Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Obama's Lunch and Gorbachev's Eateries

I am currently reading David Hoffman's "Dead Hand" (Pulitzer winner). Its about the cold war arms race and its legacy. One of the interesting passages was how Gorbachev threatened some communist party men to fall in line. While the average Soviet citizen had to stand in queues for basic the communist party officials had their own grocery stores (well stocked) and eateries that provided delicacies only for party apparatchiks. Something as simple as food was disbursed based on hierarchy in Soviet Russia.

David Remnick's masterful "Lenin's Tomb" (Pulitzer), about the downfall of Soviet Russia, has hilarious anecdotes of how Soviet party apparatus functioned. When party bosses went hunting choice animals would be herded in range of their guns, when they went fishing divers would go underwater and hook fishes onto the fishing reels, a palace would be constructed for Brezhnev's visit that would be used for just a few hours.Remnick writes how Politbureau members would know if they are out of favor by watching how the line up is ordered for farewell when the General Secretary went for trips abroad.

Soviet Russia, found on the principle of 'dictatorship of the proletariat', ended up enshrining the class differentiation that it was supposed to shatter. Sort of like the pigs in Orwell's 'Animal farm" which overthrow rule by men but end up imitating men.

It is actually striking to see how India adopted such practices, many left over from British days. Even in companies like Best and Crompton there used to be an 'officers mess', ordinary workers could not eat there.    We are familiar with ministers standing with a bouquet in hand for departing CM's.

Two weeks back Barack Obama visited New Orleans for Katrina's 5th anniversary. He had lunch at some fast food place typical of New Orleans. He stood in the line, got his food and told how much it cost. Obama, President of USA, did not have enough money (sort of like USA right now). Obama borrowed $20 from his secret service agent and paid up. Bill Clinton did the same at a book store (what's with Democratic Presidents they always seem to never have money when they need to pay up).

Malcolm Gladwell, in "outliers" calls this the "Power Distance Index", it depicts how hierarchical a society is and how across the hierarchy the people of lower rings are comfortable challenging the superiors. USA has a low PDI.

My brother in law used to work for a mid size web hosting company in Maryland. The CEO would come to the cafeteria for lunch. The guy serving burgers would holler out a cheerful "hey" and of course the CEO would pay too.

It was a charm to see Senators, Governors and Presidential candidates squirm in their seats when Tim Russert would grill them mercilessly. Not many could get elected without undergoing Russert's inquisition.

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