Saturday, December 29, 2012

The final joy of Alex Comfort: death

When he went, there were sniggers. I heard them on the radio, at the reading out of a newspaper cutting: "Dr Alex Comfort, author of The Joy of Sex, has died – after a series of strokes." The laughter may not have surprised its object. In his last years in the nursing home before his death in 2000, Alex Comfort would ask interviewers to consider the enormous parade of books on his shelf: Authority and Delinquency; Art and Social Responsibility; Writings Against Power and Death; six novels and a handful of plays; volumes of poetry and travel writing; studies of political corruption, medical ethics, eastern philosophy; works on gerontology, on human evolution, on anarchism: a whole colony of Pelicans. "Unfortunately," he would say, indicating an illustrated coffee-table tome with the subtitle "A Gourmet Guide to Lovemaking", "people only know me for that one."

Comfort once contended that bloody-mindedness was the greatest human virtue. It was certainly the virtue by which he lived, and the reason he was able to pursue his parallel careers in literature and medicine. In 1935 he blew the fingers off his left hand while making fireworks to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of George V. His aunt, assuming that he would remain a lifelong invalid, wrote him a cheque for £50. His response was to go to South America and compose a travelogue called The Silver River. In the preface he wrote: "I do not believe the fable that men read travel books to escape from reality: they read to escape into it, from a crazy wonderland of armaments, cant, political speeches at once insincere and illiterate, propaganda, and social injustice which the lunacy of humanity has constructed over a period of years." When it was published, Alex Comfort was 18.

For the last few months, in preparation for a radio documentary, I've been talking to Comfort's friends and relations and reading through the immense body of work that now lies in the shadow of The Joy of Sex – the poetry that ensured he was spoken of in the same breath as Auden and Spender; the drama about the mine-workers forced to dig a toxic element that irradiates their bones and turns them into vengeful monsters; the pamphlets arguing that peace in the atomic age can only be secured through public disobedience. They reveal an extraordinary consistency in the great seven-decade span of his intellectual life. Comfort's mistrust of political and military power, his anarchist faith in personal responsibility, his sense of a more honest life that might be lived beyond the limits of convention – these flow from The Silver River toThe Joy of Sex and beyond.

At school, he formed a peace corps in opposition to the army cadets. When war came, he registered as a conscientious objector. (Quite unnecessarily, as a left hand is required to operate a Bren gun.) During the war he risked public opprobrium and a ban by the BBC for condemning the men of Allied Bomber Command as "bloodthirsty fools" and suggesting that British pilots should stand trial for war crimes. In 1941, while still a student at Cambridge, he published a novel, No Such Liberty, which drew provocative parallels between Nazi Germany and the British wartime state. Comfort's account of the indignities of the British internment system was largely accurate – though thanking the Cologne branch of the Hitler Youth in the novel's acknowledgments probably didn't aid his argument. Nor did it endear him to George Orwell, who reviewed the book and declared its author "objectively pro-Fascist".

Comfort's views during the second world war were out of tune with their moment. In peacetime, however, they resonated with a new generation of radicals – though he was not at ease with all the mores of the 1960s. In 1961, he calmly went to jail for his part in the anti-nuclear protests organised by the Committee of 100. (A fellow inmate, the peace campaigner Michael Randle, told me that Comfort was surprisingly willing to take part in the square-bashing session that began each day.) Comfort's son, Nicholas, remembers his father driving off with a homemade radio transmitter, sound-proofed with glue-soaked Weetabix, to broadcast anti-nuclear propaganda to the factory workers building Blue Streak missiles in Stevenage. (The pirate station made the headlines when it bumped Kenneth Kendall off the BBC airwaves at Sunday teatime.)

Throughout the 1960s Comfort was a familiar face on television, booked to talk about the bomb, about the marginalisation of older people, about anarchism, about the alienating nature of modern life, and – increasingly – about the subject he would become identified with to the exclusion of all others. In 1963 – the year, of course, that sexual intercourse began – he caused uproar by suggesting that "chivalrous" 15-year-old boys always went out with a condom in their pocket. Nine years later, and with some nervousness, he published The Joy of Sex. It sold 12m copies.

Few authors are remembered on their own terms; some grow to hate the books for which they are most admired. There can be few whose life and work has suffered such a total eclipse as that experienced by Comfort. If he is recalled today, it is in association with that perennial 99p introductory offer on the back of the Sunday supplement, and that line-drawing of the couple with the straggly Woodstock hair. The true nature of The Joy of Sex, though, was one that few noticed at the time and few have remarked on since. It was a book about personal responsibility and freedom from convention; a book founded on the idea that political and erotic repression shared a common pathology. The Joy of Sex was the anarchist manifesto that conquered 1970s suburbia – a radical text that found a place on the shelves of millions of readers who didn't know Kropotkin from Kermit the Frog.

Late in life, Comfort regretted that he was no longer regarded as a poet; that his name had become uncoupled from those of his less-forgotten contemporaries. It was partly his own fault. In middle age he had neglected poetry in favour of lectures, essays and TV. In his final years, however, reduced to typing with the thumb of his blasted left hand, Comfort returned to stanza, metre, rhyme. The message, though, remained the same. It is legible in his fiction, in his political writings, in his willingness to go to jail for his beliefs, in the diagrams on the glossy pages of The Joy of Sex. Unfortunately for Comfort, we know the sentiment better from his rival, WH Auden. "We must love one another, or die."

Image from article, with caption: Alex Comfort in January 1975. The Joy of Sex sold 12m copies worldwide.

Friday, December 28, 2012

I can't get no DVD satisfaction ... or, why reading a book is far simpler

After weeks seeking to understand why my Samsung DVD would refuse to work -- after all, why read the Great American Novels when you have 30's-40's Hollywood movies which arguably are the best, most memorable "products" of American culture, right there before you as you sit on your couch -- I finally got the darned DVD machine to work again.

Yes, it was a long and not-so-painful process, here presented, for your amusement, in chronological order starting from months ago:

(1) Trying to fix myself my apparently broken-down DVD, putting various wires into various ports, with no success (three hours).

(2) Going to the store Best Buy, where I bought the DVD, to understand why it failed to function. I was told to contact its "Geek Squad," which told me to call a Baltimore outfit (I live in DC) which would fix the problem for -- guess what -- hundreds of dollars. No to that -- I can't afford  it. (Another three hours; I have no car and depend on public transportation.)

(3) Waiting for the problem to be resolved by itself. Again, nada success. (Countless days, too many to be enumerated).

(4) Thinking, why worry about DVDs, she and I can always go to the movies (for 25 dollars!). But then I thought twice -- twenty-five bucks for a lousy flick? (five minutes).

(5) With the holiday season, resolved to get the DVD problem fixed, and did nothing, with a guilty conscience (28.5 minutes).

(6) Full of determination, after a pleasant 888-talk with a Samsung employee with a silky voice, sent the Samsung product or repair in New Jersey via UPS (two hours; ($40.00 fee from Samsung).

(7) Received reassuring e-mail from Samsung saying that the repaired product is in the mail.

(8) December 28, Repaired Product received.

(9) Repaired Product doesn't seem to work -- hours spent by yours truly trying to make it work at home (three hours).

(10) Called Samsung again, after an intermitable "I'll transfer you" reached a pleasant fellow who said, "your problem may be with your DVD-TV cable," but "you have no warranty."

Still, problem cable fixed, after I bought one (the cable, not the problem) at Best Buy! (two hours).


Comment: Next time can I please just buy a book?

Thursday, December 27, 2012

A facebook comment on V. Pozner, a USSR-USA "public diplomacy advocate"

Known to some aged American TV audiences, Vladimir Pozner (he was on a U.S. television talk-show decades ago the name of which I can't remember), is a not-so-amiable, soft-talking chameleon/survivor/fellow traveler from Communist Russia from whom I had to endure a silly question on "why Americans are fat" (we have enough to eat, I said), at a-made-for-Russian-TV session at a U.S. NGO involved in promoting U.S. Russian understanding, years after the "capitalist vs. Commie" ideological conflagration/nonsense was over.

It turns out that Russian apparatchiki are no longer willing to subsidize good ol' -- supposedly thin -- now head-shaven Vlad.

Members of the Russian Parliament -- who of course have no connection with the "kick-out-the-foreigners from Russia" Putin regime -- want him far, far away from of the third Rome 'cuzz he don't have a Russ citizenship. Of course, this has nothing to do with his having a "non-Russian"-sounding name.

Below my Facebook comments on Vladimir Pozner being told by Russian politicians to "stay out of the Russian media," on the Facebook page of one of the bright young stars of Russian studies in the U.S. (and she can actually speak the wonderful Russian language, unlike so many USA  "Russian experts."):
The clever but vulgar multilingual Pozner is someone, of course, "qui mange à tous les râteliers," but the demand from "representatives of all four Russian parliamentary fractions" (konechno  [of course] -- let us not be naive -- on their very, very own patriotic initiative, with nothing to do with dear leader Putin) is yet another example of Russia's leadership (its paranoia supposedly supported by the "narod [people]," or rather by its so-called "representatives") increasingly closing itself off from the outside world -- a decision "justified" by nationalistic rumblings about how "foreigners shouldn't tell us what to do."
Throughout Russian history, may I venture to say, such a parochial attitude, not absent in the USA (I should know -- we Russians and Americans have much in common in our provincialism), has had tragic results for a unique but often tormented Eurasian country -- a country which, in its various geographical configurations, like America situated at the "extremities of Europe" (not that "Europe" is such a big deal, all things considered from a historical perspective) has contributed so much to world civilization when it shared -- yes, shared, not "defended" -- its brilliant culture with the rest of our small planet. Granted Pushkin, in some of his bad moments, might not agree with this.
Image from Facebook

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Why the term "public diplomacy" has lost whatever meaning it may have had

Return of a Savior Presents Only Problems - Howard Beck, New York Times: "Where does a 30-year-old former All-Star [Amar’e Stoudemire] with suspect knees, an albatross contract and a redundant skill set fit on a talent-rich, title-contending team? Does he fit at all? ... In his prime, Stoudemire was the N.B.A.’s most lethal finisher in the pick-and-roll.

But that role has been usurped . ... The obvious solution is to have Stoudemire anchor the second unit, running the pick-and-roll . ... But playing as a reserve means fewer minutes and a diminished profile. For all his public diplomacy, it seems doubtful Stoudemire would be content. On Thursday, he told reporters he was ready to 'return back to dominance,' which hardly sounds like the words of a player ready to cede the spotlight." Image from article, with caption: Amar’e Stoudemire told reporters Thursday that he was ready to “return back to dominance.”

Why Public-Diplomacy Officers Should Know Foreign Languages


--Beware of the Cyrillic "й" being interpreted as the Latin "n."

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Moral Animal

The Moral Animal
IT is the religious time of the year. Step into any city in America or Britain and you will see the night sky lit by religious symbols, Christmas decorations certainly and probably also a giant menorah. Religion in the West seems alive and well.
But is it really? Or have these symbols been emptied of content, no more than a glittering backdrop to the West’s newest faith, consumerism, and its secular cathedrals, shopping malls?
At first glance, religion is in decline. In Britain, the results of the 2011 national census have just been published. They show that a quarter of the population claims to have no religion, almost double the figure 10 years ago. And though the United States remains the most religious country in the West, 20 percent declare themselves without religious affiliation — double the number a generation ago.
Looked at another way, though, the figures tell a different story. Since the 18th century, many Western intellectuals have predicted religion’s imminent demise. Yet after a series of withering attacks, most recently by the new atheists, including Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, still in Britain three in four people, and in America four in five, declare allegiance to a religious faith. That, in an age of science, is what is truly surprising.
The irony is that many of the new atheists are followers of Charles Darwin. We are what we are, they say, because it has allowed us to survive and pass on our genes to the next generation. Our biological and cultural makeup constitutes our “adaptive fitness.” Yet religion is the greatest survivor of them all. Superpowers tend to last a century; the great faiths last millenniums. The question is why.
Darwin himself suggested what is almost certainly the correct answer. He was puzzled by a phenomenon that seemed to contradict his most basic thesis, that natural selection should favor the ruthless. Altruists, who risk their lives for others, should therefore usually die before passing on their genes to the next generation. Yet all societies value altruism, and something similar can be found among social animals, from chimpanzees to dolphins to leafcutter ants.
Neuroscientists have shown how this works. We have mirror neurons that lead us to feel pain when we see others suffering. We are hard-wired for empathy. We are moral animals.
The precise implications of Darwin’s answer are still being debated by his disciples — Harvard’s E. O. Wilson in one corner, Oxford’s Richard Dawkins in the other. To put it at its simplest, we hand on our genes as individuals but we survive as members of groups, and groups can exist only when individuals act not solely for their own advantage but for the sake of the group as a whole. Our unique advantage is that we form larger and more complex groups than any other life-form.
A result is that we have two patterns of reaction in the brain, one focusing on potential danger to us as individuals, the other, located in the prefrontal cortex, taking a more considered view of the consequences of our actions for us and others. The first is immediate, instinctive and emotive. The second is reflective and rational. We are caught, in the psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s phrase, between thinking fast and slow.
The fast track helps us survive, but it can also lead us to acts that are impulsive and destructive. The slow track leads us to more considered behavior, but it is often overridden in the heat of the moment. We are sinners and saints, egotists and altruists, exactly as the prophets and philosophers have long maintained.
If this is so, we are in a position to understand why religion helped us survive in the past — and why we will need it in the future. It strengthens and speeds up the slow track. It reconfigures our neural pathways, turning altruism into instinct, through the rituals we perform, the texts we read and the prayers we pray. It remains the most powerful community builder the world has known. Religion binds individuals into groups through habits of altruism, creating relationships of trust strong enough to defeat destructive emotions. Far from refuting religion, the Neo-Darwinists have helped us understand why it matters.
No one has shown this more elegantly than the political scientist Robert D. Putnam. In the 1990s he became famous for the phrase “bowling alone”: more people were going bowling, but fewer were joining bowling teams. Individualism was slowly destroying our capacity to form groups. A decade later, in his book “American Grace,” he showed that there was one place where social capital could still be found: religious communities.
Mr. Putnam’s research showed that frequent church- or synagogue-goers were more likely to give money to charity, do volunteer work, help the homeless, donate blood, help a neighbor with housework, spend time with someone who was feeling depressed, offer a seat to a stranger or help someone find a job. Religiosity as measured by church or synagogue attendance is, he found, a better predictor of altruism than education, age, income, gender or race.
Religion is the best antidote to the individualism of the consumer age. The idea that society can do without it flies in the face of history and, now, evolutionary biology. This may go to show that God has a sense of humor. It certainly shows that the free societies of the West must never lose their sense of God.
Jonathan Sacks is the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth and a member of the House of Lords.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

On My Diplomat-Poet Father, John L. Brown

From the just-appearedTaking off the Soft Power Lens. The United States Information Service in Cold War Belgium (1950-1958) - Frank Gerits, Journal of Belgian History XLII, 2012, 4, posted at
In 1954 John L. Brown became the [C]ultural Attaché [at the American Embassy in Brussels] and exercised the mandate of PAO [Public Affairs Officer] with Abram E. Manell. Brown was a charismatic figure who had connections with all layers of Belgian society. In 1942 he joined the OWI [Office of War Information], he became a press officer for the Marshall Plan [see] in Paris and, when posted in Mexico, a colleague threatened to punch him on the nose.

His academic view on cultural diplomacy -- he published Panorama de la littérature [contemporaine] américaine [see] -- was not always welcomed by others in the USIA [see], making him a kind of a legend. However John Clifford Folger [see], the American ambassador, praised him: “He fully lives up to everything I had heard and is truly an outstanding individual with amazing energy.”
Note: The papers of poet/diplomat John L. Brown are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. A very limited description of these papers (some 80 boxes of material, valuable to researchers interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations) is available online.

Dr. John Lackey Brown wrote, with his wonderful subtlety/irony, in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."

Image from

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Turtles and Wired Americans

As I saw this image on Facebook today I could not help but draw a parallel between "wired" Americans and this poor turtle.

Are tracking transmitters useful in animal conservation?  Why?
 “Flip” the turtle is outfitted with a satellite transmitter to track her travels at Malaquite Beach Pavilion at Padre Island.
Are tracking transmitters useful in animal conservation? Why?

John Kerry and St. Paul's School - An Outsider's Recollections

Published on Tuesday, August 3, 2004 by

John Kerry and St. Paul's School - An Outsider's Recollections
by John Brown

"If you can remember the sixties, you weren't there."
-- Robin Williams

"Be Careful."
-- A St. Paul's School alumnus, giving the author of the below advice after reading it

"He doesn't pass the puck."
--Regarding John Kerry's hockey-playing at St. Paul's, according to the perhaps unsubstantiated view of an SPS alumnus [not cited in the original article]

I have practically no hair left on my head, did not marry a billionaire, and am not running for president of the United States. But John Kerry and I -- dare I say -- have quite a lot in common.

At a certain stage of our lives, that is. We both went to St. Paul's School, Concord, New Hampshire, in the early 1960s.

And not only did we both attend an isolated, oh-so-preppy, all-boys, upper-crusty, Republican-leaning, conservative Episcopal boarding educational institution before flower power and the anti-establishment revolution burst on the national scene, but we both entered SPS as outsiders.

(Full disclosure: I never actually met Kerry. While we happened to be at St. Paul's during the same decade, Kerry, class of '62, had just graduated when I, class of '66, arrived at SPS as a "third former," a freshman.)

As I look back, the Kerry I never knew and a few other lesser mortals such as myself were a breed apart at SPS: "acceptable" outsiders carefully chosen to inhabit the narrow world of St. Paul's School for several years. For all its silly exclusiveness, St. Paul's back in the 60s did start accepting students, not the children of alumni, whose families were not totally linked to the upper crust of the eastern US establishment -- especially if those non-traditional students were not too-too different (that is, if they were white and non-Jewish).

Was it a premonition, among those running the school (by this I mean its influential alumni), that America, a constantly evolving, splendid mixture of numerous nationalities, was undergoing, after the somnolent Eisenhower years, drastic social and political changes, major societal transformations to which SPS graduates felt their beloved school, which so comfortably, so assuredly, reminded them of their high but now potentially endangered delicate social status, had no choice but to adapt or else "become history"? Probably. By the 1960s, moreover, the WASP prep elite knew the world was becoming increasingly global, and it realized, not to its complete dissatisfaction, that it was to their old school's advantage (and, of course, their own, since the schools they attended were so much a part of their life and definition of themselves) to include students who'd seen the outside world. (By the end of the Vietnam War, ironically enough, this privileged, narrowly based but -- let's be fair -- not particularly oppressive and sometimes enlightened caste, seeking to diversify and internationalize itself, was essentially on its way out, most of all for demographic reasons but also because it was condemned by its own children -- and those it adopted like John Kerry -- for a disastrous, idiotic conflict in Southeast Asia brought about by its "best and brightest.")

Now, among the Desirable Diversity Materials at SPS in the 60s, I would speculate that John Kerry was numero uno among the least not too-too different, and probably, on an SPS outsider scorecard, the most acceptable "not one of us here at St. Paul's." Sure, he had an Irish, not English or Scottish, last name, but his middle name, after all, is Forbes, about as blue blood as it gets. No one knew his grandfather was Jewish, and from Central Europe to boot. Yes, no one; not even -- John Kerry/Kohn/presidential candidate himself, or so he says [added, 8/29/2015].

In the diversity game, by the way, I'd say I beat Kerry hands down (not a plus, of course, at St. Paul's School in the 60s, which could only take small doses of diversity for fear of being overrun by the lumpen). My middle name is Turkish, "Halit." My godfather was a Turk, an artist who arrived in New York in the 1930s to decorate his country's pavilion at the New York World's Fair. He came to visit my parents for a weekend but ended up living with them for two years. And my other middle name is Marie, given to me at as a result of the insistence of the Polish priest who baptized me in Boston, Mass, that a Christian saint had to be honored in order to balance my "Muslim" middle name. So the Holy Mother of God was chosen as a proper designation for me. But I won't bore you with family lore.

More important, especially for historians who will leave no stone unturned about a future Kerry administration: What did a presidential candidate and an obscure scribbler like myself have in "diversity common" as schoolboys at SPS? An answer to this question might tell us a bit more about a complex and intelligent man, John Kerry, whose years at St. Paul's, the media agree, had a formative influence on his life.

First, Kerry is a Catholic. So am I. Second, Kerry is a foreign service brat. So am I. Third, at St. Paul's I was "poor," since my family's income was my father's meager foreign service salary (my father's family apparently lost everything in the Depression, although he seldom talked about that). I think Kerry, also as the son of a poorly remunerated diplomat, may have felt, at times, as I did: a bit like Oliver Twist at for-the-rich-boys SPS (my brother, whom I love dearly, also attended St. Paul's, and went on to become a millionaire in business; ah, the joys of sweet revenge).

Kerry and I also probably shared political views which were not mainstream at right-wing, politically and culturally reactionary SPS. Early on, the man now running for president of the United States was proud to have John Kennedy's initials, and did not hide his sympathies for the Democratic party (I can see him wearing the button "if I were 21, I'd vote for Kennedy"). As for myself, even if I've never been able to decide whether I'm an anarchist or monarchist, I certainly never was a Goldwater supporter -- and today do not agree with his modern admirers, especially if they intend, on top of that, to vote for one of the worst, most parochial presidents in history, George W. Bush, who has done so much to destroy America's image and credibility abroad.

But back to JFK. According to the press, he used to go to Catholic church on Sundays after the Anglican service in the School chapel. So did I, at least in my early years, together with a handful of other Catholics who could not forget that outside the Church there is no salvation; Roma locuta est, causa finita est.

I grew up abroad hearing foreign languages and attending non-English speaking schools, just like the Democratic presidential contender, accused by his opponents of being "French." My father, a francophile, sent my brother and me to French-language écoles when he was posted in Paris and Brussels. At anglophile Sn' Paul's, I felt like a true Gaulois (also slightly Italian, since my family had lived four years in Rome), particularly when I arrived at the School, so often regretting, in ice-cold Concord, the sybaritic joie de vivre of "l'Europe aux anciens parapets," to quote Rimbaud in his Le Bateau Ivre. Didn't you too, Jean Kerry, miss being "intercontinental" (as Dubya once dismissed a bilingual reporter who had the audacity of addressing the French president in his language), especially when you got to New England to continue your education, fresh from your schooling in Europe and fluent in French?

So, if we ever meet, Senator, we'll speak the tongue of la douce France together, en cachette, in a distant corner so as not to be heard conversing in the language of the new enemy from old Europe. Maybe your "Afro-Euro" spouse, a person of, apparently, great charm and sophistication, would do us the pleasure of joining us; she, after all, declared at the Democratic convention, in what some might consider multilingual excess, that "Y a todos los Hispanos, y los Latinos; a tous les Franco Am'ricains, a tutti Italiani; a toda a familia Portugesa e Brazileria; and to all the continental Africans living in this country, and to all the new Americans in our country: I invite you to join in our conversation, and together with us work towards the noblest purpose of all: a free, good, and democratic society."

But I must get back to the main theme of my ruminations, or I will lose you, my precious reader. How did St. Paul's try to mold an outsider like myself into an acceptable SPS product? An answer to this question might tell us something about the early days of that other, far more important outsider, John Kerry.

As I look back, St. Paul's tried to make a proper Christian gentleman out of me in three ways.

First, the School (I cannot imagine not capitalizing it) constantly reminded me and my classmates that, because we were "Paulies," we were superior to everyone else. Not only were we superior to the average high school Joe Blow in Concord, New Hampshire (which we seldom visited because being off-campus was a no-no, except for going to harmless activities such as attending services in a Christian church inferior to, but nevertheless related, to the Church of England), but we also were superior to other preppies from lesser learneries such as Andover and Exeter. Sure, some other boarding schools had better sports teams, but at St. Paul's we acquired that unique trait, snobbery (acquiring too much knowledge was, of course, avoided, since it might interfere with learning proper manners). By the time you were in the sixth form, you were a snob and proud of it. You spoke, behaved, and dressed differently from the lower classes (everyone who didn't go to St. Paul's). Just by the way a fellow combed his hair, wore his tie, or farted (I won't give the secret away), you could tell that he had gone to St. Paul's.

Second, it was pounded into us that we were boys -- boys to made into (gentle)men. Like other pre-sex rev prep schools, St. Paul's was proudly all male, and "masculine" qualities were constantly drilled into us: discipline, endurance, loyalty, non-creativity. It wasn't a jock school, but sports, especially hockey and crew, were taken very seriously. Somewhere, we all knew, those creatures called girls or "broads" did exist; just to remind us that they did, and I suppose as a way to reaffirm our maleness by contrast, the School allowed for rare dances with neighboring proper girls' private schools and opened its gates for a weekend or two to members of the fair but little-known sex personally invited to visit the School by the boys themselves. But women as a rule were not part of the St. Paul's world, even if some of the faculty -- including the Rector himself -- had wives, one of whom, married to a teacher of European history, I fell in love with at the age of 15 for several months. Mrs. K had the most gentle, the most tender face I have ever seen.

So by the sixth form we were all snobby gentlemen. But were we Christian?

St. Paul's, after all, prides itself on being a church school. Its current Rector, who annoyed some alumni when it was learned that he was getting paid half a million dollars a year, is a very simpatico Episcopal bishop whose earlier incarnation was that of a marketer. Religion, even if propagated by a former employee of Procter & Gamble, is part of the SPS tradition, and I suppose that we Paulies, by the time we reached the age of 17 or 18, had become Christian, if by being Christian you mean having sung (off key) hymns in chapel too early in the morning and stayed half-awake during interminable sermons. By the sixth form, I can assure you, we had all heard of that big book called the Bible, even if we were unable to quote it (or at least I wasn't, even though I had memorized my Catholic catechism as a kid).

So that was the façade: proper Christian gentlemen. By the time we graduated, we could all play the St. Paul's role -- and I can't deny it could be fun at times showing off your SPS credentials, especially by thinking you were impressing people by having a slightly phony British accent. But what was the reality behind this camouflage? The reality was an outsider-unfriendly environment shaped not so much by the School's high-minded standards as by the fact that we were all away-from-home adolescents locked up in a closed-off, hierarchical, unreal little world (of great natural beauty, surrounded by woods and lakes) that we were constantly rebelling against. The perfect setting for Lord of the Flies: The Sequel, starring John Kerry. Senator, do you mind if I play Piggy?

We rebelled in basically three ways to demands from on high that we act as proper Christian gentlemen. First, in a still apolitical time, we reacted against the insistence that we behave properly (that is, as properly brought up, eager-to-please-adults Paulies) by displaying what was known as "bad-at" -- bad attitude. Bad-at was a state of mind and applicable to all situations at School, from the classroom to the sports field, and it's not impossible that John Kerry, for all his eager commitment to his studies and extra-curricular activities, did not on occasion fall victim to bad-at's narcotic-like lure. With bad-at, you sent signals to the Rector on down that you really didn't care about St. Paul's, its rules, standards, regulations, requirements, demerits (you got demerits if you weren't a good boy; after too many demerits, your punishment was engaging in what was known as "work," e.g., cutting grass while under the close supervision of an odious, physically repulsive, anti-Semitic member of the school staff nicknamed "Toad"; I cannot fault the school, however, for trying to be true to its standards by exhibiting impeccable British upper class prejudices, which make no distinction between work and punishment). You showed bad-at in an infinite variety of ways: the way you wore your tie, the way you answered questions in class, the way you rowed (I always "caught crabs," not entirely by accident), the way you rolled your eyes during chapel. I demonstrated very conscious bad-at once by cutting my nails during study hours -- and the teacher guarding over us, who was known as "The Albino" because of his blond crew cut and sheet-white face, reprimanded me with colder stares than usual for engaging in an improper activity with a nail clipper (did he think I was getting prohibited sexual satisfaction from contact with a metallic object?). One of my best friends at SPS, with whom I remain in touch, told me some time ago that he was once taken aside after chapel by the Rector and told in no uncertain terms: "My boy, I have observed that you are showing bad attitude. That is not acceptable behavior at St. Paul's." Or words to that effect.

Second, with no girls around, we (or at least I) could not resist the temptation (I use that word as a collapsed Catholic) of masturbation, stimulated, I must confess, by regular supplies of Playboys (1) and other pornographic magazines provided by a generous rich classmate, one of the few Orientals (or "Asian," as is said today) at that time at the School (I couldn't afford the luxury of buying dirty pictures). While my Catholic conscience at first bothered me for engaging in this sinful act, I soon accepted it as a necessary form of not unpleasant, but somewhat selfish, sexual release -- which, it turns out, may have actually been medically good for me in the long run, since, as I recently learned in a newspaper article, teen masturbation may help prevent prostate cancer (so I have St. Paul's to thank for sparing me, at least up to now, of this debilitating male affliction, which I'm glad to hear Senator Kerry has overcome, but -- I cannot resist making this tasteless remark -- is a malady from which he unfortunately suffered perhaps because he may have been too busy in serious, physically exhausting school activities to find time to engage in the shameful onanism that I secretly practiced under my SPS sheets). As for homosexuality -- the question frequently in the back of the mind of tolerant ladies willing to date ancient preppies like myself -- none of it was openly visible at St. Paul's during my time there (1962-66). One boy, who had gone to a British public school, once intimated sotto voce to a classmate (we were then in a third form dorm) that we could "beat each other off"; there were no takers, and I personally was repelled. As for our officially revered teachers, no doubt some of them were gay; among these modern-day-in-Concord-New Hampshire Socrateses (no teasing) was the brilliant, Yale-educated Gerry Studds, who taught us American history and went on to the House of Representatives, where he openly announced his homosexual preferences in 1983.

Third, to demands that we be Christian (which, according to the religious texts we pretended to read in courses like "Sacred Studies," meant being kind to one's fellow man) we reacted with a favorite (in those days) schoolboy tool: sarcasm, saying one thing but meaning another with the intent of offending or mentally hurting someone, preferably weaker than oneself. Did John Kerry use sarcasm? Maybe as a star on the debating team but, assuredly, only to win arguments, not to insult his opponents. Whatever Kerry did during his orations, sarcasm, seen as an ideal verbal weapon of mass distraction at SPS, was incessantly wielded against fellow classmates. There was great respect, if not fear, for those who could use it best. One member of my form, who had a terrible case of acne and ended up with the nickname of "Za," was a genius chess player, master pianist, and very smart mathematician with perhaps the highest IQ in the class; but what he was really admired for was his mastery of sarcasm and giving people nicknames. Was Za the creator of the moniker for Richard Lederer, our wonderful English teacher who went on to become a best-selling writer on the English language? Mr. Lederer (we always addressed teachers as "Mr. this" or "Mr. that") was branded as "Supercool" because his pedagogic skills were matched by what appeared to be, even to his worshipful students, an incredibly huge ego -- a well justified self-veneration on his part, since he has produced remarkably witty books on the magical mysteries of the ever-changing, titillating tongue of Shakespeare.

There were, of course, many other forms of rebellion, too many to be listed here (e.g., drinking, but no drugs that I knew of; but maybe as an outsider, which I always remained, I was never allowed in the school's deepest student dissent cells where pot might already have made its way). More generally, though, there was a subterranean mood among my classmates that the "proper Christian gentleman" label being imposed upon us (and perhaps I felt this imposition more than most, since I was an Euro Cadillac) was a lot of b.s. As I said, we were not political, but you could sense dissatisfaction with the status quo in that artificial paradise called St. Paul's School in 1966, the year I graduated; our mood can still be sensed in the cartoons of Gary Trudeau, a member of our class, who has immortalized us by the drawing of our portraits in the '66 SPS yearbook, probably the only valuable thing I'll leave to my grandchildren if I ever have any. Not long after our class left SPS (most of us, I'm quite sure, with great, I won't say post-masturbatory, relief), this pre-hippie mood was to spread all over campuses in the country; and even today I cannot help but to listen or read, over and over again and with quite strong, almost tearful feelings (I know, proper Christian gentlemen shouldn't display vulgar emotions), Dr. King's memorable passage in his 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech:

Let freedom ring! From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

These are the unforgettable words that remind me of my liberation from St. Paul's at age 18 (with a high school degree, thank God, and feeling like Steve McQueen making it across the Swiss border on his German Army motorcycle in The Great Escape, filmed in 1963.)

Ah, freedom from St. Paul's School! Let that freedom ring! It is the type of freedom from an oppressive regime -- such as the one, based on fear of the outsider, that is maintained by the current retrograde, retromingent, reactionary administration -- that I hope John Kerry, even if he is a proper Christian gentleman, will bring to our country for the next four years.

After the most Dubya-ous, error-filled era in America's brief, miraculous history, when following the tragedy of 9/11 we -- all of us, red, white and blue -- were ambushed by a faux Texan with mad (cow) boy disease from (where else? Andover!) who is unable to speak our own unique American language, when, due to his self-imposed provincialism, fundamentalist anti-intellectualism, and "preemptive" wars to win elections and support at home, we lost the respect of mankind, ohmygod (if I may quote the younger generation) are we glad that help is on the way -- and that that help is coming from someone, John Forbes Kerry, who at least recognizes the existence of an outside world and who (to be sure, with a certain noblesse oblige offputting to those less wealthy than he) at least tries to understand needs of Americans less fortunate and ambitious than himself.

1) Among these Playboy magazines the one I remember most was the 1964 issue featuring "Girls of Russia and the Iron Curtain Countries." The glossy photos of these lovely ladies from an unknown world lie at the origin of my life-long fascination with Russia; probably more, I must confess in my old age, than the fear of nuclear war, the orbiting of the Sputnik, or the classics of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, all cited by American Slavicists as reasons for catching the Russian bug which, once caught, remains with you forever. I went on to write my dissertation at Princeton on an obscure late eighteenth-century Russian nobleman, Andrei Timofeevich Bolotov, whose interest in western science was expressed (among other ways) in his efforts to cure one of his serfs of hemorrhoids with the aid of electricity. For more on the Playboy magazine mentioned above, see Steven A. Grant and John H. Brown, The Russian Empire and Soviet Union: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States (G.K. Hall, 1981), p. 181. [now available online at]

John Brown, a former Foreign Service Officer, compiles a daily Public Diplomacy Press Review available free by requesting it at Aside from public diplomacy, the Review covers issues such as propaganda, anti-americanism, foreign public opinion, and educational exchanges.

Image (the Chapel at St. Paul's School) from

Flirting is far better than "strategic communication" ...

As the generals flirt by email/have extramarital affairs, DOD torments itself by speculating on strategic communication. Thank God the generals are engaged in less solemn forms of human intercourse.

If I may quote that blogger extraordinaire, Paul Rockower, "flirting is the best form of public diplomacy." On pubic [no typo} diplomacy, pls. see.

Image from

Monday, December 17, 2012

Why Do Americans Smile?

Why do Americans smile?

"Because if they don't, they fear someone facing them will shoot them."

--This quotation, heard at an informal conversation about how the British view the U.S., should be taken with a grain of salt, given the state of UK dentistry

Image from

Friday, December 14, 2012

American Exceptionalism: The Shootings Will Go On

American Exceptionalism: The Shootings Will Go On - James Fallows, Atlantic: Guns uniquely allow a psychopath in America to wreak death and devastation on such a large scale so quickly and easily. America is the only country in which this happens again -- and again and again. No one has been killed on American soil through what we define as an act of "terrorism" in more than a decade, but countless elements of our life are still shaped and warped by the open-ended "war on terror."

Friday, December 7, 2012

On Strategic Communication and Public Diplomacy or, Don't Fence Me In


Don't Fence me in - Roy Rogers, YouTube; image from

Below a piece of mine "provoked" by "Pentagon drops 'strategic communication,' but Washington will never let go of such a dubious concept," Kim Andrew Elliott reporting on International Broadcasting:
Having been privileged to be a taxpayer-funded "PD (public diplomacy) practitioner" for some twenty years, many of them in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, I feel that the best way to characterize "strategic communication" as dictated/charted by some ideologues/bureaucrats at DC federal headquarters today -- not to speak of specialization-defined academics, in various USA provincial minor learneries far away from the imperial capital, longing to exert their petty influence there -- is that in fact "straitjacket [strategic] communication," which so often shows little sense of local overseas conditions/opinion, is based, at inside-the-beltway "inter-agency meetings" and upon "expert advice," on a priori constructions of an often overly abstract, incomprehensible "Plan" reminiscent of similar illusion-driven fantasies devised by oh-so-passe communist regimes.

(I frankly hate to quote them, given how much I despise their publicity/twitter-driven vulgarity and superficiality, the social media spin-masters/self-proclaimed establishment servant-gurus Cohen and Ross, as they are living contradictions of what they preach: “The 21st century is a really terrible time to be a control freak.” But there is a grain of truth in what they say, so long as it does not pertain to what they themselves are actually doing, one of them working for Google and the other for the State Department -- both dutifully and oh, so, so carefully/controllably!).

While some guidance from Washington was certainly obligatory during the Cold War -- any diplomat worth her professional standards/salt owes allegiance to her country, even as interpreted by the USG, which supposedly represents the American people -- the best PD officers who were my supervisors gave a "field guy" like me enormous flexibility in how to present/represent our nation abroad to support its interests without my being bound by line-by-line regulations and "immediate-result-oriented" deadlines on how to communicate with "target" local audiences in order to achieve a so-called "strategic" goal. (When I heard the word "target," I often thought, as a non-armed person, that perhaps I was supposed to shoot foreign enemies of America).

Indeed, I believe that I was most effective, as a diplomat serving my country, not at aiming bullets (or ideology) at fellow-human beings overseas, but sharing bread and intelligent conversations with them at a good restaurant with windows -- host-country nationals who made a difference in determining how they, and their country, viewed the United States without strong suspicions on their part that they were in the presence of a strategic-communications military robot/USA-version of a totalitarian-serving apparatchik trying to brainwash them.

This, I would suggest, is the public-diplomacy non-"strategy," often cited as described by Edward R. Murrow, head of the USIA (United States Information Agency)  -- and actually a fast-media person, as a long-time reporter rather than a "humanist"; indeed a precursor of social media -- during the Kennedy Administration:
The real art in this business is not so much moving information or guidance or policy five or 10,000 miles. That is an electronic problem. The real art is to move it the last three feet in face to face conversation.” 
Simply put, and as something of a cynic, I would say the least propaganda (oh, sorry, I meant the least strategic communication) is the best propaganda. Sure, any PD officer has to realize whom she's working for (the taxpayer, via the USG) and why she's doing it (for the American national interest), but please, dear DC bosses, don't use the pretentious meaningless term "strategic communication" to tell us -- diplomats working for your/our country -- what we're supposed to do on every dotted line.

A little more subtlety, elasticity please. And please, no charts. And skip the PP presentations in dark rooms without windows. We need to breathe freely to be effective. Don't fence us in. Let the natural light in. Open the windows.

Life is too complicated to be reduced to regulating it for the national interest by a point-by-point "strategy." Business people and military planners, God bless 'em, have their own understandable agendas on their self-defined terms, which often include a "strategy." So be it. (But many, I would say, doubt about such simplistic platforms).

And let's not mix apples and oranges. Diplomacy is not like selling a product or exterminating an enemy (even by "winning  the information battle" by "blowing" their hearts and minds). These are distinctions, may I suggest, State Department planners themselves sometimes fail to take into consideration.


Please, please dear Imperial Capital SC Planners, drop/strop your Master of the Universe Plans (here's a free acronym for you: MUP) and your jaw-breaking planning Orwellian language.

Admit that much of the time, as you sit getting indigestion from a brown-bag lunch drinking sugary sodas from a can in your stuffy, neon-lit, window-less rooms during your inter-agency meetings at Federal agencies, to which you've been assigned "on rotation," with so many of you not having been/lived in the countries you are "planning for," that you just really don't know what you're really talking about (not to speak of your not knowing hardly a word of the languages of the countries you are "planning" for), except for having read/composed (at most) "committee reports."

My having said that, there is one (dated) report (2004) connected with Strategic Communications that is worth noticing for anyone interested in America's relations with the so-called Muslim world. It was by far the best of dozens and dozens of reports (many of them useless, except for contributing to "reports fatigue") to appear on the disastrous years of U.S. public diplomacy during the Bush II year. Its important phrases, still noted today, stated:
• The information campaign — or as some still would have it, “the war of ideas,” or the struggle for “hearts and minds” — is important to every war effort. In this war it is an essential objective, because the larger goals of U.S. strategy depend on separating the vast majority of non-violent Muslims from the radical-militant Islamist-Jihadists. But American efforts have not only failed in this respect: they may also have achieved the opposite of what they intended.

• American direct intervention in the Muslim World has paradoxically elevated the stature of and support for radical Islamists, while diminishing support for the United States to single-digits in some Arab societies.

• Muslims do not “hate our freedom,” but rather, they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the longstanding, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf states.  
• Thus when American public diplomacy talks about bringing democracy to Islamic societies, this is seen as no more than self-serving hypocrisy. Moreover, saying that “freedom is the future of the Middle East” is seen as patronizing, suggesting that Arabs are like the enslaved peoples of the old Communist World — but Muslims do not feel this way: they feel oppressed, but not enslaved.)he main problem of the above-mentioned imperial-capital SC produced report  -- as I said, the best among many that deserve at most a C+ --  is that while it stresses the importance of what persons in Muslim lands think, it keeps on talking about "Muslims" as a group -- "Muslims do not hate our freedom ...").
This report (about "Muslims") deserves more than a C+, unlike others on the subject.  But can you imagine trying to understand the "Christian" world by lumping together, say, the U.S. -- a "Protestant" country and France -- a "Catholic" country -- because they are "Christian," despite their enormous cultural, historical, religious, and linguistic differences, not only between, but among them?

So this blogger is not against "Strategic Communications," so long as it speaks in plain English/common sense and drops -- I mean dump -- this silly term and talks about communications in human, rather than robotic terms: a free-wheeling exchange of opinions and ideas, granted (for persons serving the USG) with a purpose in mind, but without "do this-do that" directives from Pentagon/State Department charts looking like an engineer's dream (or nightmare).

Why is it, when I think of "strategic communication," I get an instant flashback of the movie Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, starring Captain Nemo, which I watched as a kid?


Meanwhile, SC-ers, watch Casablanca. Far better for you (not to speak of the rest of us) trying to figure out the below pretentious, "high-brow" chart (what the hell does it actually represent?), which really belongs on Saturday Night Live -- or like Captain Nemo's organ.

Above image from; below Image from

Saturday, December 1, 2012

American hypocrisy: Is that what makes us exceptional?

Do not articles such as the below make us wonder if what makes America "exceptional," at least in its own eyes, is its unique ability to venerate its "values" by blindly accepting its own hypocrisy, hypocrisy being ironically defined by La Rochefoucauld as "the homage that vice pays to virtue"?

The Monster of Monticello
Durham, N.C.

THOMAS JEFFERSON is in the news again, nearly 200 years after his death — alongside a high-profile biography by the journalist Jon Meacham comes a damning portrait of the third president by the independent scholar Henry Wiencek.

We are endlessly fascinated with Jefferson, in part because we seem unable to reconcile the rhetoric of liberty in his writing with the reality of his slave owning and his lifetime support for slavery. Time and again, we play down the latter in favor of the former, or write off the paradox as somehow indicative of his complex depths.

Neither Mr. Meacham, who mostly ignores Jefferson’s slave ownership, nor Mr. Wiencek, who sees him as a sort of fallen angel who comes to slavery only after discovering how profitable it could be, seem willing to confront the ugly truth: the third president was a creepy, brutal hypocrite.

Contrary to Mr. Wiencek’s depiction, Jefferson was always deeply committed to slavery, and even more deeply hostile to the welfare of blacks, slave or free. His proslavery views were shaped not only by money and status but also by his deeply racist views, which he tried to justify through pseudoscience.

There is, it is true, a compelling paradox about Jefferson: when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, announcing the “self-evident” truth that all men are “created equal,” he owned some 175 slaves. Too often, scholars and readers use those facts as a crutch, to write off Jefferson’s inconvenient views as products of the time and the complexities of the human condition.

But while many of his contemporaries, including George Washington, freed their slaves during and after the revolution — inspired, perhaps, by the words of the Declaration — Jefferson did not. Over the subsequent 50 years, a period of extraordinary public service, Jefferson remained the master of Monticello, and a buyer and seller of human beings.

Rather than encouraging his countrymen to liberate their slaves, he opposed both private manumission and public emancipation. Even at his death, Jefferson failed to fulfill the promise of his rhetoric: his will emancipated only five slaves, all relatives of his mistress Sally Hemings, and condemned nearly 200 others to the auction block. Even Hemings remained a slave, though her children by Jefferson went free.

Nor was Jefferson a particularly kind master. He sometimes punished slaves by selling them away from their families and friends, a retaliation that was incomprehensibly cruel even at the time. A proponent of humane criminal codes for whites, he advocated harsh, almost barbaric, punishments for slaves and free blacks. Known for expansive views of citizenship, he proposed legislation to make emancipated blacks “outlaws” in America, the land of their birth. Opposed to the idea of royal or noble blood, he proposed expelling from Virginia the children of white women and black men.

Jefferson also dodged opportunities to undermine slavery or promote racial equality. As a state legislator he blocked consideration of a law that might have eventually ended slavery in the state.

As president he acquired the Louisiana Territory but did nothing to stop the spread of slavery into that vast “empire of liberty.” Jefferson told his neighbor Edward Coles not to emancipate his own slaves, because free blacks were “pests in society” who were “as incapable as children of taking care of themselves.” And while he wrote a friend that he sold slaves only as punishment or to unite families, he sold at least 85 humans in a 10-year period to raise cash to buy wine, art and other luxury goods.

Destroying families didn’t bother Jefferson, because he believed blacks lacked basic human emotions. “Their griefs are transient,” he wrote, and their love lacked “a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation.”

Jefferson claimed he had “never seen an elementary trait of painting or sculpture” or poetry among blacks and argued that blacks’ ability to “reason” was “much inferior” to whites’, while “in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.” He conceded that blacks were brave, but this was because of “a want of fore-thought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present.”

A scientist, Jefferson nevertheless speculated that blackness might come “from the color of the blood” and concluded that blacks were “inferior to the whites in the endowments of body and mind.”

Jefferson did worry about the future of slavery, but not out of moral qualms. After reading about the slave revolts in Haiti, Jefferson wrote to a friend that “if something is not done and soon done, we shall be the murderers of our own children.” But he never said what that “something” should be.

In 1820 Jefferson was shocked by the heated arguments over slavery during the debate over the Missouri Compromise. He believed that by opposing the spread of slavery in the West, the children of the revolution were about to “perpetrate” an “act of suicide on themselves, and of treason against the hopes of the world.”

If there was “treason against the hopes of the world,” it was perpetrated by the founding generation, which failed to place the nation on the road to liberty for all. No one bore a greater responsibility for that failure than the master of Monticello.

Paul Finkelman, a visiting professor in legal history at Duke Law School, is a professor at Albany Law School and the author of “Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson.”

And may I add to the above an excerpt from a piece I wrote some years ago:

The essential paradigm of the War of Terror -- us (the attacked) against them (the attackers) -- was no less essential to the mindset of white settlers regarding the Indians, starting at least from the 1622 Indian massacre of 347 people at Jamestown, Virginia. With rare exceptions, newly arrived Europeans and their descendants, as well as their leaders, saw Indians as mortal enemies who started the initial fight against them, savages with whom they could not co-exist. The Declaration of Independence condemned "the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions." When governor of Virginia (1780), Thomas Jefferson stated:
If we are to wage a campaign against these Indians the end proposed should be their extermination, or their removal beyond the lakes of the Illinois River. The same world would scarcely do for them and us.
Need I cite another great American, George W. Bush:  "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists."

Jefferson image from

Friday, November 30, 2012

A historian’s Spanish lessons for modern America

A historian’s Spanish lessons for modern America

By Michael Dirda, Published: November 28, Washington Post

Sir John Elliott is our greatest historian of 16th- and 17th-century Spain and the author of the magisterial biography “The Count-Duke of Olivares: The Statesman in an Age of Decline.” In “History in the Making” this distinguished scholar — now in his early 80s — looks back on his career as a Hispanist and reflects on the developments in historiography over the past 60 years.

Straight off, Elliott lays out his cards: “I believe that theory is of less importance for the writing of good history than the ability to enter imaginatively into the life of a society remote in time or place, and produce a plausible explanation of why its inhabitants thought and behaved as they did.” While Elliott has done intense archival research and learned much from the social-science approaches of the French “Annales” school, he nonetheless comes across as very much a classic British historian: thoughtful, non-doctrinaire and quietly brilliant. He sensibly notes, for instance, that “over-interpretation” has joined “the post-modern insistence on the impossibility of interpretation as one of the sins of our age.”

As an undergraduate at Cambridge in the early 1950s, the young Elliott was initially drawn to the study of the English and European past, where his knowledge of French and German would stand him in good stead. But a holiday in Spain, coupled with the practical recognition that “there was standing-room only” for jobs in the more obvious areas of history, led him to commit his energies to Iberian civilization. He learned Castilian Spanish, then Catalan.

Not even historians are immune from history. When Elliott was starting out, Britain was no longer the empire upon which the sun never set, and its economy was in trouble. As he writes, “It was difficult not to see similarities between the situation of Spain in the 1620s and that of Britain in the 1950s: an exhausted imperial power and a reforming government, followed by disappointed expectations and at least the partial failure of reform.” In later pages of “History in the Making,” he adds that the United States currently finds itself in a similar situation as it struggles against the faltering of its global hegemony.

But why had Spain, once the dominant world power under Philip II, suffered a decline in the 17th century? One explanation for its failure to keep pace with France and England lies in the so-called “Black Legend — the leyenda negra — of Spanish cruelty and fanaticism,” usually associated with religiosity and an exaggerated sense of honor. However, Elliott’s first major book, “Imperial Spain,” argued against the view that the empire’s misfortunes resulted from its collective psyche. Couldn’t, for instance, the supposed “idleness” identified as part of the Spanish character be simply the result of “the lack of opportunities for regular employment?”

Nevertheless, imperial Spain did often view itself as a chosen nation, entrusted by God to defend traditional (and religious) values, but then “nineteenth-century Britain had no doubt of its privileged position in the eyes of the Lord, while the United States has notoriously shaped its self-image as the exemplification of ‘manifest destiny.’ ” Elliott points out that a bestselling study of postwar Britain took its gloomy epigraph from his book’s description of the 17th-century Spanish elite: “Heirs to a society which had over-invested in empire, and surrounded by the increasingly shabby remnants of a dwindling inheritance, they could not bring themselves at the moment of crisis to surrender their memories and alter the antique pattern of their lives.”

Elliott underscores that one key to understanding Spain lies in the “never-ending conflict between the country’s inherent diversity and an insistent pressure from the centre for unity. On the one hand there were the different kingdoms and provinces of the peninsula — the territories of the Crown of Aragon, the Basque provinces, Navarre, and, between 1580 and 1640, Portugal — and on the other a central administration which, over many centuries, was committed to the upholding of dynastic or state interests and of a set of transcendental values which it saw itself as divinely appointed to defend.” Similar tensions are not unknown in today’s United States.

Throughout his career, Elliott has been leery of wholesale economic and geographical determinism, being convinced that great men and women can sometimes alter the course of history. “Indeed, for me much of the fascination of the past lies in observing the continuous interplay between the individual and his or her environment.” Hence his major work — one product of a 17-year tenure at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. — is the biography of the Count-Duke of Olivares, the bitter rival of France’s Cardinal Richelieu.

These oddly similar ministers, and their sovereigns, found themselves addressing a sadly familiar problem: “The need to mobilize the human and material resources of the states they governed in order to wage and sustain their wars in an age of almost continuous warfare drove rulers to engage in all manner of financial expedients and extortions, which inevitably bore down most heavily on those least able to bear them.”

Not just a Hispanist, Elliott also helped establish the academic discipline of “early-modern history,” that period between the 16th century and the French Revolution when the medieval worldview still influenced Western culture. Its practitioners, he quips here, are best known for their intense focus on witchcraft, such that it sometimes seems “as if the study of early modern Europe has been reduced to a study of its witches.” Nonetheless, such marginalized groups, as well as entire nations outside the industrial mainstream (such as Spain), have grown increasingly central to our understanding of history. As Elliott affirms: “If the study of the past has any value, that value lies in its ability to reveal the complexities of human experience, and to counsel against ruling out as of no significance any of the paths that were only partially followed, or not followed at all.”

Today, it is apparent that “the nation state, while remaining the standard form of political organization, has been under growing pressure both from above and from below. . . . From above, it has been compelled to yield ground to international and supranational bodies, of which the European Community is a prime example. From below, it has come under pressure from the suppressed nationalities, and from religious and ethnicities demanding their own place in the sun. As a result, what once seemed certain has become less certain, and structures that once had about them an air of permanence are showing signs of frailty.”

Certainly, contemporary history has shown us, with a vengeance, that “the stronger the emphasis on secularization, the greater are the chances of religious revival. The advance of science finds its antithesis in the advance of fundamentalism, and the supranationalism of a world of multinational corporations and organizations finds itself challenged by the upsurge of the irrational forces of old-style nationalism.”

The study of history is a study in irony. Once the analysis of imperial Spain in extremis might have seemed an almost purely academic subject. Not any more.

Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.

HISTORY IN THE MAKING By J.H. Elliott Yale Univ. 249 pp. $26

Thursday, November 29, 2012

When you have basically nothing to do, get on a plane.

I am by no means a fan of Thomas L. Friedman, a genius at simplifying complexity, but I did find his statement in his latest New York Times column worthy of note:
Finally, there’s a reason that since the end of the cold war our secretaries of state have racked up more miles than they’ve made history. Before 1995, the job involved ending or avoiding superpower conflicts and signing big arms control treaties. Those were the stuff of heroic diplomacy. Fortunately, today there are fewer big wars to end, and the big treaties now focus more on trade and the environment than nukes — and they’re very hard to achieve. Also, today’s secretary of state has to deal with so many more failed or failing states."
He's quite right. Condolezza Rice was constantly on an airplane -- as is Hillary Clinton now -- because they, God bless 'em and their devotion to the Republic, really had/have no idea (or sufficient power) of how to deal with big global problems that need big solutions.

Such non-stop motion is meant to suggest solutions, but I'm not convinced that anything is actually getting done by such peregrinations for the US national interest.

It's all too easy to blame the Secretaries of State, in our foreign policy that has increasingly become the domain of the Pentagon, for essentially doing nothing except to pretend that they are, for the TV cameras/internet domestic consumption.

But recent Secretaries of State do seem to be incapable of doing what American diplomats did in the past, when a small group of negotiators actually determined  (pretended to determine?) the fate of the planet -- granted, often badly. Think Versailles, Yalta or (as Friedman points out) U.S-Soviet treaties during the Cold War.

Diplomacy on a grand scale seems indeed to be finito. Too many players (including the military), too much "public opinion"?

Is such a situation in the decision-making-process "good" or "bad"?

I really can't tell, although there are so many transnational problems -- climate change one among them -- that need forceful civilian, dare I say elite, leadership -- rather than endless PR-produced moments of sitting on a plane going from nowhere to nowhere -- if such problems are ever to be solved.


I'm also no fan of the pretentious, intellectually-shallow Francis Fukuyama who evidently read/misread (?) too much Hegel as an undergraduate.

But what Fukuyama says in his discredited essay on "The End of History" has some pertinence to the above:
THE PASSING of Marxism-Leninism first from China and then from the Soviet Union will mean its death as a living ideology of world historical significance. For while there may be some isolated true believers left in places like Managua, Pyongyang, or Cambridge, Massachusetts, the fact that there is not a single large state in which it is a going concern undermines completely its pretensions to being in the vanguard of human history. And the death of this ideology means the growing "Common Marketization" of international relations, and the diminution of the likelihood of large-scale conflict between states.

This does not by any means imply the end of international conflict per se. For the world at that point would be divided between a part that was historical and a part that was post-historical. Conflict between states still in history, and between those states and those at the end of history, would still be possible. There would still be a high and perhaps rising level of ethnic and nationalist violence, since those are impulses incompletely played out, even in parts of the post-historical world. Palestinians and Kurds, Sikhs and Tamils, Irish Catholics and Walloons, Armenians and Azeris, will continue to have their unresolved grievances. This implies that terrorism and wars of national liberation will continue to be an important item on the international agenda. But large-scale conflict must involve large states still caught in the grip of history, and they are what appear to be passing from the scene.

The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one's life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history. I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed. Such nostalgia, in fact, will continue to fuel competition and conflict even in the post-historical world for some time to come. Even though I recognize its inevitability, I have the most ambivalent feelings for the civilization that has been created in Europe since 1945, with its north Atlantic and Asian offshoots. Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.

Yes, boredom  -- as we all try to pay our PEPCO bills on time ...

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Interview on Public Diplomacy with a Dubrovnik mass medium (Dubrovacki list)

Below the English-language version of the Dubrovkacki list interview with your blogger (John Brown) that appeared in print (in Croatian), Wednesday November 28:

1. In 1981 you joined the US Foreign Service and served as a diplomat for 22 years. Has your opinion on diplomacy and its effects changed since 1981? How did you feel in 1981 regarding the importance of diplomacy and what are your thoughts today?

I joined the US Foreign Service, in the early 1980s, in search of gainful employment and out of a certain sense of idealism to promote peace at a time when our small planet was arguably “bipolar” (U.S. vs. USSR) and threatened by a nuclear holocaust.

During the period -- Cold War and immediate post-Cold War -- the social media were not omnipresent. I felt there was a need to depict America to foreign audiences as honestly as possible in a communications-limited world, not only behind the “Iron Curtain,” but in other parts of Europe.

Of course now times have changed, and diplomats must adapt to change.

But no one – including diplomats – should live under the illusion that, in our multipolar 21st century world, the social media are omnipotent. Indeed, the need to understand cultures beyond “interacting” on the internet is more important than ever.

Facebook-to-Facebook “communications,” while creating professionally useful cyber-networks, will never replace face-to-face discussion/negotiations -- which ultimately is what diplomacy is all about.

That is why, as a former diplomat in the “public diplomacy” field, I feel so privileged to share ideas with the bright and energetic students at DIU [Dubronik International University], here in the “Libertas” city of Dubrovnik, with its marvelous bells -- reminding me, every quarter of an hour, that there is no minute in our human lives, when shared with others in the real world, that is not a miracle.

2. You got your Ph.D. in Russian History, but you also spent almost whole your career in Eastern Europe, in the countries of Warsaw Pact, including former Yugoslavia. What do you think, is that old West-East/NATO-Warsaw division from the Cold War era of any importance in today [']s diplomacy?

The division of Europe along East-West lines is a legacy of the Cold War. Europe, diverse and unique, is one Europe, just as diverse mankind is, ultimately, one mankind. To be sure, cultural differences among nations/regions have been interpreted by some as an example of immutable civilizational tensions that inevitably lead to conflict. But as an American living in a multiethnic society facing “diversity” issues on a continual basis, I think that we human beings can all get along if we recognize that, although we may not be all the same, we still all aspire to better lives.

3. During your stay in Dubrovnik you are holding classes on DIU  [Dubrovnik International University -- JB]. Through[out] its history, Dubrovnik was best known for its skillful diplomacy, which helped the city/state keep its independence for centuries. Why is diplomacy so important for a life of a certain country? 

Diplomacy can be important because it can, let us hope, solve problems without violence. Sir Harold Nicolson suggested in his classic work on the subject that diplomacy began when parties involved in a conflict realized it was not in anyone’s interest to eat visiting envoys for dinner.

4. Can we notice public diplomacy making effect on our lives? How does it differ from cultural diplomacy?

To some, public diplomacy deals with fast-media, getting hard-hitting headlines to brand a country positively, moving the “needle” of foreign public opinion to promote national interests.

Cultural diplomatist enthusiasts argue that they deal with long-term processes -- e.g., educational exchanges – that will eventually bring universal harmony.

Having been a US public diplomacy practitioner for over two decades, I believe that this craft is an often uneasy mixture of both these points of view.

5. Dubrovnik suffered a lot in the early 1990’s during the Serb-Montenegrin siege. One of the most important fronts in that time was war propaganda, an instrument of war, in Dubrovnik case created in Serbia and Montenegro. Why is propaganda so effective and how it sells a war?

Propaganda and war have a sad symbiotic relationship. Propaganda at its worst inflames atavistic emotions that bring out the worst in human beings – e.g., exterminate the demon-outsider. Public diplomacy, at its best, reflects the memorable words of the US Declaration of Independence, which states: “All men are created equal” and notes that it is inspired by “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.”

These are powerful words, no matter how little they actually reflected the reality of late-eighteenth-century America – when blacks, women, and native Americans were not considered “equal” by the white property owners (many of whom had slaves) who signed the Declaration.

6. In March 2003 you resigned from the State Department to protest the Bush administration’s war plans against Iraq. What was the ‘trigger’ moment that made you do it after 22 years in service?

May I immodestly cite my e-mail (to which I never received an answer) to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell:

March 10, 2003
Dear Mr. Secretary:

I am joining my colleague John Brady Kiesling in submitting my resignation from the Foreign Service (effective immediately) because I cannot in good conscience support President Bush's war plans against Iraq.

The president has failed:
--To explain clearly why our brave men and women in uniform should be ready to sacrifice their lives in a war on Iraq at this time;
--To lay out the full ramifications of this war, including the extent of innocent civilian casualties;
--To specify the economic costs of the war for ordinary Americans;
--To clarify how the war would help rid the world of terror;
--To take international public opinion against the war into serious consideration.

Throughout the globe the United States is becoming associated with the unjustified use of force. The president's disregard for views in other nations, borne out by his neglect of public diplomacy, is giving birth to an anti-American century.

I joined the Foreign Service because I love our country. Respectfully, Mr. Secretary, I am now bringing this calling to a close, with a heavy heart but for the same reason that I embraced it.

John H. Brown
Foreign Service Officer

7. How did US Government ‘use’ propaganda on its own citizens during war in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Too much, and too stupidly.

8. What are your thoughts on US foreign policy today? For example, how does Croatia stand in the eyes of President Obama and his administration?

Regrettably, most Americans know all too little about Croatia. In many ways, we are a provincial nation, despite our immense access to vast sources of information. Our two biggest neighbors are two oceans -- the Atlantic and the Pacific – so we tend to disregard the outside world. So it will be an honor to tell my fellow citizens more about Croatia and its wonders when I get back to the USA. Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you.