Alex Massie

Bush, Ahmadinejad and The Economist

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This is the sort of thing that reminds me why I enjoy The Economist's under-appreciated sense of humour:

George Bush and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are both deeply religious, referring frequently to God’s guiding hand. Both are idealists rather than pragmatists, and skilled at folksy populism. Both have replaced dozens of competent officials with like-minded conservatives. And both are now considered, by a large slice of their countrymen, to be bungling and dangerous. The difference is that it has taken Mr Ahmadinejad just two years in power to achieve the unpopularity Mr Bush has gained after six.

Then again, James Fallows had a point when he wrote, in 1991(!) about:

The other ugly English trait promoting The Economist's success in America is the Oxford Union argumentative style. At its epitome, it involves a stance so cocksure of its rightness and superiority that it would be a shame to freight it with mere fact.

American debate contests involve grinding, yearlong concentration on one doughy issue, like arms control. The forte of Oxford-style debate is to be able to sound certain and convincing about a topic pulled out of the air a few minutes before, such as "Resolved: That women are not the fairer sex"...

Economist leaders and the covers that trumpet their message offer Americans a blast of this style. Michael Kinsley, who once worked at The Economist, wrote that the standard Economist leader gives you the feeling that the writer started out knowing that three steps must be taken immediately -- and then tried to think what the steps should be.

Well, yes, it is always three steps. Any more would be superfluous and, besides, risk breaking with convention; any fewer might lead a fellow to think your case thin or weak. That's the sort of debating we rather enjoyed in my collegiate days - though, one superb team apart (which was half-Australian anyway) it's worth pointing out that in my time Oxford were neither terribly good nor terribly successful even though one sometimes felt some judges gave them credit simply for being from Oxford.

So, with that longstanding grudge acknowledged, it's worth recalling that an old saw often applied to Irish rugby is also true of what Fallows calls the Oxford Union style and, by extension, much of British journalism: the situation may be hopeless but it's never serious. In America, by contrast, matters are often serious but rarely hopeless.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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