Davos. Mit senf oder maionnais?
It is the very essence of Mittel-Europa, this space in Davos where the world's savants come to discuss the salient issues of the day over a modest repast; where muslim interacts with Christian; intellectual rubs shoulders with hip-hop youth. I speak, of course, of the Davos Pizza-Kebab Shop (open Sundays).
The kebab shop is in the middle of the town's bleak co-op shopping centre, just below the discount ski-wear store. Obviously, since ski-ing and snowboarding are calorie burning sports, it attracts a fair number of local youth still high from the white adrenaline who sit there trying to calm down while chomping through the thick, soft bread that is wrapped around a Doner in these parts; their buzzing brains struggling with the key question of "senf oder maionnais" just as, a few yards down the road other brains struggle with "capital adequacy versus the Volcker rule".
There is a place like this in nearly every town I've worked. In Texas it has a floor covered with monkeynut shells and sells a burger branded "roadkill". In New York its walls are covered with photos of famous boxers hugging the proprietor, Jimmy. In Paris it has a small statue of Le Petit Marcel on the bar; in London it sells only coffee and reflects pictures of Italian boxers back over your shoulder. In Barcelona it sells cava and bacon sandwiches. To me such places constitute the essence of human discourse in a way the WEF struggles to. They are argumentative, true, places, where politeness goes out the window.
In the Davos kebab shop a Turkish carpet adorns the walls. Maghreb music drowns the general babble. There is displayed the shirt of an ice hockey team sponsored by the kebab shop and several trophies. Blokes wander in, read the paper and later in the day have a beer. Conscripts in camo fatigues shoot the breeze and, as I say, snowboarders go quietly mental. And they argue, curse the world, sympathise with each other's misfortune.
This is the "reality" from which the other Davos, the World Economic Forum, is so obviously and unfortunately divorced.
Today we had a high-powered debate on Afghanistan: Thomas Friedman, David Miliband, Carl Bilt, Radosław Sikorski, Ashraf Ghani, with Abdullah Abdullah speaking from the floor mic. It was utterly revealing and I sat amid a hall of rapt international journalists watching it on TV: taking notes, making wry comments, filling each other in on missing details. Much of the wryness concerned the fact that, of all the powerful people speaking on the platform, and from the floor, not one of them seemed to disagree with each other.
The west's strategy since 2002, I summarise, had been no good. The London conference excellent. The friendly wing of the Taliban were now prime candidates for being won over by bunging money at them. Politics had replaced military action.
It was so open, echt, and free-flowing that you could be forgiven for forgetting that, only a few years ago, a different cast of politicians would have been sitting there saying what a great thing the old, failed, military-focused strategy was and how you could never do deals with the Taliban.
The tide on Afghanistan, in short, has turned and the London conference has created momentum, and Davos is a very good place for journalists to be able to gauge this. But, we wondered, tapping into our laptops, would it have been too big a stretch to put somebody on the platform - just one person - who disagrees with the Afghan intervention? Or who would defend the old strategy?
Later, sitting amid the grumpy fug of the kebab shop, amid muslims, German-Speaking Swiss guys, mums, offduty security guys and young skiers, it occurred to me that if we could have re-staged the debate here, mit senf oder maionnais, it would have been at the same time less informed but more productive. People would have disagreed with each other and from the friction would have come wisdom.
This has been my first WEF and I've tried to suspend judgement but, as I get ready to call it a day, the biggest weakness here is groupthink. The limits of debate are predefined by a kind of liberal centrist consensus.
On some issues there is lively debate: for example Arianna versus Rupert over whether online content has to be put behind paywalls. But when it comes to the major issues, there are precious few here arguing, as the American conservative right does, against bank bailouts, or for a return to socially conservative values. Or as the left does for a radical rethink of corporate values and practice.
Likewise the economic debate ranges between a kind of moderate neoliberalism and a moderate neo-Keynesianism. Joe Stiglitz, in his new book, describes a previous Davos where the bankers poo-poohed his theories warning him that "nobody who matters thinks this". Though Stiglitz is here bigtime this year, I think it is still safe to say that "nobody who matters" really buys his critique or policy solutions.
As with parliamentary politics, the edges are filtered out and the centre reinforced with sessions discussing "How Classical Music Can Enrich the Lives of Children". Lula is absent because of illness, fair enough. But where is Chavez, Evo Morales? Where are UKIP? Where is Sarah Palin?
If there were any kind of democracy of attendance, you could excuse some of this, but Davos is after all an exclusive gathering: invite only. The average party conference in Britain is more diverse. Not even the "reporting media" are allowed in to the most important sessions; much of it's off the record. The exhilaration many people feel from being here is a product of the quasi-Athenian atmosphere that exists, where everyone who's made it here is taken seriously and everyone - to use the vernacular - gobs off, secure in the knowledge that important people are listening.
I wouldn't say it is mainly an event for naked commercial networking and dealmaking, although that clearly happens. It could just do with being less consensual, less polite, more able to pit the powerful against each other in intellectual death-match. At the level of business representation it could do with being less media-dominated and a lot more open to the small and medium businesses who are the backbone of the modern economy.
But here's the benchmark:
Newsnight is sometimes criticised for being an elitist or intellectual programme. But if you were to put all our studio guests on last year's Newsnight in one conference together it would be massively more diverse of opinion, less corporate dominated, and much feistier than Davos. In fact I might suggest this at our next office brainstorming session.
If you were then, as in an ideal world, to introduce the occupants of the kebab shop as equal participants, it would be feistier still.