We have Mr. Cohen and Mr. Coates today, since Bobo and Prof. Krugman are off. In “Britain’s Olympic Whiplash” Mr. Cohen says they’ve gone from the land of gloom to the land of glee — with Bolt-like speed. Mr. Coates looks at “Romney’s Side Course of Culture” and says Mitt Romney acts as if culture is a set of irrefutable best practices, when in fact it is more like a toolbox whose efficacy depends upon the job. Here’s Mr. Cohen:
We all know those days that begin in virtue with a banana for breakfast, a long session at the gym, a succession of ticks on the to-do list and a world-is-my-oyster feeling but end slouched on the couch plowing a steady course through a family-sized pack of peanut M&M’s, drinking bad white wine, watching “The Real Housewives of New York City” and thinking life is not all it is cracked up to be.
The passage from hope to despair can have a Usain-Bolt quality to it, much quicker than seems possible.
Now reverse that process, project it from the personal to the national, and you will begin to acquire some notion of the startling shift in Britain over the past couple of Olympic weeks from despondency to delight, as if the 541 members of “Team GB” had injected a depression-dispelling elixir into the bloodstream of the Brits. The mood swing has been whiplash-inducing.
Herd pessimism is an interesting modern phenomenon. It is more prevalent than irrational exuberance. I suppose predicting disaster is a relief from ennui as you fiddle with the remote.
J.K. Galbraith’s “The Affluent Society” was written in 1958 and Harold Macmillan told Brits the year before they had “never had it so good.” Since about then the average human being has come to consume one third more calories and live one third longer. But counting blessings is duller than imagining cataclysm.
The gloom gluttons were in overdrive in the weeks before the Olympics. Security personnel were rubbish. Strikes would paralyze the city. Olympic lanes would produce bottlenecks stretching to Brighton. Terrorists would wreak havoc. Dark clouds over a wintry London presaged a fiasco. The Guardian’s front page screamed: “What could go wrong?”
Nothing has. It has all been so perfect. Of course it has.
The sun has shone. Never has it been easier to get to work. The streets of central London are empty while up at the Olympic Park happy crowds throng. One of them was Brian Duffy, a 34-year-old investment banker (even bankers are being spared their daily dose of vitriol), who told me: “Everyone is taking a break, a break from their worries, from recession, from negativity, and just getting behind this.”
Lucy Kellaway, writing in The Financial Times, had the admirable (and little emulated) honesty to say a disaster-auguring column penned before the Olympics “was the biggest pile of hogwash I’ve ever written.” She wanted to “retract every whiny, ill-judged scaremongering word of it.” The misjudged column “was based on that very British idea that everything we do is a cock-up.”
So what went right?
Winning helps. With 22 gold medals and 48 medals in all as I write, Britain has recorded its finest performance since 1908. “Best for a century” is now the national watchword — in fact best for 104 years.
The gold medals have come in 10 sports, one more than the United States at nine, prompting articles on how Britain is “ahead of U.S.A.” O.K., the U.S. leads Britain on overall gold medals and British golds have included one in BMX (bike motocross) and one in taekwondo, but hey. At this point it’s all good.
Jessica Ennis, triumphant in the heptathlon, and Mohammed “Mo” Farah, victorious in the 10,000 meters, and Nick Skelton, a 54-year-old with a hip replacement and a gold medal in showjumping, and Christine Ohuruogu, winning a silver medal in the 400 meters to follow her gold four years ago, have come to symbolize a Britain free (momentarily at least) of sexism, racism, ageism and Islamophobia, one buoyant island offering its ample overcoat to all.
Ennis’s father Vinnie is from Jamaica. Mo is a Somalian immigrant who arrived in Britain as a child. Ohuruogo is of Nigerian descent. Mohammed Sbihi, a bronze medalist in rowing, was born in Britain to a Moroccan family.
Sbihi, by the way, prefers “Moe” to “Mo.”
There is as much truth to these immigrant success stories as there is to the endless tales of immigrant — and particularly Muslim immigrant — alienation in Britain and Europe. Balance is hard to maintain when herd pessimism is a reflex mode and fear a useful political tool.
The euphoria won’t last, of course. Taf Pilgrim, strolling with his pregnant wife, said, “Hopefully the good feelings will endure a bit.” If the slogan of these Olympics — “inspire a generation” — is to mean anything, they will have to. But I wonder.
I can already see the stories on the white elephant of a stadium, the cost of it all, the terrible Olympics hangover, the suffering shopkeepers of central London denied regular summer tourism, the cynical politicians posturing to claim credit — a great autumnal binge of renewed British despondency.
Until then, enjoy this. As the Olympics mood whiplash demonstrates, there are many reasons for optimism. In truth the lesson of Britain’s bout of bipolarity is that we are lonely. That is the problem with modernity. When we come together, rediscover community, the feeling is as good as an adrenalin rush.
And, after the binge on the couch, you can always get up and head for the gym.
Now here’s Mr. Coates:
When Mitt Romney asserted last week that “culture does matter,” he settled into a pose that was more triumphalist than anthropologist. Romney had begun by asserting that culture explained the difference in G.D.P. between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, but soon he was claiming that culture also made the United States “the greatest economic power in the history of the earth.” His attempt to define American culture settled in on vague attributes like “patriotism,” “family orientation,” “honor and oath” and “freedom,” a list that seemed cribbed from Ron Swanson’s Pyramid of Greatness.
Is it worth noting that America, itself, was secured from its aboriginal tribes through centuries of oath-breaking, through a malleable regard for freedom, and through the auctioning of families?
Probably not. When people invoke culture in the Romney manner, what they are really invoking is a scale by which humanity may be ranked from totally dysfunctional to totally awesome. The idea is that culture is a set of irrefutable best practices, when in fact it is more like a toolbox whose efficacy depends upon the job. If you want to create a nation with a dominant entertainment media, perhaps American culture is the way to go. If you’re uninterested in presiding over a nation with 25 percent of the world’s prisoners but only 5 percent of its population, perhaps not.
Whenever this particular incarnation of the culture wars erupts, I think back to my earliest experiences with my august employer, The Atlantic. On the scale of ashy to classy, I was more the former than the latter. But my relationship with the magazine often put me in the dining company of men and women who were not unused to nice things. These were the days when I powerfully believed Breyers and Entenmann’s to be pioneers in the field of antidepressants. My new companions had other beliefs, a fact evidenced by our divergent waistlines.
They organized dinners featuring several small courses, most of which were only partially eaten. The general dining practice consisted of buttering half a dinner roll, dallying with the salad, nibbling at the fish and taking a spoonful of desert. The only seconds they requested were coffee and wine.
I left the first of these dinners in bemused dudgeon. “Crazy rich white people,” I would scoff. “Who goes to a nice dinner and leaves hungry?” In fact, they were not hungry at all. I discovered this a few dinners later, when I found myself embroiled in this ritual of half-dining. It was as though some invisible force was slowing my fork, forcing me into pauses, until I found myself nibbling and sampling my way through the meal. And when I rose both caffeinated and buzzed, I was, to my shock, completely satiated.
Like many Americans, I was from a world where “finish your plate” was gospel. The older people there held hunger in their recent memory. For generations they had worked with their arms, backs and hands. With scarcity a constant, and manual labor the norm, “finish your plate” fit the screws of their lives. I did not worry for food. I sat at my desk staring at a computer screen for much of the day. But still I ate like a stevedore. In the old world, this culture of eating kept my forebears alive. In this new one it was slowly killing me.
It was like trying to drive a nail with a monkey wrench. And it could work in reverse. I could easily see how the same social pressures that urged dietary moderation could drive someone to an eating disorder.
Using the wrong tool for the job is a problem that extends beyond the dining room. The set of practices required for a young man to secure his safety on the streets of his troubled neighborhood are not the same as those required to place him on an honor roll, and these are not the same as the set of practices required to write the great American novel. The way to guide him through this transition is not to insult his native language. It is to teach him a new one.
There are obvious limits to this sort of relativism, and its invocation is not a moral pass for wife-beating, mass murder or slavery. Comprehension and censure are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, the most effective condemnations proceed from comprehension. What stands out about Romney’s culture comments is how much he relies on bromides and banalities. It is almost as if he doesn’t know anything about the workings of culture at all.
But here we should be understanding. Romney hails from the party of birthers and creationists. He is the appointed representative of those who would see the strictures against same-sex marriage rendered constitutional. Ignorance is no stranger there. It is part of the culture.
It’s a feature, not a bug.