The British love form. Not for nothing the phrases “good form” and “bad form” were, until recently, compliments, or severe criticism, of behavior. Four and a half centuries of internal peace in England have allowed the country’s traditional roles and offices to remain intact for outward show, their “forms” undisturbed. The monarch, the Lords and Ladies of the upper chamber of Parliament, the Church of England, the hundreds of orders given for public service each year ‑ all are more or less devoid of substance, there for the gorgeousness of their mere existence. All these forms — and yet more that will go unmentioned ‑ still attract formal obeisance, remain envied and, where possible, are sought after.
Radicals of left and right like to say that the American election is an affair of sound and fury, signifying nothing. One guy in a suit replaces another guy in a suit, the two mostly agree on the basics: the economy, capitalist; foreign policy, hegemonic.
A stake through the heart might keep Silvio Berlusconi out of Italian politics, but it better be hammered in hard. Last week he renounced all intention of running again for the premiership of Italy, then received a four-year prison sentence (later reduced to a year) for tax evasion.
Socialism – real, no-private-ownership, state-controlled, egalitarian socialism – has been off the political agenda in most states, including Communist China, for decades. The mixture of gross inefficiency and varying degrees of repressive savagery that most such systems showed seems to have inoculated the world against socialism and confined support for it to the arts and sociology faculties of Western universities. But what was booted triumphantly out the front door of history may be knocking quietly on the back door of the present. The reason is inequality.
Mark Anthony, in his oration for the murdered Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s play, observes: “The evil that men do lives after them.” Indeed, in our supercharged world, evil lives with its perpetrator, tearing him down while still in his prime. Anthony’s musing would bring a grim smile to the faces of many men; none grimmer, perhaps, than that of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former head of the International Monetary Fund, former presidential hope of France’s Socialist Party, and – given the success that the more modest Francois Hollande had in beating Nicolas Sarkozy – a former future president of France.
If, upon hearing the news that the Nobel Peace Prize is going to the European Union, the first response is “You’ve got to be kidding”, the second must be… “they’ve got a point.” The third is: But how much of a point?
Last week, Ed Miliband, who wants to be Britain’s prime minister, had the kind of public event that changed people’s, or at least the media’s, perception of him: He was punchy, sharp, raspingly dismissive of the government’s strategy. The Labour Party leader, in his speech to the party’s annual conference, spoke for over an hour without notes, moved about the stage with apparent ease, and seemed in a fine, combative humor. He got good press, which he generally hasn’t for the first year of his leadership. It didn’t have quite the earth-moving quality of Mitt Romney’s steamrollering of President Obama a day later – another, and much greater, turnaround event for the man who wants the somewhat larger job of U.S. president. But Miliband did good.
I was in India last week, where I met three frustrated moralists. One was a journalist, an investigator of some distinction (which, to be fair, can be frustrating anywhere). The other two were regulators of the press and broadcasting, respectively. They have little power and thus little influence over what they see as a scandal: the way the media ignore the “real” India – impoverished, suffering, socially divided – in favor of a glossy India that’s little more than the three “C’s” – cinema, celebrity and cricket.
There’s some shuffling of feet going on in Western governments, about this whole freedom of speech and the press thing that democracies are pledged to defend. And who wouldn’t shuffle, after the events of the past week, and of the past 30-plus years, in the Islamic world.
When the editor of the Irish Daily Star, Mike O’Kane, was asked about his decision to publish a few of the topless photographs of the Duchess of Cambridge, wife of Prince William – a future king of Great Britain, the crown perhaps descending from his grandmother’s snow-white head to his own prematurely balding pate – he replied: “Kate is not the future queen of Ireland, so really the only place where this is causing fury seems to be in the UK, and they are very, very tasteful pictures.”