Patriotism is a strange beast, sometimes stirred by the oddest of circumstance.
When the British public recently voted to name our new polar research ship ‘Boaty McBoatface’, I felt a strange but significant pride that I belonged to a nation that could understand something so fundamental about freedom. Britain, it seemed to say, privileges humour over hagiography, rebellion over obedience. We understand that respect only means ‘respect’ if it is given and not when it is demanded.
The British are, of course, often defined by our sense of humour, borne as it is from our very particular notion of anarchy. Our comic geniuses are known around the world: Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel, John Cleese, Jennifer Saunders, Peter Sellers, the Pythons… Ricky Gervais has also become quite popular. Yet our humour is never quite so meaningful as when it’s seen natively as a product of instinct or national character. It’s why few examples will ever match the moment, from this past week, when Sir Bradley Wiggins stuck out his tongue during the national anthem.
When Wiggins looked up at the flag and realised that his face was on the big screen, there was no hesitation as he second guessed himself. There was no flicker of self-doubt, as though he realised he was about to do something that he might ultimately regret. Out came his tongue, his eyes bulged, and then he deadpanned as his teammates began to laugh, as, I hope, did anybody watching at home. Because, that moment signified something quite unique about Britain. While some nations measure themselves by medal hauls, Britain can still measure itself by how free we feel. Wiggins knew he could do that because he knows the British. Others can fight for their turn beneath the Olympic flagpole but, deep down, we really don’t care that much. If we win, it’s not because of the flag. It’s because our individuality contributes to something greater. It is a freedom that allows us to look to the flag out of choice and not out of obligation.
This detachment is, I think, a quality that other nations perhaps don’t quite understand about Britain. A nation supposedly servile to the Crown actually cherishes rebelliousness and a sometimes disruptive individualism. It’s why the punk movement, which began in the UK and has since spread around the globe, was synonymous with the image of the Queen. Punk and monarchy are inextricably tied in more ways than the Sex Pistol’s famous album cover. Monarchy provides a notional figurehead but it also plays a much more subtle and nuanced role in the national psyche. It is why we are essentially a satirical nation and why satire is essential to us. We elevate in order to bring down or raise up the very things that other nations find base and disrespectful. Somewhere between the Queen and the buttock, the British find a healthy balance.
Wiggins found that balance in Rio when he pulled his face into that gaping tongue-bud-and-eyeball stare. But could you imagine a Russian doing the same? Could you imagine a member of the Chinese squad sticking their tongue out at the Red Flag? Could you even imagine an American doing anything so outrageous to the sound of the ‘Star Spangled Banner’? Could you imagine an American daring be so ‘free’, even in the Land of the Free?
Not that we have to wonder. This same week, the US gymnast, Gabby Douglas, was vilely abused on social media after winning a second consecutive gold medal in the team event. Her crime: not putting her hand over her heart during the national anthem.
The gesture had already become one of those unhealthy fixations that do little to serve America’s reputation. YouTube contains dozens of examples as ‘patriots’ subjecting President Obama, Donald Trump, and others to forensic examination. Was the hand high enough? Did they mean it? Did they look suitably moved when singing the anthem? ‘Can you not put your hand on your heart?’ asked Glenn Beck when he thought athletes at the 2011 Super Bowl failed to show adequate respect. ‘Even my son Raphe, we’re sitting there and he’s talking and I’m like: “Shhhh… Put your hand on your heart”…’
There is not, as yet, a requirement that Americans put their hands over their hearts when the anthem plays. It’s just a gesture that has become ubiquitous in recent years. Footage of John F Kennedy visiting Ireland in 1963 show that he didn’t put his hand to his heart. Richard Nixon, visiting China in 1972, stood with his hands by his side. By the time Jimmy Carter visited Iran in 1977, the gesture was gaining in appeal, though his wife, Rosalynn, noticeably failed to copy him. Reagan was covering his heart in 1982. Since then it is presumably unheard of for a President or First Lady not to make this gesture.
In Britain, we have thankfully (thus far) avoided adopting the habit and long may that continue. We should instead applaud Wiggins for reminding us that whatever concept of ‘nation’ we share, it is a form of nationhood in which we have managed to balance the deferential and the droll. Wiggins’ actions really expressed something quite encouraging about the state of modern Britain, not least in the way that it did not precipitate the same level of criticism that followed Daley Thompson after he whistled his way through the anthem after winning his second decathlon gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. We are, perhaps, a somewhat healthier nation than we were back then.
America, meanwhile, continues to struggle with its often onerous contradictions, including the one that sees it cherishing freedom in a way that itself becomes a restriction on true freedom. It sometimes seems, to paraphrase Henry Ford, that you can any freedom you like so long as it’s American freedom. Yet America can perhaps only be free if as ‘freedom’ itself is not fetishised or turned into another supernatural totem in a nation where the separation of church and state was enshrined in a Constitution but God is rarely excluded from political rhetoric. It is why, if you’re British, you might find there’s more than one reason to thank and congratulate Sir Bradley Wiggins. Sometimes sticking your tongue out might just be a very good idea…