Media, Politics, World

Observing America and elsewhere from a lookout point 10,000km away

Observing America and elsewhere from a lookout point 10,000km away

Following retirement from three decades of government assignments some eight years ago, and now, living for the most part in Johannesburg, reporting on developments in America and other foreign places for Daily Maverick and iMaverick has become a permanent challenge in the art of getting it right. Getting it right of course is not a synonym for a simple-minded neutrality. By J. BROOKS SPECTOR.

Every writer naturally has opinions on much of what he writes about and cares strongly about the issues involved. In many ways, this writer’s guiding principle comes from the way George Orwell described his orientation in Why I Write. Orwell had argued his work always had a political purpose, even if it sometimes seemed below the horizon, as he used “the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

While this writer is never going to rival Orwell as an observer or writer – although he would love to come close – the idea of putting writing to the service of more than just informing is also important to this author as well. In any case, it is impossible to avoid harnessing one’s writing in the service of some idea or value. Throughout, this writer has tried to keep in mind the idea that the politicians he writes about in a positive light must be actively engaged in advancing that sometimes-elusive, sometimes-slippery concept of the “public interest.” As for those who do not, well they deserve the exposure and criticism they receive.

Of course one person’s sense of public interest may well be another’s special pleading. As a result, the picking out of all the hidden interests and assumptions becomes a crucial business too and so all those gored oxen and slaughtered sacred cows can become a pretty messy business, but it represents opportunity as well.

But how to carry out a task like this, 8,000km away from the scene of the action when writing about America?  Fortunately, the contemporary communications environment has come to the rescue to some degree – as well as long, tiring airplane flights every once in a while.

First thing in the morning almost every day of the week, there are all those international magazines and newspapers to wade through – The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Christian Science Monitor, the Guardian, Time, Newsweek, the Economist, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal and the New Republic – plus the Associated Press, Slate, Reuters, and transcripts or podcasts from radio and television broadcasters like the BBC, NPR (National Public Radio), VOA, CNN, ABC, CBS, and NBC.

Then too there are articles and studies in Foreign Policy, the Global Post, and Politico. And to understand America a little better – the new issues, new studies on continuing questions – there are all those think tank and policy advocacy websites, from the Brookings Institution on the moderate left, the Pew Research Centre, the Foreign Policy Association, the Peterson Institute for International Economics, the American Enterprise Institute, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, and then the Heritage Foundation, ending up finally at the Cato Institute on the libertarian side of the table.

And of course there are also all those daily wrap-ups of policy initiatives from US government offices, including the White House, the State Department and various congressional offices. After a quick look at this we’re ready – no, we’re desperate for – a whole lot more coffee, and then it is on to the local press, all while CNN plays softly in the background on television and a local morning news program is on audio streaming on the computer – just in case something newsworthy breaks during this morning data dump.

In fact, instead of a paucity of information, the same as for many others, the real problem is one of information overload. It is far too easy to drown in information while trying to make sense of that “booming, buzzing confusion”. To help keep all this information in perspective, the writer has built up a network of trusted Americans in government, academia, various public policy study centres, in private industry and even a couple of Washington lobbyists he stays in touch with electronically – or in person whenever he is back in the US. The thing about this network is that they are delighted to help keep one informed, but then they send articles they believe the writer must read as well.

As a result, while juggling this tsunami of facts and ideas, the writer tries to keep the careers of three very different individuals in mind as he tries to be informed enough to keep his readers and listeners similarly in the know. For this author, Alexis de Tocqueville, Ruth Benedict and Alistair Cooke are three experienced, trusted three guides.

De Tocqueville, of course, was the French aristocrat sent to America in the 1830s to examine America’s prisons, with an eye to advising the French government on prison reform. He did his prison report, but after he returned to France after his six months in America, he staked a claim as one of the preeminent interpreters of America with Democracy in America. This Frenchman managed to situate the big picture, core principles of American political behaviour and values in free association, popular participation and American exceptionalism so precisely that for many his evaluation still has the ring of truth even today.

A hundred and seventy years ago, after only a few months in America, one of his most insightful observations remains that “In no country in the world has the principle of association been more successfully used or applied to a greater multitude of objects than in America. Besides the permanent associations which are established by law under the names of townships, cities, and counties, a vast number of others are formed and maintained by the agency of private individuals.

“…This habit may be traced even in the schools, where the children in their games are wont to submit to rules which they have themselves established, and to punish misdemeanours which they have themselves defined. The same spirit pervades every act of social life… Societies are formed to resist evils that are exclusively of a moral nature, as to diminish the vice of intemperance. In the United States associations are established to promote the public safety, commerce, industry, morality, and religion. There is no end which the human will despairs of attaining through the combined power of individuals united into a society.”

And then there is Alistair Cooke, the young British broadcaster who came to America in the midst of the Great Depression on a Commonwealth Fund Fellowship. He returned to the UK to become a film reviewer but he came back to America in 1937 and never left, eventually becoming an American citizen and broadcasting his weekly Letter from America that eventually became the longest-running series in broadcast history presented by single person. Cooke perfected the idea of a knowledgeable foreigner, admiring but ever so slightly cynical about things, looking at another society to find the unique and unusual that explained the whole. Eventually many Britons began to believe he was a born and bred American, even as Americans came to see him as the quintessential Brit, the man who brought them the best of British television as presenter of Masterpiece Theatre to American audiences. As for Cooke himself, he once told an interviewer, “I feel totally at home in both countries.”

And then there is this writer’s third exemplar – Ruth Benedict, the cultural anthropologist in the tradition of Margaret Mead and trained by Franz Boaz. During World War II, the US government contracted Benedict to write a book that could explain Japanese military behaviour for American soldiers then fighting the Japanese Imperial Army and Navy – and to situate this explanation in deeper historical and cultural terms. The goal was to provide a guide help Americans predict Japanese behaviour as the US fought its way across the Pacific and onward to Japan itself.

But the true marvel of Benedict’s work, a government report that became the essential professional text on Japan for generations of Americans interested, confounded or confused by Japan, entitled The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, was that she could do such an extraordinary task without any direct reference to her object of study.

Benedict had begun her professional work in an effort to somehow define national personality from her close observation of the lives of varied Native American tribes.
She took up the Japan assignment even though it was well beyond the realm of possibility for her to go to Japan to carry out any of fieldwork almost universally the sine qua non for serious anthropological work. Although newer observers of and scholars on Japan have often taken different views about Japanese society than did Benedict, even today it remains impossible to study the country without beginning with an evaluation of her conclusions.

Between de Tocqueville, Cooke and Benedict these are three radically different approaches to the unpacking another society for inquisitive audiences. Despite their differences – or perhaps because of them – this writer tries to keep all three clearly and consciously in mind as a set of roadmaps as he offers his own interpretations of American society, politics and public policy for readers of Daily Maverick (or in radio and television broadcasts in South Africa).

At times, some readers may well disagree with some this writer’s conclusions; nevertheless they should feel reassured that all of these judgments comes from a thorough examination of the evidence – gained over the years from personal experience, from constant reading, and from hearing the observations of many others with very different experiences and points of view. But if pressed, the writer would recommend that someone start with Robert Penn Warren’s lyrical, almost elegiac novel on American society and politics: All the King’s Men. There is no better place to start for an understanding of the American character, not even Huckleberry Finn. DM

Read more:

  • The Alexis de Tocqueville Tour – Exploring Democracy in America, a source website
  • Democracy in America, the full text of de Tocqueville’s book.
  • The Unseen Alistair Cooke at the PBS website.
  • Obituary: Alistair Cooke at the BBC.
  • Ruth Benedict at the Britannica website.
  • Robert Penn Warren, an academic conference website.
  • All the King’s Men at wiki.

Photo: J. Brooks Spector on his lookout point.


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