That International Man of Mystery

Some of us prefer scotch, but all these small-batch craft beers are interesting – although Imperial Crème Brûlée Stout may be taking things a bit too far. Out here you can get Stone Crime Chili Beer – yes, infused with chili peppers, from the folks that gave the world Arrogant Bastard, which isn’t half bad. There’s a market for the unusual, which is supposed to be so beyond hip that you’re automatically too cool for words if you even know about such things. Large-volume commercial beers are for losers. This Bud’s for you? It is, if you’re the guy who never knows what’s going on, whose life is and always was a dead end, the guy always trying to figure things out but never will. You should just give up.

This presents a problem for the major commercial brewers. They may not lose much actual market share to the little guys, but they have to counter that message. There’s no way that beer produced in giant factories by large corporations will ever be hip, but their commercials are full of people who are supposed to be hip – young fit guys with hard bodies and lithe young women with sly smiles. Maybe that works, but the folks who make Dos Equis decided it was better to mock the whole narrative. They came up with their The Most Interesting Man in the World campaign:

The advertisements feature a bearded, debonair gentleman roughly in his 70s, portrayed by actor Jonathan Goldsmith, with Frontline narrator Will Lyman conducting voiceovers. They also feature a montage (mostly in black and white) of daring exploits involving “the most interesting man” when he was younger.

The precise settings are never revealed, but he performs feats such as freeing an angry bear from a painful-looking bear trap; shooting a pool trick shot before an Indian audience (by shooting the cue ball out of the mouth of a man lying on the pool table); catching a marlin while cavorting in a Hemingway-esque scene with a beautiful young woman; winning an arm-wrestling match in a South American setting; surfing the killer wave; and bench pressing two young East Asian women in a casino setting, each woman being seated in a chair.

These folks are mocking the idea of hip, and mocking manly manliness, and the voiceovers, about this far-beyond-cool guy are deadly:

He lives vicariously through himself.
He once had an awkward moment, just to see how it feels.
His beard alone has experienced more than a lesser man’s entire body.
The police often question him just because they find him interesting.
His blood smells like cologne.
In museums, he is allowed to touch the art.
If he were to punch you in the face, you would have to fight off the urge to thank him.

And thenf he speaks – “I don’t always drink beer. But when I do, I prefer Dos Equis.”

This is a pretty sly use of irony. One should drink Dos Equis just to stick it to the pretentious shits, those irritating hipsters, who think they’re so cool. Each commercial ends with the same tagline – “Stay thirsty, my friends.” There’s an implicit secondary massage there – “But don’t be an asshole about it.” Worshiping those virile manly men can make you look like a fool. Think about what you think is so damned cool. You may be being had.

It’s easy to fall into that trap. There’s always the Most Interesting Man in the World. After all, everyone will now remember the day the real leader of the free world came to the United States to address a Joint Session of Congress, to upbraid and shame the young and hopelessly naïve president of this now equally hopeless country – invited to do so by the few remaining Real Americans – those who prefer war to diplomacy, and don’t like gays, and who prefer minorities stay in the background, quietly, and like their women modest and generally silent. That would be the Republicans of course. Benjamin Netanyahu finally gave that speech, which actually contained nothing new. But National Review columnist Quin Hillyer wrote that “Netanyahu, not Obama, speaks for us” – and called him “the leader of the free world” – the real manly man.

Now there are questions. Who runs our foreign policy? That’s never been in dispute before. Nixon “opened China” – a complete surprise that no one in Congress saw coming. Obama is trying to do the same thing with Cuba – and as much as Congress fumes, or a few in Congress fume, there’s not a damned thing that they can do about it. That’s not how things work. Everyone knows the rules, but John Boehner and the Republicans invited Benjamin Netanyahu to come on over and say, that given this Obama fellow, it was time to break the rules. If you love Israel, break your silly American rules, now. If you love Iran and terrorism and think there are a few good Muslims out there, don’t break your rules – but you’ll be sorry. Benjamin Netanyahu says it’s time we moved on. He has said he speaks for Israel and all Jews, living or dead or yet to be born. He has graciously and heroically granted Americans the right to move on. And his blood smells like cologne.

We cannot have an agreement with Iran that only halts their nuclear program. That’s not good enough. The only thing to do was send a letter to the Iranian government, saying that the Republican Senate over here didn’t like the deal, and if this were a treaty, they’d never ratify it. As it’s not a treaty – if Obama pulls this off it would be a series of executive agreements – they wanted to remind Iran that the next president will be a Republican, who would revoke it all. It was a reminder to the Iranian government to explain how our government really works. The president is a figurehead. He’s not a manly man.

The letter backfired. This was breaking all the reasonable constitutional rules about who does what, and that could lead to chaos, or worse – and it looks as if Netanyahu might lose the upcoming elections in Israel, and he’d be out of a job – a sudden nobody. The Most Interesting Man in the World probably isn’t. Didn’t these guys watch those beer commercials? Maybe they didn’t get the joke.

No, they didn’t. The same thing happened a year earlier:

Without suggesting any love for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, Republicans in Congress have asserted that Russia’s incursion into Ukraine would not have happened had Obama not been such a wimp in his dealings with Moscow. …

John McCain and Lindsey Graham and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio echoed that sentiment at the CPAC conference in Washington on Thursday.

“We cannot ignore that the flawed foreign policy of the last few years has brought us to this stage, because we have a president who believed but by the sheer force of his personality he would be able to shape global events,” Rubio said.

The GOP chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers of Michigan, said Putin is playing chess while Obama is playing marbles.

Obama was not a manly man, and Ukraine wasn’t the only issue:

Other conservatives have taken this critique a step or two further. On Fox News, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani declared that Putin has shown what leadership is by acting boldly and rapidly to assert his nation’s interests in Crimea. Also on Fox, right-wing celebrity Sarah Palin suggested that the Russian president is far manlier than the U.S. president.

“Obama, the perception of him and his ‘potency’ across the world is one of such weakness,” Palin said. “Look it, people are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil. They look at our president as one who wears mom jeans and equivocates and bloviates.”

The guy in the beer commercial wrestles bears too, and of course real men hate gays:

In recent days, Rush Limbaugh has surprised himself (so he says) by finding admirable qualities in Putin that Obama lacks. He joins the ranks of numerous social conservatives, such as Pat Buchanan, who were already Putin fans due to his support for the Russian Orthodox Church and his opposition to gay rights.

In December, Buchanan wrote a column lauding Putin for his opposition to same-sex marriage. “While his stance as a defender of traditional values has drawn the mockery of Western media and cultural elites, Putin is not wrong in saying that he can speak for much of mankind.” Buchanan wrote. “He is seeking to redefine the ‘Us vs. Them’ world conflict of the future as one in which conservatives, traditionalists and nationalists of all continents and countries stand up against the cultural and ideological imperialism of what he sees as a decadent West.”

He was their hero, and then his Ukrainian rebels shot down that airliner, killing everyone on board, and his economy collapsed. Obama’s sanctions started to work and the price of oil collapsed, which might mean that Obama was the one playing chess and Putin was the one who lost all his marbles. Then Putin’s main political rival was gunned down in broad daylight in Moscow, a few feet from the Kremlin – which might seem like Putin acting boldly and rapidly to assert his nation’s interests, as Rudy Giuliani might see it. No one else saw it that way. Everyone seems to think Putin has something to do with that, although no one will ever know.

That particular Most Interesting Man in the World was no longer cool. Benjamin Netanyahu was. He will be until he isn’t, but now there’s more on Putin:

Russia was prepared to activate its nuclear arsenal a year ago when its troops secured the Crimean peninsula and eventually annexed it to the Russian Federation, President Vladimir Putin said in a broadcast aired Sunday.

In the documentary-cum-reenactment timed to Monday’s anniversary of a referendum in which Crimeans voted to secede from Ukraine, the film, “Crimea: Path to the Motherland,” features Putin justifying Moscow’s seizure of the Black Sea territory as necessary to protect Russians and military bases from what he described as a nationalist junta that had taken power in Kiev.

We’re talking global thermonuclear war here, and a sense of things that doesn’t match our sense of things:

Putin accused the United States of masterminding the three-month uprising in the Ukrainian capital that ended with the ouster of Kremlin-allied President Viktor Yanukovych, who has since taken refuge in Russia. He said the “beneficiaries of the armed coup” planned to kill Yanukovych, prompting Putin to personally order Russian military intervention to protect the political ally and save Crimea from attack by Ukrainian nationalists.

This was also high drama:

The film was a montage of images of Russian paratroopers coming to the rescue of Crimeans, Putin’s observations on his obligation to protect Russians outside his country and reenacted clashes between Ukrainian nationalists and the police and security forces defeated by the popular uprising in Kiev.

Masked Ukrainian zealots were depicted in the reenacted segments hunting Russians with attack dogs and barbed-wire-wrapped truncheons. Fiery scenes of torched police vehicles and black-clad rightists attacking law enforcement cast the overthrow of Yanukovych as a violent, Western-inspired coup d’état, and the Russian minority in Crimea and eastern Ukraine as the targets of fascist death squads.

The United States, along with Poland and Lithuania, “facilitated the armed coup” by training the nationalists, Putin said.

This plays well at home, except, as Adam Taylor reports in the Washington Post, Putin doesn’t seem to be at home:

On Thursday, Putin’s spokesman announced that the president would not attend a meeting with the Federal Security Service (FSB), which he usually attends. But no, Putin was “absolutely” healthy, Dmitry Peskov told Russia’s Ekho Moskvy, before adding that the president’s handshake was so strong it could “break your hand.”

Putin’s absence at the FSB meeting comes just a day after he unexpectedly canceled a trip to Kazakhstan. “The visit has been canceled. It looks like he [Putin] has fallen ill,” an anonymous Kazakh official told Reuters afterward, prompting a flurry of speculation.

To make matters more confusing, on Wednesday the Kremlin released an image of Putin meeting with the regional governor of Karelia. But local Web site Vesti Karelii reported that Putin actually had met with the head of the Republic of Karelia, Alexander Khudilainen, on March 4. In fact, RBC.ru reported that a number of events posted by the Kremlin appeared to have been recycled from earlier events. If this is correct, the last time Putin was seen in public may have been March 5, when he met the Italian prime minister in Moscow.

On Friday, as speculation grew further, state TV released footage showing Putin meeting with the head of Russia’s Supreme Court at his residence outside of Moscow. It was not clear, however, when the meeting had occurred.

Putin has disappeared, without explanation, and this had to happen:

The rumor mill went into overdrive, churning out possible explanations from the simple to the salacious to the sinister. He had been stricken by the particularly devastating strain of flu going around Moscow just now. He sneaked off to Switzerland for the birth of his love child. He had a stroke. The victim of a palace coup, he was imprisoned within the Kremlin. He was dead, aged 62.

Dmitry S. Peskov, the presidential spokesman, treated all the health questions with a certain wry humor initially, coming up with new and inventive ways to say, “He’s fine.”

Yet, the fact that the story proved impossible to quash underscored the uneasy mood gripping the Russian capital for months now, an atmosphere in which speculation about the health of just one man can provoke fears about death and succession.

Folks should be worried:

There have been periodic glimpses of the tension behind the high red walls of the Kremlin, infighting over the wisdom of waging war in Ukraine that has only deepened as the value of the ruble crumbled under the combined weight of an oil price collapse and Western economic sanctions over the annexation of Crimea.

Those pressures seemed to culminate in the Feb. 27 assassination of Boris Y. Nemtsov, the opposition leader and former deputy prime minister who was gunned down near the Kremlin. Mr. Nemtsov’s supporters blamed the atmosphere of hate that has been brewing in Russia, with the state-controlled news media labeling him a ringleader among the “enemies of the state.”

All that seemed to feed some of the darker interpretations of Mr. Putin’s disappearance. Andrei Illarionov, a former presidential adviser, wrote a blog post suggesting that the president had been overthrown by hard-liners in a palace coup endorsed by the Russian Orthodox Church. …

Of course, the “wag-the-dog” grandfather of all the conspiracy theories surfaced as well, that Mr. Putin disappeared on purpose to distract everyone from the problems and economic pressures piling up around them.

This is odd, and then there’s history:

In the early 1980s, when three Soviet rulers – Leonid I. Brezhnev, Yuri V. Andropov and Konstantin U. Chernenko – died in quick succession, the public was among the last to be informed.

“If an American president dies, not that much changes” said a reporter who has covered Mr. Putin for years, not wanting to be quoted by name on the subject of the president’s possible demise. “But if a Russian leader dies everything can change – we just don’t know for better or worse, but usually for worse.”

Or else he caught a bug, or didn’t:

The simplest explanation appeared to come from an unidentified government source in Kazakhstan, who told Reuters “it looks like he has fallen ill.”

Since half of Moscow seemed racked with a flu that knocks people onto their backs for days at a time, that seemed the most likely explanation. (Who knows how many hands he shakes in a day?)

But there seemed to be a certain reluctance to admit that Russia’s leader, who cultivates a macho image of ruddy good health, might have been felled like a mere mortal.

His spokesman told any media outlet that called (and most did) that his boss was in fine fettle, holding meetings and performing other duties of the office.

“No need to worry, everything is all right,” Mr. Peskov said Thursday in an interview with Echo of Moscow radio. “He has working meetings all the time, only not all of these meetings are public.”

Ah, but say there’s no need to work and others will wonder what’s really going on:

A Swiss tabloid reported that Mr. Putin had spent the past week accompanying his mistress – the Olympic gymnastics medalist Alina Kabayeva – to give birth in a clinic in Switzerland’s Ticino canton favored by the family of Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister. (It would be the third child, none confirmed.) …

Of course, Mr. Putin’s opponents next door in Ukraine lost no time celebrating the possible news. One set up a clock using a joyous chorus from “Swan Lake” to count off the time since Mr. Putin last appeared alive.

One of Mr. Putin’s predecessors, Boris N. Yeltsin, used to disappear frequently as well. But that was due either to drinking bouts or, at least once, an undisclosed heart attack. His spokesman settled on a standard explanation that Mr. Yeltsin still had a firm handshake and was busy working on documents.

Mr. Peskov drolly resorted to both explanations, telling Echo of Moscow that Mr. Putin’s handshake could break hands and that he was working “exhaustively” with documents.

Yeah, sure, but Matt Schiavenza, writing in the Atlantic Online, is a bit worried:

Putin’s reemergence will, probably to the disappointment of journalists everywhere, put a slew of salacious rumors to rest. Even if the president resumes power as before, however, his extended absence raises an uncomfortable question. What would happen in Russia, hypothetically, if Putin dies?

Until this week, analysts had little reason to contemplate the scenario. Putin is just 62 years old and, as Russian propaganda regularly reminds the world, in good shape. But nobody expected Kim Jong Il, just 69, to die young – until he did in 2011. And there’s even a precedent in recent Russian history. Three leaders of the Soviet Union, Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko, died in rapid succession from 1982 to 1985, a series of events that brought the reformist Mikhail Gorbachev to power.

This could be trouble, because unlike Brezhnev and Andropov and Chernenko, Putin has been playing that guy in the beer commercial, the cool manly guy, who has to be the most interesting guy in the world:

Given Russia’s size, nuclear arsenal, and regional influence, the passing of its leader would have significant consequences – no matter who it is. But a Putin death could be particularly destabilizing. Since assuming Russia’s presidency in 2000 following the resignation of predecessor Boris Yeltsin, who had appointed the then-unknown ex-KGB officer Prime Minister just months before, Putin has spent the next 15 years centralizing state power. Many democratic institutions established in the 1990s – such as the popular election of regional officials – exist just in memory, and the only office for which Russians vote directly is Putin’s itself. Putin controls Russia’s television, where 90 percent of the population receives its news, and strictly censors the Internet. Political opposition in Russia is largely weak and fragmented – outspoken critics end up in prison or dead, a trend continued with the assassination of Boris Nemtsov in Moscow last month.

Contemporary Russia is often compared to China, a fellow authoritarian power with which Moscow enjoys a chummy relationship on the UN Security Council. Xi Jinping, Putin’s Chinese counterpart, is thought by some to be China’s most powerful ruler in decades. But Xi must still contend with powerful rivals from within the Communist Party. Putin appears to face less intra-party competition. Because of the personal nature of his rule, Vladimir Putin was named the world’s most powerful individual by the political scientist Ian Bremmer in 2013.

If Putin dies, power would in theory pass to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who under the Russian constitution would then have three months to organize a presidential election. The boyish Medvedev, technically, held the job from 2008 to 2012, and may be in position to govern again – this time without Putin looking over his shoulder.

And if Putin were to punch you in the face, you would have to fight off the urge to thank him. There’s no one like him:

A smooth transition to power, rather than a protracted power struggle, would seem to be the best case scenario for Russia. Even then, a post-Putin Russia would probably not deviate far from the authoritarian’s policies. Putin remains broadly popular in the country, despite an economy teetering under the weight of Western sanctions and collapsed oil prices. A relatively liberal, pro-Western government, such as Boris Yeltsin’s, is unlikely to emerge.

“I am hesitant when people call for a Russia without Putin.” Dmitry Oreshkin, a pro-opposition analyst who heads the Moscow-based Mercator political research group, told Vocativ. “What do they think is going to follow him? Some liberal politician? No, things would only get worse.”

Amanda Taub adds this:

Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev would take over if Putin were to suddenly die or become incapacitated. But the real question isn’t who would assume Putin’s office, but who would assume his role: who would really take power after he is gone. That question remains unanswered.

That is a significant source of potential instability for Russia, and it deserves to be taken seriously, even if the rumors themselves do not. It is easy to mistake Putin’s personal control over the levers of power in Russia for a sign of strength – after all, it makes him look like an especially powerful leader. But for Russia, it is a weakness. And that means that for the rest of the world, and for Russians, it is a potential source of instability and danger.

Putin’s personal control over the levers of power in Russia isn’t a sign of strength? Someone tell Rudy and Sarah. The idea that one man, who is manly and cool, and who once had an awkward moment, just to see how it feels, is to be held in awe, is kind of silly. For Republicans, that man was Putin, and then it was Netanyahu. For the rest of us it’s the guy in the beer commercial. The Most Interesting Man in the world was a spoof. Some folks just don’t get it.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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