Punk Is Not Dead

Today my review essay of Masha Gessen’s latest book, Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot, appears in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

The book is a testament to the courage of the members of the group who used creative means to attack the regime and status quo of Vladimir Putin’s Russia — currently enjoying the world’s attention in Sochi during the winter Olympics.

I send my sincere thanks to the editors at the L.A. Review of Books for publishing my review.

###

Posted in Book Reviews, Books, Politics and Political Theory | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Interpreter of Comedies

The extended appearance of Pussy Riot members Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina on The Colbert Report Feb. 7 is worth watching for any number of reasons, top among them are hearing two victims of Vladimir Putin’s regime speaking in their own language. Undeterred from their ordeal, they are in the United States to try to make Russia a better place.

But it is also amazing to watch how well this interview works considering that it is consecutively interpreted in Russian and English between the interview subjects and Stephen Colbert’s weird ultraconservative alter ego. Colbert maintains his usual quick and sympathetic wit, but Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina more than keep up with him. Given their experience, their humor and barbs against the man responsible for their imprisonment and amnesty are all the more extraordinary and biting.

And keeping stride between the two sides — the Russians on one, Colbert and his unpredictable character on the other — is Anna Kadysheva, the interpreter. A professional interpreter and photographer living in New York, she deserves extraordinary praise for her deft linguistic abilities. This interview could have easily gone flat, but she brought the same smarts in two languages to the table as her subjects displayed to convey the bite and humor in both directions.

This is no mean achievement. Translation usually kills humor first. The situational aspect of the interview, and the obvious good will and intelligence arrayed at the table, helped the comedy vault the language barrier. But it was easy to miss how fluidly Anna kept the laughs flowing back and forth between subjects and interrogator. Listening to her, I recalled a professional’s admiring comment that it was Ginger Rogers who danced with Fred Astaire “backwards, and in heels”. The studio audience loved every second.

It’s not clear that Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina’s visit to the United States has done them much good politically back home — the anonymous collective known as Pussy Riot back in Russia has apparently broken off with them as they pursue their cause of prison reform. And going under the glare of the American media surely won’t help them with Putin’s propaganda machine, which can easily hijack Colbert’s hijinks to show how much the anti-Russian American media megalith, already tweeting furiously about their unfinished rooms in Sochi (as if that were not mere coincidence), loves these women and is conspiring to oppress the greatness of Russia.

But they have to talk to those who will listen. There is no other way to communicate what they have to say, and communication is part and parcel of real change. It is clear that they are sincere about that, and we can only hope their celebrity will protect them — and their friends — from the harm that has come to so many others back home.

This post was updated on March 5, 2014.

###

Posted in Politics and Political Theory | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

America Is It

State Department and Customs and Border Protection, take note. Leave it to Coca-Cola, the preeminent American brand, to get so much right in 60 seconds during the Super Bowl. The short spot is the song “America the Beautiful” cut between a variety of scenes of family and friends from different cultural backgrounds enjoying themselves in the natural beauty of this country, in cities and at home. With slight edits (to remove the product placement) this could easily be played at every port of entry in the country.

What really sets this spot apart is the seamless weaving of our emotional national ode sung in several different languages — Spanish, Hindi, Tagalog, Hebrew, Arabic, to name a few. (If you visit the Youtube page with the videos you can learn about the “making of” with the many people who helped sing this multi-linguistic version of the classic hymn.)

It’s hard not to be moved by the music and the subtle message of the change in language (although there are the haters) which speaks more clearly than any argument I’ve ever made that America the beautiful is made up not so much of people ticking those ridiculously confining ethnic or racial boxes  but people who speak different languages. And somehow, for the most part, we make it work better than any other country on the planet. That’s something to celebrate and to emulate, not to disparage and denounce.

I’ve also written before about the effectiveness of advertisements and what we can learn from them for effective public diplomacy. Coke once taught the world to sing and I think this spot is even more effective than that famous advertisement. It’s more than enough to make the whole world smile.

###

Posted in Public Diplomacy | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Man in Full

U.S. Rep. George Miller (via McClatchy)

U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., announced this month he would not seek reelection this year after serving nearly 40 years in the House of Representatives. By any measure that is an extraordinary political career, but it is all the more so for what he accomplished during his tenure. And it’s all the more important to point out that in this strange gloaming moment when political success is measured by the strength of opposing polarity, George was — is — a man who insisted on getting things done. That is what politics is for. It is the art of the impossible. Or in the words of Ted Kennedy about his older brother, “I dream of things that never were and ask, ‘why not?'”

That is not necessarily a liberal precept. George was open to reforming the Endangered Species Act,  worked with the teachers union over education reform, and empowered the Chemical Safety Board to investigate industrial accidents rather than litigate them. (A recent reminder of that legacy, and George’s fight for clean drinking water, came during the recent accident in West Virginia). And he always did it, whether in the minority or the majority, with Republican partners — even President George W. Bush.

George represented my home town until redistricting went into effect last year. He was my Congressman when I worked for him in the late 1990s. In the arc of his career my service wasn’t very long, but it felt like a compressed graduate education in American politics. Every day, every minute on the job was freighted with import and insight. I like to think I had the good sense to recognize the privileged position I had then, working for a senior Member of Congress, and one so good and dedicated to his job. (If I didn’t then, I sure as hell do now.)

He cultivated good people working for him as well, and they form an awesome alumni association: Ilir Zherka, a legislative counsel, most recently led the effort to get voting rights for the District of Columbia. Charles Barone, an education policy expert, continues his work for Democrats for Education Reform. John Laurence, long George’s chief of staff, became Nancy Pelosi’s chief of staff during her Speakership. I’m amazed that I worked with them.

George demonstrated what could get done and that has informed my general optimism about politics. Working for him more than 15 years ago I saw him pass legislation to extend health care to poor children. Two administrations later, the Affordable Care Act extended those same benefits to most Americans. The impossible became possible. That’s what politics is for.

###

Posted in Politics and Political Theory | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Centenary’s Legacy Beneath Our Feet

The battlefield at Verdun, France (Wikimedia Commons)

The new year brings the centenary commemoration of World War I in Europe, whose legacy reverberates through our history, policy and literature. From the peace experiments of the European Union, NATO and the United Nations to the tendentious borders of southeastern Europe and the Middle East, World War One continues to affect us in our every day. In its fratricidal horror it has become, in some sense, Europe’s civil war. To me its sound down the decades makes William Faulkner’s adage — “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” — all the more resonant and poignant.

While living in Belgium I was immediately struck how the legacy of the combat from that war, and the wars that followed, continued to lurk just beneath the topsoil.  I visited Verdun, the site of a year-long Franco-German engagement in 1916 resulting in a million deaths. (Such casualty figures are almost impossible to imagine today, but just look at the Congo.) To achieve this death toll, the belligerents fired at least as many artillery rounds, and probably many more. The result is still plain on the battlefield, etched by communication trenches (see picture above): the landscape looks like a snapshot of the ocean during a storm, roiled by waves. The churned earth, now smooth, conceals the bodies of the dead and untold number of unexploded artillery rounds. Visitors are strongly advised to keep to the cleared and marked trails.

The village of Fleury-devant-Douamont was completely destroyed during the fighting. The cliche of wiping something “off the map” is too often bandied about in global affairs today. But in the case of Fleury and for many French communities during World War One, it is important to remember that the map is the only physical record left of them.

Back in Brussels, a bomb from World War II was excavated during the construction of the new NATO Headquarters complex across Boulevard Leopold III. (We were instructed to remain indoors while the bomb was detonated.) This was alarming but hardly surprising. The entire area had been commandeered by the Nazis as a military airfield during the war, so unexploded ordnance (UXO) — Allied and German — were bound to be left behind.

In fact, Belgium and Germany have some of the most active UXO disposal teams in the world working on their own soil. I’ve seen reported Belgium responds to more than 3,000 reported UXO cases a year. Germany has had four deaths in recent years trying to clear UXO from World War II. Japan is also very active disposing of UXO from the Pacific campaign. This is an awful legacy of both world wars just among our Allies. UXO from more recent conflicts, or conflicts among belligerents involving our proxies, or among countries that don’t involve us at all, implicate a far greater legacy.

I am deliberately avoiding the subject of landmines, which has attracted its own attention for all the appropriate reasons. I’ve also written previously about the legacy of chemical weapons dumped at sea. It seems to me, in the centenary of World War I — in a vastly changed world, with all the belligerents from that conflicts now partners, Allies and friends — that there is something important to be understood about the century-long legacy of that conflict, which is buried right at our feet. And that is: we shouldn’t have to cope with the same legacy, with our new friends, more than one hundred years hence.

###

Posted in North Atlantic Treaty Organization, The Former Yugoslavia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Corrections

Graphic of hand-corrected manuscript of 1984 by George Orwell, via GeorgeOrwellNovels.com.

I found an error in Table 7.2 on page 124 relating to languages spoken in the United States. All of the numbers are from the U.S. Census Bureau and are accurate. But French (including dialects) at 1,358,816 inexplicably appears as the sixth-most spoken language in the United States after English. It should be fourth after Tagalog. (Jan. 1, 2014)

————–

From a friend working for an independent observer mission in Tblisi, Georgia, come the first corrections to my book The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy.

She notes on page 147 that during the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia Russia sent forces into South Ossetia, not North Ossetia, and Carl Bildt is the Foreign Minister of Sweden, not Finland (apologies to Mr. Bildt!).

I am very happy to make factual corrections such as these as well as engage in debate about the more subjective policy proposals in the book and on this site. Feel free to contact me here. (Dec. 31, 2013)

###

Posted in Book Reviews, Books, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Public Diplomacy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How This Could End

Old Kabul, 2006. Photo by John Moore/Getty Pictures (via NATO Review)

Washington Post/ABC News poll of the American public released before Christmas may have been ignored for the negative tone typical of surveys of this type. Thirteen years into the war in Afghanistan and months away from a definitive withdrawal, the conflict is far from popular. But buried in the poll and the story, which also includes a recent AP/gfk poll reporting similar results, is an ominous trend of American public opinion that could slam the door on our political effort in that country, turn us away from the Afghan people, and irreparably rend the strategic relationship we have built in Central Asia. This only becomes clear when you understand the nature and history of public opinion and American entanglements overseas.

The Washington Post/ABC poll reported that a record high number of Americans believe the U.S. effort in Afghanistan “has not been worth it”. This characterization is different from saying they support the war or support the troops, the President or his foreign policy. This is a referendum on the entire effort.

The AP/gfk poll used similar language, with 57 percent of American suggesting that we “did the wrong thing” by invading the country in 2001-2002. The Washington Post poll demonstrates a majority of Americans have felt this way for some time, at least since early 2010.

The language is similar — but importantly not identical — to language that Gallup used to track American public opinion in Vietnam and Iraq, and this is why we should look very closely at the Post language and wait to see if Gallup might confirm it. Because the Gallup language is the absolute bellwether of political support for counterinsurgency efforts like those we are undertaking in Afghanistan.

Source: Gallup

Specifically, Gallup asks whether the effort (in Vietnam, in Iraq) was “a mistake”. And once U.S. public opinion tips definitively to a majority believing the effort was “a mistake,” political support for the war has been irreparably undermined. The geopolitical consequences are obvious. Americans believed the war in Vietnam was “a mistake” after the Tet Offensive in 1968 and material American support for the South Vietnamese government began to evaporate leading up to a full withdrawal in 1972. Saigon collapsed under North Vietnamese assault in 1975 and Americans effectively ignored the takeover by Khmer Rouge communist radicals of neighboring Cambodia the same year.

Americans similarly turned on the war in Iraq definitively in September 2006 — remember the “thumpin'” President Bush and Congressional Republicans received in November that year — and only a token military presence remains in the country today. Longstanding political-military efforts like these cannot last without broad-based political support at home. All major American engagements since World War II started with high public approval rates at the outbreak of hostilities.

“Mistake” seems to be the all-important language defining the collective change of mind, and the other polls’ characterizations don’t quite capture its definitive connotation. But they come close, and that’s ominous. Insurgencies like the one we are fighting, and supporting the Afghan government in fighting in their country, on average last about 15 years. As the old expression goes, the insurgent has the time while we hold the watch. That is especially true for democracies. But that does not mean we and our Afghan friends cannot prevail.

That requires leadership. I have written before about how the President does not seem to carry his rhetorical talent over to matters of war and conflict. I have also written about how we may not have the language to articulate progress and contextualize setbacks in an insurgency. And this past year has certainly assailed the President on other issues. But he has also consistently demonstrated that when he has needed to rally the public to him, he can. Now is the time to do so, before it’s too late. Fortunately, the same Washington Post poll also reported that 55 percent of Americans also supported leaving some U.S. forces in Afghanistan to continue counterinsurgency operations, which suggests that we have not quite made our minds up about this endeavor.

Because too much is at stake. We have committed too much to our friends, taken the fight too hard to our enemies, and borne too much sacrifice, to walk away from the struggle. The struggle is not so much with al Qaeda, or the Taliban, or their kith, but for the desire to establish a decent society with commerce and institutions that promote and preserve the dignity of people in a region that has long lacked these things. It is that lack that our enemies have exploited.

###

Posted in Afghanistan, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Public Diplomacy | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Matters of Interpretation

If the unfortunate fracas over the fraudulent sign language interpreter for the public funeral service of Nelson Mandela had one upside, it might be this wonderful, illuminating (if short) discussion with Melanie Metzger, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Interpretation at Galludet University in Washington, D.C., on the Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU.

As you can see in the embedded video above, the discussion is made all the more informative for the live, simultaneous sign language interpretation incorporated into the interview between Dr. Metzger and her interpreter, Caroline Ressler. For those who have never watched the interaction between a deaf speaker and an interpreter, or who have only seen sign language interpreters on television or on stage, the relationship between the two might surprise them.  Deaf conversation can be highly animated, tactile, and for the hearing audience — missed here because of the spoken interpretation — often surprisingly loud and percussive. This also provides you a much better idea of the impressive feat of simultaneous interpretation, in any language.

I have posted this discussion not just for the importance of the topic but also because of my interest in language and interpretation generally.  American Sign Language is a language, with its own regional accents and dialects, and the cognitive issues Metzger discusses here are analogous to interpretation in other languages, regardless of ability or tongue.

I would only add for those living near Gallaudet University (or anyone with access to a school for the deaf) to see a theater production at the drama studio, which as a hearing person I can only describe as theater acted in three dimensions after a life performing in bas relief!

###

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Last Three Feet

Hear my interview with The Public Diplomat’s PDCast, courtesy of Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications and its Master’s Program in Public Diplomacy. I talk about working at NATO, my new book, and effective public diplomacy. Many thanks to Michael Ardaiolo for conducting the interview!

###

Posted in North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Public Diplomacy, The Former Yugoslavia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lessons from Robben Island

Nelson Mandela repairing prison clothes on Robben Island in 1966 (via ezakwantu.com)

I visited Robben Island, South Africa’s prison colony off the Western Cape, more than a decade ago when I was in South Africa with the woman who would become my wife. Then as today it is a national heritage site and it is a physical part of the extraordinary life of Nelson Mandela, who died yesterday at age 95.

Nothing is inevitable about the political development in complex societies, and fortunately the commentary about Mandela’s crucial contributions to South Africa’s transition to democratic rule have emphasized his unique abilities as conciliator and canny politician.

I remember the day he became president realizing, in 1994, that he had been in prison longer than I had been alive. I thought, How does anyone do anything under those circumstances? In 1963 he barely escaped a death sentence with his friends only to be condemned to a life term. He said he was willing to die, but how could he give his life when he was condemned to prison exile? It is important to remember he was just one man: thousands of unnamed and unsung prisoners joined him in punishment for protesting apartheid. How did they endure the uncertainty of their actions?

The tour of Robben Island is guided in part by former inmates. I was immediately struck by one of them who thanked those who visited for the international boycott that punished his country and, as some have argued, hurt black South Africans most of all during the divestment years. It was important to hear, and I learned a few things, then and now, about supporting the long walk to freedom — in South Africa and elsewhere.

Sanctions work. Economic boycotts, divestment campaigns, industrial action, coordinated sanctions — these bring real pain to regimes and nations we want to bring to heel. We’ve seen this in South Africa, Burma, now (hopefully) Iran.  Interestingly, fellow Nobel laureate Lech Walesa — who visited Washington this week on the occasion of his 70th birthday — argued that it was the deliberate economic impact of the Solidarity protests as much as the political effects that forced the communist authorities to negotiate their way out of power in 1989. Constant strike actions and work stoppages at the Gdansk shipyards, ironworks, and factories, meant that what little industrial output Poland could boast in the Comintern was at the mercy of the workers. This was an economic disaster in a country that couldn’t produce enough to eat, never mind politically untenable in the workers’ paradise. It’s a shame, of course, that somebody as forceful and articulate on the dehumanizing nature of communism as Ronald Reagan couldn’t bring the same moral clarity to the brutalizing inhumanity of apartheid.

Gestures are important. Mandela talked about the importance of the salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics (it is interesting to note that fellow medalist, the Australian Peter Norman, also joined in the protest by wearing a badge to show solidarity with Smith and Carlos and also to protest official Australian policy). While it is easy to dismiss the empty, effect-less, “political gesture” — the op-ed, the speech, the demonstration, the outburst — they are incredibly important to maintain morale for those who are engaged in political struggle against authority or enormous odds, and acutely so if they are in prison. Official gestures are even more important. When the United States takes sides, or defends individual dissidents, the effect is tremendous. They are always worth the political risk. Speeches by John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan at the Berlin Wall, when they leaked to the other side, told those living under communism that we understood their reality.  But if the United States is tepid, or “balanced,” fighters for freedom can smell equivocation. Their reaction breeds resentment, suspicion and cynicism.

Information is ammunition. One amusing but poignant story told during our Robben Island visit involved the insatiable need for information among the political prisoners. They were at the head of the revolution in South Africa, but the authorities cut them off from all news and virtually all communication from the outside world. They were not just news junkies: to be effective and relevant, they had to know what was going on. And information was vital to their morale. Any sign from the outside that they were recognized, that the struggle was continuing, made their experience worth enduring.

The story was this. A priest came to lead a prayer session with a group of inmates. He arrived with an attache case, which he left casually open on a chair next to him at the front of the room. The priest invited an inmate to lead them in prayer, which he promptly did by going to the front of the room on the other side of the chair. He peeked inside the attache case and saw a newspaper. He immediately asked everyone to close their eyes and bow their heads in prayer. As soon as he was convinced everyone had closed their eyes, he pinched the newspaper and led the prayer.

President Barack Obama, in his remarks on the death of Nelson Mandela, said he spent his life studying the great man and would continue to do so. In Mandela there is the ennobling experience of an entire nation. Indeed, as we found on Robben Island, there is much more to be learned not just from him, but from the whole country.

###

Posted in Politics and Political Theory, Public Diplomacy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment