Friday, May 17, 2013

Don't Give up on America: Pertains to Public Diplomacy

It is not always psychologically comforting for a returning-home U.S. Foreign Service officer (FSO), especially, I would say, in the public diplomacy field, to be upbeat about her country.

She, the PD officer, overseas publicly, as she professionally should, in a nuanced fashion, aimed (still aims?) to "defend" America -- or is "project" or "engage" a more politically acceptable neutral term today?

But the America she left behind after her many years of service overseas, in order represent the city upon a hill as best she could, soon seemed not to be "what it quite was" -- as if much of "quite was" was, in reality, the American past.

Here's USA today, as seen by some Americans absent to it for perhaps too long: Non-stop, random violent shootings of innocents, including children; unending racial tensions; nothing in government seems to work; people are self-indulgently obese (take a thin-vege snob-walk in D.C. Zoo, and decide who the animals are); bland supermarkets have "no soul," except for those where you pay an eye and a leg to "enjoy" a non-antiseptic atmosphere at trendy places like "Whole Foods"; public transportation stinks (why can we send a probe to Mars but can't fix the escalators of the Washington pretentiously named "Metro" system -- isn't it just a subway, after all); mainstream Tee-Vee is unbearable, with endless ads about male penile dysfunction and the dangers of taking "legitimate" drugs supposedly created to "cure" geriatric you (ask your doctor if you can take that pill [you name it], says the ad), supposedly to make sure it won't kill you and the drug company won't be sued for it; any worthwhile concerts/art exhibits are too expensive for ordinary people (who can afford going to the Kennedy Center); over-priced restaurants where waiters can't stop shouting out their first names in their endless, pushy search for tips, invariably saying, "Hi, you guys ... my name is -- as if I cared); colleges produce idiots -- at inordinate cost to them and their parents -- so-called diploma-holding young people who can't even write a proper English sentence after four years of "schooling" (apostrophes are a special challenge to them) and they can't stop using the dreadful verbal tic "like" when they take the trouble of actually "communicating orally." (No, am not talking about the kind of sex some, in our sex-crazed puritan society, are perhaps thinking about).

More: Freaks run the so-called "free" internet discourse; new social media are no way to communicate with "real" people; cell-phone zombies run the public space, unaware that there are still living, breathing persons on earth rather than cell-phone addicts.

Having had the privilege of serving our country as a U.S. diplomat for over twenty years, I plead guilty when coming back home to some of these (old geezer, snobby, Euro-trash, too-long an expat) negative "anti-American" feelings, if they can be so characterized.

One consolation: reading Henry James (Caveat: I can't stop watching Jay Leno; much prefer him to Letterman).

But in recent days five, like, totally awesome, down-to earth events have made me, like, soooo happy to be an American (even more than I usually am), despite, of course, far, far bigger, more important problems such as the legislative mess in Washington and the Great Recession that never seems to end.

-- D.C. Public Works can actually work. After weeks and weeks on my part (and, most important, those of neighbors) of phone calls at 311 (to reach said Washington D.C. public works), finally a polite, hard-working crew, equipped with pick-up trucks and the proper equipment, showed up to clean up rat-inviting trash near where I live. Granted, it took a lot of phone "pushing," but the crew was there, as scheduled, at 8:00 AM sharp May 17; I was there too; ok, not quite at 8:00 AM.This project took a lot of phone calls and "community work" -- i.e., letting neighbors know we could fix this problem and telling them to call 311, but it got done, I think to everyone's satisfaction, work-crew and neighbors.

And when I sent the D.C. Public Works my comments about the fine work of their employees (especially their manager), D.C. Public Works actually got back to me by email. And now no more potential rats and trash (at least for now!) on the street where I live!

--The Library of Congress. I've been working on a conference paper "Too Hot a Potato to be Funded? Government and Cultural Diplomacy." Visiting the Library of Congress for a research project is an absolute intellectual delight for an ordinary citizen. You have access, in the wondrous reading room of a Library founded by Thomas Jefferson, of information/wisdom the librarians in Alexandria could have never envisaged. And how helpful, how polite, is the LoC staff (one sweetly addressed me as "baby, how can I help you")! Indeed, as I enjoyed access free-of-charge to electronic data banks, I could not help but say, "God Bless America " -- not to speak, genuflected, with thanking our fellow-taxpayers.

--One of my MA thesis students, during our latest consultation, brought me a box of Shatila Gourmet Mediterranean Sweets, not expecting anything in return, least of all an "A." And, most important, his prose was actually readable, respecting the accepted use of grammar/punctuation.

--I just received a letter from the Social Security Administration with "important information" confirming the phone appointment with said administration regarding signing up for Medicare, after many phone conversations with considerate Social Security "agents" (as they are identified), who were kind enough to respond to what to them must be elementary questions heard from hundreds of callers. Yes, like all baby boomers, I think I'm still going through imaginary puberty, but such a quick and professional response to some of us who will not live forever is (how shall I put it?) at first somewhat disconcerting but ultimately comforting.

--Paul Rockower, Levantine, about the recent tour of a State-Department sponsored blue-grass group in Central Asia; Paul -- he reminds me of Montaigne -- is an accomplished writer who admirably evokes what this enthusiastic and sensitive musical ensemble did on behalf of art -- at minimal cost to the taxpayer.

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