Politics & Policy

In Davos, Part Viii

Friends, we’ve come to the end of the line–the last installment. Although that’s not quite true: Next week–I’m not quite sure which days–I’ll have two interviews. One with Hajim Alhasani, the president of the Iraqi National Assembly, and the other with Michael Chertoff, our secretary of homeland security. What I mean is, I’ll write those interviews up.

But as far as regular old Impromptus entries are concerned: This is it. And, if you need ‘em, here are the links to the previous installments: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, and Part VII.

‐You know who Richard Branson is, don’t you? That’s Sir Richard Branson, I should have said. He is the British playboy-businessman-adventurer, the founder of Virgin Airlines and other things. Bearded, fit, tan, blond, relaxed, he looks like a California surfer. Alternatively, he looks like an Arthurian knight.

Apparently, he pals around with Bill Clinton, and you have the feeling that they get along famously. Very famously. A bit of night-prowling talk one minute; a little poverty-in-Africa talk the next.

Sitting down with journalists, he says that he is a “virgin” in Davos–this is his first time here. Someone asks why he never came before. He says, “I thought it was just a talking shop–not a place where you could get things done. I was mistaken.”

Apparently, Sir Richard has gotten some things done.

He is clearly a true believer in the cause of Africa: in combating poverty and disease there. Many businessmen pay lip service–they have to. It is a cost of doing business. But Sir Richard’s heart and mind seem to be utterly in it. He elaborates on his “passion for Africa,” where he has been going since he was a teenager. Huge numbers of people die from malaria, AIDS, and other things on that continent. “That wouldn’t be allowed to happen in America or Britain,” and this is “immoral.”

I’m somewhat thrilled to hear him put in a good word for DDT, that much-maligned malaria-killer. Good for him, not to be duped by rhetoric or political machinations.

I am more thrilled to hear that he has begun a school for entrepreneurship in South Africa. A school for entrepreneurship! Sir Richard seems to know the power of entrepreneurship in lifting people up: in creating prosperity, hope, health, and all the rest of it. He talks of the need to “grow your own economy”–just so.

Not everything he does is money-making–I mean, in his business ventures. He put a record store in the Gaza Strip. He figures it won’t make any money; it may even get blown up. But he thinks he should be there. He is a do-gooder who inarguably does good.

Yet, refreshingly, he doesn’t seem to be apologetic about business. Every year, I come to Davos and hear businessmen essentially apologize for being businessmen. They wring their hands, they cringe–they say, “Don’t hate me, for my profits.” They seem rather ashamed of their regular work. They present themselves as charity workers, humanitarians, philanthropists.

I–who couldn’t set up a lemonade stand–am always more pro-business than these captains of industry. I think that if you make a nice widget, you’ve done a fine thing for humanity. And, for heaven’s sake, enrich your shareholders! Make them rich as Croesus, so they’ll have, for one thing, more money for charitable causes.

Anyway, with Gaza in mind, I ask Sir Richard this: How much money should a company be prepared to lose in nonviable situations, and are shareholders understanding? He reflects for a moment and says, first of all, that his company in Gaza is private–no shareholders there. But otherwise, a company should “put aside 1 or 2 percent of earnings at least, to plow into causes that are good causes.” Forgetting the strangers helped, this makes “good economic sense,” because “people realize they’re working for a company with a heart. They take pride in their company.”

In his hour with us, Sir Richard sounds one false note, as far as I’m concerned. So terribly disappointing. Talking about India, he says “Bombay,” then quickly says: “I mean, Mumbai–sorry.”

Ugh. (For my views on this general subject, please see my 2002 essay “‘Gutter’ Politics.”)

‐Davos has a no-tie policy. Men aren’t to wear ties. But almost all of them wear suits, or at least a sport coat. (Do people still say “sport coat”?) This is pretty awkward, I think. Either wear suits and jackets with ties–or wear casual clothes. It’s the betweenness–the neither-fish-nor-fowl-ness–that’s awkward. Or at least I find so.

‐I go into the men’s room. (Bear with me on this.) I see a graffito there: “F*** Bush.” And it doesn’t have the asterisks. You know, every year, the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum has a theme. This year it’s “The Creative Imperative.” But, in a sense, every year–from 2001 to 2009–it could be what is scrawled in this john.

‐The Annual Meeting for 2006 ends–as these meetings traditionally do–with a cultural night. At the center of this night is a concert, and this year it’s performed by the Zurich Chamber Orchestra, Howard Griffiths, conducting. The soloist is Julian Rachlin, an Austrian violinist (though Lithuanian-born). It’s not a very good concert–but that’s not our concern here. (I have reviewed this concert elsewhere.)

Before the downbeat is given, the WEF presents a special award to Muhammad Ali. “The Greatest” mounts the stairs of the stage slowly, accompanied by his wife. They then sit down in comfortable chairs on the stage. Ali is suffering from Parkinson’s disease, and sometimes he appears to be in pain. It’s hard to tell, from the facial contortions. He is handsome, as always, and very dignified.

His life and times are celebrated by two men: Prince Turki al-Faisal, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S (and dread builder of the Saudi intelligence service), and Lord Carey of Clifton, who used to be Archbishop of Canterbury. Turki–or whatever you’re supposed to call him–celebrates Ali’s conversion to Islam, and his refusal to join the Army, and other things. Carey, too, celebrates Ali’s conversion to Islam–and he quotes bits of Ali’s famous doggerel, like “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”

When Carey says this, Ali gives a quick–a startlingly quick–flick of his arm. This is thrilling, I have to tell you.

When Turki and Carey are through, Mrs. Ali accepts the award on her husband’s behalf. His disease has rendered him unable to speak. When she mentions this, she breaks down in tears. The audience applauds as she weeps. She manages to get through her prepared remarks.

Then Klaus Schwab–the Davos chief–hands out his yearly “Crystal Awards.” These are given to those in the arts who have expressed a world concern. First to be honored is Shabana Azmi, an Indian actress. Schwab mentions–twice–that she is a Muslim.

Then he turns to Michael Douglas, citing in particular the anti-nuke film he made with Jane Fonda: The China Syndrome.

Douglas looks more like his father than ever. In fact, I have never, until this moment, noticed that he looks like his father. He is nearly the spitting image of Kirk. Perhaps Kirk looked like Michael when he–Kirk–was young. I’m not sure. Michael looks like him now.

His remarks are brief and graceful. At one point, he pats his breast pocket and says, “My cellphone is ringing–it’s my wife, home with the kids.”

Last to be honored is Gilberto Gil, the dreadlocked Brazilian musician, and his government’s minister of culture. Gil kisses the hand of Ali, sitting there on the stage; he also kisses the hand of Mrs. Ali. Gil appears the picture of graciousness.

And then Howard Griffiths, Julian Rachlin, and the ZCO–Zurich Chamber Orchestra–do their thing.

‐There’s a same-time-next-year quality to Davos. The same man–polite, efficient–greets you at the Zurich airport, to arrange your transportation down to the village. The same waiters and waitresses serve in the various hotel dining rooms. (Remember, this is a regular profession in Europe, not necessarily a transient deal.) And the global elites flit about in the snow. You may not like the global elites (and you would not be alone)–but at least they’re packed tight in one place, once a year, so we can examine them up close.

Thanks so much for joining me, for this long, long series. And I’ll see you later, with more normal Impromptus–plus those interviews I mentioned above.

‐Shall we survey some reader mail before I go? In my very first installment, I said, “If you can make it through [Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain], you’re a better man than me.” Then I said, “Note to grammar nuts: Yes, ‘better man than I’ is correct–but sounds incredibly stiff, in my opinion.”

About a million readers wrote in to say, “Jay! What about Rudyard Kipling? ‘You’re a better man than I, Gunga Din’! Nothing stiff about that!”

Well, what Kipling actually wrote was, “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.” To me, that “am” de-stiff-ifies it.

But I take the point.

‐I noted that the 2008 Olympic Games will be held in Beijing, a dictatorship’s capital–just like in 1980 and 1936.

Many, many readers wrote in to say, “By 1945, the Nazis were finished. By 1991, the Soviets were finished. So can we expect the demise of the ChiComs about ten years from now?”

Oh, what a sweet thought.

‐I told one of my favorite stories of all time: Marion Barry says to Greg Norman, “What do you do?” Norman answers, “I play golf.” Barry replies, “That’s great! I play tennis.”

A reader wrote to say that a lady who didn’t know very much about football was once given an important job with some club. An assistant coach returned from a scouting trip. She asked, “Where have you been?” He said, “Out scouting.” She replied, “That’s nice–my son is a Scout.”

But this is even better. Apparently, Joe Montana attended a party. Meeting a woman, he sticks out his hand and says, “Joe Montana.” She says, “Sharon, Georgia.”

‐A reader wrote, “You think Queen Rania is all that? When it comes to wives of Middle Eastern rulers–check out Asma Assad.”

I’m just reporting.

‐I made some gently mocking reference to the University of California at Santa Barbara, and a reader wrote, “Dude! Like, I am so TOTALLY bummed, by like how you had to go and dis’ my alma mater. Like, that was so righteously bogus of you!”

‐Remember how I said how odd it was that you couldn’t get hot chocolate–proper hot chocolate (not powder in a packet)–in Switzerland (or at least in Davos)? A reader writes, “I had a similar experience during my time in Bolivia. I thought I was surely in the land of delicious coffee. To my surprise, everyone drinks instant.”

And on that light note . . . I’ll see you.

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