Rock Throwin’ All Over the World

There is violence in the streets of Kiev and Bangkok just to name the latest venues. “People everywhere just wanna be free.” Their “elected” representatives, their autocratic overlords, their maximum leaders want them to sit down, shut up and do as they’re told.

Nothing new there, but the media reports are breathless with surprise (and thrilled by the bloody videos). Wise men are assembled to examine the roots of the disease, offer a diagnosis and deliver a prognosis. But they seem almost as surprised and certainly can’t say what will happen next.

Really? The protesters will be crushed. Or reforms to defuse the situation will be promised and never delivered. Or the evil autocrat will be replaced by a shiny new model. Or the popular uprising will succeed and the bumbling revolutionaries will prove so divided, disorganized and generally incompetent to govern that the old boss, or oligopoly or junta will soon come to the fore once again.

It’s sad. Tragic, really.  Especially since all that these people really seem to want is a land where every man is able to sit “under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.”

But is it really a surprise? With no history of the rule of law, private property rights, self-determination, electoral democracy, capitalist economics, religious freedom, a free press, civil rights, universal literacy the odds are long against a happy outcome.

Those who report on or parse the meaning of these endless, miserable instances of ruined hopes adopt a judicious, measured, objective tone in the face of calamity. They want to be invited back to opine again and don’t want to appear naive by wearing their hearts on their sleeves. Or radical by caring for the oppressed. Or cynical by saying what we all know to be true.

The people are throwing rocks, but the oppressors have the tanks. It isn’t going to end well. No one will come to the aid of the embattled. And next week, surprise will be expressed at the latest photogenic ka-boom.

So What’s a Podunk Pundit?

Well, the Pundit part is easy. It’s an opiner, a kibitzer, a bloviater commenting on the passing parade. For twenty years or so I performed this function at a couple daily papers (if you remember those), writing editorials, columns, book reviews, drama reviews and what were sneeringly called thumb suckers.

I haven’t done this for a living for quite awhile, but old habits die hard. Every time I read a paper, watch the news, TV or movies, listen to the radio, read a book I immediately start dictating my response in my head. I kept telling myself I should get a blog and prove myself a blockhead, which is what Dr. Johnson called any man who writes for any reason other than money. But inertia is a powerful force. Finally, however, thanks to the invaluable tech support of Brian Hodge, here I am. My random thoughts no longer blushing unseen, wasting their tartness on the desert air but rather are now polluting cyberspace.

As to the Podunk part, I spent my first twenty-five years in Ohio, another twenty-five in North Carolina and a couple strange interludes in Virginia and Minnesota. By the reckoning of the wise guy talking heads, thought leaders, tastemakers to whom we are expected to listen, anything beyond the New York-Washington axis (with the possible exception of L.A.) is the outback, the sticks, the boondocks, flyover country. In short, Podunk. And anything emanating from such places is by definition not worth listening to. It’s the same as the one percent having all the money, except in this view of things the one percent in the big city have all the ideas. The rest of us shouldn’t worry our little heads about it.

A dear friend of mine with whom I shared the prospective name of this blog was aghast. She is part of a generation still actually able to get aghast. She didn’t think we lived in Podunk and disliked the imputation. I assured her that far from wanting to defame the 99 percent of the country living in Podunk, I intended to clamber aboard Rocinante and tilt at windmills on their behalf.

Except for three years or so in the Pacific thanks to the empire of Japan, my Dad spent his life in Podunk and he was smart, modest, amiable, decent, honest, thoughtful, fair-minded, a good citizen and a lot better role model than such denizens of Metropolis as Donald Trump, Bernie Madoff, Richard Fuld, Rupert Murdock, Anthony Weiner, or the latest criminal rap star, slutty reality show housewife or Washington weasel. So here’s to Podunk. That’s my opinion.

Citizen of the World

In a time of rampant globalization, are we all citizens of the world? It would be nice to think so. Through history it’s usually been thought by people holding passports from safe, powerful places with a legal system offering some protection.

Diogenes, the philosopher, was among the first to express the notion. But he famously lived in a tub and had so few desires that it hardly mattered where he lived. Cosmopolitan types often use the phrase but rarely lack plane fare home in case things go sideways in a less amiable place. They rarely are poor or trying to practice their broad-mindedness under Mao or Stalin or an ayatollah.

Albert Einstein claimed world citizenship on philosophical grounds, pronouncing nationalism an infantile disease. But it was a lot easier for a German Jew to proclaim such an ideal from Princeton, New Jersey than it would have been from Dachau.

The guards at national frontiers notoriously lack a cosmopolitan viewpoint, still it must be admitted we live in a period of remarkable global give and take. Modern air travel, mass media, the internet and trade all make people more interconnected than previously. The Silk Road and the Columbian Exchange were big deals, but they are dwarfed by the present.

We all know the downsides well enough. Ill-paid laborers from Asia and Latin America displace American workers, but they also provide the affordable merchandise at Costco and Wal-Mart that the reduced pay of formerly unionized auto workers in Detroit or Norma Raes in Caroline buys. It’s a trade-off with complicated winners and losers.

Invasive species screw up ecosystems around the planet, often leading to surprise extinctions and lesser difficulties – zebra mussels, kudzu, Ebola. We have given the world liberal ideals, rock and roll, robber baron capitalism and the response has often been Berlin Walls and suicide bombers.

Still the process seems inexorable, in part because there is a profit in it, whether financial or psychic. Kremlin protesters ape punk rockers. Foreign thugs imitate rappers. We import reggae from the Caribbean, TV shows from Europe and actors from Australia.

In “Citizen U.S.A.,” a lovely documentary by Alexandra Pelosi about new Americans being granted citizenship, there’s a charming moment when she asks a new citizen in Florida what it means to be an American. He’s from Albania and is decked out for the ceremony in a double-breasted cream colored suit of vaguely boxy, middle European cut with a matching fedora. He says that in America we have freedom to try everything. In Albania there was barely bread to eat but here he can have China food one meal, Mexican the next, Italian the next. Anything he wants.

One might suppose this sort of thing a one-way street. We’re the melting pot, after all. But it’s happening everywhere and faster and faster. A year or two ago I was briefly in the south of France for the first time in twenty years. At the stalls at the provincial street fairs there were the predictable cheeses, wines and confitures, but there were almost as many Arab spice merchants and falafel stands.

We all know that Col. Sanders now gains more revenue aboard than at home and that many Hollywood movies only break even because of the foreign box office. I am old enough to remember when I first encountered pizza, tacos and kibbeh, yet today in my little Podunk town those are joined by Salvadoran joints, sushi bars, Korean BBQ and Caribbean jerk chicken.

I was recently told this little tale, a real sign of the times, that suggests there is no end to the mash-ups possible in a world with porous borders and wild west trade. American expats in China grew homesick for Chinese food. Not the sort available all around them, but the Americanized version they’d grown up on.

They decide they probably weren’t alone since so many other American, like them, were constantly in and out of China or had been relocated there for business reasons. So maybe there’d be a market niche for an American-style Chinese restaurant in China catering to other expat Americans.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the fortune cookie, which incidentally is the name of the place they opened. Chinese people began to try the Americanized version and it caught on with them. Thus, Americans have now succeeded in exporting Chinese food to China where it is helping to Americanize the palates of the locals.

It’s a funny old world in which we find ourselves citizens.