Thursday, June 18, 2009


Note: Updated version at Huffington Post

My earlier post on twittering was perhaps a little harsh on this much hyped form of communication, the craze of the moment.

Even that bastion of anachronistic "packaged information" journalism, Time Magazine, has "twitter" on its recent cover.

As a child of the Cold War kept awake worrying about a nuclear holocaust and wanting to "understand" our ideological "enemy", I discovered -- through many pleasurable years studying Russia, its language, culture and civilization -- that this complex, often tormented country was far more than superficial communist slogans and one-liner propaganda.

So forgive me for loving lengthy Russian novels with big, moral themes that go far, far beyond 140 characters: War and Peace, Crime and Punishment.

Reading the Russian classics -- and, yes, many of them are tedious, except as a challenge to your knowledge of the ever-challenging Russian language -- did instill in me a suspicion of simplication in the name of brevity.

This "it-takes-time to understand" bias (call it what you will) was reinforced by conversations with my father, a poet and professor of comparative literature with a deep sense of our multilayered (he would disapprove of this jaw-breaking word) our lives are.

Power-point -- reducing communications to a few "key" items with clean little dots on an all-too-neat screen -- still leaves me cold.


But then I'll always remember, in my younger days waiting in the lobby of a NYC movie house for my date, hearing the question of those buying tickets to the screen version of F. M. Dostoevsky's on-steroids detective story:

How long is it, how long is this Crime and Punishment?

So going on and on -- forgive me, moi gluboko uvazhaemiy Fedor Mikhaylovich -- is not always the way to go. Maybe there are less verbose ways to make a point(s). Would not your Raskolnikov, in his perverse way, agree?


So I asked myself today, regarding my above mentioned outburst that classic writers (I mentioned Dickens and Tolstoy) wouldn't be twitterers, the following:

Would not, perhaps, the great aphorists have approved of Twitter?
Well, maybe. I can see La Rouchefoucault, true to the 140-character limit, twittering that:

"Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue."

Or, more dramatically and metaphysically, Pascal typing away on his computer:

"Le silence ├ęternel de ces espaces infinis m'effraie…"

And then we have our good old friend "Fred" Nietzche, who no doubt would have approved of the world hearing his syphilitic bachelor's lamentation:

"Thou goest to women? Do not forget thy whip!"

How about Plato via Socrates?

Some of his dialogues -- and how wonderfully open-ended they are -- have very short give-and-takes.

And don't forget Oscar Wilde, whose reputed statement about America I, as a flag-waving American, love to quote:

"America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between."

Emerson, conceivably, would twitter, if he were paid for it to his satisfaction. But not Henry James (do read the wonderful new biography of the dysfunctional James family, House of Wits).

Emily Dickinson? "Hope is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul." Definitely twitterable.

I should not omit Montaigne. But, on second thought, I think he would have been a blogger, not a twitterer.


Meanwhile, the State Department is (at least officially) gung-ho about using Twitter to help ensure that its "public diplomacy" (engaging, informing, and influencing key international audiences) can communicate in the 21st century.

Good luck, State guys/gals.

With all due respect to our government servants, there are not too many La Rochefoucaults or Emily Dickinsons walking the halls of Foggy Bottom. As for modern-days Fred Nietzches, well ... we can always count on John Bolton helping out.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Enter McHale

Enter McHale

Discovery Channel former executive Judith McHale, after many months of no Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs at the State Department, was finally sworn in that position on May 26, having been the object of criticism as a choice for this function because of her lack of foreign policy experience.

As I suggested in a piece in the Guardian (April 22) hers is not an easy task, as she will have to convince skeptics the world over that she

  • is not a Democratic clone of the widely ridiculed Karen “Hurricane” Hughes, a Bush confidante who was in charge of public diplomacy (2005-2007) during his second term;
  • can handle an organization (the State Department), by some considered dysfunctional, that has its own, often arcane, way of doing things;
  • is able to demonstrate to the White House that public diplomacy is an integral part of the foreign policy process;
  • can make it crystal clear that she -- and not the "strategic communications" and psyops chiefs at DoD -- is in charge of public diplomacy;
  • can assure that the State Department work harmoniously and productively with the growing number non-governmental organizations involved in public diplomacy.
On June 11, Ms. McHale gave her first major address as Under Secretary of State, at the Center for a New American Security.

Early on in her remarks, she sought to demonstrate that PD is an integral part of two concepts highly favored by the new administration -- engagement and smart power:
Today we have a President and Secretaries of State and Defense who are committed to renewing our engagement with the people of the world and restoring the kind of leadership that made the United States a force for global progress for so much of our history. The Obama Administration recognizes the central role of public diplomacy as a tool of smart power and an essential ingredient for 21st century statecraft.
She then specified how public diplomacy can promote American security:
We need to develop a multi-dimensional, results-oriented approach that combines traditional outreach with cutting-edge technology to engage with people at all levels of society. Broadly speaking, public diplomacy operates on two levels.

First, communication. This is the air game, the radio and TV broadcasts, the websites and media outreach that all seek to explain and provide context for U.S. policies and action; and

Second, engagement, the ground game of direct people-to-people exchanges, speakers, and embassy-sponsored cultural events that build personal relationships.

It is imperative that we improve on both levels, that we get smarter about how we communicate and more ambitious in how we engage.
And she closed, unfortunately ungrammatically, with the following rather uninspiring rhetorical flourish:
From Cairo to Kabul, from quiet villages to crowded cities, America is once again reaching out a hand of friendship and seeking new relationship[s?]. We know it is the right thing to do and we know, like [sic] General Marshall did, that our future depends on it.
For the U.S. Department of State Office of English Language Programs, please see.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Twittering and Public Diplomacy

Would Charles Dickens ever have been a "twitterer"?

How about Tolstoy?

Can you "twitter" War and Peace?

Of course, you can't.

But "twittering" does limit the amount of "blah-blah-blah."

Plssssssssssss. Only 140 characters, Twitter says. Right on; I, a former government employee (and the victim of endless "staff meetings" at the State Department) say!

But how useful the 'no-blah-blah-blah' 140-character Twitter limitation can be in promoting the US overseas, the task of the so-called office of Diplomacy and Public Affairs at the State Department, is a matter of serious consideration.

Maybe instant gratification does take too long.

And a "real-time" conversation, in the non-virtual world, over a long lunch between a US Foreign officer (as I had the priviledge of being), with a key player in an overseas society may not be a waste of paypayers' money.

Just asking, in over 140 characters.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

What Obama should say in Cairo

Pundits from the left and the right have been advising President Obama about what to say in Cairo.

How about this suggestion, Mr. President, from an ordinary US citizen?

Declare, Mr. President, that the "war on terror" is over.

We won, they lost.

"We" are all who believe in non-violence.

"They" are those who use violence.

And then have your speechwriters and public-diplomacy professionals take it from there, Mr. President.