Sunday, December 8, 2013

How to End a Blog?

Exactly seven years ago, in December of 2006, I had to decide what to do with the blog I had maintained to document my experience as a Fulbright scholar in Finland.  At the time I felt a little like an actor in a soap opera who is asked for ideas about how to kill off his own character.  I didn’t want it to end, so I just stopped posting but left everything intact so that people could still comment on old posts.  I have been glad ever since, because it has allowed the old girl to spring to life once in a while when someone stumbles onto the site, gets interested in an issue that I wrote about, and then steps forward to offer an update or further reflections.  Just a few weeks ago, for instance, someone reported anonymously that the municipal government of Oulu had torn down an unusual building that had played an important role in the history of the city; I had argued for its preservation.  And I thought to myself, you know, I’m glad I never pulled the plug on Fulbrighter in Finland.
Now, as I prepare to take my leave from the John Glenn School of Public Affairs, and as I work on designing a new blog to document another Fulbright adventure—this time in Lithuania—I need to decide what to do about the Washington Buckeye, my avatar for the past five and a half years.  And serendipity being what it is, I probably should not have been surprised to find two articles in today’s Washington Post that together raise a number of questions about why, and how, we should study public affairs.  In “Want to Govern?  Skip Policy School,” James Piereson and Naomi Schaefer Riley take schools of public policy to task, and in “No Such Thing as a Global Citizen,” Jakub Grygiel argues that global citizenship is a chimera and that our efforts to transcend national allegiances are both naïve and dangerous.  There is much food for thought here, and in any case these essays bring us around full circle to the question of whether civic virtue can be taught.

So I think I'll just stroll away, and hope that the Washington Buckeye might endure, for a while at least, by running on the fumes. 


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Friending the Lonely Crowd

I have discovered to my chagrin that the Glenn Fellows—or some portion of them, anyway—are aware of my dalliance with Facebook.  I put it this way because I don’t entirely approve of Facebook, and I almost never use it to report my own random activities or idle ruminations (I have a blog for that).  Frankly, I find Facebook useful mainly for unobtrusive parental surveillance, a tool the efficacy of which is inversely related to my level of overt activity.  At one point, my children, both of whom are adults, had to approve my request to “friend” them—in doing so they must have known that they were devaluing the currency—but at this point I suspect they have forgotten that their old man is still lurking in the shadows. 

One oft-lamented feature of Facebook is its habit of using “friend” as a verb, and that is only one of the ways in which Facebook has corrupted our language.  Even more objectionable, in my view, is the site’s propensity to inform me that my friend Mary Jane has updated “their” Facebook profile.  This infelicity no doubt stems from the difficulty of engineering a distinction between male and female Facebook members, English lacking as it does a neutered version of “his” and “hers.”  Perhaps it’s time to borrow from Finnish its versatile, trans-gendered, third-person pronoun, hän.

It was in Finland, in fact, that I first encountered Facebook.  Oulu, the home of the university where I taught as a Fulbrighter in 2006, is a city of about 110,000 in what is known as Finland’s Silicon Valley.  (In the late 1980s, when perestroika was in full swing and Mikhail Gorbachev visited Finland, he caused a sensation by electing to visit a Nokia factory in Oulu instead of the Lenin Museum in Tampere.)

I created my own Facebook account because I thought it would be rude to resist the overtures of my Finnish hosts and my students at the University of Oulu.  Over time, I noticed that many of my Finnish “friends” were migrating to LinkedIn, a social networking Web site designed more explicitly to serve professional purposes, and another place for yours truly to hang out.

Perhaps because I was introduced to social networking overseas, I was unaware that Facebook was founded as recently as 2004, and that it began as an extracurricular intramural activity at Harvard University.  This I learned a few years ago from The New York Review of Books.  In an insightful article, Charles Petersen argued that the secret to Facebook’s success lies in the way that it exploits the dynamics of social stratification.

In his explication of Facebook’s “snob appeal,” Petersen refers to the concept of “position taking” associated with the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.  It has to do with the branding and marketing of self, to wit:  “When Facebook had been limited to a few elite schools, listing Beethoven among one’s ‘favorite music’ could easily stand as a statement of aesthetic discovery.  This was due to that other salutary fiction of an elite meritocratic education:  that class distinctions disappear, to be replaced by pure judgment and analytic reason.”[1]  To me this has the ring of truth.  It also is reminiscent of a classic work of sociology that, these days, is more often cited than read.  I refer to David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1950), the most popular work of modern sociology—1.4 million copies sold—ever. 

The Lonely Crowd attempts to demonstrate that large, impersonal societal forces tend to call forth certain character traits or personality types.  In medieval times, a relatively stable and static society favored pious and traditional individuals.  The industrial age, by contrast, was all about production and destruction.  Its “self-made” men were driven by internalized values; Riesman refers to them as “inner-directed.”  In an age of consumption, by contrast, it is appropriate for individuals to look outside themselves when they engage in “position taking.”  These “other-directed” souls become masters of the art of exchanging tastes with their peers, though that condemns them to being forever buffeted by the fickle winds of fashion.  If inner-directed people have gyroscopes that govern their movements, other-directed people are propelled by highly sensitive radar systems.  That’s why they join Facebook, and then maybe they worry about what inadequacies they are revealing in the process.

That the young David Riesman served as law clerk to Mr. Justice Brandeis, the obsessive collector of facts who would usher in a meritocratic age in the American judiciary, is probably no coincidence.  That The Lonely Crowd touched a nerve in the American psyche is a testament to the power of Riesman’s analytical skills.  The popularity of social networking sites such as Facebook also may be a measure of the insecurity that other-directed people feel about their “position taking,” and of what another great sociologist called the “quest for community.”[2]  Then again, come to think about it, this may have nothing whatever to do with the American political culture, but rather, with the small-d democratic soul wherever it may be found—and an extremely egalitarian version of it is to be found in Finland.  But that’s another story.

[1] Charles Petersen, “In the World of Facebook,” The New York Review of Books, February 25, 2010, 8-9.
[2] Robert Nisbet, The Quest for Community:  A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1953).

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Strange Career of Pithole City (reprise)

It's week 12, which means that the Autumn 2013 edition of the Washington Academic Internship Program is starting to wind down. I like to wrap things up by reading several public policy classics, including Garrett Hardin's "The Tragedy of the Commons," which tries to explain why fouling one's own nest is both unnatural and widespread.  This semester I'm asking the fellows to read a case study that I recently published about the environmental degradation accompanying the world's first oil boom, which occurred in the 1860s not far from where I grew up--though it antedated me by a few years--in western Pennsylvania. There is a link to my essay, "Pithole City: Epitaph for a Boom Town," over on the right-hand side of this blog. And here is a link to a 7-minute summary of the astonishingly brief but intense history of Pithole City. The photo above is the view down Second Street today. Obviously, Pithole exists today mainly as an archaeological site; it could scarcely even be called a ghost town.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Lessons from a Diplomatic Life (reprise)

Marshall P. Adair, the author of the book under review here (Lessons from a Diplomatic Life, Lanham, MD: Rowman, Littlefield, 2013) is the scion of one of those splendid Mandarin families—the progeny of John and John Quincy Adams—who have played such a prominent part in the history of the U.S. foreign service. The son of a former U.S. Ambassador (Charles Wallace Adair) and grandson of a gentleman who participated in the drafting of the peace treaty that ended World War I (Hugh Dow Marshall), Marshall P. Adair retired as a Minister-Counselor in the Senior Foreign Service in 2007. Those of us in the Glenn School got to know him at an event that we co-sponsored with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Like most seasoned foreign service officers, Mr. Adair has interesting stories based on a string of exotic postings abroad (in chronological order: Paris, Lubumbashi, Taipei, Hong Kong, Beijing, Rangoon, Chengdu, and Tuzla). And he has worked with a few of the world’s most charismatic and colorful characters, including Aung San Suu Kyi, whom he befriended during his tour in Burma, and uber-diplomat Richard Holbrooke, with whom he worked in Bosnia. Of the lessons he learned in the foreign service, some are fairly mundane: for example, that there always will be tension between the experts (i.e., professional diplomats) and the amateurs (i.e., political appointees). Others are a little more nuanced (for example, that an embassy staffer cannot afford to be completely dependent on his or her official hosts, or the U.S. will have no credibility among opposition elements). Mr. Adair was reminded repeatedly that in recent decades the role of the Department of State in making U.S. foreign policy has been significantly diminished by the Almighty Department of Defense, which has perfected the art of ingesting the massive military-industrial budget, converting it to pork, then channeling it back to carefully selected Congressional districts.

In Lessons from a Diplomatic Life, Mr. Adair demonstrates the many advantages that foreign policy professionals have over the rest of us by virtue of their having a historical context in which to fit contemporary events. Consider the case of Tibet. Adair clearly is drawn to Buddhism, and so he admittedly is fascinated by “exotic and mysterious” Tibet; that is why he welcomed (as “a dream come true”) his posting to Chengdu, which is relatively close by in China. Thanks to that proximity, and a close study of the history of the region, his perspective on Tibet-China relations changed substantially during his time there. He discovered, somewhat to his surprise and chagrin, that there is some truth in China’s claim that prior to its intervention in the 1950s, Tibet, far from being the Shangri-La of romantic myth, was in many ways a feudal theocracy heavily dependent upon slave labor. He learned that Tibet, contrary to myth, was for many hundreds of years not a separate state but rather an integral “part of the Chinese empire.” He came to understand that China has good reason to regard Tibet as a potential threat. Finally, he learned to appreciate a painful irony: compared with the treatment of native Americans in the Western Hemisphere, China’s relationship with Tibetans and Tibetan culture could be considered “a model of respect and restraint.”

The nine chapters (plus preface and coda) of Lessons from a Diplomatic Life are free-standing in many ways, but there are a few themes that run throughout the book. One, already alluded to, is the pathetic status—in terms of budgetary and political clout—of the Department of State compared with the Department of Defense. Another, related to the first insofar as it is a function of draconian budget cuts, is the status of foreign language training in the U.S. foreign service. Americans in general are not good at foreign language acquisition, in part because we haven't had to be multilingual. But wholly inadequate resources exacerbate the problem for our foreign service. Take the case of Zaire: “Because most of us did not speak the indigenous languages or Kiswahili,” Adair writes of the embassy staff, “we were not able to communicate with about 80 percent of the population except in the most rudimentary fashion. Communicating with a country’s elite is insufficient.”

I’ll say. The problem is particularly acute in countries that have indigenous languages beyond the official national languages that are usually a vestige of colonialism. We have a very unimpressive record of training FSOs in indigenous languages, and our performance, according to Adair, is getting worse, not better. “Inadequate financial resources limit the number of teachers and classroom space. A shortage of Foreign Service positions makes it impossible to assign existing Foreign Service officers to more extensive language training.” It’s not a pretty picture.

Mr. Adair has written a most thoughtful account of his career as a third-generation diplomat, one that offers real insight into the changing status of spouses and children accompanying foreign service officers in the field. His anecdotes are informed by his own youthful experience as an embassy brat in Uruguay, Panama, and elsewhere. I was moved by his sensitive treatment of the often uncomfortable role that his wife, Ginger—a Taiwanese-American—was called upon to play during various tours of duty, particularly in Hong Kong, Beijing, and Chengdu. Adair introduces us to his son, Charles, and ruminates about the agonies and ecstasies of living abroad (and changing schools!) as a teenager.

Mr. Adair does an excellent job of demonstrating how the personnel policies of the U.S. Department of State often impacted his career. Rotational assignments, for example, require junior officers to float through the different parts of a U.S. embassy, where they will learn about cultural, political, economic, and consular affairs, in sequence, thereby becoming acquainted with the many dimensions of diplomatic work; he seems to think rotational assignments are a good thing, and I am inclined to agree. Hiring decisions, training opportunities, short-term details, performance evaluation, and the system of bidding on jobs are among the standard operating procedures (SOPs) that Human Relations administers, and that shape a working environment that any federal employee will recognize as profoundly bureaucratic—again, it’s a mixed bag.

Most impressively, Mr. Adair owns up to his own errors, whether of commission or omission. For example, he relates the story of a senior Defense Department official who asks him in Bosnia about lessons learned that could perhaps be applied to Iraq in the aftermath of a war waged in the name of regime change. Based on his experience working with war criminals in Bosnia, Mr. Adair took the opportunity to argue in favor of “cleaning house”; after 2003, he wonders how much that conversation contributed to the forging of a campaign to purge the Iraqi government and military of Baathist party members, a policy that was “probably a huge mistake.” Readers who take public service seriously will sympathize with the author and value his unusually candid reflections on his diplomatic career.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A Diplomat's Progress (book review)

Last week the Autumn 2013 class of Glenn Fellows read Samuel Huntington's famous Foreign Affairs article on "The Clash of Civilizations." As an introduction to the not-always-glamorous world of professional diplomacy, I have this week assigned a book called A Diplomat's Progress, written by Henry Precht, a retired foreign service officer. Mr. Precht was born in Savannah, Georgia, and educated at Emory University. He joined the foreign service in 1961 and served in U.S. embassies in Italy, Mauritius, Iran, and Egypt. He was the Department of State’s Desk Officer for Iran during the revolution and hostage crisis when the Shah was overthrown, and he was deputy ambassador in Cairo when Anwar Sadat was assassinated. His nomination by President Jimmy Carter to the post of U.S. ambassador to Mauritania was blocked by Senator Jesse Helms, who blamed him for "losing Iran."

After leaving the foreign service, Mr. Precht served as president of the World Affairs Council in Cleveland, Ohio, where he also taught at Case Western Reserve University. A few years ago, he published A Diplomat’s Progress, a work of fiction consisting of a series of vignettes about a State Department official named Harry Prentice. It is an engaging work that reveals, as one reviewer has put it, the “grittier side of embassy life with a wry sense of humor and a bit of an edge.” To the extent that the work is autobiographical, A Diplomat’s Progress is rather remarkable.

For one thing, the “grittier” aspects of diplomacy are portrayed warts and all. In one of the vignettes, the young Harry Prentice and his wife attend a dinner party at the home of the foreign minister of Mauritius, during which the lecherous host assaults the drunken daughter of the Japanese ambassador. In a vignette set in Egypt, the protagonist must tend to a dead body and a suitcase full of drug money. In “Caviar and Kurds,” set in Iran, Prentice unwittingly leads the Shah’s secret police to an underground freedom fighter named Hassan, whom Prentice discovers hanging from a lamppost the next morning. In this account of embassy life, it seems that no good deed goes unpunished.

Most remarkable as an autobiography—and surely it must be regarded as partly that, in spite of the veneer of fiction—is the book’s unflattering portrait of its protagonist. Throughout A Diplomat’s Progress, Harry Prentice’s diplomatic efforts are undone by his unusual combination of naivete and cynicism. Typically, the reader is given a glimpse of a career diplomat preoccupied, not with the national interest, as one might suppose, but rather, with his own career advancement. At one point, for instance, Prentice seems to have been the unwitting accomplice of a Palestinian terrorist. What does he do about it? He gets up in the middle of the night to compose a somewhat Bardachian “balance sheet of possible courses of action.” There appear to be two:
First, the natural inclination of every Foreign Service Officer: Do nothing. Wait on events and react as necessary and as seems prudent at the time. . . . Alternatively, I could report my suspicions to the police. Playing it straight and admitting wrong might be partially redeeming. The key word was “partially.” The embassy surely would be informed and handle my future as if it had no value. The same with the Israeli authorities. I had to face it: Only I really cared about my future, not any American or Israeli career-building bureaucrat.
During his posting to Cairo, Prentice is asked to interview a Sheikh who might have been in a position to influence the extremists holding a number of American hostages in Beirut. Prentice’s efforts fail. “But never mind,” seems to sum up his reaction. “I could only hope that someone—the ambassador or an unknown friend in the department—would make an excellent report of my performance for my file.” The adventure, he concludes, “just might be a turning point—upward—in my career.” On the basis of the evidence provided by the author, the judgment handed down by Prentice’s first wife seems just: He has “a pretty good soul, even though sometime it seems quite lost in the bureaucratic maze.”

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Quiet American--Book Review (reprise)

I think it’s fair to say that most Americans of my generation were introduced to the English novelist Graham Greene by way of a film, The Third Man, about which Wikipedia—whatever did we do without it?—has this to say:
The Third Man is a 1949 British film noir, directed by Carol Reed and starring Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles and Trevor Howard. It is particularly remembered for its atmospheric cinematography, performances, and unique musical score. The screenplay was written by novelist Graham Greene, who subsequently published the novella of the same name (which he had originally written as a preparation for the screenplay). Anton Karas wrote and performed the score, which used only the zither; its title music, “The Third Man Theme,” topped the international music charts in 1950. It is often ranked among the greatest films of all time.

One can quibble with the Wikipedia write-up—I am inclined to think that the Vienna sewers are the real star of The Third Man—but there’s no doubt that it is an unforgettable movie, and it was an important literary event to the extent that it led to wider appreciation of the oeuvre of Mr. Greene.

In my case, The Third Man led to The Power and the Glory, which I read in college, and finally, just last year, to The Quiet AmericanThe Quiet American is set in Indochina during the early 1950s, when the Vietnamese were trying mightily to throw off the yoke of French imperialism. They succeeded, finally, in 1954, with the victory of the Viet Minh over the French at Dien Bien Phu. The Viet Minh were aligned with international communism, but there were a number of other movements competing with them for the honor of taking Vietnam back from the French. These groups included the Hoa Haos, a Buddhist movement; the Caodaists, an oddball religious grouping; the Binh Xuyen, an independent militia; and various freelancers and gangsters, such as the character whom Greene calls General Thé. In the context of the Cold War and the United Nations’ “police action” in Korea, there seemed to be a great deal at stake in Indochina during the early 1950s. That’s why there was so much covert action there on the part of foreign governments, including the United States.

There are three main characters in The Quiet American. Thomas Fowler is a worldly British journalist who is separated from his English wife, whose Catholicism would seem to render a legal divorce impossible. Fowler, a cynical and perhaps corrupt man who appears to have “gone bush,” manages to console himself with a beautiful young woman named Phuong (whom he can never marry so long as his wife refuses to file for divorce), and a serious opium habit. The third character, Alden Pyle, is a young American—a Harvard man—whose mission in Viet Nam, we eventually are made to understand, involves terrorist bombings undertaken in the name of freedom and democracy. Pyle and his masters, whoever they may be—probably the CIA—believe that it’s in the best interest of the United States to nurture indigenous liberation movements (so long as they are anti-communist) in all parts of what is now called the Third World.

The adjective “quiet” appears many times in many contexts in Greene’s novel, and while the title of the book may be, as the critic Robert Stone puts it, “a joke” (since Alden Pyle is a “prattling fool"), there may be a kind of rough justice in the fact that Pyle’s indiscretion contributes to his own demise--never mind that Fowler earns an assist along the way. The Englishman's impatience with Pyle looks like pure anti-Americanism alloyed with the perception that innocence of any kind is dangerous in the real world. The lesson of The Quiet American is that idealists have an uncanny knack for wreaking havoc not only on themselves but upon everyone in their general vicinity. Fowler’s problem is that his motives inevitably will be questioned by all who know--and that would include the French provincial police--that Pyle was Fowler's rival for the affections of the same woman: Phuong.

This 21st-century reader of The Quiet American was struck by two things. First, the book makes such a strong and persuasive case against intervention in Vietnam that it seems incredible—more so now even than it did at the time—that the U.S. was willing blithely to wade into the same Vietnamese morass--guns, ideals, and naïveté blazing. The second is that American innocence lingered long aferwards, long enough to inspire our more recent adventure in Iraq, where regime change unfolded in just about the way that Greene would have predicted. It’s hard to believe that any policy could have been better calculated to enhance Iran’s geopolitical fortunes in the Persian Gulf.  It occurs to me that The Quiet American may do a better job of arguing against America’s permanent war on terror than other sources I have used in past WAIP seminars.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't put in a plug for the 2002 film adaptation of The Quiet American starring the redoubtable Michael Caine.