Sunday, May 30, 2010

A New Perspective

Half a century ago when I first visited Italy, I thought it was the most beautiful place in the world. After living here for well over three decades and becoming familiar with all the warts and blemishes of my adoptive country, my evaluation remains unchanged. Nevertheless, it’s good to get away now and then. The world is full of other delightful places.

I’ve recently returned from a two and a half week trip to England and Wales. It was a happy occasion, a daughter’s wedding and family reunion with all the grandchildren, two of whom I’d not seen before, and most of the new in-laws present. I had lived in London for a few months in 1977 and quite frankly, I hated it. Perhaps the country has changed dramatically, perhaps I’ve mellowed with age to the point of losing my critical edge, or maybe it was just the joyous circumstances of this visit, but I thoroughly enjoyed being there. People were friendly and helpful, the food was much better than thirty years ago, the countryside was green and lovely, and I even grew to enjoy the beer.

During this visit, national elections were held. What a revelation that was! I believe they’d only set the date a month before. I managed to see half of the TV debates between the three contenders for Prime Minister. While there were some differences on policy, all three came across as intelligent and articulate gentlemen who were mostly in agreement on the challenges that the nation faced. There was no debate about banishing evolution from the schools or the need for more concealed weapons on the streets. While the press speculated over whether Gordon Brown’s grumpiness would prove fatal to his political career, no one felt the need to question any of the candidates’ mental health or stability. As an American, I fully expected the other two to challenge the citizenship or the patriotism of Nick Clegg, whose mother was Dutch, his father half Russian, and whose wife is Spanish. Not only was no one’s patriotism challenged but neither Cameron not Clegg brought up Gordon Brown’s embarrassingly recorded comments about an older constituent he’d been introduced to.

In a lead-up to the election, a scandal regarding bogus “expenses” claimed by Members of Parliament was unveiled by The Telegraph. More than ten MPs involved lost their seats in the elections, among them Jacqui Smith, the former Home Secretary, who had claimed expenses for her family home while listing her sister’s home as her main residence, as well as submitting claims for pornographic films ordered up by her husband. Among other contested MP expenses were charges for manure for gardens, plasma TVs, massage chairs, second homes eight miles from the main home, a chimney sweep for a second home, etc. Most of the claims were trivial as well as outrageous, with amounts ranging from a few pounds on up into the thousands. MPs had avoided voting themselves pay raises in an attempt to look better to their constituents, so there was some irony in their comeuppance, brought on by their padding of expenses to round up their pay and benefits.

What a striking contrast between these tragicomic examples of petty graft and the industrial sized bribes our US Congressmen receive for selling out the interests of their constituents, under the seemingly legitimate guise of campaign contributions. High ranking Democrats such as ex-Majority Leader of the House Dick Gephardt and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle have gone on to lucrative careers peddling influence on behalf of the health care, health insurance and investment banking industries. Republican Senators such as Mitch McConnell, Richard Shelby and Bob Corker haven’t even seen fit to exit the Senate before getting those big paychecks from insurance, investment, tobacco, oil and mining interests to insure that the American public doesn’t run the risk of getting decent health care or environmental protection.

The words of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales come to mind, as when he described the provisions of the Geneva Conventions as “quaint”. The British MP expenses scandals do indeed seem quaint in this era of Supreme Court-approved corporate influence peddling. May these quaint British notions of propriety long endure and, with a little luck, may they spread to our American shores, together with their brilliant idea of one month-long election campaigns.

God save the Queen!