January 22, 2001—From
Schadenfreude to Sadness
On May 10, 2000, Dictionary.com put forward "schadenfreude"
as the word for the day. We would say that it has been the word for the last
six months. The definition, we read, is "a malicious satisfaction in the
misfortunes of others," which I suppose is the definition of political
discourse inside the Beltway. The dictionary mentions the very fine
historian Peter Gay, who, as a young Jewish child in Nazi Berlin, revelled
as German after German lost the gold medal in the 1936 Olympics. Gay,
apparently, took his glee to be truly "one of the great joys of life."
Schadenfreude is all about seeing scoundrels get their comeuppance. And
there have been plenty of scoundrels to go around who have been getting
theirs lately. Ray DeVoe, the best writer among the Wall Street gurus, has
lately confessed to his huge laughter at seeing all the dotcoms as well as
all the young blustery Wall Street callow boys brought low by the stock
market. Various fissures in the mirror, be they earnings disappointments or
cracks in jet engines, have lately scarred the complexions of almost every
major corporation in America. Michael Milken, the junk bond king, has not
been able to buy a pardon (not yet anyway), and the teacher unions did not
take the White House again.
On January 20, Washington had a misty inauguration, which one commentator
likened to an American Impressionist painting. Not to see it all is just as
well in the District of Columbia, this being a pretty city filled with
undistinguished official architecture that should be obscured by the fog.
Surely the mood in the Capital was more like that of Bonn, Vienna, or
Berlin, lacking the lightness of the New World.
The new President's address was a fairly simple homily--far from exultant.
If anything the mood was sad, the weather providing the correct pathetic
fallacy for George Bush's story. We have gone from schadenfreude to sadness.
Schadenfreude, according to some accounts, provides relief from stress, and
there never has been so much of that about the land. The stress is so bad we
are even having minor earthquakes in New York City, but more about stress on
Global Province this week (see Stitch in Time). We have passed to sadness, I
suspect, because we now feel the misfortune has becomes ours--no longer the
burden of somebody else.
The man for this moment was Senator Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia,
a wise old bird and fiddler par excellence. He said Clinton should
have accomplished so much more. Instead, while the administration twiddled,
the land ached and groaned. Just like the pretty Washington of bad
architecture, we are now a beautiful nation with a creaking infrastructure,
which is breaking down at the end of the Wasted Decade.
So the lights are going out in California--especially in Beverly Hills--just
as they are being turned on in Texas, now the second most populous state.
Perhaps, however, we are at the end of opportunist politics, which has been
a strange mix of Hollywood and Wall Street. Back to the long view down Main
If Y2K was never really a threat, the deterioration of our infrastructure
has been a growing, gnawing risk. It presents massive business
opportunities, because we have far more to rebuild than our electric plants.
The rot runs through all government organizations. But there will be lots of
risk as we begin to tackle some of our constitutional arrangements as well
as a host of other governing compacts that have outlived their useful life.
We say "rebuilding" the infrastructure but not "restoring" it. Our plant is
not only worn out: it's the wrong structure for the global age we have
entered. Global economics, for instance, favors lots of small electric
generators, not just the few big ones of the monopoly era. Global trade as a
percentage of GDP has doubled in the 90s, now counting a lot even in our
most provincial areas. Like it or not, this is the Global Age for the U.S.
and we have to hitch our wagon to the Global Economy.
That's what Thomas Friedman of The New York Times has written about
in his long, repetitive, meandering bestseller, The Lexus and the Olive
Tree: Understanding Globalization. While you don't have to read the
book, you do have to accept that we are in the global swim, and we have to
get ourselves deeper into the sport. Friedman, perhaps wrongly, thinks we
are leading the global charge, but we suspect it is Singapore, Finland,
Sweden, etc. that are most globalized and are best setting the global
We are not yet in the Information Age but the Global Age, and we must
rejigger ourselves for it. Because of this globalization, it is a sad time
for placeholders anywhere--in government, in media, and in several other
estates. They want to hold on to yesterday, but it all has to change and
change yet more rapidly because of this last, wasted decade. The
placeholders, marginalized, will be sent to some sort of psychological
Siberia, I guess.
This week, as usual, we received communiques from all about the globe, which
only reminded us of all the worlds all of us now live in. From a burgher in
Long Island, we received advice to cease our "self-rightous batherings" (his
spellings). Long one of the most creative business leaders in the Southwest,
another correspondent tell us to keep our ideas "coming along," and says we
are in for "a much stiffer set of economic factors" than Greenspan and most
of the bankers will "publicly accept at this time." A Netherlander who likes
the Global Province points out yet more unnoticed, very innovative ports in
the world storm that are not receiving enough attention from the global
media. Citizens at large seemingly are becoming globalized at a much faster
rate than our politicians, which is most encouraging. The politicians will
eventually catch up.
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