Opinion

John Lloyd

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.”

All over Europe, now, parties of the far right and far left see their support grow as they denounce the EU or immigration, or both; as they direct the frustrations of hard-pressed people into channels of blame; as they flatter their supporters by telling them that they, the ordinary folk, have in their common sense and in their experience of life, the real answers to the woes afflicting the countries of Europe. Both on the right and on the left, a fevered populism denounces the experts, the “old” politicians and parties, the self-interested elites, those who are against “us” – us, the people.

There is not a little political charlatanry here: Le Pen and Wilders are educated people; they know well enough that the answers to Europe’s woes are complex, time-consuming and dependent on consensus. But they choose to ignore that. And there is more than a little racism bubbling away, toward Muslims and immigrants of every kind,  both of color and from Eastern Europe. It finds it harder to speak its name now, unlike the Jew-hatred before the last world war – but it’s not less powerful for being partially suppressed. These movements are not, to be sure, fascist armies. But the breakdown of government they may provoke could open up spaces for greater extremes than they.

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.

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.”

God, Richard Dawkins, and the meaning of life

John Lloyd
Feb 28, 2012 20:35 UTC

Two clever men, long past the first flush of youth, took part in a debate on God’s place — or absence — in the meaning and origin of life last week in Oxford. They differed; and to no one’s surprise, each remained unconvinced by the other’s argument at its end. Oxford University has been hosting such encounters for centuries.

So why was the University’s Sheldonian Theatre packed, with two other theaters full of people watching the debate on closed-circuit screens? Why was it covered by the news media? Why had it been sold out within hours? Who still cared about this stuff in a society that — for all that the Church of England is an established religion and the queen is its head — is as secular as any in the democratic world?

Judging by the response of the audience, including this writer, that last question’s answer emerged in the Oxford debate. We realized, as we listened to the moderate, educated English cadences of the debaters, that we care because no matter how indifferent to religion we are, or even how certain that it is a purely human construct rather than a divine revelation, we are made uneasy by its claims and miss its promise of grace and eternity. More practically, we care because many can feel morally adrift without its guidance. In his just-published book, Religion for Atheists, the philosopher Alain de Botton argues that, as he put it in an interview, “religions are full of interesting, challenging, consoling ideas … they do community really well, they’re very good on ethics, they teach us to be good, to be kind.

What if the Israeli doves are wrong?

John Lloyd
Feb 16, 2012 17:58 UTC

Those who know Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, say he likes to test his opinions against robust argument, often at length. This column is an account of one such — imagined — conversation.

Netanyahu tends to see issues through the prism of the Holocaust, and the deep well of anti-Semitism it plumbed. On the part of the Nazis, of course, but also elsewhere in Europe — in Poland, Ukraine, the Baltic States, Hungary, Romania and France. After the war was over and the facts of the Holocaust became known, returning Jews were attacked and killed in the Polish countryside, and Stalin embarked on a murderous anti-Semitic program which — had it not been for his death in 1953 — seemed set to result in at least some major pogroms, if not another mass killing on the scale of the Nazis’. This realization, for anyone Decent, is at least sobering. For a Jew, it raises the specter of an eternal horror that can rarely be wholly dismissed.

Just as Anthony Eden, the British prime minister, viewed Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser as an Arab Hitler when Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956, so Netanyahu tends to see Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the same reincarnation. That means that the Iranian president is, in the Israeli’s mind, not just a fanatical anti-Semite, but one who will pursue his fanaticism at all costs – including causing great damage to his own people.

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