Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Enduring Stupidity of American Foreign Policy Discussion

President Obama recently gave what was hyped as a "major foreign policy" statement before the graduating class at West Point this past week. Given the strong realistic streak in Obama's overseas maneuvering to date, I thought that this would either be a huge redefinition of terms or a complete and utter non-event. It turned out to be the latter.

This has given a lot of folks who are otherwise critical of Obama, both left and right, a chance to be further critical of him. And it gives me the chance to point out that it was pretty stupid to set himself up for this fall.

Unless somehow his message of extreme moderation somehow slips through the chorus of mostly nonsensical caterwauling and reaches the public. It is possible.

What amazes me about foreign policy discussion in this country is the extent to which it is dominated by people who utter little that isn't complete & utter bullshit. I've written before (mostly here and here) about the essentially theatrical attitude many purportedly expert commentators take toward foreign policy; where foreign policy is all about cutting a figure, creating an image that is pleasing to the American public (and, allegedly, one that is terrifying to our enemies), whatever the reality behind it.

This is essentially a cynical attitude: Americans know little about the rest of the world and don't care to know very much. The *reality* of our involvement vis-a-vis the rest of the world is not something they are likely to become cognizant of, at least in the short term. The image of a forthright and defiant American President, gazing off into the middle distance with a light wind rippling his hair. That's something that'll reach them. Albeit briefly.

Obama's hairstyle is not the only thing that makes him ill-suited for this role. He had his chance to rework this image after his own predilections after he was elected. He had, after all, did a bang up job of reworking our image of presidential candidate over the prior year. But there was a pesky financial crisis and ensuing recession to deal with, and he always seemed a bit . . . mmm . . . ill at ease with the purely theatrical elements of politics. His middle-distance stare always had an element of "I wish I were anywhere but here" to it, rather than the "I really LOVE me, and so should you!" or "They really LOVE me, and so should you!" that we see in leaders who have really mastered the art.

At heart, Obama is a tinkerer and improver. A realist. A man who hates stupidity and waste and who has had plenty to do just unwinding the commitments left to him by the prior administration, which came to be defined by stupidity and waste.

Translating what he really feels about foreign policy--that he doesn't hold with any religious mission at the core of American foreign policy, that he doesn't hold with fomenting paranoia (and the ensuing overseas commitments) as a civic distraction, that he realizes America is not omnipotent and intends to behave that way--telling that truth would require confronting a whole host of contradictory feelings America has about itself. That we can do anything!; that we're terribly and unjustly overburdened. That we're the best!; That we've been in decline throughout living memory! That everyone needs to do what we say!; That we don't feel like making any sacrifices.

The usual talking heads we see complaining about the Obama foreign policy and mostly would-be directors of a much better political/theatrical presentation than currently on offer. They are interested in *exploiting* these contradictions in our attitudes.

Someone we don't like ruling Syria? Well how can Obama possibly let that happen? He is weak!

But this is a very easy complaint to make. The suggestion being that a "strong" President never has to live for long with anything he doesn't like. But is this true? Of course not. And when asked particularly about what they are suggesting ought to be done, the essential actions are always either in the past or nebulous in the extreme. Apparently Obama didn't sacrifice the right chicken to the right God or something, and if he had Bashir Assad would have been smothered in his crib as an infant. Or something. I can never quite figure out what is being suggested.

Which is nothing new, except for the fact that journalist who cover this sort of thing seldom push the questioning to the point where real answers must be forthcoming. In fact, they are complicit in mystifying foreign policy because that give their sources (and they themselves) an aura of privileged knowledge (however nebulously presented) for access to which we are dependent on them.

When in fact, foreign policy is largely about learning to lose well. It's about acknowledging where you can't win or can't win without undue risk. It's about scooping up an easy win here or there and putting your effort and taking your risks where they really matter. It's about playing a high stakes game. It isn't primarily about principles and it isn't theater. There are disagreements about how that high-stakes game should be played, about whose bluffs should be called when; about when risks are justified.

But those who image of foreign policy seems to be Wagnerian bellowing from the "World Stage"--well, there's a reason they aren't at the table, even in their childish imaginations!

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Irish Pub: Drinking and the Irish

OK: More cliches.

The Irish are a bunch of drunkards.

Well, not really, but the Irish (I'm mostly of Irish extraction, btw. Obviously.) have had an interesting and complex relationship with booze. Alcohol is very much woven into a lot of Irish sociality. Whiskey is customary at get-togethers in Ireland much like vodka is in Russia. Just recently in Ireland I've seen the whiskey broken out on a few occasions when cousins or old friends meet around a kitchen table. And neighborhoods and villages have traded gossip and lamented and shared news and talked politics over pints in pubs.

There have, of course, been problems. The Irish journalist John Waters has written that “Drinking in Ireland is not simply a convivial pastime, it is a ritualistic alternative to real life, a spiritual placebo, a fumble for eternity, a longing for heaven, a thirst for return to the embrace of the Almighty.”

The drunken Irishman like the Irish pub is a cliche, but not just a cliche. There's a truth behind it. During the long struggle for independence, Irish patriots often lamented their biblious countrymen. And the Irish middle class, even when they were not slavishly emulating the English middle class, went to great lengths to separate themselves and their customs from taint of alcohol. A whole host of problems seemed to go hand in hand with Irish drinking both in Ireland and abroad: unemployment and underemployment; gambling; domestic violence and other crime; prostitution; disease.

These aren't just sepia-toned 19th century problems, either: Irish drinking is on the rise in the 21st century, and many of these associated problems are still felt quite acutely. There's actually a bit of a moral panic going on about it in Ireland right now. (Perhaps symptomatic, but very well done, really: The Irish Times' Sobriety Diaries.)

Given all these historical and contemporary problems, you'll see in certain quarters a resentment that Irish social life should be so closely associated with the pub. Or that Irishness itself should be so associated with it. You'll see people who are saying "good riddance" to the pub.

I am not among these. While I fully recognize the problems inherent in tying social life and personal life so closely with dispensaries of alcohol, I also love and long for the sorts of "third space" pubs have always been at their best. And I also highly value the pleasure and the dis-inhibiting influence of communal drinking. These things are not to be discounted, I believe, even in the face of all the obvious problems that drinking leads to for many among us.

More later.

The Irish Pub
Paddy Foley´s Irish Pub. Schandauer Stra├če 55, 01277 Dresden, Germany

I'm just back from a trip to Ireland, which was wonderful in a lot of ways and a bit worrisome in some others. One worrisome thing was the state of the Irish pub.

The Irish pub is something of a cliche here in America. Literally thousands of corporate and not-so-corporate bars play to the image of the Irish pub as the beating heart of the community; the center of boozy sociality and fun. I once worked for a man who made a fortune supplying bric-a-brac for these and similarly themed bars.

But there was a truth behind the stupid cliches: pubs in Ireland were often vital social centers for the communities in which they resided. Being in and participating in the din of conversation in a smoky, too-warm pub with a pint in front of you was always one of the highlights of any trip to Ireland.

But Ireland and its pubs have undergone many changes since I was there last in the mid-nineties. Ireland is, decidedly, part of Europe now. The economic boom I saw happening then has busted, and there has been a further boom and bust in the real estate market. Ireland is no longer a country remarkable for being mostly empty and is no longer remarkable for the number of its younger people working abroad. Those younger people stayed home in the nineties to take advantage of the economic good times, and after that prospects elsewhere were hardly sunnier than prospects at home.

The population, which had stayed at about three million for decades, is now steadily closing in on five million. The change is most obvious in Dublin, which has become a truly expensive cosmopolis, but every county in the Republic is seeing substantial rises in population.

I've lived in and visited many bustling towns--New York City, Philadelphia, London--but today's Dublin may well take the cake as the most harried-feeling of them. This is indicative of some great changes in Irish culture, but also of some lingering elements of the old Ireland.

One reason why Dublin is so harried is that the people seem to want to live up to their self-image of Dublin as a modern, bustling "world city." But another reason seems to be that the Irish feel that their current economic difficulties and austerity are their just deserts for having so enthusiastically embraced Mammon. Guilt is a far stronger current in Ireland's response to the economic travails of the last 15 years or so than America's. To be harried and hurried is a sort of ritual penance for having enjoyed wealth, for having central heat, for having borrowed money, for having used a credit card, for having eaten pate.

This guilt, played upon pretty nakedly by the government's "get working" campaign, shows how, in some ways at least, the new Ireland isn't so different from the self-hating Ireland of the past. (Irish self-hatred, while not a big part of the cliche-Ireland we see so often, is an absolute fixture of Irish literature and cinema.)

In the pubs, though, change is obvious. Older locals--the former beer-soaked, urine-smelling centers of neighborhood sociality--are now beer-soaked, urine-smelling centers of not much. Young folk don't frequent the locals as their elders did before them. This is partially because there are so many young folk around (the 15-30 cohort is significantly larger than, say, the 35-50 cohort), that they have developed a pretty strong generational consciousness. This big cohort also coincided with a number of great changes in Ireland--the growing realization that Ireland could be part of Europe, and not just a former part of the decaying British Empire; and the growing realization that Ireland need not be poor and backward, that Ireland could be a place where others came seeking opportunity, not the place that supplied cheap labor to construction crews in London and Irish-themed pubs in America.

Forgoing the traditional pub is, apparently, part and parcel of becoming the new Ireland. But the new Ireland is a bit soul-less, and, in many ways seems to partake a little too strongly of the guilt and self-hatred of the old Ireland. Slavishly becoming more European or more American upper-middle-class is really little better than slavishly becoming more English. In fact, in some respects worse.

The old Irish pub that I knew--with Guinness and strong lager as the near-exclusive beverages, with damn-near everyone smoking, with windows shut against fresh air (known in Ireland as a "draft) with a universal and absolute determination--was hardly a paradise. And it wasn't really "traditional" if what you mean by that is unchanging. The lager of the 80s and 90s was a change made in response to changing consumer preferences, as were the video game machines, the televisions, the formal music events, etc. etc.

The pub as vital social institution always meant that the pub changed with the society around it. And while Irish society pre-1990 changed more slowly than it seems to now, it was not unchanging. But the rate of change does now seem to be overwhelming the old institution, and some of the changes happening inside of pubs seem to be mitigate against its social role in a way that, say, the introduction of lager did not.

Can a genuine & distinctive entity know as an Irish Pub survive when the TV is omnipresent and always on? Can it survive when loud music makes conversation impossible? Can it survive when there is so little distinctive or communal about it? Can it be reinvented to fulfill more or less the same social role in a new social setting?

I've ordered a (seemingly pretty pessimistic) book called A Pint of Plain by Bill Barich on the history & decline of the Irish pub to help me along toward answering some of these questions and I'll be posting more here as soon as it arrives.