The tributes to Nelson Mandela are coming thick and fast, as well they should. Rather than add my own to the list, though, I’d like to suggest that we take those commendations to heart.
Mandela is being praised for two qualities more than anything: his firmness and determination through decades of struggle for justice, and his extraordinary magnanimity in victory. Neither quality is particularly common, and both are highly praiseworthy—but they are particularly extraordinary in combination.
And we are most likely to applaud the half of that combination that we can most easily see applying to us. So, those who thirst for justice are more likely to look up to his tenacity and uncompromising pursuit of right. And those who fear revolution are more likely to praise his eagerness to reach out to his former oppressors and integrate them into his new South African order.
All of which has an unfortunate way of turning Mandela against our current opponents. Of telling those in power: will you really jail another Mandela if he comes among us? And of telling those who would overturn the established order: I can’t listen to you unless you promise to be as forgiving as he is if you win?
It would be nice if we did the opposite.
So, for example, there’s a substantial conservative record of support for the South African apartheid government during the Cold War, on the grounds that it was an ally against Communism and that the ANC had ties to Communist movements. Now could be a time for liberals to point to that record and demand its disavowal, and for conservatives to demand magnanimity and understanding for their prioritization of anti-Communism over anti-racism.
But given the scale of the anti-Communist victory, wouldn’t it be more in tune with the moment for conservatives to be magnanimous, and say: you know, it’s entirely understandable why the ANC sought Communist support. Indeed, it’s entirely understandable why many groups fighting oppressive structures and regimes accepted or even sought the support of Soviet-backed groups during the Cold War. What looked like the most important moral question from the perspective of Washington would not have looked like the most important moral question from the perspective of Transkei, or any number of other places. So maybe, now that the Soviet Union is dead and buried, we should stop harping on ties to Communists as some kind of unforgivable sin, in this case and in general.
Just a thought.
Sean Graney, mad genius founder of the Chicago theatrical troupe, The Hypocrites, has made himself a lovely home in the oeuvre of Gilbert and Sullivan. But he did quite a bit of remodeling on the way.
Graney’s Pirates of Penzance, which I saw almost three years ago, was his first foray into operetta; he added a new wing with last year’s production of The Mikado, delightfully revived in time for me to see it in Chicago over Thanksgiving (full disclosure: my nephew is in the company, and in this production); and word has it Pinafore is up next. So he’s clearly got an affinity for the work.
But that’s surprising, because Graney’s sensibility would seem to be at odds with G&S in a number of ways.
Most obviously, G&S were social and political satirists, and satire necessarily points outside of itself at the thing being satirized. Graney’s style of theater, however, pretty comprehensively rejects that kind of double consciousness; it’s all about what is happening in the room, right here, right now. So, where other directors might update a satirical patter song to zing more contemporary targets, Graney is more apt to cut it altogether, no matter how beloved the song in question might be. In the previous mounting of The Mikado, Graney cut “I’ve Got a Little List” entirely, and in this production it is trimmed substantially and all references to the world outside the theater have been removed. “A More Humane Mikado” has been cut even more drastically.
As well, G&S comes out of a 19th century British world fairly barnacled with rules and highly conflicted about feeling – devoted to melodrama and grand opera, but formally committed to a conception of virtue that amounted to a stoic denial of normal emotions (for both men and women). Graney has no such conflict, has little use for rules, and doesn’t seem to be much interested in repression; his humor has a contemporary, distinctly American sensibility. Finally, Sir Arthur Sullivan’s music is informed by (and sometimes aspires to join) the operatic tradition, and the plays were originally conceived for a proscenium, while Graney’s productions are promenade theater, with the audience continually hopping up to get out of the way of the advancing actors, and his musical sensibility is hipster pop – his actors play their own instruments, guitars predominant among them.
So why has he gravitated to – and had so much success – with Gilbert and Sullivan?
It’s not just that the work is public domain, and it’s not just that its familiar enough that he can take whatever liberties he likes without losing his audience. (Do you actually remember the plot of The Mikado – or just the songs?) I think the kinship he’s found is on a deeper level. For Graney, theater is not about acting, primarily, but about playing – the spirit of play. And that is something William S. Gilbert understood as well. As Mike Leigh revealed so brilliantly in his film, “Topsy Turvy,” underneath the social satire is a satire on sentiment and feeling that, in turn, taps into a deep, and universal, sadness. Graney just turns that sad clown’s frown upside down.
I mean that pretty much literally. His Mikado is set in a cross between the Sgt. Pepper’s album cover, the apparent inspiration for the delightful costumes (by Alison Siple), and a circus tent designed (by Michael Smallwood) for Paul Rubens, complete with a flame red tricycle and acres of balloons. From the very first line, we know we are not in Japan – these are “gentlemen of this land,” wherever it might be that Titipu is. Once again, he goes in for innovative doubling – in Pirates, the inspired choice was doubling Mabel and Ruth; in The Mikado, it’s doubling Nanki-Poo and Katisha. (He also doubles the Mikado with Yum-Yum, which makes for a nice wink at Yum-Yum’s ambitions as revealed in “The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze,” but the Mikado doesn’t actually have much to do in the show, so the impact of the doubling is limited pretty much to just that one joke.)
And, again, amid all the zaniness he zeroes in on the most heart-felt moments. In Pirates, the big surprise was General Stanley’s late number, “Sighing Softly To the River,” a lovely song that is pretty much always crushed by the comic business of the pirates (General Stanley sings the song as his house is being invaded, oblivious to the pirate invaders until its end), but which Graney played against the humor of the General’s own outfit (bunny-slippered feet pajamas, if I recall correctly) but without distraction, so the humor only deepened the pathos of the song. In The Mikado, the equivalent moment is Katisha’s “Alone And Yet Alive,” played with entirely sincere feeling – and therefore all the funnier. And playing the song as a moment of sincere pathos sets up Ko-Ko’s number, “Willow, Tit-Willow” much more effectively, and makes that number play as, if not a sincere love song, then at least partly a sincere attempt to ease another’s breaking heart. Which makes it funnier as well.
There are things I could quibble about. It would be nice if Shawn Pfautsch’s Nanki-Poo had more chemistry with Emily Casey, who plays Yum-Yum (whose overwhelming self-love is entirely appropriate to the character). There’s some weird staging to their lovemaking such that it mostly takes place at a great distance, so perhaps this was a directorial choice, but I’m not sure I understood it if so – unless it was to highlight how much better his chemistry is as Katisha with Ko-Ko (the excellent Robert McLean, making a very sad clown indeed). And Matt Kahler gives us a very traditional rendition of Pooh-Bah that, though perfectly charming, isn’t entirely in keeping with the zaniness of the rest of the production.
But these are minor quibbles to a production that is a general delight, and a wonderful way to warm up a chilly Chicago evening.
The Mikado plays in Chicago at the Steppenwolf Garage through December 29th.
Daniel Larison doubts it, but I think there’s some truth to the assertion, certainly based on my anecdotal experience with the Belgians I used to work with and the various other Europeans I met in my banking days. The discomfort with the idea is bound up in the logic of the European project.
The syllogism works something like this.
Nationalism caused World Wars I and II, which nearly destroyed European civilization. The only way to avoid a repeat is to put an end to aggressive nationalism as a force in European affairs. That means either submitting to some form of imperial foreign domination, or creating some new institution that transcends nationalism. The latter would, obviously, be preferable.
If the European project is legitimate, therefore, it is precisely because it transcends nationalism. If it transcends nationalism, it can’t be about creating a European “nation” out of Germany, France, Italy, etc., that behaves the way a traditional nation does. Therefore, it can’t be defined in national terms – as a union of Western Christian peoples (implicitly excluding Orthodox Christians and Muslims), for example, nor, ultimately, in geographic terms. In theory, the EU is a project with no natural borders. Therefore, it’s not at all absurd to look forward to the day when Russia itself will be incorporated into the EU in some fashion, to say nothing of former Soviet Republics like Ukraine.
Back in the 2000s, before the EU went into perpetual crisis, I used to hear this sort of thing all the time. Now, not so much – given the amount of trouble Greece and Portugal have caused, and how much trouble adoption of the Euro caused for Spain and Ireland, nobody is that eager to expand the European periphery particularly quickly these days. But the ideological underpinnings are still there.
Sphere-of-influence thinking is also threatening for Europeans because it threatens the EU internally. Back in the 1990s, when Yugoslavia came apart, Germany moved very quickly to recognize Croatia and Slovenia. France was traditionally more aligned with Serbia, but came around to support the German position fairly quickly, for the sake of European unity. This unity has frayed badly as a result of the Iraqi and Libyan wars, but it’s still very much a European ideal. So if Russia is allowed to have a sphere of influence, does that mean Germany is allowed one as well?
When you hear Atlanticist grumbling about Germany and the EU members east of it not supporting the Libyan adventure, or intervention in Syria, you’re not just hearing an echo of neo-conservatism; you’re also hearing an anxiety that Europe be something other than Greater Germany, and, by implication, that the Germans should go along with whatever project “European” leaders come up with (even if those leaders aren’t representative at all of European opinion or European interests).
Moreover, if you think about it, if Europe’s states had spheres of influence of their own, Germany’s natural sphere would be to its east. In other words, in a world of Great Powers competing for spheres, Ukraine would be a zone of competition between Germany and Russia. Nobody wants to frame the situation that way, because nobody wants to live in that world again.
So I don’t think elite European surprise and dismay at Ukraine’s decision is really about an arrogant assumption that their sphere of influence extends to Russia’s borders. It’s about an arrogant assumption, which in turn is rooted in a fundamental insecurity, that Europe is the final form of political organization which, naturally, everyone would want to join, and it’s Europe’s decision when other states are ready to do so. The idea that Europe could actually be in competition with other political entities (like Russia) does suggest that it needs to be more like a state. And that’s a threatening idea.
All that having been said, it’s also worth pointing out that, to Russia, Ukraine is not just another country on its borders that was once part of the Soviet Empire. Ukraine is intimately bound to Russia’s history, has a very large Russian-speaking population, and has little history as an independent country. From an ethnic Ukrainian perspective, of course, Ukraine has been one of the signature victims of Russian and Soviet imperialism – and point most prominently to the seven million deliberately starved to death by Stalin. In other words, ethnic Ukrainians and metropolitan Russians see Ukraine’s destiny and identity very, very differently.
That usually doesn’t bode well. Ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union, I’ve been fretfully expecting Ukraine to wind up like Yugoslavia, or, more optimistically, like Moldova or Georgia, and thankfully it hasn’t come to that. But I’m not at all surprised that Russia is playing very hard ball to make sure that Ukraine remains within its orbit – harder ball than it would dare to play with, say, the Baltic states.
Rod Dreher can post pictures of food all the time. I pretty much do it once a year. This is that once.
To recap for readers who aren’t obsessives, every year I throw a dinner party on Hanukkah that features a holiday-appropriate eight courses, each showcasing the holiday-appropriate ingredient of olive oil.
This year’s menu:
Antipasto: Latkes three ways, topped with -
- Triple-crème cheese and apple-cranberry compote
- Wild mushroom stroganoff
- Gorgonzola and brandied figs with toasted pine nuts
(I always start with latkes with three different toppings. Since this is my seventh year throwing this particular dinner party, I’ve now tried 21 different latke toppings. Some of them are real keepers; I suspect someone more enterprising than I would see the potential for a book, or at least an article. This year, the figs were a little over-brandied, but the other toppings were hits.)
Zuppe: Chestnut cream topped with fried leeks
(I don’t really have a rule for what constitutes showcasing olive oil as opposed to merely using it. I guess I’d say that I count a dish as showcasing if either (a) it’s fried; (b) it uses olive oil in a modestly non-traditional way, or (c) you can really taste the oil. Even with that leniency, I don’t always make it.)
Insalata: Puntarelle salad with anchovy dressing
(For example: this salad is not fried, uses olive oil in an entirely traditional way, and you can’t really taste the oil because the capers, anchovies and fresh garlic predominate. Well, maybe that’s not fair; you can taste the oil. Anyway, it’s a great salad.)
Primo: Deep-fried risotto “oranges” topped with butternut squash and roast garlic puree
(I’ve been meaning to make these for years. Finally got around to it. That’s my son in the tuxedo t-shirt serving, by the way.)
Intermezzo: Blistered shishito peppers with matcha salt
(Most of them aren’t spicy. But every now and then . . .)
Secondo: Whole snapper baked in a salt crust, served drizzled with olive oil, with a side of sautéed broccoli rabe
Dolce I: Deep-fried chocolate-filled wontons dusted with five-spice sugar, accompanied by rosemary olive oil ice cream and green tea
(The wontons puff up when fried. So after you take a bite of the wonton, you can spoon the ice cream into the opening and you’ve got an ice cream cone.)
Dolce II: Pistachio olive-oil cake filled with fig compote, iced with a cream cheese frosting
Previous years’ menus:
Recipes, as always, available upon request.
The conjunction of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving struck me, initially, the way it struck most people: as an opportunity to have latkes and turkey together, and to use cranberry-apple sauce two ways; and as a more fortuitous juxtaposition than Hanukkah and Christmas. Hanukkah, after all, is supposed to be a fairly minor holiday, and neither it nor Christmas particularly benefits from the competition. And Hanukkah is a holiday of thanksgiving: it commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after the victory by the Hasmoneans in their war against Antiochus IV, and expresses gratitude at the implicit divine favor shown on the victors in that they were able to complete the rededication even though there appeared to be insufficient pure oil to keep the flame burning. (And, in the background, there’s gratitude for the arrival of the winter rains even though the festival of Tabernacles could not be observed at the proper time a couple of months earlier, and with the appropriate sacrifices, due to the pollution of the Temple and the ongoing civil war.)
But the more I thought about it, other links between the two holidays began to assert themselves in interesting ways. Specifically, both holidays relate to civil wars – and to civil religion as a means of establishing national unity.
President Lincoln formalized America’s Thanksgiving in 1863, while our great civil war still raged at its bloodiest. Lincoln’s proclamation explicitly established the holiday as a national one, to be observed solemnly and reverently, “with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.” It also explicitly associated divine providence with the continued flourishing of the Union even under the stress of civil war: the growth of population, the spread of settlement, the abundance of crops, etc. Framed as the giving of thanks, it was also a political prophecy: the Union would prevail, and ultimately we’d all be celebrating Thanksgiving together.
Lincoln’s Thanksgiving wasn’t a secular holiday exactly, but it was an ecumenical and theologically vague one. It can be thought of as a template of “civil religion,” the association of the nation with a kind of religious aura untethered to any particular theology.
Hanukkah is far more particularist in its origins – but it’s also about the establishment (or reestablishment) of a civic religion. Hanukkah originated as a celebration of victory at the end of a civil war – and a successful rebellion against a foreign empire. The war began as a contest for power between a Hellenizing pro-Seleucid party and an anti-Hellenist, pro-Egyptian party among the Judeans. The Hellenizers invited in Antiochus IV to put down their enemies, and Antiochus conducted an atypically harsh campaign against the religious observances of the traditionalists as part of the war effort, including turning the Jerusalem Temple into a temple of Zeus. This latter can be readily understood as an effort to establish unity with the rest of the Seleucid domains, but it backfired and provoked more furious resistance by the anti-Hellenizing party, the Hasmoneans, led by Judah Maccabee.
Alongside dynastic and economic motivations for the Judean civil war, in other words, there was a battle over communal particularism – and, more specifically, whether the national symbol, the Temple of Jerusalem, would have a particularistic orientation or would follow the norms of the larger Hellenistic world.
Both holidays evolved substantially from their origins, however. As early as the writing of the Mishnah, Hanukkah was treated as problematic by the rabbis. There was a clear discomfort, in the wake of the catastrophically failed Bar Kochba revolt, to celebrate a holiday of national prowess and self-assertion. This is one reason why the “miracle of the oil” began to take center stage. But even that observance becomes ironic if you consider that the menorah is a recollection of the rededication of a Temple that, by this point, had been obliterated by the victorious Roman armies. By the time you get down to medieval and modern times, the symbol of the holiday – and of the divine “great miracle” that happened “there” – is the dreidl, a game of chance. Its observance is almost entirely private, and is far more common than other, theoretically more important holidays – and, though nominally a celebration of particularism, it’s the holiday that is most commonly shared across communal boundaries (and in multi-religious homes).
Thanksgiving, meanwhile, has largely ceased to be a civic holiday. Instead, it has been privatized to paradigmatic family holiday, a day when far-flung relatives get together to roast a sacrificial bird and observe a ritual contest of strength and skill, and give thanks for their private plenitude. It may have more or less religious content depending on the observance of the home in question – but the primary civic ritual is the pardoning of the sacrificial bird, an act which symbolizes the god-like powers over life and death accruing to the Executive, powers which few civilians care to dwell on at any length.
There’s a lesson here about the limits of that executive power. Kings, High Priests and Presidents may have the power of life and death, as well as the power to create holidays to celebrate their victories. But the meanings of their inaugurations are beyond their control, and get re-written to conform to the actual contours of their celebrants lives – and to change as those lives change. When we excavate it, much of religion turns out to be civic in origin, and much civic ritual, forged in times of civic stress, thereby acquires (or is formally invested with) religious aura. But when those particular stresses pass, and the generations who were shaped by them are gathered unto their ancestors, the rituals, if they are to endure, inevitably get re-invested with new significance that would strike our forebears as strange indeed.
And we should give thanks for that, as well, because that process is how both the living and the dead get to live comfortably if confusedly together.
I went last night to see the new Michel Gondry documentary, “Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?: An Animated Conversation With Noam Chomsky,” and I admit, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting.
Based on the title, I assumed that Gondry was going to explain – and illustrate – some of the seminal work that Chomsky did in linguistics, and, presumably, connect that work both with Chomsky’s political ideas (would you really do a movie about Chomsky and not touch on politics?) and with the process of filmmaking. And at the very start, the film gestures in that direction; Gondry announces that he decided to animate the film precisely so that it will be plain to the viewer that this is an artifact of the director, and not a transparent record of the words of the subject.
This ought to be the beginning, not the end, of a discussion, but the subject is dropped. Gondry never asks Chomsky about how film teaches us to see, or about the relationship between the language of film and the innate grammatical structures that Chomsky made his life’s work to study. The closest we come is repeated discussion of the concept of “narrative continuity” – the way in which we perceive external world as composed of entities with an associated history as opposed to as objects with concrete properties. So, even small children understand that when Sylvester becomes a rock, he’s still Sylvester the donkey, while a cutting that is planted and grows to become a tree is a different organism from the tree from which it was cut, even though the two organisms are genetically identical and hence both have equal logical claim to continuity with the “original” tree.
Gondry seems to think that by showing us how his film is made, he has somehow exposed this mental process and thereby avoided manipulating us. For example, late in the film, when we finally get to the famous sentence that gives the film its title, he says that he wanted to talk about that sentence because “I could do a really good animation” – in other words, that it was driven not by the requirements of the argument he wanted to make but by the potentialities he saw in the medium to entertain the audience. (He draws a charming picture of a giant crouching inside a too-small house. So no, I don’t think the tall man is happy.) But I don’t see how this alleviates the problem that Gondry identifies, that our minds close up gaps in continuity in order to make sense of a narrative.
What it does instead is expose that Gondry hasn’t processed Chomsky’s core insights sufficiently well to communicate them to an audience. He and Chomsky have a long back-and-forth at one point where they plainly are not understanding one another. Gondry wants to make some kind of point about how children see cartoons of dogs before they see actual dogs, and yet they understand what dogs are; Chomsky is trying to make some kind of point about how the intuition that we have a mental picture of dogs based on common attributes is simply wrong. But we never learn what either man thinks of the other’s point, nor why either point is important – instead, we’re just given the record of mutual-incomprehension.
Which I found terribly frustrating. Chomsky’s big point about the sentence in the title, if I understand it, is that very young children are able to understand how to transform a statement – “the man who is tall is happy” – into a question – “is the man who is tall happy?” – which, it would seem, requires them to have internalized a generative grammar that should be too complex for them to understand. (How do they know that the second “is” is the one to move, that it is structurally closer to the beginning of the sentence even though it is linearly further?)
But the “wrongly” structured version of the question – “is the man who tall is happy?” – is actually comprehensible, provided you read it with the correct stress (with emphasis on the word “tall”). If you read it correctly, you see that both instances of “is” have been moved – the “is” that used to be before “happy” has been moved to the front, while the “is” that used to be before “tall” is moved to where the first “is” used to be. We understand that “who would fardles bear” means the same thing as “who would bear fardles;” Shakespeare’s construction has a poetic, elevated tone because the verb is placed Germanically at the end of the sentence. And I’ve heard any number of small children make these kinds of grammatical “mistakes” – that is to say, construct sentences that show a clear understanding of what the different words in the sentence are doing grammatically while not yet getting the conventions of “proper” ordering thereof.
I suspect Chomsky would say something like “exactly” – but I really wanted to get into it with him and make sure I understood what he was getting at, what was the significance of his insight. And the movie just never got me there, preferring to let Chomsky reiterate his self-flattering belief that his own insights were like Galileo’s, the first steps away from linguistics as mere taxonomy and towards being an actual science.
Ultimately, the film is more a record of Gondry’s fascination with Chomsky than it is a particularly clear explication of his ideas. The fascination is understandable – Chomsky has an incredibly powerful mind, which he has kept focused for an entire lifetime on the subjects that interest him, primarily the origins of thought, which he sees as inseparable from the origins of language. Even his political ideas can be understood as an effort to force people to think, and to fight the manifold efforts by government, corporations and the organs of the media to convince us to let them do our thinking for us, and thereby reduce us to something less than human. For that reason, I would think Chomsky would prefer the company of minds worth pressing against, prefer questions that he has to work to answer. So I’m disappointed to discover that Chomsky admired this admiring but intellectually unchallenging film.
Read this account of the colossal bureaucratic stupidity that brought us the fiasco of healthcare.gov and then this account of the Iran deal just agreed to in Geneva. On the one hand, I’m inclined to say we now know where the President’s priorities really lie: he’s a foreign policy President, with ultimately little interest in domestic affairs. Or maybe the President has an appreciation for the negotiation process that he doesn’t have for the implementation and management phases. After all, he was able to drag the ACA over the line legislatively in the face of furious opposition, only to thoroughly discredit it through criminally-incompetent implementation. And of course, these are not mutually-exclusive explanations.
It’s too soon to say what Obama’s ultimate legacy will be in either area. Healthcare.gov could still be revamped, and prove both successful and popular in the long term; it could also continue to founder, leading to the failure of the exchanges and demands for a new round of healthcare reform that could take a very different direction (either single payer or catastrophc-plus-MSAs for all); or it could simply limp along, too important to the insurance industry to kill but never popular enough for future Democrats to want to crow about. Similarly, the Geneva agreement could presage a permanent solution to Iran’s nuclear program, and ultimately full normalization; or it could fall apart within six months; or it could merely be the prelude to another short-term deal, and then another, postponing the tough concessions both sides have to make to end the crisis while preventing that crisis from ever boiling over into open warfare. But whether for good or ill, these two areas are where the Obama Administration’s legacy will be made.
To me, there’s an obvious way for the GOP to respond to both developments: run against healthcare.gov as proof that Democrats can’t even build a website, and argue that the Iran deal vindicates a tough negotiating posture with adversaries, and now requires continued vigilance in implementation. But I suspect they will do neither, instead running against healthcare.gov as proof that government can’t even build a website (implicitly conceding that Republicans wouldn’t do any better), and arguing that the fact that we got a deal with Iran proves that we weren’t tough enough (implicitly conceding that their goal is continued conflict, possibly war, and not a solution to the nuclear standoff). In other words, I expect a depressingly ideological rather than pragmatic response to both the Administration’s failures and its successes.
And they may win anyway, particularly in an off-year like 2014.
I want to second Rod Dreher’s appreciation of Allie Brosh’s comments on depression. From my own experience – with myself and with others, on both the receiving end and the giving end – there’s this incredibly powerful impulse to try to solve mental and emotional problems. Which is funny when you think about it, because we don’t do that with, say, a broken leg or pneumonia.
When someone you love is sick, you might give them advice about how to feel better, if you had any useful advice from experience to impart. But that would likely not be the focus of your attentions. And you certainly wouldn’t try to guilt them into getting better. Mostly you’d offer sympathy. And food:
When my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, we ate well. Mary Beth and I had both read the terrifying pathology report of a tumor the size of an olive. The surgical digging for lymph nodes was followed by months of radiation. We ate very well.
Friends drove Mary Beth to her radiation sessions and sometimes to her favorite ice cream shop on the half-hour drive back from the hospital. She always ordered a chocolate malt. Extra thick.
Our family feasted for months on the lovingly prepared dishes brought by friends from work and church and the neighborhood: chicken breasts encrusted with parmesan, covered safely in tin foil; pots of thick soup with hearty bread; bubbling pans of lasagna and macaroni and cheese. There were warm home-baked rolls in tea towel–covered baskets, ham with dark baked pineapple rings, scalloped potatoes, and warm pies overflowing with the syrups of cherries or apples.
Leftovers piled up in the refrigerator, and soon the freezer filled up too, this tsunami of food offerings an edible symbol of our community’s abundant generosity.
Although few said the word breast unless it belonged to a chicken, many friends were familiar with the word cancer and said it often, without flinching. They asked how we were doing, sent notes and cards, passed along things they’d read about treatments and medications, emailed links to good recovery websites and the titles of helpful books, called frequently, placed gentle if tentative hands on shoulders, spoke in low and warm tones, wondered if we had enough food. The phrase we heard most was: “If there’s anything I can do … ”
But if someone suffers from anxiety, or depression, or has a nervous breakdown or addiction?
Almost a decade later, our daughter, Maggie, was admitted to a psychiatric hospital and diagnosed with bipolar disorder, following years of secret alcohol and drug abuse.
No warm casseroles.
At 19, she was arrested for drug possession, faced a judge, and was placed on a probation program. Before her hearings, we ate soup and grilled cheese in a restaurant near the courthouse, mere booths away from the lawyers, police officers, and court clerks she might later see.
No scalloped potatoes in tinfoil pans.
Maggie was disciplined by her college for breaking the drug and alcohol rules. She began an outpatient recovery program. She took a medical leave from school. She was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, diagnosed, released. She began years of counseling, recovery meetings, and intensive outpatient rehabilitation. She lived in a recovery house, relapsed, then spent seven weeks in a drug and alcohol addiction treatment center.
No soup, no homemade loaves of bread. . . .
Friends talk about cancer and other physical maladies more easily than about psychological afflictions. Breasts might draw blushes, but brains are unmentionable. These questions are rarely heard: “How’s your depression these days?” “What improvements do you notice now that you have treatment for your ADD?” “Do you find your manic episodes are less intense now that you are on medication?” “What does depression feel like?” “Is the counseling helpful?” A much smaller circle of friends than those who’d fed us during cancer now asked guarded questions. No one ever showed up at our door with a meal.
I will say that I have seen people be extraordinarily supportive in precisely the circumstances described above – sometimes people with personal experience of a similar situation, but by no means always. But I still think Mr. Lake (author of the piece above) makes a good and important point.
I haven’t read Henry Nau’s book (I admit, I wasn’t aware of it), but gosh darn it I sure am annoyed to learn from Daniel Larison that he’s decided that the term to use for rebooting neoconservative foreign policy is “conservative internationalism.” Because I was really hoping that word would wind up meaning something else.
To start with, I don’t see why “internationalism” and “interventionism” should be understood as synonyms. From where I sit, “internationalism” should be opposed to “nationalism” – that is to say, it should represent a vision of enlightened self-interest that recognizes our inevitable interconnectedness with other states and, further, that this interconnectedness is generally desirable. An internationalist could be more aggressive or more pacific – there’s no necessary implication of a bias toward warfare. Canada has a very “internationalist” approach to its relations with other states, with a free-trade agreement with its largest neighbor, a very open immigration policy, an enthusiastic participation in international organizations and peacekeeping operations, and a longstanding commitment to collective security through NATO. But it would be bizarre to characterize Canadian foreign policy as aggressive or interventionist. (Incidentally, I think nationalism can also be more- or less-aggressive. A country can zealously defend its existing territory and prerogatives without seeking to expand territorially or to assert its dominance over neighboring states. Historically, though, nationalism has tended to be associated with expansionist and aggressive foreign policy.)
Similarly, it should be possible to be more “liberal” or more “conservative” in one’s internationalism. If I were to characterize the difference, I’d say that liberal internationalism is more universalist and comprehensive in its ambitions, more inclined toward supra-national institution-building and to moving international law away from a customary basis and toward explicit universal rules with an enforcement mechanism. A conservative internationalist, then, would be expected to be more wary of these trends – more comfortable with customary law than with explicit universal rules, more comfortable with states organizing for collective security than with supra-national institutions of universal pretension.
As I say, I haven’t read Nau’s book, but right from the subtitle I see an enormous problem: if James Polk was an “internationalist” of any sort, conservative or otherwise, then the term really is devoid of useful meaning. Polk pursued a policy of aggressive nationalist expansion on all fronts, threatening war with Britain to get a resolution of the Oregon boundary dispute, annexing Texas and waging aggressive war with Mexico to conquer what is now the American West, and attempting to purchase Cuba. There’s no obvious applicability of Polk’s foreign policy to an age when territorial expansion is no longer an option, but at a minimum it should be possible to agree that building a continental empire by force should be seen as the antithesis of any kind of internationalism, liberal or conservative.
It would be useful to have a term for a perspective that sought to maximize American interests within the context of understanding those interests as best-served by a relatively harmonious and stable international order, and that saw a proper role for America as the world’s leading power in trying to foster such an order. Useful because not every argument against militarism and hegemonism proceeds from non-interventionist premises, and because the imperatives of power make it very hard for me to see America ever adopting the foreign policy of, say, Switzerland. “Realism” is an inadequate term because it brings along the intellectual baggage of the academic theory of the same name; Walter Russell Mead’s term, “Hamiltonianism,” might do but it’s relatively obscure and tends to be reduced to the notion that foreign policy should promote American commercial interests, which is too narrow a definition for the purpose.
“Conservative internationalism” might have done well. It might have appealed to people who favor greater restraint, a greater emphasis on diplomacy, a greater respect for the sovereignty and legitimate interests of other states, and a greater interest in order and stability, than has been the case with American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War – but who don’t want to think of themselves as narrow-minded “isolationists” or hard-hearted “realists” or people who “blame America first.” So it’s a shame to lose the word to someone who appears to want it to serve the opposite purpose.
UPDATE: I see that in a subsequent post, Daniel Larison has already made the same point about Polk that I made above. I would like to second his view that it makes no sense to call Jefferson a “conservative internationalist” either. As for Truman, if I were to guess, I’d say Nau sees a discontinuity between the liberal internationalism of the UN and the “conservative internationalism” of NATO, and wants to draw attention specifically to anti-Communism as a template for what “conservative internationalism” should be. All that would be consistent with the idea that he’s using the term to re-boot neoconservatism.
Reagan is a tough one because his legacy remains highly contested. Reagan bombed Libya and withdrew from Lebanon. He built the MX missile and signed the INF treaty. He pursued a policy of confrontation with Brezhnev and a policy of détente with Gorbachev. His unilateral intervention in Grenada and support for the Salvadoran regime and for the Contra rebels in Nicaragua loomed large at the time, but pale in comparison to America’s earlier Cold War intervention in Indochina or its post-Cold War interventions in Panama, Kosovo, and Iraq. Similarly, his Administration facilitated the democratic transition in South Korea and the Philippines, but only after a history of supporting the right-wing dictators of those countries.
If you want to make a case for Reagan as the proper heir of Truman in a neo-conservative foreign policy tradition, you can do that, and if you want to you can call that tradition “conservative internationalism.” On the other hand, I think you can also make the case for Reagan as the proper heir of Eisenhower – as more a builder and husbander of national resources than a wanton spender thereof, and, though anything but an anti-interventionist, as genuinely committed to the “peace” part as well as the “strength” part of “peace through strength.”
The hawks have made a consistent habit of apocalypticism when speaking of Iran’s nuclear program: if we don’t act within such and such a time frame, we will pass the point of no return, and then catastrophe will ensue. There has never been much justification for this tone (and I’m not going to use this space to rehash why). But there is similarly little justification for advocates of a diplomatic solution (among whom I include myself) taking an apocalyptic tone towards setbacks in negotiations. Indeed, such a tone plays entirely into the hands of the hawks.
The most fundamental premise of the Iran hawks is that a nuclear (or even nuclear-capable) Iran is absolutely unacceptable, and that we are justified going to war to try to prevent such an eventuality even if there is substantial uncertainty that military action will succeed, because doing nothing guarantees a catastrophic outcome. A key premise of Iran doves must therefore be that this is not the case – that nuclearization would be a bad outcome, one worth paying a real price to avoid, but not catastrophic, and certainly not something that would justify all the dangers of military action.
Moreover, the dovish position holds that Iran seeks a nuclear capability for rational reasons (deterrence and the desire to bolster regional influence), and for emotional reasons that are entirely comprehensible (national pride, primarily). If that premise is true, and if Iran has no more grandiose ambitions, to say nothing of suicidal plans to plunge the world into a nuclear maelstrom, then logically there really is no “point of no return” beyond which diplomacy becomes impossible. Instead, there are better and worse opportunities to get a deal on more or less favorable terms to ourselves.
If the possibility of a nuclear Iran is not worth launching a war over (and it isn’t), then by the same token we need not be so desperate for a deal that every mistake or setback raises the prospect of total failure and “inevitable” armed conflict. Instead of panicking at the possibility that a particular round of talks might fail, advocates of diplomacy should stress the clear rational interest for both parties in a diplomatic solution, and therefore express confidence that, ultimately, a diplomatic solution will be forthcoming – and that the real question is how long it will take and what price will be paid by both sides.
People should make the arguments they believe are true, of course, but the resort to hyperbole is really a rhetorical strategy rather than an argument, and in this case it’s a strategy that has the opposite effect of that intended, aiding the hawks more than the doves.