The Breakfast Table

Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Dear Alexander,

My one and only prolonged encounter with Ken Livingstone ended in a knock-down, drag-out fight about whether Stalinism was “evil” (my view) or merely “somewhat misguided” (his). As no one else at the dinner table was remotely interested in the argument—this was, I think, a dinner being given for members of parliament from London, as Ken then was—we wound up completely isolated in the corner of the room, with Ken waving his arms in the air, telling me that “you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs”: Why worry about a few million corpses when there is a revolution to build? One so rarely hears these views spoken aloud, nowadays, that I rather enjoyed the occasion.

That he has proved a poor mayor for London doesn’t surprise me in the least, however. Nor does it surprise me that he has imported that festival of anti-Britishness, the St. Patrick’s Day parade, right into the heart of London. The British Left has so few ideals to cling to nowadays, that Anti-Britishness—derived from guilt about Empire and amplified by the British villains in Hollywood movies—has become one of its last remaining sacred cows. When the Labour government put on a millennium exhibition, they refused to include any displays referring to Britain’s (bad) past, focusing instead on Britain’s (bright) future. Alas, this made the exhibition exceptionally vapid—how do you create displays of things that haven’t happened yet?—causing it to lose millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, as you will no doubt vividly recall. I was reminded of this fiasco last week when, as I said on Tuesday, I was in Budapest. The Hungarians also built a millennium exhibition, which is still going strong, still packed with people, and is still unashamedly devoted to the achievements of Great Hungarians, which turn out to be a lot greater than you might think. As far as I could tell—there were no captions in any language except Hungarian—there was hardly a single scientific achievement of the past 150 years that didn’t that didn’t contain a Hungarian-invented component of some kind, from the Model T to the Rubik’s cube. They wouldn’t even let non-Hungarians sign the millennium guest book, which I thought was exceptionally sound. You couldn’t put on an exhibition like that in Britain, nowadays.

Now I would like to draw your attention to what may turn out to be one of the great Dilemmas of Our Times: Is it cruel and unusual punishment to deprive an American of his right to watch television? According to the New York Times, a New York judge last year sentenced a 60-year-old credit card fraudster, Edward Bello, to 10 months of precisely such a punishment, “in order that he have ample opportunity to reflect on the ways of harm that he had brought to his family.” Now his lawyers have challenged the no-TV order, on the grounds that “these are dangerous and uncertain times, and television is the primary way to get news”—and because his wife is upset.

It strikes me that Mr. Bello might find other ways of getting his news. He could read a newspaper, for example. Or listen to the radio. Or download Slate. But his wife’s argument is hard to beat. “A television is sort of like your umbilical cord to life,” she told the New York Times. I rather empathize—sometimes I feel that way about my computer.