Columns » Max Brantley

Attention deficit

Concentration has become impossible.

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I'm about to embark on the most exotic trip of my life. I'm trying to learn how to say “turn on the meter” and “hotel” to a Chinese cab driver. I'm trying to memorize walking routes from my Beijing hotel to major sights. I figure street signs won't be much help.

It happens that my departure this week comes amid news of Chinese crackdowns on protestors in Tibet. Could this migrate to Tiananmen Square by the time I arrive?

If so, I'm bound not to report on it. To obtain a Chinese visa, I had to promise the government I would not practice journalism while in the country. I try to avoid this in my own country, too, I should have said.

Does “journalism” include posting tourist snapshots on the Arkansas Times blog? I don't know, but I don't know if I want to test the question. The Chinese, I've been reading, do extensive monitoring of web traffic. Service is, as a result, intermittent on outside news sources.

More unsettling than the prospect of unfamiliar language and culture is the upheaval I leave behind in the United States. I've stopped looking at retirement accounts. The year has been devastating. If you believe Paul Krugman — and I do — we haven't seen the worst of it yet.

It appears I'll be working longer than I once anticipated.

The trip is worth the peace of mind that generally comes when I'm enough time zones removed from Little Rock to be out of synch with news flow. Between the time difference and spotty Internet connectivity, I can finally cut my tether to the Arkansas Blog (www.arkansasblog.com), a seven-day compulsion otherwise.

This is good, particularly this year. It means a forced absence from what has seemed like an unusually harsh period politically. It's no longer enough to support a candidate. True believers must despise the opposition with equal fervor.

This polarization is in evidence at every level of government. Take the Little Rock School District. Everything from school construction and assignments to job placements has become a skirmish in a bitter racial battle, not unlike the conflicts in the presidential race. Truth is often a casualty. The Golden Rule, too.

City government? Same thing. We've had pitched battles on parks, the restaurant tax, neighborhood centers, general taxes. Dissatisfaction is high with Mayor Mark Stodola. His high pay and increased powers have not yet, despite the passage of weeks, righted the city's budget, brought peace to the streets nor created a New Jerusalem on the Arkansas River. Wasn't he supposed to work miracles? (My tongue is in cheek here.) It occurs to me that his low-key style might not be entirely a negative. It might be, at this moment, that the last thing we need is another blustering voice to add to the angry din.

Another pleasant departure, stylistically, has been Gov. Mike Beebe. If his calm and quiet leadership works, I may return home in mid-April to find the legislature has come and gone, leaving behind a historic increase in the gas severance tax. That would be a monument to the governor's abilities, a convergence of circumstances and Sheffield Nelson's encouragement.

I can hope.

In the meanwhile, I will silence my own too-often-harsh voice for three weeks. I hope you find the substitutes interesting.

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