Friday, August 30, 2013

"Credibility" is Obsolete

Lord have mercy, a half-century beyond the Cuban Missile Crisis and almost as many years beyond Vietnam, our erstwhile leaders are still mouthing stale clich├ęs about “credibility.” Remember Dean Rusk saying we went eyeball to eyeball with the Soviets and they blinked? Of course the world almost ended, but never mind.

And to go back a little further into the too-soon-forgotten past, some historians surmise that Truman dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki not to force an already forthcoming Japanese surrender, but to make ourselves more threateningly credible to the expansionist Soviets as World War II wound down.

Credibility was the main motif of Secretary of State Kerry’s statement ( rationalizing possible military action against Syria. If we’re going to kill a few thousand non-combatants in the next few days or weeks, and it looks increasingly as if we are, could we not do it for some better reason than maintaining to the world, as if the world cared, that we are not a pitiful helpless giant?

I love my country, but by what divine right do we become judge, jury and executioner in international affairs? It is particularly painful to hear valorous-sounding, but actually exhausted, toothless locutions from John Kerry, who began his political career with electrifyingly refreshing congressional testimony opposing the Vietnam War, a war pursued on the basis that if we did not maintain a credible presence in Southeast Asia, country after country would fall to the Commies, ultimately the Chinese Commies. Meanwhile the historical record of a thousand years showed that China had been Vietnam’s mortal enemy. Never mind.

Only a day before Secretary Kerry’s rationalizations, we listened to our first black president commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The truth-force of Martin Luther King Jr. seemed to hover above Barack Obama like a tired and angry ghost, because any person with half a brain could feel the cognitive dissonance between the president’s mealy-mouthed obeisance to the mythology of King’s non-violence, and the hellish violence soon to be visited upon Damascus from our cruise missiles. Mr. Obama, Mr. Kerry, surely you cannot have forgotten how steadfastly Reverend King stood against militarism, how he made the connection between inequality at home and the waste of foreign adventurism.

Our missiles will unleash stupid violence. Unnecessary violence. Hypocritical violence.

Stupid violence because it extends yet further the hatred that so many in the Middle East must feel for our crudely righteous meddling.

Unnecessary violence, because the resolution of the civil war in Syria will not come one wit closer on account of our missiles—even if we kill Assad. There are now too many conflicts folded into the Syrian tangle, the Shia-Sunni conflict, the Iran-Israeli conflict, even the proxy Russian-American conflict.

Hypocritical violence, in view of the U.S. military’s own indiscriminate use of depleted uranium in the Iraq war—and our government’s eagerness to look the other way when Saddam, back when he was our ally, gassed Kurds and Iranians.

Hypocritical violence also because we Americans rationalize our looking to violence as the “solution” to conflict by hiding behind the fig-leaf that gas is so much worse than our other well-trod paths of war-making.  It is not gas that is uniquely horrific. It is war itself.

When will my country begin to enhance its credibility for “living out the true meaning of its creed”? The worldwide equality of humans, their equal right to life and liberty and happiness, is fundamentally threatened by Orwellian political shibboleths like “credibility,” especially coming from a nation that possesses vast piles of weapons of mass destruction that could make death by Sarin gas look like a family picnic. This kind of credibility is incredible.

All this being so, there is zero loss of credibility in admitting that there is no military solution to the civil war in Syria, because the world already knows. The Syrian impasse is horribly difficult, but at least we don’t have to ham-fistedly make it worse. There are so many creative things we could do besides throwing around our power. First of all, restraint itself can be a creative act, when lack of restraint such as what we are contemplating leads nowhere but further into chaos. Don’t just do something, stand there. Or at least stand for credible, consistent values.

Stand against reflexive unilateral military posturing. Stand for the encouragement—and funding—of U.N. Peacekeeping troops going into Syria in large numbers to create buffer zones between adversaries. Stand for supporting the creation of a parallel Syrian government-in-exile that could make halting steps toward processes of truth and reconciliation when the violence finally exhausts itself.  Stand for giving ten times more resources to career diplomats in our State Department, in order that a larger number of people get trained not only in foreign languages and cultures, but also in the arts of diplomatic conflict resolution.

We have forgotten the kind of credibility slowly but steadily built up by Dag Hammarskjold, the second Secretary-General of the U.N., the first person to undertake endless, patient shuttle diplomacy as a better solution than war.  Hammarskjold lived a consistent, impartial ethic bent upon steadfastly reconciling the interests of nations with the interests of the human family. Oh that my country could be led by stout hearts like King and Hammarskjold. They were giants of credibility.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Anna Gunn and the Underside of the American Psyche

Anna Gunn is the female lead in the riveting AMC series “Breaking Bad.” In an August 23 editorial piece in the New York Times, she writes:

“My character, to judge from the popularity of Web sites and Facebook pages devoted to hating her, has become a flash point for many people’s feelings about strong, nonsubmissive, ill-treated women. As the hatred of Skyler blurred into loathing for me as a person, I saw glimpses of an anger that, at first, simply bewildered me.

For those unfamiliar with the show: Skyler is the wife of Walter White, a high-school chemistry teacher who, after learning he has lung cancer, begins cooking and selling methamphetamine to leave a nest egg for Skyler, their teenage son and their unborn daughter. After his prognosis improves, however, Walter continues in the drug trade — with considerable success — descending deeper and deeper into a life of crime.”

Apparently the hate even began to transfer from her character to Ms. Gunn herself, reaching the point where she has had to hire protection.

Ms. Gunn’s troubles suggest a deeper look at the series as an American cultural phenomenon. To some extent people far more qualified than me have already done this. For example, the book “Difficult Men,” by Brett Martin, explores the creative process of the producers, writers, directors and actors behind such excellent programs as “The Wire,” “The Sopranos,” and “Breaking Bad” itself.

After decades of crassly intelligence-insulting sitcoms (perhaps it was P.T. Barnum who said “nobody ever got poor underestimating the intelligence of the American public”), “Breaking Bad” and friends have presented us with something more akin to a serial novel by Dickens, a form of popular entertainment published in 19th century newspapers that enabled people who could not afford to buy a book all at once to pay for it over time. 

In their efforts to surprise and move us, the creators of “Breaking Bad” have learned from such forms, including repeated use of cliffhangers as each season has ended. They have made something that not only surpasses most feature films in quality, but also allows the characters to inhabit our heads and hearts at a new level of intensity, because we have had time to get to know them. “Breaking Bad” has become a potent cultural “meme,” as Richard Dawkins would call it, a meme that does what art ought to do and what “high art” and “high culture” today often fail to do: connect with something deep in us, challenge us, stimulate us to want more complexity not less.

Beyond the superb writing and plotting of the show, the ensemble acting is a huge part of its success. All the major characters are well projected by the various actors, working off each other and the crackling scripts they are given. But for me Skyler White, the Anna Gunn character, anchors the whole ensemble.  Imagine the challenge of having to gradually modulate your character’s responses—literally across years of acting—to the reality that someone you loved, perhaps on some level still love, has turned into an unfathomably manipulative monster.

Skyler especially stands in for us in our reaction to Walt’s descent into evil. She displays about the widest range of human response as I’ve ever seen in a character—toughness, obduracy, courage, ambivalence, rationalization, confusion, helplessness, panic, and on and on. Bryan Cranston is equally wonderful of course as Walter White, but through playing off Gunn’s amazing emotional range he gets handed greater depth and interest on a plate.

Ironically, it is a testament to Anna Gunn’s acting chops that her character has elicited such a Neanderthal (sorry, this insults Neanderthals) reaction from people. That such hateful comments on Facebook have bled across from Skyler White to Gunn herself suggests that what threatens the threatened men out there is not ultimately the power of the character but the power of the actor herself.

It may not be pretty to consider what Gunn’s experience indicates about the American male psyche as it tries to wrestle with the need to grow up and accept the equality of the sexes, but what a great testament to the power of art, the writer’s art and the actor’s art, that this program has gotten as deeply under our skin as it has, even under the skin of the hate-filled.

As the final program of the “Breaking Bad” series nears, very few in the audience will still think highly of Walter White, but we remain fascinated, because we identify, if only a little, with the Shakespearean temptation to evil that Bryan Cranston has embodied so effectively.

It is a psychological commonplace that a discrete culture like ours, insofar as we are still a homogenous culture (and if we are, it is now our entertainment that tells us we are), tends to project evil outward, onto some distant “other,” quickly losing the necessary subtle admissions by which we can keep ourselves grounded and humane—such as that we are all, without exception, capable of good and evil.

These shows remind us in a healthy way that America is not all dewy, self-righteous innocence. “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad” have at least one theme in common: the fascination of raw evil rearing up out of the midst of the ordinary suburbs where many of us live. Both Tony Soprano and Walter White touch and often devastate the lives of decent people around them.

When we do project evil outward, distinctions necessary to a sensible grip on reality tend to get blurred, such as:


In the larger picture, might this same capacity for blurred thinking have anything to do with the fact that the United States was attacked on 9-11 by nineteen extremists, fifteen from Saudi Arabia, one from Egypt, two from the United Arab Emirates, and one from Lebanon—and then we declared war on Iraq?

Monday, August 5, 2013

Roger Lipsey's Hammarskjold

Roger Lipsey has produced a magisterially comprehensive portrait of the second Secretary-General of the United Nations. Lipsey’s achievement is all the more remarkable because at first glance Dag Hammarskjold appears to be, in the combination of his monastic bachelor dedication to his role and his veiled diplomatic tact, a uniquely unknowable person.

We are fortunate, however, to have Hammarskjold’s well-known spiritual testament, “Markings,” an array of spiritual poems and observations left for a friend to decide to publish—or not—after Hammarskjold’s death.  Fortunately the choice was to publish, and so a record is available of that rare species, a person whose outer journey was consciously informed less by expediency or fate than by chosen, hard-won values.

As Secretary-General, what kept him steadily moving forward against the gale-force winds of chaos, violence, and cynical double-dealing by governments was his systematic subjugation of individual will to a fervent wish to be used by God. Brought up in Swedish Protestant Christianity, a deep reader of the Christian mystics, Hammarskjold not only valued, but actually lived, what he called “stillness,” a creative discipline that enabled him to stay flexibly creative in the welter of such events as the Suez crisis of 1956, when he was one of the first to initiate the exhausting process of shuttle diplomacy.

The working heart of Lipsey’s approach is to subtly tie the entries in “Markings,” a number of which are specifically dated, to the stream of acute international crises in which Hammarskjold was crucially involved, including the battle for Congolese independence, during which he lost his life in a plane crash—a crash that may not have been accidental. Hammarskjold’s refusal to compromise his impartiality, his total loyalty to the principles of U.N. Charter, was seen by his enemies as a kind of partiality in itself, in the spirit of “if you’re not with us you’re against us”—that all-too-familiar accelerant of alienation and war.

Even as he describes Hammerskjold’s difficulties with the prickly egotism of heads of state, Lipsey has managed to absorb some of the spirit of Hammarskjold himself—as found in this quotation from an interview Hammarskjold did with a journalist: “A certain humility . . . helps you to see things through the other person’s eye, to reconstruct his case, without losing yourself, without being a chameleon, if you see what I mean.” Inspired by Hammarskjold, Lipsey takes considerable pains to search out the universal humanity beneath the arrogance of figures like Khrushchev and De Gaulle.

Khrushchev attacked Hammarskjold relentlessly on the basis that there was “no such thing as a neutral man”—the presumption being that Hammarskjold was secretly prejudiced toward the Western powers. But Hammarskjold was not neutral, in the sense of colorless and bureaucratic, so much as he was passionately impartial in speaking for what was best for the whole family of nations.  After he took Khrushchev for an informal row on the Black Sea, he tried his best during later more difficult interactions to keep in mind the human Khrushchev he had encountered in the boat.

As this is being written, a gas attack that killed hundreds of civilians in Syria is putting more and more pressure upon Western leaders to intervene in yet another horrific civil war. The superpower players are hardly different from Hammarskjold’s time, Syria being a client state of Russia. The web of corruption and violence in the Congo has only become more and more tangled during the sixty years between Hammarskjold’s death and the present. Not a lot has changed since he was Secretary-General, except that since the end of the cold war, U.S. military power has taken the place of what might have been, and still could be, a transition toward a U.N. with more effective peacekeeping forces.

But public opinion in the U.S. today concerning international cooperation still yields a division between conservative “realists” and progressive “dreamers”—advocates for a U.N. with more teeth often being stereotyped as the latter. Hammarskjold himself was something quite different from a dreamer. He kept tenaciously to his understanding that if peace was an international necessity in the nuclear age, it had to follow that peace was also in every country’s national interest.

Given that challenges like nuclear disarmament and global climate change cannot be resolved by any nation working alone, national and international interests are inevitably merging. Surely this has a bearing upon how diplomats everywhere ought to be oriented in their training. If foreign service officers are unable to see the equal humanity of their counterparts in other cultures, if a spirit of international mutuality does not penetrate the narrowness of self-interested realpolitik, we will be left with the no-win of “you’re either with us or against us.” Surely there must be room for more of the Hammarskjold spirit, a conviction that it is possible to identify something common in the interests of one’s own country and the interests of all countries.

The tragedy is that statesmen like Dr. Kissinger or General Colin Powell spend their careers in the obedient service of ostensibly American interests, but then, in the backward-glancing wisdom of retirement, they advocate eloquently—not that we shouldn’t be grateful, better late than never—for planet-oriented goals like the total abolition of nuclear weapons. Hammarskjold, speaking to a group of American governors, understood this process with laser clarity:

“It is one of the surprising experiences of one in the position of the Secretary-General of the United Nations to find in talks with leaders of many nations, both political leaders and leaders in spiritual life, that the view expressed, the hopes nourished, and the trust reflected, in the direction of reconciliation, go far beyond what is usually heard in public. What is it that makes it so difficult to bring this basic attitude more effectively to bear upon the determination of policies? The reasons are well known to us all. It might not be understood by the constituency, or it might be abused by competing groups, or it might be misinterpreted as a sign of weakness by the other part. And so the game goes on—toward an unforeseeable conclusion.”

At some indefinable point in time, which many believe is already behind us, the need for separate nations either to maintain their grotesque stockpiles of nuclear weapons or to refuse to adjust their economic goals for the sake of climate stability, is going to be trumped by the reality that the status quo carries more risks than the risks of cooperation toward common survival goals.  Over this fateful paradigm shift hovers the benign, tenacious, far-seeing spirit of Dag Hammarskjold.