mental fitness.
Think about Danny Boyle’s alternatives. What else could the Olympic opener’s director have chosen to personify the British continuation of world leadership into the 21st century?
The days of empire, thankfully, in some ways, disappeared in the two world conflagrations and the military/industrial supremacy of the United States later in the century. Very little distinguishes the more recent science, industry, technological, and financial success of the U.K. over that of other nations. Perhaps British strength and prominence in developing renewable energy technology, partly due to its immense resources of wind, wave, and tidal power, is a great modern accomplishment. Even there, however, the U.K. has to share the podium with nations like Germany, Iceland, China, and Brazil.
In choosing to celebrate the National Health Service at the XXX Summer Olympiad, Boyle brought to the forefront the U.K.’s signature world achievement during the seventy-five years. Developed out of absolute necessity, in the aftermath of an unprecedented and bloody assault on British soil, the National Health Service has set an enduring example that most other nations have striven to emulate.
The NHS provided an international standard for universal health care, as the world’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights described it:
Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
The national systems vary in details of financing, but the standard of universal coverage is now observed in 32 of the 33 most developed nations. Despite Mexico’s longstanding health care policy and Canada’s much vaunted 30-year-old system, North America (due to the United States) is, next to Africa, the poorest continent in the world in terms of basic health guarantees for its inhabitants.
The United Kingdom was among the first to affirm human wellness as a priority, not a privilege. The NHS was an achievement that has now served its country for three generations. It showed the world a way around what Julio Frenk of Harvard’s School of Public Health has described as the corrosive mythos surrounding the notion of global health: the black box fallacy that substitutes technological success for basic intelligent design and decomplication of perturbing issues, and the mistake in believing health care has to be a black hole that swallows money.
Britain’s greater contribution: “All the world’s a stage”
Prominent in the Olympic opening’s lineup, Britain’s massive recent contribution to health, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness took second stage to the real hero of the performance. From beginning to end, Danny Boyle’s creation focused on the quality of the English-speaking world’s creative mastery.
“Isles of Wonder” was the official name of Boyle’s masterpiece. “Quirky,” the media characterized it. Unique and brilliant nonetheless. The peoples of the United Kingdom, and its former and current colonies, will always be remembered for creating a recognizable and cherished world culture of the imagination.
- Boyle tapped into this deep, deep well with every display of Friday’s international tapestry. The initial parade featured every nation’s flag from the procession being carried to the terraces of a lofty model of the green Glastonbury Tor. A hill in Somerset known to have harbored Iron Age people 2500 years ago, Glastonbury Tor earned world renown for its association with King Arthur, the first British hero of recorded legend.
- Bardolatry, so called by George Bernard Shaw, played into the global appeal of the Isles of Wonder. Many features of the ceremony, including Sir Kenneth Branagh walking up the Tor and delivering Caliban’s “Be not afeard” speech, referred to The Tempest, Shakespeare’s haunted Atlantic isle. Perhaps Bermuda (newly discovered by real 16th century explorers), the island is also home to Ariel, who’s a spirit rescued from a witch, Prospero, a wizard who resolves human problems and finally forswears sorcery by breaking his staff and drowning his book of magic, and Miranda, Prospero’s truly innocent daughter.
The plays of William Shakespeare, probably the greatest writer in the English language and almost certainly the world’s foremost dramatist, have been performed for four centuries. Half the classrooms in the world study Shakespeare’s plays. From April to September, hundreds of theatre companies are celebrating “the world’s playwright” internationally with performances reflecting the world’s rich cultural and political diversity.
- The Olympics also celebrated third millennium hero Harry Potter. Wholeheartedly the story of a modern English wizard (conceived by Jo Rowling, a then unknown author of Campbell descent living on British welfare), the Harry Potter saga exists in over 70 different languages and about half a billion copies worldwide. Lord Voldemort, his minions, and other literary villains like Sir James Barrie’s Captain Hook and Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts appeared as monster balloons to be defeated by a horde of women, each playing P.L. Travers’ plucky nanny Mary Poppins, immortalized by Walt Disney, descending on flying umbrellas to rescue a nursery full of children.
- Modern popular culture was also represented in the form of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, superspy 007, entering Buckinham Palace and escorting Her Majesty the Queen (okay, a stand-in) by parachute from a helicopter; a silly interlude with Rowan Atkinson’s comic Mr. Bean and the London Phlharmonic; and the sight of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, true inventor of the World Wide Web, who tweeted “This is for everyone,” spelled out instantly in LED lights held by 70,000 people in the audience.
Indeed, “This is for everyone” might have been the theme of the entire remarkable evening in London. The best athletes converged from every corner of the world. Heads of state and their representatives from 130 nations attended in person. Tuning in, a worldwide audience estimated at over a billion, about 15% of the earth’s entire population.
Barrages of exquisitely timed fireworks and a spectacle that appeared to stupefy even Sir Paul McCartney, composer and performer of “Hey Jude,” as he faltered in opening the song, at first a consolation for Julian Lennon on his parents’ divorce, and now a worldwide anthem to hope and a better future.
Did this internationally celebrated event represent a simple nasty gob smacked in the face of American politicians? What arrogance.
Or even a tribute to a fleeting moment in the history of one nation, respected but small?
I prefer to think it the product of Danny Boyle, a thoughtful man. A man himself carrying the DNA of warring North Atlantic cultures. A man who could elevate the colonial slumdog in all of us, a wizard of transnational culture, a passionate local with an eye for spectacle and a heart for the human spirit.
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