Sunday, August 07, 2005


Lessons from Fleet Street

The Mouth and wife have returned from a wonderful week in London, exploring the multi-textured dimensions of a 2,000-year-old city and keeping an eye out for suspicious packages left in the Underground.

An added bonus to leaving the United States for a week was taking a breather from the rancorous partisanship and ideological feuding that characterizes so much of day-to-day life here. It seems you can't even casually read a newspaper or have the TV on without hearing about how the Republicans are mad at Bill Frist for supporting stem-cell research or how Pat Robertson is praying for illness and death on left-leaning Supreme Court justices. I hadn't realized how nice it could be to get away from all that. In fact, I was reluctant to even pick up the paper this morning.

The newspapers in London had very little American news, other than John Bolton's appointment, and very little news about their own political foolishness. No stories about how the exchequer is mad at the home minister or anything like that. The only domestic political controversy I read about followed a member of Parliament blaming the July 7 bombings on Tony Blair, and he was hastily and harshly criticized by other MPs. Unlike the big divide that has characterized our politics at least since Clinton was first voted in, Brits seem to be more agreeable about things. And that puts them pretty far to the left of us.

British newspapers are notoriously bad, content to scream large headlines about any homicide (There aren't many) or accident, and the grislier the better. They also love celebrity gossip, especially anything concerning David Beckham and the former Posh Spice. The big divide seems to be the one concerning Manchester United vs. Arsenal. Politics? Well, that's for those stuffy guys gathered under Big Ben to figure out. In the meantime, what's the latest on Jessica Simpson?

At the risk of sounding like the tourist who becomes a know-it-all after one week in Britain, I would suggest this supposed apathy partly results from a somewhat less democratic and constitutional government than ours. Brits lack access to many government records we Americans are able to see, and their judiciary liberally restrains newspapers from printing stories that could reflect poorly on the government or its officials. So there goes any investigative journalism, and there goes a lot of government scrutiny. In its place is tabloid crap, and the average citizen comes out the loser. But he doesn't seem terribly up-in-arms about it.

Perhaps there's something else at work here, namely a greater sense of perspective. The English are known for their level heads and cool demeanor. On the tube, riders didn't panic after the bombings that took place July 7. Oh, I'm sure they felt fearful, but they didn't show it while we were there. Mostly on the train they talked and laughed with their friends, and if they were by themselves, they read, dozed or just looked bored.

Consider that London dates back to within a hundred years of Christ's death, and compare that with our measly 400 years of recorded history. Brits have seen a lot from the Romans to Harold the Conquerer to a long, bloody succession of kings and queens. Want political intrigue? Karl Rove and Dick Cheney have nothing on Henry VIII and Oliver Cromwell. Abu Graib and Guantanamo are no doubt nightmarish places, but they can't compare with the torture that ruled at the Tower of London. I would never want to trivialize Sept. 11, but consider that 20,000 Londoners were killed and 45,000 homes were destroyed by Hitler's luftwaffe. Walking last week through Churchill's underground bunker, one could palpably sense the deprivation and fear, yet courage and fortitude that carried Britain through the war. Many Londoners are still around who remember it firsthand, and few don't remember parents or grandparents who told them all about it.

With all that, I think that so-called British stiff upper lip must be imprinted in the collective DNA after two millenia. A month after the terrorist bombings and a couple of weeks after a second attempt, life is normal in London. People go about their business in the day, and fill the streets at night in a festive attempt to enjoy every nice summer evening they can in their too-short season. Are the concerned about terrorism? Of course. Who wouldn't be concerned? But hey, after 2,000 years, they've seen a lot worse.

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