Monday, September 17, 2007

What Did I Miss?

[posted by Callimachus]

Whenever I get a week off work, unless I know I'm going to travel, I intend to keep posting here. That's because until it starts I forget how I need to unplug myself from the media/information machine.

I forget how much I hate this. Hate current events, hate keeping up, hate arguing about it, hate spilling thousands of words a week on topic that will be irrelevant next week. Hate beating my head against the same unchanging heads, in a midfield scrum in a game where only the final score will be noted.

I'd much rather spend my days lost in the labyrinths of research, or reading poetry, than doing this. And some of you would invite me to do that. But reality intrudes. It chases the scholar from his carrel and rousts the quiet man from his armchair and drags them to the filthy barricades. Reality is interested in you.

But still I loathe the daily word-battle. Some people love it. Our friend Kat loves it. But she also loves to swordfight in tournaments. Mark Twain in "Innocents Abroad" wrote about some character he met on the ship who so loved arguing that he'd take up a debate at the drop of a hat, and if the interval between them grew irksomely long, he'd drop the hat himself. I'd rather lie under the autumn sun on a clear blue day and dream of perfections. But beautiful September skies, however seamless to the eye, always bare a scar now. An old white slash across a lover's breast.

I literally read nothing for a week. Since I'm dropped back into the stream, here are a few things I see that look good to me. Perhaps you've already seen them:

The global warming debate really is three debates: Whether it is happening (probably); whether human agency is a significant cause (perhaps); whether the solutions proposed by the people who first latched on to absolute "yes" answers to 1. and 2. are good solutions, if those people turn out to be right about their guesses. This is by no means certain. Cassandra is not Nestor.

“We could spend all that money to cut emissions and end up with more land flooded next century because people would be poorer,” Dr. Lomborg said as we surveyed Manhattan’s expanded shoreline. “Wealth is a more important factor than sea-level rise in protecting you from the sea. You can draw maps showing 100 million people flooded out of their homes from global warming, but look at what’s happened here in New York. It’s the same story in Denmark and Holland — we’ve been gaining land as the sea rises.”

Dr. Lomborg, who’s best known (and most reviled in some circles) for an earlier book, “The Skeptical Environmentalist,” runs the Copenhagen Consensus Center, which gathers economists to set priorities in tackling global problems. In his new book, he dismisses the Kyoto emissions cuts as a “feel-good” strategy because it sounds virtuous and lets politicians make promises they don’t have to keep. He outlines an alternative “do-good” strategy that would cost less but accomplish more in dealing with climate change as well as more pressing threats like malaria, AIDS, polluted drinking water and malnutrition.

If you’re worried about stronger hurricanes flooding coasts, he says, concentrate on limiting coastal development and expanding wetlands right now rather than trying to slightly delay warming decades from now. To give urbanites a break from hotter summers, concentrate on reducing the urban-heat-island effect. If cities planted more greenery and painted roofs and streets white, he says, they could more than offset the impact of global warming.

Except the chemicals released by the paint would be ... oh well. White asphalt and fewer seaside McMansions sounds a lot more coherent than dismantling the global economy.

I doubt any American voter in the past wondered how Calvin Coolidge or Millard Filmore would handle a major international crisis that changed America's entire perception of its place in the world. I doubt they wondered that about Franklin Roosevelt, either. But he got one. And every president since him (except the lucky Eisenhower and Clinton) has had one. Some -- Kennedy, Reagan -- seemed to covet them. Others (Carter, Johnson) seemed utterly discomfited by them.

Now, though, we know it's coming. We don't know which one it will be, but it will happen.

What is so extraordinary about this political season is just how many storms are brewing around the world, any number of which could plausibly grow into Category 5 game changers. That's largely the price of a protracted war that is deeply unpopular both at home and abroad. Historically, wars are game changers in their own right, and Iraq has shown the pernicious tendency to exacerbate or ignite other crises, as evidenced by an increasingly unstable Middle East and an escalating confrontation between the United States and Iran. Similarly, the fate of the American intervention in Afghanistan and the fight against Al Qaeda are closely tied to the deteriorating situation in neighboring Pakistan.

Which is why, I think, we are so interested in see our presidential contenders each, one by one, caught in a campaign crisis that threatens his or her viability. We'll endure months of namby-pamby speechification for the sale of that one "gotcha" question or dirty laundry episode. We want to see them tested, in the old style of Greek tragedy, before we commit to them.

Kurt Andersen also wants to shake the Christmas present to get a hint of what's inside before he opens it.

All that needs to happen for the partisan rebranding to complete itself is for the independent-minded middle third of the electorate to be convinced, once and for all, that they can really trust Democratic leaders to do whatever’s necessary to keep us safe. Bill Clinton did okay on foreign policy, but given the peaceful slough over which he presided — after the Cold War, before 9/11 — those eight years now seem like the Democrats’ national-security dress rehearsal. A majority may have come to see the old daddy party as half-assed and reckless, but in this jihadi era, they need to feel in their gut that the Democrats are Jodie Foster mommies, shrewd and steely and perfectly willing to kill bad guys.

In Hillary Clinton, an actual mommy, the metaphor and reality are finally united. Which is, of course, her particular Catch-22 as a candidate for president: It’s her unfeminine coldness that turns people off, even though heart-on-her-sleeve shows of (Bill Clintonian) emotion — or “apologizing” for her vote in 2002 to authorize the war — would make her seem too soft and girlie to be commander-in-chief.

When it comes to most candidates’ positions on Iraq, and certainly hers, it’s impossible to parse out precisely the mix of motivations — how much is a good-faith struggle to figure out a nuanced, least-bad policy and how much is a political calculation to maximize votes?

Meanwhile, it's always good to see Europeans write like this:

You can argue about the surge. The evidence is encouraging that the increased US military effort, together with a change in tactics, has reduced the violence in Iraq. On the other hand there are legitimate questions about the long-term viability of the strategy. But if America is to emerge from Iraq with a renewed sense of its global role, you shouldn’t really debase the motives of those who lead US forces there. Because in the end what they are doing is deeply honourable – fighting to destroy an enemy that delights in killing women and children; rebuilding a nation ruined by rapine and savagery; trying to bridge sectarian divides that have caused more misery in the world than the US could manage if it lasted a thousand years.

It is helpful to think about Iraq this way. Imagine if the US had never been there; and that this sectarian strife had broken out in any case – as, one day it surely would, given the hatreds engendered by a thousand years of Muslim history and the efforts of Saddam Hussein.

What would we in the West think about it? What would we think of as our responsibilities? There would be some who would want to wash their hands of it. There would be others who would think that UN resolutions and diplomatic initiatives would be enough to salve our consciences if not to stop the slaughter.

But many of us surely would think we should do something about it – as we did in the Balkans more than a decade ago – and as, infamously, we failed to do in Africa at the same time. And we would know that, for all our high ideals and our soaring rhetoric, there would be only one country with the historical commitment to make massive sacrifices in the defence of the lives and liberty of others, the leadership to mobilise efforts to relieve the suffering and, above all, the economic and military wherewithal to make it happen.

That’s the only really workable analogy between the US and Rome. When Rome fell, the world went dark for the best part of a millennium. America may not be an empire. But whatever it is, for the sake of humanity, pray it lasts at least as long as Rome.

And finally, breasts.

The most recent breasts supposed to have inspired champagne coupes belong to the American model and photographer Lee Miller. As she cut a swathe through 1930s Paris as the lover of surrealist artist Man Ray, Miller was widely regarded to have the most beautiful breasts in the city – thus, it’s said, inspiring a French glass company to model a new coupe on her form. Miller’s lovely figure appeared in many Man Ray images, but was discreetly hidden when, as a war photographer in 1945, she posed naked in Hitler’s bathtub in liberated Munich.

Labels: , ,