For those looking in from the outside, the power festival known as Davos-New York may well have had some sinister connotations. Certainly any gathering of 2,700 plutocrats, politicians, professors and pundits that bills itself as a world elite is bound to inflame the suspicion (one that I share) that democratic government has been hijacked by an unelected legislature of the rich and the unscrupulous.
Nevertheless, after five days of wandering around on the inside of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, I can't help but feel that I've been misled about this so-called world elite, and so have all its critics. Above all, Davos is about the hollowness of public relations, the hot air of advertising and the monotony of mutual congratulation -- more so, at any rate, than the exercise of raw power. And if, as I concluded, empty phrases and fatuous rhetoric are the real stuff of Davos, then Davos and its elitists are ripe for overthrow -- all we have to do is blow, and it will all come tumbling down.
Believe me, I tried to take the 31st World Economic Forum seriously. From the moment I passed through the metal detector, strapped on my super high-tech identification badge and got in line for my "Davos Companion," the hand-held computer given to all confreres, the needle on my self-importance meter was solidly in the red zone.
I had to be important, what with all those policeman guarding me against terrorists and the like. Never before had I been protected by a New York City cop with a submachine gun; never had I seen so many streets blocked off by so many mounted officers; never had I witnessed a police officer posted in front of all my favourite Manhattan fast food outlets. All this to permit me to participate in a bracing discussion centred on the conference title: "Leadership in Fragile Times: A Vision for a Shared Future."
I'd also never been called a "Media Fellow," which I gather was a rank of considerable prestige. I'd applied to cover the forum as a mere journalist, but the gods in Geneva had seen fit to upgrade me to first class, and I found myself among the media elite as a full-fledged power player. In my welcome packet was a flattering invitation to lead a luncheon discussion around the theme, "Restoring Global Confidence: Is it the Message or the Media?" Of course, there were 77 other discussion leaders, one for every table, but that didn't stop me from making the most of it.
At public relations, Davos excelled beyond my wildest expectations. For so many people to speak at such length and say essentially nothing is a considerable achievement. I couldn't attend more than a few of the dozens of panel discussions, plenary sessions and "workshops," but the ones that I did attend would have sent me screaming for a refund had I been among the 1,000 corporate contributors who were paying the hotel bill.
At "Management Update: Making Hard Choices," for example, I was treated to the stunning insight from a business school professor that good chief executive officers are not "emotional," and that after a decade of inflated CEO rhetoric, what was needed was "nuts-and-bolts" management. A Japanese business school dean remarked that during the current recession, "the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do." Except that not doing anything sometimes meant, in the case of companies like Nissan, the acknowledgment that "we're going to close some factories; we're not going to do certain things."
It got worse. The next morning I attended a speech by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, in which he declared that "security promotes development and development promotes security" and called for a strengthening of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization, the very institutions that were just now enraging citizens from Buenos Aires to Quebec City, not to mention the demonstrators in front of the Waldorf.
If you were frustrated that Mr. Schroeder seemed uncomprehending of the reasons for the antiglobalization movement, you could move on to a discussion titled "Understanding Global Anger: More Storms Ahead?" where the CEO of McDonald's Corp., Jack Greenberg, purported to explore the issue with four foreigners, including the President of Poland.
The chief hamburger salesman had memorized some lines for the occasion: "I think it's clear that the catalogue of [global] problems are real . . . but perception oftentimes doesn't square with reality." The McDonald's reality was that while demonstrators went wild during "four days of problems in Seattle," breaking windows in fast food franchises, Mr. Greenberg's troops were serving 175 million customers under golden arches all over the world. What this proved, I don't know, unless Mr. Greenberg believes that the mere fact that something is popular makes it a good thing, or that eating Big Macs is inherently more meaningful than protesting the production of hormone-injected beef.
Thus, during the question period, I was tempted to mention that Corvairs and thalidomide were popular for a time, as were Hitler and Mussolini. But as a media fellow, I felt obliged to maintain standards of "niceness," in keeping with the inclusive atmosphere of Davos, which this year featured the millionaire rock star Bono pushing Third World debt relief, Barbara Stocking of Oxfam International lecturing on corporate responsibility and Kumi Naidoo of Civicus promoting the importance of citizen participation in the great debates of the day, though no ordinary citizens were anywhere in sight. (Andres Pastrana, the President of Colombia, was a scratch; evidently he was busy trying to control all the local anger back at home.)
Instead, I asked how it was that no one had commented on the exploits of José Bové, the French sheep farmer turned scourge of McDonald's, who was just then attending the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Thus far, all the talk had been pseudo-compassionate treacle about the poor and the "anger" emanating from the "South," as though the moderator, Frederick Schauer of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, was conducting an interdisciplinary colloquium for psychology and sociology graduate students.
Mr. Greenberg tensed slightly, but he remembered his PR lessons, referring to Mr. Bové only as "that individual" and "the Frenchman" who "obviously has a social agenda and likes to have his picture in The New York Times." He advised the audience "to separate the loud voices of a few people from the voices of the customers who outnumber [the protesters] by a factor of a thousand."
My fellow Davosites seemed satisfied. I just felt a vague sense of nausea.
But I guess I'm on the wrong side of history, or at least of modern public relations. The next morning, The Times published a photograph, not of Mr. Bové, but of Jack Greenberg. I felt reassured. I'd indeed got the point of Davos.
John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper's Magazine.
© 2002 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc.