Opinion

John Lloyd

After the U.S. fades, wither human rights?

John Lloyd
Mar 27, 2012 18:43 UTC

The shrinking of U.S. power, now pretty much taken for granted and in some quarters relished, may hurt news coverage of human rights and the uncovering of abuses to them. But not necessarily. Journalism is showing itself to be resilient in adversity, and its core tasks – to illuminate the workings of power and to be diverse in its opinions – could prove to be more than “Western” impositions.

When the British Empire withdrew from its global reach after the World War Two, the space was occupied, rapidly and at times eagerly, by the resurgent United States, at the very peak of its relative wealth and influence in the immediate postwar years. What it brought with it was a culture of journalism that was increasingly self-confident in its global mission: not just to describe the world, but to improve it. Some European journalism had that ambition too, but these were nations exhausted by war. The Americans, at the peak of their influence in the postwar years, had the power, wealth, standing and cocksureness to project their vision of what the world should be.

Now, American power too will shrink, and the end of U.S. hegemony (it was never an empire in the classic sense) will mean that there will be a jostling for power, influence, and above all resources by getting-rich-quick mega-states like China, India and Brazil. They will project their view of what the world should be — they have already begun, some (China) more confidently than others (India, Brazil).

Whether this will mean that the illumination of the workings of power around the globe will be better or worse will be one of the large themes for journalism of the next decades. In his The World America Made, Robert Kagan thinks, by implication, that it could be worse, because he believes the U.S. did most for human freedom round the world and a loss of American power means a threat to the protection it offered to democratic change. He writes that “perhaps democracy has spread over a hundred nations since 1950 not simply because people yearn for democracy, but because the most powerful nation in the world since 1950 has been a democracy.” I think he’s right in this, and that his “perhaps” is pretty definite. And if he is right, it means that the impulse to probe and expose will be weaker.

The U.S., however imperfectly, often hypocritically, and at times mendaciously, nevertheless possesses a default mode in favor of freedom and human rights. So do the European states. But though the European Union is more populous and has a higher GDP than the U.S., it’s disunited and likely to stay that way. So the decline of the U.S., even if it remains only relative rather than absolute (as Kagan believes), is the important issue. It could mean that the narratives of human rights, told by Western governments, by NGOs and above all by journalism, will become fainter.

The rich versus the seething masses

John Lloyd
Mar 21, 2012 15:58 UTC

In a remarkable column in Italy’s paper of record earlier this week, the columnist Ernesto Galli della Loggia flayed his country’s ruling class. The country is witnessing, he believes “a kind of incontinence and exhibitionism without restraint, a compulsive acquisitiveness,” rife within the highest circles of Italian society. This, mind you, after the departure of the highly acquisitive former Premier Silvio Berlusconi.

“It seems,” he writes, “that in this country, for bankers, for entrepreneurs, for senior officials, for celebrities and for politicians, for those who, in short, count for something, any reward is never enough, any privilege or treat is never too excessive, any show of wealth is never over the top.” The politicians, if not the richest, are still the most degraded, because of their elective positions of trust. The press, the justice system and the frequent leaks of the many wiretaps that Italy’s magistrates order show the snouts of a political class that are too often deep into troughs of money, luxury and privilege, funded either by the Italian taxpayer or by private interests avid for political favor.

Flaying the rich in one form or another is becoming a habit everywhere where freedom reigns in the world and even — more carefully and more dangerously — where it doesn’t, as in Russia and China, where the very rich often have the backing of the state, or sometimes, are the state. It’s happening because the financial crash is making many people poorer, and most people poorer relative to the rich, who still contrive to get richer and richer. The stagnation in middle- and working-class incomes in many parts of the Western world is often turning into real decreases in spending power. Insofar as that goes on — and a fragile improvement in Europe and North America may take hold, and once again raise all boats, or it may not — then privileges, treats and shows of wealth become more and more galling, even to moderates not previously given to envy or militancy.

The Tea Party has drowned

John Lloyd
Mar 14, 2012 15:13 UTC

The Tea Party is over. In the way of parties that end, there are still people around. Those who remain search for a return of the old energy and make unconvincing demonstrations of people having a good time. But the central focus, the excitement, the purpose of the thing is dissipating. That is because the bad stuff that its members and boosters put out — lies, slanders, paranoia, ignorance — is losing what grip it had over the minds of people with minds. What’s left, though, is something else, which will not go away: the identification of moral choices blurred and contemporary indifferences ignored.

The core membership of the Tea Party is composed of people of the Christian faith, many of whom are devout Bible readers. The political scientists Robert Putnam and David E. Campbell, who have researched the attitudes of Tea Party members, found that party members were more concerned with putting God into government than with trying to pull government out of people’s lives. They will thus know well the Sermon on the Mount, which is spread across Matthew, chapters 6 and 7, and which contains the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father, which art in heaven…”

It also contains a verse (Matthew 7:15), which runs: “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” The Tea Party has been rich in false prophets, but it is presently getting something of a comeuppance, in part because of its ravening.

Do we need a referendum on referendums?

John Lloyd
Mar 8, 2012 19:09 UTC

Do we want those whom we elect to represent us, or channel us? To exercise their own judgment, or to be a simple conduit for the views of the majority of their electors?

It’s an old question, and the most famous answer to it, still much treasured by parliamentarians, is the one given by the Anglo-Irish political philosopher Edmund Burke to his electors in Bristol, England in 1774. An opponent vying for Burke’s seat had seemed to promise the Bristol voters (not numerous, in those days) that he would vote as they told him to.

That, said Burke, was wrong. “You choose a member indeed; but when you choose him, he is not a member of Bristol, but a member of parliament.” As that member, he has to determine not just the will of the little electorate of Bristol but that of the nation. “Your representative owes you … his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving, you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

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