08 April 2008

When I grow up, I wanna be a diplomat

I'm still such an English major at heart.

In the first session I dropped into this morning, on this second day of the Conference on World Affairs, I arrived just in time to hear former Senator Tim Wirth tell fascinating insider stories about the UN and how people's responsibilities therein are out of whack with their authority. Example: the Secretary General of the UN, a former official of South Korea and in Wirth's description a talented diplomat, told Wirth how he had been charged with getting aid to Darfur. "But you must have helicopters for this peacekeeping effort," he was told. So he started asking the richest nation (the big US), and then continued to work his way down the list of alliance nations. He went down the lists of South American and Asian countries. None of the militaries of any of these countries offered whirlybirds for the UN's use. No one coughed up a single helicopter, until the Secretary General finally found four in [... drumroll please ...] Ethiopia. Can you believe that? Four old Russian machines with working beanies, with a handful of sharp Ethiopian pilots who had been expertly trained years ago by the Soviets who had to find anyone who cared enough to send a 'copter.

But back to the English-major part. When I first entered that session, I came too late for the remarks of the first three panelists, and Tim Wirth was admiring his fellow's contribution before beginning his own, saying something to the effect of, "His talk reminds me that we would learn so much about the graciousness of the Iranian people if we would just talk to them." And I couldn't help thinking, "Isn't that part of the problem? Don't we need to talk with them, and not just to them?" But I see that this is too close a reading for extemporaneous speech on a CWA panel. Yet I can't help it. (I'm getting all militant, like that Eats, Shoots, and Leaves lady. I mark up library books because I still don't like letting all those typos go by. I make a lot of marks in a lot of books.) The other irksome detail was printed on all the little signs they have on stakes in the grass all over campus, the ones that advertise, "Over 200 sessions," and "Over 100 participants...." But they should use (all together, usage geeks) "more than" for describing these countable numbers; and they should save "over" for describing an innumerable quantity. That editor in me, she just won't let go.

Anyway, I will order up a CD with the UN session because I would like to hear what all those folks had to say, and the subsequent questions and answers are always interesting. Wirth told of the persistence needed to effect policy change over time in a detail relayed by Bush I's former Secretary of State Jim Baker on a flight on which they happened to be seated together, from Houston to Washington. (Baker, incidentally, was described the next day by another panelist, Jello Biafra, as one of the most poisonous snakes on the planet or something just as repellent. More on that panel later.) Wirth said after that flight with Baker, he said goodbye and promptly ducked around a corner to take notes on their conversation, a sweet detail that said a lot about him. One of the things that Baker told him was that in their diplomatic efforts, they had "visited [a country whose name I can't recall] 25 times, but it was on the 26th visit that they got what they wanted." Wirth applauded the kind of persistence and commitment to not only one's own vision of diplomacy but also the embrace of the culture of the people with whom one is negotiating.

Another diplomat on that panel, when given an opportunity to revisit the others' comments (it's such a gracious forum for discussion and argument; I truly enjoy that), also endearingly felt remiss in having failed to entertain with anecdotes as his fellow panelists had. So now he brought out a story with a similar point, concerning an American ambassador to Syria back in the 1960s whom he admired. He made a little aside about Syria, neatly providing context to those of us who have little understanding of Middle East geopolitics, with a quote from Kissinger: "We can have no war without Egypt, but we can have no peace without Syria." He returned to his narrative: immediately upon his arrival in Damascus, the American ambassador asked about a good bath house, and was taken to one in the center of the beautiful city. He had his bath and steam and a couple of hours later emerged to a crowd of 2,000 Syrians, all applauding his willingness to literally immerse himself in their traditions and culture. "Now we can work," he reported the ambassador saying. "I could be an ambassador," I thought then. And I just joked to my sweetie that this conference is a thinly disguised advertisement for going into the civil service. These lawyers are okay, I think to myself as I listen to the discussions blooming all around like the clumps of startlingly bright daffodils communing in the gardens now. These talkers and thinkers and writers give me a clearer picture of the kinds of differences we can make if we make an effort and work together with our communities.

I went to the keynote session at Macky plenty early for an aisle seat down front (in case I decided I did have an urgent question, but I didn't). The address was by Wendy Chamberlin, a former diplomat (2001-2?) to Pakistan. It was interesting to hear her speech and see how she handled the questions put to her by the crowd, yet she didn't have the ability to work a room quite the way Joe Wilson did last year. I am still considering her advice to learn Arabic as a way of learning more about the culture. I could see doing that. She said she has two college-age daughters, and one is learning Mandarin Chinese and the other is learning Arabic.

During the Q-&-A portion with the ambassador, someone did ask a question that got at what's been irking me but I still haven't heard a convincing answer. My own specific question is this: If we can't even care for our own (and here I call witness Katrina to the stand), how can we even say we care for those outside our borders? If we abandon our soldiers to fend for themselves in horrorshows like Abu Ghraib (you can't make that shit up) and the one in Afghanistan, how can we possibly rectify the damage done by murdering the innocent citizens of other countries with only the slightest provocation? I dropped in on part of the death penalty panel today and one question seemed especially perspicacious: say its opponents succeeded in eliminating the death penalty. Wouldn't its opponents just try to go after life-without-parole next as cruel and unusual punishment? The short answer from Mike Farrell (one of this year's celebrity guests as a former star of the hit show and movie M*A*S*H and anti-death penalty activist) was yes, definitely. Someone asked about whether the death penalty has been proven to be a deterrent, which is far from clear. Yet what I heard only confirmed what I recently read about the "brutalization effect" seen in countries and specifically states that employ the death penalty (the panelists described it as a "death system"): human life is simply valued less in these states and countries and there's more murder and brutality across the board.

Today, I also attended the panel on censorship and I wish I could say there were some surprises in it but I can't. I already knew about the preemptive self-censorship that goes on in corporate environments and fake news and Jeff Gannon and Tipper Gore (although thanks to Jello Biafra I now know a lot more about Hillary Clinton's take on sanitizing media for youngsters' health and safety, an ugly proposition with stuff like steep fines for store managers -- but not chain owners, no -- if content of video games on the premises is deemed inappropriate by Tipper and Hillary and their socialite pals on the decency committee, if Jello has indeed done his homework, which I'd guess he has). I enjoyed Jello's bombast and Margo Adler's stories from behind the scenes in Berkeley and at NPR (where being a journalist trumps any kind of activism, apparently), but most affecting was a reminder from the drug policy expert Sanho Tree on that same panel that the more opportunities we take to speak with people with whom we don't agree, the better.

I walked out with that thought in my head above all the others, around the corner to where my bike was parked. I happened to notice that the guy who'd been sitting in an idling SUV, smoking and apparently working, was still idling and smoking and working in his car, an hour and a half later. So I tapped on his passenger-side window and asked, "Excuse me, is there any reason your car is running?" He actually laughed. "No," he said, immediately shutting off his engine. "Thanks!" I said, and hopped on my bike and rode off, wondering if I would have done that had I not just been exhorted to engage with people I thought I might disagree with. (Yes, I believe even English majors are allowed to end sentences with prepositions. If that's good enough for Winston Churchill, it's good enough for me.)

Sasha Cagen, in a panel about publishing, said you have to build a platform for your ideas if you are going to be successful at publishing these days. This, I suppose, is just another piece of the scaffolding.

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