Forget 'wider purposes' like solving obesity, economic problems and crime. The Olympics – and its intellectual counterparts like The Institute of Ideas – should be about celebrating the best that humans can be, writes Alan Miller
Alan Miller is Director of The New York Salon in NYC (www.nysalon.org) and co-founder of London's Old Truman Brewery cultural center and Director of The Vibe Bar (www.vibe-bar.co.uk) and served on the Art Council London Arts Board. He will be speaking at The Battle of Ideas Festival at The Barbican Arts Center in London on October 20-21, 2012 (www.battleofideas.org.uk)
I recently attended the second 'Academy' organized by The Institute of Ideas, where participants spent an intensive three days (four for the young Scholars who came) in Bedfordshire discussing philosophy, history and literature. It was mind blowing, commencing with the lead up to The Reformation and its political consequences, proceeding through Kant, Heidegger, Hegel and the existentialists of the post-war period up to the contemporary landscape. Considering recent preoccupations that tell us we are 'hardwired' to behave certain ways, what Raymond Tallis terms 'Neuromania' (we act out robotic-like behavior programmed as a machine rather than making conscious rational choices) and how the idea of the human, the reasoned choice-making person who can make history seems to have dwindled in our imaginations today, it was everything that our universities should be – yet sadly fall short of. Challenging, intense, thought provoking, at times uncomfortable yet simultaneously exciting and inspiring, it provided a glimpse at times of that transcendental moment of intellectual wonder and connection to the world of the best that has been thought so far and our relationship to it. It was outstanding – and served no 'wider purpose' than to create an environment where rigour and excellence pervade.
Heading away from The Academy buzzing, all the news was about the upcoming Olympics – not the excellence in sport mind you, but rather the G4S Security debacle with the military stepping in and an array of small-minded fear-ridden preoccupations about all the things that could go wrong. Many were sighting the £9 billion (UK Pounds) price tag for London 2012 as too excessive and David Cameron argued hard as to why the games would result in equal or more economic impact. Sport has never been free of politics, however the instrumentalist outlook of recent UK administrations, first Labour and now Cameron-Clegg's 'Big Society' has meant that rather than promoting excellence in sport there always has to be a connection to anti-Obesity, solving economic problems, crime, or some other 'output'. As I have pointed out in The American before with art and culture, hoisting these instrumentalist impositions, in this case on the Olympics, reduces and narrows and downgrades human triumph and the possibility of what is so exceptional in the best of the Olympics. It also reflects an elite that has little sense of purpose and no compelling ideas for the present or future about how to genuinely improve society. Instead it seeks to limit the glory of the pinnacle of hard work, achievement and spectacular human endeavor that is the Olympics.
I had to fly back to New York at the start of the games, after Danny Boyle's Opening Ceremony. This was much admired by many in the UK, although anyone raising doubts with it seemed to be vilified as some kind of reactionary. This so-called new tolerant Britain is not so tolerant of those that do not hop in line and dance in tune with the dominant views of the day, whether that be 'multiculturalism', immigration or what we should eat and drink. In the US, NBC made some major gaffes in their ongoing coverage early on, however it was marvelous to watch the exciting spectacle of dedicated athletes pushing themselves to the limits of what can be done.
Flying back again to London, it was clear that the Olympic spirit had ignited a passion in Britain that was remarkable. Outstanding performances, from Team GB players such as Jessica Ennis, Nicola Adams, Bradley Wiggins (wow, winning the Tour De France and then the Olympics, astonishing) and Mo Farah alongside the outstanding Kenyan David Rudisha in the 800 metres, Michael Phelps and of course the magnificent Usain Bolt and his Jamaican team mate Johan Blake blew us all away. The mealy-mouthed moaning dwindled away, the over-preoccupation with terror and security was eclipsed by the sheer magnificence of those who are the best in the world at what they do by working determinedly and continuously.
That is why it will be such a shame to descend in to the narrowly 'outcome driven' banal agenda 'legacy' that David Cameron and others are now pushing. What made London 2012 so fantastic was humans at the forefront of what they do. To now try and tie and impose various 'legacies' drags down what is so exalting.
Some will argue that it is only with the security concerns that we could have had safe execution and that the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the Festival of Britain in 1951 resulted in long lasting impact with institutions. The point is though, that for the entire run up of London 2012 the commentary has been mired in the bureaucratic parochialism that stands in stark contrast to both 1851 when Britain led the world and even 1951 when it was exhausted post-war with America ascendant – and besides, these weren't Olympics. (It should be noted too that the US is certainly not immune from this cultural pessimism, chiming in with warnings from the Center of Disease Control in the run up to citizens to be cautious of catching diseases in Europe). Of course, as with the recent banning of sugary sodas in New York following bans on smoking in public places and trans fats we know that these trends of policing personal behavior while having little to say about the grander direction and ideals of society is something that both nations have in common. Cass Sunstein may have resigned, but 'nudging' has not.
What we should take from the splendor and wonder of the games is how inspiring human excellence and striving for improvement is. The thousands of volunteers in London and Dorset proved that people are not nasty and greedy and mean spirited and certainly want to be connected to some bigger purpose. But it would be wrong to now try and 'bottle that' somehow and push more bureaucratic schemes from Downing Street and if we want economic development then we should invest and take risks and, dare I say it, adopt an Olympic sized outlook to how we can push ourselves to do far better in other realms that are not related.
Alongside the Olympics of course we had Curiosity make the complex and difficult descent and landing on to Mars. 154 million miles away with numerous obstacles and challenges, NASA pulled it off. The debate around financing Mars travel was also mired in criticism that the high expense should not be sanctioned when other matters were pressing. Once again, we should not pose one against the other. There is no reason why we cannot have investment in an array of areas, education, health and beyond and also at the same time have an approach to space travel and exploration that seeks to expand our knowledge and development. It was an excellent feat and now the search for water in rocks from the past will yield more information about whether there was life of some kind on Mars – and also to continue our understanding of the universe.
This is a human-made understanding of a human-described universe in a human-created language where only human meaning has any meaning. This may seem entirely obvious, yet in a world determined to continually declare how we are 'predisposed' or hard-wired to act in a certain way, our genes somehow 'making' us do things, usually along the lines that we are greedy, rapacious and animal-like – or worse like termites, here's to a moment of human triumph and excellence through conscious endeavor. For those who want a bit more of that, they should come and engage in discussion and battle it out at a different kind challenge, The Battle of Ideas in London in October.
Let us linger then with the ideal of Faster, higher, stronger – and here's to the possibility of one day holding the Olympics… on another planet.