Identity, nationality and the Olympics

When wondering what to call this post I realised that if you take the limp out of Olympics what you are left with is oiks. I’m sure there’s a joke about the coalition government in there somewhere but I haven’t quite worked out what it is yet. Anyway I decided to play safe and avoid the puns.

I discovered on Monday that the Olympic flame will be passing the end of my street on Saturday afternoon, a couple of hours after the passing of the One Hackney Festival Parade. The two processions will meet up in Clissold Park later in the afternoon, where the latter will ‘welcome’ the former to Hackney.

To a semiotician interested in identity, the coverage of the occasion in Hackney Today (the local Council newspaper) provides a rich source of tropes, adding an extra layer of complexity to contradictory discourses on unity and diversity, similarity and difference, local allegiance, national patriotism, internationalism and the embrace of the other and the competing logics of rival forms of identification. The dominant motif is a celebration of Hackney’s multiculturalism, in a tradition that goes back to the festivals organised by the Greater London Council in the early 1980s and, before that, to the Rock Against Racism movement of the 1970s.

In this tradition (in contrast with the secular tradition to be found, for instance, in Republican France) citizenship is lightly conveyed and difference celebrated. Schools commemorate Eid, Diwali, Hannukah AND Christmas. Advertisements for public services  illustrate a range of skin colours, costumes and body types, and any area in which people of different ethnicities jostle for survival is described as ‘vibrant’. The current issue of Hackney Today, for example, is careful to ensure that its depictions of Kingsland High Street (accompanying a story about the recent renewal of the pavement) show a Caribbean restaurant and the premises of the Cypriot Workers’ Association (rather than the clubs and pound shops that most people now associate with the area). This insistence on tolerance as the dominant virtue (whose opposite,  discrimination or prejudice, is thereby rendered the dominant taboo) has, it must be said, been extraordinarily successful. It has created a public culture that visitors from all over the world find welcoming and feel comfortable in, and has contributed not a little to Hackney’s current aura of coolness. Indeed, East London’s multiculturalism figured prominently in the pitch fronted by Ken Livingstone that led to the success of London’s Olympic bid.

Nevertheless, this unproblematised promotion of diversity glosses over a number of contradictions. These include multiple tensions within and between different ethnic communities, whether based on class, gender, religion or simply differences in the degrees of priority accorded to family and community loyalties on the one hand versus legal requirements and rules of fairness on the other.

In the 1980s, for instance, I remember a campaign for homeworkers’ rights (organised by feminists) in another East London borough falling foul of the borough’s equal opportunities policy because it was viewed by the ‘workers’ associations’ of various organised ethnic communities as racist. A socialist reading of this response saw it as an expression of the class interests of the sweatshop owners in these communities wishing to continue exploiting the labour of poor women workers; a feminist reading saw it as an expression of patriarchy. In either case, the equal opportunities policy was being used instrumentally, to promote the interest of a particular ethnic community, represented by its elite and dominant members. Their real motives. conscious or unconscious,  were, no doubt, a complex mixture of both of these elements, an example of the sort of problem wrestled with under the currently fashionable rubric of ‘intersectionality’.

Another dimension of complexity is introduced when one attempts to map this notion of multiculturalism onto national identity. Themes such as ‘One Hackney’ suggest that people from all ethnic backgrounds share equally in local citizenship. But this local citizenship is not seen as demanding exclusive allegiance, as is evidenced in phenomena such as ‘twinning’ with other cities in the countries of origin of local communities and a celebration of links with these countries of origin. The current festival, for instance, will feature a ‘Rio-Hackney’ collaboration, with Brazilian performers, no doubt in recognition of the recent influx of Latin Americans to the borough, alongside African drummers, Gypsy dancers, Caribbean acts and hip hop (as well, of course, as the fact that Rio will host the next Olympics).

This local identity is, to some extent, subsumed into a national identity, at least for the purposes of the Olympics: multicultural Hackney, in this discourse, represents a larger modern multicultural Britain, also reflected in the diversity of ethnic origins among the athletes in the national team. Yet there are tensions here too. Multiculturalism is generally constructed in opposition to Norman Tebbit’s notorious ‘cricket test’ (a phrase used by him in a 1990 speech in which he questioned the loyalty to Britain of Asian or Caribbean immigrants who supported the cricket teams from their countries of origin). The use of the flag of St George (the English flag with a red cross on a white background) by racist anti-immigrant parties is also disliked by many proponents of multiculturalism, though tolerated among supporters of the England football team. Patriotism here becomes a contested concept.

Simple allegiance to a national flag, anthem and team – the logic underlying the Olympic Games – is not therefore as unproblematic as it might appear. On the one hand, the logic of multiculturalism would happily accommodate an allegiance by the citizens of Hackney to the teams of the many other nations from around the globe from which they originate. But on the other hand the logic of ‘One Hackney’ also assumes a loyalty to the borough and, through it, to the larger entities in which it nests (London, England, the United Kingdom) and thus, by implication, some obligation to support the national team.

Formally speaking, the relationship between the international, the national and the local is also complicated. Here, the local trumps the international: it is One Hackney which will ‘welcome’ the Olympic flame on Saturday. But at the Olympics opening ceremony, it will be the President of IOC, Jacques Rogge, who will ‘welcome’ the Queen, as Head of State, to the Olympic Stadium, thus constituting that particular bit of East London as international territory for the duration of the event and rendering the Queen a foreigner in it, as she is in the House of Commons, allowed in by invitation only. If London hosts the Olympics which then in turn hosts the UK (which, however, has the power to ‘unhost’ undesirable visitors or immigrants) we might wonder who is ultimately hosting whom, and, indeed, what ‘hosting’, or ‘welcoming’ actually signify in terms of authority.

As the bunting goes up outside my front door, there is a lot to ponder.

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