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Jewish World Review
March 16, 2010
/ 1 Nissan 5770
Britain and America both have center-left leaders, but the two nations are further apart than ever
LONDON"Two nations, divided by a common language" is how someone once described Great Britain and the United States. "Two nations, divided by a common politics" is another way to put it. Ever since the days of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the political fortunes of the United States and Britain have tracked and reflected one another in odd ways. For many years, they moved in tandem: The harmonious center-right union of Thatcher and Reagan was followed by the equally harmonious, if less affectionate, center-left union of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. But then came Blair-Bush, which worked out rather badly for Blair. Now we have Gordon Brown and Barack Obama, who barely speak to one another. And even though we once again have two "center-left" politicians in charge, a distinct lack of harmony characterizes trans-Atlantic political debates. Our health care conversations, for example, are now totally different. This became apparent last year, when American Republicans held up the British health care system as an example of the nightmare that might await America if Obama's plan were passed. British conservativeswho had been bashing their centralized system for yearsimmediately rallied to its defense. David Cameron, the Conservative leader who is angling to become prime minister in this spring's election, has even promised to "ring-fence" health care so that it is not affected by future budget cuts at all.
Further evidence that the days of ideological cross-pollination are over now arrives in the form of the trans-Atlantic debate about education. Many of the troubles of the British state school system will sound familiar to American ears: falling standards, inner-city violence, private schools outperforming their state counterparts, uneven performance in different parts of the country. In order to combat these ills, the bipartisan U.S. governors' association has recently started talking about the joint creation of "national standards," an idea the Obama administration and its supporters have embraced with enthusiasm, as have many conservative education reformers. This is now the cutting edge of the education debate: A child's education must not depend "primarily on ZIP code," the low standards of many school districts must be raised, and only concerted action on a national level can fix the problem.
But the British already have not only national standards but also a national curriculum and national exams. And it is precisely this curriculum and these exams that some members of the British public want to escape. Hence the popular Conservative proposal to liberate state schools from "stifling state control." Allow parents and teachers to start new, small charter schools from scratch. Let the child's postal code determine not only the curriculum, in other words, but the nature and philosophy of the school, the size of the classes, the methods of education. Make schools not more alike but more different. Free pupils from pointless exams.
I don't want to make too much of these things: More than anything else, the divergence of our trans-Atlantic debates reflects cultural differences that have always been a lot deeper than they seem. But they do also reflect some trans-Atlantic and even global political changes. Thatcher and Reagan could share a simple and ideologically compatible vision of the world because they had clear ideological opponents: Soviet-style communism abroad, welfare statism at home. In the post-Cold War moment, Blair and Clinton could also share an ideologically compatible goal: Both wanted to bring the old left into the new center.
Nothing is nearly so clear anymoreand certainly not in tricky subjects like education. Is a national math curriculum right-wing or left-wing? Are smaller classrooms right-wing or left-wing? In Britain, the Labor Party is identified with standardized testing. In the United States, that honor belongs to the Bush administration. Then again, any random list of subjectsIraq, environmentalism, homeland securitywould produce an equally odd assortment of ideological positions in both countries. President Obama's positions on Afghanistan would be considered far-right in Britain, yet a percentage of his compatriots consider him a far-left radical.
The truth is that the old labels are no longer of much use on either side of the Atlanticexcept, of course, to people who prefer their politics in sound bites. They seem to work, some of the time, for political best-seller-writers, too. But as a shorthand for describing the fickle moods of the British and American electoratesor as a way of explaining the politicians in either countryforget it.
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Gulag: A History
Nearly 30 million prisoners passed through the Soviet Union's labor camps in their more than 60 years of operation. This remarkable volume, the first fully documented history of the gulag, describes how, largely under Stalin's watch, a regulated, centralized system of prison labor-unprecedented in scope-gradually arose out of the chaos of the Russian Revolution. Fueled by waves of capricious arrests, this prison labor came to underpin the Soviet economy. JWR's Applebaum, a former Warsaw correspondent for the Economist and a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, draws on newly accessible Soviet archives as well as scores of camp memoirs and interviews with survivors to trace the gulag's origins and expansion Sales help fund JWR.
Comment on JWR contributor Anne Applebaum's column by clicking here.
03/09/10: Germany Is Tired of Paying Europe's Bills
03/02/10: Chile will survive the earthquake because its democracy works
02/23/10: Prepare for war with Iran in case Israel strikes
02/17/10: America's Greek tragedy?
02/09/10: The Big Problem With Big Solutions
01/26/10: India's model of reflective patriotism
01/12/10: Haiti's man-made disasters
01/12/10: We need a smarter way to fight the jihadi elite
01/05/10: How every year we waste millions on wasteful homeland-security projects
12/30/09: The next decade will be bad for authoritarian regimes except one
12/15/09: The Apocalypse Is Not Upon Us
11/24/09: Superpower without a partner
11/17/09: Why has the global response to swine flu been so politicized?
11/10/09: After the wall fell
11/03/09: Angela Merkel's Quiet Revolution
10/20/09: Will the President of Europe Be a Gifted Pol or a Compromising Bureaucrat?
09/29/09:What Is Iran Afraid Of?
09/22/09: Letting Europe Drift
09/17/09: Greed and fear are proving stronger than companies' commitment to free speech
09/08/09: Will Obama Fight For Afghanistan?
09/01/09: The Polish Prologue
08/20/09: Why Afghans Need a Vote
07/29/09: No Burqa For Clinton
07/14/09: The Summit of Green Futility
07/09/09: Obama Puts Medvedev Ahead of Putin
06/30/09: In Morocco, an alternative to Iran
06/23/09: An overlooked force in Iran
06/16/09: Some good in a bad election
06/09/09: Why Is the Right Doing So Well in Europe?
06/02/09: Is China Pulling Strings in North Korea?
05/26/09: What a Member of Parliament Deserves
04/22/09: The Twitter Revolution That Wasn't
04/14/09: Do we really need interactive exhibits to bring Jefferson to life?
04/07/09: No Nukes? No Thanks: Obama's odd obsession with universal nuclear disarmament
03/31/09: What's Loud, Unnecessary, and Costs $75 Million?
03/03/09: European Disunion
02/24/09: Who cares what Hillary Clinton says to China's leaders about human rights?
02/17/09: Witless protection
02/10/09: Our Ticket Out of Afghanistan
01/27/09:Why some foreigners can't believe Obama won the presidency fair and square
01/20/09: A Flight Test for All of Us
01/14/09: Europe's New Cold War
01/07/09: Pointless Peace Proposals
12/30/08: The magnificent rhetorical legacy of the Founding Fathers
12/23/08: Do riots in Athens portend demonstrations in Paris and Cincinnati?
12/16/08: Breach of Trust: Bernard Madoff's massive fraud will cripple American capitalism
12/09/08: In praise of charismatic politicians
12/03/08: Moscow's Empire of Dust
11/20/08: Getting Past Mythmaking In Georgia
11/12/08: In Praise of Political Rock Stars
10/03/08: Election Day myths you must resist
09/30/08: Not just a metaphor: Lehman Brothers was economic's 9/11
09/04/08: Class of '64
08/28/08: Did Hillary really help the Barack cause?
08/27/08: Show of Power, Indeed
08/19/08: What Is Russia Afraid Of?
08/13/08: When China Starved
08/11/08: Two of the world's rising powers are strutting their stuff
08/05/08: How Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago changed the world
07/29/08:The Hour of Europe Tolls Again … But are European politicians up to the task?
07/15/08: Why Does Obama Want To Campaign in Berlin?
07/01/08: Citizen Athletes: How did a guy who can't speak Polish end up scoring Poland's only goal of Euro 2008?
06/24/08: Why do we expect presidential candidates to be kind?
06/17/08: Pity the Poor Eurocrats
06/12/08: Is the World Ready for a Black American President?
05/28/08: The Busiest Generation: America seems to value its children's status and achievements over their happiness
05/20/08: Leave Hitler Out of It: The craze for injecting the Nazis into political debate must end
05/13/08: A Drastic Remedy: The case for intervention in Burma
05/07/08: A Warning Shot From Moscow?
04/23/08: Radio to stay tuned to
04/17/08: China learns the price of a few weeks of global attention
04/01/08: Head scarves are potent political symbols
03/26/08: The Olympics are the perfect place for a protest
03/19/08: Could Tibet bring down modern China?
03/12/08: Have political autobiographies made us more susceptible to fake memoirs?
03/05/08: Why does Russia bother to hold elections?
02/20/08: Kosovo is a textbook example of the law of unintended consequences
02/06/08: A Craven Canterbury Tale
02/06/08: French prez' whirlwind romance reminds voters of his political recklessness
© 2009, Anne Applebaum. By permission of the author