Friday, August 08, 2008

Why There Is Still Hope 

I told myself I'd boycott this year's Olympics because of China's treatment of Tibet. And then I instantly failed that boycott by watching the opening ceremonies tonight. I'm not a sports fan, but the Olympics do get to me. I'll watch men's Olympic swimming and diving, and I like the opening and closing ceremonies.

Why? Because they are a reminder that we are a big planet with a lot of different nations on it, and in the opening ceremonies those nations come together in a visual and powerful way. This year's Olympics add an interesting twist to it, since the teams are entering in Chinese "alphabetical" order -- they are arranged in order of number of strokes used to write their names, rather than western A to Z fashion. The end result is that countries are completely intermixed -- African with Asian, South American with European, North American with everyone else. It's a very interesting way to do it, because it splits up traditional power divisions. The "Big Eight" -- US, UK, Russia, China, France, Germany, Japan and India -- are not elevated from the others. A delegation of six athletes is just as likely to follow a group of two hundred. Look at the names of the Big Eight, and you'll see that they cluster. This doesn't happen with the Chinese ordering.

The other sign of hope? I was expecting boos, or at least rousing silence, when the US Team entered. Wrong. There was huge applause, and I had to ask myself "Why?"

That's when I realized there is still hope yet, on two fronts. First, I think the applause was for the athletes and not the country -- in essence, a show of support for the American People. This implies that the rest of the world has high hopes that we will change our ways in November, and dump the party in power for good. It means our image on the world stage will improve soon.

Second, watching the American delegation march by, I suddenly realized why America has long been the dream ideal of the world, the country to which all others aspire -- or aspired until certain too-recent events.

The reason for that admiration was visible in the faces of the athletes. No, not as the expressions on them, but as the faces themselves, something highlighted by every preceding delegation.

All the others, no matter where they were from, were one homogeneous group. All Black, all Asian, all White, all Hispanic. In the case of some Arab countries, they were all male. And if you look at the other seven Big Eight countries -- or the second-stringers like Australia, Mexico or South Korea -- you see the same thing. That is, the same faces, repeated, smiling and sunny in their matching uniforms.

And then, enter the US -- and it's as if all the other teams are marching together. Whites, Blacks, Asians, Latinos. Men, women. All marching together as one, a crazy-quilt made up of the entire world.

This is what made America great, and is what will save us from our current troubles once the vermin have been swept away. We are the melting pot, a place for all the cultures of the world to meet and mingle. As a result, our country is the one that has something that everyone can understand. There isn't an immigrant in the world who could not land here and quickly locate a community of their own people. How appropriate, then, that our language is a blend of so many -- Latin, German, French, Norse, Greek, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Sanskrit, etc., etc.

In short, America is the rest of the world in miniature. People all over the world have a connection to us somehow -- friends, relatives, etc. In terms of culture, the US exports far more than it imports. Case in point: Although Australia airs many American shows on TV, the US hasn't aired an Australian show since "Prisoner: Cell Block H" in the 80s. And when Oz's number one show "Kath and Kim" does come here, it's remade with an all-American cast. Wouldn't want to have to subtitle, you know...

There's this idea that Americans have no interest in learning foreign languages. While that's probably true, a good part of that could possibly be attributed to the diversity of this country. (Disclaimer: I am a total language geek, and can mostly read and understand half a dozen.) When someone is learning English as a Second Language, they have little incentive to try to learn a third. English is hard, man. I'm actually glad I grew up speaking American English, because I never would have been able to learn it otherwise. The spelling makes no damn sense, and the grammar rules are totally inconsistent. Shades of its birth -- some part of English will make sense to some one, but all of it will not, unless you grew up here. And, trust me, most Americans I know can't wrap their way around an intelligible sentence either.

On the other hand, American English is so damn fluid and adaptable that it really deserves to be the dominant language. No other language has the ability to coin a neologism overnight which is instantly understandable. Is it just a coincidence that most internet memes are in English, even in Asian countries?

And how did we, the US, wind up in this position of being some great World Model? By being, for just over two centuries, the great Experiment in Democracy, the great welcomer of the tired, the poor. If you live in a major city in the US, you have a Chinatown, a Little Italy, Armenian and Russian enclaves, Korea Town, Japan Town, a Spanish-speaking neighborhood, a black neighborhood, a trendy place where the rich white Protestants hang out. And there are probably at least four other ethnic neighborhoods you don't know about -- Greek, Ukrainian, Ethiopian... The only reason you don't have an Irishtown is because we mofos assimilated first, to the extent that there are probably very few Americans -- black or white -- who don't have Irish ancestors within three generations. We're horny little buggers when we drink...

But I do digress.

Tonight's ceremonies reminded me why the US is still one of the focal points of the world. And then reminded me why we used to truly be better than most other countries. They reminded me what we've lost here since Sydney was host in 2000. And, most of all, hope for what we can rebuild, reclaim, fix by 2012, when the Olympics come to London, our spiritual mother.

Sixty years ago, London was host. Sixty years ago, the world appreciated what America was trying to become.

Sixty years later... now... please let us be what we tried to.


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