DJ Taylor: Whisper it ... America's glory days are over

No US politician will tell voters the truth about their country's place in the world – but then, even beer's not was it used to be

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It was a week in which American politicians sought to reassure their electorates. Delivering his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill, Barack Obama announced that he was betting on American workers – "and tonight the American auto industry is back". There were also claims that the past 22 months had seen the creation of three million jobs, and a rousing finale in which those who imagined the United States was on the way out as a world power were briskly informed that they had another think coming.

The Republicans, meanwhile, were playing a slightly different game: talking up US prospects on the one hand while noting, on the other, that the clear water notionally in view beyond a Sargasso Sea of debt and dereliction could only be reached if SS Free Enterprise America had a surer hand on the tiller. All this is par for the course in election year, and yet even Newt Gingrich, lurching on to the victory podium in South Carolina as if he had just been shot full of novocain, must have realised that the real difficulty facing the country in the next 20 or 30 years has barely been addressed, for fear of alarming the voters.

The difficulty is that, broadly speaking, American power, whether economic or territorial, will soon be beyond its ability to shore up. Financial clout is migrating to the East, and the only solution to that is protectionism, trade agreements or undercutting the competition – all of which have as much chance of succeeding in the current economic landscape as Ron Paul in the Republican primaries. As for international politics, the 21st century is increasingly looking like an age in which the power of the nation state will take second place behind the multinational corporates and an equally boundary-free media, a world in which business people, rather than politicians, call the shots, and the latter can only position themselves in the slipstream and trust to luck. The irony is that US decline will be brought about by the principle that secured its 20th century prosperity – that economic liberalism now practised by economies that are a great deal better at it than the US is itself. America, having lived by the free market, looks set to die by it too.

***

The American R&B star Mary J Blige could be found in several newspapers last week commending the attractions of realism in art. "Poverty, molestation, suicidal thought, drugs, alcohol. I have lived it," she observed. "I couldn't work on something like Alice in Wonderland. That's not real." It depends on what you mean by "real", of course, but if Ms Blige was trying to distinguish between the tense, high-octane world through which she clearly wanders and the light, bright uplands of Victorian fantasy, there were better comparisons to be made.

What is Lewis Carroll's masterpiece about? Well, a preliminary list of its themes might include mind-expanding narcotics, altered states of consciousness, paranoia, "lost" children and warped judicial systems. Like Great Expectations, it also advertises one of the central dilemmas of childhood: establishing whether the people you knock up against can be trusted. With its regular confoundings of logic, its constant atmosphere of menace and threat, and its studious insistence that nothing is quite what it seems, Alice is in fact as up-to-date as an iPod. On her days off from proclaiming the aesthetic merits of the hot, the hip and the streetwise, Ms Blige has some reading to do.

***

Another politician in the news was Sir Mick Jagger, who declined an invitation to attend a prime-ministerial clambake at the Davos summit on the grounds that he had "always eschewed party politics" and did not wish to be treated as "a political football". This understandable reluctance to figure on a stage not otherwise occupied by Keef, Charlie, Ron and whoever plays bass for the Stones these days prompted the question: what exactly are Sir Mick's political views?

A measured analysis of the Jagger world-picture can be found in the late Ian MacDonald's Revolution in the Head: The Beatles Records and the Sixties. MacDonald notes that, when interviewing Jagger on ITV's World in Action in 1967, the editor of The Times, William Rees-Mogg, was astonished to discover not some rock-chucking lefty ingrate but "a right-wing libertarian – straight John Stuart Mill". To be sure, there was an appearance at a Trotskyist-organised anti-Vietnam demo in Grosvenor Square and some bracing remarks about the evils of private property, while Francis Wheen's biography records a bizarre attempt by the Labour MP Tom Driberg to recruit Mick and his then girlfriend Marianne Faithfull to a new left-leaning political movement. Come the Altamont concert debacle in 1969, however, when a gang of Hell's Angels went on the rampage and killed a member of his audience, Jagger "reverted to his former stance", according to MacDonald. As for "eschewing" a political position, it could be argued that Sir Mick's entire lifestyle over the past 40 years has been a political act, however keen he might be to deny it.

***

It was sobering to discover that three leading brands of lager are about to lose their strength. Apparently alcohol levels in Stella, Budweiser and Beck's will fall from 5 to 4.8 per cent at the end of this month in line with what the brewer AB InBev calls "evolving trends". Throughout recent English history, the suspicion that brewers were de-alcoholising their products has been one of the great popular gripes. Sing-songs at Labour Party conferences used to include a rousing number that began "I am the man, the very fat man, that waters the workers' beer." The hero of Orwell's Coming Up For Air, looking back on his late-19th century childhood, remembers a world in which "the beer had some guts in it". Victorian brewers frequently added the word "entire" to their brand-names to reassure drinkers that tampering had been kept at bay. But close inspection of the fall in Budweiser's potency reveals neither a capitalist plot or temperance by stealth. According to The Grocer, reducing the alcohol level will save AB InBev several million pounds in duty. Or perhaps this is a capitalist plot after all.

 

 

 

In the wake of the release of Cabinet papers outing the people who declined honours between 1951 and 1999, one grows tired of the assumption that refuseniks are sturdy individualists avid to cock a snook at authority. Evelyn Waugh turned down a CBE in pique, thinking he was worth at least a Companionship of Honour. Anthony Powell, on the other hand, passed up a knighthood on the somewhat obscure grounds that unsophisticated people would not know how to address his already-titled wife.

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