My Audience & Editorial Policy

Road closed sign


I got an interesting comment on a post I wrote a year ago.  Goes to show how things live on once posted to the Internet.   The commenter said that I was delusional, full of myself and a con artist.   I admit that I was a little taken aback.  I can understand the delusional and full or myself accusations, but con artist just doesn’t make any sense.  The guy didn’t like what I wrote about nature and how I mange my forest lands.  You can read the original post at this link and his comment at the bottom of this post.  I admit that I chose a provocative title and I guess it provoked … eventually.   I invited this guy to write 500 words rebutting me and I promised to post it. I doubt anything will come of it.

People sometimes send comments directly to me, which I don’t publish.  I publish almost anything else anybody sends in, but I don’t get too many complaints or comments in general.  

My Audience & Editorial Policy

The “delusional” comment made me think about my “editorial policy”.  I don’t really have one.  I write the blog mostly for my friends and relatives.  I know I have acquired some “online” friends and I am grateful for their continued support.  The statistics tell me that we get around 600 visitors on a good day, but most are just from search engines hitting on some of the pictures.  I figure only that only a couple of dozen people regularly read what I write.  During my time in Iraq I know that some families of the PRT & USMC colleagues read the blog for general information about the situation their loved ones faced in Anbar.  I am glad that I could provide that service.  I suppose most of them have wandered off now that I am out of Iraq.   Given the personalized, idiosyncratic nature of my interests and all things considered, I don’t have a “general” audience.

But let’s get to the question of editorial policy.  There is a valid question about how comprehensive, balanced or fair any writer should be.  Some people worry about this, but it is not something I struggle with.  I am honest and try to be as accurate as I can.   But I feel absolutely no obligation to be fair, balanced or comprehensive.   Mine is only a miniscule contribution to a very large whole, one piece of a very large puzzle.  Presumably those looking for a variety of views will gather mine along with a lot of others and make up their own minds.   

I think that is a good policy for a blogger who writes for nothing and doesn’t promote his blog.

I believe in pluralism.  We need to have a lot of ideas put forward and tested against each other.  Our goals should NOT be to achieve consensus or hold each other accountable, beyond the basic imperatives to be honest, remain reasonable and stay reasonably civil. We should also not try to clip our ideas to fit the sensibilities of others.  That is the good thing about pluralism.  You don’t have to be inclusive. Those who are offended can go someplace else where they feel appreciated, not merely tolerated.  That is all I can offer.  

Do Not Block the Way to Inquiry

We need to express our idea AND be willing to accept criticism.   Everybody is entitled to his/her opinion but nobody is bound to respect them.   Too much respect won’t help us find useful truth. Conflicts, corrections, experimentation and restatements are how we come closer to truth. We never get to possess THE truth, BTW, but we will get closer to useful knowledge.  (THE truth has no meaning outside religion.) Building knowledge is an iterative process.  We try something, learn something, adjust and try again.  This goes for individuals, organizations and societies.   “Do not block the way to inquiry,” is what the philosopher Charles Saunders Pierce said and he was right.

NB: This is the comment and response copy/pasted from the old blog.

You are delusional. You write as though you are the final authority of all conservation methods, and i quote: “REMEMBER” (as though you are teaching me something from a vast storehouse of knowledge you lord over all other humans)… “Remember, if you want to preserve special places…” you have to chop down others. You’re nothing more than a con artist who has convinced himself you have the perfect key to the very history of natural conservation. You’re completely FULL of bologna, and full of youself to boot. Your best footprint would be perhaps to never have been born. Maybe then your land would not be mangled by the likes of you, but simply owned by someone who appreciates nature. So, YOU REMEMBER THIS: Nature will always trump the stupidity of humans, especially man; who believes he has an answer for everything.

When you have a field, and you allow all the natural elements to contribute in their inevitable way to this field. It then has limitless possibilities. When you decide you know infinitely better than the original design, you simply limit all possibilities, in lieu of what YOU think is best.

This does not make you a great handler of conservation, this just proves that humankind is barely evolved enough to live here, especially those who are so SURE they know best, such as yourself.

Posted by: Robert | November 28, 2009 12:28 AM


Don’t worry. Not many people read this blog. I write based on my opinions and observations and the only people who read it are those who want to.

I don’t advertise or promote my blog and do not set it up as anything except what it is – my opinions and observations.

If you want to write and send me something around 500 words telling my audience how stupid you think I am, I will post it.

Posted by: John Matel | November 28, 2009 09:14 AM

“When you have a field, and you allow all the natural elements to contribute in their inevitable way to this field.”

It will soon stop being a field and become a patch of secondary growth woodland, and eventually mature forest. This is great for squirrels, but it doesn’t put food on the table.

Posted by: Don Cox | November 29, 2009 07:10 AM

November 2009 Misc

Thanksgiving Turkey

The kids are back for Thanksgiving and it is nice to have them home.  We had the usual turkey dinner, probably for the last time.  I don’t mean this is our last time together (hope not) but we decided that nobody really likes turkey that much.  Next year we will have something else.  My favorite parts of the meal are the potatoes and stuffing with some corn on top. 

We see wild turkeys down at the farm.  I read that they are elusive.  They don’t see very elusive, just dumb.  Sometimes they just wander onto the road.   The return of the wild turkey is one of those unlikely ecological success stories.   They were rare just a generation ago.  Some experts said they could never come back in large numbers because they required larger ranges than they could have in a settled modern countryside.  Turns out that nature is much more adaptive than that and that turkeys can live and prosper in close contact with settled civilization.  

Taking a Different Way

My walk down 23rd St. from Foggy Bottom Metro to the State Department is less pleasant than the trip I used to make along the Smithsonian.  The sidewalks are a little narrow and you have to jostle with lots of other pedestrians.  There also seems a surplus of smokers getting in their last drag on the way to work.  It stinks up the sidewalk, even in the open air.

But it is easy to avoid this.  All I have to do is walk one block down.  It is quiet and uncrowded.  It adds less than five minutes to the trip.  Sometimes solutions are easy.  

But it still isn’t as nice as Smithsonian walk.  One of the little things nice about walking along the Mall is the tactile and auditory pleasure of walking on a firm gravel path.

Nutty as a Fruitcake

I don’t know why so many people make fun of Christmas fruitcakes.  I like them and I am happy to see them on the store shelves this time of year.  They are packed with nuts and packed with calories, so I have to be careful not to eat too much, however.

Maple Leaf

The Japanese maple in the front yard turns differently each fall.    The leaves tend to hang on well into the cold weather, but the colors are different.  I suppose it depends on the weather and when the first hard frost comes.  A couple years ago we got an early frost that killed the leaves before they were ready to let go.  The colors weren’t very nice, but some of the leaves persisted until they were pushed off by the new growth in the spring. This year was cool and rainy, but we haven’t had a hard frost yet.   I think that is why the tree is such a bright red this year.

Make New Friends, but Keep the Old

It is great to reach out to adversaries and open a dialogue even with enemies, but in our zeal to make friends of those who have never much liked us, let’s not forget the ones who have stood with us in the past.  Good relationships also require maintenance.  When it is all said and done and when our overtures & concessions to those who don’t like us have produced what results they will, I hope we don’t look around and find we have fewer dependable good friends left.

On the left is a monument to the children of the Warsaw uprising of 1944.  Stalin encouraged the uprising, but then paused to give the Nazis time to destroy the Polish resistance.  The Soviets also interfered with relief efforts mounted by the U.S. and other allies.  As many as 200,000 were killed and 700,000 expelled or escaped, many moving through the sewer system to avoid Nazi patrols. The Nazis systematically destroyed Warsaw in retaliation.

I am upset about a little thing.  I got an email from a Polish friend about an obscure museum in rural Virginia is installing a bust of Joseph Stalin in a place of honor along with those of Churchill & Roosevelt in the D-day Monument.   Friends in Poland have noticed.  It might not matter much … usually, but it comes on top of some recent events and missteps on our part. 

In September, we announced we were backing out of our agreement on missile defense with Poland and the Czech Republic.   Presumably, this would help with outreach to the always sentimental Vladimir Putin and the decision is justifiable on many grounds.   But we announced it on the very day – the 60th anniversary of the day – when Soviet Armies invaded Poland in 1939.  The next month, it was announced that President Obama would not attend ceremonies marking the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Although that took place in Germany, the fall of the Wall was a big deal for Poland and Poles feel justifiable pride in what they did to hasten the destruction of the Iron Curtain.  The fact that the President travels so frequently to foreign destinations made the absence in Berlin seem more calculated than it was in fact. Below are pieces of the Berlin Wall.  I got them when I was in Berlin in 1990.  Of course, they could have been any clunks of concrete, but I got them near the Wall and there seem to have been lots of chunks from the Wall available so I figure it was real enough.

Then a couple days before the Obama-free Wall ceremonies, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that Poland would not be eligible for the visa waiver program any time soon.   This is a bigger deal in Poland than it would seem to us. I would hasten to add that Napolitano’s decision is sound by the criteria of the program, but if you are looking at this sequence of events from Warsaw or Krakow, it might seem like your old American friends are turning their backs.

That is why the little Stalin thing is so big.  Stalin was indeed a truly odious man.  He was our ally only because Hitler attacked him – reneging on a deal the two dictators made to jointly rape Eastern Europe. While there can be no doubt that we could not have defeated Hitler w/o the Russians, it is also true that w/o our material aid and the second front, the Nazis could have conquered the Soviet Union.   Stalin gave no more than he had to protect his own power and at the end of the conflict he gobbled up as much as he could and imposed a tyranny on Eastern Europe that long outlived him.  The murderer of tens of millions and the architect of a nefarious system that subjugated almost half the world for almost fifty years is not just another interesting and important historical figure.

This is a case where public diplomacy and the perception of events makes as much differences as the events themselves.  Objectively, our decisions were sound and need not have engendered any practical problems.  The perceptions were different.

I have been Poland-centric in this post, but I have seen similar patterns with other old friends.

“Make new friends but keep the old; one is silver and the other gold” That is a rhyme I learned in second or third grade.  

It is easy to be beguiled by the possibilities of new relationships.  But dealing with countries is not the same as kids making new friends on the playground.  For one thing, there are no “new kids”.   Every relationship already has a history, usually going back generations.   There may well be a good reason why we don’t get along well.  Sometimes we have conflicting goals.   Often our aspirations do not mesh.   Sometimes it is an identity problem.   There are leaders in the world who derive much of their personality and power from their stance of being opposed to the U.S.   If they couldn’t blame us for their troubles, the blame might fall on them.

Above is the King’s Palace In Warsaw.  The Nazis destroyed it and all of Warsaw in 1944.  The Poles rebuilt.  It was in front of this Palace that President Clinton in 1997 announced our support of Polish NATO membership. Poland formally became a NATO member in 1999.

On the other hand, we have shared interests and shared identities with many countries.   Our allies in Europe, for example, remain our strongest cultural, security, trading and investment partners.   Things generally proceed so smoothly among us that we pay little attention.   Remember our good friends the Japanese and recall when we were not so good friends.   It is a lot better now, isn’t it?  How about our border with Canada?  Good thing on both sides that it is secure and peaceful.  I could make a longer list, but I would inevitably leave somebody out and feel bad about it.  But as I said up top, good relationships do not maintain themselves.  It is a lot less exciting and you cannot do something unprecedented by maintaining the familiar paths, but you often have to pay MORE attention to your friends than your foes. 

It is sort of like the unglamorous job of maintaining underground infrastructure.  It doesn’t seem very important until the water main breaks washing away your car and drowning your cat.

Another childhood story pops to mind.   Remember the Aesop fable about a dog holding a bone in his mouth?  He sees his refection in a pond and thinks there is another dog down there with a bone as big as his own.  He wants that bone too.  So he jumps into the water to take it, only to lose what he had and just come out boneless, frustrated and all wet.

The Bureaucracy Has No Memory

A significant part of my pay could be “performance pay” now that I am in the Senior Foreign Service (Senior Executive Service) and don’t get automatic increases.  I didn’t get to compete for performance pay for 2007/8 because of a technicality – Congress acted too late on my class’ promotion and we were not in grade long enough to qualify according to the State Department’s arcane rules.   (Ironically, however, they acted quick enough that I lost my overtime pay in Iraq and ended up taking a pay cut because of my promotion. It won’t be until the middle of next year that I make up the money I lost by being promoted.) This year I just didn’t get performance pay.  I am a little surprised.  

This was the last performance report that included Iraq.  Next year my Iraq experience will be buried under the relative obscurity of this Washington assignment.  If I didn’t deserve performance pay for Iraq, I certainly should not get it for Washington, so my prospects don’t look good. Iraq was about the best I can do.  I am beginning to feel unpopular.

In fairness, my colleagues are doing lots of important things in Embassies overseas and in Washington.  I don’t doubt the merit of those on the list. 

But being a PRT leader in Iraq seemed a bigger deal to the Department when they asked me to take the assignment. They dragged me out of the job I had and made me feel that delay of even a couple of days was disastrous.  It sure seemed important. Of course, the perceived value of a service declines rapidly after that service has been performed and there has, anyway, been a shift in priorities.   You get little advantage being tied to yesterday’s urgency, no matter how important they told you it was at the time.  

I said when I signed on for Iraq that I did NOT do it for career advancement and I was telling the truth.  I remain glad that I volunteered.  I derived immense satisfaction from doing the job there. I worked with great colleagues and I am convinced that there are people alive in Iraq today who would not be had we not done the work we did.   I would not change my decision.

Nevertheless, it bothers me a little to conclude that I would likely have been in a better career position, at least in terms of contacts & assignment prospects, had I not volunteered, had I kept and built on the good job I had in September 2007. Things moved along w/o me while I was literally wandering in the desert.  It is my own fault too. I did a poor job of reconnecting.   I thought I could just pick up where I left off; I was mistaken. 

Chrissy says that I don’t get mad enough about these sorts of things and that I need to develop a stronger sense of entitlement. Sometimes the people who make the most noise get the most recognition. I tend to downplay hardships and achievements and I am not prone to anger. I am mad about not being recognized for my Iraq service, but this is about the extent of my rage.

“Do it because it is the right thing to do, but remember that the State Department talks a lot about the importance of the mission and the people who do it, but the bureaucracy has no memory.”  That is what I will tell the people who ask my advice on taking on hard assignments.

It is a dreary, depressing day, both in terms of the weather (as you can see from the picture above) and my outlook, but the sky will brighten up and so will my situation.    I plan to wallow in self-pity for a little longer; then I will stop and try to do something useful again.  

Meta-Purposes & Why Measurements of Public Diplomacy are Usually Flawed

Something of Lasting Value – A Community

I knew an interesting woman called Eva Sopher who ran the Theatro São Pedro in Porto Alegre.  She helped me understand the meaning of cultural treasures.  The Theatro was being refurbished and put under the direction of a foundation to conserve the building and protect its traditions.  They weren’t doing many plays, so the “output” was low.  If you wanted to put on plays, you could have much more efficiently done so in many other locations or built a new theater.  Donna Eva explained why we should in a different direction.

The plays actually performed, she explained, were just a small part to the output of a cultural institution.   From the cultural point of view, the preparation, rehearsals, production and venue were probably more important.   The Theatro created a cultural community that included not only the theater goers and actors, but also the myriad of others who supported the enterprise.  This was part of a tradition that stretched back centuries and with any luck would continue for centuries into the future. It was a task that was never done and could never be done.  There was no finish line.  She didn’t use the tired cliché, but I will.  The journey was more important than the destination.  In fact the real purpose of the “product” – a successful play – was to support the other parts of the community that made it happen. Eva Sopher was impressive and it was her force of personality that drove this lesson home to me.  It takes year to develop this kind of personal integrity.  That too is a cultural output.  Her personal story was compelling.  She was born in Germany to a well off Jewish family.  They wisely left Germany and took refuge in Brazil when it became clear that the Nazis were literally out for their blood.   She embraced the country of her choice and enriched its culture.

“Objective” Measures Don’t Capture Unique Value

Imagine trying to measure Eva Sopher’s effectiveness with “objective measures.”  What did she really do that you could capture in numbers?   Twenty-five years ago she spoke to a first-tour American diplomat and convinced him to give her a very small grant and sponsor a musical program that drew less than thirty attendees.  Yet she gave me something I could keep and remember.  Her influence on me was never manifest in any way a bean-counter could capture. My subsequent influence on others is completely out of the picture.  I don’t remember what kind of grant we gave her, but it as within my discretionary money so it could not have been more than a couple hundred dollars and that is all the research would count.

How about from my side? Did I waste my time having tea with this old lady?  I would be hard-pressed to show a concrete public diplomacy outcome from having her as a friend and having the Consulate reach out to her and ensconcing us as an honorary part of her community.


What Good is a Speaker?

I was talking to a researcher about our speaker program.  I was a consumer of speakers when I worked in posts overseas and used to run the speaker program in Washington, so I know something about it.    The idea is the measure the effectiveness of the speakers we send overseas.  It costs a fair amount of money to send someone overseas, so it is good to measure, but the measures are inadequate.

They talked about measuring the number of people who listened to the speaker.  Moving a step up the sophistication pyramid, they also talked about estimating the number of people who may know the direct listeners, a secondary audience.  Of course, they would measure any media that came out.   What is wrong with this? Time.  It doesn’t measure the effects over time.  Refer again to my Eva Sopher example.  But there is a bigger flaw in this sort of measurement.  It doesn’t account for the meta-purposes.   When I gave the grant to the Theatro São Pedro, I really didn’t care if they did a performance or did anything “useful” with the money at all.  My grant was a kind of an ante-up or earnest money.   I was buying my way – the Consulate’s way – into the game, making us a part of that community. 

This is how good public diplomacy folks use the speaker program.   Bringing a speaker to an event is a way of opening a door to a community.  We cab piggy-back on the speaker’s expertise.  Bringing an expert on architecture, for example, makes us honorary experts too.  It puts the Embassy’s public affairs into the game.  Frankly, the message delivered on any particular occasion is usually the secondary effect.  The primary goal is relationship and community building.   So if you measure effectiveness by number of people who received a message, you have problems.

“Who?” May be More Important than “How Many?”

And that doesn’t even account for the “who” question.  If I shout out my window I may reach 100 people with my message. But if they don’t care or cannot do anything about what I am saying, it is a complete waste.  We often fall into the numbers trap.  It is seductive but pernicious.

Is There a Better Way?

You might be expecting me to say something about what we should do.  After all, I made such a big run up to it.   But I can’t.   I think that we should indeed measure numbers, reach, output etc.  But we have to recognize that there is a very big area of unknown and objectively unknowable stuff out there.   It is like the dark matter of public affairs.   It is the place where we have to apply judgment.  So I have no universal fix.  You have to use judgment in particular cases.

Indispensable Judgment

Judgment – now that is a slippery term and not a very popular one.  We like to get every process down to close detail so that we can be perfectly fair and consistent.   But the world doesn’t work like that.   We can program something only to the extent that we completely understand it and with the expectation that things will happen in the future as they has in the past.  Human affairs don’t work that neatly most of the time. So let’s indeed gather information and analyze it.   But then trust the judgment of the people we have trained and educated to make the right choices.   

Otherwise we will go with today’s tabloids and ignore the Eva Sophers. 

Gated Communities & Defensible Space

We stopped at the remains of a small artillery fort on the Petersburg battlefield.   These days it is located in the middle of a neat planned community.  As you see in the nearby picture, they don’t have much imagination when it comes to naming streets.  We lived in a nice community in Londonderry, NH.  It was built around a man-made lake and had a lot of green space snaking through.  These were not gated communities, but they are limited access.

I have mixed feelings about gated communities.   Their closed characteristics vaguely offend my egalitarian impulses. I also don’t like the basic layout of the gated communities I have seen.   They are not conducive to walking.  They tend not to have shops or attractions you get to w/o driving a car. 

On the other hand, there are ample recreational opportunities.   Most of these places come with clubhouses and pools and running trails are often usually well laid out. The ones near natural areas tend to have hiking trails connected with the living areas. 

They are also reasonably secure.   The gates keep out troublesome people.  That sounds like a terrible thing to say, but most people really don’t want to open themselves up to all sorts of aberrant behaviors.  A city neighborhood no longer provides “defensible space.”  Everybody has the “right” to come around.   This is a problem.

I admit it.  I don’t like lots of street people around.   For one thing, they compete with me for places to lie around.  I like to run and at the end of a run, or just in the middle of a walk, I like to lie on the grass or on a bench in the sun, look at the clouds and/or take a nap.  This is a perfectly reasonable thing to do – unless you have lots of boozers or street people more or less permanently occupying the prime real estate.  They make hanging around a bad practice.   I suppose my specific habits are a little peculiar, but I think most people just don’t want to be bothered by weirdoes.   Beyond that, I don’t want my eccentric habits to be lumped in with theirs. 

We have be admonished by a generation of after school specials and public service announcements to be accepting of everybody.  This is BS.   A community – any community – is inclusive of members and exclusive to others.   Members must observe some basic rules of behavior and contribute in some way to the community.  We have obligations to our fellow human beings, but these obligations are not open-ended.  We are under no obligation to accept everyone on THEIR terms.  

That is why we need defensible social space and we need defensible physical space, places where we feel comfortable and secure.   When the greater society cannot or will not provide or even allow such space, people seek it in the form of gated communities.

If you cannot defend your work and your community, you will build nothing.  That is the whole basis of civilization.  Even if it offends the romantic in us, property, compassion and civilization clearly go together. 

You cannot be generous until you have something of your own to give.  When the kids were little, we didn’t force them to share everything.  After they felt secure in their own stuff, they became generous on their own.   This applies to larger communities too.     

Visiting Mr. Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson was a remarkable guy.  He thought deeply about almost everything and made the world a better place.  On his tombstone he wanted to be remembered for founding the University of Virginia and authoring the statutes of religious freedom of Virginia the Declaration of Independence.  Any one of those accomplishments would make him a great man.   He didn’t even mention being president of the United States.

We first visited here in 1985.  Chrissy was pregnant with Mariza and I remember thinking that it would be nice if our expected child could become part of this legacy by going to Thomas Jefferson’s university.  She did.   So besides his contributions to our freedom and prosperity, I have a very personal reason to thank Jefferson.

Monticello is owned and run by a private foundation that makes its money from ticket sales and donations.  The foundation supports historians, archeologists and researchers in addition to maintaining the house and grounds.  

Alex and I talked about the pros and cons of a private foundation.  It seems like a place like Monticello should be government owned, but why?  A private foundation is more flexible and can often do a better job.  Many of our best American universities are private and they are the best in the world. A foundation works out just fine for Mr. Jefferson’s home.  

Jefferson always considered himself a farmer.  He grew tobacco and wheat as cash crops and produced vegetables, apples and other fruit for consumption on the farm.  Like other plantations, Monticello was self-sufficient when possible.  They made their own bricks from local clays. Carpenters from the estate made furniture from the wood of the local forests.  Jefferson owned 5000 acres, which gave him a diverse landscape to draw from.  Below is Jefferson’s vegetable garden.  It is set up to take advantage of warming winter sun.

Jefferson was an active manager of his estate. Washington’s Mt Vernon actually turned a profit, not so Jefferson’s Monticello.  The difference was top management.  Washington didn’t have Jefferson’s intellect, but he had practical abilities.  Jefferson was an idea man.   And his house – and our country – is full of his ideas, but he was not a good businessman. He died deep in debt and his heirs had to sell Monticello.

Of course, Jefferson didn’t do much of the real work. The paradox of Jefferson the hero of freedom is Jefferson the slave owner.  Slavery had existed since the beginning of history, but by Jefferson’s time the Western world was beginning to see the moral contradictions of the practice.  Jefferson shared the revulsion of slavery in theory, but couldn’t bring himself to take the practical and personal steps against it.  I guess he was just a true intellectual in that respect and unfortunately remained a man of his times. 

In any case, Jefferson’s contributions far outweigh the negatives of his personal life. All human being are flawed.  They make their contributions based on what they do best, not what they do poorly.  

We Americans were truly blessed during our founders generation.  Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Hamilton & Madison all were greats.  But the remarkable thing is how their skills and even their personalities complemented each other, even when they fought and hated each other. Their differences created harmony and their joint efforts filled in for some serious individual flaws.

The American revolution is one of the few in world history that actually worked (i.e. didn’t end in a bloodbath followed by despotism). We can thank good luck & favorable geography.  But the biggest factor was the moral authority, courage and intellect of our first leaders.  We are still living off their legacy. 

Above is the visitor’s center that opened last year. In the spirit of Thomas Jefferson, it takes advantage of natural forces and uses appropriate technology.  This is a green building, earth sheltered, energy efficient and heated & cooled to a large extent by geotheromal energy.  The wood and natural stone construction is simple, but elegant.  I like it.

Nobility at Appomattox

We got to Appomattox too late yesterday, so we had to go this morning.  It is not the big tourist season, so we had the place largely to ourselves. 

I like these kinds of communities, with the old fashioned houses and the open spaces.  Alex thought the houses were “lame.”   But it is interesting to stand at the cross roads of history.   They have done a good job of preserving and restoring the historical area, but I think they should get some animals.   The community of the time would have featured horses, pigs, cows and chickens.  Well … probably not exactly in April 1865, when the starving soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia would have made short work of such rations on the hoof, but in normal times a community like this w/o animals would not be normal.   I bet the Park Service could get some farm hobbyists to do it for nothing. 

I thought back to April 1865 and the starving ragged Confederates up against Union forces that were better off but still not properly rationed.   Both armies were exhausted.   Robert E. Lee made the horrendous decision to surrender and the enlightened decision not to keep the fighting going on by guerilla tactics, as President Jefferson Davis wanted.   The South was finished.  No reason for more men to die and the country to be torn up even more for a lost cause.   Grant and the Union made it as easy as it could be in such circumstances.  

There was generosity, nobility and honor on both sides.   April 9, 1865 was truly a day when humanity showed its better side amidst terrible suffering and hatred.    As I wrote before, this is a even unique in human history.   Grant later wrote, “I felt… sad and depressed at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people had ever fought.”

There is no such thing as destiny.  People make history. If Grant, Lee or Lincoln had been lesser men – ordinary men – blood would have continued to flow and our great nation may have never recovered.  But it could have been different.

Lincoln was there in spirit and he was a motivating force behind the generosity that Grant was able to give, but within a few days Lincoln would be dead, shot by that cowardly actor John Wilkes Booth. Had Booth struck a week earlier it is not likely that Grant could have offered such terms to Lee.  The conflict might have continued as a desperate war of extermination. 

Grant’s close friend William T Sherman would soon be similarly generous with General Joe Johnston, who would also prove as honorable as Robert E. Lee. 

We all remember Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, but the Second Inaugural is my favorite.   It is not very long, so I copied it entire.  I especially like the last paragraph.


  AT this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.
  On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, urgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.2
  One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”3
  With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Powerful English

It is LESS important for a speaker of English to learn another language than it has ever been.  I am aware that this statement will sound backward and xenophobic to many,  but as a person who spoke three languages fluently (Portuguese, Norwegian & Polish), one “enough to get by (German) and two with decent reading ability (Latin & Greek), I feel I have some standing about this subject.

Let me bring up the caveat right at the start.   If you plan to live in a country or stay there a long time so should learn the language.  Learning a second language is also a hallmark of a good education. Not to do so is indeed backward and xenophobic.    What I am talking about here is the usefulness of“general” foreign language ability.   This is the one that pundits fret about and scold Americans for not doing.  Their criticism actually stems from their own ignorance and/or not having thought through the problem.

Which One?

There are hundreds of languages spoken around the world.   Even if you limit yourself to “world languages,” those spoken by lots of people in several countries*, there is too big a choice.   I know from experience that learning a language well is very hard and a monumental commitment of time.  KEEPING a language fluent is perhaps a greater challenge.   You really cannot just collect languages and pull them out when you need them.  So if you don’t have a specific plan to go to a region, which language should you learn?

The question is easy for a non-English speaker.   English is THE world language.  There are You can find English speakers everyplace you go.  No other language is like that.  We Americans think of Spanish as widespread because we see so many Spanish speaking immigrants and live near Mexico.  But try using Spanish anyplace outside the Americas or north of the Pyrenees in Europe.  Even in Spain itself you may have trouble in Catalonia if you learned your Spanish in Latin America. Chinese is spoken more people than any other language, but almost all of them live in one place.  Fluency in Chinese in non-Chinese communities is uncommon. 

BTW – the Chinese are finding their relative lack of English a problem in their international relationships.   Generally Engish is the key to economic success and all over the world people are climbing over each other to learn it.   There is no more useful language.  

The Power of the Network

I could go on.  Suffice to say that if you were to be located in a random inhabited place on the earth and asked find somebody within 10 miles whose language you could understand, ONLY English would give you a significant chance of success. You might not find a native English speaker, but you would almost certainly find an English speaker.

The power of English is kind of an open secret. It seems arrogant for Americans or Brits to talk about it openly.  Language is tied up with culture and identity, so people have strong emotional interests in pushing their favorite languages.  But no matter what people say, the REVEALED preference is clear. And I don’t think it will reverse, even if the relative political and economic power of the U.S. and other English speaking countries declines. 

The “network effect” is strong and self reinforcing.  BTW – the network effect refers to the accumulating advantages of adding more people.  If there is only one telephone in the world, it is useless.  The more you add, the better it gets. At some point, it becomes almost impossible to NOT join the network.  This doesn’t mean the network is objectively the best.  English is not the “best” language in the world; it is just the most useful.

Switching is Hard

The power of the network is increased when it is difficult to switch and it is very difficult to switch languages.  Most people really do not have the talents to become multi-lingual in any meaningful way.  I know I certainly do not.  And even if you do have the talent for learning languages, if you don’t have the opportunity for constant practice, you cannot keep them.

I think many people underestimate the difficulty in REALLY learning a language and/or overestimate their own language skills.  If you studied really hard and took four years of French or Spanish in HS, you have probably NOT learned that language. If you took a summer course in Chinese, you have NOT learned that language.  Being able to ask direction to the train station or ordering dinner is nice, but unless you can have a nuanced discussion about an important subject, you really are not there.

If you want a rough guide to how well you are speaking a second language, see how long it takes for a native speaker to compliment you on how well you speak their language.  Generally, the faster they praise your skills, the worse you are doing.  Think about that.  If you run into a person with a foreign accent who speaks English well, do you feel the need to compliment him on his English?  We only notice if there is a struggle.  I have observed this in my work.  When I first get to a country, everyone tells me how well I speak the language.  I am happy to report that the compliments become less common the longer I am there.

It takes an FSO six months to get to a basic level of an easy language like French or Spanish.  That means six months of full-time (i.e. all day, everyday, all week), small group instruction.  For a harder language like Polish it is almost a year, two years for languages like Chinese or Arabic.  And that gets you only to a MINIMUM professional level.  And then if you don’t practice, it goes away.  Really learning a language is essentially a life-long effort.

Since we probably cannot learn more than one second language well enough to call it learned, or we cannot maintain it even if we manage to learn it,  the world is de-facto stuck with choosing one “network language”. What will it be?

Much of international English today is exchanged among non-native English speakers.  A group of international business people from from Germany, Japan, Brazil and Egypt will almost certainly have to speak English among themselves. 

This is a great thing for native English speakers.  I remember talking to a Norwegian a long time back.  He spoke what seemed to me perfect English, but he told me that Americans were lucky because they were “never foreigners.”  I didn’t understand what he meant, so he explained.  Most international conferences featured English, even though most participants were not native speakers. Americans could just jump in.  Others had to do so in a second language.  I felt his pain.  I have spoken other languages fairly well, but it is never the same. 

Language Does Not Mean Identity

I understand that some people reading this might take some offense at what I say about English and the others. This is illogical and based on the idea that languages define or “belong” to particular groups and deserve respect or deference as a part of identity.  (None of my ancestry is from English speaking countries. Should I have learned Polish or German before English?) That makes language choice a value judgment.  It need not be that.  You can still study languages and cultures for their intrinsic value (defined as you like).  I studied Greek and Latin and feel I benefited greatly from getting to know the the cultures and traditions of the past.  But for as a practical matter, we are much better served by English, because that is the one we will have to use now and in the future.

So which language should an American learn if he has no plans to live or work in a particular part of the world?  It would be good to get those math skills in order.  

*    World languages would include Arabic, Chinese, English French, Portuguese & Spanish.  We used to include Russian and German too.

Trench Warfare & Ending a Great Hatred

Alex and I visited the battlefields associated with the Petersburg Campaign and Robert E. Lee’s final retreat.   Petersburg gave the world a taste of what trench warfare would be like.  You go from Federal earthworks to Confederate earthworks.   As in the World War I, the armies were racing around the flanks.  It soon became a grim slog, a war of attrition.  The South could not win this kind of war. They just didn’t have enough men or materiel. 

Above is Alex in front of some of the earthworks.  Below is a reconstruction. 

Lee was trying to escape to the west, where he could hook up with General Joe Johnston, while Union forces tried to bottle them up.   Lincoln’s fear was that the war would go on and maybe turn into a guerrilla war.  The Petersburg campaign has that endless war feeling anyway.  They were regularly taking thousands of casualties each DAY.  The soldiers were becoming more accustomed to war and much more cynical. They came to understand that the war in Virginia was ending and nobody wanted to be the last man killed.  There is a good novel about this period called “Last Full Measure” that captures some of the feeling.

Above is a soldiers’ house.  It looks like a playhouse, but it held four men.   Below is what is left of the crater. Union miners from Pennsylvania made a tunnel under the Rebel positions and blew up Confederate fortifications.  Unfortunately, the attack didn’t go well.  Union troops poured into the crater and many were trapped there. It looks bigger in real life.  You also need to remember that there has been almost 150 years of erosion and filling in.

America’s Civil War was remarkable in its ending.   In France, terror followed revolution.  The Russians and Chinese murdered millions of people in similar situations.  In fact, protracted Civil Wars almost NEVER end without significant retribution and bloodletting.   I think that I can safely say that the ending of the American Civil War was unique in human history.   The victors were generous and the vanquished honorable.  Because it happened as it did, we think of it as inevitable, but the decisions made in April 1865 were not foreordained.

Grant allowed Lee’s soldiers to keep their side arms and their horses.  Robert E. Lee instructed his men to go home and become good citizens.  Most did.   

I know that some scholars talk about the “myth” of reconciliation and point to the problems that persisted. Some people still hold a grudge for Sherman’s march through Georgia and the Carolinas. You have to ask the “compared to what?” question.  In most countries, more people die violently AFTER the wars.  Not in America.  Rebel leaders are usually executed.  The lucky ones are only imprisoned or exiled.  Not here. Can you imagine Cuba exiled welcomes back by the regime?  Russian exiles lured back were usually murdered.  

The Civil War was the worst war in American history.  The destruction was horrendous.  Yet after it ended … it ended.  April 1865 was probably the most remarkable month in world history.  This just doesn’t happen very often – or at all.   I think we should take time to think about this.  If others had learned from the Federal-Confederate example, we might have avoided most of the carnage of the 20th Century.   

Above is a battlefield at Five Forks.  When the fight turned into a battle of attrition, most of the engagements were small, but this was a key turning point. Phil Sheridan defeated troops under the unlucky George Pickett, who was off having a fish dinner and didn’t return until it was too late. The collapse of the Confederate position at Five Forks led directly to Lee’s decision to abandon Richmond & Petersburg.  It was the beginning of the end for the Army of Northern Virginia and for the Southern Confederacy, and so Five Forks is sometimes called the Confederate Waterloo.  There is nothing much to see here today.  The trees and fields have grown back.  It is hard to believe that war was ever close to this peaceful, bucolic place.