From Where You Sit

A person’s outlook often changes more based on the perceived future than on the present reality.   That has certainly been true for me ever since I found out about my assignment in Brazil and I think this is very good.   I have been much more aware of the consequences of our Washington actions and products on our posts overseas and on our ultimate audiences there.   It is very easy to get cosseted into the Washington mind-set.   But so much of what we do here never really gets out.   We meet with each other and discuss our own urgent issues.  We sometimes provide wonderful products and services that nobody can use. 

It is very easy to be sure you know how to do something when you know you won’t really have to do it. I was aware from my past experience in overseas public diplomacy.   But my future as a public affairs officer – where I will have to USE the kinds of things we talk about here in Washington – has focused my mind on the more pragmatic aspects.    

I don’t have much confidence in the “new media” as a disembodied force.   It has to be tied to programs, people, goals and content.  But it is so easy to seek the immediate gratification of reaching large numbers of people.   It is similar to video games in that way & it is no coincidence that gaming is one of the driving forces behind new media.   The games give you immediate feedback and seem to show immediate results.  But this can be true whether or not you are making legitimate progress.   You can easily have the experience of achieving an online goal and then wondering why you spent all that time to get there.    There is a good South Park episode on World of Warcraft.  Watch it to the end. 

The combination is the key. A live speaker program, along with Co.Nx, along with Facebook or other social media, announced on twitter, with a blog about the speaker’s journey, and followed by the posting of online materials, that would work. I would also add that we would need to prepare the ground by making contacts in advance and reinforce the results by keeping up and following up later. 

Public Diplomacy is not rocket science, but it does require a diligence and a holistic approach that is continued over time and adjusted to local realities and changing conditions.  This is simple to say, but really hard to implement.    It is much easier to shortcut with social media, claim you have reached thousands and have some kind of automated response follow-up.    The short term results look great, it probably looks better in the immediate term than the holistic approach which takes time to bear fruit.   That is the seductiveness of these kinds of short cuts.

Our system encourages the short term by demanding prompt reports.   We generally write up the report of an event the next day.   What information do we have at that time?  We can count numbers of participants and the reach of the immediate placement, but we have no idea whatsoever if anybody actually thought about the program or if it opened some minds.   And our reports never follow up because the next urgent report pushed all thoughtfulness aside.    And assessing public diplomacy requires thoughtfulness.   Much of what we accomplish is indirect.  A person not at the event might have heard from a friend and that provoked an important idea.  

And time is the major factor.  It takes time for an idea to develop and mature.   I wrote about how I was influenced by a public diplomacy contact twenty-five years ago.  No measuring system would ever catch that, yet it was lasting and profound.

I know that it is a tough balance especially because in the present, you live off the work others did before you.  In the future others will benefit from what you created.

Understanding Radicals

If we want to understand radicals and counter their influence, we have to get beyond pedantic debates about words. That is one of the ideas I took away from a discussion with Ghaffar Hussein, a representative of the Quilliam Foundation, a UK think tank that studies radicalization and how to prevent it.

Not getting bogged down in terms is the first step in making progress. It is good to have common understandings of terms, but some terms are too loaded for a common agreement. Radical is one such word. And it is worse than mere misunderstanding. Some people use linguistics as an offensive weapon to prevent real discussion. Mr. Hussein says that when he gets into these kinds of word-bogs, he just describes the behaviors and tells the person to call it whatever he wants. This pragmatic approach to distinctions reminded of the William James anecdote about the squirrel.

So readers can feel free to substitute what terms they want. I am going to use the words Mr. Hussein did to describe the concepts. BTW – I am using his talk as a starting off point and the basic ideas are his. However, I am riffing off them, not reporting, so I will take the position that the good ideas are probably his and the bad ones are more likely my extrapolations. I gave Mr. Hussein the URL for the blog and I hope that he writes in if I say anything too egregiously out there. Islamism describes an ideology, not a faith, because the ties with traditional Islam are sometimes tenuous and superficial. Islamism wears the clothes of Islam, but its operative ideology is borrowed eclectically from European totalitarian “revolutionary socialism” philosophies of Marxism and fascism. (Baathists, of which Saddam Hussein was the most famous, freely and openly borrowed from both Hitler and Stalin.) These kinds of ideas appeal to committed radicals, who embrace violence as a tactic and are small in number but seek to use masses of people instrumentally to totally change societies. Lenin and Hitler provided roadmaps that they can use.

Like the earlier European models, they tap into a sense of grievance. Of course, grievance alone is not revolutionary. Everybody has grievances and some peoples have been horribly oppressed for centuries w/o doing much of anything about it. You need a grievance as a push, but ideology is the pull. Hitler used the real grievances in postwar Germany and combined them with bogus ones about Jews and others, but w/o some unifying ideology to make it operational, you would just have had a lot of people grumbling and/or they might have worked through their problems and come out at a better place. A radical ideology is truly the serpent in the garden. They don’t want problems solved or mitigated because the grievances are the ostensible justifications that animate their movements. We talked a little about the profile of a radical. Although Marc Sageman wrote a good book profiling some of terrorists called Understanding Terror Networks, there isn’t one profile that fits them all.  And we should make the distinction between the activists and what we might call the foot soldiers. Most of those involved with radical organizations probably have not made a reasoned choice. In places like Pakistan or Afghanistan, many do to make a little money or they just drifted into it for circumstantial reasons. There are some correlations among activists, however, and perhaps some keys to motivation could be found there.

Sageman pointed out that most of the terrorists were not from the poorer parts of society. In fact, many were very well off. They also generally had not grown up in particularly religious households; they were not especially well-versed in the details of theology and many were not living very pious lifestyles. He suggested that some may even have got into being radicals as a result of a type of cognitive dissonance, since they are living a fairly non-pious lifestyle and they may see their radical behavior s a way of atoning. Many radical activists are well-educated in the secular way and most have hard science or engineering background. You can speculate as to why this would be true. Foreign students studying in Western universities often study science and engineering. It might just be that they are a subset of that. But it could also be that science tends to have specific rules, which appeals to someone who sees the world in yes/no form. They may think that this sort of thinking should also apply to human events, society and politics. One question that has interested observers for years is why members of U.S. Muslim community seem so much less subject to radicalization than those in Europe. Some recent events might call this premise into question, but we can still address some of the differing factors.

One reason is the type of immigrant is very different. U.S. Muslim immigrants have tended to be professional and educated and enjoy a higher median household income than the average non-Muslim American. The Muslim community in America also contains a large number of Iranians who fled the Ayatollahs. They are less inclined to view radicalism with much enthusiasm given their intimate experience with it. In contrast, immigrants to Europe tended to be lower skill and lower income workers. When the first waves came in the 1960s, many intended to return home and did not integrate into the local societies. This group was leavened by more radical elements, who couldn’t safely practice their brand of Islam in their native countries. It created a volatile mix. There is also the different nature of the host societies. The United States and Canada are countries of immigration. Immigrants can fairly easily adopt an American identity and find a place in the American mosaic. European countries were and still are to some extent more nation/ethic-states. Nobody has any trouble assuming a person can become American by choice and most Americans trace their own ancestry to an immigrant who did just that. It is harder to think of someone just choosing to become German, Italian or Danish, since there are lots of other things that go along with that designation. Mr. Hussein thinks that is changing, but it still hasn’t changed. Although he was born in the UK, he is still often considered an “immigrant” in Europe.

Another factor is the sheer size of the U.S. and Canada. Immigrants spread out over North America, while in more constrained European countries they tend to pool into homogenous communities. There is also a generational phenomenon. The risky time is the second generation. The immigrant generation knows what their native country is like. While they might not be perfectly at home in their new country, they don’t harbor as many illusions about what they exchanged for what they left behind. The second generation has to search for identity in more ways. They may feel that they are in, but not of, their new home country but they also don’t have much experience with the old one. They may seek to find or create “roots” and so may be susceptible to radical ideas purporting to do that for them. This may be exacerbated by parents, especially fathers, who really don’t address their concerns.

While I have no close experience of this with Muslim immigrants, I remember the phenomenon with European immigrant fathers in Wisconsin and some of their kids around my age. I bet the general conversation is similar. “What are you complaining about? You’ve got it easy. When I was growing up back in ____ we …” The difference was there was no radical ideology to appeal my Polish/Irish/Italian playmates back in the 1960s. As we discussed above, everybody has grievances, but without the ideology to pull them along, nothing may come of them but grumbling. We didn’t really talk about the “so what do we do?” question.  Read about this on the Quilliam Foundation webpage. I am not an expert on these things and never will be, but I found this a very interesting talk and thought I would write it down to share with others.

Various Things Around Washington

The snow is melting, but more is expected tomorrow to replace it.  It is hard to believe that within a month the flowers will be blooming.   The picture above is from March 23 of last year – a month from now.   I will appreciate spring more after this especially snowy and cold winter.

Above is a protest on 22nd St. outside the State Department. I think they are Eritreans. I was in a bit of a hurry so I just took the picture and kept on walking, so I don’t really know what was bothering them. About a hundred showed up to chant for passersby and a good time was had by all except the taxi drivers who were annoyed that the street was blocked.

Above are broken magnolia trees outside the Archives. The snow is hard on these sorts of southern trees and there are lots of broken branches & trees around here.  The snow weighs heavy on their leathery evergreen leaves. You can see why trees from colder climates would adapt strategies other than holding onto their broad leaves all winter.

Becoming a Good American

Most private and all public universities were founded in part to help educate good citizens. They really aren’t doing a great job of it, if you assess what students learn about America’s government, business, institutions and society. Take this simple test. The questions are based on our citizenship exam. Lucky for most Americans that we were born here, because 71% of us probably couldn’t pass the test to become citizens.

College graduates do better than the general population (49% to 57%) but adjusting for demographic characteristics (income, age, region etc) college students get only 3.8% better over their four-year tenure & some big name universities managed to produce “negative knowledge.” Seniors at Cornell scored 4.95% lower than freshmen. Yale, Duke, Princeton, Rutgers & Berkeley also went negative. Harvard seniors scored best at 69.56%. Maybe it will stoke Yale-Harvard rivalries. Yale freshmen beat Harvard freshmen (68.94 to 63.59%), but after Yale’s loss and Harvard’s gain, Harvard won in the end.

Read the rest of the report here. You can see the discussion of the reports at this link

Of course, there is some debate as to how much civic knowledge a citizen really needs. Our democracy relies on the wisdom of crowds. Each person has some bits of knowledge, which are presumably aggregated to produce a good result. It is not necessary for everybody to know what the Scopes trial was about, be able to name the three parts of the Federal government or even be able to name the countries who were our enemies in World War II, as long as some people know important things and we are generally wise enough to know when when know and when we don’t. The problem that I see is that sometimes the ignorant also have very high self-esteem. Recalling the lines from Yeats, “The best lack all conviction, while the worse are full of passionate intensity.” Modern education may feed this.

There is an old saying that you are entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts. Not everybody believes that anymore. Some people think it is important to teach critical thinking and not pay much attention to the facts. But if you don’t have any facts, what are you thinking critically about?

IMO the more you know about American history and institutions, the more you appreciate them. Thomas Jefferson believed that an educated citizenry was crucial to the working of democracy, which is why he founded the University of Virginia. Building good citizens was one of the founding justifications for the public school system.

I got one wrong on the test and I will advance the lame excuse that I wasn’t paying attention. But when I thought about the questions, a lot of what I learned I didn’t learn directly in school. Education doesn’t/shouldn’t stop when you graduate from college and college isn’t/shouldn’t be the only place you get education, especially civic education. I think we need to emphasize our heritage, for everybody in our lives every day, lest it slip away. Knowledge lives only in living people, not locked in books we never read. And the person who doesn’t read is really no better off than the person who can’t.

It is not all locked in the written word, however. One of the places I learned some of these facts is from television – yes television. Much of television is indeed crap, but there is a lot of good too. There is a very good PBS series called The American Experience. The episodes about FDR were on last week. He was an amazing man with an amazing education. He came from what is as close to an American ruling class as we can get, but it is true that we Americans don’t have a ruling class. They are us. We are our own “rulers” and so we have to train a new set of them each generation. We produced truly great generations of leadership. Let’s hope that we are not just living off and using up the capital that they created for us and let’s work to make sure that is not the case.

Maybe we should take citizenship a little more seriously.

Tysons Corner

Chrissy & I went to the movies at the AMC at Tysons Corner today.   We saw “From Paris with Love” with John Travolta. It was one of those action thrillers where you have to suspend belief in human behaviors and the normal rules of physics. It was worth going but not real good.   I wouldn’t recommend it if you have other things to do. There were just not good options, even with multiple cinemas. I wanted to see that Jeff Bridges movie, “Crazy Heart” but it wasn’t showing.

Cinema tickets are getting expensive.  It was $18 for two.  I am still a cheapskate and I remember when they were a lot cheaper, but the “theater experience” is worth it once in a while.  We got popcorn and soda too. Everything is big.

We rarely go to the Mall anymore. When the kids were little, we were more frequent customers.  It was a form of entertainment as well as shopping. We bought a lot of useless crap. Malls are better avoided when possible. You are tempted to buy stuff you can’t really use and food you don’t want. 

Today I had real trouble resisting Cinnabon. They have a fan that wafts the scent out into the Mall.   The funny thing is that I don’t like Cinnabon that much. They are too sticky and not worth the trouble of eating them. Nevertheless, the scent is enticing and difficult to resist.

Tysons is the biggest city in Virginia.  It is really a massive complex of malls and offices.   They are building the Metro out to Tysons, which is a little ironic but also positive.  Tysons was the ultimate car center, but that is becoming unsustainable.

Rain Dancing

Sometimes there is nothing you can do, but everybody expects you to do something. That is the time for the rain dance. Put on a good show, create a lot of sound & fury to keep people occupied so that they will keep you around long enough for things to improve, so you get credit. Politicians are master rain dancers, butt all of us have done a few. Sometimes you just have to be seen to be doing something.

I have been reading a book about real rain dances, called Floods, Famines and Emperors:  El Nino and the Fate of Civilizations.  The author talks about the various times when climate change caused civilizations to thrive and crash.   One chapter talks about the Pueblo of the Southwest.  (I think that is where the term “rain dance” comes from, BTW.)  Their population expanded during relatively wet times and then their populations starved and dispersed during when the same Medieval warm period that brought prosperity to Western Europe brought droughts to Southwestern North America that lasted decades or centuries.  Changes always bring winners and losers.

The author Brian Fagan says that a lot of early civilizations were based in part on the implication that priests and rulers could control the weather. Their activities to do this ranged from the merely wasteful to the downright gruesome.  A lot of complicated rituals and ceremonies were designed to do things like make the Nile flow or bring on the season rains.  The ancient Maya seem to have based their belief system on the need to capture, humiliate, torture and kill people from neighboring areas in order to sacrifice them and appease bloodthirsty gods who otherwise would bring drought and destruction.  They left some nice pyramids, but living through in those times must have been like being a minor character in a endless horror movie.   Unfortunately, these kinds of superstitions were the rule and not the exception in pre-scientific societies.

At our safe distance, we sometimes think of these superstitions in the benign fairy-tale sense of an enchanted forest full of fairies, elves etc. But think of how horrible it would be if you really believed it. The pre-scientific world must have been a frightening place. Everything you did could offend some spirit or nymph, so you needed to turn to shaman, witch or priest to protect you from capricious nature, which they (and you) attributed to benign or malevolent intelligence that had to be mollified.  

Some ritual had to be performed, but nobody was ever was sure if they worked.  Of course, they didn’t work but sometimes they might look like they did. If I do ceremonies to make it rain, and it eventually rains, I take credit.  A smart shaman probably had an intuitive sense of probability, so he did his rituals at times when things were moving in the right direction. You can see how the shaman might have added some value by his experience, on balance, however not. 

I suppose superstition is a step toward science. Alchemy led to some real discoveries about chemistry and physics. Astrology gave us some of the tools later needed by astronomers. 

Superstitions are an attempt to put some planning and order into an unpredictable world.   The problem is mostly based on mistaking correlation for causality, poor record keeping and the evidently natural human propensity to see patterns that don’t exist. Superstitions are a kind of distortion of reason, but they can be ostensibly reasonable.    

Of course, we still do rain dances too. The world is still an unpredictable place.

Anyway, I recommend Floods, Famines and Emperors. A lot of his ideas seemed very familiar, but I didn’t put it together until I started writing this that I had read one of his earlier books called The Long Summer.  It is still sitting on my bookshelf. These books help put the climate change debate in its historical perspective. We have been here before and maybe some perspective on how earlier climate changes affected earlier people may help us in the future.

Old Men Forget: Yet All Shall be Forgot

Above is the Vietnam Memorial.  There was a bunch of grade school kids visiting the place and I heard them talking. They have no personal connection with a war that ended a quarter century before they were born.  It is almost as remote to them as World War I was to me.  It is not their war, nor even their fathers’. Vietnam is something their grandfathers may have experienced. Funny how fast time moves and how the defining events of your life are just history now. 

Above is the MIA booth.  They sell mementos, medals and patches.  Below is snow removal near the Memorials.

Below is the path along the reflecting pool going toward the Washington Memorial

Pedestrians get no Respect

Above is the crowded subway car on the Orange Line. I usually get a seat, but lately they have the cars have been more crowded.  They are raising the price of fare by a dime, but will probably also still cut service. Below is the sidewalk on the way to the Metro stop.  They take care of the roads fairly well, but that means eight foot high banks of snow.

Washington Snow Cone

Washington is under more snow than any living person has seen and this has been the longest time ever when my running path were snow clogged.   But Washington is pretty in the snow, as the pictures show.  

It was warm and sunny today and the snow has the consistency of a snow cone.  It will take a few more warm days to melt it all off.

Above is the Lincoln Memorial.  Below Robert E. Lee’s house and Arlington Cemetery from across the Potomac.

Below is the snow covered running path near the Vietnam Memorial