The Iron Lady heads to America
Why has the British government pressed ahead with a programme to tackle its national debt, while America continues to procrastinate? It is a question that often crops up in conversations with British visitors to Washington, given the current US policy gridlock.
And there are plenty of possible answers. Britain’s parliamentary system, for example, makes it easier for a government to impose unpopular policies (particularly since they only face voters every five years). The close proximity of crises in Greece and Ireland has concentrated politicians’ minds. Britain is also more debt-laden and lacks a reserve currency. Unlike Uncle Sam, it cannot simply print money and pray: there is more pressure to act.
But I suspect that there is another factor at work too, of which I was reminded last week when I saw The Iron Lady, the biopic about Margaret Thatcher, at a cinema in New York: the sad truth is that Britain, unlike America, has already experienced austerity within living memory. More specifically, as The Iron Lady shows, it was only four decades ago that Britain was grappling with an economic crisis, cutbacks, protests and endemic gloom. And while nobody under the age of 40 remembers those days, they are baked into folk memory. Thus, for better or worse, British voters and politicians recognise the smell of austerity – or, more accurately, nod with grim familiarity when it is presented on a cinema screen.
To be sure, this point is not spelled out explicitly in The Iron Lady: indeed, there is much that is (sadly) left unstated in this biopic. Meryl Streep does a brilliant and haunting job portraying a dementia-ridden Thatcher. But the film skips rather lightly through British history, assuming a high level of prior knowledge, which is irritating and baffling for non-Brits. My friends in New York, for example, were completely nonplussed by the poll tax references. They also found the emphasis on dementia an irritating distraction from the bigger historical tale. (It would be hard to imagine anyone making a film that focused so heavily on Ronald Reagan’s struggles with dementia. To American eyes, this seems disrespectful of high office.)
Notwithstanding these flaws, The Iron Lady has played to packed cinemas in New York, even before it opens elsewhere in the US. And although it is the tale of Thatcher herself that mesmerises most Americans, what I found equally striking were the jarring images of 1970s social strife and economic pain. After all, during the past three decades of economic boom in Britain, those memories have tended to be downplayed. But The Iron Lady is full of news reels of demonstrations, protests and power cuts. And there is a particularly memorable scene where Thatcher steps around stinking rubbish bags (or garbage cans) when the disposal men are all on strike: a potent – and pungent – symbol of a nation overwhelmed by fiscal woes.
Of course, such images are not unique to Britain: films about 1960s and 1970s America also feature plenty of clips of political protest. But the demonstrations that occurred in the US four decades ago tended to focus on issues such as the Vietnam war or civil rights. And while there was real economic pain aplenty, the flashpoints tended to be regional, not federal. In New York there was a debt crisis (and piles of uncollected garbage), but the nation as a whole did not experience a comparable level of angst to the UK and Ronald Reagan never had to dodge piles of uncollected rubbish. Instead, you have to return to the 1930s to find a time when the entire American nation suffered similar woes and collective belt-tightening.
This timeline matters. Today, there are relatively few Americans alive who remember the 1930s clearly. Thus, for most people, the idea that America may face a long bout of austerity and stagnation – if not national decline – has come as something of an existential shock. In Britain, by contrast, there are plenty of people who have seen this austerity script before. The prospect invokes a weary sense of grim resignation. Yes, voters are angry about the prospect of protracted stagnation; some have gone on strike. But instead of ideological fervour or political fracture, the dominant mood is downbeat, cynical pragmatism – and a sense of déjà vu.
So I hope that this Thatcher film ends up being widely screened in the US. That is not because I necessarily consider Thatcher to be the perfect solution to the current woes in Britain or America (never mind that politician Michele Bachmann, the Tea Party darling and former Republican presidential candidate, recently aired commercials likening herself to the Iron Lady). Thatcher’s leadership style was flawed and some of her policies were misguided. But, if nothing else, The Iron Lady helps to demystify the idea of austerity and shows that it is possible for a nation to travel through that painful tunnel and (eventually) emerge at the other side. And that is a crumb of comfort indeed – no matter what side of the Atlantic, or political spectrum, you sit.
这个问题有很多可能的答案。比如说，英国的议会制度使之更容易强推不受欢迎的政策（尤其是因为议员们每5年才需面对选民一次）。英国的危机与希腊和 爱尔兰极为相似，让政客们不得不全力以赴。此外，英国的债务负担也比美国更重，而且没有像美元那样的储备货币。与“山姆大叔”不同的是，英国不能一边印钞 票一边祈祷——英国面临着更大的压力，不得不采取行动。
但我怀疑还有一个因素也在起作用。前些日子，我在纽约一家电影院观看关于玛格丽特•撒切尔(Margaret Thatcher)的传记片《铁娘子》(Iron Lady)，正是那部影片让我想到了这一点：一个令人遗憾的事实是，和美国不一样，英国人经历过紧缩，那些感受还历历在目。说得更具体一些，正如《铁娘 子》一片所展示的那样，英国与金融危机、缩减开支、民众抗议和普遍的悲观情绪做斗争的日子，距今仅仅过了40年。尽管不到40岁的人都不记得了，但那段岁 月已经刻入了人们的记忆。因此，无论是好是坏，英国选民和政客都清楚紧缩的滋味——或更确切地说，当那段历史被搬上电影荧屏，他们都会因为苦涩的熟悉场景 而产生认同感。
必须承认，《铁娘子》没有明确地传达出这一点：确实，这部传记片（令人遗憾地）未能阐明许多东西。梅丽尔•斯特里普(Meryl Streep)极为出色地刻画了一个患有痴呆症的撒切尔夫人，给人留下了至深印象。但影片假定观众已相当了解英国历史，因此对很多背景都一带而过，这令英 国以外的观众感到恼火和困惑。比如，对于电影里提到的人头税，我在纽约的朋友们就感到一头雾水。他们还认为，影片过于把重点放在痴呆症上，未能讲出更宏大 的历史故事，这令人感觉很不舒服。（很难想象，会有哪位导演肯拍摄一部电影，极力渲染罗纳德•里根(Ronald Reagan)与痴呆症作斗争的故事。在美国人看来，这么做似乎体现了对政府高官的不恭敬。）
尽 管存在这些瑕疵，《铁娘子》在纽约上映时仍场场爆满，哪怕美国其他地方还都没有上映。虽然撒切尔本人的故事令大多数美国人着迷，但我发现，给观众留下同等 深刻印象的是上世纪70年代英国经历社会矛盾和经济困难的震撼场景。毕竟，在英国经历了过去30年的经济繁荣之后，上述记忆已渐渐被人们所淡忘。但是， 《铁娘子》中出现了大量游行、抗议和停电的新闻影像资料。尤其令人难忘的一幕是，由于所有环卫工人都参与了罢工，撒切尔只好绕着经过许多恶臭的垃圾袋（或 垃圾箱）：这是一个国家深陷财政危机不能自拔的有力而尖锐的象征。
当然了，这些场景并非英国所独有：那些以20世纪六七十年代的美国为背景的电影中，也常常出现大量政治抗议的镜头。但40年前发生在美国的游行示 威，针对的多是越南战争和公民权利等问题。尽管美国也经历过许多实实在在的经济困难，但引爆点多是地区性而非整个联邦范围的事件。纽约发生过一次债务危机 （未清理的垃圾也堆积如山），但全美国没有经历像英国那样的不安，而罗纳德•里根也从未被迫绕开未清理的垃圾堆。实际上，只有回到20世纪30年代，才能 看到整个美国都遭受类似危机和全民勒紧裤腰带的情形。
时间很能说明问题。在如今健在的美国人当中，能清楚地记起 上世纪30年情形的人已经很少了。因此，对大多数人而言，美国可能面临长期紧缩和停滞（甚至可能是全国性衰退）的想法，多少有点儿生死存亡的意味了。相比 之下，英国有很多人都亲身经历过这种紧缩局面。这一前景会让人因为厌倦而产生消沉的顺从想法。是的，选民们对经济长期停滞的前景感到愤怒；有些人已经开始 罢工了。但主流心态并不是意识形态上的狂热或政治上的分裂，而是悲观和愤世嫉俗的务实政策，以及一种似曾相识感。
所以，我希望这部关于撒切尔的影片能在美国大范围放映。这并非因为我认为撒切尔能为英国或美国当前的危机提供完美的解决方案（虽然茶党宠儿、前共和 党总统候选人、政客米歇尔•巴赫曼(Michele Bachmann)近来在宣传广告中把自己比作“铁娘子”）。撒切尔的领导风格并非完美无缺，她的某些政策也颇具误导性。但是，先不说别的，《铁娘子》有 助于澄清紧缩的理念，让观众看到一个国家是有可能穿过这个痛苦的隧道，（最终）抵达另一端的。而无论你身处大西洋的哪一侧，或是哪个政治阵营，这肯定能带 给你些许安慰。