I was living in England back in 1981 when Chariots of Fire was first released. It’s been a while since it came out, but you probably remember that it was a movie based upon the true story of two actual British runners (and their fictional friends) preparing for the 1924 Olympics. I loved that movie. I loved the British-ness of it. I loved the beautiful recreation of 1920s England. I loved the contrast between Harold Abrahams, the driven Anglo-Jew, and Eric Liddell, the committed Scottish Evangelist. And of course, I loved Nigel Havers. There’s just something about him….*
Anyhoo, I got the opportunity to watch the movie again the other night and was struck by something very different from today’s world. [SPOILER ALERT] A pivotal plot point in the movie occurs when Liddell learns that the race he is most likely to win — the 100 meter sprint — will be held on a Sunday. He announces that he cannot and will not run on the Lord’s Day, and holds to this position despite having a great deal of pressure brought to bear on him by the powers that be, including some peers of the realm and the Prince of Wales himself. In the movie, the deux ex machina who breaks this stalemate is Nigel Havers’ character, who, having already won a medal, graciously offers Liddell his place in the 400 meter race. (In real life, Liddell knew about the Sunday conflict some months in advance, and trained for the 400 meter race.) Liddell not only runs the 400 meter race, he does so at a sprinter’s clip, and wins.
The movie shows tremendous reverence for Liddell’s principled stand. After Liddell sticks to his guns and Nigel Havers saves the day, Lord Birkenhead, who is the head of the British team, and the Duke of Sutherland, who was one of those who tried to convince Liddell to run, have a few words:
Duke of Sutherland: A sticky moment, George.
Lord Birkenhead: Thank God for Lindsay. I thought the lad had us beaten.
Duke of Sutherland: He did have us beaten, and thank God he did.
Lord Birkenhead: I don’t quite follow you.
Duke of Sutherland: The “lad”, as you call him, is a true man of principles and a true athlete. His speed is a mere extension of his life, its force. We sought to sever his running from himself.
Lord Birkenhead: For his country’s sake, yes.
Duke of Sutherland: No sake is worth that, least of all a guilty national pride.
I was thinking how differently things would have played out if 1924 had been like 2012. Rather than simply refusing to run, Eric Liddell would have sued the Olympic committee, claiming that they were violating his right to religious freedom. Of course, he would have lost, because he was asserting a Christian religious right. Had he practiced a more politically correct religion, he might have had a different outcome.
Nowadays, if private institutions don’t bend to an individual’s will, the individual doesn’t walk away, as Liddell did. Nor does the individual create a competing society, as Jewish lawyers did when they were barred from white shoe law firms. Instead, the individual insists that a private organization accommodate him, even if to do so is completely inconsistent with the ethos of that organization. For example, last year, a Muslim woman sued Abercrombie & Fitch (a store I despise) claiming that her boss fired her for wearing a hijab. This wasn’t a first for the company:
It’s the latest employment discrimination charge against the company’s so-called “look policy,” which critics say means images of mostly white, young, athletic-looking people. The New Albany, Ohio-based company has said it does not tolerate discrimination.
Still, Abercrombie has been the target of numerous discrimination lawsuits, including a federal class action brought by black, Hispanic and Asian employees and job applicants that was settled for $40 million in 2004. The company admitted no wrongdoing, though it was forced to implement new programs and policies to increase diversity.
Why not let the company do business its way? Why sue that skanky organization? Isn’t it better to stick to your principles (e.g., “Muslim woman quits Abercrombie rather than comply with sleazy, white trash dress code”), and then to fight Abercrombie in the market place (e.g., “Muslim woman, after being fired by Abercrombie, creates modest clothes fashion dynasty”)? Why should Abercrombie, which is marketing a “look,” have to accommodate those who don’t meet the look?
The same is true for the constant effort to get the Boy Scouts of America to allow gays. Instead of trying to remake the Boy Scouts, why don’t gays take a principled stand of walking away from the Boy Scouts and — here’s an idea! — creating their own alternative to the Boy Scouts, when that is more friendly to the GLBT community? I suspect, actually, that one of the reasons they don’t is because their membership might lag. The Boy Scouts announced recently that they are reaffirming their “no gays” policy partly because parents like the policy.
More than that, why have we created a country where there is no high road but, instead, only a litigious road?
*Maybe what I like about Havers his is antipathy to bicyclists. There’s nothing wrong with bicycles or bicycling, but I can tell you that, in the San Francisco Bay Area, they have a dangerous arrogance based upon their “green-ness.” They ignore traffic rules, often drive in mobs, and can be scarily aggressive towards cars. I live near a road that is a popular sunny day destination for weekend bike wariors, and I have to say that it can be terrifying to round a curve and find two of them lolling down the middle of the road. Havers is open about his contempt for this attitude:
Havers wrote an article in 2004 the Daily Mail, criticising cyclists:
“Today’s pedal-pushers… appear to think they are above the law… [and are a] new army of Lycra-clad maniacs… I am heartily sick of the lot of them.”
He added in 2006:
“I was asked what annoys me most. I said cyclists, because they are all bastards, and since then it just hasn’t stopped”.