Wait until the Republicans get a hold of this! The Wall Street Journal's Mary O'Grady, also known as the last Contra to stumble out of the jungles of Latin America's Cold War, will likely pass out on the spot. It's so wrong...and yet, to the right, it will feel so right.
Full-on-the-mouth man love between American socialist Barack Obama and macho Bolivarian Hugo Chavez! Is this geopolitics? Sean Penn's latest homoerotic fantasy? Or is it capitalism at work?
Of course, the answer is: it's all of the above. The picture is from the latest Benetton advertising campaign, one that seeks to give a jolt of edgy relevance to the fading brightly-colored sweater purveyor. It is part of a campaign that also features the equally steamy picture of Pope Benedict kissing the Sheikh of the al-Azhar mosque, Ahmed al-Tayeb. But that one goes too far, clearly. After all, who could imagine a senior official of the Catholic Church... Er, never mind. I've gotten myself in trouble in that department in the past. I'll just let the picture speak for itself.
I'm still waiting for the phone to ring and the editors of Time Magazine to ask me who the pick should be for Person of the Year. This will be one of those years when it's a concept choice, of that I'm certain. You know what I mean, when the choice is a group of people or a home appliance rather than one big name recipient. The only question in my mind is whether you call 2011 "The Year of the Mob" -- which is a bit uncharitable to some of the public demonstrations that championed important values with great courage...or "The Year of the Masses" or "The Year of the Street." That covers everything from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, from demonstrations in Athens against fiscal mismanagement and the burdens of austerity to those in London against raised tuitions, from the truckers strike in Shanghai to the mobs in State College Pennsylvania protesting the ouster of Joe Paterno or, one hopes, protesting the university looking the other way against charges of child abuse.
And of course, the ultimate example of mob mentality would be the performance of world markets, stampeding as though they were not on Wall Street but in the streets of Pamplona, rampaging from one crisis to another with precious little regard for facts, the long-term, fiduciary responsibility, or anything but the trade of the moment. As a consequence of this phenomenon and with an eye toward the uncertain outcomes of some of the other public demonstrations of the year, this might also be the year the editors run a thought provoking sidebar headlined "RIP: The Wisdom of Crowds." Because comforting as that notion was, crowds are only wise if all in them have equal access to the same information, have equal capacity for evaluating that information, have equal ability to move at the same speed, are playing on a level playing field. And as we know, they don't which is why the only people who still believe in efficient market theory are the ones who are peddling the old textbooks and academic papers they wrote about it. I certainly don't know a single major investor who believes in the idea.
Sadly, of course, we don't get to pick the winners of such illustrious prizes here at tiny FP. So, we have to make up our own awards that capture the spirit of the moment. Fortunately, this gives us more latitude. We don't have to limit our choices to people. We can go deeper. And in this case, that's precisely where we will go.
And that's why I would like to take this opportunity to announce our (my) selection for FP's First Annual Gland of the Year Award. While the competition in this year of Kardashian marital hijinks, Bunga Bunga parties, and the patter of little feet in the Élysée Palace was fierce, once again the winner trumped by a wide margin the runners-up, which as usual included a variety of reproductive glands from many lands not to mention several organs that happened to get votes despite not actually being glands --including the heart and the brain. And that winner, by a wide margin, explaining everything that happened in the global street and once again dominating (and making havoc of) global affairs is ...the Adrenal Gland.
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There are events that are so great that they define an era. Sometimes, the events are associated with transformational trends -- like the Industrial Revolution or the Information Age. Sometimes they are linked to great individuals -- as in the Napoleonic or Victorian periods. And sometimes they are linked to a pivotal action or occurrence that captured the spirit of the adjacent years -- Woodstock or Watergate, for example.
The most recent such epoch ended yesterday.
Forever we will look back on this moment in time and we will define it in terms of the event that above all others embodied and communicated our own zeitgeist. I speak of course, of the marriage of Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries, which tragically and unexpectedly ended yesterday.
Why, dear God, did you deprive us of this and leave us with Hamid Karzai? Why did you take away this manifestation of what is purest and best about humanity and leave us with the festering problems of the Arab-Palestinian divide?
Of course, we can only for so long rail against providence like King Lear on the heath. Ultimately, life is about learning to come to terms with loss and about appreciating what is elevating and ennobling as best we can even if it must -- heart-breakingly -- be in retrospect.
And we did have our time with them, with our two shining examples. The 72 days of marriage don't seem like much, but take them and the months since Kim and Kris first looked beneath each other's strangely furry eyebrows into each other's eyes and saw that something special that cynics might call sponsorship dollars but we know in our hearts must have been true love and you have an entire year -- not just of good ratings, but of transformational changes in the world.
In the Era of Kim and Kris...
...Osama bin Laden was spotted and killed.
...Anwar al Awlaki met a similar fate.
...The Arab Spring kindled and freedom swept through the Middle East bringing down autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.
...The Tea Party rose.
...Michele Bachmann rose and fell.
...Rick Perry rose and fell.
...Herman Cain rose and is falling.
...Mitt Romney remained the whitest white man in America.
...The Eurozone teetered on the brink.
...Wall Street was occupied ... as were 900 other cities.
...Steve Jobs died and the St. Louis Cardinals proved that reincarnation is possible.
Think of it, in that short time, ancient civilizations in Europe and the Middle East were shaken to their foundations. Capitalism went deeper into crisis and revolution brewed around the world. The earth shifted on its very axis.
And in that time, this simple beautiful act, this daring leap into love, elevated and distracted us and allowed us to cling to hope. Because if these two virtual strangers with no education and almost no talent other than ambition itself could will themselves into a marriage that made them millions -- even if it did last no longer than the Tweets by which they announced each of their carefully calculated mood-swings and spats -- then maybe riches were not just for Wall Street geniuses who went to Harvard, maybe TV shows were not just for the beautiful or the gifted, maybe marriage was not just for those who found real love. Maybe sub-average, sub-interesting, sub-useful people could fake their way through this mess just like the big time financial fraudsters and get loads of good gifts, press coverage, and big fat checks for their efforts.
No, this marriage may not have lasted long but that doesn't mean we won't always have its memory to remind us of precisely what kind of world we lived in back then in, well, you know ... last week.
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The mantra in Washington these days is "jobs, jobs, jobs." Then, today, for a brief moment, the focus shifted -- to Jobs.
The reaction to the death of Steve Jobs has been remarkable for both what it says about the man and our times. But it is also resonant because of a message it has sent that has yet to be received, it seems.
It has already been observed that it is stunning to see such a seemingly heartfelt, widespread sense of loss and emotion for the death of an American CEO at a moment when Americans are finally and understandably taking to the streets to protest what is seen by demonstrators to be the hostile take-over of the U.S. economy by big business interests.
Somehow, Steve Jobs transcended his role as a business man in much the same way that for many the products his company produces have transcended being seen as mere devices, workaday slabs of technology. Some of that was due to great marketing, of course. But there's nothing inherently wrong with that. Marketing does not work if it doesn't ring true or if the promises made to consumers are not kept by manufacturers. And some of the Steve Jobs difference was due to a willingness to set aside knowledge of the company and its founder's missteps or hard-ball, sometimes, arrogant business tactics. But again, such facts are not easily set aside unless they are overshadowed by other factors.
In the case of Jobs, what set him apart was not just that he was a visionary or that he was successful. There are plenty of other tech titans who made billions who could drop dead tomorrow with nary a notice in the paper or a teardrop being shed outside their immediate families. In some cases, you might even hear the faint sound of cheering within their immediate vicinity.
It was not just that he was a good-looking, thoughtful, articulate spokesperson who combined just the right elements of geek and master of the universe, of everyman and of being the Willy Wonka of the digital era. Because good spokespeople for industries come and go, yet how many of even the very best would have prompted local television stations to pre-empt programming to run announcements of their demise as did my local station in DC, last night?
No, part of what set Steve Jobs apart was that he delivered on a promise that was bigger than any he or Apple or his industry could have made. He delivered on the promise of the future.
Among the most unsettling aspects for this particular observer of Jobs obituaries are the line that reads "1955-2011." Because 1955 doesn't seem that long ago to me. It is, in fact, the year I was born and I for one, am resolutely convinced that I am not old enough for an obituary. But that shared birth year also lets me understand a bit of where Jobs was coming from. It came from a childhood marked by grand promises associated not just with living in the richest and most powerful country in the world at the time of seemingly never-ending ascendancy but with serial technological breakthroughs. There were spaceflights and satellites and color televisions and 8-track tapes and polyester and TV dinners and Tang and oral polio vaccines and computers the size of your high school auditorium. And when there was a lull in innovation there was the Jetsons or "Time Tunnel" or "Star Trek" to double down on the promises.
And then we grew up and we waited for the flying cars to come.
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The tsunami and earthquake that tragically struck Japan today could not come at a worse moment for the Japanese. The economy has been struggling for almost two decades to recover and seemed poised to make progress, but now has suffered yet another bitter blow. The costs of rebuilding will add to already high deficits and high anxiety. It is only fortunate that there is perhaps no other country in the world as well prepared to deal with earthquakes and their consequences as Japan.
That said, the disaster also resonates in many ways with what is happening elsewhere in the world. It reminds us that "black swans" are not rare events. Indeed, the first few months of this year have demonstrated yet again that nothing in this world is as commonplace as the unexpected. That is no doubt more a commentary on the way we arrive at expectations than it is on the nature of life on the planet. In just the past 10 weeks alone, we have seen revolutions, earthquakes, major economies downgraded by credit ratings agencies, spiking energy and food prices, and the usual accompanying market roller coaster rides that bespeak the fact that we are collectively spun around by events more often than your average weathervane is by the daily breeze.
Another way the tsunami resonates is with the images we have already seen on the television of it sweeping ashore -- a great black wave of destruction -- causing havoc and then retreating to the sea. As I watched I couldn't help but wonder if that was not how we were ultimately going to view the upheaval that has rocked the Middle East this year. There came a wave and great drama and then, almost as quickly, the wave withdrew and was forgotten.
Certainly, we are at risk of such an outcome at the moment. If Qaddafi succeeds in pushing back the rebels during the next couple of days, the world may well conclude -- if it has not done so already -- that supporting the Libyan opposition may be a losing proposition. And if Qaddafi wins and reestablishes his control on the country through brutality, it will send a strong message to other regimes across the region that the right response to rebellion is to be both ferocious and merciless.
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They are still there in Tahrir Square. Not as many as before. The energy has ebbed away. The television cameras have long-since shifted their focus elsewhere. To the fighting in Libya. To the water cannons being used against protestors by the U.S.-backed government in Iraq.
But the protestors remain where Egypt's Jasmine Revolution made its great stand against Mubarak's thugs. They are still connected with the world via Twitter and Facebook. They are not yet ready to leave and in that there is an important lesson that may offer more hope than even the jubilation that seemed to emanate from the protestors to every corner of the world when Hosni the Dinosaur finally agreed to lumber out of town.
They understand that contrary to the generally accepted understanding of the term, revolutions do not happen quickly nor do they end when the initial battles associated with them cease. Revolutions unfold slowly. Successful revolutions inevitably take years, decades or sometimes longer. Revolutions do not just require courage they require tenacity and watchfulness.
In Tahrir Square, they are watching. They are there to hold the Egyptian provisional government to their word. They were there this week to demand that Ahmed Shafiq, a Mubarak hold-over, resign. If he did not, they would call their brethren back to the square. Shafiq and the leaders of the military who have been entrusted with the transition understood what that meant. For the protestors, it was another step forward but it was still an early one in what they know will be a long journey.
Even should democracy arrive later this year, they know that is not enough. From Mubarak to free and fair elections is great progress, a kind of political miracle, but it is not what the revolution was about. The revolution was about what happens between elections, what leads from election to election, about a culture of transparency, fairness and opportunity. It is about being a democratic society which is very different from sporting a few of the accoutrements of democratic behavior ... like elections.
They don't have to look too far to see that elections alone do not a functioning democratic society make. They can look to Iraq, where despite elections cronyism, corruption, and ethnic and social divisions still rule. They see a country in which the United States spent billions of dollars and thousands of lives to defeat a despot and install democracy with its people in the street, demanding change, confronted by "security forces in black uniforms, track-suits and T-shirts" who, according to the Washington Post, "attacked protesters, rounded up others from cafes and homes and hauled them off, blindfolded to army detention centers."
The Post story quoted a human rights activist as saying, "Maliki is starting to act like Saddam Hussein, to use the same fear, to plant it inside Iraqis who criticize him. ... The U.S. must feel embarrassed right now -- it is they who promised a modern state, a democratic state."
While they may not know that Merriam-Webster defines revolution as "a sudden, radical or complete change" they understand that "sudden" and even "radical" are not enough. "Complete" is the operative word and that takes time and vigilance and the spirit of a marathon runner as opposed to a sprinter.
It's why, despite the fact that few of them may ever have heard of Benjamin Franklin, they seem to understand what he meant when, asked about what was being produced by America's revolution and the subsequent drafting of its constitution, he said, "a republic, if we can keep it."
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This morning's New York Times contains an article quoting various "regional experts" as saying that the current upheaval in the region is playing into the hands of Iran. This is a flawed analysis on several levels.
First, we are so early in this process that it is premature to say who will benefit from or be damaged by it. It is still too early to know how many states will be affected or what the effects of the revolutions will be. Several scenarios are plausible. In one, prolonged upheaval, Iran may benefit as the alliance that existed against it is compromised. In another, a shift to democracy, Iran may or may not benefit depending on the orientation of the government, but in all likelihood it would be damaged as more democratic governments are likely to be both more open to the rest of the world and an inspiration to the repressed people of Iran. In a third, a new generation of strongmen emerges, you could theoretically have pro-Iranian Islamic states take hold, but the reality is, given the long-term history of Iran within the region, old anti-Iranian alliances would recoalesce. This is especially true because new regimes would likely have large military components comprising experienced officers who have been in anti-Iranian stance throughout their careers.
Iran is certainly working to take advantage of the current uncertainty, using Hezbollah, Hamas, and related networks to promote both the instability it seeks and voices that it considers friendly. But Iran is not, and cannot ever be, "of" the Arab world. The cultural and historic barriers are too great. And therefore, the notion of it somehow creating an enduring network of states aligned to it is far-fetched.
This point about Iran however, does bring into focus a bigger point about the nature and future of the remarkable wave of revolutions currently sweeping across the region. Just as Iran is in the Middle East without being, in the minds of its Arab neighbors, a real part of their world, so too has the great problem of the Middle East at large been that for a variety of historical, political, and cultural reasons it has been in the world without having been of it.
The cultural disposition of the region has been to set itself apart, to create barriers to integration to the rest of the world, and in fact, to view integration with the rest of the world as a threat. This is a generalization, of course. There are hugely sophisticated global business leaders from the region, and there are cosmopolitan pockets within each of the countries of the Middle East. But for intentional and unintentional reasons -- education, religious views, political ideologies, social stratification, deliberate policy choices made by ruling regimes -- the benefits of integrating into the global economy have not been as available to people from the region as they have been to others in the Americas, Europe, or Asia.
The regional experts assessing the situation in the New York Times article are viewing what is happening purely in terms of old paradigms and politics. But one of the most important questions raised by the current situation is whether we are not seeing merely the latest round of political musical chairs, but rather we are seeing something deeper and more profound that could alter historical patterns. This is not, by the way, just an abstract question. It has very practical strategic implications for how the world outside the region handles the remainder of this period of change.
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The problem with experience is that it doesn't prepare you for what you have never seen before. This is also a challenge for experts, for whom their knowledge of the past is usually an advantage, but sometimes can be their worst limitation.
This has certainly been the case in the past several weeks with the events in Tunisia and Egypt. Old Middle East hands approached the matter with great caution, fearing instability, because if it followed past patterns, it would most likely end in unhappiness. The most likely outcomes they could foresee were either: the further cementing of the status quo or an invitation to something much worse.
History taught them that popular uprisings in the region typically led either to replacing one despot with another or perhaps to trading the evils of autocracy for the evils of theocracy.
And we would do well to consider the fact that even now, as Egypt is awash in euphoria, that the experts may be right. And they would do well to consider that perhaps what has happened in Egypt is something entirely new.
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Timelines are for high school textbooks. History itself is all indirection and angles, actions and events caroming off one another, one unintended consequence glancing into the next.
That is what makes forecasting the future so difficult. Our rational minds look for the timeline, the natural next step, even though we know the bolt from the blue or the nudge from nowhere is that much more likely.
A week ago, anyone looking at American politics would have said that the driving forces would surely be the economy or possibly great events in the world, the wars we are fighting or the actions of the enemies we fear. Many would have predicted that the Tea Party movement and the extreme right, led by the likes of Sarah Palin, would play a major role in the 2012 presidential cycle, riding the momentum of their midterm election victories.
Surely as China's President Hu or France's President Sarkozy were being briefed for their visits to Washington, their intelligence services did not tell them the political landscape in America might shift dramatically as a consequence of the actions of a lunatic in front of a Safeway supermarket in a Tucson strip mall.
Indeed, even immediately after the tragic attack on Congresswoman Giffords, it was by no means certain that the event would have anything like lasting consequences. Nor was it certain what whatever consequences occurred might be. Nor is it certain now.
But some of the laws that govern the physics of history and politics suggest that once again the irrational, the unexpected, and the unintended are likely to dictate what impact Jared Lee Loughner's 31 shots might ultimately have. Among those laws are a few that are well known even to casual observers:
For all these reasons, it now seems likely the events in Tucson will have enduring effects on American politics and by extension global affairs. For example, although Loughner seems to have been your garden-variety deranged lone gunman -- dim, smirking, and profoundly ill -- he was a spark that set aflame the already smoldering debate about how ugly America's political discourse had become.
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Scrooge. The Grinch. Critics calling out the cinematic deficiencies of "Love Actually." Christmas humbuggery is a cliché.
I however, am a New Year's curmudgeon. The holiday is a fraud celebrated by idiots. Our arbitrary slicing of time into comprehension-sized chunks and then celebrating the false distinctions between December 31 and the first of January is a big honking nonsense.
The fact that this ersatz holiday then motivates people to put on silly hats and drink to excess to celebrate the non-event event compounds the ridiculousness of it all and makes it dangerous to leave the safety of your couch. The only thing that adds any gravity to the activity at all is America's tradition of spending part of the evening watching Dick Clark slowly losing body functions on live national television. (I sympathize with the man and admire his courage. But he seems to be crowning a lifetime of cashing in on his bad taste with an ultimate grotesqueness: a multi-year, hard-to-watch reality show about his own demise.)
That said, you don't have to be a drunken lunatic who spends 10 hours trapped in the freezing cold in Times Square waiting for Snooki to be dropped in a glass hamster ball to add to the absurdity of this annual ritual about nothing. No, even very serious types like commentators and still grave but less credible types like bloggers regularly mark the holiday in ways that make them bigger laughingstocks than the insurance salesmen with lampshades on their heads who made the holiday famous: They make predictions.
Invariably the predictions do not come true. There is a charming irony in this: celebrating a non-event through the ritual listing of other soon-to-be non-events. (The New York Times has even run an entertaining discussion forum this week on why we seem to need predictions and how hard they are to make.) It is all a cousin to our penchant for marking the "new" year with resolutions to distinguish the year from that which came before it -- and which are all soon forgotten in ways that should remind us of the falseness of such distinctions.
But while I may condemn the holiday -- which is why on New Year's Eve I will sit here in Paris in our rented digs in the Sixth Arrondissement listening to the nearby revelry on the Boulevard Montparnasse and the Boulevard Raspail while quietly sipping Diet Coke and irritating my very patient wife just as I do each and every other night -- I am not so egotistical as to think my protests can undo the culturally embedded traditions of the season. I also don't think I can ignore the requests of the editors at FP any longer. So I too will now offer some New Year's predictions.
However, in an effort to avoid the kind of pitfalls of which I am critical, I will skip right over the dubious maybes of most pundits and cut right to what you want to know the most: I will list only those things that are absolutely certain to happen in 2011.
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I woke up bleary and disoriented on the morning of December 9, 1980. I was at my girlfriend's apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It was, like most pre-War Manhattan apartment buildings -- especially those in which students could afford to live -- drafty despite the clattering radiator and pipes that seemed to give the building a life all its own.
The radio spluttered out static and then the report from the night before that John Lennon had been gunned down in the street fifty blocks, about two and a half miles, from where we had been sleeping. Alison was in the bathroom and I called out to her to share the news and for a while we sat on the bed listening and trying to soak it in.
It was one of those news reports that hits you squarely in the equilibrium. In my life, there have been about half a dozen such events, stories that resonated for reasons often involving much more than the circumstances being reported. They tied together years and core thematic threads into emotional knots by which we, like the Fates, marked the passage of our lives. For me, the first was the Cuban Missile Crisis when I was six. The next was the JFK assassination. Then the assassinations of '68, Woodstock, and the moon landing of 1969, all in one great chain of events. Then the Lennon shooting, the Challenger explosion, the fall of the USSR and 9/11. I am sure the list is different for others who have lived through it all, but I suspect there is considerable overlap.
It is strange to me that the death of an entertainer, a singer-songwriter, might rank up there with those other developments that seem on the face of them to have so much more historical heft. But, of course, Lennon represented the spirit of a period of great revolution and change perhaps more than any other figure, certainly up there with Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy and -- from a different arena but atop the list all the same-- Muhammad Ali.
Of all these figures, three of whom died violently, Lennon was the poet, the one who distilled and expressed the aspirations of the period. He did it with plenty of innocence and some naiveté but also with a sardonic edge that forgave and qualified much that might otherwise have been a trifle too wide-eyed to seem tied to reality. (And in so doing he also made the career of Paul McCartney.)
And so his memory lingers and anniversaries of his death, like today, resonate. And they cause us to think back and wonder: what would John Lennon make of today's world? What would his voice be saying about today's issues?
The "American exceptionalism" riff that has become so popular among Republicans recently has understandable appeal. First of all it contains the word "American" which is always a plus when trying to appeal to base, nationalistic impulses. (Unless, of course, it is a reference to American Airlines, which can only produce deep national feelings of shame, discomfort, and lost luggage.)
Next, it speaks to the growing self-doubts Americans have (generated in part due to having the entire country performing much like American Airlines -- run down equipment, not up to past standards, being directed around by disgruntled, self-absorbed people who seem to have had their empathy glands surgically removed). It says: We can be special again. Or we're still special. Better yet, it goes a little further, tweaking the planet and those among our leaders who seem to be inclined to apologize for the United States.
It says, "It's morning in America" and "F- you, world" at the same time.
What message could speak more directly to the American zeitgeist of the moment? (That's a German word meaning "why you feel so pissed off all the time" … much as though you were a passenger on American Airlines.)
Here's the problem with the riff. We don't get to be exceptional just because we want to be exceptional. We don't even get to be exceptional just because we once were exceptional. We need to actually be exceptional -- not just standing apart from the world but out-performing it in key respects or having that special something that sets us apart.
Unfortunately, the latest news seems to suggest we're headed in the wrong direction. In fact, a more honest framing of our current situation might speak to a new American averagism, perhaps even a new American subpar-ism.
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A U.S. government report indicates one in five Americans is mentally ill. This only partially explains the results of the last election.
The Davenport family of St. Petersburg, Florida on Wednesday became the first people in the country to begin waiting in line for next Friday's post-Thanksgiving Day sales. See prior point.
Heavily armed battle tanks arrive in Afghanistan for the first time in a nearly decade long war at roughly the same time President Obama arrives in Lisbon to persuade allies and the world that things are finally going our way in that benighted country. Who are you going to believe, the president or a battle tank?
Satellite imagery confirms that the North Koreans are building a new nuclear reactor. They would do more to send a message of progress to the world if the satellites sent back a snapshot of the opening of a Best Buy in Pyongyang (and you can be sure the Davenport family would be camped out in front for the grand opening.)
Protests over Haiti's cholera outbreak have turned violent. Meanwhile, UN Haiti recovery champion Bill Clinton wraps up shooting for his cameo in "The Hangover II" in Thailand.
EU leaders pressure the Irish to raise their too-low corporate tax arguing that the country has gone bust trying to make itself attractive to foreign investors. Are you paying attention, Washington?
In an effort to win the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee Michigan Republican Fred Upton has promised to reconsider his support for phasing out incandescent light bulbs. This comes in response to right wing attacks on what they characterize as "socialist" support for more efficient "squiggly" bulbs. (Note: Bloggers everywhere appreciate the recent proliferation of such self-ridiculing stories. A real time-saver.)
The Nobel Committee announces that China's "unprecedented" campaign to shut down the peace prize ceremonies for Liu Xiaobo by keeping his family away and pressuring countries not to attend may succeed. Beijing could not have thought of a better way to validate Liu or to bring more attention to his award.
In related news, China sentences a woman to a year in a labor camp for retweeting a satirical message and thus "disrupting the social order." Yes, that's the same China that George Soros says is better run than the U.S. (but then perhaps he feels the same way I do about Twitter.)
Aung San Suu Kyi is finally freed in what the press characterizes as a "Mandela moment" but she notes that in many ways South Africa had it easier. She and Liu remind us that the real progress hasn't a thing to do with technology, economic growth or the shape of our lightbulbs.
P.S. Due to the tremendous response to this week's Snookiism post, I wanted to more clearly define what I mean by the term. To me Snookiism is any movement that depends on the stupidity of its main actors or its supporters for its success. In instances of extreme Snookiism, it relies on both.
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Be afraid. Be very afraid. Mainstream, rock-ribbed, you-can't-make-me-flinch Republicans are. One former leader of the party I spoke with the other night said, "We've never seen anything like them. The Gingrich 'Contract with America' revolution was mild by comparison." Representative Bob Inglis, attacking the play to the lowest-common I.Q. of the base, said, "We're getting what we deserve."
America's first know-nothings were a mid-19th century collection of nativists who dreaded "foreign" influences on the American way of life. Reactionary as they were, we may someday see them as a collection of Rhodes Scholars and Nobel Prize Winners compared to their lineal political descendents who make up the current crew of Republican extremists now flexing their recently pumped up muscles in the Congress. Knowing nothing would be an improvement for this group which defiantly embraces the wrong, the indefensible, the illogical and the absurd with their only apparent criteria for taking a position being that it feels good for their adrenaline-stoked base. Facts, science, knowledge, and reality are all seen as the tools of elites, weapons against common folks who have gotten along just fine believing in foolish ideas for all these years.
The roots for the current movement could be found in the arguments of creationists against teaching the science of evolution in the schools. But today we have a new generation of fundamentalists ... climate creationists, foreign policy creationists, deficit creationists ... for whom arithmetic and history are simply the tools of the devil. They invoke the founders but sound more like their contemporaries in England who argued that the reason that British hikers were finding fish fossils in the mountains of England had nothing to do with where seas once might have been millions of years before and instead was a consequence of God putting the fossils there to trick people into doubting the literal word of the Bible.
In just the past couple of weeks since the election we have seen half a dozen examples of this next generation know-nothingism, this translation of a dumbed-down zeitgeist into a new movement that might be called Snookiism.
Some Republicans take comfort in the fact that the Tea Party isn't really a party and had no real hierarchic organization or unified platform in the last election. They see it more as an emotional spasm, the Perot Party Version 2010, and that it will pass. But the 110 newly elected representatives on Capitol Hill who were elected with some Tea Party affiliation are now starting to coalesce into a driving force. If they can effectively form and maintain the discipline of a caucus then they have a chance at further institutionalizing and preserving their movement.
In some respects this might be seen as democracy at work. The problem is we are taking an affliction of democracy -- ignorance -- and turning it into a political movement. This may be disturbing to all those who have a passing interest in the facts, but it creates a special burden for those who must oppose the movement, because those on the other side are actually immune to rational argument, by definition allergic to it.
It now falls to the mainstream Republican leadership, especially to presumptive Speaker John Boehner, to control this group and limit its worst traits. And all spirited Americans who can read and write ought to be pulling for him. Because if he fails, America will face the threat of the spread of a strain of reckless demagoguery unprecedented in our history, a Snookidemic that threatens to effectively lobotomize the body politic.
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Although it's hard to believe, there have actually been developments this week that were more difficult to understand than the finale of Lost -- which is saying something since the show was roughly as incomprehensible as a boozy 3 a.m. chat with Lindsay Lohan.
If all that's confusing to you, brace yourself -- the summer ahead may prove to be a real head spinner. And more on that note in tomorrow's offering. Stay tuned...
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When I was just out of college, one of my pals from school landed a plum job as a production assistant at ABC News. Sometimes, we would meet his pals from the ABC News room for a drink near their studios in the West 60s in Manhattan. One of them was a terrific guy named Tom Capra, son of filmmaker Frank Capra, and I vividly remember him going into a rant over a beer about Ted Turner's hare-brained new 24-hour news operation which Tom and all his colleagues referred to derisively as the "Chicken Noodle Network."
At the time, CNN's aspirations and shenanigans and low salaries seemed beneath the serious work that was done by the likes of their Peter Jennings and Barbara Walters and Harry Reasoner and the other big stars of evening news. Back then those other stars were people like Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor, a mostly male group who traced their journalistic DNA back to Edward R. Murrow and that CBS operation that was kind of the Olduvai Gorge of broadcast news.
Now most of those stars are dead and oddly, the Chicken Noodle Network which rose up, revolutionized television and in fact, modern society, has in fact recently transformed itself into the Cadaver News Network. Between its non-stop coverage of Michael Jackson's demise (that was a guy who really knew how to make an exit), the 24/7 coverage of the death of Teddy Kennedy that has now (probably temporarily) usurped it and the age of most of its commentators and viewers, CNN is one of those ideas I feel as though I have seen gone through its full life cycle -- from laughing stock to parody of itself.
Candidly, it's hard to imagine the world without CNN and when global crises strike -- as most recently in the case of the Iranian uprisings -- it can roll out its really good journalists and provide the sort of coverage that revolutionized the business. But it has never really figured out in almost three decades of existence what to do the rest of the time. Some of its answers to that question, like Larry King, are both superannuated and intoxicated with sheer trivia (otherwise how do you explain the appearance of Kate Gosselin, a woman who any respectable news organization ought to treat like intellectual ebola virus, something that once in your system pretty much dooms your credibility to bleed out through every orifice?)
Part of its solution to the issue of what to do when there is no news is, of course, a sort of repetition of recycled headlines and clips that I believe will ultimately be revealed to be one of the torture techniques used by the CIA in its interrogation of detainees. But another element of it has been their pioneering of the coverage of world events ... and particularly those in Washington ... as a kind of reality television show.
What they do is put together a cast of people who are certain to fight with one another and then they toss a story in the middle of them and watch them tear at it like hyenas with a tasty piece of wildebeest. In these sessions, the news is no longer central, it is just a catalyst to generate more intense inter-personal drama, the precise equivalent of the latest bit of Tyra Mail or Gordon Ramsay's latest challenge for his chefs on "Hell's Kitchen." It's Real World DC and we're just waiting for Bill Bennett to give it good to Donna Brazile. Of course, when they move into funereal mode the terms of the interactions are more muted but that is more than made up for by the stately soundtrack and dramatic graphics that are the shiny wrappers crying out that this is "new and improved" version of the same old story. Want more filler? Let's see what our viewers are emailing into us about us. Or let's see how the Internet is covering the same damn thing we are.
At the end of the day, it all calls to mind the Saturday Night Live bit that only slightly pre-dated my conversations with Tom Capra, the one in which Chevy Chase would periodically announce "Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead." I don't say this to minimize stories of real importance ... nor do I say it out of some misplaced nostalgia for "the golden age" of news. We live in the golden age of news. The way it is delivered on the web trumps everything every done before in history whether you are looking for ultra-local news on whose cat got caught in whose tree or you want 1000 perspectives on the latest election in Cameroon.
CNN played a big role in triggering the transformation that has brought us to where we are today. But now, they as well as MSNBC and Fox seem to have lost their way. What they do best is cover breaking stories. They should recognize that stately music and somber logos do not dignity make just as fights among their contract commentators are neither newsworthy nor, for the most part, terribly interesting. They should also recognize that repeating things over and over again and having the otherwise excellent Wolf Blitzer say, as he too often does, that something is "historic" does not actually make an event bigger than it is. It only makes their already dragged-out coverage longer. There must be a better way ... more focused on hard news coverage and taut analysis. There has got to be a programming choice other than that between dead air and dead people.
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America has been suffering an outbreak of especially virulent and acute stupidity recently. It has been particularly manifest at town hall meetings devoted to "discussions" of health care reform in which incensed Republicans scream at the top of their lungs about provisions that are not actually in any of the legislation under consideration -- for example the so-called "death panels" that would have bureaucrats deciding when to pull the plug on "grandma" (as President Obama characterized it yesterday).
Scientists are, of course, fascinated by this phenomenon which, given the behavior in question, has a better claim on the term swine flu than the current influenza flavor of choice does. Does it represent something new in the long history of stupidity? Or is it merely the latest manifestation of a time-honored component of the political process -- the cries for help of one of America's most important minority groups: idiots? (At least I hope it is a minority. There is some debate about that. It calls to mind Gore Vidal's famous line when asked about what he felt about studies that showed that only half of Americans read newspapers and only half vote and he said, something to the effect that at least he hoped it was the same half.)
Now, frankly, I don't know what the idiots have to complain about. This country has done more for them than perhaps any other single segment of our society. The constitution is packed with protections for the stupid. Grade inflation was designed especially to make them feel good about themselves. Self-help sections in bookstores and most daytime television talk shows are focused around the idea that morons are entitled to the same self-esteem that is enjoyed by people who actually think before they speak and act. In fact, catering to the nit-wit market has built the American entertainment industry into the world serving behemoth it is today (there are dummies everywhere, in fact globalization threatens a shift in the global balance of stupidity that may give an edge to more populous nations although China and India do have cultural inhibitions against some root causes of American assininity. They for example, as societies, seem to value education more and respect for those members of society that have somewhat more experience.)
Religious idiots are given the right to insert made up fairy tales for which is there is not nor could there be one single scintilla of evidence into "science" books as if they really happened. They demand and are actually accorded respect for ideas that are so preposterous that they wouldn't make it into the cosmology of Sponge Bob Square Pants. Conspiracy idiots have created an industry out of the idea that weather balloons are alien spacecraft and that those of us who are Jewish, who have been getting our asses kicked for all of human history, are actually in control of global affairs. Special-interest idiots are given the right to plead the case that if their children fail at math, can't spell or speak English badly enough then rather than being taught how to correct it, tests ought to be adjusted to ignore their shortcomings or, alternatively, their linguistic "innovations" ought to simply be treated as creativity or even as new forms of language. (You wonder why the math idiots have not managed to get algebra and calculus revised or just dropped from the curriculum for similar reasons. But then again... they are idiots.)
The financial industry caters to the idiot market and depends on the idiocy of congressional overseers to enable the embrace of techniques that anyone sound of reasoning would instantly reject. Congressional idiots are allowed to stand up and say that when legislation becomes too long it shouldn't even be read. We even several years ago elected and then re-elected an idiot president of the United States.
Last week, I spent a couple days -- after a beautiful trip of whitewater rafting in Colorado and hiking through the amazing Utah desert -- in the idiot capital of America: Las Vegas, Nevada. While many decry Las Vegas as a fleshpot, a blight on civilization or just the tackiest place on the planet Earth, first and foremost it is the Capistrano of idiots, the place to which nature draws them all (or at least the ones who could not get full-time work in Washington or Hollywood). You can tell because even at the airport, they have games of chance that guarantee that whoever plays them will lose their money... and long lines of people waiting to play. And the airport is just the tip of the iceberg of an entire industry built on the notion that people can't count or won't, that they believe in magical outcomes (see earlier offensive religious reference) or are just too damn dumb to breathe.
The city offers shows that cater to idiot tastes (how else can one explain the long and flourishing career of Carrot Top or the fact that every other person in town seems to have a tattoo that they are certain to regret in a matter of months if not minutes?). The city even seems to think that if it doesn't build windows into casinos that the idiots will lose track of the time and stay in them forever (much as horses will reputedly continue to eat until their stomachs explode or as right wing conservatives will continue incessantly to hammer the policies of the '80s regardless of how outdated or discredited they have become).
In fact, it is telling that Las Vegas is so dependent on stupidity that it is one of the few cities in America where alcohol (read: stupid juice) is sold on every street corner and practically handed out free on casino floors. There is really nothing that gives you a clearer picture of what the city and much of America is about than watching a cluster of bloated conventioneers, recent excess testing the very limits of their pants' sans-a-belt technology, weaving down the sidewalk along Las Vegas Boulevard while sucking on the twisting plastic straws in their two foot tall day-glo margherita containers.
This past weekend, despite the recession, Las Vegas was choked with people mouth-breathing their way from all-you-can-eat buffets to one opportunity after another to fritter away their kids college funds. Which just goes to show: There really is one recession proof market in the United States, a market that flourishes in good times and bad, and one that canny politicos everywhere are depending on as the last line of defense against common sense and the big fixes America urgently needs in health care, energy, climate and fiscal policy. Powerful people in America have come to depend on our idiots precisely because they know that when it comes to stupidity, they will never let us down.
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Washington is a city of oxymorons. It is a city of garden variety morons, as well. On the oxymoron side we have old favorites like "military intelligence," "compassionate conservative," and "government organization." On the moron side...well, in U.S. politics we have morons on both sides.
Now we have something new however, as in Washington the oxymorons and the morons are coming together in the form of America's latest reality television extravaganza (we really needed another): "Real World Washington." This is a unique double oxymoron in that it calls itself real but, like most reality TV, it is not...and because it is suggesting, fancifully, that there is somehow a connection between Washington and the real world. As for the morons, well you need only visit the bars around the DuPont Circle neighborhood location of the Real World set and you can view for yourself the cast in all their beer-soaked glory.
At first I wondered to myself how it was that a show like "The Real World" could have become MTV's longest-running hit, now in its 17th year. After all, it's pretty formulaic. Semi-attractive young adults including at least one or two with deep psychological problems are put together in a house in which they: drink, puke, appear to grope one another in grainy night-vision camera shots, and then fight about who groped whom.
Of course, thinking of it that way, I naturally started to wonder why it took so long for the show to come to the home of American politics which have been featuring all these activities for years. (For those of you who are more insensitive than I, insert Teddy Kennedy joke here. And for those of you who don't have the stomach for such humor but still want a laugh at the expense of all that Kennedy family groping, see this link about a new book on America's zany royal family.)
Once I started thinking about politicians and groping and the real world, however, my thoughts immediately drifted eastward, out over the Atlantic, and in the direction of the world's most famous aging libido, that of the host of this week's G8 Meeting, Silvio Berlusconi. This in turn led to a thunderbolt of inspiration akin to that which struck another famous Italian in the Berlusconi mold, Michael Corleone, when he first saw the ill-fated Apollonia Vitelli. What about the Real World Berlusconi-style? What about Real World L'Aquila? Once we get the G8 leaders to Italy, why don't we lock them in a room until they actually produce something productive? And let's put it all on video! Big Brother for Big Brother!
And to keep it interesting we can add elements of other reality shows. For example, how about a taste of Real Housewives Berlusconi-style, while we're at it. Just locking Silvio and his really (justifiably) angry, estranged wife Veronica Lario in a house for the enjoyment of tv audiences everywhere would be irresistible.But throw her in with a bunch of other world leaders? See what happens when Silvio shoots an ill-considered glance in the direction of Michelle Obama? Who's wailing on him first? Veronica, Barack or Michelle? (My money is on Michelle.) Sadly, of course, Veronica is passing on the G8 Summit, forcing the Italians to turn the wife of their president to be the hostess for the affair.
We still have plenty of fun cast to choose from, however, given that the meetings in Italy will actually be attended by more than 25 countries, including all the G20. Just think of the potential gang we could feature in the house that meet the Real World formula for diversity and mayhem.
Given the fact that Berlusconi will be joined in Italy by members of the G20, the cast can be expanded to included a diverse enough group of lively characters to make this one version of Real World actually look a lot more like the real world than its many predecessors. South Africa's Jacob Zuma is, for example, a party all by himself with four wives, three other fiancés, perhaps as many as 18 children, and a list of run-ins with the law that would allow him to play the bad boy role. China's Hu Jintao was reportedly fond of singing and dancing in his teen years and therefore might add a little lift to those party nights out. And although Brazil's President Lula and Zuma may only have achieved the fourth and fifth grade in school, respectively, this actually makes them educationally over-qualified by Real World standards.
Sadly for the Real World premise...and for the real world...not many of the visiting leaders are women so we will have to rely on host Berlusconi to add a few of his close personal friends to add a little sexual tension to the show. But what with party credentials of the crowd gathering in L'Aquila and the help of Il Cavaliere it's clear this could make for fine viewing. If we wanted to make it something more than that...and something more than the bland communiqué machine G8 meetings typically are...we could add a different reality show twist, à la say "Big Brother" or "Survivor," in which participants are voted out after each week. Except in this instance, what we could do is rely on the general odiousness of hanging out with pols around the clock to motivate the cast to want to leave the house, but then not let them out unless they actually get something done in their negotiations. Think how that system would change the nature of summits. Although my fear is that rather than producing more productive meetings of government leaders, the requirement that they get something done would actually lead to the end of summits altogether.
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Millions of you turn to this blog site every day because you feel I will offer you insights that will help you make sense of the world. I know this. It's a humbling responsibility. And frankly, the enormity of it forces me to offer a confession. Today I reviewed the morning papers as I usually do (online, sans paper) and watched the early broadcasts of TV news organizations and I have got to admit it, I find everything pretty confusing.
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Developing further my Airport Theory of Foreign Relations, it is impossible not to marvel at the creativity and industry of the Indians. Arriving after an eight-and-one half-hour-long flight from that shopping mall from Hell also known as Heathrow Terminal Five, we raced into Mumbai for a meeting. Naturally, we were seething with hostility after bad treatment and flying here on what seemed to be the original Boeing 777. In fact, parts seemed to be made from balsa wood suggesting they had been salvaged from earlier aircraft... a de Havilland Jenny for example.
At any rate, this is the kind of subtle undermining of international relations that our painfully inefficient and unpleasant system of connecting the globe produces. We were ready to be ugly Americans, well-prepared for the job both by circumstances and genetics.
So, what is rapidly expanding India -- today's papers announced that the country expects to grow in this global economic annus horibilis at the breathtaking rate of 7 percent -- to do with visitors like us? Answer: build in a cool-down period (no mean feat when the temperature is over 90 and everyone is nervously awaiting the arrival of the monsoon season). Where? The highway from the airport. A trip that should take 40 minutes took almost two hours. It was an exceptionally effective buffer. By the time we got to the hotel I could barely muster a sneer at the reception lady when she told me my room wasn't ready. Of course, I'll admit I was subdued somewhat by the sight of the gutted remnants of the terrorist gutted Oberoi which we passed on the way in. (And also by the security we had to pass through just to enter the lobby of this hotel.)
Admittedly, thanks to a tube strike, the city from which we came, London, is also offering massive traffic jams from the airport. The problem is they are also offering massive traffic jams to the airport. And they don't have anything like 7 percent growth to explain the rapidly growing number of cars on the motorways. Nor, of course, do they have anything like the slums that line the route into downtown Mumbai...but I'll admit it, despite the gut-wrenching deprivation in which the slum-dwellers live, it is hard to not to look around at cranes on the horizon or the ubiquity of cell phones (a phone line for life costs $2) or to think of the recent successful elections in this complex country of a billion and not think that India has the wind at its back at the moment. That doesn't minimize the social challenges but it clearly gives a feeling of vitality and hope.
What a relief to be seeing the stories of Manmohan Singh's new government on the front page of the paper and not the stories from the front pages in my last stop noting the electoral success of the BNP, the racist, troglodyte British National Party. America elects an African American. Britain sends haters to the European Parliament. (What a relief that it is a useless organization.) Worse, the papers also noted similar recent right wing successes across Europe. For example the triumph of anti-gypsy nationalists in Hungary. Great to see Europe stepping up to meet the great challenges of our times with these creatures who have crawled out of the shallow end of the political cesspool.
That said, I can't say that I am that heartened by the news my blackberry keeps sending me from home, either. Can it really be that America is either surprised or interested that Adam Lambert is gay? (Really? Really?!) Can a Washington Post columnist actually be praising Obama for boldly taking a stance against Holocaust deniers (what next, a bold defense of Copernicus?), even as he seems to be allowing the country of those deniers to creep its way into the nuclear club? (If you don't see the irony here, write in and I will draw you a picture.)Can the Obama administration really believe that merging Chrysler into Fiat
is actually going to help either? Chrysler's best minds left after their last merger with Daimler Benz. Fiat doesn't have one single leading international brand. Is it really credible that if one of the world's most successful auto companies (Daimler Benz) couldn't save Chrysler that a combination of one of the world's most mediocre (Fiat) and a bunch of government guys who don't know anything about cars plus some union members who helped screw things up in the first place are going to do it?
Here in India, taxi drivers talk with palpable pride at the advent of the Tata Nano, a tiny car that is a source of great national pride. Business executives cite the ease with which they meet much higher average gasoline mileage targets than posed in the United States. I mean, I get it, this is a very poor country with a wide range of desperate needs (over 40 percent of Indians don't have access to electricity yet). But you've got to ask which way the trends are pushing us...and you also have to ask why the United States has not made a more urgent priority of dramatically strengthening relations with this country. Such a relationship could not be more central to containing the threat in Pakistan, counter-balancing China, promoting democracy and managing a whole host of global threats from climate to proliferation. To be perfectly honest, I think a lot more real and lasting (rather than symbolic and likely to be fleeting) good would be likely to come from President Obama making a trip to the land of Gandhi than his recent trip to the land of Mubarak and Nasser.
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When I was a boy, in between family readings of von Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, and the secret diaries of Scipio Africanus, sometimes I would sneak up to my room and read a comic book. Needless to say, DC Comics were heavily preferred over Marvel or other inferior brands because I liked my super heroes dry and undiluted by irony or wit. (Much as I like my blogs.) Particular favorites were the Legion of Super- Heroes and Justice League of America and when my brother and I would act out the events of the comics, he always wanted to be Superboy (which I considered a trite choice) or Aqualad, which I found hard to comprehend although it did lead to his spending a lot of time in the bath and being a very clean child. My favorite was Mon-El who was a mid-level African American talk show host during the day and then at night would become... Wait, I'm confused. That's someone else. This was a long time ago. No, Mon-El was cool because he appeared to have all of Superboy's powers but didn't have that annoying allergy to Kryptonite. I am telling you this because...well, because I thought he was definitely the best one and he never got anywhere nearly as much press attention as he should have.
But the real reason for bringing this all up was that also in these DC Comics stories of Superman periodically he would travel to the Bizarro world. This was a cube shaped planet where the Bizarro Code dictated "Us do opposite of all Earthly things!" Strangely all the people on the planet were rendered to appear the opposite of normal residents of earth -- like Superman -- by having them appear to be chiseled out of something relatively hard, probably soap or a good English white cheddar.
What does this have to do with foreign policy today? Well, currently...
We have a president of France who is pro-U.S., has taken steps to have France re-join the NATO military alliance, and who has played a very active and constructive role in shaping the international response to the global economic crisis.
This same president of France has, with the chancellor of Germany, a woman, led an effort to promote a fiscally responsible response to the crisis, often admonishing the United States about its free-wheeling spending and over-aggressive market intervention.
We have the government of Sweden -- who we had been led to believe were practically so communist they were the last surviving member of the Warsaw Pact -- unhesitatingly refusing to bail out national auto icon Saab, while the ultra-capitalist U.S. sentimentally coddled the dying carcass of GM in its fiscal arms.
We have the Chinese, lectured by the entire world for gaming their currency not more than a year ago, proposing a new alternative currency and while no one is clamoring to sign up now, they are taking this idea and Chinese critiques of the U.S. economy very seriously. Because China is now the country with the cash and the U.S. is the country on the global dole.
We even have the U.S. secretary of state going to Mexico to discuss drug violence and actually acknowledging that demand in the United States is a principal driver of the problem that is currently such a corrosive force in that nation.
In the midst of this crisis, we also will soon see a G20 Summit convene in London and while it is not sure they will agree on much, the one thing they seem unified about is giving more money to the IMF...an organization that has at best a mixed record, is despised throughout the developing world and which was widely considered to be so irrelevant as recently as a year ago that there were some who thought the best answer might be to just turn out the lights and convert the whole headquarters building into condos.
The U.S. has finally broken through a wall of prejudice and elected the first African American president, Jaguar and Land Rover are Indian car companies, Japan just beat Korea in a World Baseball Classic Championship Game from which the U.S. was shut out, and the very best basketball player in the world is Jewish.
Ok, of all these things, only the last one isn't true. We have gone through the looking glass. And as it turns out, reading those Legion of Super-Heroes comics may have been better preparation for today's world than even our lively family discussions of the Memoirs of Clive of India. Except of course, there are no super heroes anywhere to be seen and we could really use a few.
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David Rothkopf is the CEO and Editor-at-Large of Foreign Policy. His new book, "Power, Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government and the Reckoning that Lies Ahead" is due out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on March 1.