Opinion

John Lloyd

Italy’s unelected democrat

John Lloyd
Aug 31, 2012 16:54 UTC

The great Italian caricaturist Altan had a cartoon on the front of La Repubblica last week, in which an Italian is sinking below the waves, shouting: “I’m drowning!” On the beach, a fat man whose swimsuit sports the German national colors, says: “Zat is how you learn, zpendthrift!”

This in a left-of-center daily that is supportive of the crisis plan of Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti and has set its face against anti-German populism. The press of the right has been less restrained: A recent front-page photo of German Chancellor Angela Merkel showed her with a hand upraised, perhaps to wave — but vaguely reminiscent of Adolf Hitler’s minimalist Nazi salute, with the headline “Fourth Reich.” The article claimed that two world wars and millions of corpses were “not enough to quiet German egomania”. This in Il Giornale, a Milan daily owned by the Berlusconi family.

I smiled at the Altan cartoon on an Italian beach, where I was last week, looking about for signs of desperation. They were not dramatic, but observable. Simply, fewer people came. The soaring cost of petrol, which went over the 2-euro mark for a liter, was generally held to be the main culprit for the reduction in the annual hunt for the sun. It was little problem to hire a beach umbrella, to book a table for dinner, even to park. While most summers the political news is absent or silly, this year the Italian papers chronicled, daily, the fever chart of the Italian and European economy, and it was febrile indeed — now a spurt of optimism, now a stab of doom.

The technocratic government led by Mario Monti, distinguished economist and former European commissioner, has seen little of the beach. The elected politicians, free from the usual business of government or opposition, were active, too: The political scene is as boiling hot as the climate. The left remains fractured and struggles for alliances and unity. The new populists, led by the comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Stars movement, remain attractive to many because of Grillo’s attacks on a partly corrupt political class. Yet he calls for an end to parliamentary politics, having run a blog column with a picture of Benito Mussolini, the prewar dictator, that evoked with approval his description of parliament (which he dissolved) as “deaf and gray.”

In the center, a loose coalition of Christian Democrats and secular liberals invoke the spirit and memory of Alcide de Gasperi, Italy’s long-serving postwar premier — who presided over the rapid recovery of the economy in the fifties and positioned Italy as a founding member of what became the European Union. It seeks to tempt Monti into heading the Christian Democrats and running for elected office after his temporary mandate ends next April.

Italy’s unelected democrat

John Lloyd
Aug 28, 2012 15:12 UTC

The great Italian caricaturist Altan had a cartoon on the front of La Repubblica last week, in which an Italian is sinking below the waves, shouting: “I’m drowning!” On the beach, a fat man whose swimsuit sports the German national colors, says: “Zat is how you learn, zpendthrift!”

This in a left-of-center daily that is supportive of the crisis plan of Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti and has set its face against anti-German populism. The press of the right has been less restrained: A recent front-page photo of German Chancellor Angela Merkel showed her with a hand upraised, perhaps to wave — but vaguely reminiscent of Adolf Hitler’s minimalist Nazi salute, with the headline “Fourth Reich.” The article claimed that two world wars and millions of corpses were “not enough to quiet German egomania”. This in Il Giornale, a Milan daily owned by the Berlusconi family.

I smiled at the Altan cartoon on an Italian beach, where I was last week, looking about for signs of desperation. They were not dramatic, but observable. Simply, fewer people came. The soaring cost of petrol, which went over the 2-euro mark for a liter, was generally held to be the main culprit for the reduction in the annual hunt for the sun. It was little problem to hire a beach umbrella, to book a table for dinner, even to park. While most summers the political news is absent or silly, this year the Italian papers chronicled, daily, the fever chart of the Italian and European economy, and it was febrile indeed — now a spurt of optimism, now a stab of doom.

Where is the Paul Ryan of Europe?

John Lloyd
Aug 22, 2012 12:30 UTC

“European” is Representative Paul Ryan’s insult of choice for President Barack Obama, and for his policies. Yet the influences Ryan cites, and the thoughts behind his plan for debt reduction, were offered by Europeans of the 20th century. Their ideas, the foundations of which were laid in Europe’s turbulent twenties and thirties, have nearly a century later found an influential apostle in the United States.

Like his European precedents, Ryan the savior-theorist has appeared at another turbulent time. The near-century-old politico-economic school he embraces now seeks to prove itself on ground made fertile by the fearful debt that hangs over the world’s greatest power.

The first of these influences, and the one on which his enemies have most eagerly seized, is the controversial capitalist-individualist Ayn Rand. Rand was born, raised and educated in Russia, during the period spanning the revolution that ruined Rand’s comfortably off family. Although many consider Russians to be non-European, Rand was raised in a secular Jewish family in Russia’s avowedly European city, St. Petersburg, and her educational influences were all European.

Britain basks in its jingoistic achievement

John Lloyd
Aug 13, 2012 19:25 UTC

The British like to think of themselves as self-deprecating, and normally they’re right, even if much of that is a self-compliment. But now, with Britain winning more Olympic medals than it had since 1908, self-deprecation has been jettisoned. It ended the games on Sunday with the third-most gold medals after the U.S. and China, and the fourth-most medals overall, with Russia just ahead.

This was good for a midsize, broke country. As the third spot seemed increasingly like the final result through the last week, the Brits became increasingly delirious. BBC commentators, normally schooled in judicious and balanced commentary, were shouting their larynxes out as the medals rolled in: When Sir Chris Hoy, the cycling tyro, won his sixth gold medal in the keirin (speed-controlled) race last Wednesday, the “commentary” melted into a stream of hysterical liquid sound.

Yet if the British did very well in the games, the BBC did badly in what it is supposed to be best at: being fair, balanced, neutral and objective. Frankly, it went ape.

Changing the Moscow rules

John Lloyd
Aug 6, 2012 20:48 UTC

Around the time Vladimir Putin started his first term as Russia’s president in 2000, a man named Gleb Pavlovsky appeared on the Moscow scene. Pavlovsky was a former dissident in Soviet times who called himself a “political technologist”, a highfalutin term for spin doctor. That isn’t to diminish him: Spin doctors in different administrations all over the world are among the most interesting political figures of contemporary times, because their job is to give a narrative about the government and the leaders they serve.

In doing so, they help give the narrative to the leaders themselves, who may not have worked out quite what they were going to do with power, since they were too busy getting and keeping it. They are the necessary middlemen between political power and the media. The media need a big story, and the spin doctors, or political technologists, are there to provide it.

Vladimir Putin, the man chosen by former President Boris Yeltsin to succeed him, didn’t know what to do when he arrived. At the time Pavlovsky moved into the Kremlin as his aide, the new president was – as Pavlovsky later said – consumed with anxiety that he would not succeed in imposing his will on a Kremlin still full of aides who were not his choice. Putin, remember, was still less than a decade away from being a middle-ranking, surplus-to-requirements KGB officer.

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