Opinion

John Lloyd

Beppe Grillo: The anti-politics politician

John Lloyd
May 17, 2012 17:52 UTC

For some three decades, an Italian comedian named Beppe Grillo has satirized – viciously, at high volume, naming names – the corruption of Italian politics. Last week, in Italian elections, he won the honor of being a part of the very thing he mocks.

When Grillo started doing comedy, in the early eighties, the Socialist Party – led by Bettino Craxi, prime minister from 1983 to 1987 – was in coalition with the Christian Democrats, and was a byword for theft from the taxpayer. Italians would say: The Socialists haven’t been in power before, they know they won’t last, so they have to make money quickly – a kind of resignation to the inevitability of political larceny that the British mind (mine) found quite shocking. Grillo was also shocked: or at least, he made shock the basis of his act. More than any other public figure, he fashioned from the venality of Italian political life a dark, bitter and yet hilarious comedy.

The politicians were furious that their good name should be so besmirched, and got him banned from Italian TV – which, in the eighties, was monopolized by the channels of the state broadcaster RAI, in turn under the control of the politicians.

This didn’t stop Grillo performing and becoming rich – he had a taste for Ferraris and speedboats, of which he now claims he is cured – but it did stop his message from disturbing the tranquility of Italian homes. When he was unbanned for a show in 1993 (it achieved stellar ratings), he revealed himself as outrageous and outraged as ever, and was off the air again.

I went to see his show in Florence three years ago at a gaunt and echoing stadium suited to rock concerts where one would have thought a one-man show would be swallowed up in the immensity of the place. Grillo’s was not.

Europe’s new, suicidal normal

John Lloyd
May 8, 2012 11:44 UTC

The world into which the new president of France, François Hollande, stepped this week is a suicidal one. Searching for a vivid image of Euro-desolation, the news media have lit upon suicides. Two suicides last month have stood out.

A 55-year-old man on the Italian island of Sardinia, who ran a little construction business with his sons in a mountain town called Mamoiada in the interior, killed himself when the business went bust. He was known only by the initials GM, and the town’s mayor says he was an industrious man with a close-knit family. His death shocked everyone.

Earlier in April, an older, Greek man, 77-year-old Dimitris Chrystoulas, a retired pharmacist, staged a more dramatic end to his life. Like GM, he said he wished to die with dignity; also like the Sardinian, he shot himself. But he did so in the central Syntagma Square in Athens, near the parliament, leaving a note that prophesied that the “traitors” who have brought Greece to destitution and enslavement to the will of international finance would be hung upside down in the square where he met his end, much like the way Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini was executed in Milan.

A London divided against itself

John Lloyd
May 7, 2012 15:08 UTC

London voted for its mayor last week and voted, narrowly, for Boris. Boris Johnson was the Conservative incumbent, a 47-year-old upper-middle class, Eton- and Oxford-educated former journalist, a classics-conversant, high-IQ prankster with a streak of political intelligence and ruthlessness that reportedly has Prime Minister David Cameron worried for his job.

Boris beat Ken (Livingstone). In London, the two main contenders for the mayor’s seat are known, with or without affection, as Boris and Ken, perhaps a reflection of the fact that they are seen, still, as not quite serious people. (The London mayoralty doesn’t have much power, and nothing like that enjoyed by Michael Bloomberg in New York, who isn’t universally called Michael.) Indeed, they are not seen as entirely serious by themselves. Both have deserved reputations as comedians. Ken used to appear on comedy quiz panels, Boris wrote witty columns for the Daily Telegraph.

Ken Livingstone is a 66-year-old Labour veteran, a working-class-born ideologue of the left, by far the most experienced figure in London politics. He ran the Greater London Council from 1981 till its abolition in 1986 and held the mayoral seat from its creation in 2000, for two terms, until 2008 – when, with Labour’s stock diving, he was beaten by Boris. Experience didn’t count enough this time, though. Everywhere else in the UK, the Conservatives and their Liberal Democrat allies in government were pounded, losing hundreds of local government seats. Labour surged back. Except in the capital.

Europe goes to extremes

John Lloyd
Apr 24, 2012 16:07 UTC

Americans might be forgiven for regarding Europeans as a puzzle. And not an intriguing one, but an irritating, what-the-hell-are-they-thinking kind of puzzle. The global survey books by American thinkers this year – Zbigniew Brzezinski’s Strategic Vision, Robert Kagan’s The World America Made and Ian Bremmer’s Every Nation for Itself – profess to be in frustration more than sorrow with Europe’s passivity. Why don’t they pay more to protect themselves and to project force? We do. Why can’t they unite into a federal state and get a properly integrated economic policy so they can get over this euro crisis? We did. Why can’t they get over their obsession with immigration – especially since their populations are shrinking, and they need more labor? We have.

Europe, a continent whose elite had long condescended to America, regarding it as a place of extremes and crudities, is now in danger of seeming both effete and weird. The surge in support for Marine Le Pen in Sunday’s election in France – the largest piece of news, since the Socialist François Hollande had been expected to beat President Nicolas Sarkozy in the first round – makes her National Front party, if not she herself, a kingmaker, and deposits her at the center of French politics.

She rejoiced in Paris, and less than 400 kilometers away in the Hague, the Dutch government fell – as the far-right Party for Freedom, led by Geert Wilders, withdrew its support, citing opposition to a budget that, prompted by the EU’s new fiscal pact, strove to bring the deficit down to 3 percent of GDP. For Wilders, this asked the Dutch people to “pay out of their pockets for the senseless demands of Brussels … we don’t want to follow Brussels’ orders.”

Anders Breivik’s disgusting sanity

John Lloyd
Apr 20, 2012 20:35 UTC

To watch Anders Breivik, in the news clips available of him in the Oslo court where he is being tried for mass murder, is to see a smile on the face of an animal much more terrifying than any beast: a human fanatic, whose own mental processes have produced a monstrous creature. That smile is so normal, appearing so naturally in his conversations with his defense lawyer Geir Lippestad. It seems almost…carefree. Indeed, Breivik does seem free from care. “I would say,” said Lippestad on Wednesday, in the precise and fluent English all Norwegians seem able to speak, that “he’s always in a good mood.”

Lippestad, who will likely never have another such shot at fame, will probably never again walk such a high wire. He must defend a man most of the world believes to be wholly indefensible and many in Norway know as one who murdered a relative, friend or acquaintance. He must accompany his client as he comes to court and gives his defiant, fist-out salute. Breivik has been asked to stop, but so far hasn’t. Lippestad is helpless in this matter, saying that “either he will or he won’t. There’s nothing that we can order him to do.” The Norwegian authorities are grimly determined that all the rules of a liberal order be followed: Lippestad, in a liberal society’s iconic (but hardly popular) role of the defender of a human horror, bears the brunt.

And he must argue, under instructions from his client, that he is sane. If he’s sane, he can get 21 years – the maximum sentence – and then, after he serves the sentence, there will be an argument (which Breivik may win) that he can be freed if he is judged no longer to be a danger to society. A judgment that he is insane could keep him in a secure medical facility for life, if that custody is constantly reimposed on three-year reviews. He has said: Give me liberty or give me death. He says the maximum sentence would be “absurd.” Norway has no death penalty: It is not about to invent one for him, even if many Norwegians would wish it (including one of the lay judges on the panel hearing the casecasec, who had to resign when he made this clear).

As elections approach, France contemplates a bonfire

John Lloyd
Apr 13, 2012 18:29 UTC

It’s too early to hear the sound of the tumbrils rolling, or the excited click-clack of spectators’ knitting needles as the aristos are taken to the guillotine, but don’t bet that a modern bonfire of the pretensions of the very rich won’t happen, and maybe soon. (Peacefully, I hope: Revolutions are mostly horrible affairs.)

The French allusion occurs because the presidential election campaign opened officially there earlier this week, and the first round of the two-stage voting process will take place on Sunday Apr. 22. From the results of that first pass for the French people, we should see something of central interest and concern to our times, with an import far beyond France. We’ll see how mad people are, and how deeply (or not) they feel they shouldn’t take it any more.

The smart money remains on one of the two front-runners in the race: President Nicolas Sarkozy, the candidate of the right, who’s campaigning as if his life depended on it; and François Hollande, of the Socialist Party, an altogether more laid-back man whose travel-to-work transport was, until recently, a scooter (the kind with a motor – modesty has its limits). They both have been hovering below 30 percent in the polls, while 10 percent is taken by François Bayrou, a veteran campaigner and a liberal, centrist, sensible sort of man, who is trying to pump up votes for a job that is unlikely ever to be his.

For Europe, it doesn’t get better

John Lloyd
Apr 4, 2012 21:03 UTC

The European crisis isn’t over until the First Lady pays, and the First Lady of Europe, Angela Merkel, cannot pay enough. She needs to erect a large enough firewall to ensure that the European Union’s weaker members do not, again, face financial disaster. That will not happen – which means the euro faces at least defections, and perhaps destruction.

The crisis had seemed to recede somewhat in early 2012, and the headline writers moved on. But it had only seemed to recede, and relaxation was premature. As Hugo Dixon of Reuters’ Breaking Views put it on Monday, “the risk is that, as the short-term funding pressure comes off, governments’ determination to push through unpopular reforms will flag. If that happens, the time that has been bought will be wasted – and, when crisis rears its ugly head again, the authorities won’t have the tools to fight it.”

But the underlying tension remains between high indebtedness in nearly all the EU countries and the need to pare back public spending without suffocating the economies. The flat, or negative, growth lines in the same countries that are indebted are likely to be made worse as demand falls and a malign cycle threatens.

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).

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.

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