DRAGUIGNAN, France – My global ocean saga will have to wait. I got sidetracked by TV, watching a blow-dried clownfish interview an orange octopus who seems oblivious to the hammerhead shark circling around, sizing him up as a lunchtime snack.
As Tucker Carlson tossed puffballs at Donald Trump on Fox “News” last week, their exchange on tiny Montenegro shed harsh light on how isolated so many Americans have become from the actual world – and how few seem troubled by the perils of ignorance.
Stick with me; this is about much more than Montenegro. But let's start there.
“They're very aggressive people,” Trump said. Prime Minister Dusko Markovic, in fact, was gently accommodating when Trump aggressively shoved him aside without a word or even a glance to bull forward for a group photo at the Brussels NATO summit last year.
But Montenegrins are no pushovers. Partisans rose up against the Axis in 1941 and nearly ran Mussolini's troops back over their border. After the war, as part of Yugoslavia, they helped convince Stalin to back off and let Marshal Tito remain outside the Iron Curtain.
I toured Montenegro in 1992 when it stood by Serbia as Yugoslavia fell apart. Croatia had been invaded. Bosnia would be next. Police grilled me for a grim hour about the Croatian plates on my rental car. But I loved the place, from its old mountaintop royal capital at Cetinje to gorgeous beaches in a province half the size of Connecticut.
Today, Montenegro deserves that cliché: tourist paradise. With a 2,000-man army, it is not likely to invade Russia. Nor is it eager for Vladimir Putin to topple the government, as Russians attempted to do in 2014, and take control of its Adriatic naval base opposite Italy.
Carlson opined that NATO is outmoded these days. “Why,” he asked, “should my son go to war to defend Montenegro?”
For starters, he wouldn't have to. Military service is voluntary in America. In any case, U.S. troops mostly do logistics, intelligence and air operations. In Bosnia, NATO partners and poor sods like ill-equipped Nigerians in blue U.N. helmets did the “harm's way” part.
Carlson, as usual, made the story about him and missed the point. Like any old proverb – a stitch in time, for instance – defense is about discouraging aggressors from starting with a small appetizer before digging into the main course. Hence NATO and Putin's antipathy toward it.
Europeans have learned the hard way how easily wars start. In 1914, a Serb hothead shot an Austrian archduke in Sarajevo down the road from Montenegro. Within four years, 11 million soldiers and six million civilians were dead. In 1938, Britain's prime minister appeased Hitler and told Parliament he had made peace.
The potential threat from Moscow is not outright war. Both sides have enough nukes to destroy the planet. But Trump, because of his own sycophantic non-diplomacy, hasn't got a chance against Vladmir Putin if it comes down to Russian roulette.
In Helsinki, Trump skipped over Crimea, the first European land grab since the Soviet Union annexed Eastern Europe and the Baltic states. That, he said, was on Obama's watch. The presidency is about him, not the nation he is sworn to protect. He dismisses Russian influence in elections, which Robert Mueller and U.S. intelligence agencies make blindingly clear.
As Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry put it indelicately but aptly, “Opinions are like assholes; everybody's got one.” These days, when facts in broad context are so crucial, clownfish like Carlson skew the national agenda, striking much of America blind, deaf and dumb.
It gets worse. For too many, news is now drama heightened by argument. Even quality newspapers cut corners to survive. Television executives focus on what drives up viewership and profit. And in a wired world of karaoke journalism, anyone can chime in.
That cave in Thailand was a huge story, a tribute to human spirit and comforting proof that a world can come together against horrendous odds. But for nine days, it was almost the only story Americans heard about beyond their own down-the-rabbit-hole politics.
During that time, at least 135,000 kids died elsewhere for lack of a little food or simple medicine. At least seven million children die that way each year. Countless others fall victim to conflict. But the Trump administration is slashing aid and turning away refugees – yet another reason why an unspecified “they” hate us.
Last week, BBC's program "The Reporters" profiled the feted Thai survivors. But first Orla Guerin focused an 11-year-old boy, Ramsey, among eight million Yemenis near starvation after three years of U.S.-backed Saudi bombing. His father was blown to unrecognizable bits. Now he is the man of what's left of his family.
It then had an update on 28 Qatari royals captured last year while hunting in Iraq. Qatar, BBC reported, is paying a ransom of close to $1 billion to Hezbollah. That is a story to worry about, deeply, now that Trump has directed fire-and-fury threats at Iran.
Trump attempts to intimidate Iran by capitalizing his tweets. (Mike Pompeo calls it a mafia-run state, tone deaf to the irony of his boss's mobbed-up past.)
Iranian students seized 52 hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held them for 444 days. Jimmy Carter's failed rescue (foiled by a sandstorm – shit that happens in the Middle East) cost an under-sung good president a second term. Instead, we got Reaganomics.
Saddam Hussein, exploiting the hostage crisis, invaded Iran. Eight years later, after human waves turned back Iraq's elite troops, war ended in stalemate with a million fighters and innocents dead. Warning Iran's hardline theocrats they “will suffer” is not a smart approach.
Trump cultists miss the other side of Iran, a rich and enlightened society that goes back 2,500 years. They want peaceable interplay with the rest of the world. And they were headed toward that with the nuclear accord. Now “Death to the Great Satan” signs are out again.
That is one flashpoint. North Korea, despite Trump's premature lust for a Nobel Prize, is so far still another one. China? Don't get me started.
In the meantime, we all but ignore the long-term challenges, such as the Empty Seas series still on hold. Climatic disasters get covered, but without the why and what next. Japan, after deadly floods it has never known, now faces killer heat that is cool compared to soaring temperatures elsewhere. Biblical deluges, crop failure and icebergs ramming Greenland ought to be a clue.
And we overlook the contempt abroad for a nation that makes excuses for a president who blasts past every synonym for reprehensible. Trump is a shark in the realm of real estate, but in the wider world octopus is a better metaphor.
BBC's "Panorama" last week broadcast a carefully reported half hour on how his tentacles probed and grabbed unwilling young women, just as he boasted in the Hollywood Access video. Sex in high office is nothing new, but his hypocrisy reveals a total absence of character.
Trump raised the issue by bringing Bill Clinton's accusers to a campaign debate with Hillary. He said she abetted his disgusting adultery.
BBC showed convincing testimony of Trump's depredations. After women spoke, video showed him denying everything, right hand raised as if in court. He mocked one as too ugly for his attention. Another produced a distraught email she'd sent her parents at the time. Others told how he ogled undressed girls as young as 15 at a teen-age beauty pageant.
But Republicans stick with him. Approval for his foreign policy grows with each reckless move, despite almost unanimous warnings from non-partisan economists that his trade war and tariffs portend a coming collapse.
The most disturbing polls suggest that only a third to half of eligible voters under 25 will bother to cast ballots in November. I teach a smart sampling of those who will, and they are worried. Mostly, they say, their apathetic friends simply don't understand why it matters.
When “news” is skewed by clownfish who spend more time with their hairdresser than history books, that is hardly surprising. And when people believe whatever bullshit appeals to their prejudices and dismiss actual reporting as fake, demagogic con men rule.