It looks like a double standard, and probably it is, but why is it that when I see obese Americans munching on Coke and giant hot dogs and chanting ‘USA, USA’, it sounds like the worst kind of chauvinism as well as unsportsmanlike conduct, and when I hear the Greeks cheering lustily ‘Hellas, Hellas’, it sounds patriotic and sportsmanlike? There is something of the bully in Uncle Sam, and perhaps that is why the greatest cheer of all was given to the worst swimmer of the Games, the young Palestinian who finished last and way off the pace, and timidly came out of the water. There is something very moving about the nobility of failure, and the Palestinian — who trains alone in a 25-metre cold swimming-pool with guns going off all around him — knows all about it. As did we who cheered him to the rafters.~ Taki, The Spectator

Taki’s remark resonated with me as I read it tonight, particularly after the dreary display of the crowd at the Republican National Convention earlier in the evening during Gov. (it feels more than a little silly to put that title in front of his name) Schwarzenegger’s speech. The presumably spontaneous outbursts of the chant “USA, USA!” did seem awful, hollow, crude and somehow contrived, as if loyalty were measured in decibels and national spirit in a sort of barking noise. That chant seems to me to represent the superficial and meaningless chauvinistic bluster of the jingoist, who can only be proud of his nation in the diminution and humiliation of other peoples, as distinct from an honourable and sedate patriotism that boasts, as Chesterton has said so well, not of its country’s greatness, but of its smallness.

The chant at the convention reminded me that I had been cheering for the superior Lithuanian team to win the bronze medal at the Olympics on Saturday, just as I had been secretly wishing for the comeuppance of the overrated and underskilled American team in the qualifying round against the same team, because the Lithuanians were superior in almost all the skills that separate basketball from the thuggery that we can now see regularly in NBA play. Only their tendency to foul too often gave the American team any real advantage in the two games. Even in defeat, the Lithuanians set an Olympic record for the greatest number of three-point shots made–a testament to their shooting ability and the Americans’ pathetic excuse for defense.

Even though the NBA only produced a second-class team from its host of professional players, there ought to be no excuse for finishing third when the league pretends that it is the top league for basketball in the entire world. What the Lithuanians (or the Italians, Germans, Argentines and Puerto Ricans) showed is that advantage, arrogance and thuggery ultimately fail even against smaller and little-known nations. The sloppiness, crudity and thuggery of the NBA and its continued acceptance by a considerable number of Americans is, at some level, indicative of a new American mentality that seems to prefer superficiality, brute strength and poor discipline to skill, finesse and quality. This is the belligerent mentality that accepted the invasion of Iraq, and which will continue to welcome the suppression of small states that offend the self-absorbed and indulgent brute that this new American is.

What did it say about the Americans that they could scarcely defeat such a small nation in one of our own sports, after having already been beaten by them once? It may be well said by many conservatives and reactionaries down through the last two centuries that the modern cult of sport and activity is a kind of cultural degeneracy, but there is also something to be said for honed, integrated physical excellence. Where Americans arguably possessed this in abundance in swimming or track this year, they absolutely lacked it in basketball. Fortunately, relatively few Americans were very enthused about the team’s performance in the Olympic Games, and even fewer probably shouted that inane chant during the tournament. That is somewhat reassuring.

Perhaps Americans would do well to also become equally disillusioned with their shoddy political leaders, who possess even less political virtue than this year’s basketball possessed in fundamental skills. There is something vaguely chilling about that crude and ugly chant in a political forum, echoing as it does of a sort of mindless servility and subordination to ideological hysteria.