Know the place for the first time … again

When I was first in the Foreign Service, I was embarrassed that I did not know my own country. So I have always tried to get to know America again whenever I had the chance. It always renews my love of the United States and our people. American diplomats should have a boots-on-the-ground acquaintance with America. It changes enough that you have to go back a lot. I am trying to recall how many times I have gone across most of America, not counting flights. I think it has been five times. Once from California over the northern route, we did most of that on Amtrak. We went from Seattle twice, once south through Utah and Nebraska and from Spokane north through Idaho and South Dakota. We drove from Phoenix through the middle south and I drove from Washington to Phoenix through Wisconsin and then back along the south. I drove maybe a dozen times from DC to Wisconsin. And in August Chrissy & I will make a big circle across the north and then back though the south.  We want to make a special point this time of seeing tall grass prairies, Yellowstone, Brice Canyon and Oxford & Elvis’ house in Tupelo, Mississippi.  Other than that, we rely on sweet serendipity.

The State Department set up some speaking engagements for me on one of my trips. I talked at Rotary Clubs and international clubs and learned a lot. I was in Amarillo, Texas talking to a group of cowboys and ranchers and I realized I was out of my league. They asked about international trade and I deployed the usual State Department platitudes. But these guys knew international trade. The success of their ranches and farms depended on it. I realized that my fancy-pants education  needed some real world leavening and I have been seeking it ever since. I try to ask more than I tell these days.

I hate it when educated fools – unfortunately often people like me – denigrate “ordinary” Americans. They talk about “fly over country” or “rednecks.” They wonder loudly why “those people” think as they do, make special efforts to point out the worst. It is a myth, a caricature. My experience with real Americans is that my people are among the friendliest and most open people in all the world. They know what they need to know, as the cowboys in Amarillo taught me, or the gas drillers in Dakota or my neighbors near the tree farms. I am looking forward soon to learning some more.

I will be back in the U.S. in August. The State Department, in its wisdom, gives me a month of “home leave.” Home leave is statutory. Congress doesn’t want American diplomats to stray too far from our roots and the people who pay us so they require we spend some quality time with America. The law is that we have to spend non-working time in America, i.e. we cannot go anywhere else,  and I think that is just fine. I love to wander the U.S. I really have a great job. They “make” me do what I want to do. So I am finishing up in Brazil and soon to be back in the U.S.

The lines from TS Eliot come to mind, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” But I don’t think we ever really know the place. That is what keeps life fresh.
My Smithsonian job starts on September 1. That will be a new adventure.

California highway

I drove from LAX to San Diego Airport, starting along I405 to I5 in the early morning gloom.  I had gone up to LA with our Brazilian delegation.  They had onward flights from LAX, but I was unable to change my San Diego reservation w/o it costing more than a new ticket.  Just as well. I spent the night at LAX Marriott and hit the road early to catch my 11am flight in San Diego. I could have left much later, as it turned out, but I like to be sure to be on time.

Even early on a Saturday morning, there was traffic, not bad but you never got the feeling that you really left the city.  The radio had some oldies including “Ventura Highway.” Ventura is the other direction but it seemed appropriate for me too.  I kept on thinking of all those songs from the 1960s about Southern California. It must have been an interesting place back then.

The freedom of the road is not what it used to be.  It is easier to drive on the Interstates, but they are pretty homogeneous.  You can still go on the blue highways but they are mostly drained of commerce.  The Interstates did their job.  You can drive all over the place w/o really knowing for sure where you are.

Great stories are usually about journeys.  The Odyssey created the genre.   The story requires unexpected challenges, discomforts and dangers to be confronted and overcome.  Life is easier on the highways now, but we have fewer stories.  My trip from LAX to San Diego was easy and predictable.  My greatest challenge was exiting at a rest stop that had no bathroom (see above).  While that seemed very pressing at the time, it wasn’t; not exactly the same as facing the Cyclops.

My picture up top is a pull off on road.  There were no facilities there.  Below are stairs at the convention center.   It reminds you of one of those Aztec pyramids, but I think there are even more stairs in San Diego.  People were running up and down in exercise reminiscent of the myth of Sisyphus.

Southern California

Our Brazilian delegation went to Los Angeles to explore connections with California universities. We met a bunch of university representatives at the Brazilian consulate in LA. I hope that some permanent matches were made. Diplomacy in many ways is the art of matchmaking. We put the partners together, maybe help them find their common aspirations, but others have to do actual connecting.

Anyway, it was a pretty sweet deal for me and I was flattered that our Brazilian partners wanted me along. That is another function of diplomacy, BTW – diplomatic cover. Our official status helps open doors and legitimize. I know these kinds of values are very soft and I underestimated them for most of my career. I was looking for the cash-value-concrete result. Those come, but sometimes long after. Our value is often part of the process. We are like oil (some might say grease) to smooth things along.

I have been surprised to find that people sometimes remember key phrases from the short speeches I make. I have some stock phrases, but I try to tailor to the circumstances. That is why I rarely know exactly what I will say until I hear what others have said and get a feel for the mood. This is one reason why I know that I should not seek work in contentious issues or ever try to be a spokesman. I do not stick to my talking points. In a field like higher education exchanges, you can get away with this and even prosper doing it. I would not be so lucky trying to “fix” official statements. A man’s gotta know his limitations. Interestingly, this particular limitation hasn’t kicked me very often during my long career in public diplomacy, although I have avoided some “career enhancing” jobs that would have put me in harm’s way.

My pictures are from USC, except for the statue of John Wayne up top, which is in front of the Brazilian Consulate. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are big supporters of USC. Spielberg was denied admission to the cinema school, but he doesn’t hold a grudge. Imagine how successful he could have been with a decent education.

The Heisman Trophy was won by OJ Simpson. They told me that it is the most photographed among their trophies displayed. They don’t take it down, since OJ was found not guilty and (if the glove don’t fit, you must acquit)– anyway – the OJ that won the trophy was not the same man on trial for murder. This unfortunate incident was in the far in future.

San Diego NAFSA

I am finally getting around to writing up my notes, a few weeks late. I went to San Diego for the NAFSA conference. I usually would not attend such a thing, but this was the last time I would have to be with some of our Brazilian friends and my final attempt to help make sustainable connections between U.S. and Brazilian educational institutions.

Most of my work consisted of meeting people and attending receptions. I know that most people consider this a perk of the job but believe me when I say that is work for me. I enjoy talking to people; I even like public speaking. But going to reception is less fun for me than writing reports. I don’t like and don’t do well with the small-talk. But I recognize the importance of being there so I was where I could see and be seen.

I cannot complain about being in San Diego, however. It is a pleasant place and I had a pleasant time. I stayed on Coronado Island. It is right across from the Convention Center, where the NAFSA meeting was held. You catch a ferry to get there. It costs only $4.25 and takes only about five minutes. It would have been a little more convenient to stay in the hotel actually at the convention center, but not very much and the hotels there cost a lot more. None of them were available for the per-diem rate. Anyway, I liked the idea of commuting by ferry. It is a very civilized way to go.

Coronado Island is a delightful place. It would be a little too neat for my liking to live there permanently but it is really nice to visit. There is a bike/walk/run trail along the ocean. My hotel had a view of the bay. I walked almost all the way across the island my first morning there. I had to do laundry and evidently there is only one Laundromat on the island. The guy at the hotel said that they could send it out for me, but I am not going to pay a couple dollars to wash a t-shirt. Anyway, it was a nice walk. Because of jet-lag I work up really early and started in the pre-dawn twilight. The place seemed very safe. There are a lot of retired U.S. Navy folks around and they tend to be orderly and peaceful.

My main “problem” and my excuse for not writing in real time is that my computer charger died. I could not find a new one anywhere in town where I could walk. They all have the equipment for telephones. So after the battery went dead, I was w/o computer for a couple days. It is strange how you become accustomed to computers. I wrote in my notebook and I do enjoy actual writing, but it is a very different experience. I think I am more open and honest with myself on paper, since I am pretty sure nobody, probably not even I will ever read it. But on those occasions when I do read, I find it more banal, maybe because it is harder to cancel a line and rewrite with pen and ink than to insert or delete with the computer.

My pictures show the convention center.  Next is the Brazilian section.  They let me hang out there.   The next two pictures show the ferry landing and the ferry.  The next picture is taken from my room.  You can see the convention center across the water and why it is an easy water commute.  Finally is a big fruit boat.

Nine Eleven twenty-thirteen

I still remember how I felt on 9/11/2001, but it seems a long time ago now.  I don’t think we should forget big events like this, but how much should we privilege them? 9/11 was certainly a big event that changed the course of our country and the world.   

It is important, however, not to see such big events as sui generis.  When we declare that something is unique, we give up the ability to learn from it.  We can learn from events only when they can be put into a system or a recognizable pattern.

After a while, the memorials become perfunctory. I mean no disrespect by saying this.  As I said up top, I still remember and during the memorial at the flagpole some of the feelings came back. I did indeed think about the ebb and flow of history during the minute of silence and during the next hours and days.  I think this is what should happen. This is more useful than simply bring back emotions, as deep or real as they may be.

Habits of the Heart

We had an interesting lunch with CCBEU staff.  Among other things, we talked about the culture of responsibility. It is a common complain among Brazilians that people here expect too much from the government and that the government delivers much too little. Everybody mentions the various corruption scandals that seem to surface with monotonous regularity. I was able to give a little favorable perspective. The Brazil I found when I returned after almost twenty-five years was better in almost every way than the one I left in 1988, I told them. Problems remain, of course. But they are not uniquely Brazilian and, IMO, many can be traced to expectations mentioned above.

I mentioned the work of Alexis de Tocqueville. Any American who has seriously studied our history is familiar with Tocqueville, but his fame doesn’t seem to cross our borders. I explained that Tocqueville was a French aristocrat who wrote about democracy in America in the 1830s. We Americans take lots of what he wrote as compliments; he didn’t always mean it that way. In the America that Tocqueville described, hard work, enterprise and money-making are the rule. Americans, he noted, do not defer to elites, as they still did in Europe. This included, to Tocqueville’s distress, not deferring even to those of “superior talent and intelligence.” America was a dynamic, although maybe a rude place. But the America was more exceptional in the amount of local and personal initiative.

In the Old World, citizens petitioned their government to do things for them. After that they waited for it to happen and complained when it wasn’t done right. Tocqueville observed that in America many of these “government” tasks were taken up by individuals in voluntary, often temporary, association. We formed task forces and committees to address local problems, bringing in government as last resort and even then resorting to government at the lowest level possible. In France at the time, power to make decisions about local roads or building codes would migrate to Paris and the choices made there. In America, they were often not made by government at all and when government was necessary, it was usually the local officials who called the shots.

American tradition of working through voluntary associations has persisted to this day. One of our colleagues said that this is what surprised him when he was on an exchange in the U.S. He gave the example of his host family and all the neighbors getting together to do the dirty work, literally shoveling manure, in the barns at the Indiana State Fair. In most other countries, this just doesn’t happen. At best, people might give money to hire somebody to do it.

I pointed out that government in the U.S. has plenty of problems and petty corruption, but one reason why it has historically been more responsive to the people is that we, the people, ask it to do less. Tocqueville warned of a “soft despotism” in democracies, where citizens vote for politicians who promise to give them things. When people have the habit (Tocqueville called them “habits of the heart”) to do things for themselves in voluntary association with their fellow citizens, it preempts the necessity of government intervention and also preempts the creation of a network of petty rules and regulations that are the bane of existence in the more bureaucratic states. Soft despotism is ameliorated if those voting benefits have to pay for them and even more so if they have to work in their creations.

My life in other countries has, IMO, helped me see America in a more objective way and I think there has been a convergence in the last quarter century. People in many other countries have become somewhat more active in doing things in voluntary association rather than waiting or demanding government action.  I am certainly seeing that in Brazil. On the other hand, America has become more bureaucratized. Government has reached into voluntary associations in ways it did not before, establishing rules and standards that seem to make sense but end up crippling the voluntary impulse.

I read about a recent (Thanksgiving) example where the authorities in New Jersey have imposed various regulations on church-run soup kitchens. People can no longer bring food from home to donate and there are stricter rules on facilities and reporting requirements that will cost more than $150,000.00 a year. You can argue that such regulations are good, but they will have two effects. They will take it out of the hands of people and make another activity the responsibility of the government. In short order, costs will rise. The people who used to get satisfaction from carry out their responsibly as good citizens will resent the taxes and the recipients will get less and lower quality food.

Lawyers are also getting involved. People engaged in voluntary activities are now advised to get liability insurance. We are managing to make good citizenship costly and hazardous to your financial future. When you make things harder or more expensive, you get less of them.

America really was exceptional in the number of things we did voluntarily. Authorities are/were not always welcoming. I recall reading a biography of Ben Franklin, who was the godfather of many good citizenship practices. The local representatives of the king did not always welcome his self-help plans. They considered them subversive and they were right. When people can do things for themselves they become less dependent on the beneficence and largess of the state.

I am glad to see that people in many places around the world are seeing the benefit of acting outside both governmental and the strictly private spheres. People working together in voluntary association is the essence of community. We don’t make friends face-to-face; we make them shoulder-to-shoulder working on common goals. I think it is healthy that they are becoming more like us, even if that means American is less “exceptional”. But I am not healthy that we are becoming less like we were.

Crossing the American Nation

I wanted to take a trip across the U.S. – again – to remind myself about the America outside what I see in and around Washington.  It is easy to forget that there is a lot of America far away from Washington when you live around here.

Driving is different than flying to particular cities because you see the places you cross close up. It is impressive how long it takes to get from place to place. You quickly understand that it is a big country, with pretty good roads.  I tried to get off the Interstate when I could. The Interstate is faster, but you see less and you never get the feeling of the open road that you do when you are the only one on a county road. You also cannot usually stop on the Interstate, so if you do see something interesting all you can do is race past it at 70mph. 

I enjoyed driving most on the old U.S. Highways. They are usually smooth and fairly straight. They were designed for more traffic than they get now in most of the rural areas, as the Interstates have drained the traffic, so it is often a comfortable and almost traffic free experience. I like the diversion when I slow down through towns. The Interstate bypasses them or hurries you through them on ramps above, artificial valleys below or man-made canyons of noise control walls if you stay at ground level. You miss a lot of history.

I drove through sixteen states, including the State of Missouri. I mention Missouri specifically because Missouri was the only one of the continental states I had not visited before. Missouri is just about right in the center of the U.S., so it is strange that I missed it so many times. I really didn’t see it too much this time either. All I did was stop at a rest stop and put my feet on the ground for a few minutes.But I got a picture.

I noticed the changes in the physical landscape. Once you cross the thickly forested eastern mountains, you get into relatively flat formerly-forested landscapes until you get to about fifty miles out into Kansas.  Rainfall drops off below the amount (about 30 inches a year) needed to support natural forests at about the 98th meridian. This divides prairies from forests. Historically, the prairies extended farther east because the Native Americans used to set fires to maintain the grassland. Today, our own civilization has brought trees into the grasslands and grasslands into the trees, but you can still clearly discern the differences as you pass over. The mountains in the West have all sorts of variations of climate. That is the attraction of the West. You can drive 100 miles in the East w/o noticing big changes. In parts of New Mexico I crossed dozens of biomes in that same distance.

I am not sure if it was Texas or New Mexico that were most surprising. I had been to both before, but not really through them. New Mexico, as I mentioned in one of my posts, is truly a land of enchantment, with a great variety of environments in very close proximity because of the mountains. Texas was also very surprising. I wrote several posts about that. Texas is such a big state that I should not have been as surprised by the variety, but I was.

The geography and topography was very different, but I found that Americans were very similar everywhere I went. I am in a good position now. I am old enough that I both am not too shy to approach and talk to strangers and I seem harmless enough that they are willing to talk to me. Actually, I am repeated surprised at how friendly people are and how much they like to tell you about themselves and their home towns.  The pride is palpable and everybody thinks his/her place in unique. And they are all right. But what is not unique is the feeling of unique pride in being different. It is a kind of a paradox.

It makes me a little sad that the regional differences are weakening. As each part of the U.S. becomes more diverse the country is becoming less so. You find the same restaurants, stores and outlets wherever you go. And it is not only the well-known chains. You can find the same sorts of independent Chinese, Mexican, or Japanese restaurants in San Antonio or Dodge City as you do in Milwaukee or Nashville. Everyplace is diverse now. All these places were less diverse internally a generation ago, but they were more different from each other. The whole country has been blended. It is great that you can get all the same things almost anywhere, but maybe also not so great.  You can tell this by what you CANNOT bring back home that you can’t already get back home.

What is becoming more important is what you might call the back story. We are becoming a lot more concerned with the origins and the “stories” of the things we eat, drink, wear and enjoy. We can get to know these stories when we travel. As our country blends, we all look for the special things and we are reviving or recreating traditions, especially on the high end. This is how we connect in a world that doesn’t tie us to our roots. For example, the Bourbon makers we visited have been working harder to make “craft” products and people are willing to pay more. Farmers are developing or rediscovering heirloom fruits and vegetables. I saw longhorn cattle like those that were essentially eliminated a century ago. Somebody is reviving the herds. I think this is healthy. It is usually not mere antiquarianism.  People are respecting traditions but also working and applying their innovation and intelligence to make them better. New traditions are being evolved from the old ones all over our country, so while we are becoming more homogeneous we are also developing new diversity.

I have a few miscellaneous pictures from the tip that I have included. The top picture is art work in the grassy hills above a Missouri rest stop. They are flat steel cutouts of Indians hunting bison.  Next is a water town in Franklin, Wisconsin.  A ranch in Kansas is below followed by a replica of the Bonnie & Clyde “death car.” In the middle of the page the Polish-American Center in Franklin and then the Bay View “Redcat” football team in early season practice. The rocks in the next picture is off I-10 near the place where the Apache leader Cochise hid out.  Next is a gas station in New Mexico with the railroad in the background. The next two show an old school house in Mead, Kansas and then an oil pump on the Permian basin in New Mexico. Below is a mural in Fort Worth, Texas honoring the Chisholm Trail

Local Heroes in Western Tennessee

We spent last night at the Holiday Inn in Forrest City, Arkansas.  The town was named for Nathan Bedford Forrest.  As we drove through western Tennessee, we came across Forrest a few more times. He was very much the famous home town boy.  I read that there are thirty-two monuments associated with him in Tennessee. Nathan Bedford Forrest was a Confederate cavalry officer and a true military genius.  On the other hand, he trafficked in slaves, was accused of war crimes and was associated with the KKK, although he denied both of the latter. On the other hand, in later life Forrest advocated re-consolidation between North and South and between the races.   

The man was a fighter and good at his job.  He famously said that war means fighting and fighting means killing.  What you can say for sure about Nathan Bedford Forrest is that he was a man of significant contradictions and that he was well-thought-of at least by some people around Western Tennessee, Western Arkansas & Northern Mississippi.

A less controversial local hero is Casey Jones.  He was an engineer on the Illinois Central Railroad.  His passenger train, the Cannonball Express, ran into a stalled freight train near Vaughan, MS.  Jones stayed with the train, pulling on the brakes. He managed to reduce the speed of his train from around 75mph to 35mph. His bravery undoubtedly saved the lives of passengers, none of whom were killed, but Casey Jones died in the wreck.

Casey Jones’ experience was immortalized in a song, much like the Wreck of the Old 97, in Virginia. Train wrecks made an impression on those around to see them. We visited the Casey Jones museum in Jackson, Tennessee and saw his house, some railroad artifacts & an engine much like his. It is one of those places that is worth seeing if you are already driving past, but probably not worth going to see if you are not.

The lyrics to the song are at this link.

The top picture is a cotton field in Western Tennessee. Cotton is very hard on the soil & the crop exhausts the nutrients quickly. This was wasteful but it also provided incentive for westward expansion, as new lands were constantly needed. Next is the pyramid of Memphis. I guess it is an arena.  Chrissy took the picture of the pyramid, as we drove over the bridge and she demanded I give her credit. This was indeed a good picture, but the others she took on the fly look like they were taken by a drunken monkey.  We have to take the sweet with the bitter. BTW – there are no pyramids in the original Memphis. The next picture is an engine like the machine that Casey Jones would have driven, but this one is smaller. The bottom picture is the bathroom in Casey Jones’ house. He was fairly well off for the time. I would like to visit the past, but I wouldn’t want to live there. Besides all the exotic diseases, poor dentistry and interesting smells, we had bathrooms like this for those lucky enough to have such luxurious accommodations.

Some Miscellaneous Things about Southern California

The stretch of I-5 that goes through Camp Pendleton is named after John Basilone, a hero of Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima who won both the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross. One of the values of naming things after special people or events, rather than some non-committal thing like “Happy Crest Road,” is that they are remembered. John Basilone was a great hero and I am glad that driving along this road made me think of him.

Southern California is semi-arid and the natural vegetation would be scrub and brush.  When you see large trees, they are almost always planted and watered.  This is the best time of year to see the area around San Diego.   The hills are green and flower covered.  When I examined the ground more closely, it is clear that the vegetation is not thick.   It is, as I said, semi-arid.

The Spanish tried to colonize California using missions. They were founded about a day’s journey apart and there were twenty-one of them.  The San Diego mission, built in 1769, was the first one built.

Camp Pendleton is really big. It is one of the largest de-facto natural preserves in the U.S.   If the Marines didn’t own the place, it certainly would be covered with condos, like the rest of the coast here about.

Volunteers, Philanthropy & Cultural Policies

Americans are generous people when it comes to both charitable giving and volunteering.    You can find some of it in our cultural roots. Philanthropy and volunteerism are prominent in what you might call the British diaspora. But there is also something in the structure of American society.  Some of it has to do with the absence of the types of government programs we find in many other countries and there is the effect of our tax system. 

The absence of government argument cuts both ways. You can argue that individual Americans must step in because of government neglect, or you could argue that aggressive government intervention crowds out of preempts charities by individuals or groups. Both have some validity. Some of the same things get done everywhere but who does them is different.

Many things done by volunteers in the U.S. are government functions, even government monopolies in other places. Around my house, citizens do a lot of the work to maintain the local parks. In some parts of Europe (and even some American cities with strong unions) they are not allowed to do that. It is a government monopoly and no volunteer or free effort is wanted.   That may be a trivial example, but it also extends to things like volunteer fire departments, hospital volunteers, community watches, after school programs and lots of other things.  

Governments in the U.S. allow or encourage volunteerism in ways many others don’t.   This may be changing, as I will discuss below, but first let’s talk taxes.

I heard a lecture entitled “Why doesn’t the U.S. have a cultural policy?” The speaker from the Smithsonian explained that the title of his lecture was meant to mislead, because American DID have a very strong and effective cultural policy. It was our tax policy.  The citizens put up their own money, demonstrating their own real commitment and the government partnered with them by “spending” through tax breaks.

This kind of arrangement is entirely consistent with the workings of a democracy, since it decentralizes decision making and funds those things citizens throughout the country find most valuable. He contrasted this with the system used in a country like France, where a Paris-based elite decides what, where and who is worthy. This produces great fine arts, but tends to neglect non-elite projects as well as non-established artists and places that are not established cultural centers. In America, some of the most interesting cultural offerings are found in what would be called “provincial” places in other countries. In France with its centralized system, you find great culture in Paris and it tapers off drastically after that. Washington is not the cultural capital of America and, despite its own pretensions, neither is New York. The best orchestras, artists, dance troupes, theaters etc are distributed widely across the country. This is because American cultural policy allows for decentralized decision making and allows funding to follow the preferences of the people.

There is much gnashing of teeth about this cultural policy, but there is even more trouble with the centralized versions. The National Endowments for the Arts, for example, funds some questionable art.  The one I remember best is the “piss Christ” where the “artist” submerged a crucifix in a cup of his own urine. Whether or not you think this guy will go to hell and whether or not you think it is art, the idea that some government official decided that your tax money should go to something like this is odious. However, it would be significantly less controversial if an individual donor had paid for it and then wrote off part on his taxes. In the latter case, it would just be an example of piss poor art rather than pissing on the taxpayers’ leg and telling them it is raining.

Our decentralized system allows for a wider variety of offering, even the bad type mentioned above.  It replaces the bureaucracy with volunteers and makes much of the funding part of a public private partnership. In short, it is a great American system.

In some Eastern European languages, the word volunteer has a not entirely good connotation. I know that because I was corrected on several occasions when trying to explain volunteerism in the U.S. It seems that during communist times, the government would force people to volunteer and would organize them into work details. Sometimes they were doing exactly the same sorts of things our real volunteers do in America, but they were under the harsh lash of the communist officials. Governments have a history of commanding “volunteers.”   

The American difference has been that volunteers often “command” government resources.   The people are the senior partner in the government-private partnership.  The people drive the policy, in other words. This is usually good and should be protected.