Davos, Switzerland — A pleasure it is to write to you from the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, high up here in the Alps. As you may know, this meeting takes place every January, in Davos, Switzerland — home of the Magic Mountain, site of the revered Thomas Mann novel. (And someday I’ll get through it — right after Bleak House.)
In years past, I have described Davos as a fairytale setting, or a shakeup globe. It looks this way more than ever now. When I pulled in, it was snowing, and I saw a horse-drawn sleigh. It seemed almost too ideal to be real. But real it was, and is. The pine trees (or whatever one is supposed to call them) are groaning with snow, looking like umbrellas, being folded down.
But when did Impromptus get so poetic?
The Annual Meeting always has a theme, and this year it’s “The Power of Collaborative Innovation.” There are sub-themes too, such as “Business: Competing While Collaborating,” and “Geopolitics: Aligning Interests across Divides.” There also seems to be a special focus on water: no, not which is better, Evian or Dasani, but problems related to water worldwide. I know that water is an important subject — but it has ever seemed snoozy to me.
And speaking of water, there are several “wellness” centers here, and they seem to include water treatments. One such center has a catchphrase: “Eau-là-là.” Cute, huh?
‐The meeting has seven co-chairmen, or “chairs,” as they’re inevitably called, and they include Tony Blair and Henry Kissinger. Mr. Blair’s successor is here too: Gordon Brown. Other heads of state, or government, include Musharraf of Pakistan (at a critical juncture, to put it mildly), Karzai of Afghanistan, Yushchenko of Ukraine, Arroyo of the Philippines, and Uribe of Colombia. (Sounds like I’m saying “Lawrence of Arabia,” doesn’t it?) Queen Rania of Jordan is here, too.
Among the foreign ministers are Kouchner of France (an endlessly interesting man), Livni of Israel, and . . . Mottaki of Iran.
The “business community” includes Bill Gates, of course, and Michael Dell, of course — and Hugh Grant. No, not the charming anorexic-seeming actor who got busted with a hooker in L.A. — the chairman, president, and CEO of the Monsanto Company. Although I think the actor Hugh Grant would have a really good time here in Davos.
Couple more participants from England, besides Blair and Brown: “Red Ken” Livingstone, the mayor of London; and the Duke of York, aka Prince Andrew.
From the world of the arts, we have Emma Thompson, maybe my favorite actress (or is that too clichéd a choice?). (I don’t care, on the grounds that chocolate ice cream — universally adored — is first-rate, too.) Also Yo-Yo Ma, the cellist, and Peter Gabriel, the rocker (or whatever kind of music he performs), and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. Who’s that last? One of the most impressive people on the planet. It was he who wrote and directed The Lives of Others, the movie about East Germany and the Stasi. Bill Buckley declared it the best movie he had ever seen in his life. A lot of us pretty much agreed.
There is a strong American contingent here in Davos, and I’ll throw out just a few names: Jon Corzine, Larry Summers, Orrin Hatch, Christopher Cox, Phil Gramm, Bob Zoellick, and Rupert Murdoch. (Interesting to see El Rupert here.) (Why I went Spanish on him, I don’t know.) And take two more: Rick Warren, the pastor from California; and Alice Waters, the chef, also from California.
‐There are scads and scads of panels and other sessions. Flipping through the catalogue, I notice, “If America Sneezes, Does the World Still Catch a Cold?” (Increasingly less.) Also, “Stimulation: A 21st-Century Addiction.” Interesting. I have kind of noticed that myself. And I like the sound of “Add a Friend: Accept or Decline.” This session, as you will have guessed, is about social-networking sites.
Bono and Gore — or should that be Gore and Bono? — are putting on a show: “A Unified Earth Theory: Combining Solutions to Extreme Poverty and the Climate Crisis.” Well, that would be nifty, to say the least. (And bear in mind that, when I say “Bono,” I ain’t talking Congresswoman Mary.)
And, as always, there is a “Nobel Nightcap,” in other words, after-hours drinks, featuring a slew of Nobelists. I always figured Davos simply liked the alliteration of “Nobel Nightcap.”
I will give you some offbeat events: There is “The Science of Love.” And here I quote from the catalogue: “Attachment, romantic love, and sexual attraction influence much of our behaviour and choices throughout our lives.” Well, that’s the understatement of the year. And there is “Reveal Your True Colours.” (Yes, the English here is British.) “An introduction to the world of colour physiology, this session will detail how colour defines our surroundings and influences our perception.” And there is a “Dialogue in Silence”: “This workshop will be held in complete silence and your communication skills will be improved by deaf trainers.”
That is offbeat.
‐You may recall from my Davos Journal of last year that global warming — climate change, what have you — was all the rage. It is still raging. But less so, I think. Whatever the degree of rage: There is a “Carbon Finance for Development Nightcap” (along with many other climate-related events.) And, before coming here, I received the following e-mail: “I am writing to ask whether you would like Barclays Capital to offset the carbon cost of your transport to and from Switzerland . . .”
Just so you know.
‐I have a couple of notes from the Zurich Airport: Waiting for the tram — a tram that takes you from terminal to terminal — everyone stood behind a white line. It seemed so very Swiss to me: orderly. And the bus that took us from the airport to Davos rolled at exactly the appointed hour: 1 o’clock. Again, extremely Swiss. The Swiss are always telling me that the Swiss aren’t what they were: Everything is broken down. If it is now broken down — I would have marveled to see Switzerland in eras past.
‐Registering in Davos, I met a Kennedy previously unknown to me: Tim Shriver, who is head of the Special Olympics. Some of the Kennedys, looks and personableness passed by (not many, but some of them). Tim Shriver is not one of them.
‐And I am told that a person not to be missed here is Jonathan Zittrain: an under-40 professor at Oxford, Harvard, Stanford, NYU, and . . . isn’t that enough? His specialty is the Internet, about which he is one of the world’s top thinkers. I will see if I can find him, and tap his brain a little, for the benefit of us all.
‐On the way from London, I perused the Times, no, not our Times but the London Times (less afflictive). What they say about British obits is simply true: They are the best — quirky, rich, extraordinarily readable. In just one edition — that of January 22 — there were several fascinating ones:
Rear-Admiral Jozef Bartosik, an autocratic Polish-born British officer. Louis de Cazenave, a “veteran who survived the Chemin des Dames slaughter of April 1917.” Carole Lynn, “glamorous actress and musical theatre star who as Lady Delfont became one of London’s leading theatrical hostesses.” John Stewart, “singer-songwriter in the US folk tradition who scored a hit with Daydream Believer and the album California Bloodlines.” Alexandre de Paris, the “‘haut coiffeur’ who tended the locks of Elizabeth Taylor and the Duchess of Windsor” and all them other ladies. Bill Belew, “celebrity costumier who created jewelled jumpsuits for Elvis.”
And more. Whew.
‐Elsewhere in the paper, there was an article on heroes and heroism, and it reminded me of someone I had forgotten about: Liviu Librescu. I quote a swatch of the article:
The historian Simon Sebag Montefiore, in his book 101 World Heroes: Great Men and Women for an Unheroic Age, says that in failing to identify the right heroes we are missing the opportunity to shape our society.
“The virtues of heroism are courage, tolerance and selflessness,” he says. “We need to teach our children about that.” He says that it is harder than ever for heroism to make an impact on the public mind as it once did. In a culture of limited attention spans and the veneration of glitzy, self-seeking celebrities, people become incapable of recognising a hero when they see one.
“Today people are awarded hero status for doing absolutely nothing. A good example was the Virginia Tech killing [in April last year]. There was an enormous amount of coverage of the murderer and of the students who had filmed it. They were portrayed as heroes. The old professor, the Holocaust survivor who blocked the gunman’s path and was killed saving the lives of his students, was by comparison ignored.”
Professor Liviu Librescu was old, dead and uninterviewable. His story could not compete with the images of the weeping young witnesses.
Yes, Liviu Librescu. What a man.
‐Ladies and gentlemen, today, Wednesday, January 23, 2008, is an historic day — I, Jay Nordlinger, anti-Communist extraordinaire, have been quoted in Pravda. On the subject of Wal-Mart. No, really.
‐I’ll be back very soon with the second installment of this Davos Journal. But I would like to close, today, by saying something about Van Galbraith — Evan “Van” Galbraith, that great friend of National Review, that great friend of Bill Buckley. We learned of his passing yesterday.
I’m so sorry he’s gone, but I’m so glad I knew him! What a guy — full of life and merriment and purpose. Almost every time I looked at him, he had a twinkle in his eye. He loved fun, and he loved ideological and geopolitical combat. He was a Scotsman from Toledo, Ohio, and I delighted in telling him that I was a Scotsman — partial Scotsman — from nearby Ann Arbor.
In his long, varied, and useful career, he served as ambassador to France, under Reagan. I used to pump him for Reagan stories — and he happily obliged. He knew I loved them, and he told them with gusto. He was kind enough to give me a copy of his book, Ambassador in Paris: The Reagan Years. Interesting and instructive.
One night, at a dinner with many guests, he sat down next to me and said, “Ah, je suis bien tombé” — in other words, “I have been well seated.” I got a kick out of that, and — as you can see — have never forgotten it. Doubt I ever will.
And it was a pleasure to witness the friendship between him and WFB: They loved each other’s company, and shared that wonderful, terribly desirable quality I can only call a relish for life. Van believed in the necessity of fighting the Communists, and he believed in the necessity of fighting the Islamofascists. He believed in an open economy and an open society. He believed in freedom, plain and simple.
What a fantastic life. Again, I say personally, I’m so glad I knew him.