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Notes From Abroad on a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

September 19th, 2008 - 10:11 pm

For the past two weeks I’ve been doing some traveling in the Far East, dropping in on some favorite old places and marveling at the broad leap in living standards achieved in the space of a generation — thanks to the same market forces that are right now causing such dismay. And every time I tune in to the news, it seems to be worse: “The foundations of U.S. capitalism have shattered,” screams Der Spiegel, “The world as we know it is going down.”

By way of contrast I’ve been hauling along a dog-eared collection of Somerset Maugham short stories in which characters of another age of the world spent years gently rotting in colonial outposts — the locals around them decimated regularly by smallpox and cholera. For the folks populating that long-gone Maugham universe, the main contact with the torrent of human events came  via the passing ships that brought outdated newspapers, precious letters and books, and the occasional visitor to sit late into the night on some colonial verandah, telling stories over whisky and cigars. These days, such tales sound surreal. The modern heirs of this crowd would be post-colonial sojourners, following the markets on broadband, and due to the eco-conscious regulations of a great many sovereign states wired in to CNN International, they’d have to choose between whiskey at the table, or cigars in the designated smoking area near an outdoor trashcan.

Maybe it’s our own era that too often seems surreal. While the settings and pace of our own stories have drastically changed, the character of man has not. It takes time to absorb big news, it takes perspective to make wise decisions. And these days, everything seems to be big news — at least for a week — from Sarah Palin’s hair and hacked email, to Woody Allen’s pronouncements on Barack Obama, to the meltdown of assorted U.S. financial giants and bailouts on a scale the average taxpayer can hardly comprehend (but soon will).

Technology has delivered to us the ability to track disasters in parts of the planet that just a generation ago were rarely heard from at all — and since the worst news usually generates the biggest headlines, one might conclude on any given day that the catastrophes of the human race, the perfidies of politics, the threats to the planet (real or hyped), are simply beyond coping. The flip side is, of course, the astounding extent to which human creativity, energy and ambition has provided better lives for billions of people — something which has been happening incrementally enough so that it does not tend to make for howling daily headlines.

Amid this whirlwind, I still subscribe to the idea that when freedom matched with responsibility and fair rule of law is the basis of a political system, mankind can accomplish wonders – not least, the staving off of the apocalypse that seems chronically in one form or another to haunt the human imagination. If that sounds overly broad, of course it is — we live day to day in a welter of decisions and details, and politicians, nations, visionaries and madmen for better or worse can have mighty effects on our lives — all the more so in a world in which old institutions are struggling with evolving new crises. I’ll be exploring some of that terrain in a new weekly column on foreign affairs, running Thursdays on Forbes online, the first one here

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