Politics & Policy

Davos Journal, Part I

What’s up, guys? I’m writing you from the quaint, nearly ideal Hotel Rinaldi, on the Promenade of lil’ ol’ Davos. As you know, I’m here for the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum. If it’s the last week in January, it’s gotta be Davos. The Swiss Alps are as they usually are — not too shabby. And, no, for your info, I still haven’t read The Magic Mountain.

(That novel, as you know, is set in Davos. In fact, I have stayed in the very asylum about which the author, Herr Mann, writes. I should hasten to say that it is now a hotel. But I’ve never been able to make it past, oh, about page 70 in the book. Someday, someday. Right after I get through page 10 of Bleak House.)

As usual, all manner of folk are here: kings, queens, and princes; presidents and prime ministers; foreign ministers, finance ministers, and minister ministers — people of the cloth; business and financial titans; writers, artists, musicians, and athletes; and wretched journos like me.

Throw some names at you? Blair, Merkel, Lula, Prince Albert, Mbeki, King Abdullah, Abbas. The new Mexican guy. Also, Khatami, who until recently was president of Iran. There are a lot of Iraqis, I’m pleased to see: officials of the government. They are in the most difficult of positions.

Bill Clinton, apparently, is not here, for the first time in my memory (I have come since ’03). But a surprise appearance would not be all that surprising. In any case, there is another rock star on the premises: Peter Gabriel. (He’s rock, right? I’m a little out of touch with this scene.) (Like I was ever in touch.)

Maxim Vengerov, the young, great Russian violinist, is receiving a special award. I don’t believe he is scheduled to play, but I’d bet my last franc that he will. Another distinguished Russian musician? Valery Gergiev, the conductor. He’s not scheduled to perform, either — just talk.

Try a third Russian, though not a musician: Anatoly Karpov, the chessmaster. Garry Kasparov — who, as you know, has an intense interest in politics — is not here. I wonder if this lil’ village is big enough for the both of them. Would be interesting to see them square off (in any forum).

I should go back to the political realm, for just a second: David Cameron, the new Conservative leader in Britain, is here. I’m always impressed with the Conservative leaders, even though they don’t win. I liked Hague, and that hyphenated guy, and, particularly, Michael Howard. Any of them would have made a fine prime minister, I believe. Howard, particularly, I’ll say again, would have been a class show.

Oh, here’s another royal: H.R.H. The Duke of York. I don’t remember who he is, frankly. I guess I’m a poor royal-watcher.

The business and financial titans are truly titanic: Bill Gates (und Frau), Sergey Brin (the Google Meister). There are a lot of officials from the PRC, too. Brin should get along with them beautifully. (For that matter, everyone here should.)

A distinguished scholar? Homi K. Bhabha, of Harvard. A conference without Homi K. Bhabha is practically impermissible. Professor Bhabha will appear in a session called “Me, Myself and My Identity.”

Here’s a wild card: Robert Trent Jones Jr., the golf architect. I sort of like that — that he is attending. Would be one hilly course, here in Davos.

You may want to know about the American politicians around: Kerry, McCain, Feinstein, Leahy, Cantwell, Lott, Martinez, Shays, Frank (and more). From the administration we have Chertoff and Chao. And Paul Wolfowitz, now of the World Bank, is here. Remember what Mark Steyn said about him, when Wolfowitz was in the Pentagon, and the world’s Most Reviled Neocon? He has a name that begins with a scary animal and ends Jewishly.

‐Want to tell you about a few panels, too. Many are the standard and expected, on the important issues of war and peace, prosperity and poverty. And some are whimsical, or esoteric: “Why Do Brains Sleep?” Some have particularly clever titles: “Privacy: Your Life as an Open Book.” There is a panel on “Depression,” but I feel certain that will be a downer. And I also fear a panel called “Is Freedom Overrated?” But Larry Summers is on it, and I trust he’ll say no — and no again.

Incidentally, Summers is also hosting a “Nobel Nightcap” — Nobelists only. I mean, I guess non-Nobelists can attend, but only those who have been anointed in Oslo or Stockholm are featured guests.

One of the most intriguing events of all is a workshop titled “The Scent of Success.” Take a whiff of the description:

The nerve receptors in our noses are 100 times stronger than those in our eyes, yet our sense of smell remains largely undeveloped. But as perfume houses, wine-makers and horticulturalists attest, smell evokes strong and long-lasting emotions. Businesses, advertisers, designers and architects increasingly use scent as a marketing tool to attract customers. In this workshop, participants will consider our sense of smell and its use in the marketplace . . .

The facilitator is Christophe Laudamiel, Fine-Fragrance Senior Perfumer at International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF).

Don’t you think a fine-fragrance senior perfumer should have a beautiful name like Christophe Laudamiel?

‐The big theme of the Annual Meeting this year is climate change — climate change is everywhere, the focus of something like 20 panels. I kid you not. This is something on which everyone can agree (and skeptics, or dissenters, are not present, as far as I can tell; if they are, they are probably keeping their mouths shut).

I will have something to say about global warming a bit later, but let me give you a taste of a column by Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times. It appeared earlier in the week.

The column is headlined, “How Iraq and climate change threw the right into disarray” — the FT is big on small letters, apparently — and the second paragraph reads as follows:

From 1979 [when Thatcher was elected] to 2004, the right won the battles of ideas in the western world. Conservatives triumphed because they got the two big issues of the era right: they were in favour of free markets and against communism. But now the right is in disarray because it has found itself on the wrong side of the two dominating issues in contemporary western politics: global warming and the Iraq war.

This is a bitter pill to swallow, and some of us are prepared to spit it out 100 yards. But such words do concentrate the mind, and they must be wrestled and argued with.

‐Want to tell you about the bus, taking a group of us from the Zurich Airport to Davos (about two hours away). It pulled up exactly when it was supposed to. I said to the Swiss man in charge, “That’s Switzerland for you.” “Like a clock, huh?” he said. “But,” he continued, “that’s not so true anymore. We Swiss are losing that quality. This bus may be an exception, arriving right on time.” “Oh, don’t tell me that!” I said. “I want Switzerland always to work like a clock!” The man grinned and said, “Sorry to spoil the myth.”

I later brought this up with a Swiss journalist, and he confirmed what the first man had said: Switzerland is losing its punctual ways. But, he added, it’s still better in this respect than just about any other country.

Which was reassuring.

‐Right off the bat, there is a panel on the U.S. and its prospects. The panelists are Arianna Huffington, David Gergen, Nicholas Kristof, and me. The moderator is Paul Laudicina, chairman of the board and managing officer of A. T. Kearney, Inc. I ask him how he pronounces his name: “Lao-dee-CHEE-nah” or “Law-dih-CEE-nuh”? He says, charmingly, “If you’re my grandmother, ‘Lao-dee-CHEE-nah.’ Otherwise, the second way.”

He does an excellent job as moderator too, moving things along and betraying no bias.

Of course, the room, in general, is no friend of George Bush, to put it as mildly as possible. Arianna denounces him with her typical flair. She says that Bush is “a fanatic” and “delusional.” (This is on the Iraq War, particularly.) Sure, Bush may stubbornly stick to his beliefs, but “many people think they’re fried eggs or Napoleon” — that does not mean they have to be encouraged or tolerated. She says that McCain is “a fanatic” too. She once admired him, but no more.

Neither does Hillary Clinton escape her lash. On the war, the New York senator is “equivocating and triangulating,” refusing to oppose it altogether. She symbolizes a Democratic party that “lacks courage.” Arianna also says that Barack Obama is outshining Hillary — in Hollywood, for example, where he will soon have a glittering fundraiser. That will probably be “a million-dollar night,” says Arianna.

I sort of like that phrase: a million-dollar night. I’ve never had one, incidentally.

Later, the discussion turns to race, and the rise of black politicians at large. David Gergen maintains that, in voting for Deval Patrick — the new governor of Massachusetts — “people felt good about themselves.” That is no doubt true. All across America, the voters of Massachusetts have been praised for electing Patrick.

Strange that those who vote for Lynn Swann, or Ken Blackwell, or Mike Steele, aren’t similarly congratulated. But of course, those men, who are conservative, all lost their races to white liberal Democrats.

Gergen is also alarmed at talk that the United States could attack Iran over its nuclear program. He contends that “serious diplomacy” has not been tried, which is “scandalous.” We’re going to attack Iran, without first making an all-out diplomatic effort? “This is nuts,” he says, “crazy.” Big, big applause from the audience.

It seems to me that Iran has been endlessly cajoled and enticed and negotiated with, and that we could still be cajoling, enticing, and negotiating when doomsday arrives. But . . .

In the audience is Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners, who, in my observation, is extremely popular at Davos. During the Q&A, another audience member tells the moderator, “It would be criminal not to call on Jim Wallis.”

How about that, for a status in life! Where it would be criminal not to call on you! Are you there yet?

In any case, Wallis assures the audience that the day of the “Religious Right” is over, and that evangelicals are leaving this Right in droves.

I should really say something about global warming, Topic Number One at Davos. In the course of her remarks, Arianna says that there is no more debate over global warming: Everyone agrees that this is a real and perilous phenomenon. The likes of Michael Crichton are seen as kooks, unfit for respectable society.

And I agree with Arianna: Debate has been (largely) shut down (is the way I would put it). And this is not necessarily a positive development.

In my view, global-warming activists scored a big lexical and rhetorical coup when they decided to call skeptics, or opponents, “deniers” — paralleling with “Holocaust deniers.” As it happens, there are real deniers — Holocaust deniers — in Tehran, who, even as they deny the first Holocaust, are fervently vowing a second. This is a genuine threat, right on our doorstep, and all the world, it seems, is wringing its hands over “climate change.”

And wouldn’t it be a shame if all dissent and questioning on global warming were crushed? If skeptics or challengers were excluded entirely from the conversation? Surely global-warming activists have enough confidence in their position to mix it up with critics now and then.

I happened to grow up during the coming ice age — do you know what I mean? We were told that a Big Freeze was on, and that, one day, there’d be White Christmases in Miami. No fruit would be available. Carl Sagan preached and warned on television every other day.

And then there was Paul Ehrlich, of course, who said that doom, in the form of shortages, was just around the corner. And we had endless talk of population — endless. Our planet was being choked off, because there were too many people: Population was the enemy. Responsible parents would have to limit themselves to one child. None was preferable, I guess. I remember a group called ZPG — Zero Population Growth. And the phrase “population control” was ubiquitous. Population control was the first item on many agendas.

Then, in the ’90s, I began hearing about a “birth dearth.”

My point is, I grew up in an age of multiple environmental alarums. And, for the rest of one’s life, this makes one . . . well, wary, and disinclined to jump on bandwagons. It could be that global warming is a pending disaster, and that mankind must take radical measures to save itself. It could be that, some generations from now — maybe relatively soon — history will look back on these years and wonder, “What kind of insanity gripped the educated classes? Why did they think they’d be done in by climate change?”

Anyway . . .

‐Most of America may think of Arianna as a doyenne of the Left. But I think of her, additionally, as a biographer of Callas and Picasso. How pleasant it is to discuss such matters with her! And she is an interesting, elegant, and talented lady, wherever we stand.

Okay, guys, I’m done for now. Will be back at you soon, with Part II of this Davos journal. Be cool (so to speak).


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