Sunday, October 30, 2011

In Defense of the Humanities - The Case of Steve Jobs: NYT piece by Walter Isaacson

October 29, 2011
The Genius of Jobs

ONE of the questions I wrestled with when writing about Steve Jobs was how smart he was. On the surface, this should not have been much of an issue. You’d assume the obvious answer was: he was really, really smart. Maybe even worth three or four reallys. After all, he was the most innovative and successful business leader of our era and embodied the Silicon Valley dream writ large: he created a start-up in his parents’ garage and built it into the world’s most valuable company.

But I remember having dinner with him a few months ago around his kitchen table, as he did almost every evening with his wife and kids. Someone brought up one of those brainteasers involving a monkey’s having to carry a load of bananas across a desert, with a set of restrictions about how far and how many he could carry at one time, and you were supposed to figure out how long it would take. Mr. Jobs tossed out a few intuitive guesses but showed no interest in grappling with the problem rigorously. I thought about how Bill Gates would have gone click-click-click and logically nailed the answer in 15 seconds, and also how Mr. Gates devoured science books as a vacation pleasure. But then something else occurred to me: Mr. Gates never made the iPod. Instead, he made the Zune.

So was Mr. Jobs smart? Not conventionally. Instead, he was a genius. That may seem like a silly word game, but in fact his success dramatizes an interesting distinction between intelligence and genius. His imaginative leaps were instinctive, unexpected, and at times magical. They were sparked by intuition, not analytic rigor. Trained in Zen Buddhism, Mr. Jobs came to value experiential wisdom over empirical analysis. He didn’t study data or crunch numbers but like a pathfinder, he could sniff the winds and sense what lay ahead.

He told me he began to appreciate the power of intuition, in contrast to what he called “Western rational thought,” when he wandered around India after dropping out of college. “The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do,” he said. “They use their intuition instead ... Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion. That’s had a big impact on my work.”

Mr. Jobs’s intuition was based not on conventional learning but on experiential wisdom. He also had a lot of imagination and knew how to apply it. As Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

Einstein is, of course, the true exemplar of genius. He had contemporaries who could probably match him in pure intellectual firepower when it came to mathematical and analytic processing. Henri PoincarĂ©, for example, first came up with some of the components of special relativity, and David Hilbert was able to grind out equations for general relativity around the same time Einstein did. But neither had the imaginative genius to make the full creative leap at the core of their theories, namely that there is no such thing as absolute time and that gravity is a warping of the fabric of space-time. (O.K., it’s not that simple, but that’s why he was Einstein and we’re not.)

Einstein had the elusive qualities of genius, which included that intuition and imagination that allowed him to think differently (or, as Mr. Jobs’s ads said, to Think Different.) Although he was not particularly religious, Einstein described this intuitive genius as the ability to read the mind of God. When assessing a theory, he would ask himself, Is this the way that God would design the universe? And he expressed his discomfort with quantum mechanics, which is based on the idea that probability plays a governing role in the universe by declaring that he could not believe God would play dice. (At one physics conference, Niels Bohr was prompted to urge Einstein to quit telling God what to do.)

Both Einstein and Mr. Jobs were very visual thinkers. The road to relativity began when the teenage Einstein kept trying to picture what it would be like to ride alongside a light beam. Mr. Jobs spent time almost every afternoon walking around the studio of his brilliant design chief Jony Ive and fingering foam models of the products they were developing.

Mr. Jobs’s genius wasn’t, as even his fanboys admit, in the same quantum orbit as Einstein’s. So it’s probably best to ratchet the rhetoric down a notch and call it ingenuity. Bill Gates is super-smart, but Steve Jobs was super-ingenious. The primary distinction, I think, is the ability to apply creativity and aesthetic sensibilities to a challenge.

In the world of invention and innovation, that means combining an appreciation of the humanities with an understanding of science — connecting artistry to technology, poetry to processors. This was Mr. Jobs’s specialty. “I always thought of myself as a humanities person as a kid, but I liked electronics,” he said. “Then I read something that one of my heroes, Edwin Land of Polaroid, said about the importance of people who could stand at the intersection of humanities and sciences, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”

The ability to merge creativity with technology depends on one’s ability to be emotionally attuned to others. Mr. Jobs could be petulant and unkind in dealing with other people, which caused some to think he lacked basic emotional awareness. In fact, it was the opposite. He could size people up, understand their inner thoughts, cajole them, intimidate them, target their deepest vulnerabilities, and delight them at will. He knew, intuitively, how to create products that pleased, interfaces that were friendly, and marketing messages that were enticing.

In the annals of ingenuity, new ideas are only part of the equation. Genius requires execution. When others produced boxy computers with intimidating interfaces that confronted users with unfriendly green prompts that said things like “C:\>,” Mr. Jobs saw there was a market for an interface like a sunny playroom. Hence, the Macintosh. Sure, Xerox came up with the graphical desktop metaphor, but the personal computer it built was a flop and it did not spark the home computer revolution. Between conception and creation, T. S. Eliot observed, there falls the shadow.

In some ways, Mr. Jobs’s ingenuity reminds me of that of Benjamin Franklin, one of my other biography subjects. Among the founders, Franklin was not the most profound thinker — that distinction goes to Jefferson or Madison or Hamilton. But he was ingenious.

This depended, in part, on his ability to intuit the relationships between different things. When he invented the battery, he experimented with it to produce sparks that he and his friends used to kill a turkey for their end of season feast. In his journal, he recorded all the similarities between such sparks and lightning during a thunderstorm, then declared “Let the experiment be made.” So he flew a kite in the rain, drew electricity from the heavens, and ended up inventing the lightning rod. Like Mr. Jobs, Franklin enjoyed the concept of applied creativity — taking clever ideas and smart designs and applying them to useful devices.

China and India are likely to produce many rigorous analytical thinkers and knowledgeable technologists. But smart and educated people don’t always spawn innovation. America’s advantage, if it continues to have one, will be that it can produce people who are also more creative and imaginative, those who know how to stand at the intersection of the humanities and the sciences. That is the formula for true innovation, as Steve Jobs’s career showed.

Walter Isaacson is the author of “Steve Jobs.”  [and the chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors]

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Public Diplomacy: Suggested US-Israel conference

As the growing tension between the U.S. and Israel never ceases to end, despite hopeful intervals on the healing of the relationship, may I suggest that a think-tank with a public-diplomacy focus organize a symposium on the slightly provocative (perhaps politically incorrect, but I hope that would create an "honest" intellectual  buzz) topic:

"What's Israel Done for (to?) the United States?"

(Of course, there could be also be a session on "What's the United States Done for (to?)  Israel.")

The discussion on  this topic would, assuredly, bring the attention of the media -- and, perhaps, the public -- in both countries, leading, let us hope, to a more honest, constructive relation between the two countries.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Beware of Mainland China's Fearsome Public Diplomacy

Chinese Communist Film Premiere at Lincoln Center a Big Flop - Jenny Yang, Epoch Times

The Chinese communist regime’s United Front soft-power propaganda war aimed at shaping world opinion through culture, film, and media, has just fired an embarrassing dud, with not a single audience member showing up at the 2011 China Movie Culture Week opening night at New York’s Lincoln Center.

The 2011 China Movie Culture Week, hosted by China’s Ministry of Culture, the State Administration of Radio Film and Television, and Columbia University, encountered an embarrassment--no one showed up at its Oct. 17 premiere of the movie “Founding of a Republic,” not even anyone from the hosting organizations.

The flop has become a joke on international Chinese media.

Taiwan’s Want Daily said, although the communist regime spent a large amount of money promoting the 2011 China Film Culture Week in New York, the first movie, “Founding of a Republic,” playing at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, had no audience showing up, so the opening banquet there was canceled and changed to the night of Oct. 18 at Columbia University Auditorium.

A China-U.S. Scholar Seminar on Oct. 18 was also canceled. The topic of the seminar was on the development of the Chinese film industry and its contribution to world film culture. This cancellation was not announced either.

State controlled media quoted reports from Guangming Daily, which didn’t mention the premiere flop at all. It only said the 2011 China Movie Culture Week started on Oct. 17, and that its aim was to let Americans enjoy a rich retreat of authentic Chinese culture through excellent movies made in China in recent years.

Patriotic Communist Propaganda

“Founding of a Republic” was financed by the Chinese communist party’s (CCP) largest state owned film company, China Film Corporation. The movie is a patriotic propaganda piece set in Beijing between 1945 and 1949, glorifying the communist takeover of China.

When the movie was released in mainland China in 2009, it received many negative comments from netizens there. They found it most ironic that the regime had utilized so many “foreigners,” overseas Chinese actors, in this patriotic film. Most celebrity figures of China’s entertainment industry have immigrated to foreign countries, such as the U.S., Canada, U.K., and Singapore.

One netizen said it was hilarious to have people who abandoned Chinese nationality educate Chinese people on patriotism.

Another said it demonstrated the “failure of 60 years of patriotism,” and was a “huge irony!”

Some went so far as saying the film “shames modern Chinese movies.”

Monday, October 17, 2011

President Obama on the Martin Luther King Statue

Further to my observations on the Martin Luther Memorial -- that it is a "socialist/Stalinist-realism statue, composed by an art-worker who did busts of Mao ZeDong" -- below the comments of the President on the MLK sculpture:

For Immediate Release October 16, 2011
The National Mall
Washington, D.C.

"This sculpture, massive and iconic as it is, will remind them [Obama's daughters] of Dr. King's strength, but to see him only as larger than life would do a disservice to what he taught us about ourselves. He would want them to know that he had setbacks, because they will have setbacks. He would want them to know that he had doubts, because they will have doubts. He would want them to know that he was flawed, because all of us have flaws.

It is precisely because Dr. King was a man of flesh and blood and not a figure of stone that he inspires us so."

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Saturday, October 15, 2011

Sports/Public Diplomacy: From a must-read book pertaining to the subject

From Peter Van Buren's book: "We Meant Well: How I helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People" (2011), pp. 156-157 (footnotes not cited in this entry):

At one point the official [US Badghad Embassy] Web site featured photos of young Iraqis receiving a donation of Major League Baseball equipment on the turf. The event was a special program the Ambassador was personally involved with, because he believed in “sports diplomacy.” Once he invited Iraq’s only baseball team to his residence for some drills. He wore a replica of a Japanese-born Major League star’s jersey, making the point that baseball, although invented in America, was an international sport (which is why the World The Embassy Lawn, Where the Grass Is Always Greener Series includes only American teams and potentially a Canadian one). “Baseball is like democracy,” he liked to say, “you cannot impose it. People should learn it and accept it." A previous sports diplomacy program donated hundreds of soccer balls to Iraq, each colorfully decorated with flags of the world. No one would play with the balls, because they included the flag of Saudi Arabia, which has a Koranic verse on it, and you cannot put your foot to a Koranic verse. Luckily, the balls were made in China, where they already knew not to include the Israeli flag, as it would have been awkward if we’d had to ask.

Public diplomacy/cultural diplomacy at Doura, Iraq

From (without the footnotes in the original text) a must-read, and perhaps of special interest to academic "theorists/think tankers" on "public diplomacy" who have never practiced this craft "in the field": Peter Van Huren, We Meant Well: How I helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People" (2011)

Doura had become one of the most violent neighborhoods in Baghdad, which made it a good location for a $22,000 art show courtesy of the US Army. The show in 2010 was the third such event the Army had paid for in as many years. Neither the art nor the neighborhood had improved. Doura, in southern Baghdad, once was a well-to-do, mainly Christian neighborhood and home to Baghdad’s art community. The area included a university and used to have many small bookshops and art galleries. It was no Left Bank, but as Iraq went it was pretty decent. Many of the artists had earned a living sculpting neofascist statues and painting cheesy murals for Saddam by day, while practicing their own, more edgy work at night. Baghdad’s minority Christian community felt comfortable living among this crowd and was accepted by the Muslim majority as neighbors.

Doura erupted in sectarian violence following the 2003 invasion’s near-total destruction of civil society. Shias, seeking the prime real estate in Doura, slaughtered the Sunni residents,and both sides attacked the Christians, killing many and driving the rest to seek refugee status in Syria and Jordan. The problems with Christianity post-2003 were not limited to Doura. Before the US invasion, Muslim farmers in other parts of Iraq had a relationship with their Christian neighbors. The Muslims did not eat pork. The Christians liked pork. The farmers allowed the Christians to hunt the wild pigs native to the area. The pigs, left otherwise unchecked, would destroy crops. With the Christian population dropping post-2003 the pig population grew uncontrolled.  “We don’t even want to plant anymore because the pigs just eat it all,” said a farmer. “The Christians would bring their guns and they would hunt these pigs,” he continued. “Those were nice times. They used to stay at my house and we were friends.” Since the rise of Islamic sentiment unleashed by the invasion, more than half of Iraq’s Christians had fled the country — ironic, in that they had been residing in Mesopotamia more than five hundred years before the Muslims arrived.

In the face of such upheaval, the secular Doura art community, faced with no more paid work from Saddam and sensing a bad time, went underground. Following the initial round of Shia-Sunni violence, the Sunnis regrouped to reclaim their turf, supported by al Qaeda, newly arrived in Iraq. The cycles of revenge were their own version of per for mance art, replacing Doura’s previous avant- garde shows. Despite the challenge of the violence, with its juicy propaganda theme of different religions once living side by side, Doura was a popular target for our hearts-and-minds campaigns. And while the few remaining artists may not have had much left to say about religious harmony,

they did still know how to throw a party. The Army poured money in to sponsor art shows. The shows produced good photos and happy news stories about the rebirth of Doura. Like the rest of this war, it was a great narrative, albeit untrue.

In 2007, the US military reported, “Only a few weeks ago al Qaeda had the Iraqi populace in Doura in the grip of terror but they’ve been pushed out and the people have returned to worship.” The rebirth turned out to be stillborn, as the violence never really went away. In 2008, you could have read about Doura’s next “rebirth” in the National Review, where the author oozed, “I realized I had never really been to this place — I just thought I had. This is the real Doura, a neighborhood and a people reborn — thanks to the bravery and sacrifice of the US Army.”Except darn, that rebirth did not take either. Only a little later, Doura became again “the most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian.” Undeterred, the Army decided to celebrate Doura’s rebirth once more in 2010. They gave the community $5,000 to open an art supply store, another $5,000 to buy supplies from that store to distribute to local artists, and then $12,000 to put on an exhibit to show off all that US-government-paid-for-art.

The Army chose a private house owned by the artist who had received the entirety of the money for the two previous art shows and who got the $12,000 for this one as well. The art
business must be good, at least for this painter, because his house was sprawling, two stories, with a swimming pool. For security, a company of US soldiers spent two days stationed there, sleeping by the pool. Outside the gates, hot and overgeared Iraqi Army soldiers ringed the house, supplemented by disheveled Iraqi police sprinkled with US soldiers who unluckily had not drawn pool duty. Each art show guest went through a metal detector and was hand-wanded for weapons. Helicopters flew overhead and armored vehicles blocked off lines of sight. After that, one was free to peruse the art.

We all wandered around inside, making happy purring noises. Two giant sculpted eagles, a throwback to the Saddam School, dominated the show. One was clad in fake gold, perched
upon a Babylonian-style tower. A feminist art corner featured a reclining woman with a rooster perched between her knees (a cock, get it?). There was a giant screaming face that suggested Ralph Steadman’s work in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. One small bronze featured a male figure impaled by a telephone pole, likely gay iconography. Two large paintings showed an African woman with a fruit basket balanced on her head, crying out for velvet. The Army was happy. The Stars and Stripes reporter gushed:
The room was boiling hot due to the sheer number of people present. A canvas of variety, it was filled with people from many walks of life—sheiks, Iraqi Security Force soldiers, local businessmen and businesswomen, US soldiers, American civilians, Iraqi children. Such different ways of life, yet everyone was smiling and talking with each other like friends. What brought them all together would have been unheard of a few years ago, but because of the progress and stability in the area, an art show was able to go off without a hitch. . . . “This certainly shows the great progress that has been made in Doura,” . . . said Brigadier General Kevin Mangum. . . . “This used to be a rough neighborhood, and the fact that we can do this here, it is definitely an indication that things are becoming more stable.”
That Doura was reborn (again) was dubious but the Army got some nice photos and the food was pretty good. The artist who received the $12,000 seemed happy. For a few hours, we all played along with the feel-good fiction as appreciative guests. The event, however, was nothing more and nothing less than smoke that blew away as quickly as we departed.

While I waited near the gate for the armored vehicle to take us back to the FOB [Forward Operating Base], one of the Iraqi police officers pointed to the blond American woman in our group and said something in Arabic. Curious, the translator and I went over to chat with the cop. He apologized for what turned out to be a crude remark after the translator falsely told him the blond woman was my wife. Apology accepted. The cop then asked what was going on inside. No one had told him it was an art show, only that he was to guard the gate and refuse entry to Iraqis not invited by the United States. He was very worried about car bombs. Happy birthday, Doura.

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Sunday, October 9, 2011

On George Kennan

On George Kennan

JB comments inspired by Stephen Galin, State vs. Defense: The Battle to Define America's Empire (2011), p. 36 (see below quotation from the book):

In the late 1970s, as a graduate student in Russian History at Princeton, I had the unique opportunity to work at the recently-established Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies, then located in the Smithsonian Castle on the Mall in Washington, an opportunity for which I am eternally grateful to two of my Princeton University mentors and distinguished scholars of Russia, James H. Billington and S. Frederick Starr. Thanks to them, I had, on a number of occasions, enough of a foot-in-the-door to observe/listen to George Kennan at a close distance, since my "secretarial" space at the Institute was next to Kennan's office at said Institute, named for "his cousin twice removed, diplomat and historian George F. Kennan." (Of course, few in Washington, D.C. knew anything about Kennan's cousin, but they did know about the George, the author of the "X" article, so the Institute, in "real life," was and is still a homage to him, George F. Kennan).

My three-year semi-formal job at the Kennan Institute, where I worked as a coordinator-researcher, in essence consisted in compiling, with Dr. Steven Grant (an intellectually admirable Harvard PhD and dear friend) the catalogue, "The Russian Empire and Soviet Union. A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States," which is now online, thanks to Steve's many efforts to make this possible.

But back to George F. Kennan, who, needless to say, is far more important than a catalogue. My best memory of this rather shy, pensive, and reticent man  -- who, despite his ill-fitting State-Department-looking three-piece suits, really looked like a tormented intellectual, the perfect character for a Russian novel about the intelligentsia -- was when he spoke, in his elegant Russian, to a group of Soviet visitors, who clearly were impressed by how he had mastered the language of Pushkin. I had the impression that the Soviets (most of them Russians, as far as I could tell) concluded, with evidently considerable regret and envy, that he expressed himself in their native language better than they did, uncluttered as his words were by "Sovietese." To them, I felt, he seemed a kind of civilized Russian nobleman/intelligent, a person from another, more cultivated era -- the  19th century novelist Turgenev maybe. And official Russian Soviets, for all their official genuflecting to "Kommunizm," had a sense that their "russkaya kul'tura" -- with which George Kennan was quite familiar  -- defined them much more than Leninism/Communism. Or so I would say.

Also, inadverdently  -- and I point this out as I do not want to leave this minor footnote to the historical record blank -- I overheard, through no, I assure you, no intention of my own, Ambassador Kennan on the telephone (as I said we had "adjoining offices," and he kept, in his All-American midwestern way [only part of his character] the door between them open) engaged in rather confidential conversations, not all of which were flattering to his genius. I did not close the door separating our two "spaces," as I probably discreetly should have, in hindsight.  But I thought, at the time, that such an intervention would suggest that I was listening to his telephone conversations -- which, in fact, I could not help but do, unwillingly, without leaving my assigned office space duties or wearing ear-plugs. Had I been deaf I would not have faced this dilemna.

It is no secret that Kennan admired the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, who, a midwesterner (like Kennan himself), also attended Princeton. "When I first read it, while still in college, I went away and wept unmanly tears," wrote Kennan regarding The Great Gatsby, sounding a bit like a Soviet dissident reading an American novel for the first time.

A bit of humor, by the way: The above-mentioned Soviet visitors, if my memory serves me right, also seemed to think the Smithsonian was established by, and named after, a prosperous, philanthropic Armenian, given the last three letters of its designation.

Here is the quote about George Kennan from the above-cited book:

"George Kennan -- diffident, thoughtful, soft-spoken -- was a human Rorschach test. ... [He] seemed to be of at least two minds about everything, and Washington elites often exploited his genius to give their divergent biases and presumptions respectability. He is popularly judged as the man  who counseled a hard, even militant against Soviet expansionism but then spent the rest of his career arguing that Russia was in fact non-hegemonic. He was adopted by hawks in the Truman administation but considered himself a sober-minded realist who counseled a static confrontation between capitalists and communists in their respective spheres of influence. He bitterly opposed American meddling in places such as Indochina and Latin America, which he considered distractions from the far more important job of balancing Western power and resources to that of its Eastern rival. According to Karl Marx, a communist victory was inevitable because capitalism would succumb to its own class divisions and corruption; early in his career, Kennan predicted, rightly, that just the opposite was true.

Kennan was a profoundly conflicted and solitary creature. Socially awkward and shy, he nonetheless craved affection and approval. That paradox -- being in the world but not of it  -- was a source of both personal melancholy and professional empowerment. As he was always the outsider, his views were uncluttered by emotional or ideological commitment. He basked in the fame of being containment's creation [containment of the USSR] but later, horrified at its abuse in the hands of Washington alarmists and demagogues, withdrew into the wilderness. A prolific reader -- not surprisingly, he was fascinated with the doomed and darkly enigmatic heroes of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novels -- and with a passion for history, Kennan was everywhere during the Cold War but left behing little trace of himself."

P.S. My comment to a facebook reader who was kind enough to comment on this blog entry:
He [Kennan], at heart, longed to be a novelist, but was perhaps too "intelligent" to fulfill this aspiration. He thought too much to be a writer -- although, granted, he is more of a stylist than a "logical" thinker.

Kennan image from

Thursday, October 6, 2011

US Public Diplomacy: No Longer Engaged?

As I've pointed out elsewhere, "engagement"/"engaging" is -- has been? -- a buzzword for the Obama administration's public diplomacy (See also Nick Cull's great piece on the subject.)

"Engaging," granted, was also used to define the PD function by the State Department under previous administrations, as its homepage pointed out in recent years; but "engaging," under Bush II, in real life played second fiddle to "influencing" first, and "informing" second, two of the three key words still used by the State Department to define PD ("engaging, informing, and influencing key international audiences").

But now lo and behold, another current State Department PD definition, also on its homepage, doesn't mention "engagement." Here it is, under the heading "Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs – U.S. Department of State":
The mission of American public diplomacy is to support the achievement of U.S. foreign policy goals and objectives, advance national interests, and enhance national security by informing and influencing foreign publics and by expanding and strengthening the relationship between the people and government of the United States and citizens of the rest of the world. The Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs leads America's public diplomacy outreach, which includes communications with international audiences, cultural programming, academic grants, educational exchanges, international visitor programs, and U.S. Government efforts to confront ideological support for terrorism. The Under Secretary oversees the bureaus of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Public Affairs and International Information Programs, and participates in foreign policy development. Ann Stock, Assistant Secretary of State (R), assumed the authorities of the Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs on July 8, 2011, following the departure of Under Secretary Judith McHale.
Perhaps this definition -- which may have been on the Department's homepage during the tenure of Ms. McHale and her predecessors; I am unable to check this, regrettably -- makes the notion of "engagement" understood without using the word directly by stating: "expanding and strengthening the relationship between the people and government of the United States and citizens of the rest of the world."

Or perhaps whoever wrote this homepage entry is not particularly concerned with language or words.

Or perhaps some editorial sweet soul, no matter of what sex and probably buried in one of the countless cubicles at the Department, deeply in love and looking forward to wedding bells, feels "engagement," in its most accurate meaning, should properly refer to what people engage in before they get married.

So, undaunted by fears of being discovered for being out-of-line, this lover of love decided furtively to keep the "E" word out Foggy Bottom realpolitik Gobbledygook -- seeing it as a deeply private commitment that has little to do with international "affairs."

Or perhaps -- most likely -- the above linguistic observations have no meaning/importance at all in our Kafkaesque world.

--Image from

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Let the fools have their Public Diplomacy tools

There is a recurrent word in the commentary regarding what American public diplomacy should do: using the right kinds of "tools." (See, as one of many examples, most recently here). Somehow the word "tool" reminds me of my male adolescence decades ago, when it was used to differentiate young boys from the other sex (watch out for your "tool," or so the coach said). Today, it -- the word "tool" as regards public diplomacy -- strikes me, while somewhat losing its sexual (sexist?) connotation, as mechanistic and anachronistic, the kind of instrument you use on a twentieth-century assembly line producing an object to be sold.

But American public diplomacy is far more than using a tool to "produce" something -- it is, at its best (which is not always the case), about building and nurturing human relationships for the good of our country, a task which is far more complicated than working

with a screwdriver.

Let the PD fools, eager to reduce PD to factory-style production, have their PD tools, but as for me, as a former "public diplomat," I would rather have lunch, in my patriotic sort of way, with an interesting person from another land who wants to share ideas about America and the world -- including, of course, his/her own birthplace. Such a civilized exchange, rather than a "tool," is what helps create, on granted all too rare occasions, mutual understanding on our small planet, supposedly the job of a "public diplomat" promoting US national interests.

Granted, again, the US taxpayer, in these hard economic times, wants to know what he/she gets out of a such "civilized exchange". ...

So -- OK, guys and gals -- to justify PD when ordinary Americans worry about getting a decently paying job, let's talk about improving PD's "tools" so it can get "real" and "serious" -- and, of course, "cost-effective," with those doing the "cost-effectiveness" evaluation getting a fat pay-check, all too often at taxpayers' expense.

But such narrow "tool/cost-effective" thinking is like saying we need "better" factories, rather than thinking beyond factories, the beyond where the future is.

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