The Breakfast Table

The Geopolitics of Dockers


Yes, where does the money come from? When the Happy Days-style nostalgia-parody movie about our zany fin de siècle gets made (and, at the current speed with which today’s style becomes tomorrow’s retro, I say that should happen in about March of 2001) this question will occupy the central dialogue. I can almost imagine the scene. Cut to: Well-coiffed protagonists, sipping avocado-lingonberry-protein smoothies while watching the stream of PT Cruisers and new Beetles pass their revitalized street-side cafe. Where, oh where, they wonder, does it all come from? And are we getting enough of it? They debate the issue so long that they decide to skip the outing to Pottery Barn.

Sometimes, in my dark, gloomy moments, I wonder if what we really need isn’t a recession to clear some of this nonsense out of the economy. I muse about this, I know, from a position of extreme selfishness. As an employee of a newspaper, I know papers don’t suffer quite as badly as everyone else in recessions. As a renter about to get violently squeezed by an out-of-control housing market, I think it’d help stop rent from rising or my house from being sold out from under me. As an editor always looking for good writers, I think it might knock some talent out of dot-com and glossy golden handcuffs and into my paper’s less remunerative grasp. As a citizen, I wonder if it wouldn’t limit the amount of bribery our corporate class can pull off (though I suppose it would make the effects of said bribery rather worse). Plus–the big selfish upside–I would be able to quit worrying about why all these creeps in the TV brokerage ads seem to be so much more on top of financial matters than I am.

But I wonder what people would do if–like the Filipinos on the trash heap, or the Nigerians in the oil spill–it all just went away. Would we accept it, move away for a while, and then decline to heed the next round of warnings against living atop a trash heap or getting too close to flammable oil? Or would we lash out? One of my favorite world-news moments of the past few years was when all of Albania lost their savings in a nationwide Ponzi scheme. The outraged citizen-suckers’ next move? They tried to overthrow the government. The move seems logical to me, but the connection between personal financial error–even when it calamitously happens to everyone–and the government is something Americans mostly don’t see. Not that I think we need to fear mobs of diehard King Zog supporters in the streets if the bubble bursts, but I wonder whether Bush and Gore have done any thinking about this. Running in fat times must indeed be fun, but the downside is that your country is even less willing to put up with bumps.

Speaking of high-profile things a country can afford to spend time on when it feels rich, why do these pictures of Barak and Arafat buddying around with each other in Western Maryland make me so uncomfortable? There they are, walking in the woods! There’s Barak, goofily pretending to push Arafat through a door first! I felt the same awkward, vaguely embarrassed feeling watching Kim Jong Il and his South Korean counterpart sing songs and trade compliments. Is this just a natural human instinct, my reaction to the essential awkwardness of their relationships?  Or is it that I’m embarrassed for the rest of the world that they seem to have adopted Clinton-era American-style mugging for cameras? Could you imagine, say, Nehru and Jinnah engaging in such on-camera goofiness? Or even, more recently, Mandela and de Klerk? Seriously, this isn’t just an aesthetic argument. I have no idea how those pictures play to an 11-year-old potential Hamas recruit living in some squalid relocation camp. Do they say that Arafat is a relaxed guy who comports himself like Barak’s equal? Do they say that Arafat is–literally–getting pushed around by the Israeli? Do they say that Arafat is a guy who has lost all claim to revolutionary legitimacy because he’s goofing around with these Dockers-clad yuppies? The potential interpretations on the other side are just as varied. There’s a reason people carry themselves like statesmen, and with a certain etiquette, and that reason isn’t just some fusty 19th-century scheme to force all global leaders to act like boring old stiffs: It’s to eliminate this kind of chance of misinterpretation simply because everyone is interacting based on a prescribed set of rules. (Thank heavens Arafat at least kept his outfit. I trust Miss Manners would  approve.)

So the Kenyans love their children, too. I’m glad to hear it. I’ll start planning my vacation soon.