Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Wacky World

Modern travel and communications -- at least in most of the developed nations of the world -- tend to obscure the reality of geography in a lot of arenas where it's still one of the most important factors.

Some of those arenas are military operations, nation-state security goals and political agendas and economics. Which, as Tim Marshall's 2016 Prisoners of Geography reminds us, contain about 90 percent of the decisions nations make in their policies and foreign relations. Marshall argues that few of these geographic realities have been changed by modern transportation and the internet. Policies which fail to take into account the Russian need for a warm-water port and belief that it needs a buffer across a broad flat plain aimed at its central cities, for example, will sooner or later crash into reality. Modern nations created by borders drawn in the late 19th or early 20th centuries may bear little correlation with ethnic groupings or the geographic features of an area.

Marshall doesn't offer exhaustive historical or geopolitical analysis, touching on high points and broad themes in his different chapters. But he makes a good case that there are factors at play in the way nations relate to each other, or the way that different people groups within nations relate to each other, that can't be dismissed just because they're inconvenient to a world view. Former President Obama spent a lot of time learning that, and I suspect President Trump will as well. We can hope some of the people who work for him have studied a little more and are a little less surprised. Marshall's book would be a pretty good starting point.
On the one hand the 2016 election, with its potential to develop interesting, diverse and variously qualified presidential candidates instead devolving into the mess that it was, would seem easy fodder for political humorist par excellence P. J. O'Rourke.

On the other hand, the whole thing was so bizarre, awful and exhausting that O'Rourke's collection of essays on the season, How the Hell Did This Happen?, has its own quality of exhaustion and just doesn't quite measure up to his earlier levels. When one of his opening jokes wondering how we would up with the candidates we had is kind of a rerun of a similar question he asked about the 1988 candidate field in Parliament of Whores, you can get a sense that he may not want to try too hard.

That's not really the case, but almost all of the chapters in the book started life as magazine articles or columns in other publications. They've been lightly revised to fit together between the same book covers, but the cumulative effect is like playing solitaire with 50 cards -- you can go through the motions but it's not a real game. A couple of chapters originally written for Forbes that outline how drafting billionaires' money to pay for everything the rest of us want only works for a short time are vintage O'Rourke. They're funny, sharply realistic and packed with the kind of reality that "reality-based" politicians and activists seem to overlook with frightening consistency.

Much of the rest of the book repeats the kinds of things O'Rourke noted in Parliament and to a lesser extent All the Trouble in the World and Eat the Rich. In fact, the presidential chapters of Parliament seem prescient in their description of the way we vote less for presidents than priest-kings. Much of Barack Obama's public support came from people who thought he would show Canute that a ruler really could stop the tides. Much of Donald Trump's support base has similar ideas, although the tide involves illegal immigration rather than oceans.

Perhaps it's just the awfulness of this particular campaign doesn't lend itself to mockery and satire. When the real world contains a Mike Huckabee who thinks he can win the nomination and the office, when it contains a guy who owns two homes but calls himself a socialist, when it contains an actual President Trump...well, what the hell can a satirist do with that?

No comments: