Pride and self-pity, set to music

National anthems are generally tedious, jingoistic dirges - but they come alive when we watch sporting events we actually care about.

Patrick West

Patrick West

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If moaning about hosting the Olympic Games was an Olympic sport itself, then the British would surely take gold, silver and bronze every time. This moaning is quite justified.

On a prosaic level, most people recognise that it’s an expensive non-event comprising track-and-field events which hardly anyone ever watches normally. True spectator sports such as football and tennis have their own tournaments, so no one pays much attention to their Olympic equivalents. And a further problem is not the inclusion of ridiculous peripheral sports such as beach volleyball, monkey tennis and arm wrestling with Chas ‘n’ Dave, but the omission of peripheral sports that do command a genuine following in various parts of the globe, such as American football, Aussie Rules, snooker and darts.

There is an inherent contradiction to the Olympic Games. It purports to unite the nations of the world, but all it does is reinforce national prejudices. Most people, if they do watch any of the events, do so for jingoistic purposes, in the hope of seeing their national flag being lifted at the podium, accompanied by their own national anthem. Why else did the British get so excited over Torville and Dean’s 1984 triumph in the ice-skating – the ultimate non-sport? Why else did the Soviet Union and East Germany – states that purported ostensibly to abhor petty nationalism in favour of class solidarity – place so much importance on ice skating in the 1970s and 1980s? And who really gave a monkey’s about cycling before Chris Hoy turned up in 2008? The whole thing is a monstrous paradox, and for this I mostly blame the playing of national anthems.

National anthems generally do not please musical aesthetes. Richard Morrison, the music critic of The Times (London), recently wrote: ‘Should we be happy or sad for the London Philharmonic, which is about to record all 205 national anthems for the 2012 Olympics? Excluding the collected oeuvre of Peter Andre and the British entries for the Eurovision Song Contest, I can’t think of a more mediocre corpus of music.’ He continued: ‘The hypocrisy in some is staggering. Here is China, exhorting citizens to “arise you who refuse to be slaves… everyone must roar defiance”. Well roar away – but make sure you get the Party’s approval first.’

It is true that national anthems are, as a rule, exercises in crass social realism, mindless national glorification and have as an essential message: our country is great and full of milk and honey, and our neighbouring countries are rubbish. Of course the template does vary. The French have a murderous anthem about wading through enemy blood, the Irish anthem is a testament to the poisonous legacy of the Easter 1916 uprising, while the Scots’ one is an exercise in self-pity par excellence. National anthems tend to be projections of imagined past grievances and impossible future realities. That just about sums up the ethos of nationalism in general: a heady combination of feeling proud of yourself and feeling sorry for yourself at the same time.

The ludicrous nature of this genre was satirised so brilliantly in the 1984 film Top Secret! which features a fictitious East German national anthem containing the lyrics ‘Hail, hail East Germany / Land of fruit and grape / Land where you’ll regret / If you try to escape / No matter if you tunnel under or take a running jump at the wall / Forget it, the guards will kill you, if the electrified fence doesn’t first.’

Yet who does not get a tingle down the spine upon listening to ‘La Marseillaise’ or ‘Das Deutschlandlied’, especially when sung at football matches, when people actually care about the sporting event in question? Even the plodding British dirge ‘God Save The Queen’ (which has become primarily an English and Northern Irish affair), with its sclerotic rhythm and inane words, has the capacity to arouse. So do the anthems of Wales and Italy, which is the primary reason why the latter should remain in the Rugby Six Nations tournament. Even detractors of the EU can still enjoy Beethoven’s ‘Ode To Joy’.

Nationalism is not rational, which is why it is so appealing. Like religion, it has an emotional charisma to it, of providing the illusion of belonging to (what ex-Marxist postmodern scribblers have liked to describe as) an ‘imagined community’. Like religion, it gives the illusion that if your people are immortal, then you too will live for ever – just as the US Marines were reminded by their drill instructor in the 1987 film Full Metal Jacket.

Yes, we should be wary of being ethnocentric nationalists. But ethnocentricity is fundamental to the human condition, and you can’t wish it away. So let’s treat it like a pantomime. Let’s ritualise it, in the same way that professional wrestling has long been nothing more than a theatrical spectacle. Enjoy all the national anthems at the Olympics, but don’t take them seriously, don’t pretend that you care about any of the sporting events that preceded them, and don’t suffer under the illusion that you have much in common with strangers from your own ‘nation’. They’re still strangers, you know.

Finally, let’s not pretend the Olympic Games represent ‘the coming together of humanity’ or ‘a brotherhood of man’, or such sanctimonious triteness that wouldn’t even be worthy of a John Lennon song. The Games epitomise the fact that people in general want to be faster, stronger and better than their neighbours.

And no, we are not ‘all winners’.

Patrick West is spiked’s music columnist. Read his blog here.

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