The opening ceremony at the London Olympics may have mystified many Americans but it offered a new way for them to think about their own most controversial political issue.
The ceremony was, as The Washington Post stated, the worlds biggest inside joke. It was a knowing, winking and nodding piece of theater: exceptionally choreographed, with a carefully crafted narrative.
Mary Poppins flirted with Acid House; J.K. Rowling read from Peter Pan; actor Kenneth Branagh quoted Shakespeares The Tempest. Branagh was garbed as engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who pioneered the development of bridges and railways that underpinned Britains industrial revolution. Some American viewers may have thought he was impersonating Abraham Lincoln instead.
The ceremony was less a cultural melting pot than a fiery cauldron of literary and musical references. Aptly, perhaps, it climaxed in the lighting of the Olympic flame in a gigantic crucible, transcending cultural parochialism.
What seems to have perplexed American audiences most, however, was director Danny Boyles decision to cast Britains National Health Service (NHS) as the shows centerpiece. Anthony Faiola in the Washington Post drew attention to the obscure references to the National Health Service. The LA Times Diane Pucin was baffled by the NHS tribute, likening it to a tribute to United Health Care in the United States.
Pucin and others missed the point: UnitedHealthcare and other U.S. insurers are private companies, not a public good.
The NHS may be baffling and obscure to Americans. But to the British, who have had universal health care since 1948 coincidentally, the last time they hosted the Olympics it is a national treasure. The NHS is one of Britains crown jewels, even more valuable than the monarchs gold and rubies locked up in the Tower of London.
The British public willingly pays for national health care, which it hopes to not have to use. Stuart Hall, perhaps Britains foremost contemporary intellectual, put it thus: You throw your bread on to the water, you dont know who will pick it up, you dont know if youre going to need it later, you just give it because you have it.
The poor do not die in the UK from lack of health care, as some uninsured do in the United States. Moreover, nationalized health insurance in the UK is vastly cheaper than purchasing comparable care in the United States. Taking the costs of private health insurance into account, most middle-class Americans and businesses are effectively taxed at exorbitantly higher rates than the British, and for less care, with a less-flexible social safety net.
Unlike the sick children bouncing on their beds in Boyles NHS skit at the opening ceremony, there isnt a tether to prevent millions of Americans who lack health insurance from falling out.
The United States spends more per person on defense than the UK does on public health care, whose approach is both more humane and effective. Instead of paying taxes to the government for health care, the tax Americans pay as private insurance is diverted to private corporations and the profits of their investors. The companies and investors can and do then fund political campaigns to ensure their profits continue while millions remain unprotected. Indeed, some states have recently been cutting important components of public health care, from tuberculosis wards to rape counseling.
All of this runs counter to the Olympic ideal. Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee, spoke at the ceremony of a lasting and positive legacy and a system based on respect and fair play. Our world should be guided not, as Rogge said, about whether you win, but by how you compete.
Nationalized health insurance can be competitive, but as a service it doesnt have to be subject to the whim of the market. It doesnt have to be doped. It can play by the rules.
At the end of the opening ceremony, Britains Olympic athletes entered the cheering stadium to the sounds of David Bowies We Can Be Heroes. The words served as an exclamation mark to the rest of the ceremony. They told us that national health insurance is not only an ideal worth celebrating on a worldwide stage. It also can be a reality when people, on either side of the Atlantic, have the courage and strength to embrace it.
Gareth Price, who is British, is a visiting assistant professor of linguistics at Duke University who focuses on the relationships between language and politics.