When Tom Lehrer stopped writing satirical songs in the 1970s, he explained that “today everything just makes me angry, it’s not funny anymore,” and retreated to teaching mathematics at the University of California. It might be tempting to agree that the times are unremittingly serious. Radio 4’s Today programme recently asked whether a year of bad news was causing us to lose hope.
But not humour. As Sam Leith argues, the British sense of what is comic thrives in dark times. The Sun, for one, found a silver lining in its headlines “Greece loses its marbles,” and “No Cannes do.” One of my favourite moments in the euro drama, in which leaders’ personalities have shaped the script as much as have bond yields, was when Nicolas Sarkozy leaped up to declare that he was going to call China. There has been dark pleasure too in the sonorousness with which pundits have declared that the unthinkable was now thinkable.
Alright, a crisis which threatens bank collapse and recession is no joke. Even if Europe’s star comic figure made news bulletins by ogling the Danish prime minister, it should not distract from the danger presented by his country’s finances. For Britain, the crisis presents difficult choices (Peter Mandelson), while Peter Kellner suggests that it may be changing our sense of Britishness.
But the most dramatic projections assume that governments will fail to act. In contrast, C. Fred Bergsten boldly argues that Europe has done well—so far. He is surely right that this is what “muddle through” looks like: brinksmanship, followed by deals which fall short of the ideal, but are better than none.
Prospect has always stood for a brand of optimistic realism: not for exaggerating alarm, or for pretending that the unfeasible is in reach. It is to be expected that 17 countries should discover that their economies are not very similar. That is the foreseeable result of a romance about financial union with roots in admirable sentiments but whose implications were not explored. Where is the surprise, other than in the Brussels corridors where rhetorical tyranny demands that one must coyly refer to “the country that I know best” (never to “my country”)? It is more astonishing that ten countries were folded into Europe with little upheaval less than two decades after emerging from the Soviet bloc. That remains the dominant—and inspiring—European achievement of recent years.
We might add one more, though: scientists from round the world gathered at Cern may establish the existence of the Higgs boson, as Peter Higgs and Nobel prize winner Steven Weinberg explain. This evidence of human genius is a reason for optimism. And the inability of other human beings to solve a currency crisis on the same continent? Well, that’s the reason for realism.