The United Corporations of America
By Ezra Klein
I don't usually attempt to assign articles to writers who specialize in policing America's foreign policy for insufficient displays of muscular nationalism, but if any such writers are reading this blog and looking for something to do, they might want to head down to the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai.
To set the scene, check out this Huffington Post slideshow. Countries put some effort into the Expo: China spent about $50 billion building the infrastructure for the event. Saudi Arabia's pavilion is an elevated oasis complete with palm trees. Switzerland's pavilion is all sleek lines and metal brushstrokes surrounded by a soft netting of maroon spheres. South Korea's effort is an explosion of colors and cubes and contrasts. Britain created a planet of brushed silver and adorned it with more than 60,000 transparent rods. America? Well, we appear to have built a Circuit City.
The inattention to aesthetics might work as a signal of power and wealth, like Bill Gates being rich enough to wear denim when he goes to meet the queen. But then you get to the three videos that make up America's message to the word. Message? We're bad at languages, in hock to corporations, and able to set up gardens when children shame us into doing so.
The first video is six minutes of cute slapstick as Americans try, and fail, to pronounce Chinese words. If the Chinese thought they could overrun the U.S. and get us speaking Mandarin, this video decisively proves that at least half of that project will be difficult. The second video uses messages from Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to bookend a long series of advertisements from the pavilion's corporate sponsors, including a representative from Chevron who tells us that oil will have to be part of our energy future and actually uses their marketing buzzwords "human energy." When Obama finishes, the screen dissolves to text thanking Citibank for its sponsorship. For good measure, that video plays in the Citibank room. The third video is an inoffensive parable in which a young girl galvanizes her neighborhood to plant a garden. That video was sponsored by PepsiCo, and shown in the Pfizer room.
The backstory is that there's a law barring public money from being spent on exhibits for World Expos. But the Expo was important to China and sitting it out would've been a snub. So Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began begging corporations for funds. PepsiCo, Visa, Pfizer, the New York Stock Exchange, General Electric, Johnson & Johnson, Chevron and Alcoa were among the sponsors who eventually coughed up some cash. According to the New York Times, representatives of at least some of those companies enjoyed dinner with the secretary in appreciation for their kind donations. If that's the cost of going the private route, it seems like it would be cheaper to just pay for this sort of thing with public money. And a side benefit would be that the millions of attendees at the summit would see the United States of America rather than the United Corporate Entities of America.
On the bright side, our pavilion is way better than North Korea's, which bills itself as a "paradise for people," is helpfully located right next to Iran's pavilion, and which was the only country I saw that took the capitalist approach to the enterprise and would let you exchange money for souvenirs.
Photo credit: Pam Houle/CC.
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