Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Speech-making then and now

I’ve just finished reading Livy on the Romans’ war with Hannibal, including his accounts of the speeches by Roman or enemy commanders to their troops or to each other or those by supplicants addressing the Senate on behalf of their defeated cities. What’s striking is how similar these speeches are to the UN oratory recorded yesterday. In each case, Livy’s speakers line up careful arguments to buttress their respective cases, edit history shamelessly, trumpet their own good intentions and boast about representing civilization and decency, denounce the perfidy of their counterparts, and absolutely never admit to having nasty ulterior motives, such as imperial conquest, plunder and long-term tribute—which are what’s really behind most of the conflicts.

Now let’s examine Iranian president Hassan Rouhani’s speech side by side with Obama’s. The equivalent of modern Iran back in the days that Livy describes (cerca 200 BCE) would be a minor regional power on the outskirts of what was quickly becoming the Roman Empire, something like Bithynia in present-day Turkey or a redoubt in Gaul still beyond the reach of Julius Caesar (who showed up 150 years later). It would be a polity with long-standing hostility to Roman encroachment but relatively vulnerable and nervous about its neighbors, most of whom would love to subdue them.

Rouhani, like the Bithynian kings, knows that he is in a weak position militarily and wants to avoid war. But he also wants not to cede too much nor accept Roman domination. His discourse, then, includes glowing descriptions of humanity’s search and hope for peace in an atmosphere of, as he repeats, ‘fear’. There are many observable dangers he enumerates (and recall that his audience is the leadership of the entire world): fear of war, of ‘deadly confrontation’, of poverty, of resource destruction and, of course, fear of ‘neglect of morality’. He praises dialogue over conflict, moderation over extremism, and celebrates his own country as a cozy model of democracy, wisely omitting any mention of the election before his own, which probably was won by a candidate unacceptable to the clerical oligarchy.

Nonetheless, it’s an effectively soothing speech in which Rouhani draws in all countries as sharing in the ‘vulnerability’ that the current state of international relations has created. He calls it a ‘global and indivisible phenomenon’, which is a way of saying, ‘Don’t think an attack on us will be a free ride for everyone else’.

Rouhani, as the weaker player, encourages his listeners to value equality among nations and eschew the use of force:

At this sensitive juncture in the history of global relations, the age of zero-sum games is over, even though a few actors still tend to rely on archaic and deeply ineffective ways and means to preserve their old superiority and domination. Militarism and the recourse to violent and military means to subjugate others are failed examples of the perpetuation of old ways in new circumstances. . . . there is no guarantee that the era of quiet among big powers will remain immune from such violent discourses, practices and actions. The catastrophic impact of violent and extremist narratives should not – in fact, must not – be underestimated.

In a section that could be extracted directly from Livy, Rouhani complains that the idea of a ‘civilized center and uncivilized peripheries’ is discriminatory and propagandistic and provides cover for the inflation of the ‘Iranian threat’, which he says,

. . . has been employed as an excuse to justify a long catalogue of crimes and catastrophic practices over the past three decades. The arming of the Saddam Hussein regime with chemical weapons and supporting the Taliban and Al-Qaida are just two examples of such catastrophes.

Yeah, how about those two examples? Kinda hard to deny that they were not good outcomes, even for the ‘civilized’ central power. The far-flung kingdoms that would eventually fall under the grip of Rome argued in a similar vein—not that it preserved their freedom.

Rouhani winds up his discourse with an expression of support for the ‘ballot box’ as the only way to resolve conflicts and a reminder that military threats against Iran have been a constant. He even signs off with a reference to the Christian psalms and the Torah in a nod to ‘tolerance’, one of his favorite themes throughout. (No atheists, however.)

Now, let’s look at Obama’s perorations, which lasted over twice as long (5500 words v/s 2600 by Rouhani—the man is long-winded). He immediately starts the discussion on a different footing and uses a completely different principle: not the equality of nations nor the need to find peaceful resolution of conflicts, but how to ‘enforce rules of behavior’. We’ll hear more about ‘enforcement’ later.

First, however, Obama has to dispatch some uncomfortable details, the quicker the better. So we hear about the winding down of America’s most recent wars (no mention of UN permission to wage them, BTW), the ‘limited’ use of drones that we’re now making sure only hit bad meanies (‘near certainty of no civilian casualties’), and yet another promise to close Guantánamo.

Obama also said he’s ‘begun to review’ how snooping on people like Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff should be handled in the future—a virtual confession that only the Snowden revelations would have changed that habit.

With those embarassments out of the way, Obama can get back to more comfortable territory: Syria. This situation permits him, as the representative of the military power, to argue that peaceful conflict resolution is all well and good, but it can’t work all the time. Ergo, sometimes we are just simply forced to use all these weapons—but for strictly civilizing and humanitarian purposes.

This rhetorical sleight of hand relies heavily on the standard cant usage of the term ‘international community’, as if there were such a thing. This phrase pops up when the hegemonic power wants to pretend not to be acting in its own naked self-interest but as part of a large coalition of right-minded folks. At the sound of this phrase, put your wallet in a locked drawer and place your head between your knees.

Obama quickly insists that ‘the international community’ must now act rather than ‘standing callously by’ when children are gassed to death. Killjoy historians may recall that this was not U.S. policy when Saddam Hussein used gas against Iranian troops and Kurdish civilians—but he was our guy then and ‘standing callously by’ was therefore okay. When the imperial power has to strike, Livy-like historians will always step up to provide the rhetorical juice.

So now we are back to the enforcement that Obama mentioned in his first paragraph: the Syrians are official bad guys, so someone has to act. To the surprise of all, Obama volunteers America to be that someone.

What follows is the most disingenuous section of Obama’s speech.

. . . my preference has always been a diplomatic resolution to this issue. And in the past several weeks, the United States, Russia and our allies have reached an agreement to place Syria's chemical weapons under international control and then to destroy them.

Blocked by lack of support for military action, Obama is now reduced to insisting that the Assad regime has to go one way or another. The rest of the speech, covering two topics for another 3000 words, quickly loses any remaining credibility as it pretends to be about some fantastical Israeli-Palestinian deal that no one in that room could possibly have taken seriously, including Obama himself. That makes his comments about Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions rather hard to take seriously as well.

Obama winds up at long last with a quick reiteration of his enforcement principle, i.e., ‘meaningful sanctions for those who break the rules’, not including us (see, Invasion of Iraq). Then there’s that old ‘international community’ again, which in certain moments, may ‘need to acknowledge that the multilateral use of military force may be required to prevent the very worst from occurring.’

Or as Scipio Africanus might have said, ‘We had to destroy Carthage in order to save it’.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Is the Pope Catholic?

The Pope’s stunning multi-session interview with a Jesuit magazine last week properly generated headlines about his crack over the ‘obsession’ among Catholics with abortion, contraception and the like. But there is a lot more than that phrase in the text, some of it potentially more significant. [Disclosure: I once wrote an article for America, the English-language Jesuit magazine that carried the papal interview.]

The 10,000-word conversation, released simultaneously to 15 Jesuit publications in a variety of languages, suggests a mystical side to Francis I as well as a political one. I’m not versed in this sort of theological reflection, but it’s striking that Francis speaks of his recent trip to Brazil as a ‘mystery’ and emphasizes that absolute certainty is not given to us in the earthly realm (rather extraordinary considering his job).

He also says he sought ‘community’ early in his clerical life and is not comfortable with isolation and traditional papal remove, which, he implies, are dangerous. This is consistent with his austere style and his habit of answering letters with a phone call to the surprised faithful.

Furthermore, his comments suggest that these are not mere personality quirks of historical or gossipy interest. Francis’s interview is peppered with remarks about the importance of treating church affairs as a communal effort in which the whole membership ‘thinks’, not just the hierarchy. Even salvation is not a strictly individual experience, but something that occurs ‘in the web of human relationships’. This is far afield from the obedience-based reliance on priestly magic to intercede with the divine powers as the sole means of getting a seat within the pearly gates.

‘All the faithful, considered as a whole, are infallible in matters of belief’, he told the Jesuit editor, in another remarkable colloquoy. He quickly denies that he is suggesting ‘populism’, perish the thought, but then warns that limiting the church to a ‘small group of selected people’ will make it ‘a nest of mediocrity’—pretty strong stuff after years of hearing the exact opposite from Benedict XVI.

Francis’s longer statements express concern for humanity out-weighing concern for institutional Catholicism—another contrast with the recent past.

I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.

Francis also had curious ideas about how to deliver pastoral care, offering an example of drug addiction in poor neighborhoods. He calls for a ‘direct connection’ to the poor and to ‘understand the problem from the inside and study it’. These are refurbished ideas directly out of liberation theology that his two predecessors did everything in their power to stamp out. We won’t hear Francis cite the ‘preferential option for the poor’ that came out of Medellin and other Latin American episcopal conferences, but he’s hinting at resuscitating its spirit—enough to get some Opus Dei cardinals’ faces turning as purple as their gowns.

As for orthodoxy, he reminds the interviewer that slavery was once considered acceptable. ‘There are ecclesiastical rules and precepts that were once effective, but now they have lost value or meaning. The view of the church’s teaching as a monolith to defend without nuance or different understandings is wrong’.

Here’s some more of Francis’s commentary:

The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbor. This is pure Gospel. The structural and organizational reforms are secondary—that is, they come afterward. The first reform must be the attitude. The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost.

One could take such talk as religious boilerplate, and perhaps it is. But it is not the familiar call to return to doctrinal orthodoxy and to forget about earthly affairs like poverty, violence and oppression. Francis also endorses ‘finding new paths’ and speaks repeatedly of the need to restore primacy to the Christian message of universal participation in the human community, understood in his terms as ‘redemption’, which ‘comes before moral and religious imperatives’. This is a radical notion in a world dominated by us/them divisions and exclusion, fratricidcal religious wars and the brutalities of modern save-your-own-ass capitalism. We could do worse than to have such a voice making itself heard in these times.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Oh, please

One need not be a fan of Czar Vladimir I to cringe with embarrassment at John McCain’s sophomoric screed in Pravda. It’s amazing how quickly our self-righteous pols dredge up ‘freedom’ and ‘rights’ issues to beat up today’s enemy after sneering at the same demands at home.

Does McCain really have the balls to complain that Russia ‘codifies bigotry’ over sexual orientation? Huh? This from the presidential candidate of a party that has made attacks on homos key to their electoral success for three decades?

McCain also thinks Russians ‘deserve the opportunity to improve [their] lives in an economy that is built to last and benefits the many, not just the powerful few.’ Bwahahaha! Does that include all the Russian ‘takers’ who are trying to handicap ‘job creators’ over there?

Undoubtedly, McCain lands a few blows, given the size of the target Putin offers, about corruption, cronyism, repression and Russia’s raw-material-dependent economy. But he should think twice before trumpeting the ‘lack of rule of law’ and the rickety nature of the local economy.

Perhaps the most cloying prose in McCain’s column is the complaint about Russia being ‘a friend to tyrants and an enemy of the oppressed’, making it ‘untrusted’ by other nations seeking a peaceful world. Yes, no doubt peace-loving nations everywhere are much more enamored of preachers like McCain who flew bombing raids over Vietnam and cheered for the disastrous conquest of Iraq.

Maybe these pious Christians could take another look at Matthew 7 verse 5: ‘Thou hpyocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye’.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Troves of data, but no information

So despite thousands of employees at the NSA poring over records of our phone conversations with our grandmas, cross-referencing our Netflix accounts to our video game purchases at Best Buy and mapping our personal networks through agorithms of our friends’ links to cellphone towers, they can’t keep a guy who hears voices, shoots guns in blind rages, can’t sleep for days at a time, and tells co-workers he has PTSD from walking into a secure military facility in the nation’s capitol carrying a rifle, grabbing a pistol once inside, and wiping out a dozen civilian employees.

Why should we be surprised? This is the same Super-Security State that allowed two dozen Saudi religious fanatics to roam around the country learning how to pilot airplanes (but not land them) while is desperately looked for an excuse to launch a war of conquest against a non-existent Iraqi enemy. Plus ça change. . .

Our leaders insist that if we keep doing what we’re doing, only moreso, we will somehow magically obtain different results. Their sole reaction to these incidents is to call for and insist upon yet more surveillance and police powers instead of examining the flaws of the underlying model.

A government terrified of its own citizens and compulsively piling up every kind of data on them ‘just in case’ is incapable of sifting its vast terabytes of meaningless information coherently to identify real threats. The blunderbuss ‘know-everything’ approach has led to hundreds of thousands of employees now sitting around in cubicles piling up information that they cannot meaningfully analyze. Then, failing to find anything useful but needing urgently to justify their existence and preserve their jobs, the same apparatus cannot resist sending out its own agents to stir up terrorist plots that it can then ‘unmask’.

But finding real psychos with guns? That’s asking too much.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Aftermath of Syria confrontation

Lots of interesting and generally thoughtful commentary about the Syria war/poison gas story, which, lest we get too comfortable, could still blow up.

Firedog Lake points out that Obama contradicted himself repeatedly in the speech, which, upon inspection, sounds like a series of focus-group-tested talking points rather than a coherent policy statement. For example, on the question as to whether Syrian government use of poison gas on civilians is a security threat to the U.S., Obama’s answers were: yes, no, and sort of.

. . . [I]t is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike. . . . That’s my judgment as commander in chief.

One could question this, and in fact someone did: Obama himself. A few minutes later, he said,

[E]ven though I possessed the authority to order military strikes, I believed it was right, in the absence of a direct or imminent threat to our security, to take this debate to Congress.

Alrighty then, it is in our national security interests, but it is not a direct or imminent threat to the aforementioned national security. Huh? So what’s the rush?

It’s hard to justify a unilateral attack on a foreign nation that enjoys no UN sanction without some sort of self-defense element, so Obama had to say gassing civilians is a dangerous precedent. Fair enough. But he also simultaneously asserted that Assad can’t lay a finger on us. So which is it? I gather he meant (though he didn’t say) that while there is no immediate threat to us personally from a tiny country half a world away, it is in our overall interests to make sure no one poison gases their own civilians.

This argument, that certain acts, even in war, can’t be permitted by human civilization, then lets Obama further insist that we Americans, whom he explicitly called ‘exceptional’, have to shoulder the duty of making sure those things don’t happen. Perhaps the ‘liberal interventionists’ on his team like Samantha Power are pushing that. It’s an attractive posture, at first glance.

Gassing non-combatant civilians, including children, is certainly a crime against humanity (although Obama never used that term). By why is the U.S.A. exactly the arbiter of these heinous acts and the enforcer assigned to prevent them? After all, some folks might have something to say about vaporizing 200,000 civilians with nuclear weapons, which has occurred exactly once in human history (so far). Or certain skeptics might question what happened the last two times poison gas was used, i.e., by Saddam Hussein against Iranian soldiers and also against his own Kurdish minority. In both cases the leadership of the U.S., the ‘exceptional’ nation, was wink-winnking at a distance because, back then, Saddam was our man.

It’s hard to swallow Obama’s order to go watch the atrocity videos and then get back to him given that sordid (and largely unknown) history. It doesn’t make Assad any less of a vile nazi to understand that the eagerness to go after him militarily has very little to do with his appalling crimes and everything to do with broader U.S. interests, of which ‘national security’ qualifies only in the broadest, most all-inclusive sense. Many people in the government are itching to go after Assad, but, sadly, it’s not because he murdered a thousand civilians.

Then there’s the issue of credibility. After the weapons of mass destruction debacle in Iraq, people have no reason to believe official Washington on who is doing what with what weapons. So it would be reasonable to demand some independent verification before rushing in with cruise missiles blazing. All the pressure to authorize military force before the UN inspectors have done everything they can to gather evidence is highly suspect.

Reading Livy on the long, bloody history of the Roman Empire, as I have been doing lately, is a reminder that powerful imperial states always have persuasive reasons for attacking peoples in distant outposts who dare to rebel, for keeping allies both obedient and intimidated, and for crushing enemies far and wide, even if any concept of threat to Rome itself was grossly exaggerated. (The long occupation of Italy by Hannibal was one important exception.) But these reasons are related to preserving the privileges of empire, not the safety of the homeland. Obama’s speech revealed through its contradictions of language and concept that he is as much an imperial president as Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and the Bushes. It is perversely fortunate that the loonies hate his guts so much that he can’t get away with it so easily. If they were in charge and demanding war with Syria, Obama and the Democrats would be signing on.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Chile 40 years after

(Santiago) – Modern Chile is an excellent example of the old gag about ‘the operation was a success, the patient died’. Santiago is booming, housing prices are through the roof, new construction is everywhere and official unemployment low. Inflation is relatively modest, and the (privatized) highways are free of potholes.

But as the country gets ready to recall the military takeover of 1973, which occurred on the accursed date of September 11, all the surface prosperity and buzz can’t obscure the fact that life for many of the capital’s 5 million plus residents is a grim struggle bordering on a nightmare. The fact that they’re used to it or feel luckier than their Peruvian neighbors is a fancy denial bow they tie on their reality, and I hope it makes them feel better.

Ironically for one of the victims of the notorious debt crises of the 1970s and ’80s, Chile has had plenty of cash for years due to a favorable trade balance and high prices for copper, its principal export. One of the smart things its civilian presidents (and, to be fair, Pinochet as well) did with it was to build up Santiago’s rapid transit grid to the point where one can travel throughout much of the sprawling city by rail. This combination subway and above-ground commuter rail line could have been a boon to the daily life of a populace among whom car ownership historically was a luxury few could afford.

Instead, and counter-intuitively, the improvements have created a vast deterioration in the quality of life of the people who live in Santiago. Before, a complex jumble of privately owned buses constituted a dirty, anarchic but entirely functional transport system that most people relied on, sometimes in combination with the subway. The fare, for most of my years there, fluctuated around 40-50 cents per ride—a lot for many workers but within reach. The new comprehensive city transport plan was based on phasing out these ‘micros’ and replacing them with clean, new vehicles that would be integrated into a subway-bus network with a uniform, electronic payment system starting in 2009.

The result is that it now costs well over one U.S. dollar to take any form of public transport, and good luck squeezing your body into it during rush hour. What once were occasionally overcrowded subway cars are now scenes from Heironymous Bosch’s visions of hell, and the spanking clean new buses are just as bad. Vandalizing youth in very poor neighborhoods have retaliated by burning some buses with the result that no service is available at all there, further punishing those residents. It is not unusual for people to report commuting times of two and even three hours each way in conditions that make it impossible even to read a newspaper.

Another side effect is the newly jammed avenues and side streets as many who can afford to escape the horrors of mass transit retreat to the private automobile, which, while hardly a ton of fun in the frequent bottlenecks, at least provides a modicum of comfort. The country’s loyalty to neoliberal free-trade norms has made car buying relatively cheap, which further clogs the streets.

One has to ask what has been gained by the average working Chilean woman or man if the increased economic activity and accumulation of national wealth has turned their lives into a daily exercise in avoiding agony. What do a healthy GDP figure or a higher average monthly income mean if such a basic element of well-being, moving around the city, has been turned into a punishment? The answer is written on the faces and in the body language of the santiaguinos who pour onto the streets during rush hour, elbowing their way past each other with an aggressiveness that I, a nine-year Manhattanite, found frightening.

And it’s not as if the country’s education, health and retirement systems, two decades after the end of military rule, are any better. Sure, those institutions are bigger, fancier and probably delightfully solvent, but as we’ve seen with the last two years of nonstop student demonstrations, they don’t serve the people’s interests. That’s why it was so interesting to see how the 40th anniversary of the coup is being digested and discussed in the country, how the crimes against dissidents and partisans of the Allende experiment are being revisited and relived.

Spokespeople for the right-wing government and its two supporting parties, both inheritors of the Pinochet legacy (like it or not), fill the airwaves with pleas to set aside ‘hatred and resentment’ in the spirit of national unity. That’s nothing new, but their latest ploy is to describe the country’s violent recent past as a ‘tragedy’ for which both sides are responsible—implying of course that the quota of blame should be divided roughly 50/50.

Young people who did not experience the dictatorship appear not to be buying that dubious line. But they’re also up to here with the traditional parties of the center and social democratic left, whom they see as having done little to dislodge the legacy of Pinochet’s neoliberal model. At least that is one reading of the ongoing street mobilizations that show no sign of stopping—that people want results, not promises.

As always, Chile’s politics can be read as a fairly precise parallel to our own: the pinochetistas are the Republicans while the vaguely liberalish parties are the Democrats. Once in a while a Ross Perot or a Ralph Nader pops up, but the duopoly pretty much run things, and they both are pretty much mainly interested in doing business with each other and with the country’s oligarchs who control the purse strings. The social democrats are better at co-opting protest while the right-wingers manage the propaganda through their media monopoly and keep the populace confused and off-guard.

Sooner or later, however, a system’s failure to respond to basic needs generates deep frustration, cynicism and rejection. It’s no accident that the day before I left Santiago, a student march degenerated into skirmishes with the riot police during which some participants targeted the national electoral commission and broke all its windows. There’ll be a new president next year, but the fight has moved beyond the ballot box.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Actually, no

We have a big news double here in New York tomorrow: the mayoral election and Obama’s national speech on attacking Syria. In both cases the message filtering through is a big, fat NO.

The city’s unreliable polls on the race to succeed Bloomberg have suggested in the last few series of numbers that Christine Quinn, current president of the City Council and early heavy favorite, is disappearing. Quinn was supposed to sail into the mayor’s office on Bloomberg’s ample coattails, but the same proximity to the outgoing mayor that made her a powerful figure has now come back to haunt her.

The other candidates in the race, de Blasio, Liu, Thompson, even Weiner, hammered away all summer at all the things that have made New Yorkers sick of Bloomberg, who overstayed his welcome by a full term. Four years ago, he concocted a scheme to give himself a third one despite two citywide plebiscites fixing the limit at two, and Quinn helped him push it through. That arrogant exercise in itself might not have cooked her goose, but there were just too many ways that Quinn’s agenda fit snugly with Bloomie’s.

Quinn always generated high negatives, but mostly she’s carrying the burden of Bloomberg’s own, and it’s her own fault for not taking her distance from him earlier and more explicitly. She’s tried to paint herself as the wise lawmaker, the only real adult in the room, the pragmatic, realistic power broker, and in some ways it’s a fair characterization. But on topics like economic inequality, police abuses, hospital closings, educational re-engineering, Bloomberg has made a lot of people angry with his autocratic style, and now Quinn, as one of his principal enforcers, is getting the stick.

Meanwhile, in Washington our Nobel peacemaker president is frantically trying to round up support for military action against the Syrian regime, a prospect that is losing its glitter by the hour. It must be tough to follow the George W. Bush act about ‘mushroom clouds’ emanating from Baghdad when trying to convince people of the official story on poison gas in Damascus. I’m personally inclined to believe that the Assad regime slaughtered its own populace in this way, but my conviction weakens every time Susan Rice or Chuck Hagel pounds the lecturn and insists that that is what happened. Apparently, I’m not alone.

After two decades of patriotic bluster and warfare-worship starting with Gulf War I under Bush the Senior, Americans finally seem to have developed some weariness over the prudence and necessity of going off to stir things up in yet another Middle East nation. The easy triumphs of the 1990s and the trauma of 9/11 made it easy for Rumsfeld and the whole neocon claque to push us into the historically criminal Iraq enterprise. But with Republicans a priori against anything that Barack Obama is for and serious opposition emerging among the Democratic base, it’s hard to see where or how the White House is going to put together a winning formula. Like so much coming out of Washington these days, gridlock is not the worst possible outcome.

In short, Tuesday is likely to be a day of rejection, of the rule of a 25-times-over billionaire, and of marching in lockstep with the logic of an imperial military. It might be a coincidence, or perhaps it’s a sign of a deeper rebellion just getting underway.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Are we becoming a third world country? – 2

Another criterion by which to judge thirdworldism is how long it takes to be mugged/burglarized/ have your pocket picked. In my anecdotal case, Argentina took two hours. I took a city bus to get to my destination and was obviously unfamiliar with the workings of the ticket machine. That was enough to have a guy stand so close to me that I knew he either wanted my wallet or a date. Turned out to be the former.

In the congress I attended, one delegate from Turkey had his knapsack snatched from the meeting hall, passport included. Another picked up his bag and went home, whereupon he found that the bag, which looked identical to his, was full of school notebooks and generic toiletries—obviously a well-calculated plan of theft. At an outdoor café, we sat around enjoying a glass of wine only to discover that one colleague’s laptop had been expertly purloined from beneath her seat.

In conclusion: Argentina remains a third world country. The U.S. by this measure still is not.