Opinion

John Lloyd

A sinking Italy is grasping for direction

John Lloyd
Jun 12, 2012 19:02 UTC

Italy, one of the founders of the European Union, is now in the most critical of situations. If many different things do not go well for the bel paese in the next year, it may attract the use of the word “founder” in its other, more sinister meaning: to sink.

As the euro zone crisis – which has traumatized Greece, put painful squeezes on Ireland and Portugal, and now engulfs the banks and the economy of Spain – laps around the beaches of Italy’s peninsula, the mood has soured.

In the past week, interviewing some of Italy’s leading journalists for a book on journalism in Berlusconi’s Italy, the country I found was one of profound doubt. Italian journalists are not the least cynical of their profession and often greet new events with a we’ve-seen-it-all-before shrug. Not now. Now they follow and record and comment on the news with journalism’s customary hyperactivity. But they admit they have no notion of what will come – or even how their country will be governed. What might come is, by large consent, possibly, even probably, bad.

Mario Calabresi is the editor of La Stampa, the liberal daily published in the northern city of Turin and owned by the Agnelli clan, who control Fiat. He’s young for an Italian editor, at 42, and is seen as one of the profession’s brightest stars. He’s also the son of Luigi Calabresi, an officer in the Carabinieri who was murdered in Milan in 1972 at the age of 34 by far-left terrorists. Calabresi says, “I must be an optimist,” but he doesn’t sound like it:

This is a temporary government, and the true issue is what comes after. Unfortunately there aren’t many people with whom to have a debate about the future because there aren’t many real political players. There’s a large risk that next year there will be a trend towards populism, attracting protest votes rather than parties having a proper reformist agenda.

Not all are jubilant about the Queen’s Jubilee

John Lloyd
Jun 5, 2012 17:09 UTC

The last few days of Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee celebration have prompted the outpouring of patriotism and affection. But it did not faze Britain’s most determined protester. Peter Tatchell generally campaigns against homophobia and for gay rights: In one of his many (and one of his best) public projects, he tried to make a citizen’s arrest of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe when the latter came shopping in London in 1999, drawing attention to the president having called gays “pigs and dogs”. (London’s finest arrested Tatchell, not the dictator, for that episode.)

He was out again this weekend, on a wet, cool and blustery day as a flotilla of boats sailed down the Thames to salute the monarch. Just by Westminster Bridge, he and fellow leaders of the British republican party rallied a crowd of like-minded folk and some hecklers, who heard him say that though he thought the queen was personally quite nice, she was at the pinnacle of a pernicious class system, possessed hundreds of flunkeys and hundreds of millions of pounds, and must now stand aside to let the British people elect their head of state, as people should in a democratic country.

This wasn’t popular, but my respect for Tatchell, already high, went up. It’s a cliché but also a truth that a democracy is tested by its tolerance for those people and things that majorities can’t stand, and certainly the majority can’t stand the message that the republicans were shouting as they stood across the river from the Mother of Parliaments and the Mother of the Nation passed by in her specially prepared barge. The majority, in varying degrees, love the queen.

The hard challenges for Europe, an overly soft continent

John Lloyd
May 29, 2012 19:22 UTC

Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, gave an interview to the Guardian last Friday. In it, she offered some advice to the people of Greece. A succinct summation: “Stop whining.”

She says that when she thinks of the Greeks, she has sympathy for their plight, but: “Do you know what? As far as Athens is concerned, I also think about all these people who are trying to escape tax all the time.” And there is greater sympathy for the absolutely poor: “I think more of the little kids from a school in a little village in Niger who get teaching two hours a day, sharing one chair for three of them, and who are very keen to get an education. I have them in my mind all the time.”

Lagarde does not in the least resemble my mother, except in one thing: When, as a child, I would whine “I don’t like it” about food she had prepared, she had a stock reply: “There’s some wee boy in Africa that would be glad of that!” (I would have been glad if he had had it – my mother was fond of tripe and couldn’t grasp my hatred of it.)

Facebook’s poor, huddled masses

John Lloyd
May 21, 2012 20:39 UTC

“Whosoever hath, to him shall be given”, said Matthew (13:12) – a text for our times, and if it were a Facebook status, I would like it to death.

Facebook’s IPO at the end of last week valued the company at $104 billion. It netted $16 billion, the biggest haul from an initial offering after General Motors and Visa. It added some more heft to founder Mark Zuckerberg’s bank balance, now weighing in at about $17 billion. Others who were in at the creation were propelled deep into multimillionaire land.

But us? Those of us, nearly a billion of us, who spend (if we’re American) some 20 percent of our online time on Facebook are more likely to get poorer than richer from the Facebook experience. “Whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away, even that which he hath,” continued Matthew, illogically, but correctly.

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.

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.

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