I have turned off my hearing aids. The sounds from the busy street outside Villa Ndio have softened, but so have the sound of the chorus from Windsor Castle being televised by CNN, BBC and other broadcast media. Throughout the day, I have been downloading the CNN broadcast as “background noise” on my computer. Although the ongoing colorful display and symbolic sounds of pomp and circumstance have appealed to me, it has gotten to be a bit of overload. And the flaws have become more evident. The Brits are, after all, rather fond of the jarring but dramatic sounds of bagpipes. And the glorious pomp and circumstance of precision marching of mostly male soldiers dressed in brilliant red regalia and stunningly tall bearskin hats has acquired an appearance of celebrating anachronism – especially as it contrasts with the somber black of the royal widows, princesses and other official grievers.
Fair enough. As a child recently relocated to the US from India in 1952 and 1953, I was enamored of the new Queen Elizabeth. We were living in a small Minnesota town (Cokato, one of those “corn capitals” of the Midwest), where I feuded with my new neighbors who had the only big television set in the neighborhood. Unfortunately, the father of that household preferred to watch professional wrestling on his TV set. I was distraught that our own newly acquired TV set was way too small to witness all the ceremonial festivities of this new queen’s coronation in Westminster Abbey – the first ever such coronation to be publicly televised. And I was enamored of this young queen.
Sadly, I didn’t win the struggle against wrestling and had to settle for the small screen at home. But I subsequently treasured the sets of paper dolls that I had of both Queen Elizabeth and Elizabeth Taylor. I played with them on the living floor of our new home in Edina, Minnesota, where we moved shortly after the coronation from that rather isolated small town. It took us a while to get a larger TV set, but playing with these paper dolls was my release into the fantasies of both royalty and stardom!
Of course, I have gone through many other fantasies since then, but I am reminded of these memories today as we join the billion or more people who watch the funeral ceremonies of that queen. She had evolved into a rather impressive queen in her later years but had long ago become, at least to me, an anachronistic figure – no longer a fantasy in my dreams. Today, we watch her coffin being put to rest with way too much regalia to be at all reasonable. And sadly, the other fantasy – Liz Taylor the star – had also passed away long before this.
Today, then, the personal question for me is what is the point of either one? The muffled sounds of the past dwindle back into childhood memories. The immediate vision of today has nothing to do with either royalty or stardom. (It is, to be specific, the vision of a lovely hillside outside my window as I sit in front of my computer; it is a time of afternoon sunshine from the fall equinox casting its lengthening shadows against the soft green hues of olive trees, the majestic green of the cypress trees and the red tile roofs of the bungalows along the hillside.) I care more these days about discovering the bastides and mas of Provençal history, the ratatouille and fougasses of their cuisine and the challenges of dogs barking in the middle of the night than I do about stars with six or seven husbands or queens with multiple subjects.
It has been, nonetheless, a full day of memorabilia – new and old, as it were. I kept my computer on to the show and even watched it from time to time. It was indeed very colorful in spite of all the black attire of mourning among the more official participants. Oddly enough, though, the royal mourners (i.e. the male ones plus Princess Anne) had a lot of color in their uniforms and medals to add to the flags and uniforms of all the accompanying troops. The photos may be magnificent. But they will also be completely historic. It’s time to move on to the visuals of serious history in the making, which this display is not, at least not any more.
In fact, most media attention quickly shifted over to UNGA77 and its annually held “High-Level Week” in mid-September. Oddly enough, this was in fact, another of my fantasies – later in life than when I played with paper dolls, of course – but still somewhat of a fantasy. Having written my PhD dissertation on decision-making in the United Nations many years ago, I had dreamt of a life of international diplomacy. Although it had taken me awhile to realize this particular fantasy, it did eventually happen. I vividly remember the day I first walked into the chamber of the UN General Assembly to speak as an official representative of a major UN agency, the International Labor Organization.
That in itself was a personal fantasy realized, but it was then followed by many years as an ILO official and then as an NGO advocate and observer at the UN. That was mostly in Geneva, of course, where I was based with the ILO and where I subsequently established my own NGO. And, of course, this was a truly global fantasy since it involved work in numerous other far-flung locations like Rio, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Addis Ababa, Rome, Paris, Washington, DC. But the heart of the fantasy was mostly about New York and especially about the way that “UNGA” week spreads out from the UN to the hotels, the office buildings and the streets of mid-town Manhattan in September.
So, once the funeral show for “The Queen” had come to an end, I immersed myself at my computer to follow the conveniently accessible array of UN-related side events that I knew, from personal experience, were far more important than the official formalities. This time around, the first since pandemic lockdowns had limited an on-site UNGA week, I actually enjoyed the broadcasts from afar while savoring the fall sunshine outside my window. This was soon followed by other major events that I used to attend – the WTO Public Forum back in Geneva in late September or the WIPO Assemblies there, too. And then in early October, it’s the annual meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund! What I have come to realize, though, is that following these events by turning on the webcasting at my desk on the pandemic or climate change or Ukraine can be informative for me personally. But these impressions are not the same as being there in person.
Not only am I not participating as an advocate of my NGO at these meetings; I am also not able to scrutinize the physical dynamics of audience interactions or who is talking to whom in the hallways outside of the main events. How can one be an advocate for multi-stakeholder dialogue and collaboration (the very essence of my fantasy) without being there to read and interpret the tea leaves? Again, I have to tell myself, perhaps a little less persuasively, I have moved beyond this phase in my life. How can I even write in-depth commentaries on a subject like climate change or pandemic preparedness without this first-hand insight into what is happening among all those stakeholders in and around the UN or the WTO or the World Bank?
I have found that I can no longer be comfortable writing about global health or labor standards or climate change deliberations in the way that I used to be. It is time, to repeat, it is time to move beyond these fantasies. Well, they weren’t exactly fantasies when I was writing about them. They had been part of my childhood dreams, but I was actually there – on site, participating right where these global confabs were happening. And now, it seems, I no longer even want to be there.
Nonetheless, I want more. I need to find a new way of writing about the issues that still concern me, regardless of my no longer being an active participant in these global confabs. The vision, after all, has always been one of bringing people together from diverse backgrounds and with different interests to enable a collaborative search for common ground. And yes, this participatory approach depends on an open political environment that treats everyone as a legitimate participant – preferably, then, a democratic environment. The international order is hardly a democratic one, even though there are the trappings of democratic processes. But the recent past (the shocks of anti-democratic populism in the US and elsewhere) would suggest that democracy itself is being challenged in ways that are more fundamental to the future of democratic processes than the apparent inconsistencies of the United Nations system.
My preoccupation with these more fundamental threats to democracy is something that I have indeed been writing about. Does this writing about democracy require a physically participatory approach? Or can the personal touch come from an accumulation of personal experiences – and even of personal observations from an idyllic setting in the south of France. I will continue to write about democracy and inclusiveness and whatever else inspires me – perhaps even some personal memoirs along with the personal observations of the world around me. And that personal perspective now includes the view from my window of the late afternoon glow on a lovely hillside – the soft green clusters of olive trees, the sharper green of the stunning cypress trees, the red brick roofs of cream colored villas – and the silhouette of Cabris against the blue sky. What a fantasy in itself, just to be here!
Update: That was in October. I am still happy to be where I am – even if the hillside view is now turning into a wintry haze and even if our leading preoccupation is how to keep the boars from digging up our property. This, too, will pass.