In March 1990, I entered East Germany for the start of nearly seven months of travel throughout Eastern Europe. In my backpack, I carried an early version of a laptop and a cutting-edge portable printer. I had a simple agenda: talk to people, write reports, and send them back to my employers by snail mail.
Alex has a big problem. Since his earliest years he has been addicted to a potent combination of sex and violence. When he hangs out with his friends, their favorite activity is to break into people’s houses and terrorize them. But that’s actually not Alex’s big problem. That comes later, when he’s apprehended by the state and subjected to an extreme form of aversion therapy that makes him physically sick whenever he sees or contemplates violence. Worse, at least for Alex, is that he is repulsed by the art that once soothed his savage breast.
Conservative activist Andrew Breitbart, who died earlier this year, created an empire of websites that attack big, fat liberal targets. There’s Big Government, Big Hollywood, and Big Journalism. In 2010, he intervened into foreign policy with his final effort, Big Peace. Not surprisingly, he never got around to launching websites that attacked Big Money or Big Military. Nor did Big Mouth ever appear, for that would have been a wholly uncharacteristic foray into self-criticism.
We won our independence from the British in a hard-fought revolutionary battle. Today, no hard feelings: the Anglo-American alliance is strong, we all love Downton Abbey, and our skirmishes are largely confined to disputes over which version of The Office is funnier and how to spell and pronounce the word “aluminum.”
The Pentagon has traditionally presented cyber war as “their hackers” against “our defenders.” Out there, especially in China, a faceless horde of anonymous computer users are arrayed against the United States in an updated version of the “yellow peril.” In 2010, the Pentagon complained publicly for the first time about the Chinese government deploying civilian hackers to go after U.S. targets. These cyber attacks date back at least to 1999 when, after NATO bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Chinese hackers launched a slew of “denial of service” attacks that, among other results, shut down the White House website for three days.
On health care and the military budget, no one can dispute that the United States spends exorbitantly. Whether we get our money’s worth is a matter of considerable debate. But there is one arena in which the United States is a world-class spender where you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who would argue that we get world-class results for our money. I’m talking about our electoral system, which has produced a legislature that attracted a historic low of 10 percent public approval this year, an administration still beholden to Wall Street and the military industrial complex, and (indirectly) a Supreme Court that tilts so far to the right that I’m surprised the building itself hasn’t fallen over.
Get out of town. Go on, scram! That’s what a graduation ceremony is all about: the big boot. Thanks for those thousands of dollars, here’s a receipt in the form of a diploma, and now hurry up and make room for the next class. Oh, and don’t forget to write: checks that is, once you’ve somehow paid off your mountainous student debt.
I wasn’t invited to give a commencement address this year. But here’s what I would say if an institution were foolish enough to give me a microphone and an audience.
Everybody loves Dexter. He’s handsome. He’s helpful. He works at the Miami Metro Police Department, and he’s very good at his job as a blood-splatter analyst. Oh, did I mention that he moonlights as a serial killer? Don’t worry: he only kills bad guys. That’s part of the code that Dexter’s adoptive father, himself a police officer, passed down to his son. As a child who had watched his mother die a horrendous death, Dexter couldn’t overcome the murderous impulses that surged within him. His father, channeling those impulses in the only constructive way he could think of, created a better monster of his son’s nature: a serial killer of serial killers.
It’s happening in Buenos Aires. It’s happening in Paris and in Athens. It’s even happening at the World Bank headquarters.The global economy is finally shifting away from the model that prevailed for the last three decades. Europeans are rejecting austerity. Latin Americans are nationalizing enterprises. The next head of the World Bank has actually done effective development work.
Maybe that long-heralded “end of the Washington consensus” is finally upon us.
Institutions rarely vote themselves out of existence. Not if they still have money in their budgets. Large institutions in particular have an almost genetic propensity to cling to life even after their reasons for being have vanished. That’s why I don’t expect NATO, which will gather in Chicago later this month, to suddenly declare game over and disband – even though the alliance’s rationale has become wafer-thin. The Soviet Union is no more, al-Qaeda is a spent force, and NATO members are rushing for the door in Afghanistan. Indeed, most of Europe is cutting back on military spending, and the debt-saddled region has a diminished appetite for intervention.