02/22/2012 12:35 pm ET Updated Apr 22, 2012

View From Across the Atlantic

As I'm leaving London I'm taking a last look around, reflecting on the last four months and the transition to 2012. There are things I don't want to dwell on -- like the Mitt and Newt Show that dominated U.S. and, sadly, global media for way too long. And the Santorum phenomenon is so bizarre that I can't quite convince myself that this isn't a bad movie featuring conspiratorial aliens. I'm hoping that the Republican primaries frenzy ends up as "much ado about nothing," like the approach and fortuitous demise of the comet formerly known as Elenin. Bill Bryson, in A Short History of Nearly Everything, cheerfully informs us that asteroids crossing our orbit are not all that rare, some coming close enough to be "in cosmic terms, the equivalent of a bullet passing through one's sleeve without touching the arm." Okay, so in that sense we've pretty lucky so far, but how much more crossfire can our democracy withstand?

I experienced three different New Year celebrations during this busy dawn of 2012. Each New Year toast was accompanied by reflections on the passing of the American Century. And what I have been hearing from non-Americans has been a surprisingly heartfelt nostalgia.

My first New Year toast, on good old December the 31st, was up on Stave Hill, a lovely grassy mound hiding a pile of rubble left over from the Dickensenian squalor of this former docking zone, Rotherhithe. My partner Nash and I spent the evening watching Zorba the Greek, so when midnight approached we put boots and overcoats over our pajamas, stuffed champagne glasses in our pockets, grabbed a chilled bottle of bubbly and joined the throngs heading for The Hill. It was crowded and festive with dogs, kids, and everything in between. People were sending off floaty paper-lanterns that would cause fire-hazard hysteria in the U.S., but here in soggy London no one seemed concerned, even when they landed on the crowd. The crowd was pretty soggy, too.

We watched a massive fireworks display blossom around The London Eye, reflect elegantly off The Gherkin, and expose the pretensions of London's newest monument to architectural hubris, The Shard (otherwise known as The Pinworm). The fireworks flaunted "let them eat cake" extravagance in a season of dire cuts to education and public housing, and seemed to celebrate parliamentary reluctance to propose legislation on bonus caps. (The European Parliament "new rules" of 2010 at least prompted some serious discussion about limiting banker's bonuses, if not sustained implementation. On Wall Street, the busy architects of the next wealth-transferring bubble were probably laughing all the way to the bank.)

However, the lavish fireworks also brought V-for-Vendetta to mind, and we'd seen many V masks at Occupy London at St. Paul's when we'd made a pilgrimage there one foggy Saturday. We joined a motley parade of damp musicians circling the tents, watched an animal costume play for children under the splendid cathedral dome, and listened to the mostly inaudible exhortations and comedy routines below the cathedral steps.

Then we watched a tense little scene unfold only a few feet away. A young man wearing a court-jester hat and fluttering Monkey King banners was accosted by several beefy florid men straining the seams of their pinstripe suits. They started shouting at the bewildered kid, telling him to stop playing about and get a ****ing job. Very quickly, a group of older weather-beaten protesters surrounded the men in a ring three deep and began talking with them quietly. The protesters didn't crowd the belligerents, they muffled them in polite but focused attention. Soon after, two orange-vested British Bobbies with their distinctive hats jovially but firmly escorted the suits off the site. This was not long after violent episodes had simultaneously blossomed at several OWS sites around the U.S., giving the authorities a pretext to evict protesters.

My second New Year's Eve was in Belgrade on Jan. 13, the end of the Serbian Orthodox Christmas week. We were with Nash's mother, toasting each other beneath the dignified gaze of an oil painting of his great-grandfather. Nash and his twinkly diminutive 83-year-old mother smoked and chatted in Serbian while I developed an appreciation for apricot rakia. At one point I asked if we were going out to see the fireworks. Nash smiled and shook his head and said, "Those aren't fireworks. Usually they just aim at the sky, but we don't want to be out there."

This reminded me of a story I'd heard the day before, told by one of Nash's friends as we sat sipping mulled wine in a cozy riverboat café on the Sava (the kind of cafe that was crushed to matchsticks during last week's unprecedented ice on the Danube). Dusko Zivkovic, a self-made historian, told us about the famous Stealth incident. Even though most people hated the nationalists, they couldn't help but enjoy the fact that a Serbian with jerry-rigged antique technology had managed to detect and shoot down the undetectable Nighthawk bomber.

After the plane was downed, the army fanned out through the dark forest to find the pilot and get him out of there before he was found by the locals, then packed him off to Sweden so that he could get back home and enjoy a hero's welcome. Meanwhile, gypsies swiftly dismantled the Nighthawk and sold off the parts. Farmers who bought the pieces to build pigsties later complained that the metal was bad quality, the pigs could get right through it.

Then Dusko turned pensive. (The close proximity of a lively sense of the absurd and a gentle but deep melancholy seems to be a Belgrade characteristic.) He and Nash began to share their dismay at what was happening in American politics. In a kind of fervent duet, they told me what it was like to grow up in the former Yugoslavia. They had somewhat austere but comfortable childhoods; Yugoslavs were free to come and go "West" if they wanted. There were things like jazz records that they longed for, but they got a good public education and enjoyed lazy summers on Croatian beaches. They both said, however, that America had in fact represented to them what Hollywood claims America represents -- an exemplar of democracy and freedom. They had been equally in love with America's smiling long-haired girls in jeans, musicians of all colors and styles, and the right to vote. They both escaped the Balkan wars by the slimmest of chances.

The U.S. ranked number 19 in the Democracy Index for 2011, near the bottom of the list of "full democracies" and heading toward the "flawed democracy" category. Reasons for this falling status include the influence of money in politics and low voter turnout. Back in a pub in London after our Belgrade trip, a Swedish neuroscientist friend lamented, "When we were growing up, the U.S. symbolized what was good and hopeful. For my daughter's generation, it represents the opposite, everything that's wrong with the world. I know we were naïve, I know there was a lot of bad stuff going on in the shadows. But now they don't even bother to hide it." I know what he means. Maybe all those shiny civil liberties, public assets and public services were never more than a debit on the Cold War credit card, designed to be sold off to the highest bidder (or, as Thatcher did, for a song) when they were no longer needed for propaganda purposes. But still . . . .

My third 2012 toast was for Chinese New Year's Eve, January 22nd, the dawn of the Year of the Water Dragon. Dragons, especially Water Dragons, represent the delicate pivoting of the antithetical but codependent elements that characterize life itself. Dragons are "yang" beings of fire and creative force, but they are at home in watery "yin" depths. We welcomed the Water Dragon with organic wine and the documentary Inside Job, silently absorbing the chillingly well-told tale of thirty years of deepening abuse of public trust adding up to a record-breaking raid on public funds and small nest-eggs.

As we somberly toasted the midnight of our third New Year, we wondered how the continuing saga of human aspiration and its betrayals will unfold. U.S. politics appears to be suffering from a combination of virulent internal parasites and an advanced case of dementia. (A painful symptom was captured in the photo of a Seattle tea-party protester holding up a cardboard sign that read "Keep the Guvmint Out of My Medicare.") Here, the Eurozone is teetering on the brink of a dissolution that would send shockwaves throughout the world.

Does 2012 indeed herald the apocalypse, or the dawn of the "Chinese Century" that some people fear even more? Or maybe it's about time to usher in the "Mongolian-Argentinian-Canadian-Tahitian-Keralan-Turkish-Icelandic-and-All-Polities-Great-and-Small-Century"? As is often said in some form or another, a political system is only as good as its people are willing to make it. It takes a lot of time and effort to maintain a reasonably equitable one, and unfortunately almost no time at all to rip it apart. We will probably never entirely eradicate from the face of the earth that noxious weed-like desire to choke the laws that protect the powerless. But it is still our choice whether or not to let it run rampant and choke every living thing.

Sometimes Nash still plays that old Simon and Garfunkel song... "They've all gone to look for America... "