Saturday, July 28, 2012

Nonsense/sense about Public Diplomacy

For my sins, which are many, I compile, on a near-daily basis, a Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review. It is, essentially, a journal of our 21st-century America plague years as they regard America's relation to the world.

Every page I compile in the Review, I tell myself, is one less day in purgatory.

As a former Foreign Service officer (FSO), having had the privilege to serve my country (the United States of America) abroad for over twenty years, I have it (as they say) "up to here" with the theoretical, abstract discussions on "pubic diplomacy" (no typo) by (as Walt Whitman would put it) "learned astronomers." Not to speak, of course, of "policy failures" by administrations in power. But my focus is more on the concrete, not abstract "geopolitics."

The learned PD astronomers' great discovery, as I struggle through some of their jargon-filled articles (memoirs of persons who actually practiced PD are far more instructive and more readable, in my view), is that PD means "listening."

But as anyone who's actually been "out there" (in the so-called "field," representing our country) it's the obvious thing to do from day one. Talking (sorry, listening!) about the obvious!

As my father, a career diplomat but poet above all, put it so well, some 50 years ago in the Foreign Service Journal (1964): "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."

It does not take an Einstein to figure that out -- you listen before you talk (but not use that as an excuse not to speak, not speaking being bureaucrats' favorite language).

Why "listening" should be the academy's great contribution to "Public Diplomacy" is, to me, a person who listened for over twenty years in Eastern Europe on behalf of our government (with much gratitude to the US taxpayer), a puzzle. That is perhaps because much of the academy seldom bothers seriously to listen to diplomats (I won't say -- anyone else, including itself), having its own preconceived notions of what American Foreign Policy (I capitalize these words on purpose) should be, without having any notion of what it's like to carry our day-today "diplomacy" in the so-called real world.

Tenured professors without diplomatic experience in the growing PD academic cottage industry, creating their own "public diplomacy" programs, are, I would venture to say, cheating (yes, too strong a word) their students, by suggesting to them that learning "public diplomacy" is a trade/skill like learning how to fix a toilet (Good luck, young people, finding a job if you have an MA in "PD." I would say: Stick to plumbing).

Well, ok, the learned professors deal with "intellectual matters," not mundane things like toilets. But still this is not, I would say in my darker moods, their subliminal message: Pay your tuition, and you'll get a high paying "international affairs" job 'cuzz you've been trained to do something from  a fancy UNIVERSITY!!!

PD=How to. A preconceived "craft" (as opposed to an inspiration/improvisation/service based on accumulated experience). What an illusion!

All too sadly, few of the learned astronomers, who never actually "practiced" PD "teaching" the subejct, can impart to their MA students the reality of the Foreign Service PD life (forget, dear young and not so-young people in search of a job, about your great public-diplomacy strategy research paper that allows you to get an "MA" in public diplomacy that will automatically lead you to becoming an ambassador). The PD diplomatic life is not that theoretical. It's, above all, about the nitty-gritty. Some "mundane" examples of its real-life manifestations:

--Being nice/beararable to everyone "at the Embassy post"
--Meeting VIPs at airports
--Having to put up with Secret Service overpaid goons during official visits as a "site officer"
--Getting that grant to an NGO though the Embassy bureaucracy
--Making sure the guest lists for the Ambassador's reception for local artists/editors is right
--Getting the right radio station to interview the Ambassador
--Arranging the diplomatically proper meetings for the Ambassador
--Attending endless and often useless "country-team" meeting
--Kissing ass to the the higher-ups at the Embassy
--Keeping your mouth shut most of the time
--Brushing your teeth

And, if the Embassy bureaucracy will allow you (much depends on the background/sensitivity of the Ambassador) actually doing your PD job:

--Meeting the best and the brightest in the country where you are posted and exchanging ideas with them, in support of the national interests of the United States.

With the possible exception of the last one, these items don't sound very important/idealistic, and indeed they're not. But they are the small details/realities of PD Foreign Service life (warts and all) that form most of its backbone. Some bring advantages to the American taxpayer, all too many don't.

At its "most effective" in the field, I think in my most pessimistic (realistic?) moments, public diplomacy avoids gaffes/embarrassments to the USG overseas. Perhaps my most laudable achievement as a PD officer was when I got a high-ranking Pentagon official through Russian customs because I could mumble, in the language of Pushkin, to Moscow customs officers that "the American off the plane" was "important" -- which the well-intentioned DoD personnel waiting for the VIP was incapable of doing, given that its knowledge of Russian (and Russian mores) was quite more limited than my own.

Nothing very "academic" in all this. Well, ok, take a course on how you -- ambitious, interested in "international communications", and hoping to be proud holder of an expensively-paid-for advanced degree in "public diplomacy" -- would deal a "public diplomacy strategy" in country X nobody, and I mean nobody, at Embassy Country X would pay attention to, given how busy their are with their own agenda.

But -- and here I am getting "serious" -- most important, US university PD programs, so far as I know, do not emphasize the knowledge of foreign languages, a "must" if you wish to be an effective Foreign Service officer. Can you, proud holder of a PD degree, speak to a customs officer in her native language when a US official can't get through customs?

And how much are PD "advanced" students taught about history, except as a peripheral consideration to abstract "case studies"? These doubtless brilliant students will write research papers on, say, "Indian" PD, but are how familiar are they with India's art/literature or, indeed, with India itself?

I have the privilege to teach occasional courses at Georgetown University pertaining to US public diplomacy. I absolve myself of "selling" a training course leading to a "PD" job in the federal bureaucracy by stating that the course is meant to be a "historical" (hysterical?) overview of the subject.

I do have a Ph.D in history, to reassure myself -- and I hope my students -- that I am not a total fraud.

Indeed, the history of American public diplomacy is quite an intellectually fascinating -- and ethically troubling -- subject in itself, especially as regards its relationship to propaganda (and, of course, on how it illustrates, throughout the centuries, the tension between rhetoric and philosophy).

But a course on this "public diplomacy" subject, which I hope opens minds, does not automatically lead to a job in the real world. At most, it can lead to a better sense of humor.

I hope that, by frankly stating the above, I will have a few less days in purgatory.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Friedman at his idiotic worse

Friday, July 20, 2012

The ideal job for unemployed film majors ...

Sunday, July 15, 2012


Just as I am passionately against the use of the word "passionate" in describing career plans for young people, so I cannot also tolerate another à la mode word -- "issues." In our self-adoring society, there are no problems or difficulties, just "issues," e.g., to cite a Washington Post headline, "Computer issues delay Metro twice."

Saturday, July 14, 2012

"Dr" Rice

With rumors about "Dr" Rice being a vice-presidential candidate, allow me to cite a piece on this intellectual fraud:

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Cultural Diplomacy

As I prepare for a talk next week to American diplomats (a privilege to be so invited) on US cultural diplomacy, I find myself referring, unfortunately like Narcissus egoistically admiring himself, to pieces I wrote sometime ago about the subject, and which I immodestly suggest might still be of interest:

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


If I read once more, more than I can tolerate, on résumés the word "passionate" from me-me-me-privileged young people to summarize their aspirations for an uber-successful non-proletarian career ("I am passionate about solving world problems in [name the country]"), I think I will frankly tell them to limit their use of that word -- passionate - only when making love.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

American Movies Today: Throw out the Words!

During the current unbearable heat wave in Washington, capital of a declining but at times benign empire, I find myself all-too-willingly reduced to watching television/DVDs, finding an excuse for such a waste of time as a "relief," given how intellectually/physically demanding it is to do any serious work in such climatic conditions.

I won't say "at my age." (I am a happy survivor of the sixties, when I went to college: "Remember the sixties? You weren't there" -- Robin Williams, if my memory serves me right).

So, the other day, eager for "entertainment," given torrid conditions en plein air, I obtained (my excuse for doing nothing) from my local Giant supermarket film distributing machine the recent cinematic opus (I won't say magnum) named Man on a Ledge:
As a police psychologist works to talk down an ex-con who is threatening to jump from a Manhattan hotel rooftop, the biggest diamond heist ever committed is in motion... (that’s it for the summary of the plot).
While visually stimulating, I hardly understood (heard?) any word uttered in the film. So I "thought to myself" (as they say nowadays) that it was time, in my case, as a person of a certain age, to go see an ear doctor.

Then today (Sunday July 8), reluctantly obliged to keep up with blah-blah-blah nonsense of news shows, for professional reasons (I am interested in US public diplomacy), I stumbled upon, on public television, the 1950's flick Dial M for Murder:
Tony Wendice is an ex-professional tennis player who lives in a London flat with his wealthy wife Margot. Tony retired after Margot complained about his busy schedule, and she began an affair with American crime-fiction writer Mark Halliday, which Tony secretly discovered. Motivated by resentment, jealousy, and greed, Tony devised a plan to have Margot murdered.
Guess what? I heard nearly every word, so clearly pronounced, that was said, although the plot is rather convoluted.

Which means that I don't have to see an ear-doctor after all!

My conspiracy-theory about movies today: No one in the 21st-century movie-producing business is willing/capable of producing words and a plot. It's all images and noise.

Hey, the moguls would say (with some justification) haven't movies been, all along, moving "pictures" (not words) for the entertainment of the masses! Look at Charlie --  he didn't need words!

So the "deciders" in this given-'em-what-they-want business have no "issues" that the meaning /plot of their productions, as expressed through words, is meaningless/incomprehensible.

Also, the less "verbal" movies are, the more they can be generic, i.e., appeal to global audiences, what Hollywood is really into these days.

Silence has become the universal language. Or should I say non-language?

Am I blaming these businesspersons? Not really ...

Still, there is some irony in all this. At a time of so-called "global communications" via the social media, people the world over, in part thanks to Hollywood, are losing the ability to express themselves through the genius and beauty of the spoken word.

Is this the end of the world/word? Let the young generation decide.

Via CC on Facebook

Or, as is often heard in public spaces with zombie-like youth looking at their cell-phones and screeching/muttering without bothering to look at the person they are with, "like, whatever, you know what I mean."

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Blast from the Past: 1994 Review of Kissinger's "Diplomacy "

The New York Times

March 28, 1994, Monday, Late Edition - Final

Books of The Times;
A Policy Maker on the Subject He Knows Best


Diplomacy By Henry Kissinger

With Henry Kissinger's "Diplomacy," the reader actually gets two books in one. On one level, the volume is an elegantly written study of Western diplomacy, from Richelieu down through Metternich and Bismarck to modern times. This book tries to give the reader an understanding of four centuries of Western politics and history, as well as an appreciation of the highly divergent traditions in statesmanship found in Europe and the United States. Like Henry James, Mr. Kissinger contrasts European cold-bloodedness and sophistication with American innocence and naivete; like Tocqueville, he wants to examine the consequences that American optimism and democratic ideals have had on the country's practical conduct.

The second book, the book that emerges as a subtext in "Diplomacy," is a more subjective and cunning one. To begin with, this book attempts to place Mr. Kissinger's own policy-making exploits (as national security adviser and Secretary of State under President Richard M. Nixon) in context with the policy-making records of such historical giants as Metternich, Castlereagh and Bismarck. While making an impassioned case for such Kissingerian concepts as triangular diplomacy, linkage and balance-of-power negotiations, the book also tries to spin recent and not-so-recent history to support Mr. Kissinger's own embrace (as both a scholar and a policy maker) of the power-oriented pragmatics of realpolitik.

For instance, the failure of the Western democracies to recognize the dangers of Nazi Germany early on, Mr. Kissinger suggests, can be attributed to those countries' failure to pay attention to traditional balance-of-power tenets, which "should have made it clear that a large and strong Germany bordered on the east by small and weak states was a dangerous threat," regardless of Hitler's motives.

Such arguments, of course, serve another purpose in this book as well: they provide a resonant historical backdrop for Mr. Kissinger's efforts to explain and vindicate his own handling of foreign affairs for President Nixon. After all, as Mr. Kissinger well knows, books have the capacity to help shape one's place in history (or at least affect how one's efforts are perceived): his second book, "Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy" (1957), made him an intellectual celebrity at the age of 34, while his later books, including his best-selling memoirs, helped cement his fame. In this respect, "Diplomacy" can be seen as a kind of response to the publication of recent books (from Seymour M. Hersh's angry diatribe "The Price of Power" to Walter Isaacson's comprehensive biography, "Kissinger") that have provided less-than-flattering portraits of the former Secretary of State.

Indeed, the last portion of "Diplomacy" rehashes events dealt with at length in Mr. Kissinger's two volumes of memoirs ("White House Years" (1979) and "Years of Upheaval" (1982), including the end of the Vietnam War, detente with the Soviet Union and the opening to China. Although Mr. Kissinger does not directly address the charges of secretiveness frequently made against him and Mr. Nixon, he argues (in a passage about Franklin D. Roosevelt) that "there is inevitably in every great leader an element of guile which simplifies, sometimes the objectives, sometimes the magnitude, of the task." Elsewhere, he suggests that only hands-on ministers "with executive powers over all aspects of foreign affairs" can rise to the level of greatness.

Many arguments in "Diplomacy" are decidedly familiar. Once again, Mr. Kissinger complains that Watergate undermined the authority of the President and his long-term foreign-policy objectives. He defends Vietnamization as "the best of the available options." And he angrily rebuts critics like William Shawcross who have charged that his policies set the stage in Cambodia for the Khmer Rouge atrocities.

What overall lesson does Mr. Kissinger draw from the Vietnam War? "The nightmare of Vietnam was not the way in which America entered the war," he writes, "but why it did so without a more careful assessment of the likely costs and potential outcomes. A nation should not send half a million of its young to a distant continent or stake its international standing and domestic cohesion unless its leaders can describe their political goals and offer a realistic strategy for achieving them -- as President Bush did later in the gulf war. Washington should have asked itself two basic questions: Was it possible to establish democracy and achieve military victory more or less simultaneously? And even more crucial, will the benefits justify the costs?"

Whereas the sheer amount of detail in Mr. Kissinger's memoirs often shrouded the larger policy goals of his tenure in the Nixon Administration, "Diplomacy" provides a succinct overview of both his basic philosophy and his interpretation of individual events. The reader finishes the volume with a vivid sense of the author's dark, Hobbesian view of the world and the political implications of that vision.

Moving from the philosophic to the anecdotal with ease, Mr. Kissinger holds the reader's attention with colorful cameo portraits of statesmen, and sharp apercus about the practice of power. He is also adept at articulating parallels between seemingly disparate situations -- between, say, 19th-century Europe and the post-cold-war world -- and using this ability to define broad historical patterns and dynamics. The book's final chapter sketchily sets forth Mr. Kissinger's current views on such matters as United States relations with the former Soviet Union, Germany, Eastern Europe, China and Japan, views that will be familiar to anyone who has followed the author's frequent appearances on public-affairs talk shows on television.

Mr. Kissinger argues that the conduct of American foreign policy has historically divided into two dominant schools: the realist school exemplified by Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, and the messianic, idealist school exemplified by Woodrow Wilson and Ronald Reagan. He argues that America's universalist ideals, combined with its advocacy of collective security, has sometimes blinded the country to the cultural differences of other countries. And he argues that the United States, alone among nations, has "rested its claim to international leadership on its altruism," a claim that possesses "a certain aura of unpredictability" for other countries used to blunt calculations of national interest.

Such assessments of America's role in the world should win Mr. Kissinger a new set of readers, even if "Diplomacy" itself fails to solidify the place in diplomatic history Mr. Kissinger would like. In fact, while Mr. Kissinger's focus on national interests and geopolitical realities frequently led to criticism that he lacked an innate feel, as a policy maker, for American values and mores, his very position as a philosophical outsider in this country makes him a provocative observer and essayist, the roles best ratified by this shrewd, often vexing and consistently absorbing book.

Blast from the Past: 2002: Advertising in the Name of Foreign Policy

The New York Times

August 25, 2002 Sunday
Late Edition - Final

The Nation;
The Selling of America, Bush Style (from LexisNexis)

BYLINE: By VICTORIA DE GRAZIA; Victoria de Grazia, a professor of European history at Columbia University, is writing a book about American consumer culture in 20th-century Europe.

SECTION: Section 4; Column 1; Week in Review Desk; Pg. 4

LENGTH: 1440 words

WITHIN weeks of Sept. 11, Charlotte Beers, celebrated as the "queen of branding" among the public relations cognoscenti, was named undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. Her job was explaining and selling the administration's foreign policy, especially its war on terrorism. The problem of "Why they hate us" was rephrased, in ad speak, as "How we reposition the brand."

To help win market shares from jihad, the former chairwoman of J. Walter Thompson Worldwide advertising agency recently received a $520 million Congressional appropriation to focus on "disaffected populations," especially in the Middle East and South Asia. As Ms. Beers testified, "a poor perception of the U.S. leads to unrest, and unrest has proven to be a threat to our national and international security."

Ms. Beers's efforts to mount the largest public relations campaign in the history of foreign policy will start with market research and focus groups to connect with angry young Muslims and also bring American policy makers up to speed on global opinion. Special projects will include producing videos about varied Muslim-Americans -- teachers, basketball players, firemen -- to show that the United States is an open and tolerant society, and establishing a new 24-hour Arabic-language satellite news network. These endeavors will be guided by the best practice in advertising, she affirms: to convey the emotional as well as the rational, frame all messages in the context of the audience, enlist third parties for authenticity and magnify a good result.

There is nothing new about using public relations with a commercial twist in foreign policy. The Romans demonstrated their power from Gaul to Galilee by stamping the emperor's face on their coins, and Her Majesty's government publicized the Pax Britannica by celebrating Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee with global distribution of figurines and cups with her image. Yet, no country has developed as close a link between statesmanship and salesmanship as the United States. Public relations has been a staple of American diplomacy, starting in World War I and perfected during the cold war, part of a mix that combined advertising with foreign aid, cultural exchanges and wide-ranging consular contacts.

Indeed, it was Woodrow Wilson, the first president to address the International Congress of Salesmanship in 1916 -- urging its members "go out and sell goods that will make the world more comfortable and more happy, and convert them to the principles of America" -- who first employed massive advertising in the name of foreign policy. It was in 1917, after the newspaperman George Creel convinced Wilson, an austere, scholarly president, that a Committee on Public Information could clarify the reasons for America's entry into World War I.

J. Walter Thompson's second-in-command, James Webb Young, was among the first men Mr. Creel enlisted. His task was to convince Germans on the Western Front of the "inevitability of defeat," and "put gloom and despair into the heart of every person in the German Empire." Before it was dissolved, in 1919, the Creel Committee had distributed millions of pieces of information at home and abroad.

The experience of World War I left advertisers boasting that publicity had "earned its credentials as an important implement of war." The idea that advertising could "sway the ideas of whole populations, change their habits of life, create belief, practically universal in any policy or idea" also sat well with America's sense of itself as a democracy on a global mission. It complemented the face-to-face relations that Wilsonian diplomacy endorsed. It was of a piece with the rapidly rising hegemony's self-consciousness about its image, and the belief that every American commodity -- whether a Model T, Hollywood movie or Palmolive soap -- flagged America's high standard of living as a universal right, one other peoples could obtain by modeling their governments and society on America's.

Propaganda, using state apparatuses, was what other states used in pursuit of their goals. Publicity, with private sector support, was the handmaiden of a government that presented itself as opposed to heavy-handed involvement abroad and sought to circumvent autocratic leaders to get the humane, rational message of the American people directly to peoples with similar aspirations. Other regimes may propagate hard-nosed ideology, but American democracy had lofty ideals.

The cold war was the high time for putting these concepts to work. The Marshall Plan, though regarded as a generous gift by many Americans, was seen by many Europeans as a Trojan horse, opening the gates to laissez-faire capitalism. Since one goal indeed was to redesign European markets on American lines, the European Recovery Program, as it was officially called, sought to explain its grand aims.

For Paul Hoffman, the former head of the Studebaker Motor Company, who administered the Marshall Plan in Europe, a "strong information arm" helped show that the "American assembly line" was superior to "the Communist Party line." He ordered 5 percent of local funds used for publicity, comparable to what American companies then spent launching a new product.

THESE sums went for a remarkably inventive range of events, films and publications, many propagandizing the "high standard of living" of "Joe Smith, America's average worker" -- his tidy home, clean blue jean overalls, shiny tools, his car. All would be accessible to Europeans, provided they worked hard and voted anti-Communist.

After advising the government on the Marshall Plan, J. Walter Thompson, the world's largest ad agency, was then given the NATO account. That was considered a more controversial sell in the mid-1950's, when the North Atlantic Treaty Organization faced an "identity crisis" -- American taxpayers complained about the cost of defending Europe and anti-American protests appeared in Europe.

The ad men's advice was that for its 10th anniversary, in 1959, NATO should be reshaped "to forge a history of community and tradition," and "make clear to the world the striking superiority, as much moral as material, of the Western conception of Man and his dignity." The campaign called for a NATO birthday celebration, a NATO song featuring Rosemary Clooney, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Harry Belafonte, among others, and slogans like "Good night, sleep tight, NATO stands on guard" and "N-A-T-O -- four letters that spell peace."

History shows, then, that Washington often used public relations for diplomacy. But the Bush administration is proposing something new, and not just because Ms. Beers has been quoted as saying a "30 percent conversion rate" for Muslims would "represent a sales curve any corporation would envy."

Today's effort is new, first, because so far it promises largely to be about image. Cold war publicity went hand in hand with the $13 billion in Marshall Plan aid. The State Department dispatched cultural missions, including exhibitions of Abstract Expressionist art; staged trade fairs with model homes and supermarkets; and named Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong as ambassadors of the American way of life. (Though both were critical of racial discrimination at home.) The key was cultural exchange, as Dave Brubeck, who also toured for America, wrote: "When our neighbors call us vermin/We send out Woody Herman/That's what we call cultural exchange."

The Bush administration's effort faces different hurdles, partly because it has different objectives compared to, say, the Marshall Plan's "decent standard of living." In the best of cases, even with a clear and appealing message, it is hard for the official government voice to be heard. One obstacle is that there are now so many competing messages from so many sources saying so many things.

Another obstacle is that advertising messages in themselves have so little bite. They are like one-way streets. Effective cultural exchange, by contrast, depends on engaging others in dialogue.

Yet these sorts of exchanges make a difference to emerging public leaders abroad, not to mention foreign opinion makers and the public generally. Consumers, as advertisers know, are not stupid -- especially not today's savvy global consumer.

Advertising, when disconnected from more substantial cultural exchanges, runs a double risk: either it is treated as just more background noise and so ignored; or cited as another example of America's overwhelming media presence abroad, for which the nation is already criticized. The bottom line, to use ad speak, is that advertising is only as good as the product being sold.

Diplomacy not what it used to be

From LexisNexis

September 3, 2001 Monday Final Edition

Diplomacy not what it used to be;
Hywel Williams looks at the differences between British and French ambassadors.

BYLINE: The Guardian


LENGTH: 533 words

WHAT do diplomats do? There was a time when the treaties they drafted made European history, but diplomatic history has now been shoved aside by more stimulating speculations about the mentalities of the masses and the intrigues of elites.

There is still a residual mystique about diplomats, and anonymity remains their prerogative. The secret agreements of aristocratic cabinets that led to war in August 1914 discredited secret treaties, but the 'D" number plate proves that there is still a freemasonry across frontiers.

Mutual recognition arrived early. The heralds of the ancient Greek city states were given special privileges when they arrived with messages, and placed under the special care of the god Hermes, that charming, powerful trickster.

The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office has survived cost-cutting questioning about embassy cocktails. In a very British way, though, the plush upholstery remains, but there is an emptiness of purpose. Even the sentimental Arabists have gone. Diplomats promote trade now. It seems rather a decline. The secrecy of British diplomacy remains its leading characteristic and vice.

Who in the ambassadorial class, apart from a couple of notable exceptions, can claim to have influenced public opinion in the past 20 years? Who would have wanted to? Last week in Paris there was a very public conference of all of France's 180 ambassadors, convened by Prime Minister Jospin. There were three days of round-table discussions open to the Press. Sometimes the questions were familiar. How to promote cultural variety and biodiversity? Can French survive as a language used in Africa?

It has been refreshing to see Their Excellencies asking deep questions. How can diplomacy promote the rights of man? What is French foreign policy on the rights of woman? How can diplomacy fight against AIDS? To ask such questions reminds us how averse diplomats are to principle and theory. To ask them in a session open to debate is unheard ofin France.

There are differences of diplomatic temper and national style; cultural differences widen the gap between our diplomats. British diplomats believe abstraction comes too easily to the French, with their smattering of school philosophy. French diplomats think Britain has a favourite abstraction too: a selective moralism. Its foreign policy has always used ethics as a means to power. Questions about the role of diplomacy have concentrated on the obvious. The ease of communication in the age of CNN makes diplomacy more, not less, necessary. Public opinion is created quickly through imagery. This opinion is emotional and needs educating. Globalisation creates an angry recidivism and a sense in many localities of being patronised.
Democratic diplomacy is about interpreting one culture to another. Its practitioners have to leave the monastic-diplomatic compound, to be accessible to the media, and to talk of principles and rights as well as the usual pragmatism.

British diplomats are career professionals imitating the secretiveness of their aristocratic predecessors. The French, heirs to the diplomacy of Cardinal Richelieu, seem already to be taking the lead in openness.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

"Like": good and bad news

I cannot help but be infuriated by the linguistic malady, "like," that has infested our ever-evolving American language.

I am not an aggressive person, but one day, sitting as I do twice a week on a shuttle bus on the way to "teach" about public diplomacy at a local DC institution of higher learning, I will eventually lose my self-control and demand to a young person on her/his cell phone to stop screeching "like" in conversations.

"Like" is a verbal virus that, especially in the case of American female vocal cords, so often sounds like nails on a blackboard -- an acoustic atrocity that I simply do not wish to overhear, as a citizen-taxpayer of the male gender and grateful member of our Republic. 

Thank God that She has made senior citizens such as myself hard of hearing. It spares me of more "likes" than I ever could stand -- or should I say like.

On the positive side (remember "I like Ike?"), I have noticed that the USA mass media (ABC, CBS, NBC -- I can't afford cable) have, up to now, kept the virus "like" out of their all-too-often idiotic reports.  

While the above-named corporations are in the "news business" for private profit rather than public enlightenment (vive le capitalisme!), I cannot help but praise their editors for keeping "like" out of our daily dose of propaganda.

Like, you now what I mean, whatever ...

An intellectual is just the kind of person many Americans don’t seem to want in charge

June 28, 2012
The Best of All Possible Worlds
Reviewed By ANTHONY GOTTLIEB, New York Times

By Carlin Romano

The French are wittier than the Spanish, and the English know more than the Danes. The ancient Athenians were ingenious and polite, but modern Greeks are stupid and indolent. Jews are noted for fraud, of course, and Armenians for probity. Or so it seemed in 1742 to David Hume when he wrote an essay, not his best, on national characters.

What about Americans? Hume, a Scottish philosopher and historian, never said what he made of the colonists, though he later supported their cause. He would surely have been startled by Carlin Romano’s claim in this ambitious new book that Americans are outstandingly philosophical. Romano was a literary critic with The Philadelphia Inquirer for a quarter of a century and has also been a professor of philosophy. He presumably enjoyed this latter job, because he writes that today’s America is the best place to do philosophy that there has ever been, surpassing even the Athens of those ingenious and polite men Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. In one fit of enthusiastic chauvinism he goes yet further, and announces that it is the “perfectly designed environment” to ply his trade, as if no greater intellectual paradise could be imagined.

This news will not provide much comfort to declinists who feel the political and economic hegemony of the United States to be fading fast. But perhaps it will help a little. Let deficits grow, good jobs disappear and China loom — hang it all, America will always have world-beating epistemology and metaphysics up its sleeve. Well, maybe that isn’t quite fair to Romano, because his claim depends on redefining the term “philosophy,” giving it a nebulous meaning that embraces far more than is taught under that name in universities. (More later about this revisionist wordplay.) Also, one part of his case is convincing, and oddly still worth making: America is not nearly so ­dumbed down as its detractors at home like to say.

“Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free,” “Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future” and “The Age of American Unreason” are just three of the books from American writers in the past five years that belabor religious fundamentalism, conservative talk shows, scientific illiteracy or the many available flavors of junk food for thought. The fallacy of such books, as Romano argues, is that they take some rotten parts for the largely nutritious whole. It’s not so much that they compare American apples with foreign oranges, but that they fail to acknowledge that the United States is an enormous fruit bowl. Everything is to be found in it, usually in abundance, including a vibrant intellectual life. Rather like that of India — which has over a third of the planet’s illiterate adults but also one of the largest university systems in the world — the intellectual stature of America eludes simple generalizations.

More than half of “America the Philosophical” is an encyclopedic survey of the life of the mind in the United States, in which Romano usefully draws on decades of cultural journalism and some 190 interviews conducted over the years. There are sections on, among many other things, literary critics, political theorists, mathematicians, broadcasters, science writers and purveyors of unhelpfully vapid self-help. (Romano does not emphasize the fact that these last two categories are starting to overlap.) As an illustration of the futuristic thrust of America’s cultural milieu, Romano also reports on a battery of what he calls “cyberphilosophers.” Many of these are the excitable folk who inhabit the world of Wired magazine, that sunny upland where it is always tomorrow. But more sober observers of technology are here, too. We learn that William Gibson, the sci-fi novelist who coined the term “cyberspace,” does not much like computers.

The formerly marginalized groups of African-Americans, women, Native Americans and gays have a chapter each; two-thirds of this space is devoted to the chapter on women, one of the richest in the book, which features Ayn Rand, Hannah Arendt, Susan Sontag, Camille Paglia, Martha Nussbaum and a host of lesser-known thinkers. The chapter titled “Gays” is padded out with Ludwig Wittgenstein, even though he made just two brief visits to America, and Romano has virtually nothing to say about the bearing of his sexuality on his work. Everyone is included, and so, sometimes, is a little too much journalistic color. The exceptional modesty of John Rawls, America’s greatest political philosopher, was worth recording: he once declined an interview with Romano because “I wouldn’t want to be seen as promoting my book.” But do we need to know the model number of Sontag’s stereo amplifier? Such a detail might have been more at home in the pages about Hugh Hefner.

Romano is enlightening when he analyzes American intellectual life and illustrates its liveliness. He does little, though, to compare it with that of other countries. Is there much more to America’s pre-eminence than the volume of cultural and scholarly products that one might expect from the free world’s largest economy? Romano seems to think that there is, and that America’s distinctive winning formula is mainly a down-to-earth approach to life, though the place’s diversity also plays a role. This brings us to his refashioning of the concept of philosophy, a stratagem that yields the curious result (among others) that Americans are by nature splendid ­“philosophers.”

Socrates, Plato and Aristotle are not the founders and titans of philosophy, according to Romano; rather, they hijacked it. The notion of philosophia was fluid in Plato’s time, and Romano wishes that the usage and practice of the less famous Isocrates, a rhetorician and educationalist, had caught on instead of that of his slightly younger contemporary. Isocrates (“A Man, Not a Typo,” as Romano headlines him) wrote that “it is far superior to have decent judgments about useful matters than to have precise knowledge about useless things.” For him, philosophy was the imprecise art of public deliberation about important matters, not a logic-­chopping attempt to excavate objective truths. Isocrates, Romano says, “incarnates the contradictions, pragmatism, ambition, bent for problem solving and getting things done that mark Americans,” and his conception of philosophy “jibes with American pragmatism and philosophical practice far more than Socrates’ view.” Romano writes sorely of “the triumph of Plato and Aristotle in excluding Isocrates from the philosophical tradition” and announces that “Isocrates should be as famous as Socrates.”

My first thought about this claim was that it is simply nuts, which is also my considered view. Romano offers no explanation of how Plato and Aristotle managed to achieve the nefarious feat of obliterating the wonderful Isocrates. The only demonstrable sense in which they excluded him from the philosophical tradition is that their work eclipsed his, just as the music of Johann Sebastian Bach eclipsed that of his older brother Johann Jacob. Puzzled by Romano’s high estimation of the relevance of Isocrates, even to the broadest conception of philosophy, I reread some of his discourses and emerged none the wiser, though I did remember why I had so quickly forgotten him the first time around. Where are Isocrates’ penetrating treatments of the soul, virtue, justice, knowledge, truth, art, perception, psychology, logic, mathematics, action, space or time? And if philosophy would be better off not trying to talk about such things, what exactly should it be talking about? Romano endorses the aims of Richard Rorty, a maverick American thinker who died in 2007. Rorty had urged philosophers to abandon their intellectual hubris and instead content themselves with interminably swapping enlightening tales from diverse perspectives. It was never quite clear why anyone would want to listen to such stories without endings.

What of the idea that Americans are inherently practical? Many of the country’s best-known intellectuals have certainly liked to think of themselves that way. America’s principal homegrown school of philosophy is, after all, the pragmatism of C. S. Peirce, William James and John Dewey, which was born at Harvard in the 1870s. According to pragmatism, our theories should be judged by their practical value rather than by their accuracy in representing the world. The ultimate fate of this idea was neatly put by a great American philosophical wit, Sidney Morgenbes­ser, who said it was all very well in theory, but didn’t work in practice. He meant that pragmatism sounds like a good ruse, but it emerges as either trivial or incoherent when you try to flesh it out. There are weaker strains of philosophical pragmatism, which investigate the meaning of our concepts by looking at how we use them. But this idea is mainly the property of Wittgenstein, who may have been gay but was certainly not ­American.

Romano’s epilogue hails President Obama as America’s “philosopher in chief,” on account of his mental suppleness, eloquence, intellectuality and, of course, his “pragmatism.” Unfortunately, an intellectual is just the kind of person many Americans don’t seem to want in charge, which presents a problem for Romano’s thesis, even if this particular ­philosopher-king’s reign should happen to be extended in November. Also, politics is one arena in which Americans do not appear, to this foreign observer, to be especially practical-­minded at the moment. They seem disfigured by tribal dogmatism, and thus not well constituted to devise utilitarian solutions to everyday problems. But perhaps the game of national stereotyping has gone on long enough. Romano notes that Americans embrace contradictions, so let’s just say that the place is smart and dumb, pragmatic and windy, healthy and sick, and still a popular country to move to.

Anthony Gottlieb is writing a sequel to his book “The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy From the Greeks to the Renaissance.”

Incomprehensible Americana ...

If you can understand any of the below, I suggest that you treat yourself to a glass of (weight-producing) champagne.

June 30, 2012
What Really Makes Us Fat
By GARY TAUBES, New York Times

A CALORIE is a calorie. This truism has been the foundation of nutritional wisdom and our beliefs about obesity since the 1960s.

What it means is that a calorie of protein will generate the same energy when metabolized in a living organism as a calorie of fat or carbohydrate. When talking about obesity or why we get fat, evoking the phrase “a calorie is a calorie” is almost invariably used to imply that what we eat is relatively unimportant. We get fat because we take in more calories than we expend; we get lean if we do the opposite. Anyone who tells you otherwise, by this logic, is trying to sell you something.

But not everyone buys this calorie argument, and the dispute erupted in full force again last week. The Journal of the American Medical Association published the results of a clinical trial by Dr. David Ludwig of Boston Children’s Hospital and his collaborators. While the media tended to treat the study as another diet trial — what should we eat to maintain weight loss? — it spoke to a far more fundamental issue: What actually causes obesity? Why do we get fat in the first place? Too many calories? Or something else?

The calorie-is-a-calorie notion dates to 1878, when the great German nutritionist Max Rubner established what he called the isodynamic law.

It was applied to obesity in the early 1900s by another German — Carl Von Noorden, who was of two minds on the subject. One of his theories suggested that common obesity was all about calories in minus calories out; another, that it was about how the body partitions those calories, either for energy or into storage.

This has been the core of the controversy ever since, and it’s never gone away. If obesity is a fuel-partitioning problem — a fat-storage defect — then the trigger becomes not the quantity of food available but the quality. Now carbohydrates in the diet become the prime suspects, especially refined and easily digestible carbohydrates (foods that have what’s called a high glycemic index) and sugars.

UNTIL the 1960s, carbohydrates were indeed considered a likely suspect in obesity: “Every woman knows that carbohydrate is fattening,” as two British dietitians began a 1963 British Journal of Nutrition article.

The obvious mechanism: carbohydrates stimulate secretion of the hormone insulin, which works, among other things, to store fat in our fat cells. At the time, though, the conventional wisdom was beginning its shift: obesity was becoming an energy issue.

Carbohydrates, with less than half the calories per gram as fat, were beginning their official transformation into heart-healthy diet foods. One reason we’ve been told since to eat low-fat, carbohydrate-rich diets is this expectation that they’ll keep us thin.

What was done by Dr. Ludwig’s team has never been done before. First they took obese subjects and effectively semi-starved them until they’d lost 10 to 15 percent of their weight. Such weight-reduced subjects are particularly susceptible to gaining the weight back. Their energy expenditure drops precipitously and they burn fewer calories than people who naturally weigh the same. This means they have to continually fight their hunger just to maintain their weight loss. The belief is that weight loss causes “metabolic adaptations,” which make it almost inevitable that the weight will return. Dr. Ludwig’s team then measured how many calories these weight-reduced subjects expended daily, and that’s how many they fed them. But now the subjects were rotated through three very different diets, one month for each. They ate the same amount of calories on all three, equal to what they were expending after their weight loss, but the nutrient composition of the diets was very different.

One diet was low-fat and thus high in carbohydrates. This was the diet we’re all advised to eat: whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean sources of protein. One diet had a low glycemic index: fewer carbohydrates in total, and those that were included were slow to be digested — from beans, non-starchy vegetables and other minimally processed sources. The third diet was Atkins, which is very low in carbohydrates and high in fat and protein.

The results were remarkable. Put most simply, the fewer carbohydrates consumed, the more energy these weight-reduced people expended. On the very low-carbohydrate Atkins diet, there was virtually no metabolic adaptation to the weight loss. These subjects expended, on average, only 100 fewer calories a day than they did at their full weights. Eight of the 21 subjects expended more than they did at their full weights — the opposite of the predicted metabolic compensation.

On the very low-carbohydrate diet, Dr. Ludwig’s subjects expended 300 more calories a day than they did on the low-fat diet and 150 calories more than on the low-glycemic-index diet. As Dr. Ludwig explained, when the subjects were eating low-fat diets, they’d have to add an hour of moderate-intensity physical activity each day to expend as much energy as they would effortlessly on the very-low-carb diet. And this while consuming the same amount of calories. If the physical activity made them hungrier — a likely assumption — maintaining weight on the low-fat, high-carb diet would be even harder. Why does this speak to the very cause of obesity? One way to think about this is to consider weight-reduced subjects as “pre-obese.” They’re almost assuredly going to get fatter, and so they can be research stand-ins — perhaps the best we have — for those of us who are merely predisposed to get fat but haven’t done so yet and might take a few years or decades longer to do it.

If we think of Dr. Ludwig’s subjects as pre-obese, then the study tells us that the nutrient composition of the diet can trigger the predisposition to get fat, independent of the calories consumed. The fewer carbohydrates we eat, the more easily we remain lean. The more carbohydrates, the more difficult. In other words, carbohydrates are fattening, and obesity is a fat-storage defect. What matters, then, is the quantity and quality of carbohydrates we consume and their effect on insulin.

From this perspective, the trial suggests that among the bad decisions we can make to maintain our weight is exactly what the government and medical organizations like the American Heart Association have been telling us to do: eat low-fat, carbohydrate-rich diets, even if those diets include whole grains and fruits and vegetables.

A controversial conclusion? Absolutely, and Dr. Ludwig’s results are by no means ironclad. The diets should be fed for far longer than one month, something he hopes to do in a follow-up study. As in any science, these experiments should be replicated by independent investigators. We’ve been arguing about this for over a century. Let’s put it to rest with more good science. The public health implications are enormous.

Gary Taubes is The author of “Why We Get Fat.”