OCT 23, 2012 16:26 UTC
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.
Pointing out inequality is a political attraction these days, and as good a dramatization of that as any is in the comparison between what Tony Blair, Britain’s Labour Prime Minister, said about it in 2001, on the eve of his second election, and what Conservative leader David Cameron said about it in a speech in 2009
, soon before the 2010 election that made him Prime Minister. Blair, questioned about rising inequality, responded that while he was concerned with poverty and its alleviation, he didn’t lose sleep about the rich being rich. “It’s not”, he said, invoking Britain’s most popular sports figure, “a burning ambition for me to make sure that David Beckham earns less money.”
Cameron, referring to the recently published The Spirit Level
by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett – a detailed argument that inequality is bad for everyone, even the rich – said the book showed that “among the richest countries, it’s the more unequal ones that do worse according to almost every quality-of-life indicator.” That left and right should so switch places marks the shift that has taken place in the past decade, from living in societies where the tide of growth lifted all boats to one where most fear
they’ll soon be sinking (assuming they already aren’t).
The political discourse in the United States has long held that getting rich is glorious, on the assumption that everybody has an equal chance of doing it. But that hasn’t been the case for some time
, a fact that would seem to make Mitt Romney vulnerable. He is very rich, though he has skillfully in distanced himself from the Romney who remarked at a (leaked) private meeting that 47 percent of his fellow Americans wouldn’t vote for him because they paid no taxes. He even managed a joke about it at the Alfred E. Smith memorial dinner last week
, saying it was relaxing to wear the most formal dress, the kind of thing that “Ann and I wear around the house.” Obama, also jocular but rather sharper, said, “Earlier today I went shopping at some stores in Midtown. I understand Governor Romney went shopping for
some stores in Midtown.”
Beneath the wit, there’s an anxiety in the Romney camp that his wealth is a disadvantage. Likewise, there’s an evident calculation in the Obama camp that while the political culture in the United States still precludes an all-out attack on the rich, a constant reminder of presidential modesty does no harm. (“Modesty” is relative: The Obama family holds assets in in the $2.6 million to $8.3 million range, versus Romney’s $190 million to $250 million
Socialism is routinely accused of being the product of envy, and there’s something to that. Russian, Chinese, Cuban and other revolutionaries mobilized workers, peasants and intellectuals by pointing to the luxury in which the wealthy few lived. After the revolutions, “rich peasants” were slaughtered and repressed even as many of the really rich managed to escape – hence the large number of Russian counts and countesses in early 20th century Paris.
But then, capitalism is routinely accused by its enemies of being based on greed, and there’s something to that, too. Few would choose to put in the long, stress-filled hours that working in the financial sector, or founding a company, demand unless they believed it would make them rich – and envied for being so.
The excesses of the 1920s and earlier were deemed by most to be immoral and passé. But recently, as Paul Krugman observed a decade ago, we entered a “new gilded age,” from which the middle disappeared. The trends have only deepened since then. In South Africa, where inequality is among the highest, white plutocrats have now been joined by “a fabulously rich black elite.”
In Russia, 96 billionaires control 18.6 percent of the wealth, while 48 of their Indian comrades control 10.9 percent – though the latter country is on the lower slopes of inequality, about the same as the United Kingdom and Germany. Sweden – of course – registers among the lowest, though there, as almost everywhere, inequality grows
The situation is grossly unfair, but it’s not necessarily simple to solve. The protesters at the various Occupy movements, spreading out from Wall Street last year, proclaimed that “we are the 99 percent.” But as the political scientist David Runciman points out
, “the implication of the slogan … is that we have all been duped … (and) now that we know about it we can stop it. But how?”
How is the question. Socialism’s central justification is in its name: It is concerned with the social. Its moral force is that it implicitly asks the question: What are you doing for society that entitles you to more of its resources? From that question flows a myriad of considerations, such as: Why should the soldier whose country puts him in harm’s way earn one-hundredth that of a financier, whose job is to increase wealth? How do we weigh the relative rewards due to the entrepreneur, who takes risks and creates jobs, against the worker who goes through the sewers every day among the rats to ensure the effluent flows out and we don’t go back to pre-19th century levels of disease? “The market” has decided such things. The growth of inequality – and in many societies the corruption bolted to it – now questions its wisdom.
Socialism’s central flaw has been its inefficiency – and in the hands of the revolutionaries and their descendants, its murderous application. Social democracy, by contrast, has been pacific and mildly redistributionist. But it hasn’t had the strength to withstand the gale of globalized inequality blowing through our societies. We’re lacking an alternative.
Yet out of the continuing and maybe deepening crises of the Western economies there may come some political force that seeks to address the social at least as much as the individual. It is already straining to emerge and gain traction. Making it compatible with the freedom we have enjoyed will be the trick.
PHOTO: A protestor marches through the streets as others hold a banner during a demonstration ahead of the NATO meeting in Chicago May 18, 2012. REUTERS/Jim Young
OCT 16, 2012 20:59 UTC
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.
In an interview given to the weekly Le Point earlier this month, the former and future world statesman complained that he was the victim of a “manhunt” but added that he had been “naïve” and “out of step with French society.” Cleared of sexually assaulting a maid in New York, he still faces charges of being part of a prostitution ring in which fraudulently acquired money was used to pay the women. He denies them, calling the accusations absurd. All he did, he says, was to go to sex parties in which many people – including many distinguished people –took part. He has never denied he was a swinger himself
. Reportedly, he told his wife, Annie Sinclair, before their marriage 20 years ago: “Don’t marry me, I’m an incorrigible skirt-chaser!” Ms. Sinclair, indulgent of faults for which she had been warned, stood by him for months but left him this summer.
Strauss-Kahn implies he is guilty only of misreading French public opinion, with more than a suggestion that he is being judged by a bunch of hypocrites who do, or wish to do, what he does.
But it’s more than that. He’s being judged against a modern, feminist view that power – economic, social, political – remains deeply unequal between men and women, and that sexual power is thus also unequal.
That perspective got dramatic and Prime Ministerial underpinning last week when Julia Gillard, the Australian premier and Labour leader, rounded on opposition leader Tony Abbott. Pointing a finger at her opponent a few feet away across the parliamentary chamber, Gillard said, “I will not take lessons on misogyny from that man!” She listed a series of occasions in which she was offended by his actions, including his posing by a placard that read “Ditch the Witch.”
Australian comment, much of it in News Corporation newspapers opposed to the Labour government, upbraided her for hypocrisy. Her speech drew attention away from the fact that she had felt constrained to support a party colleague whose public sexism – comparing women’s genitalia to shellfish – was more obvious. But it has been widely lauded elsewhere an expression of exasperation by a woman, unmarried and childless, accused by a Liberal Party senator, Bill Heffernan, five years ago of being “deliberately barren”
and thus unfit to lead.
The world’s most seductive statesman, Silvio Berlusconi, also, like DSK, faces a trial, in which he is accused of paying for sex with an underage woman, Karima el-Mahroug, a.k.a. Ruby Heart-stealer, a Moroccan exotic dancer. The trial, postponed during Italian justice’s extensive summer pause, resumed in Milan earlier this month. No one will bet that Silvio will be found guilty. He’s beaten every one of the many raps against him so far. Even when it was clear that associates ferried busloads of young women to his parties and that he told many transparent lies about his activities, he retained his popularity with a majority of voting Italians. Never charged with rape, his money and media holdings made him as much a target of seduction as an initiator. In her book, We, Silvio’s girls,
Elisa Alloro, a former employee of Berlusconi’s Mediaset channels, presented him as a man of kindness and honour, saying in an interview, “I have always considered every moment I have spent with him as a gift from God.” as Along with the attractions of money and media, Berlusconi has been able to count on a culture more accommodating than the Anglo-Saxon or Scandinavian ones to the use of power and wealth, including its use to attract young women to older men.
But no retreat to smugness. Most of the male world saw wealth and fame that way (and many women acquiesced), including the Anglo-Saxons. Britain, not for the first time, is transfixed by a sex scandal, this one involving a famed and popular broadcaster, Sir (no less) Jimmy Saville, who died last year and who reveled in his riches and fame – Rolls Royce, big cigars. He did much for charity – hence his knighthood – and, it now appears, used charitable activities with the young and vulnerable to force himself upon them. He stands, posthumously, accused of many cases of harassment, and two of rape. The BBC, his main employer, also stands accused of assuming, as he did, that wealth, celebrity and power would shield him from investigation.
That is less – much less – likely to be true now. But it is true, still, in much of the world. In some parts, women don’t report rape because they, not the rapist, will be punished. Yet even where only shame has attended women who are sexual victims, there are a few hopeful signs. A friend of mine, Supriya Sharma, a reporter at the Times of India
, wrote last month of an alleged gang rape of a Dalit (lower caste) girl in the state of Haryana in India’s northern area of Punjab by a gang of boys of a higher-level Jat caste. One of the boys had been identified to the police by a Jat girl, a schoolmate of the Dalit victim. She won’t be identified, but she said, “These boys should be punished. … It could have been any one of us (girls).” “Sisterhood triumphs,” was the optimistic title of Sharma’s piece, ending with her comment that “when it came to choosing between her schoolmate and her caste-cousin, the college girl who tipped off the police says she didn’t have to think twice.”
Sisterhood is, we must hope, triumphing. It may at times dish out rough justice in the rich states, but it is hard and dangerous in the poor ones. The fate of 14-year old Malala Yousufzai, nearly killed this month by a Taliban hitman for championing girls’ education in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, is a lesson in just how dangerous. For men in comfortable societies, Edgar in King Lear put it well (Shakespeare foresaw everything): “The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices/Make instruments to plague us.” Just or unjust, the plaguing makes the vice less pleasant. Ask Dominique.
PHOTO: REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes
OCT 12, 2012 20:46 UTC
You’ve got to be kidding is easy enough. The demonstrations, the strikes, the protests. An unprecedented police presence in Athens to ensure the prime minister of friendly Germany, Angela Merkel, is safe from angry mobs. The military in Spain hinting they may intervene to stop the country breaking up. A stream of opinion pieces speculating on Greek exit, euro collapse…and/or German domination. A faltering of the belief, on the part of most European intellectuals, that the EU was a unique, enlightenment project that showed the world (and particularly the United States) what peaceful, consensual spread of civic virtues looked like.
And then, in the midst of this, with no guarantee that all will be well, the European Union gets the Nobel Peace Prize, joining past winners Martin Luther King Jr., Lech Walesa and Andrei Sakharov, among others. One of these is not like the others.
This latest prize, then, has echoes of the Nobel committee’s last beguiling selection: Barack Obama. I thought in 2009 that it was a bad idea, not because I didn’t admire him, but because I did. I admired him for his intelligence, his ability to enthuse and his seriousness, but I didn’t know how good a president he would be (nor, of course, did he). To give him a prize before he had proved himself one way or the other was to fall into the same trap as much of the media: that is, to conflate the fact that he was the first black president of the U.S. with his ability as a president – to assume that because race no longer automatically barred some ethnicities from the highest office, that he was already a world historic figure (shouldn’t the prize have gone to the U.S. electorate?). It was to make race the defining element in him. Yet here was a man who was an American, an intellectual, and a politician and who made it clear, as he had throughout his career, he was to be judged as such.
If Obama was a prize too soon, the EU’s award seems one too late. The Union was indeed conceived by its founding fathers as a mechanism first of all for ending war. Though I believe the progressive determination of the German people to face the horrors they had visited on the world was and remains the key to decades of peace, there’s little doubt that the enterprise for peace was assisted by a framework – in which Germany most of all believed – that gave them (and Italy) an entry into a democratic club. The system played the same role for Greece, Portugal and Spain, all countries where authoritarian governments, with much blood on their hands, were replaced by parties and leaders who also used Europe to give democracy legitimacy. But these were now decades ago. They spurred a wave of European optimism then. So why – as sane voices call for an end to the Union – now?
That’s where they’ve got a point comes in. By taking for granted that peace is firmly established, we diminish or neglect the EU’s part in it. We forget, if we knew, how hard it was to forgive, to start again. We forget the era when the former communist states of Central Europe broke from the Soviet bloc because their new (and some old) politicians saw in the EU a return to a European identity. It was a union that was voluntary and consensual, and one in which politics was influenced but not dictated – there would be no tanks when countries strayed from the line. The late Ralph Dahrendorf, in his Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, wrote that there should no longer be one way to run a society, but a hundred – “and we can forever learn from each other in framing our own way.”
The present crisis has cast a fog over that. In despair that the Union has not achieved what many wished (an integrated state) we see, in the depth of the crisis, the end of the attempt. We can forget that in being what it is – a collection of independent states that do many things together – it has produced huge and benign change. That is a very large point to get.
Despite all this, how much of a point does the committee have in awarding its prize to the Union? Not enough, it seems to me, for a prize like the Nobel. Not now. Had it been awarded in 1950, when the first blueprint of the Union – the Coal and Steel Community – was constructed, or when it brought in the southern authoritarian states, or when the former communist countries joined, there would have been a coming together of symbol and facts on the ground, comprehensible to all, a real inspiration at every level. Prizes like the Nobel must have a wide public resonance, a sense in the world audience that it’s fitting, a prize in time.
To award it now seems out of joint. It’s meant, it seems, as an encouragement, a way of saying that times are tough, but remember you were great once and can be again. But Europe is in too much contention for a gesture of that kind. Its fissures are too wide and too real. The gulf at the core of it – that the crisis demands greater integration while the people of Europe seem to oppose it – is much wider than it has ever been. The job of European politicians in nearly every state is a doleful one for as far ahead as we can see. It is to cut and cut again, to reduce, radically in some instances, what Europeans had come to assume was their birthright – an efficient and generous welfare state.
These conflicts may yet be resolved. Leaving aside extremists, no European – whatever view she holds on the utility or desirability of the Union – can seriously wish collapse. The consequences have been shown, clearly enough, to be deeply harmful, not just to Europe but also to the world. The Union, if it is to survive, has great changes to make, changes that will strain its fabric and exhaust its leaders. If and when they succeed, that would be worth a Nobel Peace prize. But they’ve already got it – like Barack Obama – before they’ve properly begun.
PHOTO: Norwegian Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjoern Jagland speaks as he announces the European Union as the recipient of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, October 12, 2012. The European Union won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for its historic role in uniting the continent in an award meant as a morale boost for the bloc as it struggles to resolve its debt crisis. REUTERS/Heiko Junge/NTB Scanpix
OCT 8, 2012 22:03 UTC
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.
Unfortunately, he also spoke about himself.
This was unfortunate, because what he told his audience – the nation, rather than just the Labour Party conference – was the now-standard democratic politician’s confected biography. He had a loving family, and he was just like most people – in his case, because he went to state schools. Trust me, says this biography: I am psychologically secure, and I know ordinary life. As he said in his speech: “that’s who I am”.
But who is this “I”, really? The “I” who went on to Oxford University and to the London School of Economics (elite)? Then to Harvard (elite and American)? Then almost immediately to a career in politics, as a senior politician’s aide (far from ordinary life)? The “I” who had a father, Ralph, who was the UK’s most prominent Marxist sociologist? This “I” has apparently been banished from Miliband’s story – he is just the “I” that he thinks his electorate wants him to be.
How much more, or less, important is it that Ed Miliband was brought up by Marxists than that Mitt Romney was brought up by Mormons? One man’s father believed in the ultimate victory of the working class over capitalism, the other’s religion believes that the Book of Mormon was discovered by the early 19th century divine Joseph Smith on a series of gold plates and later taken back by the angel who had given them to him (before they could be fact-checked). Miliband’s past is less important, one would guess, since he is not a Marxist, while Romney remains a Mormon. Yet what does even that tell us about the Romney “I”? Indeed, which Romney are we talking about – the hard-right, Tea Party-approved Romney of the primaries or the managerial, centrist Romney of the first presidential debate
Those American politicians who could, without too much mendacity, point to a hardscrabble youth and who used it in presenting themselves to the electorate have increasingly set the pace in the democratic world. The creation of a narrative of ordinariness, even material or psychological hardship, is one of the earliest tasks of a leader’s spin doctors. British politicians, closest to the U.S. political culture, have in recent decades constructed, where they had the material for it, their own versions of such a story. Margaret Thatcher had some success using the story of her father, the shopkeeper, and the humble flat above the hard-worked shop; Gordon Brown rather less, with his father the Presbyterian minister.
Nicolas Sarkozy had a wealthy father – but the latter left the family, and the future French president did his best with this character-building desertion, and the fact that he was shorter than and not as rich as schoolmates from even wealthier families. Silvio Berlusconi spent many millions introducing himself to his future electorate as a man from a simple Italian family – pious, industrious and modest. That went well for him, for nearly two decades.
These essays in hagio-biography are unfortunate because they chafe so much against what’s obvious to all who see these politicians: that the most important thing about them is their driving ambition, their preternatural energy, their relentless will, their rapid intelligence – their startling un-ordinariness. It is of course interesting that Thatcher, who seemed so posh, had a father who was a shopkeeper and that Sarkozy’s father, who owned an advertising agency, left his family. We all like gossip. But it tells you nothing about the fitness of either for the job they strove so hard, and successfully, to gain.
Our demand – or our acquiescence in the media’s demand – for “authenticity” is the root cause of this deeply inauthentic trend in politics and political PR. It is inauthentic – the opposite of what it claims to be – because we are, none of us, the simple projection of our younger selves and experiences, much less a carefully edited version of these. The effect of both nature and nurture upon us combine in infinitely complex ways and interact with our conscious efforts to remake ourselves as public men and women. In his book Agile Gene
, the British zoologist and journalist Matt Ridley illuminates the endless to-ing and fro-ing between the natural and the nurtured in our makeup
– a complexity of interaction that means it is wholly impossible to be dogmatic about character from a few indications plucked from one’s upbringing.
We demand the wrong thing of our politicians. We demand an obeisance to ordinariness when we are electing men and women to do tasks that are all but superhuman. Seeing President Obama fumble in his debate last week with Republican candidate Romney was to feel close to pity (the last thing a presidential candidate wants to hear, to be sure) for one who has had four years of nightmarishly negative politics and is now confronted with his challenger’s set of simplified (and apparently newly coined) nostrums. Yet Obama himself, as a candidate in 2008, leaned heavily on a message of simple will (“Yes we can!”) and a biography of upward mobility from humble, even difficult, origins, skillfully conflating the taking of the historic step of electing the first black president with the implication that his own first presidency would be necessarily historic.
The right thing to know, as responsible voters, is the set of tasks any president or prime minister will inherit – a simplified version of the thick briefings that will lie on their first day’s desk. The right thing to ask for, when politicians make their pitch, is not the loving nature of their parenting but their unsentimental grasp on the most salient of the issues that confront their country. For a British would-be leader, these are in the first instance how debt is to be reduced and how growth is to be restored – and beyond that, a wilderness of crises, setbacks and treacheries that await any political leader. For an American president, the tasks he will take on are at once national and global in scope, vast, complex and often intractable. They range from a steadily growing debt to the nuclearization of Iran to the neglected but increasingly looming threat of global warming.
To test would-be, or sitting, leaders on their professed responses would tell us far from everything. Many of the answers would be necessarily speculative. The issues change, sometimes by the day; a candidate answering questions on a podium is not a leader surrounded by advisers and intelligence reports. But it is something closer to the reality with which we ask our leaders to deal. It is, in every way, more authentic. And through the answers, and the intellectual and psychological preparation they have (or have not) made for the often crushing burdens of power, we can make at least a provisional judgment on that part of their character that matters to us: their will and ability to lead. Whether their father liked their politics or not can wait for real biographies.
PHOTO: Ed Miliband, leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, waves to delegates as he arrives for a question-and-answer session at the party’s annual conference, in Manchester, northern England, October 3, 2012. REUTERS/Andrew Winning
OCT 2, 2012 19:13 UTC
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.
Justice Markandey Katju is one of these frustrated regulators. Katju, a former judge of India’s Supreme Court, is chairman of the Press Council of India, which – very loosely – oversees the press. When I told smart Indian journalists that I would see him, they were amused, and many told me he was “mad”. Justice Katju does thunder, but he’s not crazy: He’s an outspoken moralist, and his thundering says something not just about Indian media but also about India.
Calling Katju “outspoken” would fall too short. He hectors and lectures. In fact, Katju does speak with something of the fervor of the Indian governing class of the pre- and post-independence period, when ideals were at least as important as details and mechanisms. “There was a fashion show recently in Mumbai,” he said, “where there were 512 journalists. 512! The models were wearing clothes made of cotton grown by farmers who are committing suicides in their thousands every year! And is that reported? Maybe one reporter will be sent sometimes.
“The content of Indian journalism is an insult to the poor. Seventy percent of the country who live on $2 a day or less are invisible. The media show the rich and famous. The corporations and the finance houses control the politicians.”
Katju’s tirade isn’t very nuanced. The fashion shows and other beautiful-people events, which now abound, are eagerly covered but often give the proceeds to the poor; while there is one famed reporter, Palagummi Sainath, who writes often in his paper, the Hindu, about rural poverty and has put rural suicides into the consciousness of many. Still, it’s small potatoes.
Dipankar Gupta, another of my frustrated contacts, isn’t in the least like Justice Katju, despite also being a regulator, at the National Broadcasting Association. He’s gentle in speech, cosmopolitan in manner. A scholar of distinction, he has written or edited a string of books on Indian society, many dealing with the still vexed question of caste. Like at the Press Council, the large majority on the association’s board are from the industry, and they aren’t about to crack down hard on their colleagues and start feuds. Exhortation is all Gupta and Katju have.
Where Katju is a kind of preacher, Gupta is more of a social democrat. “Democracy should not be about gross ratings. Democracy is very difficult. You must always have people who give an example by commending its values.
“But TV is very constrained in what it can say, most of all by the big corporations. Advertising is the great constraint. TV does go hard on politicians, though the big politicians they can’t really touch unless it’s a huge scandal. But they don’t go for the corporations themselves.”
Katju and Gupta don’t have much faith that the masses will do much. Katju thinks they are drugged by the media, Gupta that they have no real way of expressing their voice nor any consciousness of what that would be (neither give much space in their reflections to social media – now growing fast). He looks to the elite to take the lead – an elite that crucially includes the news media. His next book will be about the character of the elite, an institution that, he believes, has largely given up on espousing and promoting the values of democracy.
“It’s a paradox”, says Gupta, “that we, in a democracy for nearly seven decades, should have done so little for the poor, who are the large majority. The middle class in Europe had a project: to relieve poverty through what became the welfare state, so that poverty is very small and at least in our terms, almost everyone is middle class. The middle class in India has no such project.”
It would be wrong to suppose that there are no idealists among India’s thousands of journalists. Not all are blind or indifferent just because they benefit from the boom. Tired of making the complex simplistic for her editor, one young woman who didn’t want to be named told me she was leaving her secure and well-paid job to work for an NGO in the rural villages (where most Indians live).
Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, the investigative journalist and the third of the frustrated troika, believes in keeping complex things complex, or at least not making them artificially pleasant when they affect the poor. He made a documentary, Blood and Iron, on the iron-ore mines of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. When I was in Delhi, he asked me along to a conference he was running on “Crony Journalism” which, as its name suggests, was not designed as a self-congratulatory event.
The conference panel told tales of political parties bidding against each other to buy pages of “advertorial” in regional papers; of large favors passing between media moguls and corporate bosses; and, again, of the domination of advertising. But T.K. Arun, the opinion page editor of the Economic Times, shoved the ball back into the politicians’ court, stating flatly that “Indian democracy is financed almost completely by corruption.”
That’s a big statement – but all the people on the panel, who included a top PR man and the head of corporate affairs for one of the biggest companies, hurried to agree. The exception was the one politician present, an important minister of state, for parliamentary affairs, Rajiv Shukla, who had been a journalist and whose wife is a TV anchor. When it came time for questions, I asked him what he thought of this sweeping dismissal of his class’s probity: “I don’t agree at all, not at all,” he said brusquely, and left it at that.
Thakurta, speaking afterwards, said he didn’t think all politicians were corrupt, “but many are and there’s a culture of it.” There is. Though the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, is thought to be incorruptible, his government is widely thought to be venal – with scams including corrupt sales of mobile-phone licenses, undercover allocations of coal concessions, criminal contracts for the Delhi Commonwealth Games, and illegal mining in Karnataka – Thakurta’s theme for his film. Arun had said that there was little to be done about it, and Thakurta agreed. All you could do was keep on keeping on.
For these men, freedom of the media is badly compromised because freedom has come to mean indifference to misery and poverty, and connivance in corruption. Like many moralists, they can be blind to popular taste: Poor people anywhere often prefer fantasy to lift them from their environment, rather than representations of reality that remind them of it. But they would respond that media must have a higher calling: to put on the record the true state of society. The moralists see in the grossness of the disparities between the few and the many a standing affront – on the part of the government and the corporate elite and the media – to democracy itself. That’s not mad.
SEP 25, 2012 17:43 UTC
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.
Two quite deliberate provocations were the immediate cause of the deadly riots. One, a video called the Innocence of Muslims,
is so technically and dramatically bad that on first viewing it would seem to be something done in satirical vein by Sacha Baron Cohen, all false beards and ham dialogue. The other, the publication of a series of cartoons of Mohammad in the French magazine Charlie Hebdo
, showed Mohammad in various nude poses. Whatever their quality, they do not just make waves – they make deaths. We can no longer pretend otherwise. Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses
taught us too much.
The French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said last week that “freedom of expression must not be infringed … but is it pertinent, is it intelligent, in this context to pour oil on the fire. The answer is no.” This formulation, repeated in different ways across the governments of the democratic world, says that states will and must uphold the principle of freedom; but that freedom, once conceded, should be used with care.
The question, which he turns back in large part on the media, is: How should we define “intelligent?” What is an “intelligent” use of freedom in this context?
It certainly does not apply to what the filmmakers did. The Innocence of Muslims seems to have been made by a group of Coptic Christians living in the U.S. The Copts number several million in Egypt (the figure is hotly disputed, with official sources saying there are no more than 4 million, while Copts claim as many as 14 million). And they are like other minorities in the area: Some among them have done well in business and the professions, yet they labor under both official discrimination and popular suspicion. The main producer of the video, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, allegedly hid his identity behind the name of Sam Bacile
and claimed he was an Israeli Jew – thus shifting the blame to the most unpopular Middle Eastern minority among Muslims (and putting them at even more risk), deflecting anger away from his own community.
Once unmasked as a Copt, he has put his own community in greater danger than ever. That community has seen what protection it enjoyed under the presidency of Hosni Mubarak weaken in the new order: A Coptic church was bombed in Alexandria on New Year’s Day 2011, and 23 worshippers died. This is a community on very short sufferance: Bacile- Basseley, having failed to palm the fault off on the Jews, has appreciably shortened it further. Intelligent he certainly wasn’t.
Stéphane Charbonnier, publishing director of Charlie Hebdo, the weekly satirical magazine that published a series of lewd cartoons on Mohammad, argues that:
I live under French law, I don’t live under the law of the Koran … it’s plain to see that the sole subject that poses a problem is radical Islam. When we attack the Catholic right, very strongly, no-one talks about it in the newspapers. But we’re not allowed to laugh at Muslim fundamentalists?
In Charbonnier’s argument, radical Islamists are special only because they threaten random violence, as well as targeted violence against those who don’t consider them special. The first full expression of this was the reaction to The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel, which used verses said to be uttered by Mohammad commending the worship of female goddesses – verses later retracted by him. Western scholars accept the story; contemporary Muslim scholars usually reject it.
Rushdie, as he makes clear in his just-published memoir, Joseph Anton
, bent Verses
to fictional purposes only, and thought little of any offense: He saw the Koran, as all religious writing, not as revelations but as texts of their time, created by fallible humans with particular ends in view. He, from a largely secular Muslim family in India, was the first high-profile target of radical Islamism in the West. He lived behind Special Branch guard for over a decade, shuttled from house to house, the target of energetically manufactured hatred. After Rushdie, we cannot say we don’t know the costs of provocation. Was it intelligent to rack them up again?
There is, finally, the issue of what we, the media, make of the freedom we claim. The British philosopher Onora O’Neill has argued that the concept of freedom of expression and of the press, passionately proposed by radicals and liberals from the 17th century to our own day, had to be combined with accountability and a sense of responsibility or it could itself become tyrannous: ”freedom of the press does not require a licence to deceive”, she writes. Where there is clear deception, or worse, clear provocation, the media also acquire a license to kill. An awesome power – but an intelligent one? The answer is certainly no.
The makers of Innocence of Muslims and the little group that put out Charlie Hebdo are testing the extremity of freedom. They live on the margins and have less to lose from giving offense than a large media group embroiled in a scandal that might hit its bottom line. Indeed, they have more to gain: Charlie Hebdo tripled its modest circulation with the Mohammad cartoons. In the case of the filmmakers, we can assume a certain measure of revenge. In the case of the magazine, the calculation of increased circulation could not have been absent (it rarely is in journalism). But the main impulse, here as in other issues, is to shock and provoke.
We know enough about our societies to understand that the margins contribute much, sometimes most, to our freedoms. In the past century, these groups have rallied from the margins and been mocked for doing so: women claiming the vote, the colonized claiming independence, minorities claiming equality and the censored claiming a voice. The filmmakers and cartoon publishers are not in line with these groups. They’re not fighting for a great cause. They’re sticking it to the radical Islamists, and watching them howl.
And yet democratic societies, if they are to be true to themselves, have little choice. What we believe in is freedom of the individual – freedom to do much that is deeply unintelligent, as well as to produce intellectual marvels. Onora O’Neill draws a distinction between powerful media corporations and the single voice of the individual, and privileges the latter: ”we have good reasons for allowing individuals to express opinions even if they are invented, false, silly, irrelevant or plain crazy.” She did not, perhaps, foresee the day when a greater ability to cause mayhem would reside with the silly, false and plain crazy products of individuals and tiny groups, rather than the behemoths of the media.
But that is what is happening. We, most of all in the media, have to consider responsibility as the indispensable adjunct to freedom. But in the end, we must protect the right to free expression against those whose demand for “respect” cannot be assuaged. Little that was intelligent has been published, and nothing but evil has come of it in the short term. But having fought for centuries to achieve freedom to say what we wish, it would be dumb to give up on it. We’re stuck with liberty.
PHOTO: Bangladeshi Muslims chant slogans at a protest rally during a nationwide strike in Dhaka, September 23, 2012. The daylong strike was called by 12 Islamist groups protesting against a U.S.-made anti-Islam film and a cartoon published in a French weekly on Saturday that they say insults the Prophet Mohammad, local media reported. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj
SEP 18, 2012 20:42 UTC
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.”
Alfonso Signorini, editor of Chi (“Who”) magazine in Italy, answered the same question by saying, “first of all it is a journalistic scoop … surely it’s unusual to see a future Queen of England topless? I think it’s the first time in history, so it deserves an extraordinary edition.” (He has 200 pictures of the couple and plans to do more.) Chi is the top gossip magazine in Italy, and like Closer, the original publisher of the pictures, in France, is in the magazine division of Mondadori, owned by Silvio Berlusconi.
Signorini, a former classics professor, is also a TV host and did his boss great service last year when he interviewed, with almost paternal sympathy, Karima El Mahroug, otherwise known as Ruby Rubacuore (“Heartstealer”), an exotic dancer in a Milanese nightclub. Berlusconi is alleged to have paid her, while she was under 18, for sex at one of his “bunga-bunga” parties when he was still Italian prime minister. The charge, of encouraging underage prostitution, is now being heard in a court in Milan. Signorini’s interview, dwelling on her tough childhood and her gratitude to Berlusconi
for his wholly platonic friendship and financial assistance – “He behaved like a father to me, I swear” – was itself a journalistic scoop: the first time a prime minister of Italy had been revealed as one who gave selfless succor to a penniless young exotic dancer.
This is steamy company for a Duchess of Cambridge who may ascend to the most magnificent monarchy still extant in the Western world, and unsurprisingly she and her husband want none of it. Much has been made of Prince William’s particular revulsion at the photographs (now widely available on the Web), since they are said to recall for him the hounding of his mother, Princess Diana, and the circumstances of her death – crashing in a Paris tunnel in 1996, pursued by paparazzi.
Diana was surely a victim, and the media did consume her. But she was a victim as Marilyn Monroe was, one of dazzling beauty who was able – from a more solid, better-protected base than Monroe – to set some of the terms of her engagement with the media, turn their avidity to her own ends and use the vast drafts of hot air generated by the media coverage to raise her to global supercelebrity status.
Kate isn’t like that (though it’s early days yet). Where Diana dressed in Armani, Kate buys dresses from stores like Reiss and Issa London, “stores where regular folks shop”, as the Boston Globe writer Beth Teitell put it
. The image given is the stylish good-girl look. There’s no turbulence, it seems, no demons clamoring to go public.
But Kate and Diana meet in this: They exist(ed) in an age where media hunger for celebrity images and news remains colossal and where a British princess cannot avoid the market she creates by her mere existence. That market is mainly for images, spiced by whatever small verbal offerings she may make – usually carefully tutored banalities. The market for Diana was worth many millions: her presence on a front page or a magazine cover added tens of thousands to circulation. The long, slow scandal of the breakdown of her marriage put many millions more in the accounts of media owners and made royal correspondents the highest paid, highest status journalists in Britain. A large media hole had been left by Diana’s death 15 years ago last month. The law of media need meant that Kate had to be brought in to fill as much of it as she was able.
The topless pictures have greatly expanded that ability. She has been made, much against her and her husband’s will, an overtly sexual being, the image of whose largely naked body is now the subject for men’s envious or derisive conversations worldwide. (I recently overheard two during a train journey.) Many men play the erotic game of mentally stripping attractive women they see. This has now been done for them, and men’s gaze now will be, for Kate, much more freighted with carnal knowledge than it was before. For one who has not sought that, life from now on will be less pleasant.
No help for it. Even if a court case against the photographer is successful, the image is on the loose. A small mercy for the duchess is that the British tabloids, the main tormentor-allies of her husband’s mother, are in full patriotic cry in her defense. “Prince William’s wife Kate is entitled to feel fury and disgust at those lowlife rags printing pictures of her topless”, fumed the Sun on Sunday
, with never a blush. Richard Desmond, who had a porn empire and publishes the raciest British tabloid, the Daily Star
, was still more anxious to condemn – the more because the Irish Daily Star, early promoter of the topless pictures, is published in a joint venture between his Northern & Shell Co and Dublin-based Independent News & Media. Desmond says he will close the joint venture, which may mean the end of the newspaper. What more could a man do to show his horror?
The sound of stable doors being firmly bolted was heard all up and down the British Isles this past weekend. But the horse was cavorting elsewhere, across the Web and in editorial offices across the world, where editors see a rare opportunity to put on circulation in a dead time for sales. Kate’s discretion, nice smile and good-girl outfits all went for naught before the power of a long lens and a hungry market. The first future topless Queen of England has stepped into a different world.
PHOTO: Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, arrives along with Britain’s Prince William, at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang outside Kuala Lumpur September 13, 2012. The royal couple are on their second stop of a nine-day tour of Southeast Asia and the South Pacific on behalf of Queen Elizabeth II to commemorate her Diamond Jubilee. REUTERS/Mohd Rasfan/Pool
SEP 11, 2012 16:48 UTC
Western youth are not what they used to be. Richer, better educated, more independent-minded than their forebears –they were once equipped for all conceivable futures.
But now, what future can they conceive?
These are the young men and women for whom the forward march of the generations has halted. Social normalcy was once defined as things only getting better. But now, not. What mixture of circumstances, what global alchemy, can put them back on that track once more?
For us in the older generations (40 years old and up), it is heartbreaking, even guilt-making, to hear of friends’ sons and daughters failing to find or to keep work. We see some of this firsthand, as increasing numbers of young people rely on or move in with their families, sometimes by preference and often out of necessity. Richard Settersten, a professor of human development at Oregon State University, says his research shows the young are:
“not hooked into jobs that provide decent wages, that provide insurance, that are stable and secure … the need to provide for growing adults is placing new and significant strains on a lot of American families, even middle-class families.”
One couple I know, medical researchers in London, have their early- and mid-twenties son and daughter at home. Two of their kids’ friends have also joined them, caught homeless when they could no longer afford an apartment and could not live with distant parents if they were to keep up the unpaid internships they hope will be transmuted into paying jobs.
Some working-class kids got an education their fathers and mothers did not have – and are now finding it doesn’t guarantee a job. For others, even the service and clerical jobs that have largely replaced manual and skilled work are shrinking relentlessly.
Ben Bernanke, head of the Federal Reserve, devoted part of his somewhat opaque speech in Jackson’s Hole at the end of last month to the need for the Fed to do more to tackle U.S. unemployment: It’s at 8.1 percent, and for youth (16-24) at 17.1 percent
The rain in Spain is much harder on the young. More than half of Spanish young people – over 53 percent – have no job and little prospect of getting one in an economy in negative growth. The U.N.’s International Labor Organization’s figures, out this past week, showed a youth jobless rate of 17.5 percent this year in developed economies: That figure is due to fall a little, the ILO forecasts, but largely because “discouraged” kids give up on jobs altogether. The ILO had earlier called these people, worldwide, a “scarred” generation for whom jobs were no longer thought even an option – or if they were, they were precarious and low paid.
The West has been, and in some places still is, a great new jobs machine, and remains inventive, entrepreneurial and driven. Yet Indian and Chinese companies are poking into the old Western heartlands: Land Rover and Jaguar, British brands for decades, are now owned by the Indian company Tata; and Volvo, which defined itself as Swedish in its solidity and security, belongs to the Chinese company Zhejiang Geely, which plans to put future factories in China and to headquarter the company in Shanghai. Huawei is now the largest telecom equipment supplier, having overtaken Sweden’s Ericsson; Haier is among the world’s largest electrical appliance makers; and Lenovo is now pressing Hewlett-Packard for first place in PC production. These moves can bring jobs as well as destroy them, but the creation is less than the destruction. We are reduced to hoping that the large contradictions that run through Chinese society – a slowing economy, a vast gulf in wealth, a restive working class, an empowered middle class and a monopolistic Communist Party – will cause a period of turmoil, which will give us some respite from their relentless economic success.
Yet to see only the fundamental and possible fatal flaws in Chinese politics is to ignore the gathering crisis in our own. Western democratic practice presupposed an active electorate – one generally satisfied with the political arrangements as they are, content to leave most details, even strategies, to a political class without interfering too much. It was willing and able to rationally choose between competing political offers according to government performance.
That isn’t what we have now. The distrust and dislike expressed by Western electorates for their governing and most opposition parties is now intense. Everywhere, if in different degrees of intensity, the crisis is being addressed by cuts to what had been social entitlements. Even where one concedes their necessity, the obvious result is that those with not much get less.
And there seems nothing those who are getting less can do as the rich remain rich and usually take care to get richer.
We are at a critical stage. What to do?
First, start at the other end from the young – at the older middle-aged, who are stepping into pension and other entitlements that will load burdens on to their kids. In a much-discussed column
, New York Times
writer and former Executive Editor Bill Keller argued that “we should make a sensible reform of entitlements our generation’s cause.” Stanford University founded a Longevity Center
six years ago with the explicit mission “to redesign long life,” so that men and women can contribute to (rather than take from) the economy deep into their eighties. Laura Carstensen, the director, says that “to the degree that people reach old age mentally sharp, physically fit, and financially secure, the problems of individual and societal aging fall away” – a statement redolent of American optimism, and a great goal.
Second, we should try to get at the rich. (Some have been got at already, most successfully by themselves.) They should be asked to give large portions of their wealth to help solve national and global problems. But many haven’t. We should make sure they know that their vast wealth will, increasingly, put society – and them – at danger: that increased impoverishment will inflame anger and that the social base for their enjoyment of great wealth will erode. Wealth is often the result of hard work and risk-taking, but coal miners, fishermen and nurses know about that too, and usually die in modest circumstances. Guilt and fear are not to be scorned as engines of change.
And for the youth generations themselves: You have more to fear from despair than from life itself. It’s you who need to generate the energy that turns your collective plight into a space for creativity and innovation. Blaming “them” – the politicians, the elders, the teachers, “society” – is deadly. Deadliest is a turn into crime and violence that sets group against group, the scared majority against the angry minority. The memory of London’s riots a year back should teach you that. Above all, your discouraged generation needs courage.
PHOTO: Job seekers wait in front of the training offices of Local Union 46, the union representing metallic lathers and reinforcing ironworkers, in the Queens borough of New York, April 29, 2012. REUTERS/Keith Bedford
SEP 5, 2012 16:43 UTC
The political gap between Democrats and Republicans is wide and deep, to the detriment of political accommodation in the United States. An idea to solve this: Dispense with Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, and let Michelle Obama and Ann Romney run instead. They, at least, agree on some things.
Both think they have been given an “extraordinary privilege.” Both claimed they started married life without much (Obama was the more credible on this); both said they were so much in love (with their husbands) they got married despite their circumstances; and both thought their husbands were men of extraordinary, fine character, and intelligence, dedication and warmth.
This remarkable bipartisanship is, however, the fruit not of a reflection on politics but the thinking of their husbands’ public relations teams on what best would help each in the race to the White House. Both women, who appear to possess intelligence and character, have been corralled ruthlessly into a role that insults those gifts: the political spouse.
Political spouses are – pardon the surrender to temptation – spice: They are there to spice up the campaign and, in both the present cases, to “humanize” men apparently seen as remote. This reading, now passed into unquestioned acceptance by the news media, is an absurdity. Both Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney are clearly, recognizably, all too human. Mrs. Romney’s husband is a figure – the hard-driving financier who makes huge sums for his company and for himself – now better known and understood than he has ever been. Mr. Obama is a clever, ambitious lawyer who preferred, at least initially, community work to corporate or private law practice – then went into politics. That most people aren’t either of these doesn’t mean we can’t relate to them. Most people aren’t doctors, farmers or astronauts, but we generally relate positively to them as human beings, without their wives telling us that they’re still in love with them.
The speeches were, as the Romneys like to say, “built” – but not just by them. They were built by the campaign’s public relations strategists engaged in the greatest challenge their craft still has in the contemporary world – convincing the people of the United States to elect their candidate as president of the United States.
Public relations surrounds every post of power in most parts of the world now, and not always for the worse. But for present or prospective first ladies, the daily production that is the public appearances of the president and contender for the presidency can only be a shock in the completeness of the control it exercises. The aspirant for high office cannot be ignorant of what awaits him – even if he may believe he can control more than he will. No matter how savvy the wife, however, her life, in most cases, is largely elsewhere.
Of the 12 U.S. presidencies since the war, one can detect three broad categories of first lady:
1. The not-so-public first lady: She who performs the duties of hostess only when entirely necessary. The retiring Bess Truman, reportedly a hater of the role, is the patroness of this group. Mamie Eisenhower, Pat Nixon, and Barbara and Laura Bush also fall into this category.
2. The semi-public first lady, including Jacqueline Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan and Michelle Obama.
3. The entirely public first lady: a category of one – Hillary Clinton.
Kennedy, whose husband was the first TV president, was also the first TV first lady – presenting her comely form and the redecorated White House to the nation through that medium. After her, from the late sixties on, the first ladies were enrolled more and more in overt political support, a duty shouldered even by shy women like Laura Bush. Mrs. Clinton had the hardest row to hoe in this regard – twice “standing by her man” (in the expression she hated), the second time to be humiliated by the brazenness of his public lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. It did not, however, destroy her and seems to have made her stronger: She is the brightest star in the present U.S. administration and remains a contender for the highest office.
The Europeans, often using the same spin doctors’ advice for their campaigns, are pulled toward American archetypes; and some, in a very minor key compared with the U.S., are of some help. But some have been disasters. Nicolas Sarkozy’s marriage to the singer and model Carla Bruni was the fusion of political and show business celebrity. It contributed to the impression he cared more about wealth and glamour than about France. Worse was the revenge Silvio Berlusconi’s wife, former actor Veronica Lario, wreaked on her unfaithful husband, publicly accusing him of having sex with minors – a charge still being played out in the Italian courts.
The three “best” consorts are or have been men: one, Joachim Sauer, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s husband, a professor of chemistry, who hates publicity as much as Bess Truman three-quarters of a century earlier, rarely appears with his wife and certainly gives her no cause for public disquiet. Tim Mathieson, husband of Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, is an estate agent who’s not much seen. More positively – indeed, a model for consorts – the late Denis Thatcher was his wife’s greatest fan, supporter and encourager but played no formal public role and slotted neatly (if unfairly) into the much-loved role of boozy old buffer. I once sat in front of him at a press conference his wife gave while running for re-election in 1983: At the hint of a challenge in any reporter’s question, he would audibly mutter “really!” or “disgraceful!” The prime minister seemed to gain strength from it.
The rest of the world’s first partners take their cue from Germany’s first (invisible) man. Liu Yongqing and Zhang Peili, the wives, respectively, of Chinese President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, have their own careers and occasionally travel, often unsmilingly and always silently, with their husbands. Wen Jiabao is said to have been irritated by his wife’s use of her position to boost her jewelry business, but don’t look to have that discussed in the People’s Daily.
Lyudmila Putin has become less visible over the years. Her husband’s rumored affair with the spy and model Anna Chapman does get an airing in the Russian dissident press but has received no public comment from her. Gursharan Kaur has been married to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for over half a century. She is hardly known outside of her country and little in it. Dilma Rousseff, president of Brazil, is twice divorced.
No other political system in the world inflicts the U.S. order of humiliation on their political leader’s partner. No other culture supports a woman (usually) corralled into making of a marriage a piece of sugar candy. Marriages are an inevitable mixture of love and hate, exhilaration and revulsion, achievement and frustration, admiration and contempt. The first, or would-be first, lady’s speech must contain only the first element in these contrasting pairs.
Only in America. The position of first lady is unique, as is the hypocrisy it demands. Given Ann Romney’s humanizing intervention, Michelle Obama could hardly have stayed home. But wouldn’t they hate it? Shouldn’t they hate it?
PHOTO: REUTERS/Mike Segar; REUTERS/Jason Reed
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.
On the right, the immortal Silvio Berlusconi again dominates attention. The near-universal assumption, one that I shared, that his resignation last November, amid jeers and a collapse in the support for his Forza Italia party, meant his political end underestimated his will for power. Or, say the many cynics, it didn’t take into account his fear that if he does not retain some measure of political power he will finally enter the maw of the justice system, which has tried to nail him for a quarter of a century. He has been addressing the still-faithful around the country, secure (he says) in the love of the people and in his country’s need of him. He is on trial in Milan for encouraging underage prostitution, and this past weekend a German model, Sabina Began, told the daily Il Fatto Quotidiano that he had impregnated her, and that she lost the child in a miscarriage (he denies it). But this is still a country for old men, and at 75, this old man has the money and the media and evidently the stomach for another fight.
For the moment, though, Italy is Monti’s charge and care, and though he cuts and cuts, warns of hardships to come, and has no charisma in any conventional sense, he remains popular among an electorate desperate for him to succeed. And not just with the people: Both Moody’s and Fitch rating agencies lauded him last week, the latter saying he was “credible” and that if and when he leaves the scene, greater risks return. No hint of a scandal has attended him, and nothing serious of the kind in his cabinet, composed mainly of high-end academics. The political circus around him can look tawdry.
But the beasts in the political circus were chosen by the people. Pierluigi Bersani, leader of the main center-left party, Partito Democratico, said in an interview with Repubblica last week that Monti had done a fine job but must stand aside in the spring — for “if the idea catches on that politics is not able to take us out of the crisis, we will put ourselves on the margins of the democracies.” Bersani sometimes struggles to present himself as a credible premier if the left were to win the next elections, but he spoke well here. For Italy to continue under the tutelage of the professors would both further weaken the party system and raise deeper doubts than ever that it could produce an elected, efficient, clean ruling class.
But suppose the political class of any color really is incapable of taking the country out of the crisis? In a speech last week in Rimini to a Catholic youth group, Monti spoke about the need to restore Italians’ faith in the state — a faith that can be regained only if the many Italians who now cheat the taxman cease to do so, and others, including the public broadcaster RAI, stop regarding the avoiders as merely crafty, even admirable, for being so. The country, he said — in a rare flash of drama, even melodrama — was “at war” with the tax cheats. “We can’t broadcast, even subliminally, the degraded values which are destroying our society”
The belief that he seeks to invoke is less in the state and more in a citizenship where everyone exercises mutual responsibilities. This unelected, precise, rather lofty man presents the nature and obligations of democracy better than any elected Italian politician I have heard. Many of these will, indeed, share this thought, but the daily battle for power and attention in a political system as complex and fragmented as the Italian, which gives so many privileges to the elected, leaves too little time and will for the observance of democratic ideals.
Italy has put in place a dictator-expert to make politics safe for elected politicians once more. The paradox is that he is better at articulating democratic necessities than the latter have been. The capacity for these politicians to rise to his level and to make politics serve the electorate, through the bad times which will roll on after Monti, is the test of tests before this country — even, given its size and importance, before Europe. The signs that they will are, as yet, fragile: The shadows of doubts about the future fell across the scorching beaches this summer, and are likely to remain.
John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Director of Journalism. Lloyd has written several books, including "What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics" (2004). He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine.
ANY OPINIONS EXPRESSED HERE ARE THE AUTHOR’S OWN.