I’m normally irritated by the predictable use of sporting competitions to stir up nationalism. It seems pretty irrational to identify with other people just because you’re from the same place, rather than sharing the same interests: doesn’t a British nurse have as much in common with a French nurse as she does with a British banker? Well, she grew up in the same culture as the banker, you could argue, they share the same language of cricket and fish and chips and Shakespeare. But again it’s immediately clear that most of these symbols are powerful for subcultures within Britain rather than for the whole of Britain: lots of Brits prefer snooker, Tikka Massala or Barbara Cartland.
And this is why my cynicism was swept away by Danny Boyle’s ceremony: one of the many great things about it was that it didn’t try to impose a single, unifying vision, it didn’t try to insist monotonously that we are all the same but rather celebrated how we can be both together and different. It was a glorious chaotic mess, combining the Beatles and Dizzee Rascal – it genuinely felt like whether you were old or young, a lesbian who likes soap operas or a straight Mr Bean fan, someone who communicates in text-speak or iambic pentameters, a monarchist or a suffragette, the UK wanted to include and represent you.
In Imagined Communities, an essential piece of critical theory on the history of nationalism, Benedict Anderson starts from the premise that in order to bring together a community which is too large to be founded on face-to-face interaction, the communities’ members have to imagine what they have in common. (This is not “imagine” in the sense of “pretend” but “imagine” in the sense of “think about”). Anderson argues that the history of the concept of the modern nation-state coincides with the history of the production of newspapers. Since the mid-19th century, Anderson says (in 1983), Britons have been getting up and participating in a daily ritual of reading the same stories about things that (we are told) affect us all, that we have in common. And if we discuss these stories together, we further consolidate this sense of shared events and narratives.
But the world has moved on since 1983 and nowadays it is just as easy for me to read the Wall Street Journal as the Sun. I don’t even have to watch EastEnders at the time it is broadcast live to other EastEnders fans, and social media sites mean I can talk to people in other countries as easily as friends in London. In a world of infinite sources of news and entertainment, the opportunities to forge a shared culture are diminishing.
So it is perhaps surprising that it is the very social media sites that have brought together a global village that are now also providing a new kind of imagined community grounded in a traditional narrative of nationalism. The 2012 Olympics have been described as the first “social media Olympics”, and when you know that every Olympic event is going to be live-blogged, tweeted and shared on Facebook, there are powerful reasons for reviving the otherwise antiquated notion of watching live TV broadcasts. Every day, record audiences have been tuning in for the shared ritual of watching Team GB win, whether it’s a woman boxer, a member of the Royal family or a Somalia-born Muslim who has chosen to be British. The narrative of nationalism has also been a narrative of multiculturalism, and isn’t that much more in keeping with the spirit of the Olympics?