Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
It is by now a cliche that, since January 2017, parody in American life has died. That may be an exaggeration, but it certainly is much more difficult to tell these days what is an Onion article and what is real news coming out of the West Wing.
But now we are living through not parody but a horror film. Specifically, a teen slasher. Think Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, Halloween, The Faculty, and of course related works such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its explicit and oft-referenced antecedent, Scooby Doo.
In these products of pop culture, as a trope, the adults in authority positions are always craven and corrupt or simply clueless as to what’s going on. (OK, some exceptions, like Giles on Buffy as an ersatz father figure.) The teen protagonists, and some of their teen friends, are the ones who know the truth and who fight the forces of evil with what wits they can muster in spite of their hormones.
It was only a layover the other day at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport, but it still made me tense.
It didn’t help that the uniformed Russian officer immediately began demanding to know the purpose of my trip, never mind that I was clearly not entering Russia and was therefore not his concern. I wanted to tell him not to worry, that I vowed years ago never to return to his country until and unless I obtained diplomatic immunity.
More or less on a whim, and as though I didn’t spend enough time in the classroom over the regular college semesters, I decided to spend the summer of 2002 studying Russian, a language entirely new to me. After a few weeks Stateside learning the rudiments, the cohort of us relocated to St. Petersburg for a few more weeks of immersion. When that finished at the end of July, I picked up my backpack and bought a train ticket to Moscow, hoping to see more of Russia and eventually to catch the Trans-Siberian Railway.
In the early-15th century, the Chinese government sent the so-called Eunuch Admiral, Zheng He, on a voyage of exploration that reached East Africa and perhaps beyond. A muslim of Mongol-Uzbek extraction, he was often known by his honorific name “Sanbao,” and he may have been the inspiration for Sinbad in the Arabian Nights.
Six hundred years later he is the poster child of contemporary China’s foreign policy. Called “One Belt One Road,” the policy calls for China to reconstitute the ancient Silk Road across Eurasia as well as to build supposedly mutually beneficial relationships with many of the countries that Zheng visited. And the building of relationships mostly involves the construction of factories and bridges and roads and other capital projects for these countries. Zheng left a stele in Sri Lanka commemorating his visit, so now China has built an international airport and a deepwater seaport for Sri Lanka.
I’ve been seeing and marveling at many indications of China’s “OBOR” policy around the world for some time. There was the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, for example. And there were the children in Ethiopia crying “China, China” upon seeing me, which annoyed me until I learned that, with so much Chinese investment in that country, the children thought that all foreign-looking people were Chinese, even if they had blonde hair and blue eyes.
And most recently I have been in Kenya.
Liu Xiaobo died last Thursday in prison in China.
Liu was a political activist who spent his adult life campaigning for democracy in China. Having already been in and out of prison for his activities since the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989, Liu published the so-called “Charter ’08” in 2008, a document modeled on Vaclav Havel’s “Charter ’77,” calling on the Chinese government to allow multi-party democracy. The government responded by sentencing him to 11 years in prison for “subverting” the state.
In 2010 he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Beijing refused him permission to go to Norway to receive the award. An empty chair symbolized his absence in Oslo.
July 1 marked the two-year anniversary of my life of nonstop round-the-world travel. In that time I have visited countries from Ukraine to Uruguay, Armenia to Argentina, Estonia to Ethiopia, the Netherlands to Nepal.
Also in that time, to my surprise, travel has become a political act.
Or perhaps, as we live in the age of the unending War on Terror, travel has long been a political act. Terrorists would have us be too afraid to travel; they would have us avoid airports and train stations; they would have us tremble with anxiety in our window seats, eyeing our bearded neighbor with suspicion.
After all the horror stories I’d heard in the last few months about people getting detained trying to enter the US or having their visas revoked on arrival, I worried that I might run into problems myself.
After all, I have some pretty colorful stamps in my passport: Iran, Afghanistan, and a whole lot of Arabic lettering. The US consulate in Rio de Janeiro had granted me a visa, after a moment of hesitation. But that didn’t mean that Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, a separate agency, had to honor the State Department’s decision.
There was a tank outside Havana’s Museum of the Revolution with a bilingual sign next to it that said, “from [this tank] Commander in Chief Fidel Castro shot US vessel Houston during the mercenary invasion at Bay of Pigs in April 1961.”
Wow, I thought. Really? Fidel Castro, commander in chief of all Cuban forces, personally operated a tank at the Bay of Pigs, and personally fired on, and hit, a US ship. I was skeptical.
A bit later, a stone’s throw away and still on the museum grounds, I found another tank. It had a nearly identical sign next to it. Apparently Fidel also personally operated this tank and personally fired on and hit the Houston.
I like to play music on my laptop when I write. And the other day, for whatever reason, I started playing, over and over, a song from my high school days in New Zealand. I went to a church school, you see, although I’m not religious. An Anglican school, or Episcopalian, as Americans would say. And twice a week and sometimes on weekends we had to go to chapel. And every time we went to chapel we had to sing hymns. Some hymns stuck with me, including this one: “I Vow to Thee, My Country.”
But is it even a religious hymn? Some would describe it simply as a British patriotic song. Some call it one of Britain’s unofficial national anthems. Indeed the song came to prominence in the UK during WWI, when patriotism was all the rage. If you’re wondering why we kept singing it in New Zealand, well, as the New Zealand prime minister during WWII, Michael Joseph Savage, said when declaring war on Nazi Germany, “Where [Britain] goes, we go; where she stands, we stand.”
A few weeks ago I was in Ushuaia on the southern tip of Argentina. Fin del Mundo, they call it, the End of the World. Ushuaia’s geographical location meant that it was, and still is, an Argentine naval base. As such it played a suitably significant role in the Falklands War of 1982, or Guerra de las Malvinas to the Argentines. So much so that a memorial to the Argentine war dead stands in the middle of the city.
And the Falklands War remains one of the purest and most obvious examples of wagging the dog—the term from the 1997 comedy has by now entered common English usage—of a government bumbling into war against a foreign “enemy” for no better reason than to distract its own citizens from problems at home.
The great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges had an even better epithet for the pointless war: It was “a fight between two bald men over a comb.”
Kenneth Arrow died last week.
Professor Kenneth Joseph Arrow of Stanford, naturally the son of immigrants (in this case Romanian Jewish ones), in his lifetime won the John Bates Clark Medal for best economist under 40, the John von Neumann Theory Prize, and, oh yes, the Nobel Prize for Economics. In fact, he remains the youngest person ever to win that particular award.
Arrow was 95.
I discovered Arrow in college, as so many other did as well. It was hard to study social science, any social science (political in my case), without coming across Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem. And for a college sophomore coming across the Theorem for the first time, the idea of it is deeply disturbing, like tremors beneath your feet where you didn’t realize there was ever a fault line.
Here’s Wikipedia’s summary of Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem:
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."