Answer Chavez

This is what I was thinking as I walked this week along the siren-filled streets of New York: The temperature of the world is very high.

We have a global warming problem, and maybe it’s due to an increase in the output of heated words. And they too can, in the end, melt icecaps.

“The Pope must die.” “The Holocaust is a lie.” “I can still smell the sulfur.”

The last of course from the democratically elected president of the republic of Venezuela, population 26 million, which helps keep America going economically by selling it, at significant profit, oil.

His remarks were startling. No one wants to dignify them with a response. But that’s a mistake. Because the world heard them.

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U.N. speeches are, by history and tradition, boring. You daydream to them. This is not all accident, not only the result of the fact that a nation’s diplomats don’t usually come from the more scintillating parts of its elites. (They rose to the U.N. in the first place because they didn’t fatally offend anyone back home.) Their speeches are dull because they know divisions can be dodged or blunted by a heartening vagueness. And so their words are blankets, not bullets; meant to envelop, not pierce.

But here was Hugo Chavez Wednesday to the General Assembly:

The “pretensions” of “the American empire” threaten “the survival” of mankind. The world must “halt this threat.” The American president talks “as if he owned the world” and leads a “world dictatorship” that must not be allowed to “be consolidated.” Bush will spend “the rest of [his] days as a nightmare.” The U.S. government is “imperialist, fascist, assassin, genocidal,” a “hypocritical” empire that only pretends to mourn the deaths of innocents. But not only the Mideast will rise. “People of the South,” “oppressed” by America, must “strengthen ourselves, our will to do battle.”

That’s not vague. It’s a call to arms.

The administration quickly moved to dismiss it: More bilge from the buffoon, more opera bouffe. We won’t comment or dignify.

The right doesn’t want to take him seriously (we don’t need more problems), and the left doesn’t want to see him clearly (we gave birth to that?). But Chavez’s speech achieved a great deal, and it is foolish to pretend otherwise.

Hugo ChavezHe raised his own standing. He got the world to look at him. He emerged in the speech as heir to the dying Fidel Castro, who he was careful to note is still alive and kicking. Chavez doesn’t want to be the current Fidel, the old man in soft fatigues, but the Fidel of 1960, who when he went to the U.N. pointedly camped in a hotel in Harlem, and electrified the masses. Chavez even followed his speech with the announcement he was giving heating oil to the needy of the Bronx. You know what they said in the Bronx? Thanks! It went over big on local TV.

He broke through the clutter. Everyone this weekend will be discussing what he said—exactly what he said, and how he said it.

He shook things up. His speech was, essentially if implicitly, a call to resistance, by any means, to the government of the United States.

He broadened his claimed base. Chavez made the argument that it is not America versus Saddam or America versus terrorists but the American Empire versus all the yearning people of the world. He claimed as his constituency everyone unhappy with the unipolar world.

He acknowledged a particular reality by putting distance between the current administration and the American people. This is not so much new as shrewd, and telling. It is an unacknowledged fact known to every diplomat in the world that the people of the world like Americans. Old Europe and new, Africa, people on the ground all over, have some acquaintance with the particular American character of openness and generosity. We turn our faith, and guilt at good fortune, into do-gooding. We send money, bring bandages and overtip. The world has met us. (This by the way is our biggest foreign-policy strength.) Those who attack America are forced to speak highly of Americans, and Chavez did, which allows him to reach potential new allies here. People don’t mind being told they are very fine but their government is very wicked. He gave new cover to critics of America. Jacques Chirac to Condoleezza Rice the next time he throws a snare: “You think I’m bad? Chavez would kill you!”

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America has seen this before, seen Krushchev bang his shoe on the table and say “We will bury you.” We grew up watching our flag being burned on TV. So it’s tempting to think this is part of a meaningless continuum.

But the temperature of the world is very high, and maybe we’re not stuck in a continuum but barreling down a dark corridor. The problem with heated words now is that it’s not the old world anymore. In the old world, incompetent governments dragged cannons through the mud to set up a ragged front. Now every nut and nation wants, has or is trying to develop nukes.

Harsh words inspire the unstable.

Coolants are needed. Here is an idea. Don’t try to ignore Chavez, answer him. With the humility that comes with deep confidence, with facts, and with some humor, too.

There is an opportunity for the Democratic Party. Some Democrats responded with spirited indignation the day after Chavez spoke. It was rousing. But Chavez’s charges were grave, and he claimed America’s abuses could be tracked back a century. If the Democrats seek to speak for America, why not start with a serious and textured response, one that isn’t a political blast-back but a high-minded putting forward of facts? This would take guts, and farsightedness. Rebutting a wild-eyed man who says you can find redemption reading Noam Chomsky is a little too much like rebutting a part of your base.

As for the administration, it is so in the habit of asserting, defending and repeating, it barely remembers how to persuade and appeal. It speaks starkly and carries a big stick. It feels so beleaguered on a daily basis, and so snakebit, that even its mildest players have taken refuge in gritting their teeth and tunneling on. They take comfort in this: They think Chavez helps them. See what we’re up against? But that’s not a response, it’s a way not to respond. It doesn’t help, because it doesn’t even try to cool things down. Which is no good, because the temperature of the world is very high.