Yesterday, I sat across the room from the most decorated Olympian of all time. Michael Phelps was playing poker at a private table with his friends and girlfriend. When Phelps walked in, I initiated a round of applause. In a room of fifty to sixty people, no more than six people joined me. I asked my tablemates why they weren’t clapping. One replied that he doesn’t clap Americans.
The difference between nationalism and national pride seems vague at best. Like many online natives, I find nationalism to be a stale and musty concept. National borders don’t impact my life in any significant way. By opening my laptop, I am given access to communicate with every English speaking nation on Earth.
In ‘real life’, my social group is multicultural and multi-ethnic. For the most part, we lean towards a cynical consensus on matters like the Royal Family, the Conservative Party and ‘traditional’ British values. Within our group, I’ve certainly never felt compelled to identify myself as British or English, let alone debate the semantics of their difference. Yet in this Olympic fortnight, that same social group has been caught in a maelstrom of national pride.
Pride is a messy, inarticulate emotion. This is well evidenced in the nonsense lyrics of U2’s classic power ballad Pride (In the Name of Love). The song is supposedly about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I for one did not realise.
In researching this article, I conducted a few interviews with my friends. When I challenged them to justify their pride for our Olympic athletes, they unanimously resorted to tautology. They are proud because they are. Obviously. As I probed further, they began to distinguish between the notions of individual pride and collective pride. Most concluded that pride on someone else’s behalf is no more than happiness. Undoubtedly, this capacity for compassion is crucial to proper moral and human behaviours, but it also carries a rather dangerous implication, since pride for some necessarily means shame for others.
Other friends took a different line when pressed, becoming strictly analytical. One explained that his taxes have contributed towards the funding of each athlete’s training. He is therefore somehow complicit in the success of that individual/team, even if only by the most tenuous extension.
We know that pride can be blinding. We learned that in Nazi Germany. We learned that in Iraq. We learned that in Penn State. Watch here as young, bright minds riot in support of a paedophile.
In this fortnight, there has been no mention of this danger. Here, The Independent run an article lambasting Morrissey for pointing out the jingoism surrounding Olympic euphoria. He is labelled a sensationalist for noting the lack of a dissenting voice in the national press.
Somehow, international competition justifies what is no more than a tribal and territorial response. To be part of something, to know ones place: it all somehow enforces the prized maxim of the western world – Know Thyself. A wisdom that refutes space for abstraction. A wisdom too stubborn to not understand. Know Thyself and with that pride, you shall never have to be humble enough to concede, wise enough to relinquish, or small enough to be lost. You are what you are. Don’t you ever go trying to change.
Pride can be a force for good. When uniting an oppressed people, there’s a lot of emotional force that pride can harness. Otherwise, idgi.