Armenia Weighs in on Azerbaijan’s Tower of Babel
Could the Kardashians Enter Baku Even if They Really Wanted to?
There were a lot of Armenians who, rightly, pointed out that they are barred from Azerbaijan and that anyone with an Armenian-sounding surname is likely to run into trouble at passport control in Baku. With this in mind, The Times has posted a follow-up to Sunday’s piece. Alas, Kim Kardashian’s publicists, in New York and L.A., declined to comment.
On the Idiocy and Iniquity of Political Correctness, Two Decades Later
The phenomenon known as political correctness appeared on campus a little more than two decades ago. It was then, and it is now, little more than ideology — Marxist, destructive, deeply hostile to the American experiment — and it has wrought terrific damage. In the beginning, being correct simply meant language codes and a more delicate, politically attuned sensibility. It meant not saying the things that one wasn’t supposed to say in mixed company, and it implied a secret knowledge and a duplicity: We knew or suspected or believed things (about culture, ethnicity and so forth), but we could not say them for fear of creating hostile environments. What was important about all this was that beneath the disingenuousness there was an awareness that one was being disingenuous. There was a great deal of cynicism, but there was also knowledge of the way things used to be, which is to say, more honest.
We are only now being confronted with the consequences of telling twenty-year-olds that there are some things they can never think or say lest they be ostracized from the group to which they so want to belong. The most obvious — and most discomfiting — of these is that underlying knowledge of the way things used to be has melted into a happy ignorance. It turns out that if you tell people to stop talking about something, the people who come after them will be unaware that there was anything they missed, and the people after them, and the people after them. So it is that the national discourse in 2013 is shot through with mindless wonderings about the meaning and value of American exceptionalism, democratic capitalism and, more generally, the Western tradition. It used to be that campuses were riddled with professors and students who shouted stupid things about “dead white males.” It now appears that we no longer even know which dead white males anyone was referring to — or even that there were any dead white males with whom we might have concerned ourselves. The defeat of convention and national identity is so hermetic that we are unaware there was a war.
This absence of self-awareness, of who we are and why we are here, is most evident in our politics and geopolitics. Our leaders, including those who purport to run both parties, no longer seem tethered to traditions or movements so much as themselves. There has always been egotism and small-mindedness, especially in government, but those impulses have been circumscribed by bigger, social-cultural forces that have kept us anchored to ourselves. We seem, increasingly, to be anchored to nothing. That is why, one imagines, our political machinery appears gridlocked, and it is why our journalists appear so incapable of making sense of that which they are tasked with making sense of. (“Making sense” of something, after all, implies that there is an objective truth at the bottom of it all, and everyone knows there is no truth.) Instead of making decisions or having conversations about real things, we content ourselves with momentary crises and metaphors that entertain and distract and have very little to do with what’s really ailing us.
There is no glimmer of hope at the moment. (“At the moment” is the only glimmer of a glimmer of a hope I can muster.) We are piling onto our ignorance with more ignorance; we seem to have no idea where we are going. The best way out is a counter-discourse, an alternative way of thinking. This means reading important books by authors who are not in vogue, but, more importantly, it means reimagining the role of education — it is not to prepare people to get a job; that is what vocational schools used to be for — and, ultimately, it means seeking something called the absolute and the real. It turns out there is, at the bottom of it all, something absolute, and the future depends on it. Our leaders — most of them, at least — do not know this, but that is to be expected. They are a reflection of ourselves, and we have been moving away from ourselves for more than twenty years. We have become so correct that we now know very little about who we are or what we are supposed to believe in or think or do. Once we start to reverse that ignorance, we can start to expect more from those who claim to represent our best interests.
America’s International Role
Tonight, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney should answer this question: What is America’s international role? That’s been unclear since December 1991, when the Soviet Union officially imploded and the United States’ role qua defender of the free world was transformed into something far more elastic, diffuse — indefinable. Bill Clinton never bothered to articulate a post-cold war foreign policy. Nor did George W. Bush, whose many confusions about war and peace reflected his inability or unwillingness to forge a coherent theory of international relations. (How else can we explain a president who entered office a staunch opponent of nation building and left it having failed to build nations out of the wreckage of Afghanistan and Iraq?) Obama’s idea of global affairs, meanwhile, looks to be a non-idea, a negation. Like so much about the whole idea of Obama, the Obama Doctrine, if we can call it that, seems to be little more than an Anti-Bush Doctrine, even though it’s hardly that. So, the question stands: What are we to be? Who are we to be? It’s not enough to say that America should be tough or tolerant or more multilateralist or unilateralist. These are postures that are meant to serve an overarching goal, which stems from our sense of self, our identity — our role. Without any real sense of what this role is, or ought to be, we have no way of knowing when or how or why we should act. Obama will talk about ending the war in Iraq. Romney will slam the president for his sub-optimal handling of the Libya fiasco. But these are details that should not obscure the larger point.
Question du Soir
At tonight’s debate, I’d love to hear Barack Obama and Mitt Romney answer these questions:
1. What is capitalism?
2. What is your opinion of it?
Capitalism, the Future and Its Discontents
The future is being driven by those countries that have embraced capitalism. We can debate the desirability and morality of markets — although so many of these arguments are porous and anachronistic — but we should be clear about this much: Most, if not all, of the countries that are reshaping global power dynamics have, to one extent or another, come to the conclusion that it is the free exchange of goods and services, not state-directed redistribution of wealth, that fuels development.
The great transition from state- to market-centered thinking seems to have taken place between the late 1970s and the early 1990s. That was when the rising powers of today, starting with China and India, started to migrate away from central planning. (Brazil was a little late to the game, introducing, in 1994, its Plano Real, which brought inflation under control and anticipated the dramatic growth of the past decade.) Second- and third-tier economies, including South Korea, Singapore, Israel and the United Arab Emirates, have followed suit.
It’s useful to bear this in mind when thinking about the elections in the United States. It should help us decide whether we want to shape — or to be shaped by — external developments. If we want to shape the world around us, we’d best pay attention to prevailing historical and economic forces. During the first two or three decades of the cold war, those forces appeared to be leading us toward democratic socialism. That proved an illusion: China abandoned Marxism; India abandoned socialism; the Berlin Wall collapsed; the Soviet Union collapsed; apartheid collapsed; globalization and mass commerce ensued. Even Sweden and Canada have jumped on board.
A corollary note: Democrats and Republicans take it for granted that Americans want to build the future. They assume that Americans believe that to be American is to lead. It’s unclear if this is still true. It may be the case that a growing number of Americans would prefer to be a function of the world they inhabit — not only to buy other peoples’ brands but to live in a country that is a derivative of other peoples’ values and beliefs. This is the conversation we ought to be having in the lead up to November 6.
On Micro-Stories and Other Stupidities
The political discourse appears incapable of extricating itself from the morass of daily micro-stories. We call this news, but it’s not. It’s people saying things that confirm our view of them — for example, Mitt Romney rambling on about the much-maligned 47 percent. Or it’s titillation — gossip. Case in point: The ongoing flare up surrounding the White House staff who may have had sex with some Colombian prostitutes. As if any of this matters.
Here’s what we should bear in mind: The world is changing, and we are not talking about that. We are so buried in the most pedestrian, insular details of the campaign that we’ve failed to pay much attention to the big questions that will shape not only the next four or eight years but the next several decades. How is the energy revolution, in the United States and Israel, going to color the political dynamic in the Middle East and Europe? What happens if China’s economy overtakes our own? What are we doing to recruit more Ph.D.’s from Delhi, Shanghai and Moscow? What are we doing to make sure that the next ten or twenty Google’s are hatched in Silicon Valley or Austin or New York and not, say, Singapore or Tel Aviv? Major news events, disruptions, bloodshed have a way of steering the conversation: When an ambassador is killed in Libya, we talk about Libya, and maybe the Middle East, for several minutes, maybe two or three days, and then we move on. We’re missing the bigger story, which are the underlying movements, the invisible, historical-political-commercial-cultural forces that will shape and reconfigure power politics for the next century.
Reporters, Politics and the Culture of Narcissism
Reporters covering the U.S. presidential election appear consumed with matters tactical. What matters most is how well a candidate lies — which “narrative” he spins, when he spins it, how he sounds as he delivers his deception. Consider Mitt Romney’s statement about the administration’s handling of the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. No doubt, Romney’s timing was off, and he sounded clumsy and opportunistic and un-presidential. But there was an important point, about the proper response to a violent mob and what best serves the national interest. That discussion has yet to happen because the reporters who were at the Romney press conference were more interested in his timing: How does this look? Wouldn’t it have been better to have waited twenty-four hours? Fine, fine. But then we ought to have moved on to bigger questions. To start, was Romney’s criticism fair or right? There’s something to be said for reassessing the president’s Middle East policy. We were promised a new chapter in U.S.-Muslim relations, and that appears not to have materialized. And not just that: Why hasn’t anyone asked Romney what he would have done differently? Politicians love to say they won’t answer hypothetical questions, but this is a hypothetical question worth pursuing: You’ve just criticized the president for his handling of an entire region. How might you have handled things differently? Could you have preempted the attacks on our embassies and personnel? Would the American envoy to Libya be alive today had you been president?
One senses a sad narcissism at the heart of today’s media. Reporters like talking about reporters. They like talking about themselves. They enjoy delving into candidates’ media strategies, which is to say — how well candidates lie to the media. Whether those lies are exposed is not really the point. What is the point is how believable they are, which is odd. It exposes a disconnect: We the media know you’re lying to us, but the unwashed masses do not. This is what’s called a good campaign. Chris Christie is learning very well how to play that game. Bill Clinton is a master at it. (For more on the roots of this pathology, see Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism.)
Alas, journalists are no longer flies on the wall so much as flies buzzing around a busy room taking notes about other reporters and what people say to them. They are enveloped by the culture they come from. They imagine themselves, one imagines, playing a role in a movie, with a soundtrack in the background, running.