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Conversation With Old Dude in Basement

    Brought a cup of joe to the old guy in my basement, wished him happy birthday. He claims he's 274 years old. He looks great, though he complains about his teeth. I told him they need to be whittled a bit around the edges, then varnished, but he never takes my advice.

    We had our usual morning conversation about the imminent start of Porch Season, and how many days it will be until the running of the shad. I gave him a quick rundown on the day's news, the war bulletins, and a summary of the figure skating (he felt strongly that the ice of the rink could be more sensibly used to preserve fish).

    We discussed the 60th anniversary of George Kennan's "Long Telegram." Kennan warned that the Soviet Union, only recently our ally, had become an implacable foe, that the Soviets believed "it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken." The Soviets ultimately lost that long, cold war, but elements of their dream have been appropriated by a stateless class of true believers.

    Which brought up the column by Ignatius on "connectedness," one of the old man's favorite concepts. The old man (or "the president" as I refer to him, in deference to his tale of being our first Chief Executive) has always harped on what he calls the "cement of interest," the binding power of commerce. In his day, he says, the roads were muddy gullies through dark and dangerous forests, and it wasn't like you could pull over at a Motel 6. People would get lost in the woods trying to ride between Alexandria and Mount Vernon. There weren't bridges, so travelers would have to put their lives in the hands of ferrymen, some of whom were sober. True, none of this was as challenging as driving across the Wilson Bridge, but still: You couldn't move, except by water. And thus commerce in the young republic was confined to the coasts and tidal rivers.

    But what has connectedness wrought?

    Ignatius: 'Linkage to the global economy fosters the growth of democracy and free markets, the theory goes, and that in turn creates the conditions for stability and security. But if that's true, why is an increasingly "connected" world such a mess?

  ' elites around the world become more connected with the global economy, they become more disconnected from their own cultures and political systems.

   '... the Internet is a "rage enabler." By providing instant, persistent, real-time stimuli, the new technology takes anger to a higher level.'

    And so on. Ignatius is picking up a conversational thread that pre-dates 9/11, but certainly has seemed less esoteric since that morning. Religious extremists have fully embraced the tools of the modern age. The technologies change, but the human soul is not so mutable. Even those of us who are fundamentally optimistic about human progress recognize that we remain, at core, a primitive animal with a kill-or-be-killed mentality. 

    The old man and I have had this conversation many times. He's seen enough over the centuries to grasp that the cement of interest, by itself, is never enough to create a peaceful and prosperous world. Beliefs trump commerce. And sometimes, as he'd be the first to say, a revolution is necessary -- even a war. The American "market" expanded dramatically in the early 19th century, just as he dreamed it would, but that market had slavery at its core. Connectedness between New England mills and Deep South cotton fields brought nothing good to those who lived under the tyranny of the lash. The networked nation of the mid-19th century, so brilliantly connected by steamboats and railroads, nonetheless could not brake its descent into war.

     So it was a heavy conversation this morning, and I fear we didn't resolve any of the big issues, or figure out where, precisely, this world is heading. The old man asked for pancakes slathered in butter -- his favorite. 


By Joel Achenbach  |  February 22, 2006; 7:26 AM ET
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