Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

I’ll apologize for my own sins, thank you very much

Note: This is an editorial written for the Valley City Times-Record, in response to an editorial by Lloyd Omdahl, former Lt. Governor of North Dakota (1987-1992), professor of political science at North Dakota university and newspaper columnist. I believe my piece states his position well enough that I don't need to reproduce his in full, but I'll post a URL for his if it appears online.

I post it here because it states my position on the general issue raised, beyond its local manifestation.

Heavy sigh. I should probably be more careful about making enemies...

Lloyd Omdahl said in these pages yesterday that it’s time for the Great Plains states to 1) adopt legislative resolutions conceding guilt for offenses against indigenous peoples, 2) engage in dialog with Native Americans, 3) eliminate “points of pain” between the two societies, and 4) generously enhance economic and educational opportunities for Native Americans.

Mr. Omdahl cited the example of Southern states apologizing for the sins of slavery. He further cites the teachings of Christianity as justification for this proposed collective apology.

I am insulted by this, deeply and personally. That’s putting it mildly. What I am, is furious to the point that I needed to collect myself before I could reply coherently.

Let’s take this point by point.

“Adopt legislative resolutions conceding guilt.”

Whose guilt? Got news for you, I’ve done plenty of things in my life I’m embarrassed and ashamed of, but I’ve never killed a single Indian - or owned a slave for that matter.

But Mr. Omdahl evidently thinks that I, through my elected representatives, ought to apologize and concede guilt for things done by members of the same racial group as myself, mostly before I was born. (Although in point of fact, like many families long-established in this country, my ancestry is not entirely White.)

There is a name for this position. It’s called “racism.”

Second point, “engage in dialog with the Native Americans.”

I am a Native American. I was born here, descended from peoples of different nations, Scots, Irish, English and yes First Nations, who were until quite recently still cheerfully slaughtering each other. That’s part of what being “American” is all about. You’re supposed to give up those old loyalties and hatreds when you become one.

But I’m definitely in favor of dialog. It beats monolog any old day.

“Eliminate points of pain.”

Specifics please. This is vague, feel-good political rhetoric that doesn’t tread close enough to any concrete proposals that the speaker would actually have to defend.

“Generously enhance economic and educational opportunities.”

First point in reply, voting other peoples’ money away is not generosity, any more than sending other people to war is courage. In either case it may be necessary, but it is not the same thing.

Second point, creating “educational opportunities” is in fact one of those “points of pain between the societies.”

Generations of children of the First Nations were sent to government boarding schools, deliberately mixing peoples of different languages so that they would forget their native tongues and culture.

Perhaps the First Nations would rather be given control of their own education through something like a voucher system, rather than trust their children to the tender mercies of their White benefactors.

Mr. Ohdahl cites Christianity as his justification. But Christianity teaches that every individual is individually responsible for his/her own sins and own salvation, not collectively as a race, state or nation.

Mr. Omdahl’s appeal is to what theologians call “cheap grace,” a way to feel good about yourself without any actual sacrifice of comfort or convenience. The kind of grace that is, alas, all too common these days.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Remembering Judith 1920-2008

A friend of liberty died April 10. We received the news when her grandson answered her email the following Sunday.

Judith (Baklanova) Hatton was our son's godmother and our daughter's namesake. She was English and the widow of a KGB agent from the department known as SMERSH who defected to the UK after WWII.

And that's not even the most interesting thing about her.

I met Judith some years ago at a conference of the International Society for Individual Liberty (ISIL) in a village called Swit (near Poprad which was the official venue) in then-Czechoslovakia.

I recall sitting and talking with this elderly, but very lively English lady and talking. I think I quoted a line of Kipling, she quoted one back, we got to reciting whole poems alternately and after a while we noticed we had an audience.

The first interesting thing I found out about her was that she remembered Kipling coming to visit her father when she was a girl. He was sometimes accompanied by his wife, who Judith would invariably refer to as "that dreadful American woman."

We met again at another conference in Tallinn, Estonia two years later. That's when my friend Linda asked, "How did you get involved in the Free Russia movement Judith?"

"Well you see, my late husband was a Russian. He worked for SMERSH."

I think my jaw dropped. "James Bond's old enemies?" I blurted out.

"Oh yes, those dreadful Bond books" she said.

We corresponded pretty regularly after that and in a letter, I mentioned that I was going to the ISIL conference in Rome on my way back to the States.

She wrote, "Oh yes, Rome. A perfectly dreadful city inhabited by utterly vile people. I have friends who live there. They're not vile, but their daughter is."

I replied, "Come on Judith, don't hold it inside. Come out and say what you think!"

I think the next time we met was after I returned from Saudi Arabia, bought an apartment in Warsaw, and met the woman who was to become my wife.

Judith was bitterly commenting on "Blair's bloody Britain" so I invited her to visit me in Warsaw.

She replied, "Oh I do hope you were serious about that, because I shall come anyway."

My then-girlfriend was apprehensive because of the age difference between us, "She's going to think I'm your bimbo," she said.

They got along like a house on fire. I remember when Judith said something typically Judith-like, Monika shaking with laughter and saying, "Come on Judith, don't hold it inside, just say what you think!"

After her return to England, Judith sent out an email circular announcing that Monika was her "official favorite young lady" and that anyone dissing Monika would have to deal with her.

After which she sent me an email saying, "Don't worry about the age thing. When I was eighteen the finest and best man I knew was my 80-year-old godfather and if I could have arranged a marriage, or at least an affair, I'm sure I'd have been a much better and happier woman."

When I founded the Liberty English Camps in Lithuania with my friend Virgis Daukas (http://www.languageofliberty.org/index.htm) she was a regular fixture at every camp and the most popular teacher among the young Eastern Europeans. If you could see the conditions of the former Young Pioneers camps you'd know what a good sport she was about it!

She used to show up prepared with a kind of hobo bundle she could carry in one hand as her only luggage. She'd learned to travel light when she was young, and had participated in disaster preparedness groups.

One of my favorite memories is of when a young Belarussian girl who fancied herself an Objectivist asked her, "Do you like Ayn Rand?"

"Oh heavens no, I think she's a cow," Judith replied.

I think Elena choked on something. She definitely had trouble breathing for a minute.

At one of the last camps she was able to attend, she told Virgis, "These have been the happiest days of my life. All my friends seem to want to do is get together and talk about their doctors' visits, and here I am meeting and talking to young active people."

And speaking of doctors, when she broke her wrist in a fall, she came under the tender care of Britain's National Health Service - something I actually would wish on my worst enemy.

At on point I advised her that she might want to consult my father, a retired orthopedic surgeon. She took me up on this and sent him X-rays, records etc.

For the next few years she delighted in telling how she presented my father's letter to an officious medical bureaucrat at the NHS. Apparently father wrote things like "Miss Hatton is NOT a pain-prone person" and referred to her wrist brace as "that rag."

So, she said this bureaucrat asked, "Do you know Dr. Browne well?"

She replied, "Well, I am godmother to his grandson, so we're practically related," and took an unholy delight in watching how white he turned.

I could go on and on. Judith was a member of a smokers rights group and co-authored a book called, 'Murder a Cigarette' and fondly recalled the days when "Got a light mate?" established a friendly camaraderie that reached across class boundaries in England.

I think I'm just going to give up trying to make this a coherent narrative and tell some of my favorite Judith stories.

- Judith mentioned having seen Neville Chamberlain around the time of his infamous "Peace in our time" proclamation. She said he was actually quite cynical about it, because England was in no way prepared for war.

- Once around a campfire in Lithuania we were trying to come up with provocative questions to spark discussion among the students. I suggested, "Does God have a sense of humor?" Judith sort of put an end to any further discussion, though sparking great laughter, when she said, "Of course. How else do you explain sex?"

- One of her favorite experiences in Warsaw was a Museum of Socialism exhibit in an art gallery near our apartment, where they had set up an old communist-era cafe with surly waitresses who served awful tea. Judith used to delight in trying to make them smile, the way tourists try to get a reaction from the Guards at Buckingham Palace. She said, "Oh how I long for the day when we'll have one of these in England."

- The best advice about diet I ever heard came to me from Judith, who learned to cook from a woman who cooked for a British battallion in WWI (yes, that's One.) The pearl she passed on was, "Pay no attention to what doctors are saying about diet, because in ten years they'll be saying something else."

- Judith and Boris had one son. They delayed having children until she was 40 because they didn't know who might be coming to call some day. Her advice about parenting was, "Pay no attention to the schedules (of child development) doctors give you. Babies do things in their own time."

She used to delight in telling us what a fine, handsome, gutsy boy we had. And how we'd never know a moments peace from now on.

Judith's was a life well-lived. We miss her and regret that our children won't get to know her as we did.

“The secret to happiness is freedom, and the secret to freedom is courage.”

Judith is on the web here.



Thursday, April 17, 2008

That's democracy for you - anyone can be a snob

I've been watching the Obamas with some amusement lately.

First Michelle, with the "For the first time in my adult life I'm proud of my country" moment, and now Barry's precious remark about how rural Pennsyvanians "cling to God, guns and dislike of people who are different."

And by the way, with attempts to make "Hussein" stick to Obama, who'd a thunk that the very preppie "Barry" would emerge as the nickname of disdain?

Fits though, doesn't it?

What we've been seeing here I believe is a bit of good ol' cognitive dissonance. Fact is, it took some time for people to wrap their heads around the idea that black people can be elitist snobs too.

The venue of that remark of Barry's in San Francisco, has been described as the "wine and cheese set" and mention has been made of $100 a pound prosciutto.

Well, now I'd like to tell you about a meeting I reported on recently. It was in a town called Buffalo, North Dakota. Population... probably about enough to seat in a high school basketball gym. There was evidence it had seen better days. There was a lovely brick court house, boarded up with a gazebo in the surrounding park and a large manor house type dwelling nearby.

It was in fact, like a lot of small rural towns which are essentially nexuses (nexi?) for a lot of surrounding farms.

What I was there for was to cover a pruning clinic hosted by the North Dakota Grape Growners Association. As in wine grapes.

Yes, there is a wine industry in North Dakota. I was pretty gobsmacked myself. Google 'Elmer Swenson' and you'll find the story of a man who spent his life cross-breeding French wine grapes with North American wild grapes to produce breeds that are 1) cold hardy, 2) disease resistant, and 3) early ripening.

So anyway, there I was sitting in a small town community center listeninig to this guy from Minnesota, dressed in blue jeans and denim shirt, giving a powerpoint presentation about various breeds of grapes, soil preparation, fertilization, a bewildering variety of trellises and what kinds of wine they make.

He talked about taste, bouquet, all that stuff you usually expect to find in France or California.

And the thought occurred to me as I sat there, with all of us plebes acquiring the tastes formerly reserved for aristocrats it's getting harder and harder to be a snob these days.

Back to that guns thing. Remember that hunting in Europe is an upper-class sport. Here in America it's a rural sport, which means common folks - and disdained as such among elitists.

Keep that thought in mind, next I'm going to talk about... watches.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Moms and kids

Over here: http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200803/single-marry

is an article by Lori Gottlieb some quarters are all abuzz about, called, Marry him! The case for settling for Mr. Good Enough.

Lori Gottlieb is an author, commentator for NPR, and single mother who conceived thorugh artificial insemination by donor in desperation to have a child when she was 40 and unmarried.

It's ve-e-e-e-ry pragmatic, funny, witty, and terribly sad.

I'm obviously not an expert on the dating/romance scene in America. Point of fact, I haven't dated an American woman in almost 20 years. And last time I was single and living in America, my luck was pretty rotten.

Now I'm looking at what Gottlieb says and realizing I'm the archtype of her big disappointment, and most painful episode of Sex in the City
Mr. Maybe Good Enough who she didn't settle for and now sees married to a younger woman with kids of his own.

And she realizes that back then she saw a guy who didn't make enough money and never remembered he'd told that joke a zillion times before, and now she sees a guy who is on balance kind, thoughtful, changes diapers and actually likes spending time with his kids.

What I'm hearing in Gottlieb's essay is what I and many others felt 20 years back, that it's a bad time for lovers in our culture today.

How did this happen to us in the otherwise luckiest county on earth?

Some blame the rise of militant feminism, but my gut tells me this is a symptom rather than a root cause.

Was it that our culture had arrived at a place where it seemed that good times would go on forever, and that we were free to experiment with the fundamental institutions of our society? Heck, of any society.

My parents generation had many people who started families because it was expected of them and it didn't occur to them that they might be happier without kids.

There are quiet obviously, more men in this category then women.

But back then a man with kids was expected to stick around and pay for the groceries, and faced pretty severe social oprobium if he didn't.

My generation won the freedom to say, "Like wow man, this fatherhood trip isn't my thing, I'm off. Hey write when the kids are grown won't you?"

Nowadays I know a lot of single mothers who I think are doing a wonderful job under difficult circumstance. But I don't think there's a one of them who doesn't think it sucks.

And, is there anyone out there that thinks that a large and growing demographic of kids raised by single parents will have no undesirable long-term consequences, or only trivial ones?

Friday, April 11, 2008


Note: This appeared in the weekend edition of the Vally City (North Dakota) Times-Record.

Thursday afternoon I got out to the siege of a house outside of a town called Luverne (population 44 on a good day), in Steele County North Dakota (pop. 2,258), just in time to catch the end of it.

There were enough law enforcement officers and firearms to fight a small war it seemed. The Red River SWAT team was out there, called in by Steele County sheriff Wayne Beckman to relieve the Jamestown and Valley City tac teams. I saw Barnes County sheriff Gene Bjerke and Valley City, ND police chief Dean Ross as well.

It ended well, everyone went home.

Not only did the officers not lose any of their own, they didn’t have to kill anyone either, and you could see the relief on their faces.

And this was a very near-run thing. The suspect fired shots from his position and the officers made the decision not to return fire. They had that luxury because they had overwhelming force on their side. There are probably foreign-policy lessons from this, which I won’t beat you over the head with.

Sheriff Beckman, asked by TV news people if this was an average length for a siege, replied good-humoredly, “This is a small little county and it’s not like this happens every day. To me it seemed to take a long time.”

I’ve known rural police and sheriffs in places like Big Bend, Texas and small-town Oklahoma. People think that because bad things don’t happen as much as in the big cities, it must be an Andy Griffith Mayberry sort of job. What gets overlooked is, in large rural areas with low population density, law officers are very often operating a long way from backup. An officer in a hot situation could be twenty or thirty miles from help – if it’s available at all.

Do you know the situations that get the most police officers killed? Drug raids? Bank robberies? Terrorists?

Nope, domestic disturbance calls and routine traffic stops.

This one went well. The local law first contained the threat and called for lots and lots of backup. And in the end all of the good guys went home to their families, the local nut case gets another chance, and I don’t have to point my recorder at a grieving wife or mother and ask stupid questions like, “How do you feel?”

Thanks guys. I know you weren’t thinking of my comfort at the time, but I thank you none the less.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Check Fred on immigration

If you go here http://www.fredoneverything.net/FOE_Frame_Column.htm

you'll find Fred Reed, redneck journalist and all-around cynic on immigration, from the viewpoint of an expat American living in Mexico.

Somhow all I can think of is the verse from Kipling's 'Natural Theology'

This was none of the Good Lord's pleasure,
for the spirit He breathed in Man is free
But what comes after is measure for measure,
And not a God that afflicted thee.
As the sowing, so the reaping
Is now and evermore shall be,
Thou art delivered into thine own keeping,
Only thyself hath afflicted thee!

Saturday, April 05, 2008

I passed hunter's ed

I've just finished the two-week, 14-hour course for Hunter's Education required for a hunting license here in North Dakota. The students ranged from former law enforcement officers to 12-year-old boys and girls.

I didn't actually have to take the course, I'm grandfathered in due to my age but you'd have to be a damn fool not to take a free course in hunting safety, gun handling, game identification and laws etc, no matter how familiar you are with firearms.

And, though I've done a lot of shooting with a wide variety of guns, I realized that my early, informal instruction was mostly at the hands of teachers with military backgrounds, and the technique is sometimes different.

Those of you who know the military method of handing over a rifle during "inspection arms" or crossing a fence with one know what I mean.

I aced the test and am waiting on my certificate in the mail.

Am I going to go hunting?

I dunno. I don't own any hunting firearms and am kind of hinkey about keeping them in the house with small kids. I do have a lock (gratis for passing the course) but I'd feel more comfortable with a gun safe - and they're expensive.

Also, though I love game meats I wouldn't even consider going hunting alone as a rookie hunter. I'd want an invite from someone who's been doing it for a while.

But the primary reason I took the course is, this is hunting, fishing and trapping country for sure. If I'm doing journalism here, I have to know what they're talking about.

Friday, April 04, 2008

On war of ideas part 2: 9/11 as theater

A New Paradigm

A scant three years after the abolition of the USIA, on September 11, 2001 Islamic terrorists struck in the heart of America, destroying the twin towers of the World Trade Center, killing more people than the attack on Pearl Harbor which brought the US into the Second World War. It was soon discovered that the majority of the hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, a country closely bound to the US by trade, defense treaties and by the huge number of students it sends to study in American universities.

That and the mobs in the streets of the Middle East dancing and cheering ecstatically, brought home in the most dramatic way possible that American power and cultural influence did not coincide with American popularity.

Soft power had become so identified with fighting the Cold War that few Americans noticed that, with the advent of the information revolution, soft power was becoming more important, not less.

It took the September 11 attacks to remind the United States of this fact. But although Washington has rediscovered the need for public diplomacy, it has failed to master the complexities of wielding soft power in an information age (Nye:2004: 18).

Almost immediately a startling variety of interpretations were offered. Startling because by the standards of any previous war that began with an attack on American territory, soul searching over the reasons why we were at war seemed as important as the fact that we were at war.

If indeed we were at war. Some public figures on the Left such as Noam Chomsky and Ward Churchill proclaimed that the attack was just retribution for an immoral, imperialist American foreign policy. More importantly, they did so with impunity. Though evoking some public censure, their jobs were secure and they were certainly not arrested or imprisoned for sedition nor were they threatened by mob violence, as happened to German-Americans in the First World War or members of the American Nazi Bund during the Second.

This does not suggest the behavior of a nation that believes itself to be at war. Others urged that the attacks be dealt with as a criminal justice matter. (I received an email communication to this effect from spokesmen for a libertarian organization within days of the event.) On the other end of the political spectrum, Norman Podhoretz proclaimed it to be the first attack on American soil of World War IV (Commentary: 2004).

So is this “war on terror” really a war or something else? If so, is there a propaganda front?

The Cold War notion of public diplomacy was found to be totally inadequate – or perhaps it is more accurate to say, that it was stood on its head. Nor has a new paradigm emerged. Christopher Ross wrote shortly after the events of 9/11, “The degree of apparent hostility to the United States and the depth of unfamiliarity with U.S. society – its values, accomplishments, and aspirations – that recent events have brought into dramatic relief have surprised even those who work in foreign affairs” (2002: 80).

This misses the point entirely. The attacks were not planned and executed by men unfamiliar with US culture and society, they could not have been. The 9/11 hijackers were familiar enough with US society to function within it for years while they scouted the ground, made their preparations and got their flight training at American aviation schools.

The mobs that danced in the streets were familiar enough with American pop culture, and the jihadists have proven themselves adept in using New Media technology such as digital videocameras, computer editing and the Internet. Osama bin Ladin taunts the US from his hiding place on professional news quality videos. Al Queda makes and markets DVDs of the murder of captives throughout the Arab lands.

During the Cold War, the peoples of the Soviet empire, to the extent they had any accurate knowledge of American society, longed for a standard of living and comparable lifestyle. In contrast, the jihadists are most often affluent and educated members of their own societies who are intimately familiar with American culture and values – and loathe them.

Ron Robin wrote, "By all accounts, contemporary public diplomacy appears trapped in a time warp… The dismembering of national narratives – the result of what Paul Bove has described as the “transformation from territory-based power to network-based power” – has yet to affect U.S. information management. The fact that the bipolarity of the cold war has not been transformed into a unipolarity of a hegemonic America, but rather into the “advent of heteropolarity” characterized by “the emergence of actors that are a different kind… connected nodally rather than contiguously” still eludes public diplomacy…"

The principle strategy of cold war public diplomacy was the inundation of target populations with information, mostly because their adversaries restricted public access to media beyond carefully monitored official channels. “fifty years ago,” observes Joseph Nye, “political struggles were about the ability to control and transmit scarce information.” Such strategies have little bearing in a media age dominated by “the paradox of plenty” in which “a plentitude of information leads to a poverty of attention (2005:3-4).

The US is the premier military and industrial power in the world, one that resistance movements in developing countries have no realistic hope of overcoming militarily, no matter how extensive the damage they do or how often the US retreats from any given theater of operations. The US and Europe are together the primary producers of media content in the world, the greatest contributors to that “paradox of plenty”. The Islamic jihadists have no realistic hope of overcoming the West militarily (though a long-term demographic strategy may well overcome Europe in the future) or as a producer of media content anytime in the near future.

After 9/11 while various experts and pundits were debating whether this was an act of war or criminality, and if war what kind, the composer Karl Stockhausen may have stumbled on an important insight – and was vilified for it. He called 9/11 “the greatest work of art of all time”.

"Despite the repellent nihilism that is at the base of Stockhausen’s ghoulish aesthetic judgement, it contains an important insight and comes closer to a genuine assessment of 9-11 that the competing interpretation of it in terms of Clauswitzian war. For Stockhausen did grasp one big truth: 9-11 was the enactment of a fantasy – not an artistic fantasy, to be sure, but a fantasy nonetheless" (Harris: 2002:3).

The Islamic jihadists have mastered the technology of New Media, but any new entrant into the media market has to contend with that “poverty of attention” caused by the information flow from the West. This they have overcome by turning acts of war into grand theater.

Another cultural analogy that suggests itself is the American Indian custom of ‘counting coup’. Among the Plains Indian peoples who considered warfare to be manly sport, prestige and honor were gained by daring acts such as riding into the midst of ones enemies and striking one in an insulting fashion, or sneaking into their camp to steal their horses (their most prized possession). Afterwards the warrior who had counted coup would recount his deeds to an audience in his tribe as a kind of performance art accompanied by song, dance, pantomime etc.

Arab culture, like Plains Indian culture, is considered by social scientists to be a ‘macho’ or ‘honor culture’. Such are characterized by display behavior, the acting out of ones pride - and rage at insults to it. Modern media has provided a world stage for display behavior and modern technology has made it more destructive than ever before. I suggest that terrorist attacks on the West are conceived in the spirit of performance art or counting coup. Though terrorism has produced real benefits in terms of concessions from the West, that too is secondary to the satisfaction from the expression of rage and revenge for wounded honor. The mighty West is humbled by the hit and run tactics of the jihadist warriors – and in full view of the world audience. Thus making the Islamic jihadists some of the foremost media content providers in the world, making up in drama what they lack in quantity.

"The terror attack of 9-11 was not designed to make us alter our policy, but was crafted for its effect on the terrorists themselves: It was a spectacular piece of theater. The targets were chosen by al Qaeda not through military calculation – in contrast, for example, to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor – but entirely because they stood as symbols of American power universally recognized by the Arab street. They were gigantic props in a grandiose spectacle in which the collective fantasy of radical Islam was brought vividly to life: A mere handful of Muslims, men whose will was absolutely pure, as proven by their martyrdom, brought down the haughty towers erected by the Great Satan. What better proof could there possibly be that God was on the side of radical Islam and that the end of the reign of the Great Satan was at hand?" (Harris:2002:8).

If this analysis has any merit at all, then all previous paradigms of public diplomacy are useless in this case. Demonstrations of the superior power of the West are offset by even a single successful terrorist act, the image of which is spread throughout the world by the media. The superior wealth and standard of living of the West is interpreted as corruption and contemptible weakness. Offers to share the largess of the West has the opposite effect to that intended, and is invariably seen as infuriatingly patronizing. Giving gifts is the privilege of a superior in a tribal honor culture.

Ultimately the Cold War was won because enough information about the greater standard of living in the West was spread to the Soviet block that even the Communist elites wanted to “eat at the same table” (in the words of a student of mine in Poland). This motivation is not applicable to the Islamic jihadists. And while it is probably true that a majority of Arab Muslims who are not jihadists would prefer not to live under the repressive autocracies of the Arab countries, we have seen that 1) they have yet to demonstrate that they can free themselves from the most brutal of them without help, and 2) receiving that help is humiliating to them and inculcates a desire for revenge.

There has yet to be discovered a paradigm of propaganda/ public diplomacy for this new kind of war, a new way to communicate directly with the populations that supply recruits for the jihadists, while bypassing the governments that provide covert funding and support for them. The propaganda/ public diplomacy that helped bring down the Soviet Union addressed a population starved for information and who were unhappy with the media provided by their states. Arabic media is by contrast, a rapidly growing business, popular throughout the Arab lands and increasingly in the lands of the Arab diaspora. Communism attempted to impose an artificially designed ideology on cultures that were basically Western to begin with, where Western media acted as a subversive influence. Islamic jihadism is an organic outgrowth of ancient indigenous cultural patterns that are pre-Islamic in their roots and are now reinforced by modern media technology.

If, as Clauswitz said, war is diplomacy by other means, then perhaps public diplomacy is war by other, less lethal means. The West has a challenge to arrive at a new paradigm of ‘public diplomacy’ or unabashed ‘propaganda’ or even ‘cultural imperialism’. If not met then it may well be that total war and the brute simplicity of caesarism is the only alternative.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

On war of ideas Part 1

In an email exchange with Col. Gordon Cucullu I said (to his hearty agreement), "Though I firmly believe that military strength is essential to our survival, in the long run victory will depend on how well we explain ourselves."

So... I'm going to do something I don't usually do - well, actually never. I'm going to post an academic paper I did about two years ago. Among other reasons, I made a few points that I want to bring up for discussion (at the end of part 2, you'll have to wait.)

This proves that 1) I can so write in a pompous stuffy style, and 2) I read a book or two every now and again. So in two parts here is:

International Politics as Theater: Soft Power, Propaganda and Public Diplomacy
Stephen W. Browne


With the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 20th century, the United States was recognized as the sole “hyperpower”. Paradoxically, with this came an increased, often painful awareness that military and economic power has limits. American military power was not able to achieve a victory in Vietnam when there was a rival superpower, nor has it so far achieved a victory in Iraq, in spite of the immense disparity in power. In both of these cases far less powerful actors were able to craft appeals both to the international community and parts of the American public that could be persuaded to sympathize with their cause, or at least to disapprove of American actions.

Nor should it come as a surprise that American power is regarded with suspicion and hostility, even among American allies. American power is awesomely dangerous and has no serious rival at present. And no matter how much the US protests its benign intentions, even allied countries have reason to worry that they have no counterbalancing power of their own or one that they can appeal to for support. And even granted good intentions, American administrations change regularly and often display a worrisome inconstancy of foreign policy. As one practitioner of public diplomacy put it “- the United States, as the world’s dominant power, will inevitably be accused of heavy-handedness and arrogance” (Ross:2002: 82).

Since the 1960s, the phrase “soft power” has been used to describe the power of mass persuasion and cultural influence as an alternative to force. It was defined by Joseph S. Nye in his book “Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics” (2004) as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion". And when force is resorted to, it is more and more recognized that the “decent respect to the opinions of mankind” referred to in the Declaration of Independence, demands that the US make a good-faith attempt to explain its actions to the court of public opinion, both ours, our allies and even our enemies.

US citizens are asked to support with their lives and treasure the US’ projection of power and assume the risks of retaliation from abroad and the long-term effects of a huge debt burden. US allies are well aware that they are also subject to retaliation if they support US actions and are less able to respond to it. Their currencies are often tied to ours, they may be holders of US government debt and American involvement elsewhere means fewer resources are available to devote to concerns more important to their security. Our enemies must be made to understand exactly what it is that they do, that will or will not invite consequences, of what kind and to what extent, if there are ever to be grounds for future negotiations – even negotiations for their surrender, and so that American use of force not be seen as capricious and unpredictable to our allies and potential allies.

In the Second World War, this was unabashedly called propaganda. Perhaps in no time since then have the issues at stake been so clearly explained both to the populations of the allies, their enemies and the powers that were persuaded to remain neutral. Reasons and justifications for all subsequent wars and minor conflicts waged by the US have been in comparison, poorly articulated for audiences both at home and abroad. President George W. Bush admitted as much when he stated, “We have to do a better job of telling our story” (Wolf and Rosen: 2005).

Definitions: propaganda and public diplomacy

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (online edition) defines propaganda as:

“Noun: 1. The systematic propagation of a doctrine or cause or of information reflecting the views and interests of those advocating such a doctrine or cause. 2. Material disseminated by the advocates or opponents of a doctrine or cause: wartime propaganda. 3. Propaganda Roman Catholic Church A division of the Roman Curia that has authority in the matter of preaching the gospel, of establishing the Church in non-Christian countries, and of administering Church missions in territories where there is no properly organized hierarchy.

Etymology: Short for New Latin Sacra Congregregatio de Propaganda Fide, Sacred Congregation for Propagating the Faith (established 1622), from ablative feminine gerundive of Latin propagare, to propagate.”

This definition is morally neutral and seems not very different from the noun persuasion and the verb persuade, applied to a mass audience. Persuade is defined as:

“Verb: To induce to undertake a course of action or embrace a point of view by means of argument, reasoning, or entreaty: “to make children fit to live in a society by persuading them to learn and accept its codes” (Alan W. Watts). See Usage Note at convince.”

If there is a difference, it lies in the strict definition of “persuade” as using “argument, reason and entreaty”. Propaganda is more broadly understood to include the use of music, visual art, theater (live and film, both fiction and non-fiction), to appeal to emotions as well as reason - and critically, not to categorically exclude the use of lies and half-truths.

However, “propaganda” during the Cold War came to mean in popular usage, something like “political lies”. In the 1960s the term “public diplomacy” was promoted as an alternative. It was first used in the modern context in 1965 by Edmund Gullion, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Gullion later founded the Murrow Center of Public Diplomacy. A Murrow Center brochure gives a definition of the term as understood by Gullion and his successors:

“Public diplomacy… deals with the influence of public attitudes on the formation and execution of foreign policies. It encompasses dimensions of international relations beyond traditional diplomacy; the cultivation by governments of public opinion in other countries; the interaction of private groups and interests in one country with another; the reporting of foreign affairs and its impact on policy; communication between those whose job is communication, as diplomats and foreign correspondents; and the process of intercultural communications.” (Quoted in Cull.)

This definition is wordy and a bit euphemistic. Wolf and Rosen go directly to the point, “…to the extent that the behavior and policies of foreign governments are affected by the behavior and attitudes of their citizens, public diplomacy may affect governments by influencing their citizens” (2005).

Public diplomacy is contrasted with traditional diplomacy in that:
The practitioners of traditional diplomacy engage the representatives of foreign governments in order to advance the national interest articulated in their own government’s strategic goals in international affairs. Public diplomacy, by contrast, engages carefully targeted sectors of foreign publics in order to develop support for those same strategic goals (Ross: 2002: 75).

‘Public diplomacy’ also broadens the definition of propaganda to include information and cultural exchange programs such as the Fulbright Scholarship programs designed to “understand and influence foreign publics by familiarizing them with America and its policies, institutions, and people” (Roberts: 2005: 131) and the export of mass media entertainment.

Wolf and Rosen’s definition included non-governmental organizations and actors as well as governments. This became important with the rise of modern revolutionary organizations seeking to found new states and terrorist groups not openly affiliated with any state. For example, Yassir Arafat practiced public diplomacy so successfully that he was invited to address the United Nations with the honors of a head of state and became the single most frequent official visitor to the White House during the Clinton administration.

Ancient Origins

That a great deal of governance and diplomacy takes place in public rather than within the institutions of the state is not a new phenomenon particular to democracies. From the earliest civilizations, rulers have used public pageant and ritual to legitimize their power to their own people and overawe visiting foreigners.

In the 6th century BCE, the Athenian city-state invented theater, about the same time as they invented democracy. Solon, who instituted jury trial and broadened public participation in government, and Thespis the first actor, were contemporaries and undoubtedly acquainted.

Public performances originally consisted of a performer reciting long epic poems and stories for an audience limited to the number of people who could crowd around and hear him. Performances capable of reaching larger audiences were created by using a mass chorus in an amphitheater with favorable acoustics. This can be fairly called the origin of mass media. The innovation of Thespis was to create the role of the actor, a performer who spoke the words as if he were the person who was supposed to have said them (Brockett and Hildy: 1999: 13-33).

From the beginning, theater was a public venue where issues important to the life of the state were presented. “The stage drama, when it is meant to do more than entertain – though entertainment is always one of its vital aims – is a metacommentary, explicit or implicit, witting or unwitting, on the major social dramas of its social context (wars, revolutions, scandals, institutional changes).” (Rosenbloom: 2002: 283).

In 415 BCE during the Peloponnesian War, the Athenian army massacred every male of military age on the island of Melos and sold the women and children into slavery. Within a year Euripides, who had participated as a soldier in the destruction of Melos, staged his play ‘The Trojan Women’, a sympathetic portrayal of the anguish of the enslaved survivors of a city’s destruction by Greeks. Throughout Athens’ existence as a free state, the theater dealt with controversial issues and public figures, public scandals, class conflicts, and jury trials (Rosenbloom: 2002).

What is not clear is the extent to which the theater affected and informed visiting foreigners, but it may be plausibly presumed to have had some effect. Many of the plays of Athenian writers have survived and been widely imitated and translated to new media, arguing that they speak to issues of lasting importance and universal significance. The Trojan Women for example, was made into a film in 1971 and at the time widely seen as a commentary on the Vietnam War.

Modern History

The earliest use of the term ‘public diplomacy’ found so far, was in the London Times issue of January, 1856 in a criticism of US President Franklin Pierce. “The statesmen of America must recollect that, if they have to make, as they conceive, a certain impression upon us, they have also to set an example for their own people, and there are few examples so catching as those of public diplomacy.” The term here appears to be used in the meaning of ‘civility and calm’, and their effect on the publics of both parties to a conflict or negotiation.

Abraham Lincoln used public diplomacy in the modern sense during the Civil War, when the English upper classes were still hostile to the very existence of the United States and felt a kinship of blood and aristocratic ideals with the Confederate elites. At one point there was a very real danger of British intervention on the side of the South. Lincoln appealed directly to the workingmen of Manchester in letters published in 1863, and sent speakers to tour England making the case for the North. George Train, correspondent for the New York Herald, made numerous speeches on behalf of the Union – something that would be considered questionable by today’s understanding of journalistic ethics (Knightley:2004:34-35).

Perhaps the greatest coup of public diplomacy in Lincoln’s administration though, was the Emancipation Proclamation. Critics have pointed out with the benefit of hindsight, that it had almost no effect on the lives of slaves at the time of its issue, since it specifically declared free only those slaves in territory under Confederate control and not in non-secessionist slave states on the border. However it’s effect on international relations was to proclaim to the peoples of England and Europe that the aim of the war was universal emancipation, thus putting any government tempted to offer aid to the South in the position of effectively endorsing slavery.

In a congressional debate in 1871, Representative Samuel Cox (D, NY) declared that he believed in “open, public diplomacy” while objecting to secret intrigues to annex the Republic of Dominica. The term became widely used during the First World War, as did the term ‘propaganda’. But while ‘propaganda’ was used in the sense of ‘mass persuasion’, ‘public diplomacy’ was still used to mean diplomacy conducted between states, but without secrecy. For example, Woodrow Wilson, in the opening of the ‘fourteen points’ speech of January 8. 1918, spoke of “open covenants of peace, openly arrived at” (Cull).

By the First World War, America occupied the position of the ‘swing vote’ in any worldwide conflict - that of a force that determined the outcome of the war when the great powers were stalemated. By the Second World War the US was the essential power, without whose military and industrial capability the victory of the allies was by no means certain. In each case, the opposing powers used propaganda and public diplomacy to try and sway the people of America to demand that the government stay out of or enter the war.

Before America’s entry into the war, the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs was established to counter Nazi propaganda in Latin America. Roosevelt also established the office of Coordinator of Information (COI) in 1940, which was primarily concerned with intelligence operations, but also included a Foreign Information Service (FIS) which significantly, was headed by a playwright, Robert Sherwood. After America entered the war the FIS started the Voice of America (VOA), which broadcast in German, French, English and Italian. Soon, the functions of the FIS were split off from the COI and it became the Office of War Information (OWI).
After the end of the Second World War, the OWI was abolished and certain functions, such as the VOA were transferred to the State Department. However the US quickly became involved in a nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union, while both powers claimed spheres of influence and vied to bring non-aligned parts of the world into their orbits. Nuclear war being unthinkable, efforts to influence the publics of various countries became of primary importance. In 1946 Congress authorized the Fulbright programs, in 1948 the Smith-Mundt Act created a new set of information and cultural programs and in 1953 the United States Information Agency (USIA) was created (Roberts:2005:132).

The USIA operated throughout the period of the Cold War, employing the VOA, various specialty publications, libraries, films and speakers. At the end of the Cold War, the function was perceived to be obsolete and funds started to dry up. In the decade after 1989 USIA funding was cut by 10% and had only 6,715 employees, as opposed to 12,000 in the 1960s (Nye:2004:17).

What passed almost unnoticed was that public diplomacy efforts to the Arab countries, once part of an effort to keep them out of the Soviet orbit, were also cut. By 2001 only 2% of Arabs listened to VOA and foreign exchanges dropped from 45,000 in 1995 to 29,000 in 2001 (Nye:2004:18). (Not “exchanges” they were mostly one-way actually, American students were rarely sent to study in Arab countries, with the exception of Lebanon during times of stability.)

In late 1998 the USIA was abolished and the VOA transferred to the State Department (Roberts: 2005: 134).

Next: Part 2, 9/11 as theater