Kierkegaard recalls somewhere that Caligula wanted to behead all of Rome. One can almost see his point. The news that comes over the transom is so uniformly bleak, so predictably monstrous, that it cannot but produce this kind of response in any number of men of good will. After all, it is mankind itself that is directly responsible for the awful things that befall it.
As I write this in the shabby comfort of a third-rate hotel in snowbound London, I try to think back on the last 20 or 30 years of my life and see if any glad tidings have ever come my way. I do not mean my private life, as I am congenitally of a cheerful disposition and hence of the opinion that my private life has been a series of miracles. I mean the observed life of mankind, of that troubled multitude whose collective head Caligula wanted to chop off.
No, I don’t think there’s been any positive news at all, and a glance at the week’s headlines in the Sunday papers sustains me in this recollection. The last quarter-century has all been like the week just passed, a thousand or so weeks without any news to retard mankind’s slide into the abyss of concentration-camp conformity, barrack-room hedonism, and cannon-fodder frivolity.
On the internet there are 420 million pages of porn, for which there are 68 million daily search-engine requests. Isn’t it bad news that 87 percent of men, including 58 percent of 14- to 17-year-olds, make merry by leafing through pornography? Not as bad as the whole panoply of bad news implicit in this opening sentence of a newspaper article: “The UK Government is to combat the early sexualization of children by blocking internet pornography unless parents request it.”
Isn’t it bad news that the British Museum is to exhibit “explicit works by a 20th-century artist, including a naked Jesus entwined with a woman”? Yes, it certainly is, but not as absurdly so as the news that the museum is to display “warning notices for visitors who might find the exhibits blasphemous or too sexual for children to see.” And how about the news that “one of Britain’s most prominent philosophers” has produced a “Godless Bible”? Trite, idiotic—but not nearly as idiotic and trite as this philosopher telling a newspaper that “The great mistake in history has been to say there is only one way to live, only one good life and everybody has to sign up for it.”
“The pay war is over: women have won” is atrocious news, I agree. But it’s just as bad as the news that UBS, the Swiss bank that has been the beneficiary of a $37 billion government bailout, Europe’s largest, has published a dress code advising female employees to “avoid trying out new perfumes” and to wear jackets “with natural shoulders.” Just as bad, perhaps, as Citibank firing a woman because her skirts fit a little too well—in an epoch in which Jiayuan, a Chinese internet club, boasts 25 million female students “marketing themselves to older, richer men willing to support their studies and pay for a desirable lifestyle.”
“Russians shine on piste” with diamond-encrusted skis? Horrible news, of course, seeing as my father-in-law, a lifelong test pilot for Sukhoi before his retirement, gets by on a pension of $100 per month. But the news that the Queen’s likeness is set to vanish from British postage stamps is much worse, especially when set against the background of threats or promises by Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, that “Europe would see fiscal and political unity within a decade.”
No, I can’t remember an item of news that has struck me as unquestionably, unambiguously, unequivocally good. The fact is, it’s been like that all along: tales of murder, pillage, and rape diluted with blah and blather, civilization’s bulwarks crashing to the ground to the tinkle of disco and rap, tenets of European culture yielding at every turn under the assault of what Stalin, and for all I know Caligula before him, used to call “progressive mankind.”
Come to think of it, I do remember something. Ah, yes, the London taxi. In the 1990’s, just about the time when they threw out all the open-deck buses and red call boxes, and arm-twisted the pubs to sell spinach lasagna and Chardonnay, it seemed inevitable that the black cab, built by London Taxi International to the proportions of a hansom—with room to admit a man in a topper—would be replaced by the Metro cab, a Renault-like dwarf with a fiberglass body and a Ford engine. The new phone booths rusted through within a year of being installed. The new pubs have gone out of business. And the Metro cab, thank goodness, fizzled out in their wake, LTI having come up with an upgraded version of their masterpiece that would let London remain London for a few years yet.
So yes, there has been good news within living memory. Let Caligula’s henchman wait.