Saturday, February 26, 2011
By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 25, 2011; 6:57 PM [JB highlights]
In a world full of conspiracy theories, it may not come as a complete surprise to some that Mr. Gates may be something of a closet humanist.
WEST POINT, N.Y. - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, in one of his last addresses to the Army, said Friday that he envisages a future ground force that will be smaller, pack less heavy firepower and will not engage in large-scale counter-insurgency wars like those in Iraq or Afghanistan.
"In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should 'have his head examined,' as General MacArthur so delicately put it," Gates quipped.
Gates, who is expected to leave his post later this year, predicted a greater role for the Navy and Air Force in the future and warned the Army to gird itself for a period of relative austerity compared with the gusher of defense spending that has sustained it over the past eight years. In particular, Gates suggested that the Army will have a tough time justifying its spending on heavy armor formations - which have been the core of its force for decades - to lawmakers and the White House.
"In the competition for tight defense dollars, the Army ... must confront the reality that the most plausible, high-end scenarios for the U.S. military are primarily naval and air engagements - whether in Asia, the Persian Gulf or elsewhere," he said.
The defense chief predicted that Army and Marine forces would increasingly be asked to focus more on short-duration counterterrorism strikes and disaster relief. As he has for the past several years, Gates called on the Army to devote more of its best personnel to training and equipping foreign militaries.
Gates said he was not advocating the Army should become a counter-insurgency or nation-building force. "By no means am I suggesting that the Army will, or should, turn into a Victorian nation-building constabulary - designed to chase guerrillas, build schools or sip tea."
Despite a big push in recent years to build the Iraqi and Afghan militaries, the U.S. Army has traditionally treated the training and equipping of foreign armies as a career backwater, and Gates's efforts to raise the importance of the mission within the U.S. military have met with mixed results.
"How do we institutionalize security force assistance into the Army's regular force structure, and make the related experience and skill set a career-enhancing pursuit? Gates asked, repeating a question he first put to the Army in 2008.
Much of Gates's speech to the West Point cadets focused on his concerns that officers who have been given wide latitude to take chances and the heavy responsibility of leading their troops in combat would grow disillusioned with the risk-averse nature of military bureaucracy and leave the service.
"Men and women in the prime of their professional lives, who may have been responsible for the lives of scores or hundreds of troops, or millions of dollars in assistance, or engaging or reconciling warring tribes, may find themselves in a cube all day re-formatting PowerPoint slides," Gates told the West Point cadets. "The consequences of this terrify me."
To head off this malaise Gates urged the cadets to take career risks, taking assignments that in the past might have been seen by their peers as career dead-ends. "I would encourage you to become a master of other languages and cultures, a priority of mine since taking this post," he said.
The huge growth in the Army bureaucracy over the past decade has also created an almost insatiable demand for mid-level staff officers within the Army. These days almost every major in the Army is guaranteed promotion to lieutenant colonel.
In recent months, Gates has begun an effort to trim back some of this bureaucracy by cutting as many as 100 general and admiral slots. These senior officers typically are given large staffs of young officers. As the demand for young officers decreases, the military will be able to be choosier about whom it promotes and give greater weight to opinions of peers and lower-ranking officers in choosing the next generation of Army leaders.
"It's time that the Army's officer evaluations also consider input from peers and subordinates - the people hardest to fool by posturing, B.S. and flattery," Gates said. "A more merit-based, more individualized approach to officer evaluations could also do much to combat the risk-averse, zero-defect culture that can take over any large, hierarchical organization."
Indeed, Gates envisioned a future in which one of the biggest threats to the Army would come from its own bureaucratic and, at times, rigid culture. "The tendency of any big bureaucracy is to revert to business as usual at the first opportunity - and for the military, that opportunity is, if not peacetime, then the unwinding of sustained combat," he said.
Monday, February 21, 2011
Isaacson's perceptive review of a work on Plato's mentor suggests that, among the many who serve the US government, an admirable few find the time for thought and reflection. His piece may also be an inadvertent expression of what Mr. Isaacson may on occasion wish to do -- employ the "pause that refreshes" --
when faced, as BBG Chairman, with relentless criticism from Congress and BBG's own employees." Image from
February 18, 2011
By WALTER ISAACSON, New York Times
Review of THE HEMLOCK CUP
Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life
By Bettany Hughes
Illustrated. 484 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $35.
The problem with writing a biography of Socrates, as Bettany Hughes merrily admits, is that he’s a “doughnut subject”: a rich and tasty topic with a big hole right in the middle where the main character should be. Despite his fame and his insistence on an examined life, Socrates never wrote anything, and our knowledge of him comes mainly from three contemporaries — his devoted pupils Plato and Xenophon, and the parodist Aristophanes — each of whom had his own agenda. He produced no great answers, only great questions, and the most enduring image we have of his life is his leaving of it, as the title of this book suggests.
How do we examine the life of the man who told us that the unexamined life was not worth living? Hughes, a British television host and popular historian known for her book on Helen of Troy, does it by concentrating on the shape of the doughnut around the hole. She outlines Socrates mainly by describing the sights, sounds, mores and facts that surrounded him.
For the most part, Hughes is successful, and even when not, she’s fascinating. What we get in “The Hemlock Cup” is many books interlaced: a biography of Socrates; a gritty description of daily life in Athens; a vivid history of the Peloponnesian War and its aftereffects; and — as an unexpected delight — a guide to museums, archaeological digs and repositories of ancient artifacts, as Hughes takes us by the hand while ferreting out her evidence. At one point we travel with her to the rear of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, to study a scrap of papyrus — Fragment 4807 — in the Sackler Library. It contains some lines, apparently by Sophocles, casting light on what life may have been like during the Peloponnesian War.
With great spirit and diligence, Hughes is able to piece together a surprisingly vivid portrait of the hairy, slovenly son of a stonemason and midwife, who spends a lot of time at the gymnasium and holds philosophical discourses at shoe shops. By necessity, the book has a lot of speculation, with phrases like “there is every possibility that he sailed from Piraeus” and “Socrates would certainly have participated in such communal activity.” Academic purists may chafe that Hughes makes such imaginative leaps. But by doing so, she helps us imagine Socrates as a body of flesh rather than a bust of marble.
Born around 469 B.C., Socrates grew up as democracy and great art were flourishing in Athens. But a three-day walk to the south lay a rival, Sparta, where most males between ages 7 and 30 lived in military camps that gave meaning to the phrase “Spartan existence”: barefoot and with just one cloak to wear year round, the men were trained relentlessly for war.
During his late 30s and into his 40s, Socrates fought in the Peloponnesian War. Hughes portrays him as a courageous warrior, but not a foolhardy one; he has enough wisdom to be among the Athenian soldiers who managed to survive the bloody defeat at Delion in 424 B.C. Socrates fights with determination, while his beautiful young companion, Alcibiades, watches, but he also leads a group of fellow soldiers to safety. As Hughes notes, “He was a man strong enough to fight when challenged, he was unflustered by the difficulties of the day, he is portrayed to us as having about him a peculiar serenity.” This is the foundation, she implies, for one of Socrates’ great pieces of advice: courage is the ability to distinguish between real and perceived threats, being able to know what should be feared and what should not be.
When Socrates returns to Athens he pursues an odd life, padding the streets barefoot and holding philosophical dialogues, not at schools or in homes where he would be paid, but in places like the shop of a shoemaker named Simon. Thus he creates the Socratic Method, as well as arousing suspicions among some citizens of Athens that he is a corrupter of youth.
Hughes does not present a methodical study of the philosophy of Socrates, nor does she deal much with the famous Socratic problem of how to distinguish the real Socrates from Plato’s portrait of him. But she does tie the philosophy to the facts of his life, insofar as we know them. Because his mother became a midwife, Hughes takes us to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens to rummage through a cabinet that contains images, social records and crude objects relating to childbirth in classical Greece. Some terra cotta pieces “remind us of what a lusty, messy business giving birth really is.” This is important, for midwifery forms the great metaphor Socrates uses to explain his method of extracting truth through questioning others, rather than giving birth to it himself. As Plato has him say: “I am so much like the midwife that I cannot myself give birth to wisdom. . . . Although I question others, I can bring nothing to light because there is no wisdom in me.”
Hughes spends less time exploring Socrates’ relationship with Plato than the one he had with Alcibiades. As far as Hughes can tell (or at least Plato tells), he resists the sexual lures of Alcibiades, famous even centuries later as the most beautiful and dissolute boy of Athens. “Alcibiades is a latter-day Adonis — all flowing golden locks, a fine profile and with androgynously smooth skin,” Hughes writes. “He lisped sensuously, he loved women, girls, men, boys, dogs.” He represented the opposite of the introspective, virtuous life that Socrates spent his life examining, “yet Socrates did not condemn the boy, he was fascinated by him.” Socrates sleeps by him during the war, becomes enamored with him and saves him on the battlefield. Why? Because, according to Hughes, Socrates very much lived in the real world, with real-world pleasures, “and Alcibiades was the Athens that Socrates was struggling to live with.”
We like to think of Athens as a place where robed citizens wandered thoughtfully through the Parthenon and agora. Hughes instead describes the smelly atmosphere of the neighborhood Socrates frequented, the Kerameikos. It was filled with prostitutes, male and female, with small stalls available for what Athenians called “middle-of-the-day marriages.” “The Kerameikos is a key clue to his story and to the story of Athens’ Golden Age. These visceral, vacillating lanes, nooks and crannies were his ethical nursery.” There were two or three slaves for every adult, so leisured citizens, Socrates included, spent most of their time at the gym honing their bodies or in discussions sharpening their minds.
Hughes intersperses the story of Socrates’ trial in 399 B.C. with some wonderful details. We learn, for example, about the workings of the mechanical device that randomly selected, from 6,000 names, the jury of 500 Athenian citizens (yes, 500) that assembled at the law court to hear the case. This kleroterion, a replica of which can be viewed at the Agora Museum in Athens, was a proto-computer that used carved slots to send metal disks down a chute. “Every means possible has been thought of to prevent corruption,” Hughes writes. “Alphabetical blocks of seats, secret ballots, random-selection machines.” Her quest for authentic detail even leads her to grind up hemlock and sniff it. “It releases a nose-wrinkling sour smell,” she reports.
I don’t think that Hughes is quite as successful, however, with the larger aspects of the death of Socrates. She tells us early in the book about his definition of courage — knowing which threats should be feared and which should not be — but she does not tie that into the burning question surrounding his death: Why did he not choose exile or escape, or offer a serious defense? There are many theories. According to his pupil Xenophon, Socrates felt that, at age 70, he would be better off dead than to linger in exile or confinement. Perhaps he suspected that by drinking the hemlock he would create the founding myth of philosophy. From Plato’s “Crito,” we get an explanation that forms the basis of social contract theory: Socrates explains why it would violate justice to flee the verdict of the citizens of Athens.
When Hughes describes Socrates’ speech defending himself, as reported in Plato’s “Apology,” she seems struck by how arrogant he is. “He reminds the court he is the wisest man on earth,” she says. But she doesn’t fully explain the depth of irony in his speech. It contains the most wonderful Socratic paradox: He has questioned all the wise people of Athens, he says, and realized that they were not truly wise because they mistakenly believed themselves to be wise; on the other hand, he knows full well that he is not wise, which makes him wiser than they are.
There are also smaller glitches in her treatment of Socrates’ final scene. At the end of the book, she quotes, without much analysis, the memorable last line in the “Apology”: “I go to die and you to live; who knows which is the better journey.” Yet in the introduction of her book, she quotes the same line with a significantly different (and more conventional) translation — “which of us is going to a better condition is not known to anyone except god” — with no apparent rationale for the disparity.
But these are minor issues. There are scores of other books — including a delightful one by the iconoclastic journalist I. F. Stone — that explore the philosophical issues surrounding the death of Socrates. What Hughes provides is something far more vital: a life and times of Socrates that is so richly textured, flavorful and atmospheric that it makes human this most enigmatic of all philosophers. By the end of her book, we can almost see and smell the man, with all of his quirks and foibles and questioning brilliance.
Walter Isaacson is the chief executive of the Aspen Institute and the author of biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein.
Wednesday, February 9, 2011
Can you imagine breaking bread at a civilized meal (pardon the anachronistic language) without a non-cell-phone-interruption with any of these zombie characters (again, as portrayed in the movie), depicted as ambition-knows-no-bounds male Harvard/West Coast sexists -- evidently incapable of any kind of love for/intimate contact with their fellow human beings, no matter their sex -- greed-is-good-maniacs (again, as I interpret the movie) who are supposedly committed to "bringing people closer together" by means of universal "friends" via cyberspace while screwing them (their "friends" and colleagues), in the "real" world, in the worse way possible, and as efficiently, as ruthlessly as they can?
To me, "The Social Network" -- true, just a movie -- is instructive about the new media's limitation as a "tool" of public diplomacy.
Meanwhile, I am citing this entry on Facebook/Twitter. Walt Whitman: "Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself."
OK, facebook/twitter can bring people into contact -- as does a telephone or cocaine at a risque party (as depicted in the movie); so do good old-fashioned drums, best of all. But, given the social media's lack of depth -- simply put, their limitations as a means of celebrating face-to-face humanity, contact which by their very nature these media encourage to avoid (Memo to teenagers: Aren't you glad that there's no bad breath from, or real pimples on, facebook "faces") -- as a way to prevent human conflict these media are by no means a panacea, as many commentators on this subject would agree. See Morozov.
I am not saying anything original, just emphasizing it.
When I think of Facebook, I think of the role of the face in Orwell's 1984 -- where the human face loses all its individuality, all its humanity. The link to my article on the subject, “‘A Boot Stamping on a Human Face’: Orwell’s 1984 as a Process of Defacement,” English [Journal for Russian Teachers of English], No. 15 (1-15 August) 2005, pp. 33-35] -- is regrettably kaput.
But, in my suspicion of "new media," I feel in good company -- Plato was, after all, against writing, as it "will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own."
Saturday, February 5, 2011
About 250 people attended the opening, many of them the artists who submitted works. They were eager to learn whose work was selected by the jury for the exhibition, and especially excited to learn who the four prize winners were who would each receive a cash prize and have their work hung in the embassy for the duration of Ambassador Booth’s tour." Image from blog, with caption: Ambassador to Ethoipia [sic] Donald Booth addresses more than 150 artists assembled for the awards and opening of the Four Freedoms exhibition.
Nothing wrong with a celebratory exhibit, of course. But, given the Addis Ababa exhibit's evident failure to underscore the complexity of/problems posed by Rockwell's admittedly minor oeuvre -- well, ok, at least Ethiopian artists, I'm sure scrapped for cash, willingly received money "prizes" for reacting to it -- please consider the following words by Duncan Mitchel:
Norman Rockwell's paintings are not so different in their style from Socialist Realism, or even in the kind of people and situations they depict; they've often been used as Americanist propaganda. The difference between what might be called "bourgeois realism" and Socialist Realism is not the manner, or even always the matter, it's the address of the artist.Images illustrating this point, I hope not incorrectly:
Let me stress this, for what it's worth: US government-sponsored cultural events overseas should be asking important questions such as the following regarding Rockwell, as posed by the curator Tomas Pospiszyl in his article Socialist Evening Realistic Post:
It does not take an experienced connoisseur to notice the uncanny similarity between the widely popular art of Norman Rockwell and certain artworks of Socialist realism. Similarly, some of the official art created in the Soviet Union during Rockwell's most successful years could easily pass as emblematic of the Saturday Evening Post covers depicting that era.I think Norman Rockwell, for all his limitations as an artist, would agree with this approach to his work.
This can be a confusing realization given that these images originated from the two very polarized ideological standpoints of that time. Is this a mere coincidence of style, or are these two forms of expression somehow more deeply bound?
Thursday, February 3, 2011
By Brendan Greeley, businessweek.com via PDC
Mediocre ideas survive longest in government. In business, at least, competition tends to cull the lame and the halt. But in the public sector, theories, particularly when enlivened by events, can linger for decades. All of which explains why, now that Tunisia's dictator has left his country and Egypt's is weighing his options, we may be stuck for a good long while with what the State Dept. calls "21st Century Statecraft."
In January 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered an address in Washington that laid out a way to use the Internet to serve America's foreign policy goals. Protesters in Iran the summer before had gotten news out to the world using the microblogging site Twitter, and Clinton told the story of a seven-year-old girl in Haiti, freed that week from earthquake rubble with the help of a text message. "New technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress," she said, "but the United States does."
America would take sides by building tools to route around censorship. A country that would deprive its citizens of information, the Secretary of State argued, would deprive them of a market advantage. And she called on U.S. companies to act on principle, to make access to information part of America's national brand.
Clinton was right that the Internet has a profound effect on the struggle for democracy, and there is a great deal of valuable local work being done online. But the Web is not a uniformly positive force. The dissident who organizes on Facebook, for example, leaves behind a map for security forces to follow. The real question at the heart of 21st Century Statecraft is this: Is America remotely capable of using the Internet to direct events in its favor?
Activists in Tunisia organized on Facebook, and the country's now-deposed dictator, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, saw the site as a threat; Al Jazeera has published evidence that the government had been using its domestic control of the Internet to pocket its citizens' Facebook passwords. Last year, however, Sami Ben Gharbia, a Tunisian blogger and activist, questioned the support, through travel and training, that American foundations and companies had begun offering to local activists. He called it "the kiss of death" and wrote that it would erode local relevance and legitimacy, and would replace domestic ties among groups with bridges abroad. He worried that America would favor activists in sexy countries such as China and Iran. And he predicted something that today, watching the Obama Administration's daily hedge on Egypt, seems obvious: "This Internet freedom policy won't be applied in a vacuum," he wrote. "It will continue projecting the same Western priorities." America's instinctive support for the right to speak and assemble can be hard to square with its need for stability. That's as true online as it is in the street.
This is difficult for Americans to hear. We like to make the world a better place, to mold it in our image. (As the British author Graham Greene pointed out more than a half-century ago in The Quiet American, this makes Americans abroad both charming and enraging.) Now, Tunisia has a transitional government and Egypt has a teetering one, owing to upheavals aided by Facebook and Twitter. This is a victory for American ideas and American entrepreneurs. It is a victory for the resilient network America designed. But it is not necessarily a victory for the American government.
There's no telling whether successor regimes will be to Washington's liking. Nor can it be said that all American companies are on the right side of the barricades. According to a 2009 study by Harvard University's Berkman Center, the technology for Tunisia's network filtering—that is, its censorship—was provided by Secure Computing, a U.S. company that has since been acquired by McAfee (MFE) (which is now to be purchased by Intel (INTC)). This is not unusual; many governments in the Middle East use American tools to filter. An American company makes Egypt's tear gas, so it seems unfair to single out Secure Computing for undemocratic behavior. But it certainly makes Clinton's job more complicated.
Facebook hasn't completely adhered to the Secretary's national branding guidelines, either. Jillian York, an Internet freedom researcher at Berkman, tells the story of one of Egypt's more popular Facebook protest groups, We Are All Khaled Said, named for a young Egyptian allegedly killed by police in Alexandria last year. Before parliamentary elections in December, Facebook disabled the group. When asked to explain its decision, the company pointed out that the group's administrators were using pseudonyms, which can keep an activist safe but violates Facebook's terms of service. Facebook restored the group when a new administrator volunteered a real name. The same thing happened to a group that supported Mohamed ElBaradei, the opposition leader. York has similar stories from Hong Kong, Tunisia, Syria, and Morocco.
The problem is not that Facebook bows to autocrats, but that it's not staffed up to fulfill its new accidental mission. People in crisis don't find new platforms; they reach out on the ones they have, the ones they already use to share pictures of babies and picnics. Facebook was designed for the pursuit of happiness; it's not vital despite its frivolity but because of it. Its decisions on so-called takedowns (removing a group or an account) follow an opaque process, with no consistent way to appeal for redress. The company often lacks even the language skills to make moral and political judgments in other countries. Nor does it offer basic constitutional protections such as habeas corpus or the right to face your accuser. Brett Solomon, the executive director of Access, a nonprofit that focuses on Internet freedom, suggests Facebook provide a "concierge service" for activists, a single point of access to help resolve tricky takedown issues. Google's (GOOG) YouTube, according to several activists, is already exemplary in this regard.
To its credit, Facebook has begun offering an encryption method called "https" to users in Tunisia and now Sudan. Gmail offers this, too, worldwide; Yahoo! (YHOO) has dragged its feet. This is a classic problem in diplomacy, as old as the East India Company: States and businesses have different goals. It has never been easy to compel a CEO to spend money in pursuit of state policy, and 21st Century Statecraft hasn't made any of it easier.
As Indira Lakshmanan of Bloomberg News reported on Jan. 27, it's hard to tell whether Clinton's Internet policy is working, because to work it must happen in secret. The State Dept. says diplomats are pressing for free speech behind closed doors, but it's hard to prove this is making a difference. Such is the unfortunate nature of diplomacy. On one point, however, Clinton was demonstrably wrong: Censorship can be very, very good for business.
Last year the China social media team at Ogilvy & Mather, the advertising firm, created a graphic that compared social media services in the U.S. and China. There was little overlap. One could argue that different cultures ask different things of their social media, but Facebook has seen success in Indonesia and Brazil; it is growing in South Korea. Japan has taken to Twitter. It's far more likely that China's blocks on Twitter, Facebook, and Blogger (and its restrictions on Google) have acted as a kind of import tariff, creating space for domestic companies to thrive. As Bloomberg has also reported, the CEO of Baidu (BIDU), China's premier search engine, sees commercial value in social media. Baidu has expanded since Google's departure. Clinton might do better taking her concerns about Internet freedom to the World Trade Organization.
It has been stirring to watch ever more Egyptians pour into Tahrir Square. And it's genuinely inspiring to think that the Internet helped a little, right up until Hosni Mubarak turned it off. The Internet is American in origin and spirit; it is one of the best expressions of what the nation's economy—and, yes, its government—can accomplish. But events in other countries, online or off, are largely beyond U.S. control. Evgeny Morozov, a Belarussian academic, had the bad timing to publish a book this month on the futility of Web-based protest. In The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, he lays out America's obsession with Radio Free Europe and samizdat—information that, we would like to believe, led to revolution. This dream, like 21st Century Statecraft, springs from the fond belief that Americans can be the authors of world history. As revolution spreads, it's worth remembering that even if we're reading about it on Facebook, we're still just reading.
Greeley is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek.