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Friday, December 18, 2009

Sport and Nationalism

In the current issue of Sports Illustrated, Stephen Colbert (the person, not the character) gets it all wrong.
"My character is a patriot, and he believes that the Olympics are war," the comedian says of his TV alter ego, the self-aggrandizing, jingoistic spawn of Bill O'Reilly and Ann Coulter who hosts Comedy Central's The Colbert Report. "It's a way to prove who's got the best country. Only nobody gets hurt."
Oh, how little he understands. His character is not misguided--on this point he's absolutely right.

I just got back from seeing Invictus, which is over two hours of people trying to prove that their pariah nation really is just as good as all the others. Oh yeah, there's all that national unity crap, but nationalism is a prerequisite for the unity. Otherwise South Africans would see no reason to cheer for the South African team over all the others. The real triumph of Nelson Mandela was to get blacks to see themselves as South Africans, and thus the importance of preserving the republic and its form of government rather than tearing it down through civil war.

You think nationalism is overblown? Let me tell you a story. In 1996 the Olympic torch relay came through the small college town I was living in. My wife and I went out to see it with a bunch of grad student friends of hers. As the torch approached, they broke out into cheers of USA! USA! USA! These were creative writing students, the biggest bunch of anti-authoritarion pot-smoking slackers I've ever seen, and even they were spouting nationalism at the very sight of an international act of peace and brotherhood.

Patriotism and nationalism are close, but not the same thing. When patriotism gets ugly it turns into nationalism. Yesterday Fox News brought us a specific example of this. Glenn Beck insulted India's health care system (which strikes me as odd, considering how many MDs are Indian), and then in his "apology" he pissed on Usain Bolt, saying "Not only do I not know who this guy is, I don't even know what flag that is. It's like a vacation country. Is that Jamaica? Does anybody know? Jamaica. Apparently he runs fast."

He should know who Usain Bolt is. In August, The Daily Show's John Oliver said of Glenn Beck "We can't compete with him. He's out on his own now. He is the Usain Bolt of whackjobs."

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