Pencil makes a global point our president can’t grasp

Mario Penalver of Gig Harbor is a middle school teacher and a former News Tribune reader columnist.
Mario Penalver of Gig Harbor is a middle school teacher and a former News Tribune reader columnist. Staff photographer

I once stood in a stuffy, velvet-floored University of Chicago lecture hall, a Puyallup-raised young man and Pacific Lutheran University graduate grappling over a bite-sized portion of Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital with a few of my humanities classmates.

Our bearded, zealous teaching assistant attempted to conceptualize for us the term “globalism” in a series of colloquialisms and analogies that our pre-graduate minds could likely grasp.

“Take this pencil,” he said to us. “You can’t hold this pencil without accepting the fact that taken as a whole, from the eraser, to the graphite, to the wood that embeds it, this pencil is a product of infinite global partnerships.

“One guy mines the graphite, while another guy makes the drill that the first guy mines with. But wait. What about the engine inside the drill? Another guy somewhere welds the pistons that run that engine, and yet another guy somewhere else builds the bolts that hold the pistons of that engine in place.

“And who feeds the guy who makes the bolts when he goes on his lunch break? And who casts the iron pan upon which simmers the lunch he ordered? ...

“You can do this all day and all night,” our TA continued, holding the pencil in the air as if holding the Lombardi Trophy. “But you won’t get any closer to honing in on the complete picture of how dependent we are on the global market, such that this particular pencil lands in this room, and into my hand.

“That’s globalism.”

It’s true. The ship of economic isolationism sailed long ago, probably around the time that President Franklin Roosevelt aptly decided to descend on the world stage in the name of something other than economics.

Nearly 100 years and a century-pass later, Pax Romana is now, more than ever, not just a world order of nations woven together under an — albeit loose — flag of humanitarian interventionism.

Our dependency has grown to define our existence, like it did for the pencil my TA held in his hand nearly 10 years, two masters degrees and many pencils ago.

And here is where our president — a businessman no less — goes wrong.

It isn’t that we agree or disagree with his desire for a less globally dependent country. It’s the simple fact that we — and our president — no longer have a choice, any more than we have a choice to revolve around the sun.

We affirm this every day, and most of the time in ways completely unbeknownst to us.

We affirm it when we decide to have red bell peppers in the dead of winter, or when we attempt to comparison-shop for detergent like our mothers taught us.

Or when we decide to turn on our cell phones, as I have, with circuitry mined in Bangladesh, on chip boards made in China, wrapped in shells cast and assembled in Newark, New Jersey.

Or when the pilot on my flight to Seattle just announced he will be using international airspace to get around a stubborn Midwest December turbulence, thereby shaving 15 minutes off our arrival time at Gate C12.

And yet, we continue to see the consequences of our president’s volatile if periscoped denial of the global stage, which may be great for a midnight rally full of tiki torches and white nationalists, but which loses its meaning about as fast as you can say the word “hypocrite” in Hawaiian.

If you isolate yourself and your interests enough, eventually you stop being relevant. Or worse, you stop being necessary.

Like the message sent to the world with our president’s imperious choice to secede from the Paris Climate Agreement. It set a dangerous precedent in this global age when economic modernity is defined by the degree to which we build and foster multilateral relationships.

It falsely presumes we live and operate in a diplomatic and sovereign vacuum. And like a child burying his head in the sand, it gets us nowhere except out of the room so that the real adults can make important global decisions.

At the risk of sounding a bit bleak, our children will one day remember last month’s Jerusalem vote by the UN General Assembly as a bellwether of a new world order: one in which the U.S. is neither at the head of the table nor even invited to it.

And speaking as one of five very loud and perpetually hungry children who once clamored for the attention of an overburdened Puyallup mother, this change has implications that are neither beneficial to our industries nor satisfying to our First World appetites.

If we refuse to sit at the table, or refuse to acknowledge the multilateralism that defines it, we lose our piece of the global pie upon which we so depend.

And that next pencil we hold in our hand will be less of us and more of them.

Mario Penalver of Gig Harbor was a News Tribune reader columnist in 2015 and has contributed to the National Catholic Reporter, USA Today and New York University’s London magazine, Bedford Square, of which he was a founding editor. He teaches at Harbor Ridge Middle School in Gig Harbor.