No Time Nor Patience for Cynicism

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published August 28, 2008, issue of September 05, 2008.
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I know, I know: The Summer Olympics were then, the Democratic Convention is now. But I find it hard to let go of the Olympics, and not just because of my flickering fantasy of yet becoming a gymnast. Not only because I don’t expect soon to forget the neo-fascist opening ceremony, so utterly and eerily choreographed that had Mussolini himself appeared in a cloud of smoke — or Dick Cheney or Hitler’ architect, Albert Speer — I’d not have been all that surprised.

No, it’s the innocent nationalism that got to me. Altogether, 203 countries participated in the games, most of them nation states. (Some participants — Hong Kong, Palestine, Puerto Rico, Bermuda and several others — are not sovereign states.) There are those you’ve likely never heard of — Comeros, Tuvalu, Nauru (smallest of all, just 8.2 square miles and fewer than 14,000 people) — and several whose presence comes as a bit of a surprise, given their domestic disconcert: Iraq, Sudan, Somalia and Afghanistan.

For obvious reasons, most of the broadcasters’ and viewers’ attention was directed to the major players: China, the United States, Russia and the other 14 nations that won 15 or more gold medals. But there were 291 gold medals in all, and 55 countries earned at least one. There were 68 silver medal winners, and another 65 bronze winners.

All in all, 87 countries won at least one medal, 43% of the participants. Talk about globalization!

I wish there’d been more reporting from the Olympic Village. It would be interesting to know something of the interaction among the national cohorts. We tend to forget that many of the athletes know each other, having competed against one another at international meets over the years.

Is there mutual respect? Is there camaraderie? To my eye, the celebrations of victory appeared appropriately patriotic, never boisterous or vainglorious. How can such a competition become a lesson, a model?

Seven years ago, I wrote of a related experience: “Among Guiseppe Verdi’s least well-known and least-often performed compositions is an exuberant paean to nationalism entitled ‘Hymn of Nations,’ composed for the London Exhibition of 1862. The piece included the anthems of Italy, France and England. Even Arturo Toscanini, himself the son of one of Garibaldi’s soldiers, who conducted his first Verdi (‘Aida’) in 1886, did not get around to conducting the ‘Hymn of Nations’ until 1915, during the First World War.

“His next performance was for a studio recording in 1943, as the Second World War was raging, followed the next year by a concert in Madison Square Garden. For these performances, Toscanini added three new elements to Verdi’s music: He worked both the Star Spangled Banner and the Soviet Union’s Internationale into the score — and to the key line in the Italian anthem, the anthem of the nation then led by the fascist Mussolini, the nation Toscanini had refused to visit from the time Mussolini came to power, he added one word: In the original, the words are simply, ‘O Italia, o patria mia’ — ‘O Italy, o my fatherland.’ To these, the maestro added ‘tradita,’ making it ‘my betrayed fatherland.’

“I encountered this piece of music quite by accident a few years ago. It is included as a kind of afterthought on an RCA Victor CD (60299) featuring the Verdi Requiem, the reason I’d bought the disc. I sat at home that night, listening to the anthems, sung by the Westminster Choir and Jan Peerce as the tenor soloist, and I found myself weeping.

“My tears, I think, were for our lost innocence, for a time of naïve patriotism born in the war and sustained for some years after its conclusion. How very far away that time now seems, in this age of super-sophisticated deconstruction, this time of winks and smirks, this time of suspicions too-often borne out, this time when to be other than cynical is to be dismissed, or at best indulged, as reactionary, unenlightened.”

That was, as I’ve written, seven years ago — in July 2001. So it was before September 11, before the Iraq war, before Abu Ghraib, before Guantanamo, before rendition, before waterboarding, before the extent of this administration’s arrogant lawlessness had become so painfully evident.

Tradita, our homeland.

You can hear the hymn in a couple of curious ways on YouTube. One version comes in two parts, with the anthems in the second — save for the Soviet anthem, which was excised in the early 1950s during the “Red Scare.” The same recording is also available intermixed with film footage of the liberation at war’s end. But so far as I know, the only full version — which is to say, the only accurate version of what Toscanini did with the Verdi in 1943 — is the one on disc. (Think of the “Requiem” as the bonus.)

Cynicism? We are, or ought to be, well beyond cynicism. Cynicism is a coward’s repair, a habit of contempt that leads to the casual dismissal of that which is good, noble, worthy. In the name of cleverness and sophistication, it scorches the good earth.

That is why the innocence of the Olympics so appeals to me, and the innocence of the anthems recorded during the “good war.” (And yes, I know that Dresden and Hiroshima were also part of that “good war.”) Plainly, we cannot (nor ought we) pretend that all that’s happened hasn’t happened, that we can simply shed the ugliness, forget the beast, neglect the sinister.

If there’s innocence to be restored, it is a willed innocence, even a sophisticated innocence, innocence as strategic wisdom, not as childish naïveté. Our eyes have seen the worst there is, have stared into the abyss; we’ve known tragedy, and will again. But no time nor patience for cynicism; now, eyes wide open, it is time to build.

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