Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Watershed Moments

Probably the biggest watershed moment of anyone alive today are the events of September 11, 2001. Everyone has a story of where they were that day. I was in South Burlington, Vermont on the phone with one of my clients, Michele. She called to inform me that she was going to be late for our conference call because she was stuck in traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge. During the conversation, she said, in shock, that a plane is "flying very low." She did not see the crash from her vantage point. This was the second plane hitting the World Trade Center. While she said this to me, I could overhear a co-worker, Mike, say "a plane has hit the World Trade Center" (I am paraphrasing). I was confused because I thought if Michele was watching a plane fly low, how could Mike already have that news on the net. News travels fast on the net, but not that fast! Of course, Mike was reading news about the first plane that caused the traffic that was Michele was in watching the second plane.

The events of 9/11 didn't change my life or have any direct affect on me. What did affect me was what happened on 9/12/01 and beyond. Considering how awful American foreign policy has been toward the Middle East in the past century, the attacks did not surprise me. What did surprise was how my government, run by a president that had no mandate, could use the events of 9/11 to justify invasions, torture and violations of our privacy and the American people let him do it. Not only did they let him do it but he gained popularity while he did it. This did affected me. I expected heinous crimes from maniacs and religious zealots, I did not expect it from my government. Looking back at myself prior to 9/11, I feel naive. I used to consider myself an independent voter. I have voted for Republicans in the past (Senators Chafee and Jeffords come to mind). Since 9/11 I haven't voted for a single Republican on any level of government and I don't plan to ever again. I am not an independent now, I am an anti-Republican. Not only for the actions of the Bush administration, but for those who let them do it and for those who defend him ... you will get nothing from me. I just thought my country was better than that. Again, I feel naive.

Prior to 9/11, the only other events that qualified as watershed moments for me were the assassination of John Lennon and Space Shuttle Challenger explosion. Most people older than me will refer to the Kennedy assassination as their watershed moment or of Martin Luther King or Robert Kennedy. A watershed moment can also be something positive like the moon landing or the Beatles arrival in America. These happened before I was born or when I was very young. Many people say that these events changed their lives as it changed how they thought about the world, made them more bitter, unsafe or paranoid. In the case of the positive watershed, these made them feel more connected or more motivated for greatness. I can related to these. The events of the larger world can certainly affect the inner self. I would hope that this is what motivates us to change the world ... in a positive way.

In the 19th century, for Americans, one of the big watershed moments was the bombardment of Fort Sumter in South Carolina on April 12, 1861. This marked the beginning of the American Civil War. The first shots were fired at around 4am. By late evening news had already hit New York newspapers. This is impressive in the days before telephones and automobiles. The American poet Walt Whitman (my personal favorite) was leaving a theater in Manhattan at around midnight. He stood on the steps of the Metropolitan Hotel reading the special edition news. The street were abuzz with the news. For those who didn't have a paper, some read aloud for them (the 19th century equivalent of Twitter). At this point in his life, Whitman was a muckraking journalist making money by trashing the Irish immigrant and drumming the beat of demagoguery. He was fast on his way to being his generations Rush Limbaugh and a footnote in a history. The events at Fort Sumter, and the war that followed, sent Whitman into service as a male nurse in Washington DC. What he saw there changed his life. He stopped writing hateful trash and wrote volumes of poetry that rocked the literary world. Leaves of Grass is perhaps the first great American collection of poetry and perhaps the beginning of modern poetry in English.

Perhaps I am leaning back on my personal history of liberal naivity by saying that I hope that some Whitman-like conversion is happening in the midst of this cluster fuck that is happening in Afghanistan and Iraq. Perhaps the next great American poet is somewhere in the ranks of the military or another nurse in a field hospital. We can only hope that from the ashes of our greatest barbaric acts can come some contemplative beauty and reflection that will rock our worlds. I await another literary watershed.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Soft Power and the Arab Spring

Whenever I talk to young people from overseas, I am always impressed with how popular the United States is with them. They all want to visit New York, LA, Nashville, Disney World ... American pop culture is king. They are not impressed (or probably informed of) American military might or our Constitution, but they are by the Foo Fighters, Gossip Girl and Ed Norton films. This is what is called soft power. For long term change, soft power is much more effective than hard power. We can trace the originas of the term soft power back to this quote from Lao Tzu:

"Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong."

Hard power is more immediate but doesn't cause lasting change. Neo-cons (new conservatives) are proponents of hard power, they believe that the recent events in the Middle East (the Arab Spring) were inspired by the US Iraqi and Afghanistani invasions. Hard power, of course, is the use of force to get what you want. Hard power is synonymous with nation building.

When I think of soft power, I think of a teenage girl (in Tunisia or Egypt perhaps) who somehow acquires a copy of "Sex in the City" or "Gossip Girl." She watches it and thinks to herself, they (Americans) can get away with this, they have the freedom to do this and no one arrests them? And then thinks, why not me? That is soft power. It is revolution from within.

Since the Middle East exploded this past winter with revolutions in the streets of Tunis and Cairo, civil war in Libya, uprisings in Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco and Oman (aka the Arab Spring) a lot of folks, particularly Americans, like to take credit for it. I have even heard some on the left claim that President Obama's speech in Cairo is what sparked it all. Ultimately, no one should get credit for the Arab Spring other than the people involved. It is a tremendously courageous thing they do. The only Americans that really should be patting themselves on the back for the Arab Spring are the folks at Twitter and Facebook. Without social media, the revolutions never would have happened. Social media is just a platform for the cinders of revolution letting the soft power come to a boil.