Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Joy of Quiet

December 29, 2011
The Joy of Quiet, By Pico Iyer, New York Times

ABOUT a year ago, I flew to Singapore to join the writer Malcolm Gladwell, the fashion designer Marc Ecko and the graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister in addressing a group of advertising people on “Marketing to the Child of Tomorrow.” Soon after I arrived, the chief executive of the agency that had invited us took me aside. What he was most interested in, he began — I braced myself for mention of some next-generation stealth campaign — was stillness.

A few months later, I read an interview with the perennially cutting-edge designer Philippe Starck. What allowed him to remain so consistently ahead of the curve? “I never read any magazines or watch TV,” he said, perhaps a little hyperbolically. “Nor do I go to cocktail parties, dinners or anything like that.” He lived outside conventional ideas, he implied, because “I live alone mostly, in the middle of nowhere.”

Around the same time, I noticed that those who part with $2,285 a night to stay in a cliff-top room at the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur pay partly for the privilege of not having a TV in their rooms; the future of travel, I’m reliably told, lies in “black-hole resorts,” which charge high prices precisely because you can’t get online in their rooms.

Has it really come to this?

In barely one generation we’ve moved from exulting in the time-saving devices that have so expanded our lives to trying to get away from them — often in order to make more time. The more ways we have to connect, the more many of us seem desperate to unplug. Like teenagers, we appear to have gone from knowing nothing about the world to knowing too much all but overnight.

Internet rescue camps in South Korea and China try to save kids addicted to the screen.

Writer friends of mine pay good money to get the Freedom software that enables them to disable (for up to eight hours) the very Internet connections that seemed so emancipating not long ago. Even Intel (of all companies) experimented in 2007 with conferring four uninterrupted hours of quiet time every Tuesday morning on 300 engineers and managers. (The average office worker today, researchers have found, enjoys no more than three minutes at a time at his or her desk without interruption.) During this period the workers were not allowed to use the phone or send e-mail, but simply had the chance to clear their heads and to hear themselves think. A majority of Intel’s trial group recommended that the policy be extended to others.

THE average American spends at least eight and a half hours a day in front of a screen, Nicholas Carr notes in his eye-opening book “The Shallows,” in part because the number of hours American adults spent online doubled between 2005 and 2009 (and the number of hours spent in front of a TV screen, often simultaneously, is also steadily increasing).

The average American teenager sends or receives 75 text messages a day, though one girl in Sacramento managed to handle an average of 10,000 every 24 hours for a month. Since luxury, as any economist will tell you, is a function of scarcity, the children of tomorrow, I heard myself tell the marketers in Singapore, will crave nothing more than freedom, if only for a short while, from all the blinking machines, streaming videos and scrolling headlines that leave them feeling empty and too full all at once.

The urgency of slowing down — to find the time and space to think — is nothing new, of course, and wiser souls have always reminded us that the more attention we pay to the moment, the less time and energy we have to place it in some larger context. “Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries,” the French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in the 17th century, “and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.” He also famously remarked that all of man’s problems come from his inability to sit quietly in a room alone.

When telegraphs and trains brought in the idea that convenience was more important than content — and speedier means could make up for unimproved ends — Henry David Thoreau reminded us that “the man whose horse trots a mile in a minute does not carry the most important messages.” Even half a century ago, Marshall McLuhan, who came closer than most to seeing what was coming, warned, “When things come at you very fast, naturally you lose touch with yourself.” Thomas Merton struck a chord with millions, by not just noting that “Man was made for the highest activity, which is, in fact, his rest,” but by also acting on it, and stepping out of the rat race and into a Cistercian cloister.

Yet few of those voices can be heard these days, precisely because “breaking news” is coming through (perpetually) on CNN and Debbie is just posting images of her summer vacation and the phone is ringing. We barely have enough time to see how little time we have (most Web pages, researchers find, are visited for 10 seconds or less). And the more that floods in on us (the Kardashians, Obamacare, “Dancing with the Stars”), the less of ourselves we have to give to every snippet. All we notice is that the distinctions that used to guide and steady us — between Sunday and Monday, public and private, here and there — are gone.

We have more and more ways to communicate, as Thoreau noted, but less and less to say. Partly because we’re so busy communicating. And — as he might also have said — we’re rushing to meet so many deadlines that we hardly register that what we need most are lifelines.

So what to do? The central paradox of the machines that have made our lives so much brighter, quicker, longer and healthier is that they cannot teach us how to make the best use of them; the information revolution came without an instruction manual. All the data in the world cannot teach us how to sift through data; images don’t show us how to process images. The only way to do justice to our onscreen lives is by summoning exactly the emotional and moral clarity that can’t be found on any screen.

MAYBE that’s why more and more people I know, even if they have no religious commitment, seem to be turning to yoga, or meditation, or tai chi; these aren’t New Age fads so much as ways to connect with what could be called the wisdom of old age. Two journalist friends of mine observe an “Internet sabbath” every week, turning off their online connections from Friday night to Monday morning, so as to try to revive those ancient customs known as family meals and conversation. Finding myself at breakfast with a group of lawyers in Oxford four months ago, I noticed that all their talk was of sailing — or riding or bridge: anything that would allow them to get out of radio contact for a few hours.

Other friends try to go on long walks every Sunday, or to “forget” their cellphones at home. A series of tests in recent years has shown, Mr. Carr points out, that after spending time in quiet rural settings, subjects “exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory and generally improved cognition. Their brains become both calmer and sharper.” More than that, empathy, as well as deep thought, depends (as neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio have found) on neural processes that are “inherently slow.” The very ones our high-speed lives have little time for.

In my own case, I turn to eccentric and often extreme measures to try to keep my sanity and ensure that I have time to do nothing at all (which is the only time when I can see what I should be doing the rest of the time). I’ve yet to use a cellphone and I’ve never Tweeted or entered Facebook. I try not to go online till my day’s writing is finished, and I moved from Manhattan to rural Japan in part so I could more easily survive for long stretches entirely on foot, and every trip to the movies would be an event.

None of this is a matter of principle or asceticism; it’s just pure selfishness. Nothing makes me feel better — calmer, clearer and happier — than being in one place, absorbed in a book, a conversation, a piece of music. It’s actually something deeper than mere happiness: it’s joy, which the monk David Steindl-Rast describes as “that kind of happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens.”

It’s vital, of course, to stay in touch with the world, and to know what’s going on; I took pains this past year to make separate trips to Jerusalem and Hyderabad and Oman and St. Petersburg, to rural Arkansas and Thailand and the stricken nuclear plant in Fukushima and Dubai. But it’s only by having some distance from the world that you can see it whole, and understand what you should be doing with it.

For more than 20 years, therefore, I’ve been going several times a year — often for no longer than three days — to a Benedictine hermitage, 40 minutes down the road, as it happens, from the Post Ranch Inn. I don’t attend services when I’m there, and I’ve never meditated, there or anywhere; I just take walks and read and lose myself in the stillness, recalling that it’s only by stepping briefly away from my wife and bosses and friends that I’ll have anything useful to bring to them. The last time I was in the hermitage, three months ago, I happened to pass, on the monastery road, a youngish-looking man with a 3-year-old around his shoulders.

“You’re Pico, aren’t you?” the man said, and introduced himself as Larry; we’d met, I gathered, 19 years before, when he’d been living in the cloister as an assistant to one of the monks.

“What are you doing now?” I asked.

“I work for MTV. Down in L.A.”

We smiled. No words were necessary.

“I try to bring my kids here as often as I can,” he went on, as he looked out at the great blue expanse of the Pacific on one side of us, the high, brown hills of the Central Coast on the other. “My oldest son” — he pointed at a 7-year-old running along the deserted, radiant mountain road in front of his mother — “this is his third time.”

The child of tomorrow, I realized, may actually be ahead of us, in terms of sensing not what’s new, but what’s essential.

The author, most recently, of “The Man Within My Head.”

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Important article on the new social media and the Arab Spring

This Spring Breeze Did Not Arise in the West
Emad Mekay*

(JB Note: The below important article on the Arab Spring rings true to me; I am not a Middle East expert, but I recall that during my three-year diplomatic posting in Belgrade in the mid-90s, when anti-Milosevic demonstrations broke out, foreign journalists (and particularly American ones) tended to attribute these "we-can't-take-it anymore'' manifestations to the then-new communicative powers of the internet, specifically e-mail. Indeed, western media reporters chararacterized these expressions of popular dissatisfaction with the "Slobo" regime as the first "internet revolution." But anyone who stayed in Belgrade for more than a few days realized -- as many press luminaries parachuted there to "cover" the ground-breaking events there did not -- that Serbs took to the streets for far more basic reasons than having shared e-mails. Sure, young computer-savvy Serbs used the Internet to throw "electronic eggs" at the authorities, and the dissident radio station B-92 turned to the internet as a broadcasting tool when it was banned from the airwaves. But use of new media was only the tip of an iceberg of deep dissent: Serbs in the capital were angry with social, economic, political conditions that few foreign journalists,  understood, including Serb antI-Americanism. And, as anyone who actually witnessed the demos could tell, the most meaningful communication among protesters took place not in the virtual world, but in the streets of Belgrade, in face-to-face discussions, at meetings and rallies. It was, above all, a human, rather than electronic, rebellion, at a time when, granted, the distiction between "human" and "electronic" was sharper than it is today.

PALO ALTO, California, U.S., Dec 23 (IPS) - So here I am, an Arab journalist in Silicon Valley, where four out of every four people I meet believe Facebook invented the Arab Spring. Three more weeks here and I may start to hallucinate that Mark Zuckerberg was a Cairo-slums native named Hassouna El-Fatatri, who rotted in a Mubarak prison for advocating personal privacy rights.

I understand that some Western institutions that feign Middle East expertise were brutally debunked when they miserably failed to predict the wave of changes in the region from early December of last year. Western intelligence, think-tanks, diplomats, TV pundits and certainly some journalists were at a loss for words.

To compensate for that, some Western connection had to be conjured up. The inaccurate role of different Western establishments in the Arab Spring, this time social media, was conjured up.

The smart marketing gimmick was so powerful that some 10 months later, Western circles now give little or no credit to the indigenous Arab social change mechanisms that have so far kept Arab revolutions raging for a year now.

The tools Arabs used were not mainly Google, Facebook or Twitter. They were simply their own I-Revolt apps.

One of the most potent native tools in organising mass protests in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Yemen and, occasionally, in other Arab countries was not Facebook or Twitter but "Friday-book dot come rally now".

If that doesn't ring a bell, just Google "Friday of Rage," "Friday of Liberation" or the "Friday of Departure" among many other Fridays.

Friday noon prayers where hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of people customarily gather every week, have been the most shared feature of the Arab Spring uprisings. The weekly congregations were in fact the main hub for bringing protesters out to the streets – not because of their spiritual value but because of their ability to gather people with no or little extra effort.

Facebook, Gmail, Twitter and the internet in general may have helped with some of the initial rallying calls in the 85 million people nation of Egypt for the Jan. 25 protest. But it was Friday Jan. 28 that saw the birth of the real revolution in Egypt and the subsequent domino effect in other countries.

Fridays were not a reason. They were just an I-revolt app – a good handy one.

A second ergonomic, user-friendly Arab-gadget was the good old A-4 white-paper flyer, handwritten or on rare occasions typed, designating places to assemble and protest. That one was a favourite for leaders of the labour movement in Mahala Al-Kobra, home of Egypt's important textiles industry, and for disgruntled maritime workers in the Suez Canal.

Threats of labour strikes were instrumental in bringing the military – which was fearful of a complete national shutdown - to eventually side with the people in Egypt.

Another tool I saw used to keep the fervour going was the simple word of mouth over landline telephones from mostly panicky family members reporting to their loved ones how unfit Mubarak's brutal ways had become.

You add to that mix the role played by the 24-hour pan-Arab TV news, especially from the Mubarak-bashing Aljazeera, BBC Arabic, Al-arabiya and even the U.S.-funded Al-Hurra, in spreading the word and you'll get a realistic sense of what a limited role social media outlets had on the ground.

In fact, the entire internet was made useless when Mubarak cracked down and cut off all communications - without that denting people's ability to plan and organise one bit.

The Facebook claims also do not explain why, for example, there is no sign of revolt or even political activism in the United Arab Emirates, which, according to the Dubai School of Government, in December 2010 had the highest Facebook penetration rate in the Arab region, with more than 45 percent of the population having Facebook accounts. On the eve of the revolution, Egypt had a rate of only five percent.

Now, in Syria and Yemen – which have much lower Internet penetration and exposure to Western influence - protests are raging like wildfire. And it is not Facebook that's gathering them. It's the local naturally automated software such as Friday congregations, word-of-mouth, flyers, telephone landlines, family relations and TV.

The videos on YouTube and the many pictures posted on other networking sites were, and still are, important indeed, but only for documenting what was happening and letting the outside world get the word. And did that help during the early days of the Arab Spring? Well, no.

Western capitals had originally slumbered through the Tunisian revolution until ousted president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali was almost at the door. And when Western powers finally noticed, in a way thanks to social media, their initial knee-jerk reaction was to try to keep Stooge 0.1 Ben Ali and Stooge 0.2 Mubarak from crashing.

So for now, to get accurate analysis and, subsequently helpful policy recommendations towards the Arab Spring, Western institutions need to take a deep breath, read about courage in admitting failures, stop trying to take credit for something they didn't do, and look hard and deep into what really happened in the Arab region.

Maybe for a change they will be able to see things in the Middle East for what they really were. In that case, it was for sure their Friday-book, not Facebook.

*Emad Mekay is a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. He worked for The New York Times, Bloomberg News and Inter Press Service in the Middle East. He is the founder of America In Arabic News Agency. He covered most of the initial protests of the Arab Spring for The International Herald Tribune and for Inter Press Service.


Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Carlos A. Garcia-Perez response to John Layfield,, re Office of Cuba Broadcasting; pertains to Public Diplomacy

Below item kindly provided by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, in response to Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review citation of Mr. Layfield's commentary

December 20, 2011
Mr. John Layfield
c/o Caley Cronin
Media Relations
Fox Business News

Dear Mr. Layfield:

Next time you’re fishing for bonefish in the Florida Keys, please be assured that any transmission balloon you see is not broadcasting programming of the Martis. U.S. sponsored broadcasting to Cuba through Radio and TV Marti stopped transmitting via aerostat in 2005.

The current budget for the Office of Cuba Broadcasting is about $28 million -- less than half the $60 million figure you cited. And we do not treat Cuba “differently than every regime in the world.” US international broadcasting – now in 58 languages, reaching 187 million people weekly around the globe -- focuses much of its attention on exactly that – “regimes” that deny their populations basic human rights including the free flow of information and participation in the political process. Cuba is among the most repressive of these regimes, and its people deserve the efforts OCB makes to provide them the accurate information they need to inform their daily lives about their country, their leadership, and events around the world.

Just as communications efforts to the Soviet bloc were jammed during the Cold War, many regimes continue to attempt to block information flows through radio, television, the Internet, and mobile devices. During the Cold War, information from VOA and RFE/RL leaked through the Iron Curtain. Today, information from OCB finds its way to audiences by radio, satellite, email, and the Internet. None of these delivery systems is perfect. The Cuban Government seeks to block each of them. But our information reaches the island, supports the work of Cuban bloggers and dissidents, and is shared via DVDs, thumb drives, and other devices. How do we know this? First and foremost because the Cuban people are telling us so, in a steady stream of phone calls and emails from the island. It is true that the repressive environment in Cuba is not conducive to market surveys performed by the USG. Cubans are unlikely to answer a cold phone call and admit that they listen to the Martis, banned by the Cuban government. And among the 17% of Cubans who are lucky enough to own phones, many are government officials more likely to support government censorship efforts. Qualitative research consistently suggests widespread fear of acknowledging use of foreign media or of illegal reception methods. Without having the ability to do on-the-ground surveys, BBG has few options to produce a credible survey that would reflect Cuban listenership.

Still, we are not operating in an information vacuum. BBG’s Office of Research continues to study and test alternative approaches to measuring reach in telephone surveys, with pilot questions on other surveys and in qualitative research with Cubans recently arrived in the U.S.

BBG has conducted several waves of surveys of Cubans recently-arrived to South Florida, along with expanded qualitative studies (focus groups, monitoring panels) to explore their experiences in using foreign media, and specifically Radio and TV Martí, as well as their views of the Martís’ unique value and programming. While these studies cannot be used to estimate behaviors among mass publics in Cuba, they do indicate use of Radio and TV Martí at levels higher than appeared in the 2008 phone survey.

Eager to have news and information that they can’t get from local media sources, audiences are willing to listen through the jamming and brave the danger of listening to stations that are illegal in Cuba. Their efforts are something akin to climbing Mt. Everest. We understand and value their compulsion to climb.


Carlos A. Garcia-Perez
Office of Cuba Broadcasting
Radio/TV Marti
Telephone: 305-427-7026

Monday, December 26, 2011

One nation, under Gods

One nation, under Gods: Far from turning our backs on religion, today's Americans are religiously fluid. And that's a good thing - Eric Weiner,, December 25, 2011

Nearly half a century ago Time magazine famously asked: Is God Dead? The verdict is in. God is definitely not dead — the United States remains a highly religious nation — but God has diversified, and in ways the cheeky headline writers of 1966 couldn't have imagined. We're a spiritually promiscuous nation, increasingly so, and while this is, on balance, a good thing, it also poses certain dangers. It's one thing to explore different faiths, and something else entirely to hop aimlessly from one to another, bolting for the door when the going gets tough. (And it always gets tough.)

It's commonly believed that this spiritual restlessness is a relatively recent phenomenon, born of the cultural tumult of the 1960s, but it's a lot older than that. The 19th century transcendentalists — Emerson, Thoreau and others — borrowed heavily from Eastern thought, and we've been borrowing, and God-hopping, ever since. Today, at least a third of us will change our religious affiliation over the course of our lifetimes, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Never before have so many people been free to choose their religion, and at so little risk. "Heresy" is based on the Greek root meaning "to choose for one's self." We are all heretics now.

It's easy to dismiss all this God-hopping as the spiritual equivalent of consumerism run amok — a sort of Black Friday of the soul. That may be true in some cases, but overall I think it is a healthy phenomenon. No longer are we shackled to the religion of our birth or our community. We are free to choose, and remarkably we tend not to choose the easiest path. The most popular religions are not faddish cults that preach an anything-goes hedonism but, rather, those that make great demands on their followers. Calvinism, for instance, is enjoying a resurgence. Buddhism is also hugely popular, and it can hardly be described as easy, as anyone who has tried to still their mind for five minutes can attest. When much is asked, much is given.

Another result of this "theodiversity" is that while we may live in political silos — apart and rarely mixing — we do not live in religious ones. Few Americans have religiously homogenous families, friends and neighbors, according to David Campbell of Notre Dame University. "If you add to your friends someone of another faith, you become warmer toward that faith," he says, and, crucially, warmer to people of all faiths. Tolerance breeds tolerance.

We also cross religious lines much more easily than political ones. More than a third of Americans in the Pew survey say they attend religious services at more than one place, and sometimes at a different faith from their own.

Not only are we a religiously fluid nation, we're also a porous one. Beliefs, for instance, once considered exclusive to the New Age movement have seeped into the mainstream. Twenty percent of Christians, and slightly more of the public overall, say they believe in reincarnation, according to Pew. An equal percentage believe in astrology and in yoga — not only as exercise but as a spiritual practice.

The point is not that we've all gone Shirley MacLaine but, rather, that religions are constantly borrowing from one another, whether they acknowledge it or not. There is no such thing as a "pure" religion. All faiths are hybrids, to one degree or another, and we are better off for it. We recognize familiar themes in religions otherwise alien to us and are more likely to be accepting of the "other."

Amid this landscape, many people are looking for a faith that fits, though not always finding it. The fastest-growing religious group is the "nones," those who refuse to claim any affiliation. The "nones," are not, for the most part, atheists. They are the religious equivalent of political undecideds. They have yet to hear a compelling argument for one faith or another but would love nothing more than to be swept off their feet.

For St. Augustine, it was the words of a child — "pick it up and read it" — that transformed his life from one of degradation to piety and bliss. Leo Tolstoy and John Bunyan are other examples of the sudden conversion, prompted by a personal crisis.

The more common type of conversion — and the one more likely to stick — is the gradual variety. In Katmandu, I met one such convert, James Hopkins. Born into a traditional Presbyterian family, he never felt like he fit in. His religion didn't speak to him. In Augustinian fashion, he stumbled across a book about Buddhism, but it took years of study — and questioning — before he converted. Buddhism, he told me, has made him a better person. He's less angry, more compassionate. Consciously or not, he adheres to Pragmatism, a philosophy that skirts sticky ontological questions and concludes simply that, as William James put it, "Truth is what works."

With so many choices out there, though, it's easy to get "lost in the jungle of possibilities," as one Hindu holy man put it. And choosing a religion, of course, is not the same as choosing a new car or a calling plan. The stakes are higher. And so is the cost. Seekers must be willing to sacrifice. Otherwise, their seeking is reduced to just another form of narcissism. The worst kind, perhaps, because it is disguised as something noble.

Carl Jung, something of a God-hopper himself, saw the risks inherent in this excess of spiritual possibilities. "Modern man tries on a variety of religions and beliefs as if they were Sunday attire, only to lay them aside again like worn-out clothes." Or, to put it another way: We have commitment issues. When one path proves incompatible, we switch to another (and there is always another).

God-hoppers are, at their worst, spiritual dilettantes. At their best, they are experimenters, in the tradition of Gandhi. He took an almost scientific approach to his spiritual experimentation, carefully noting the effects of a certain practice, such as fasting or meditation, then making adjustments, then repeating. Gandhi also borrowed liberally from Christian theology, unapologetically plucking grains of wisdom wherever he found them.

In that sense, he was very American.

Eric Weiner is the author, most recently, of "Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine."

Copyright © 2011, Los Angeles Times

Sunday, December 25, 2011

American Nietzsche

Stranger in a Strange Land

By THOMAS MEANEY, Wall Street Journal [Review of American Nietzsche
By Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen Chicago, 452 pages, $30]

As a teenager, Friedrich Nietzsche was fascinated by America. "The American way of laughing does me good," he wrote after reading "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," "especially this sort of sturdy seaman like Mark Twain." In the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson he discovered a "brother-soul" who kindled his lifelong passion for truth-seeking. Despite making his name as the greatest anti-democratic thinker of his age, Nietzsche believed that America was a land of free spirits, unburdened by the weight of the European past.

American readers, for their part, have repaid Nietzsche's attentions. More than any other European thinker, he is alive in our cultural bloodstream. But in a country that, from the start, elevated the values of efficiency and equality over the virtues of aristocratic excellence, Nietzsche's message was bound to mutate. We have blunted his challenge to "create yourself" into a commercial catchphrase; we prefer to "like" our fellow citizens rather than to love or hate them; we don't hesitate to declare any child who dabbles in crayons an "artist." As a culture, we have given Nietzsche a happy ending.

What does our use and abuse of Nietzsche's thinking say about us? This is the interesting question that Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen sets out to answer in "American Nietzsche," her elegant and revealing account of America's reckoning with the German thinker. She samples the gamut of responses to Nietzsche in an effort to explain how nearly every segment of American culture "discovered in Nietzsche a thinker to think with."

For American thinkers wrestling with the anxieties unleashed by living in a pluralist democracy, Nietzsche not only diagnosed the mentality more acutely than anyone else but for his careful readers—those with "a third ear"—also promised forms of higher fulfillment.

For Nietzsche, as for Emerson, the source of this fulfillment was to be found in a radically new conception of the individual. The self was not a stable entity for Nietzsche, nor was there any "true self" to be discovered. Rather the self is something that we are constantly becoming. "We shed our old bark, we shed our skins every spring," Nietzsche writes, "we keep becoming younger, fuller of future, taller, stronger." We construct ourselves by assembling our experiences, desires and actions in the way a novelist gives coherence to the incidental plot points of a novel. "Make your own Bible!" declares Emerson. For both Nietzsche and Emerson the point was to generate meaning through a continuous act of self-creation.

Nietzsche's first American popularizer was the journalist H.L. Mencken, who was drawn to Nietzsche's European exoticism. Nevertheless, Mencken understood clearly enough that the self-created individuals that Nietzsche described could never arise easily in a democracy, where the self-creation of one citizen inevitably treads on the self-creation of another. In his 1908 book, "The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche," Mencken excoriated the way that American mass society trampled on the possibility of unadjusted heroes. "It is only the under-dog . . . that believes in equality," he seethed, "it is only the mob that seeks to reduce all humanity to one dead level, for it is only the mob that would gain by such leveling."

Mencken reviled American culture for not producing more genuine artists to match their European counterparts. "The culture of the Renaissance raised itself on the shoulders of a group of a hundred men," Nietzsche wrote, and it was such a cultural avant-garde that Mencken aimed to cultivate.

Mencken's columns put Nietzsche's name on the American cultural map, and the philosopher's ideas provoked murmurs of enthusiasm among a coterie of readers. But Nietzsche's reputation never got off the ground with the general public in the early decades of the 20th century. The first reason was the sensational trial, in 1924, of Leopold and Loeb, who kidnapped and murdered a 14-year-old boy, apparently under the influence of Nietzsche (or so claimed Clarence Darrow, Loeb's defense attorney). The second, more significant, reason was the rise of fascism in Europe.

It was one thing for American intellectuals and academics to invoke Nietzsche in their criticism of liberal democracy when its values seemed to be secure, but it was a considerably less welcome exercise in the 1930s, when those values were on the defensive. In the lead up to the war with Germany, Nietzsche's philosophy became hopelessly conflated with Nazism, though this association was the result of superficial reading. (Anti-Semitism, for instance, was one of Nietzsche's favorite examples of German stupidity.)

It was left to the German émigré and Princeton professor Walter Kaufmann to rehabilitate Nietzsche's reputation after World War II. In the best chapter of her book, Ms. Ratner-Rosenhagen explains how the Nietzsche we encounter in print today is largely Kaufmann's Nietzsche—mediated by his translations, collations and introductions. Kaufmann became not only Nietzsche's tireless promoter but also, to a degree, the sanitizer of his thought.

By arguing for Nietzsche's place in the Western canon alongside Kant and Hegel, Kaufmann made his subject respectable enough for the college classroom. He was also responsible for recasting Nietzsche as the forerunner of the various strains of existentialism that came into vogue in the 1960s. Nietzsche was suddenly a cultural touchstone with disciples ranging from Hugh Hefner to the Black Panther Huey Newton (the latter apparently misunderstood what Nietzsche meant by "slave morality" and thought it might be a good thing).

If there is a problem with "American Nietzsche," it is that Ms. Ratner-Rosenhagen is not quite up-front about the story she is telling. She claims at the outset that her study "is not even a book about Nietzsche"—and that, in the spirit of her subject, she will be merely presenting us with a series of interpretations in order to understand Nietzsche's "role in the ever-dynamic remaking of modern thought." But the last chapter of her book shows her to be partial to a very particular way of reading her subject. The chapter is devoted to three American Nietzscheans—Harold Bloom, Stanley Cavell and Richard Rorty—who all rediscovered American transcendentalism through Nietzsche and whose inclusion at the end of the book makes Nietzsche's thought seem like a long detour on the way back home to Emerson.

But Messrs. Cavell and Rorty have domesticated Nietzsche in peculiar ways, often sidestepping the main difficulties he presents. For Rorty, for instance, the challenge Nietzsche posed for a democratic culture could be solved by simply signing on to everything he says about the self but quarantining the rest of his unpalatable anti-democratic pronouncements. Nietzsche's two great contributions to American culture, according to Rorty, were that he provided us with an example of how we can all make an art of our private lives and that he showed us that the truth, far from having any absolute value, is simply whatever we find useful. When it comes to our democratic foundations, Rorty advises that we cheerfully embrace our lucky political inheritance, which we only risk squandering by interrogating too closely.

It would be nice if it were all that easy. But one of Nietzsche's major claims was, after all, that some of us will always rebel against the leveling effect of liberal democracy, while others—most of us—will join the herd. Likewise, Nietzsche thought that the truth was rarely ever useful. He thought errors, disasters and profound misunderstandings were much more precious.

Still, there is something to be said for the happy ending America has given Nietzsche. A country that can translate the striving of the Nietzschean superman into a guide for democracy's self-creating everyman may have discovered a rare kind of philosophical agility. The shift may not be quite fair to Nietzsche, but then he was always thrilled by America's powerful misreading of the European past.

—Mr. Meaney is a doctoral student in history at Columbia and a co-editor of the Utopian.
Copyright 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Friday, December 16, 2011

Public Diplomacy and Advocacy: Dr. Elliott and His Blog

Dr. Kim Andrew Elliott, in his splendid and must-read blog, fails to mention (so far as I can tell) items posted about the Broadcasting Board of Governors by BBG Watch, critical reports about USG International Broadcasting which I, personally, sometimes disagree with, despite their passionate and humane analyses. But such critical  comments must be heard for the good of the Republic.

I hope that, even if such no-news-exclusion is in fact not the case in his exceptional blog, the admirable Dr. Elliott, who prizes journalistic objectivity and a firewall between "news" and "advocacy" (advocacy -- public diplomacy as he sees it), it (his  blog) will continue to be true to his intelligence rather than to his getting a USG check to post (or more accurately said, not post) pertinent matters as regards US International Broadcasting.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

An Exchange on "Listening" in Public Diplomacy

An email exchange (posted here with the kind permission of Professor Albro*) regarding the Professor's article, Dilemmas of a Dyslexic Public Diplomacy:

Hi Rob [Professor Albro], Thank you for your important piece. Will cite with pleasure in today's Public Diplomacy Review. Meanwhile, you might find this minor observation on my "Notes and Essays" blog pertaining to your scholarly article amusing; my parti pris, I assure you, in no way denigrates the importance of listening in public diplomacy, but suggests that US public diplomats "in the field" are not the only ones guilty of the sin of paying no attention to what others are saying -- indeed, these diplomats' audiences/interlocutors can at times be blamed for this transgression as well.

I base the above unscientific generalization on my twenty-year US diplomatic experience (mostly in Eastern/Central Europe/the Balkans, 1981-2002), where programs/events organized (e.g., by the US Embassy) to create a truthful dialogue (I include one-on-one meetings such as a luncheon) are sometimes seen by local audiences/luminaries as an opportunity to engage (on their part) in an endless monologue.

Indeed, at the risk of exaggerating and being overly ironic, I would suggest that, in some foreign countries, it's really not expected, on occasions supposedly organized to be exchanges of ideas and opinions, for a US diplomat to utter a word in the local language or in English. Her local interlocutors, essentially, don't really want her to open her mouth at all (except, at restaurants, constantly to swallow food, a sure way to keep "the US official" quiet), but rather for her to attentively be awed by what they -- the host country pundits -- have to pontificate about.

I'm somewhat ashamed to admit this, but I found such conversational passivity expected of a diplomat from some important Embassy contacts professionally less challenging than trying, tactfully and forcefully, to make a point, especially a positive one, about the United States. Saying nothing and just listening (or, quite honestly, in all-too-many cases, just pretending to listen, especially when your interlocutor goes on and on and on, incessantly), is a safe, carefree way to carry out public diplomacy (no one can quote you in the press; and how can you offend anyone when you say nothing?).

As a professional diplomat ("no comment'), silence (sorry, I meant "listening") you know won't get into trouble with bureaucracies in Washington or the host country, even (especially?) in today's interconnected social-media world, by putatively "listening" --  i.e. "saying nothing."

More seriously, though, it seems to me artificial to create a dichtomony between listening and speaking. You don't really listen if you don't speak, and you don't really speak if you don't listen.

And, most important, the best part of any Foreign Service career (I would say) is sharing ideas, in intelligent give-and-take conversations, with distinguished persons (who cares about their social/economic/academic status) overseas, particularly young and upcoming ones, at a not-too-solemn social occasion that leads to further discussion -- and not just online. But such opportunities are certainly not automatic, especially when dealing with officials.

In the case of listening, nobody's perfect -- Americans or the rest of the world.

Best, John

P.S. Again, based on my overseas experience, a rather rare -- and laudatory -- American phenomenon, certainly not a univeral one, is that in the U.S. speakers/teachers will often ask their audience/students, "Do you have any questions?" thereby suggesting they are eager to "listen" to what those supposedly listening to them have to say. Overseas, and I would include Great Britain in this category based on my service in London (granted, in the early 80s of the oh-so-distant past century); the notion of a speaker, in the sea-walled island, asking for the opinions of his listeners is not always the rule.

Date: Thu, 15 Dec 2011 11:23:02 -0600
Subject: Re: RE: Cultural Diplomacy and Listening

Hi John -- Many thanks for this! I very much appreciate your notes from the field about listening -- especially their wry delivery -- and I feel your pain! As an anthropologist who spends time doing ethnographic fieldwork -- long days spent listening to others digress -- and trying to facilitate often challenging conversations among policy stakeholders with often sharply diverging perspectives, I can only sympathize.

It's true: listening is not in itself going to get anything done. And others are just as capable of monologue -- strategically so. It's fair to say, with my take on listening, this is as much a kind of cultural critique of ourselves as a direct plea, if you will. So, programmatically we could do more to listen. But, I'm really talking about "listening" as an opportunity to more firmly situate the practice of diplomacy -- as a dialogue with others -- within its negotiated (in the spirit of dialogue) social, political, cultural/interpretive -- and linguistic -- contexts of meaning not only for "us" but also for "them."

I very much appreciate your take on this.



Robert Albro
International Communication
School of International Service
American University

Image from


*The below is an edited, expanded version of the 12/15/11 email from JB to Professor Albro regarding his article; the professor did not see this expanded version in its final form, but ok'd its being posted without his reviewing it.]

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Among the great American contributions to civilization

As I realize, now in my near-middle 60s, that I am no longer going through puberty (thank God America still is), I have aspirations to write a "definitive" history of dentistry, with a focus on the USA. Compare teeth-hygiene in our "homeland" with that of other countries (including the notoriously-bad-teeth UK, from whom we thankfully separated in 1776)

and you see a wonderfully concrete sign of human progress. Dental floss: Among the great American contribution to civilization. God Bless America. Image from

Betting 10 thousand bucks -- A footnote to the Romney comment during the latest Republican presidential debate.

Re: Mitt Romney challenges Rick Perry to $10,000 bet in GOP debate, the below footnote could be of interest:

The Old Mormon Birthplace of Las Vegas, Nevada

(Photo of the Old Mormon Fort, Las Vegas, Nevada are courtesy of Linda Miller)

The company paraded at the dawn of day and fired a salute very spiritedly; also at sun-up and again when the liberty pole was erected and the flag floated majestically to the breeze, another salute was fired the company having previously assembled, kneeling down and offering up their devotions to God. Afterwards there were many spirited speeches, songs, and toasts from many of the brethren. Then all were dismissed by prayer and went to perform our several camps duties.¹

John Steele, one of the first of the Mormon Missionaries to arrive at what became the "Las Vegas Mission," wrote the above in his journal to recount the activities of the first Independence Day celebrations in 1855. The group arrived from Salt Lake less than three weeks before on June 14, after being called by President Brigham Young to establish this mission to convert the nomadic Southern Paiute Indians to Mormonism and teach them new farming techniques. On the Old Spanish Trail between New Mexico and California, the Las Vegas Valley was an oasis in the desert. The Mormons wanted to establish a halfway station in the valley for travelers between Salt Lake City and the

Pacific Coast. The area was particularly coveted for Mormon territorial expansion because it was located halfway between the Mormon settlements of Southern Utah and the San Bernardino Mission established in 1851 in Southern California.

After the mission closed, the Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort served as a ranch, resort, and cement testing facility. Today, a small portion of the original fort wall, part of the bastion, the underground foundation of the ranch, and remnants of the testing lab, remain to tell the story of the origins of Las Vegas.

On June 11, 2005 the Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort came alive again as re-enactors (many descendants of the original Utah Pioneers) brought Old Glory out at the fort yard as they had done 150 years before. Ranch owner, Helen Stewart, was seen on the grounds. Civil War re-enactors recalled the war's importance to Nevada's history. Lunch was served by the pioneers in Dutch ovens like they used in the past. All of this was done to honor the memory of the many faces that contributed to the history of the Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort, and promote its legacy in hopes of preserving it for future generations.

¹ Excerpted from John Steele's diary reprinted in The Fortress, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Las Vegas, Nevada: Friends of the Fort, 2000); also cited in Our Pioneer Heritage.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Drones and Veils

Perhaps it has occurred to more persons than I that the putative CIA drone that flew over Iran seems inspired, in its design, by veiled Muslims?

--Image from Iran Uses Captured Drone To Play The Victim Card, Adam Rawnsley, Wired

Image from


BBC propaganda: warning: hilarious
- As'ad AbuKhalil, The BBC Arabic has a report on the US drone plane downed by Iran. That is not the story. Look at the picture accompanying the story, as if this compares to the super secret drone downed by Iran.

(thanks A.) Image from article

See also: The Game of Drones

Friday, December 9, 2011

What we mean by a liberal education

"Like the Catholic Church on the eve of the Reformation, the university sector in the United States is a vast, ramshackle social formation embracing the clever and the stupid, the idealist and the cynic, the vocationally driven and the idle drone. ... The thought that the provision of non-degrees by non-universities might be the modern equivalent of the sale of indulgences has major consequences for what we mean by a liberal education."

--Jonathan Clark, The Times Literary Supplement (December 2, 2011), p. 9

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Sex, Lies (Propaganda?) and Video Tapes -- Veena Malik and Public Diplomacy

Always, as I am, interested in propaganda and its relation -- if any -- to public diplomacy, I recently posted, on recent editions of the Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review (PDPBR), the below entries pertaining to Ms. Malik based on my perusal of media items on the internet falling under the Google category of "propaganda."

Since the posting of these entries on the PDPBR starting December 2, the number of visits to the website has (according to Google Analytics) increased more than fivefold (I am writing this on Sunday, December 4, at 3:00 pm, not excluding the possibility that Google Analytics accidentally replicated beserk stock market computers). Most of the "clicks" are coming from Pakistan and India -- but a larger number than usual from a number of other countries as well. No other items I have cited in the PDPBR -- during the several years I have compiled it -- have created such excitement.

Evidently the Ms. Malik "exposure" has touched a nerve in certain parts of the world, although it is not out of the question, may I again note, that responses to the blog were automatically generated (but if they were, I would have expected -- perhaps erroneously -- negative comments on this subject in the PDPBR, none of which have appeared to date). If readers of this "Notes and Essays" (NEA) can provide its compiler, as regards in the aforementioned countries (about which he regrettably knows little), in-depth explanations for this phenomenon in the below comments section, I (and doubtless some NEA readers as well) would be grateful.  Perhaps, at some point in the future, these comments would be useful to a scholar writing a "case study" about cultural factors influencing world public opinion.

December 4 PDPBR

Veena Malik full Story Indian and Malik's propaganda - Veena Malik who posed in the nude for an Indian magazine with the initials of Pakistan's intelligence agency on her arm has triggered fury across the nation. Veena Malik's photo on the website of FHM India, in advance of its publication in the magazine's December issue, has been lighting up social network website Facebook and Twitter

since earlier this week. Malik has broken Pakistani religious and national taboos in the past. She is a target for conservative and a heroine to some Pakistani liberals. Maulana Abdul Qawi declared on Aaj TV on Saturday that her latest venture into controversy was a "shame for all Muslims." Farzana Naz, interviewed by the same channel on the streets of Lahore, said that the actress had "bowed all us women in shame." Image from. See also John Brown, "Public Diplomacy Goes 'Pubic,'" (2007) CPD Blog, USC Center on Public Diplomacy, which discusses an article, Ben Harrris, "Sexy photos from Israel spark debate" (2007), JTA, with the caption: The Israeli Consulate's invitation to a party for the July issue of Maxim has sparked outrage among feminists and female parliamentarians.

December 3 PDPBR

Veena Malik FHM Mag[a]zine Scandle, Veena Malik Nude Pictures, Videos for FHM Mag[a] zine - Veena Malik Nude Photo

Scandal And Anti Pakistani ISI Propaganda in Indian Media for FHM Magazine. Image from entry

December 2 PDPBR

Veena Malik Nude Photo Scandal And Anti Pakistani ISI Propaganda in Indian Media for FHM Magazine -

Image from entry (entry has no text)

Friday, December 2, 2011

Knowledge in the Internet Age

"We have for a couple of millenia in the West throught of knowledge as a system of settled, consistent truths. Perhaps that exhibits the limitations of knowledge's medium more than of knowledge itself: when knowledge is communicated and preserved by writing it in permanent ink on papers, it becomes that which makes it through institutional filters and that which does not change. Yet knowledge's new medium is not a publishing system so much as a networked public. We may get lots of knowledge out of our data commons, but the knowledge is more likely to be a continuous argument as it is tugged this way and that. Indeed, that is the face of knowledge in the age of the Net: never fully settled, never fully written, never entirely done."

--David Weinberger, "The Machine That Would Predict the Future," Scientific American (December 2011), p. 57

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Stating the Obvious -- or, a "New Theory for ... Foreign Policy"

"Collaborative power ... [is] the power of many to do together what no one can do alone. ... Remember, drop by drop, water will wear away or wash away stone."
-- Anne-Marie Slaughter, "A New Theory for the Foreign Policy Frontier: Collaborative Power,"; image from