While you were out

Posted: Oct 14, 2002 12:00 AM
A single day's news sometimes looks like the distillate of an irony factory. It's there to remind us of contradictory human behavior on almost every scale, reaching back into history and projecting paradoxes for tomorrow.

On the broad scale, we get Argentina. It has defaulted on $140 billion in bonds outstanding to the private sector, and faces now its debt to the International Monetary Fund. The news is that that's being worked out, a rescheduling of a debt that reflects the profligacy of Argentine policies dating back to the reign of Juan Peron. It seems nowadays incredible that only 50 years ago, Argentina's level of income exceeded that of France.

Sharing the news is Brazil's impending election of a far-out leftist as president. Brazil's socialists have working for them the starkness of the contrast between those who prosper and those who suffer dire poverty. But Brazilians are being ushered into one more chapter in attempts at political alchemy, the substitution of political for economic means of achieving economic progress.

Yes, and the same day gives us Venezuela, with 1 million protesters against the socialist and autocratic rule of Hugo Chavez. Populist revolts against left-minded government rule are unusual, because the structure of leftist policies is designed to appeal to the appetites of the many, leaving us with another political cauldron in Latin America.

Meanwhile, China is exhibiting its two faces in its attempted evolution into a mercantile state with fundamentalist Marxist passions on the matter of religion. We have a 15-year sentence handed out to a banker charged with bribery, and life sentences handed out to three leaders of an underground Christian church. The new China seems to be saying: We will not tolerate crimes by businessmen because that inhibits the growth of capitalism, which we are encouraging. But do not mistake the new China. We are not sentimentalists who tolerate the single true enemy, the cultivators of religious faith who hold entities higher than the leaders of China as the sources of moral authority.

In Moscow, the retreat from communism is marked by the supreme irony centering on Lubyanka Square. When the Soviet regime was overthrown in 1991, the first statue to come down was that of Felix Dzerzhinsky. He was the great father of the KGB, the patron of executions in the thousands in the prison at one end of the square, and of millions sent off to the Gulag. The mayor of Moscow proposed the restoration of that statue, the equivalent of raising a statue to Himmler in Berlin. But the reaction has taken an exuberant political turn: A member of parliament proposes erecting a statue in that square to Czar Nicholas II, a kind of symbolic apology for the Bolshevik sin of executing the czar, his wife and his children. That should make for a great national debate.

The domestic news features, of course, a great national debate on Iraq, which, however, reflects less than a great national division, since the supporters of Mr. Bush are heavily preponderant. The interesting skirmishes are in the outback. In California, challenger Bill Simon mistakenly alleged that a photograph of Gov. Gray Davis accepting a check from a political support group was snapped in the governor's office. In fact, it was taken in a private house.

Gov. Davis, who spent $20 million this summer portraying Simon as a crook, ran into the problem that the civil conviction of Simon was overturned by the courts. Now, Davis affects a bride's dismay over her honor impugned. Barrels of money to Gov. Davis aren't blanched by virtue of having been conveyed off-premises, but institutional catechisms are deferred to -- it's OK to eat meat, but not on Fridays.

The candidate running against Max Baucus for the Senate seat in Montana pulled out of the race the same day because, he said, his reputation was now ruined by a Democratic ad suggesting he was gay, far from the truth, but mortally effective. We didn't intend any such imputation, the Democratic spokesman insisted. But after the ads came out, the challenger's negative ratings more than doubled. In Montana, it is not yet safe to be gay and run for higher office.

Thus are the rules defined, or lived by, in California and Montana, and the contradictions faced on which presence should preside over the square in Moscow, and whether secure property rights and the rule of law should yield in Brazil and Venezuela. In America we struggle along, weaving our way about the paradoxes of time and place, contributing our own.