Politics & Policy


To Be in Davos, Part III

All right, folks, we’re at the halfway point. This is the third part of what is sort of a Davos Journal. Parts I and II were “published” on Monday and Tuesday. (To read them, please go here and here.) Davos, for those who need a reminder, is the Swiss village in which the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum is held. And, as Jackie Gleason was wont to say, away we go.

I moderate a panel — actually a “working dinner” — titled “Toward a Global Ethic.” I’ve always had a problem with these words “ethic” and “ethics,” actually. “Ethics” has often seemed to me sort of a watery substitute for people uncomfortable with saying “morals.” I recall a speech by Hyman Rickover, at my college. Adm. Rickover — “Uncle Hymie” — as you know, was the “father of the nuclear navy,” a no-nonsense hombre. I remember that he insisted on arriving at and starting this speech on time, which threw everyone off.

Anyway, during the Q&A — which was incredibly hostile to Rickover, naturally — a girl with a purple mohawk got up to ask, “Don’t you think that ethics courses should be mandated for nuclear engineers?” And Rickover responded, “No. You can go to church on Sunday.” The crowd hissed, guffawed, and booed. But what a bracing and far-seeing answer!

Anyway, back to this panel at Davos. As I introduce the evening, I mention that each participant will rise to “say a few words about himself.” It crosses my mind to add “or herself” . . . but I think, in those split seconds, “No, we’re all adults here, and standard English should be accepted.”

Am I stupid or what? The first panelist — a lady academic — gets up and says, “First of all, I’m not a ‘himself,’ I’m a person.” Another woman at her table breaks into vigorous, and lone, applause. The awkwardness is heavy. I should have known that standard and correct English is considered an offense by many of my fellows. Ah, well.

The next night’s panel is considerably warmer. The session is dubbed “Sports, Trust, and Politics.” We’re supposed to have Prince Albert of Monaco — Grace Kelly’s son, and an Olympic bobsledder — but he cancels. Not to worry, though. We’ve got, among others, Phil Knight, founder of Nike, and David Stern, commissioner of the NBA. Everyone plays nicely.

I’m able to ask Knight, “Settle something for me, would you?, once and for all. How do you pronounce the name of your company?” I’ve always said “Nikey.” But a few tracksters, who consider themselves purists, have said to me, “No, it’s ‘Nike’ [to rhyme with “pike”], you moron.” Phil says, “We say ‘Nikey’ ” — and that’s that. Straight from the horse’s mouth.

Nike is a Greek goddess, and speaking of Greek goddesses, Gianni Angelopoulos is on hand. She is the glamorous, beautiful, bright, formidable ex-politician and pillar of Greek society who is spearheading the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. She gave up her rocketing political career to marry Theodore Angelopoulos, the shipping tycoon. Her story is a startlingly romantic one, for this day and age.

She is known to her entire country as “Gianna” — like Cher or Madonna. To be in her presence is to melt, I must tell you. I imagine that she simply crooks her finger and coaxes from CEOs millions of dollars for the Games. She has an extremely tough job on her hands: Athens has terror concerns, putting one and all in mind of Munich, 1972. But this soft, beautiful woman has steel in her spine, and she seems to be the right person in the right job.

Also with us is Adolf Ogi, a Swiss who is a major player in the U.N. and other bodies. I have glanced at his bio and seen that he once headed the Swiss Ski Federation. So, when I meet him, I say, “You’re a skier, aren’t you?” He answers, “Not really. I am an amateur skier. But my main work has lain elsewhere: For example, I was president of Switzerland, in two separate terms.”

Uh-huh. I’m remind of one of my favorite stories of all time. D.C. mayor Marion Barry meets Greg Norman, the golf champion, at a party. The mayor says to him, “So, what do you do?” Norman, probably a little nonplussed, says, “I play golf.” Barry says, “That’s great: I play tennis!”

I must tell you, I’m moved to meet Bjorn Lomborg, the author of The Skeptical Environmentalist. Lomborg, recall, is the Danish scientist and environmentalist who set out to prove that every tenet in the Green belief-system was true. Instead he found that they were not true, so he went ahead and reported so — to the dismay and fury of the hard Greens, who have done everything possible to discredit and ruin him.

I’m able to tell him the story of Allen Weinstein, author of Perjury. Weinstein, you remember, set out to establish the innocence of Hiss and the consequent guilt of Chambers. Following the facts, he found that exactly the opposite was true — and went ahead and published his findings. Weinstein surely suffered professionally, socially, and personally for it — but of course, he was right.

H. Ross Perot Jr.? Looks exactly like the old man, except taller and fuller.

Throughout my stay in Davos, I have the feeling that everything — every recommendation, every analysis, every thrust — is top-down, rather than bottom-up. I hear a lot about five-year plans, ten-year plans, twenty-year plans. Of course, the best “plan” of all is to ensure freedom — the rule of law, human and civil rights, a free economy — and let the chips fall where they may. Let people and peoples determine their own destinies. “Where Will Canada Be in Ten Years?” Who cares? Keep freedom, and leave it to the Canadians.

I was slow to accept the perniciousness of some aspects of the EU, but I must say that some of the titles are creepy: Minister in Charge of Correct Toothbrushing — that sort of thing. The word “Orwellian” is overused, but . . . The EU is extraordinarily top-downy.

Hang on, I forgot to tell you something about Sports Night: Also on hand was Johann Koss, the great Norwegian speed skater. He now heads a group called Olympic Aid, a humanitarian organization. In introducing him, I borrow an old tactic: “Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Koss and I have four gold medals between us: He has four and I have none.” Ha, ha.

I imagine you want to hear something about protesters. They were out in force, though in less force than they have been in past years. Swiss security is amazingly thorough — and amazingly polite. Even sweet! You have to experience it to believe it.

Anti-globalization protest leaders have complained that the authorities are trying to “criminalize our movement.” But, of course, protesters themselves have criminalized that movement, through their criminal acts. A couple of years ago, they completely trashed the McDonald’s in Davos (natch). This year, the McDonald’s is completely boarded up, not a golden arch in sight. But will the activists remember where it was?

Some of the protesters are dressed as monkeys — no, really — and others carry a golden calf. This calf is borne by persons wearing a George W. Bush mask and a Donald Rumsfeld mask. “Rumsfeld” is wearing a yellow star — nice. Real nice. Also, the protesters are raining all over the place xeroxed dollar bills that show President Bush in place of George Washington and have the president saying, “We f*** the world.” On the back it says “In War We Trust.”

It seems clear that these activists are not interested in winning anyone over. They are simply an annoyance and an object of contempt, if not pity. But they’re having so much fun! Most seem in their teens or early twenties, and they are really having a ball, full of glee. I almost envy them! They’ll probably work for corporations in a few years.

I think of that famous — and once-shrieked against — Edward Banfield title: “Rioting for Fun and Profit.” I don’t know if these kids are pocketing a profit, but they’re sure having fun.

Hang on, y’all: I just looked up that Banfield bit. It was a chapter heading, and the true wording is “Rioting Mainly for Fun and Profit” — but the “Mainly” has been elided out, over the years, in general sociopolitical parlance.

The great conductor James Levine is here, leading the UBS Verbier Festival Youth Orchestra. This is the principal ensemble of the summer festival in Verbier, another Swiss village. Levine has long been associated with it. Wanna hear what the program says? Okay:

There are numerous parallels between the two institutions [the World Economic Forum and the UBS Verbier Festival Youth Orchestra]. They are both a gathering place for exceptional, talented individuals from every corner of the world. During the time they are together, the individuals strive toward mutual understanding and collective harmony. Language, religion, economic and cultural differences work positively to bring the individuals together through the counterforces of diversification.

Well, if you say so. The air in Davos is filled with this kind of rhetoric. It’s what Clare Booth Luce, I believe, called “globaloney.” But it is harmless, for the most part — also sincere and praiseworthy.

As I’ve mentioned, the Annual Meeting resembles the Olympics in certain respects. The platitudes and sentiments are similar. And I see World Economic Forum chief Klaus Schwab as the Juan Antonio Samaranch of this whole affair.

Levine’s UBS Verbier Festival Youth Orchestra comprises more than 100 musicians from 34 different countries. The players range in age from 17 to 32, with most of them in their mid-20s. (I have to say, “Youth” are getting older, aren’t they?) Before the concert begins, an official asks each member of the orchestra to stand, by country: The countries are called from A to Z. This is strikingly like the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. When the American players are asked to stand, I can’t help noticing that they — on their own — look as “diverse,” ethnically, as any international youth orchestra possibly could.

According to the program (again), the Verbier players “are outstanding ambassadors, building trust and goodwill and creating harmony and pleasure wherever they go.” I gotta tell you, folks: I was on the plane with some of these people coming over to Switzerland, and “outstanding ambassadors” was not exactly the phrase that came to mind. But then — as the name of their ensemble insists — they’re “young.”

And that’s it for now. See you tomorrow, for the fourth and final installment.


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