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Governance Envy

New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern in Sydney, Australia, February 28, 2020 (Loren Elliott/Reuters)
A different kind of Stockholm Syndrome

On policy questions, New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern is mostly on the naughty list.

Ardern is a Labour goober and former president of the International Union of Socialist Youth, a kind of improved Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, although she has foresworn implementing a capital-gains tax, which puts the New Zealand socialist to the right of Senator Marco Rubio on at least one issue. In fact, a conservative looking at the New Zealand tax code — no capital-gains tax, lower top income-tax rate than in the United States, no inheritance tax, no payroll tax — might reasonably ask why it is that the Republicans in Washington can’t manage to be as pro-business as the crypto-socialists down in Wellington.

On the other hand, the Ardern government is implacably hostile to what we Americans understand as civil rights. As stated, mostly naughty.

But there is more to life than the tax tables, and I suspect that I was not alone in experiencing a moment of rueful admiration when Ardern, in the middle of a live television interview from the capitol, began to shake, or, more precisely, to be shaken, by an earthquake — and calmly continued the interview. She even made a quick little self-deprecating joke, noting that the “Beehive,” the executive building that houses her government, “moves a little more than most.” Wonderful sangfroid. At about the same time, the president of these United States was on Twitter claiming (it is a ridiculous fiction) that a talk-show host with whom he is feuding murdered a woman, another reminder that even in times of great national crisis — 100,000 dead in the epidemic and counting — Donald Trump cannot be trusted to stop himself from descending into pitiful buffoonery.

One of my little pet theories in life is that the Republican Party has been one of the most effective advocates for socialism that our country has seen since Jack London. It works like this: Republicans look at other liberal democracies abroad and denounce the ones that have higher tax rates or larger welfare states as “socialism,” and then young Americans visit Stockholm or Copenhagen or Amsterdam, discover that these are charming and generally well-governed cities in affluent happy countries with much to recommend them, and say, “Well, then, give me some of that socialism!”

There are three errors at work there: The first is that those “socialist” European countries that give Republicans the willies are nothing of the sort, and many of them have economic regimes that are in fact more robustly capitalist than our own. The second is that tourists generally see cities and countries at their best, and there’s a lot more to Amsterdam than the Rijksmuseum and the White Room — and not all of it is glorious. The third error, related to the second, is a kind of confirmation bias, in which our understanding of a foreign country, often vague and based on very limited experience, causes us to treat Denmark or Switzerland as a screen upon which to project our own desires and anxieties.

It is a different kind of Stockholm Syndrome.

Americans visiting the great tourist centers of Europe see people who are not as fat as we are, who aren’t screaming at their children, who are capable of riding bicycles without wearing spandex, who make us embarrassed about our general lack of facility with foreign languages, and cities that are cleaner than ours and generally less dangerous, trains that run on time, effective public administration, and other things that we must envy.

And that is not only true in Europe: The eight or ten minutes it takes to move from taxicab to the far side of the security screening at Hong Kong’s airport, one of the world’s busiest, provides just enough time to wonder why we do it so poorly at DFW or JFK. This is the stuff of one thousand Tom Friedman columns, and it is not the whole story, but it is part of the story. The current president of the Swiss confederation, Simonetta Sommaruga, is not a screaming crazy person (she is, I think, a kind of improved Elizabeth Warren) but, if she were a screaming crazy person, we probably would not hear very much about it, for the same reason that the eyes of the world are fixed on Saint Peter’s when there is a papal vacancy but the Methodists cannot break the front page (not even below the fold!) when they choose a new leader.

What do you do with a problem like America? Population 328 million or so, many of them bananas, GDP north of $20 trillion in a good year, about 800 military bases in foreign countries and territories, 3,800 nuclear warheads, Apple, Facebook, Coca Cola, Hollywood, Wall Street, a murder rate considerably higher than Pakistan’s and 30 times Singapore’s, possibly ungovernable and at any rate governed by criminals, but also the people who went to the moon and invented most of what is cool and useful in the modern world, the oldest democracy going with the oldest constitution.

We are the Cadillac of nations — which is to say, we can look a little creaky next to an Audi.

The so-called nationalists of the Right denounce progressive Europhiles as “rootless cosmopolitans,” resurrecting a ghastly phrase. But the neo-nationalists have more than a little in common with them — beginning with exhaustion. They talk American “greatness,” but they endorse American retreat. The Little Americans, like the Little Englanders before them, recoil from the outsized role the United States plays on the world stage, and they believe that the United States is in fact being victimized by its own ambitions and expansiveness. How many times have you heard some variation on this: “The Europeans couldn’t afford all that health care if they had to pay for their own defense!” That isn’t really true, but that doesn’t really matter. That is one of the stories we tell ourselves.

My friend Jay Nordlinger likes to quote President George H. W. Bush, who put himself in opposition to those who would prefer that the United States be only “another pleasant country on the U.N. roll call, somewhere between Albania and Zimbabwe.” Of course there is a financial burden to what the Pat Buchanans and Ron Pauls of the world, and quite a few of their notional antagonists on the left, call the “American Empire,” but there is also an emotional burden, a psychological burden, and a moral burden. When things go sideways in this unhappy world, nobody cries out in the dead of night: “For the love of God, somebody call the Dutch!” The allure of a non-interventionist or less-interventionist foreign policy is in no small part that it promises liberation from that burden. And that, too, is part of why some of us sometimes wish the United States could be a little more like Germany or Norway or New Zealand, a more “normal” country, one that does not have a finger in every possible pie, one that is not always the center of attention. It is easy to make too much of our troubles — Tom Wolfe dryly observed that “the dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe.” But he was born in 1930, and I wonder if those born in 1990 are as confident or have reason to be.

Thomas Jefferson was famously enamored with the French. There was a very tense exchange between King George III and the first U.S. ambassador to his government, John Adams, in which the king suggested that Adams does not share that attachment to the “manners of France.” Adams replied that he had no attachment to any country other than his own. (The scene is beautifully dramatized in that famous John Adams series from HBO.) But, then as now, the French mode of life and government shed very little light on American affairs.

We Americans often compare ourselves to Canada and the United Kingdom and other countries with familiar Anglophone cultures. But Canada has fewer people than California. California and Texas have more people together than the United Kingdom. New Zealand has less than half the population of Los Angeles County. The United States has more illegal immigrants than Greece has Greeks or Belgium has Belgians. We think of the teeming populations of China and India, but the United States is No. 3 on that list, and No. 4, Indonesia, has a population that is 22 percent smaller.

Big. Rich. Bonkers. Does that sound to you like . . . Jacinda Ardern?

Words About Words

A correspondent asks: “What’s the deal with the ‘ins’? Why does ‘inflammable’ mean the same thing as ‘flammable,’ and ‘invaluable’ mean the same thing as ‘valuable’? ‘Infamous’ is neither used as an antonym for ‘famous,’ nor as an unqualified synonym. An infamous person is famous, but in a bad way.”

Here’s the deal.

Invaluable does not mean the same thing as valuable. Both valuable and invaluable things are precious, but valuable things are value-able, meaning you could assign a value or a price to them, whereas invaluable things cannot be meaningfully valued — they are priceless. A Vacheron Constantin wristwatch is valuable; the Notre-Dame cathedral is invaluable.

That which is inflammable is liable to inflammation, from the Latin inflammare.

Fame and infamy are another occasion of drift. Fame has long had a dual character, meaning both renown and, in some contexts, reproach. Fame in the sense of celebrity is pretty old, going back to the 13th century in English. The perceived need to have different words for good reputation and bad reputation goes back to the Latin infamis, meaning disreputable, which came to English through the French infamie.

Famous and infamous split in much the same way as notable and notorious, the latter of which did not acquire its negative connotation until fairly recently in English, from the 17th century on.

Rampant Prescriptivism

A request for a that/which refresher includes the sentence: “Sending emails questioning proper pronoun selection is a practice (that? which?) ought to be avoided.”

On that/which, the relevant standard is the pertinence of the following clause, and a pretty good rule of thumb is that if you could end the sentence before the clause, then you usually use “which” after a comma. But it matters how hard you want to hit that latter clause.

E.g.:

Sending emails questioning proper pronoun selection is a practice that ought to be avoided. Fine.

Sending emails questioning proper pronoun selection is a practice. Nope.

Sending emails questioning proper pronoun selection is a dangerous practice, which ought to be avoided. 

Sending emails questioning proper pronoun selection is a dangerous practice that ought to be avoided.

Sending emails questioning proper pronoun selection is a dangerous practice.

Sending emails questioning proper pronoun selection is fraught with danger, which ought to be avoided. 

Sending emails questioning proper pronoun selection is fraught with danger that ought to be avoided. Also works, but means something slightly different.

Sending emails questioning proper pronoun selection is fraught with the kind of danger that ought to be avoided. 

Sending emails questioning proper pronoun selection is fraught with the kind of danger. Nope.

The issue is restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. A restrictive clause provides information that you need for the sentence to make sense, and a nonrestrictive clause doesn’t. A used car that you can rely on doesn’t come cheap. My car, which I bought a couple of years ago, is blue. There are three seats open on this flight, and the one that’s in first class costs twice as much as 37B, which is a middle seat. Or: I have one suit that is blue vs. I have one suit, which is blue.

Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.com

Home and Away

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In Closing

Elon Musk and Grimes have changed the name of their child. It was X Æ A-12, but California law requires that names be composed exclusively of letters. And so the world greets X Æ A-Xii.

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