“The modern Olympic Games began in 1896 as a place for the imperial rivals – in the process of carving up the world from Cuba to the Congo to the Philippines – to spur fevered nationalist frenzies through sports. In an age when people like Teddy Roosevelt expounded on the redeeming values of empire and the development of ‘muscular Christianity’ through sports, the Olympics provided the perfect place for the rulers of imperialist nations to assert their right to symbolic domination.” – Dave Zirin, Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics, and Promise of Sports
As a social studies teacher, society’s general ignorance of history disturbs me. During classes I’m not surprised when students are ignorant of history – because they’re young and I can’t hold it against them. Meanwhile, adults are often equally as ignorant of history, yet they prance around thinking they understand how everything in the world works.
In some instances we see this arising as semantic conflations steeped in ignorance. Drawing from George Orwell’s 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language, we are provided a frame with which we may analyze politically-motivated linguistic degradation. The process occurs “organically” over time and through usage, but this degradation is also actively facilitated by despots who desire to shape and mould our semantic horizons. We’ve all seen this with semantic mindfucks like “just war”, “collateral damage”, etc. As the public gets saturated with this manufactured semantic worldview, it’s no surprise when they think Saddam Hussein had WMDs – and we found them! Or, when they think Iran is going to build nukes and kill us all – so let’s attack to defend ourselves! Clearly, we have to be vigilant semantic consumers if we are to see through the fog of propaganda that’s been lain before us.
More problematic, though, are instances where people position themselves as authorities of perspectives they’re completely ignorant of. In the case of spectator sports, consumers will happily position themselves as avid fans. Many of them, as noted Chomsky, can recite all sorts of arcane statistical trivia, but they’re functionally ignorant of the political processes that govern their lives. Fans of NFL teams, for example, don’t typically care if their noise disturbs neighbours, funds for needed social services are rerouted to pay for facility upgrades, or if athletes make ridiculous amounts of money while behaving like overgrown children. Although they might complain about these things, by remaining “fans” and continuing to advocate for “their team”, their actions indicate profligate narcissism. Lurking beneath their consumerism and violent fetishism lies a deeply entrenched cynicism: “I don’t really know what I’m doing and I don’t care.”
This is the milieu in which the Olympic frame operates. But the public couldn’t care less. Give them shiny new products, spark their nationalist insecurities, and tell them they’re helping make the world a better place by supporting the Olympic Dream™. Don’t bother them with facts or skepticism. You’ll get nowhere.
Tellingly, the Olympics usually gets wide political support – both locally and nationally. Politicians who previously fought bitter campaigns to get or stay where they are will come together to join hands and sing the praises of the Olympics. When the entire political class is united, you know you’re getting fucked. Nevertheless, every 2 years another city gets gentrified by the Olympics – and the rich keep dancing.
Assuming you finished school with gaps in your historical understanding, how have you gone about filling them in? Which areas of history do you wish would get more attention by the media? Less? Which countries’ histories do you wish your formal education would have touched on?