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GP 17 October 2007: Europe: The Whole Is less than the Sum of Its Parts

Blackout Saturday.  A bunch of comperes had laid in several bottles of bitter to ready themselves for the 3 pm rugby matchup of the English and French at Stade de France in France (9 pm over there), Saturday, the 13th.  As our sports analyst Doctor Lundquist said last week, rugby now is the center of the universe, all the fizz having gone out of other sports around the world for the moment.  Surprisingly, France and England made it to the semifinals, the vanquished Aussies and New Zealanders having gone home with their tails between their legs.

We understand the Rugby League International Federation had threatened to bar the gates to the holders of blackmarket tickets.  The Australian and New Zealand fans, dispirited, had left France and put their tickets out to the touts.  Reports are, however, that the stadium was filled, so the League obviously thought better of its bureaucratic notions.  Otherwise, the players would have been performing for a half empty house.

But somebody in the League—or in French officialdom—did assert his bureaucratic wont.  When we and others got to our TV sets to download the action, we discovered that transmission of the game, even with a handsome fee, would be delayed 24 hours.   Clearly some dimwit somewhere had decided that revenues would fall mightily if Americans could watch the game at home on Saturday.  We sipped our bitter in silence.

The Europeans have a compulsive need to snatch defeat from victory and to hide their light under a bushel.  Some immense genetic defect or perhaps a dysfunctional education system elevates nameless figures to positions of power in Brussels and all sorts of other governing bodies, whereupon these factotums make very original people and historically great states become very much less than they are.  Rugby was not to make it out of Europe on Saturday.

After lagging, the English put down the French 14 to 9.   Tristesse filled the blurry eyes of Parisians.  Incidentally, France’s Number 8, Sebastien Chabal, whom many of the French take to be an immortal of godlike proportions, spent a fair piece of time on the bench.  If you are a sports fan who also feels cheated by the rugby commissars, we recommend a quick look at Chabal and other great numbers 8s on YouTube.  You will find that rugby creates as much excitement on your monitor as professional ice hockey.   South Africa went on to defeat Argentina 37-13 on October 14, and it strikes terror in the English heart, having smashed the Brits before (36 to 0 on September 15).  On October 20 we will know if the UK can reconquer its former vassal South Africa.

The Europeans.  Modern Europeans are a puzzle to the world and to themselves.  So much has originated there, to include rugby and cricket, which are now headquartered, respectively, in Australian and Dubai.  In so many things, one encounters a level of both quality and knowledge in pax Europa that others can only aspire to.  In Paris one can find a spice shop that has no match in America and that embraces both atmosphere and substance.  Of course, the much memorialized OED (Oxford English Dictionary) comes from England, and America’s best newsweekly, the Economist, is put together in London, its American circulation more important than that in the UK.

And yet almost every government in Europe has given its bureaucrats unparalleled power, something not matched in America until we invented Homeland Security.  European Government pretends to be elected, but the officials who hold real sway in Brussels are appointed bureaucrats who manage to spread uniformity and mediocrity, while stamping out the best.  We shall wrestle with this in later issues of this letter as we work our way around Europe.

On a recent visit, we were intensely aware of this pettiness in St. Petersburg, the capital created by Peter the Great at Russia’s height.  Things have never been the same there since the 17th century.  You only have to deal with the Russian visa maze and its immigration officials, or the centralized water heating system that periodically is shut down, to realize that mini-minds hold total sway and deny Russia its intended greatness.

Quality around Europe still comes out in the end, but furtively.  One of our correspondents reminds us of this upside in Europe.  He’s been over for 2 or 3 months, and is charmed and enchanted:  “Get ready for the Smart Car!  It is all over urban Europe in numbers that are startling.  It makes such sense in the cities that have limited parking, congested and narrow streets.”  “We haven't seen a drive-through yet.  And, the people are, on average, a good 30% less hefty than our American population.”  “Cellphones work full time everywhere.  No dropped calls.  Many tourists from other countries are seen using the GPS and mapping features on newer model phones.”  Nice things are happening in the underbrush, beneath the Common Market radar.

We look forward to a fullscale European report from our traveler.  He may even talk about Norway’s Think Car, which some consider the Green version of the Smart Car.  It’s had hard times but there seems to be life for it after death.

In 1878 Henry James penned a short novel The Europeans, which, curiously enough, was really about two Europeans afloat in New England.  For James it amounted to another way of taking a look at his America, which he eventually left to take up residence in England.  And, in the end, he took English citizenship.

Expats.  But, nonetheless, The Europeans speaks to the plight of modern Europe.  It has quality and history and great interest.  Yet it has become strangely inert, and its citizens are caught in an invisible cobweb.  Right now a number of British are getting out—or at least getting out of London—because they cannot afford the place, unless they are the new boys earning ungainly investment banking salaries and bonuses in the City.  Many Europeans may not even much appreciate where they are heading, but they are going while the getting is good. 

And sometimes these adventurers go to very curious, interesting places.  We understand that Europeans are in and out of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, once known as Hot Springs until Ralph Edwards of TV fame pulled off a publicity stunt there in the 1950s.  A few years back a couple of French brothers based in New York even dreamed up a curious hotel-spa-restaurant there called Sierra Grande Lodge and Spa.  Richard Branson is planting Virgin Galactic, his commercial venture to take people into space, just 25 miles south in Upham. 

Europeans, feeling themselves bound in invisible chains, are reaching out to New Mexico or even into space in order to escape their psychological confines.  America and its companies need what they’ve got to give so as to recharge our imagination and brush aside any thoughts we might have of retreating into the past.

P.S.  Europeans and Europe today calls to mind Arthur Koestler’s “Yogi and the Commissar.”  In the one instance, what counts is the individual’s relation to the universe; in the other, his relationship with society.  The thoughtful European is probably escaping the boundaries of his society and getting in touch with the universe, the big world out there.

P.P.S.  In a future issue, we will deal with U.S. Immigration and Homeland Security, both of which are out of control.  They are barring the gates against the very people we want to come here—the scientists and knowledge workers who can re-ignite our economy.  Tourism, too, is down, since so many travelers steer clear of America.  Right now we are not extending a welcome to Europeans on the move. With our currency in retreat, foreign visitors should be flocking here.

 P.P.P.S.  That Europe has a runaway bureaucracy is an open secret.  See, for instance, “Uphill Battle Against Brussels Conspiracy,” Financial Times, October 10, 2006.

P.P.P.P.S.  Expatriates are fun to read about and seem to embellish the countries they visit.  You would be charmed, for instance, to delve into the lives of the Murphys, who did time in Paris with the Fitzgeralds: they are the subject of an exhibit at the Williams College Museum, soon to be touring to the Yale and Dallas museums.  They are the heroes, too, of a charming little book by Calvin Tompkins called Living Well is the Best Revenge.

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