Even before reading it, I knew in outline what the article in the June 8 New England Journal of Medicine would say. This could be seen from its title: “Heath Effects of Dramatic Societal Events—Ramifications of the Recent Presidential Election.” Still, I was taken aback by some of its assertions and reasoning.
Recently, Amsterdam’s city council forbade the use of the locution “Ladies and Gentlemen” within its halls and precincts. This was not in the interests of strict accuracy: Many women, after all, are not ladies, and many men are not gentlemen. Rather, it was to avoid upsetting those who considered themselves neither male nor female, or considered themselves both.
Needless to say, no evidence that the locution caused any widespread distress, let alone harm, needed to be adduced. The prohibition was an exercise in power not an expression of sensitivity. It was a Lilliputian step in the creation of a vast empire of virtue, or supposed virtue, in which the rulers will enjoy simultaneously the awareness of their own goodness and the pleasures of bullying others.
The rule of law is not at all the same thing as the rule of laws, or the preeminence of law in our lives; indeed, they are almost opposite, insofar as one of the objects of the rule of law is to make the legally permissible and impermissible knowable to the citizen in advance. Where there are so many laws that even highly specialized lawyers have difficulty in keeping up with the provisions in their own area of specialism, the rule of law declines, and litigators rush in where common sense fears to pronounce. This superabundance of laws exists in many places around the world today, and needless to say it flatters the self-esteem of legislators and judges. It makes them the arbiters of our existence. It also makes the rest of us wards of the court.
Simone Veil, the French politician most responsible for the passage of the law to legalise medical termination of pregnancy in France, died recently at the age of 87 in what I would be tempted to call, if France were not so militantly secular a country, the odour of sanctity. She was incontestably a redoubtable woman, a survivor of the German camps to which she was deported at the age of 16; but the effects of the law that she so assiduously promoted soon escaped her control and went far beyond its original intentions, as so many reformist laws are inclined to do. Very few reformers, however, ever take this tendency into account, perhaps because, for many of them, reform is the whole purpose and meaning of their lives.
As Mr Bumble famously remarked, the law is an ass, the law is an idiot: especially, it seems, when the judges sit in the European Court of Justice. They have just issued a judgment that is an open invitation to fraud on a mass scale and that, if taken seriously, could bring all economic activity whatsoever, apart from litigation, to a halt. The only hope is that the ECJ judges knew not what they did: any other interpretation would be deeply uncharitable.
There is a strange dialectic at work in Western society, or so it seems to me, between political apathy on the one hand and political rage on the other. In the recent French elections, for example, the rate of abstentions was the highest ever seen, more than half in the second round of the election of the legislature. But in the first round of the presidential election, the candidates of the extreme Left and extreme Right, both of whom drew their supporters by appealing to subliminal rage, had more votes than the eventual winner, a man previously almost unknown.
It is a commonplace that Switzerland is the only real democracy in the world: that is to say, the only country in the world where the people control the government in more than a nominal and intermittent fashion, and can call it to account at any time, on any subject, at any level of the administration.
In no country is central government less important. The President of Switzerland changes every year, and the position is purely honorific. Many Swiss do not even know his (or her) name. And what non-Swiss has ever heard of a President of Switzerland?
People lay flowers and messages in St Ann's Square in Manchester, England, placed in tribute to the victims of the May 22 terror attack at the Manchester Arena. (BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images)
When a young man such as Salman Abedi, the Manchester bomber, blows himself up, killing as many others as he can take with him, it is only natural for us to ask why he acted as he did. His behavior is so extraordinary, as well as evil, and so far beyond the range of normal, that we are inclined to seek for an answer in his personal psychopathology. Only the mad would do such a thing; and since he did it, we conclude that he must have been mad.
EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND - MAY 19: Prime Minister Theresa May gives a speech at the launch of the Scottish manifesto in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Jeff Mitchell/Getty Images)
In politics, there are no final victories and no lessons that are learned for good: error, like hope, springs eternal. Moreover, what counts as error for some may be wisdom, or at least temporary advantage, for others. There is no catastrophe, political or economic, from which someone does not benefit.
In modern democracies, promises to tax-and-spend are like sin, a permanent temptation: only that they are worse, in so far as they are an instrument for some to gain and (as they hope) to keep power. And so the pendulum swings, seemingly for ever, between extravagance and retrenchment, the former always being more popular than the latter.
In Britain, Mrs. May has overthrown the legacy of Mrs. Thatcher, though nominally she is of the same political party.