The United Nations' 50th anniversary feels like the funeral of Edward VII in 1910 -- the last great meeting of royalty before the 20th century devoured most of them.
The U.N. claims that this week's meeting is "the largest gathering of presidents and prime ministers in one room in the history of the world."
Media accounts, however, hinted that the gathering had veered into "Sector D," so named because of the words describing it: discord, demands, drift, debt, drugs, dues.
In the same way that inbred royalty were bleeding to death from hemophilia in 1910, the United Nations is suffering from something deeper than Sector D, however. While spending the past half-century saving the world for tomorrow's generations, it has organized the planet according to a system that is at best paleolithic. Which is to say, it uses a map.
Isn't it time the United Nations stopped this global village idiocy and put on its thinking cap?
Today, pathetically, it groups countries together merely because they're next to each other, and then gives the group a name such as "South Asia" or "Europe." This is known as "the fallacy of deterministic contiguity." Granted, there have been such noncontiguous groupings as the "Third World," which links Bangladesh and Sudan with parts of New Jersey by virtue of squalor, hopelessness and bad drivers.
Now, if only the United Nations would move into the computer age, it could come up with infinite combinations of nationhood, such as:
Countries where any of the following can be used in lieu of currency: chewing gum, Levi's, surface-to-air missiles.
Countries whose leaders appear in bulky armchairs that seem made for no other use but photo opportunities: Syria and China, for instance.
Countries where the trains run on time. Countries where the trains never run on time. Countries where there used to be trains. Countries where there never will be trains. Countries where nobody knows what time it is. Countries where nobody knows what a train is.
There could be the U.N. Office of Somewhat Boring, Truce-Brokering, Nuclear-Sub-Protesting Countries, which at various times might include Sweden, Canada, Belgium, Switzerland and Costa Rica -- the sort of countries where peace treaties get signed, along with accords, protocols, white papers and processes, all in a cordial atmosphere of mutual understanding watched over by Jimmy Carter.
We could have Organizations for Countries Whose Leading Spectator Sports Are Bus Plunges and Ferry Sinkings, a portfolio that could also include countries where people shake fists at television cameras and the men always look as if their last shave was a week ago. How do they get that look? It's not quite a beard, not quite clean-shaven. Bad razors? Good scissors?
There could be directorates or missions for Countries With Name Instability, and agencies or bureaus for Countries With Name Stability.
Name-stable countries include the United States of America, France, Canada, Sweden and Australia. Name Stability tends to correlate with power, prestige, money and being hated by the billions of people in the name-unstable world.
The Name Instability Desk: One thinks of Myanmar, which used to be Burma; Burkina Faso, which was Upper Volta, which was something else before that; and Cambodia, which was Kampuchea, which was Cambodia, next to Thailand, which used to be Siam. Sudan can no longer be called the Sudan.
Staffers assigned to this section would have to memorize the old song:
Istanbul, not Constantinople,
Now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople.
Why did Constantinople get the works?
It's nobody's business but the Turks'.
Expertise on the Instability Desk would cover relic smuggling, cholera and staying calm despite the sporadic nature of just about everything: electricity, tap water, presidencies and mortar fire. Name Instability also tends to correlate with the exporting of jute, sisal, copra or bauxite, though the export facility may have been either mined by the CIA or sabotaged by revolutionaries. These are countries where the greatest health hazards are the water, the air, the dirt, eating, sleeping, waking, making love, the people, and land mines left over from the War of Liberation, which was lost, apparently.
Some countries have many names, and whichever one you use is slightly wrong: Japan/Nippon/Nihon, or Holland/Netherlands. Actually, there's only one of these worth talking about: England, or Britain, or Great Britain, or the United Kingdom, a k a Albion in poetry. As a member of the Security Council, perhaps it could have its own desk, dealing with countries that have sweet corn as a pizza topping, and subways full of tattooed, stone-drunk men staring very hard at you at 10 in the morning, and a gone-to-seed feeling, like a park that children don't play in anymore.
Then there is China, where the names never change but the spellings do. The names of all the cities and leaders are apt to change -- Peking to Beijing, Mao Tse-tung to Mao Zedong -- for no apparent reason.
We in the United States could use this technology, too. Instead of having "the Middle West" or "New England," we could group all the places with large numbers of trailer parks and large numbers of tornadoes; towns with such bad services that the fire department doesn't make house calls; areas such as the Bronx or certain girls' boarding schools where English seems to be spoken as a second language, but investigation reveals there is no first language.
With the Cold War over, with rights of deep seabed mining spelled out by the Law of the Sea treaty, with Castro having been in uniform longer than Beetle Bailey, it's time to stop thinking that you are where you are, and to start thinking that you are who you are, especially if you can find a few million other people who are who you are but not necessarily where.
And isn't figuring out what that means an ideal job for U.N. bureaucrats?