Fahrenheit 2009 and rising

rogue-poster-crocodileGoogle and China:
wrapping up the Frankfurt Book Fair 2009

Response to the three posts on the Frankfurt Book Fair was good. The digital debate was less a debate and more of a statement of claims. Digital reading got thumbs up for being less burdensome than lugging around lots of books and because it simply is the way things are moving along. Though I suspect that it’s not so much the weight of the books than the posture of the reader that has an effect on the back. Goethe, in his “Garden House” in Weimar, had a strange contraption built with a saddle that allowed him to work in an upright position…

But the digital content issue was mostly avoided, and that is a big one, because it means control of the gateway and distribution. I cannot help notice an incredible confidence in the fair-mindedness of behemoths like Google. Yet, the “in” and “out” problem has not been resolved or even noticed apparently. So let me put out one more question: When has anyone been able to argue with the EULAs and still get service from, say, a software company? And who reads the EULAs thoroughly? Once you’re “in”, you have the bennies as long as Google allows them to be fed to you. When you are out, you are, in Brave New World lingo, a savage.  And my experience with many large companies, especially in the USA, has been that once you are out, you are a nonperson, though this term comes from another famous dystopia. You either accept and sign, or be damned.

(Google tends to ignore privacy and rights, including copyright, until getting rapped on its many fingers: In Switzerland, finally, Google View has run into a brick wall named the Officer for Data Protection, who demanded that the company be more careful with its anonymizing of photos. The Swiss are taking their privacy seriously, which is a good thing, even with the cute little Google).

The big cheese

100_3212
“Be there and shut up”: Regina Berlinghof with dissident journalist Dai Qing. (Thanks to Regina Berlinghof)

As for China: Again, the growth figures make economists clap their hands and foam at the mouth. Better growth than ever before, heavens, if only the west could do the same… Regina Berlinghof, who was mentioned in Part III Chinese Checkers, received a very high-level visit, namely a remarkable Chinese dissident, journalist Dai Qing. Her extraordinary career is a profile in courage and outspokenness. Of course, one of her main thrusts is environmental – she opposed the megalomaniac Three Gorges Dam project –  which is not terribly sexy these days. “She was first invited, then uninvited, and ultimately was not allowed to speak,“ writes Berlinghof. “She came by my booth and was delighted to see the action, and she thanked me.” Dai Qing was one of the writers to make a statement at the pre-Fair meeting that irritated China’s powers-that-be

It seems the Lilliputians managed at best to tickle the giant.
The online edition of the New York Times ran an article on China at the Book Fair. Here is a grand statement from that source: “Unlike the exquisitely choreographed ceremonies during the Beijing Olympics, the fair presented a messier and more ambiguous portrait of China on the rise — a country still deeply uncomfortable with its own discordant voices, yet eager to become more competitive with the West in the realm of ideas.”

Let us be a little more precise: exquisitely choreographed with a truncheon. And one can only delight at the euphemistic “uncomfortable with its own discordant voices.” The article mentions several prominent dissidents, notably Dai Qing and Liao Yiwu. Liao is an author and musician who was not only prohibited from traveling to Frankfurt, but was also asked to not shoot off his mouth. Apparently, the article closes, Liao Yiwu is optimistic: “Only by going through these incidents, it seems, can we become known to the outside world,” he told the New York Times. There was a time, when any dissident bogus or genuine was celebrated and put on the front page of every newspaper, as long as he or she came from a Communist country. Today, things have changed. If an obvious hoax with a hot-air balloon can occupy so many column inches for so long, how long does Liao think his name or his depressing book about the Capitalo-Communist revolution in China will be news, if it ever is. What Mr. Liao does not understand — and what the China’s media managers understand full well: The Cold War has been declared over, criticism and containment is out. Business models have taken over, and if the bottom line is good, no one will complain. We are experiencing what Marx rightly called the “fetishism of commodities.”

(That closes Frankfurt for now. Thanks for reading)

Fahrenheit 2009: Chinese Checkers

Chinese checkers

lr-China-entrance
Entrance to the Chinese hall at the Frankfurt Book Fair

Digital content creation is not the only elephant being talked about at the Frankfurt Book Fair. The other was guest of honor China. But the conversation is lopsided.  China has its own room near the entrance with a delightfully meditative installation, a pond nestled in white sand with the big logo of ideograms carved into wooden blocks.  One company has a line of small laptops all showing pages with gaudy pictures and Chinese texts. A young woman, extremely young for my tired old eyes, comes up to me without bidding. We speak a mixture of German and English. It seems to me they are looking for content. They buy copyrights. “Thrillers?” I ask. Yes, yes, people like thrillers in China. And it is a huge market, I muse. Yes, she says, a big market. Something to note, a huge and eager market…. Maybe finishing that thriller I started 5 years ago might be a good idea. Maybe there are better things to do…

China-01

 

Metamorphosis
Is this the same China that pumped out all those manifestoes on poor paper just a few decades ago? The country where everyone wore blue jackets and rode bicycles? The nation of great leaps forward and cultural revolutions with millions of deaths? Tiananmen Square?  I cannot recall regime change, but everyone can go there, one airline is offering special discounts: € 499. And the business sector is in awe, even freedom-loving Jack Welch. Arte is blasting a program on Chinese writers, a young authoress talks about the country being a China Town, no longer in touch with its tradition. The ubiquitous books revering its economic energy are beginning to feel like a waste of trees. A week earlier, Nelson Schwartz and Matthew Saltmarsh from the New York Times were decrying some mysterious illness called “Eurosclerosis,” Europe’s somewhat plodding economy, and noting one should speak of a G-2,  the United States and China. “Ideally, it would be the G-3, but Europe doesn’t speak with a single voice and they can’t coordinate and function the same way the U.S. and China can,” the authors quote C. Fred Bergsten, director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. But these two distinguished, oft-published journalists apparently have not noticed the human costs of the boom. It seems unimportant in Mammon’s great maw.

Human matters
For a dissenting view, you have to march all the way to the cubbyhole booths in Hall 3.0 and 3.1, for example.  lr-China-Charter08 Regina Berlinghof, IT specialist by day, authoress and publisher of ancient spiritual and lyrical texts for YinYang Media by night, has hung texts of the Charter 08, a free speech manifesto for the people and artists of China. “Human rights are not given by the state,” one page states boldly, “rather, they are rights that each individual possesses at birth.” At birth is an interesting concept. And possession, too. Possessions are eminently fragile. They can be bought, taken, or even embezzled away. “A Chinese couple came by and nodded approvingly,” she points out. “You are the only one who actually stopped to find out more. Other journalists came by, but they didn’t take notice,” she points out sadly. We eat a few macadamia nuts and talk of the great Chinese thinkers, the artists, they are always the true value of a nation. And behind its army of bureaucrats, China has a grand culture that stretches back to the days of Gog and Magog. Alas, it has no clout.

One storey higher, I find Amnesty International with a big yellow poster announcing a round table about dissident writer Liao Yiwu (his “Public-Toilet Managerwill brighten your day, no doubt), who was not allowed to travel. The event is also being organized by the S. Fischer publishing house, a big one in Germany, but the print is small. Fischer brought out a complete collection of books on the Nazi concentration camps a while ago, so they know what they are talking about.

Not far is a tiny stand with a single book on display called Laogai, from agenda Verlag & Gallerie. It has a picture of men in police uniform pointing guns. Laogai, which derives from the word for reeducation camps. A concentration camp. (Laogai…. Sounds spookily similar to Lager, and shares three letters with Gulag). I open it, a sentence springs up at me: 68 non-violent crimes are punishable by death in China, one of them tax evasion. I turn a page, gruesome pictures of executions, in the background are white vans, presumably – says the caption – mobile labs to harvest the fresh organs. Dr. Bernhard Schneeberger has a good sense of humor, but here his demeanor is filled with anger: That is what you get when you combine hard-nosed capitalism with hard-line communism, he says.

lr-laogai-01Six Sigma meets the Gulag, essentially. China’s motto at the fair is “Tradition and Innovation,” (two buzz-terms used ad nauseam by anyone from distinguished watch makers to tourist offices around the world). Traditional law meets innovative means to mete it out and profit. The law of supply and demand applied to human beings, who are in large supply in China, and always have been; the supply always a little larger than demand, so it is cheap. Organ harvesting at the killing field, a case for just-in-time delivery. A literal understanding of the term human resources. The result: fantastic growth. Great idea for Europe’s sclerotic economy, Mr. Schwartz, no? It was tried here, didn’t work out that well, but maybe now it could be tried again. After all, who really cares as long as the toys are cheap.

Schneeberger pulls out another book, this one on cheap paper, with a paper cover featuring a youngish man with an ernest look on his face. He is lawyer Gao Zhisheng and is book is called A China More Just. This high-powered figure started defending human rights groups, but disappeared off the face of the earth. I cannot help but recall the story of Raoul Wallenberg. The Chinese did not publish his book, of course, they outsourced the job to  South Korea, which had it printed … in China. There will always be a Kafka.

Down the aisle I see a woman in a cage. She hands me bookmarks featuring authors such as Tsering Woeser, whose Notes on Tibet was prohibited for “serious political errors.” Another bookmark announces a round table with Chinese authoress Xu Pei, the Uigur writer Sidik Haji Rouzi, and the Tibetan journalist Tsewang Norbu. And the man at www. savetibet.de hands me brochures, two bumper stickers and a cloth bag bearing the Tibetan flag. He suggests I pass by the Chinese hall on the way out. That will make no difference at all, since the powers-that-be are in fact absent. They are laughing all the way to the nearest bank.lr-China-prison

Yes, some trouble did erupt at a pre-Fair symposium. The official Chinese, worthy heirs to Chairman Mao, were very upset at hearing public displays of real criticism, and Jürgen Boos, head of the Fair, actually apologized. And so, on the first evening, the Wednesday, Angela Merkel visited the Book Fair. She was accompanied by Xi Jinping, China’s Vice President. They did not wander through Hall 3.1.  They did not hear of the demo against China in the streets. They avoided the Amnesty International/Fischer round table. Don’t want to rock any boats. Angela Merkel, like most political figures, is just a kind of PR manager at this point. What are a few silenced authors versus billions in high-speed trains and other technology; what are the hundreds of thousands of poorly paid, at times imprisoned workers against cheap shoes, shirts, bicycles and other wares. I cannot help think of Sarah Palin’s recent visit to Hong Kong to talk to Chinese businessmen. She took time to criticize the Obama administration, she calls him a Socialist, she hallucinates about death panels, and that  in the land of laogai.

A cartoon from the 80s comes to mind: Reagan with a quizzical expression on his face holding a document marked “China briefing.” George Shultz then Secretary of State is captioned saying: “Yes, 1 billion Communists, I thought you knew!” Apparently we conveniently forgot and still forget while staring down official bogeymen, smaller ones without quite the clout of the Chinese Communist Party and its gigantic economy. Keep smiling, don’t be so negative, move on. That is the rhetorical soma of the age, the prozac slogans.

 

That gets student Ludvìk Jahn into some serious trouble. It’s something to think about.

Fahrenheit 2009 Part II: Digital Debate

 

lr-MJ-Donhöf
Michael Jackson and Countess Donhöff at eye level

The Fair is business, but it is also a celebration of the convergence two creative impulses, that of the book printers and designers, and that of the authors themselves. A children’s book by a South Korean authoress catches my eye, a tale about a girl with a fox on her head. A simple tale, not trying to be funny, just delightfully illustrated. Non-book articles are also a source of genuine creativity, but Hall 4.0 is just out of my two-day range, so I can only gaze briefly. The business of bookselling, too, requires genuine skill. Many publishers still have the courage and backbone to do less popular projects, Michael Jackson thus finds a spot next to a bio of Hitler-opponent Countess Marion Donhöff (biographies are big anyway, I suspect we are always curious about what other people are doing). On that score, the Book Fair never seems to change. But each year, it has a few big issues to confront

Off the books: liber digitalis 

iphone-cooks
Enthusiastic lip service about iPhone cookbooks

The big buzz, of course, is the inexorable progress of the digital soldier ants through the old, old market structures of the printing industry. Its all about  eBooks, iBooks, Web-based books and Internet-based business models, and the biggest elephant in the room: the Kindle, born on the 19th of October. A small amount of space, about 2000 square feet (about 200 square meters)  is devoted to “Books & Bytes.” It exhibits several possibilities for reading electronic books, but none yet really replicate “the book feeling.” You can’t thumb pages quickly (yet), or find a page serendipitously. And if they fall over the side of a bed, for example, they may well break. Vodafone is promising to send end-users novels on their mobile phones (I’ll try and then report), and three experts in the field of cooking – there we go again – discussed the sheer brilliance of having recipes with great pics beamed to your iPhone. “You can take it along with you when shopping…”  one of them says. Next innovation down this line: the plastic cover to protect the device from spatter. Whatever: I suspect that next year, Amazon and Google, once odd fellows, now giant players, will probably own half of Hall 3.0… And watch for the next development promised by the Wi-Fi Alliance (Intel, Apple, Cisco are the main culprits) from Silicon Valley: Wi-Fi Direct. This system will, if I understand it correctly, piggyback Wi-Fi from one enabled device to the other, no need for Bluetooth, no need for Wi-Fi in some cases, no fuss, no muss, and a lot of electronic garbage from the last generation of innovative junk.

lr-FFM-tower of books
Those pesky hardcopy books
 All this e-stuff naturally raises the hackles of more traditional folk. Philosophers, perhaps, should start getting involved, but they are too busy these days eking out a living as taxi drivers, key account managers, down-and-out editors and business gurus. The authors’ societies (and hence the authors and rights holders) are justifiably worried. Google’s book digitizing project is quite controversial… The Fair edition of The Bookseller has an interview with Tom Turvey, director of strategic partnerships at Google, regarding the pending Book Settlement. He is naturally eager for rights holders to sign into the Google library – and admittedly there are some who believe firmly that Google is acting as the world’s e-brarian out of pure altruism, just as there are those who believe that Windows Vista is an improvement over XP.  “Rights holders are obviously free to make whatever decision they wish,” says Turvey (thank you master!). “We believe the public benefits when rights holders have the choice to participate or not in its (the Settlement’s) terms and there is competition in the digital book space.” Right. The question is, what happens to the rights holders who decide not to cast in their lot with Google. Turvey is not clear about that, but he does have a very nice smile on his face. He must be a nice man. And he works in the upper echelons of a company with a very cute name.
Google-Store
Future libraries for the digi-incrowd

 

The hellish vision: A digital content aggregator puts together novels and fact books that can be downloaded onto books with Wii-like pages that replicate turning. No fuss, no muss with those greedy authors, sourpuss editors, bean-counting lawyers  and grumpy literary critics. The lovers of real books will simply become the savages in the year X of Our Google. And that is the point made by Dr. Christian Sprang, legal adviser at the Stock Exchange Association of the German Book Trade at a debate on the thrid day of the Fair. He wants rights holders to have an opt-in option, not just the opt-out one. And Professor Roland Reuss simply says Google has broken the law by digitizing books without permission.

Interlude

lr-Hanhart01
Joseph E. Hanhart, still in the savannah of real print

Niches.  The last refuge of the real book in the future? The Book Fair is full of them, and some still smell of printer’s ink, of hot presses, of red wine and even a touch of sulphur. Meet Joseph E. Hanhart of Editions Heuwinkel from Carouge (by Geneva), Switzerland. His bright blue eyes are full of humor, he still holds books in a firm yet loving manner. He publishes art books in varying sizes, each done with great care. The program also includes books on yoga and on Switzerland. He feels the market does need the diversity and he is optimistic. “In nature, you have brush and you have tall, visible trees,” he points out, “and without the grasses, the weeds and all that stuff, those tall trees could not survive.” But nature and human nature are two different shoes as they say in German.  We will eat up our entire planet, suck out its entrails and raze its forests just to get hamburgers cheaply and fuel to run our cars.

And so we get onto talking about bigger things. Hanhart is a genial storyteller in at least three languages. He suddenly mentions the 450th anniversary of the University of Geneva, which was founded by Calvin. One of the speakers was Stephen Hawking. Someone in the audience asked what god was doing before his seven days of heavy labor. “Preparing hell for the likes of you,” answered Hawking. Asymmetrical juxtapositions replacing dialectics.

 

Please check Part III: Chinese Checkers

Frankfurt Bookfair: Fahrenheit 2009

Bookfir-reder

Strange quirk of fate. Bookish people are usually typed as barely noticeable, mousy folk, shrinking violets, wall flowers, and even worms. Yet they are eminently visible in Germany especially around the time of the Frankfurt Book Fair. On the train up to the city of banks, there were at least three in the compartment I boarded. One, a tall man, bald with very techno-specs, perhaps business something-or other. He had a luggage dolly the size of a small forklift with thick tyres. I took a seat at a table with, opposite me, an editor slaving away on some manuscripts in Spanish and French and a facial expression that said “Don’t talk to me.”  But we did end up conversing in a strange manner. We talked about the business of publishing, the eminent threat of eBooks Trade fair tower in Frankfurtand iPhones and other toys and the problems we encountered. Hers seemed to be vaguely related to too much work. Mine with editors not bothering to answer their emails. “We are overworked, I sometimes don’t even open my mails, there are so many,” she retorted, tersely. Well, I think, how much would it cost to hire someone to do it, lord knows, there are enough intelligent and capable people out of work right now. But instead, I point out that Hermann Hesse, besides all the novels and stories and poems, also wrote 35,000 letters on an old black typewriter. She looks at me: “I hate Hesse,” she says, and ends the conversation by staring intently at her manuscripts.

Ten years since I was at the Book Fair, and my 5th visit in all. It remains the awesome orgy of the publishing industry, though there is a slightly melancholy air to it. Unless you hit the aisles with the esotericists, the politicals, the cooks. At my last visit, over 8,500 companies were there with their wares, some of the booths exuded the swirling energy of a Viennese waltz.  But this year, the number of exhibitors was 6,936, while the number of titles was around 401,000, and there was quite enough space to move around in the great halls, a sign of serious slowing down. Many exhibitors mentioned this, hoping  for more traffic during the weekend, when the fair is opened to the general public. I suspect they let in school classes on day 2 just  to cook the books. An awful lot of people wearing ratty backpacks and too young and smiling to be editors, publishers, agents  or journalists were stalling traffic in the aisles.

 Expeditions

The booths come in all sizes, from single-author 1-square-meter cubby holes,  to somewhat bombastic installations with full-fledged catering. Some have sofas, others little bistro tables decked out with cookies. Posters are everywhere, the biggest ones are devoted to the surefire hits, like the newest Dan Brown novel in German translation, which I will not read, having had to abandon both the Da Vinci Code and some book with a title involving the word digital because it read like something written by a bored high school kid.  I saunter through the publisher’s hall where the Anglo-Saxons are located with their especially beautiful coffee table books and a plethora of children’s books. I read about a dragon who is too hot he can make toast. I find little books that can float and others that open up into 3D scenes. Some make music. One publisher produces books shaped like basketballs and footballs. Several booths are offering clip-on book lights. I manage to convince one marketing manageress to let me have the last copy of a certain book in a series that my daughter adores.

lr-Reich-Ranicki
Marcel Reich-Ranicki, the biggest figure in German lit crit

At the Press Center, Hoffman & Campe’s Günter Berg opened the ceremonies with a major coup: 89-year-old Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Germany’s one-man supreme court for literary decisions – who last year shocked the country by refusing a prize from the TV industry – is talking about the value of the old classics. He originally launched a series with the works of  Kafka, Lessing, Kleist, Heine, Büchner and Schiller with Suhrkamp, but after a disagreement with the editor there, he took his ideas to H&C (except Schiller, which remained. Reich-Ranicki is sparing in his words, like someone who has returned to the basics after a lifetime of complexity. Readers will be astonished what they will find in those classics. Goethe is not on his list, because he cannot be categorized. As for the Nobel Prize winner, laconically he confesses he has not read her works, so it’s no comment from him. He seems very tired and as always, slightly bored. Hardly astonishing considering his own biography.

Leon de Winter at discussing his work in public
Leon de Winter discussing his work

I go out and begin looking around for Herta Müller’s works, for a large, distinctive poster, for some lights and joy and celebration. There is none. I stumble across new novels that seem to be inspired from the pains of mid-life crises. There are sensationalist books about the crisis and the naughtiness of bankers, books with big red titles that promise the world and deliver steam. I come across author and commentator Leon de Winter mentioning the gradual separation of US Jews and the Israeli Jews, whom he describes as “warriors”. This all has to do with his vocal opposition to multiculturalism, surely, but it sounds like preening. He is sitting on the stage of the Frankfurter Allgemeine, which is staunchly conservative.   I wander off, and a few minutes later, a young, very thin woman hands me a tiny book with excerpts from an erotic novel about some killer who has sex with her victims. Three sentences into the hormonal brew is enough to convince me that this is more emetic than erotic. Speaking of which: Cookbooks are ubiquitous. Many publishers seem to have them as a kind of security line. I find a woman is cutting prosciutto at one booth, Schinken (ham) in German refers to a big book… It’s meant to be funny, I guess, but she is not laughing.

 

lr-Cookbooks
Cookbooks

 

lr-ham-Bookfair
The ham-cutter

 

Many booths are devoted to spiritual topics − entire stands are concerned with every religion under the sun − many to family life.  A cursory glance down any of the aisles reveals a plethora of gimmicky books, how-tos, silly books for depositing near the toilet, biographies of personalities who should never have come that far, but did thanks to heavens knows what. Books devopted to serious music, pop anthologies, books for listening, tchotchkes of all sorts. And there are the serious novels and old standards. Quite a lot of material by and about women, gender balance, gender imbalance, gender and business… And suddenly, I find a shelf filled with a book about a dad in his middle age dealing with the ups and downs of family life, the contrasts, taking down the garbage one minute and having to morph into a fiery lover the next…  This could be interesting. I browse, noting that the writing is in short, grumpy sentences, which is like reading the mind-numbing signs on a passing freight train. Whoever wrote this has spent too much time listening to techno with ear buds. Bolder print suddenly suggests that you are not a man if you haven’t killed, skinned and cooked an animal. This is Hollywood “bildungs-cinema” at its worst, a slightly milder form of those bizarre, repetitive Vietnam flicks like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, where some guy has to discover the meaning of life by doing war against hordes of anonymous foreigners (of darker skin). I imagine the author with a fake Japanese gangster tattoo and an earring. Oh, well.

Please visit part II: Digital Debate

Sailing Past

Waiting in a billowing sea
Waiting in a billowing sea

 Sailing Past

Life can be quite unpredictable. One minute, Robert Watt, 31, a world-class bagpiper from Northern Ireland,was at a festival in Switzerland entertaining the crowds. A few days later he was standing on the bow of a century-old sailing yacht a quarter-mile off the coast near Monaco playing Scotland the Brave into a grayish sky. Had the ghost of a Scottish sailor been haunting the Mediterranean that afternoon, he would have no doubt wondered if he hadn’t imbibed too much single malt before heading down the Low Road. For there, on the mellifluous, deep-blue sea, was not one, but rather an entire armada of venerable old sailing yachts interspersed with vintage Riva and Craft speedboats, their gas-guzzling V-8 engines gurgling happily in the water.

Rivas -- elegance without aggression
Rivas ready to pounce
lr-SIgnora del Vento
Signora del Vento on course

From September 16-20, while the media was still busy figuring out where the financial markets’ liquidity has gone to, Monaco, a hub of international finance and individuals in high income brackets, was turning its attention to the joys of its bi-annual ritual, the Monaco Classic Week.  This is not merely an ostentatious exhibition of lucre, filthy or otherwise.  It is a meeting of serious sailors and fans of classic motor yachts, schooners, gaff-cutters, ketches and other sail yachts, and classic speed boats, as well. Some famous vessels were on display, such as the Pen Duick, the first vessel owned by the late solo Atlantic crosser Eric Tabarly, and the Eleonora, an exact replica of the Westward, a racing schooner built in 1910.  They were joined by training ships, like the Russian steel-hull windjammer Sedov, which once hauled grain and coal across the Atlantic under German flag, or the three mast Italian Signora del Vento, built in Poland in 1962. Another Italian bark was also in port, the Palinuro. Continue reading “Sailing Past”

Chicago Jiu-Jitsu: Obama’s Olympic bid

The distinct sense of glee felt in some of the more vociferous conservative circles at Obama’s journey to Copenhagen to promote Chicago as an Olympic city must have come as a pleasant surprise to the president and his advisers. Just as a cat, once it has caught sight of a moving finger, will follow it almost idiotically, so the right-wing blogs and network started ranting before, during and after the trip.

 

clip_image002

 

©Tim Jackson, www.clstoons.com

There was talk of Chicago’s ghastly crime rate, as if Al Capone was still shifting his weight around the windy city. And when the IOC picked Rio de Janeiro,  Limbaugh whooped, Drudge gloated, and Lou Dobbs punned rather irrelevantly about the ego landing. As for Obama himself, he was no doubt sincere in his effort to promote his home city as the 2016 site of the Olympics. However, as any good strategist, he probably weighed the risk of failure and realized it could also be beneficial in some way. The grand and overpaid network poobahs started balancing the whole of his presidency on one silly trip to Copenhagen. They must have been kidding. Or they are truly underestimating him and his advisers.

The first point to make, of course, is that there was only a 25%  chance that Chicago would be it. Tokyo and Madrid were also in the offing, along with Rio. Secondly, the USA already hosted the Olympics, in fact several times: Atlanta, 1996, and Los Angeles, which had the honor twice already, in 1984 and 1932.  If memory serves me right, no artificially manufactured anti-Olympic brouhaha emerged prior to the decision to choose these two cities. Thirdly, Olympic Games are very costly, even if they do give some cities an opportunity to clean up their façades and maybe build a new stadium at exorbitant costs. Munich, in 1972, got itself a state-of-the-art subway, a great concert and events venue, a wonderful swimming pool and some esthetically dubious housing. It – and Israel above all — also endured a tragic terrorist attack.  Other cities are not such happy campers financially. Check here for some stats. And finally, it was time for South America to draw the crowds, and let’s face it, Rio is a great place to party … though I wonder what the conservative pundits have to say about the crime rate there.

Hoist with their own petard

The point is, though, the right-wingers once again turned up the heat and started firing with every loud but irrelevant argument they could find, encouraged, no doubt, by the usual crowd of publicity-seeking baggers and birthers. My suspicion is that the Olympic gambit was in fact a fairly obvious rhetorical trap for this pathologically angry crowd of naysayers. In chess, a gambit is the sacrifice of a pawn (or a piece) in the opening to attain an attack or a stronger position. It does not necessarily mean winning.  Obama, in fact, could not lose. By going to Denmark, he was showing a high degree of commitment not only to Chicago, but also to the USA, since, barring the financial burdens, being an Olympic host is an honor, apparently. The argument that he has better things to do in times of crisis is ridiculous. If the average Joe or Jane in the US can travel and work wirelessly these days, so can Obama in the comfort of Airforce One. As for results, had the president managed to convince the IOC, he would have effectively silenced  – at last for the space of a lunch break – those who obsessively and compulsively rave against anything he does…. Now that Chicago was nixed, these über-patriots are clapping and cheering and jeering. What they’re doing, actually, is approving of a US defeat, an absolute rhetorical no-no …  They could not approve or commiserate, owing to their previous stand. They were in a corner and Obama simply let them impale themselves on their own weapons. Though I am not sure whether these people realize this at all. “To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill,” Sun Tzu dixit.

This might also explain Obama’s remarkable equanimity in the face of rather blatant and virulent attacks from the lunatic fringe-far right spectral range during the health care debate. It appears to be a tactic (I suppose there is really a will behind it) that he and his advisers often used during the campaign a year ago. For instance, every time Sarah Palin would start heating up the tin foil crowd with bizarre allegations that had nothing to do with the economy melting down, or when she allowed misfits to shout death threats against candidate Obama, support for the McCain-Palin ticket declined. She failed to see that most voters were not interested in conspiracy theory à la McCarthy. Obama would essentially wave it off as something fairly pedestrian. To see John McCain finally explain to some hysterical senior citizen that Obama is in fact an American citizen and an honorable man was almost poignant. Gradually, the opposition wound up on the fringe where it became highly identifiable. To this day, in those horrid forum comment fields, one can quickly identify those who are writing down the tinselly sounds in their heads fed by the far right, from Palin down to Savage. They keep repeating the same inHannities… Barack H. Obama, Acorn, socialism, etc… Tired old stuff that has about as much meaning as the muttering of some burnt-out preacher on Speaker’s Corner…

At the crossroads

After Chicago, the professional ranters will find themselves increasingly sidelined, I suspect, perhaps even where health care is concerned. Which will not deter them, just as the Palin fiasco did not deter them from just adopting the better part of valor and keeping a low profile for a while. Sure, the health insurance debate is far from over and given the millions spent by the insurance companies to produce scare-ads and convince senators,   Obama may well fail to get the entire package. But he will get something from it, and be that merely clarity about who is who. The American people, apparently, want reform, some 47 million are uninsured and that is shocking in a modern, industrialized country. But rather than engage in reasonable deliberation, the opposition has hitched its cart to fellows like Beck, who are cynically playing the lunatic fringe for all they can, because there is money to be made in them thar hills. It’s hardly astonishing that the Obama administration is now seeking support from the GOP, particularly the governors. Schwarzenegger is more or less on board. What this sounds like is a kind of methadone program for sections of the GOP that have become addicted to the simplistic, borderline rhetorical bilge being thrown daily at the US public by self-seeking radio hosts.  If the GOP wants to win presidentials again, it will have to change some of its political planks and above all unload all the loose cannons, professional peddlers of political hallucinations and sundry buffoons at the nearest port of call.