Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

November 9, 2009

Kennan’s denouement and my own

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on November 9, 2009

On November 9, 1989 the Berlin Wall was inadvertedly opened.  An extended tragedy finished with a glorious farce.  It might have been otherwise.  How further tragedy was avoided will long be debated.

It took more years than Kennan expected, but the Wall’s fall finally pulled the thread on the Soviet sweater.

Those extraordinary days twenty years ago remind us of the potential for surprise, the limits of our control, and how we are in full relationship with events half a world away.

In response to another surprise we have spun — are still spinning — a wide web which we intend to secure us.  But we ought not think it can secure us from surprise.

Long, too long America,
Traveling roads all even and peaceful you learn’d from joys and
prosperity only,
But now, ah now, to learn from crises of anguish, advancing,
grappling with direst fate and recoiling not,
And now to conceive and show to the world what your children
en-masse really are,
(For who except myself has yet conceiv’d what your children en-masse really are?)
Walt Whitman; Long, Too Long America

In a review of several new histories of what transpired in 1989, Timothy Garton Ash writes, “But for the decisive nine months, from the beginning of Poland’s roundtable talks in February to the fall of the Wall in November, the United States contribution lay mainly in what it did not do.” Remembering those days has given renewed context to the tag-line, quoting Thucydides, that Bill Cumming has attached to recent Emails, “Ignorance is bold and knowledge reserved.”

All true knowledge begins in self-knowledge, which is usually to invite embarrassment. But in our embarrassment and recognized ignorance is the start of both humility and the need to know.  A hybrid of these has a chance for modest wisdom.  Wisdom is most often restrained.

Too many blogs — as with too many homes, schools, and workplaces — have become places for unrestrained complaint, accusation, and self-justification.  That has not been the case — typically — at The Watch.  We have disagreed, sometimes earnestly.  But we have — mostly — listened and clarified and argued (in an old-fashioned meaning of argument). 

Have you learn’d lessons only of those who admired you, and were
tender with you, and stood aside for you?
Have you not learn’d great lessons from those who reject you, and
brace themselves against you? or who treat you with contempt,
or dispute the passage with you?
Walt Whitman; Stronger Lessons

This ability to disagree yet listen and remain open to change — especially self transformation — is fundamental to our future. This is how we create new possibilities.  This is how we transcend the traps set by self-righteousness and pride.  This is how we embrace the tragic and let it lead us to recognize strengths we share, rather than fixate on weakness that divides us.

Re-reading Sophocles for the Long Blog, I stumbled upon a footnote explaining, “A hero, in the Greek sense, is a man who by his extraordinary career has pushed back the horizons of what is possible for humanity and is therefore deemed worthy of commemoration after his death.  He is not a flawless man, above the nature of ordinary humanity, but his flaws are inherent in and inseparable from the virtues which enable him to become a hero.” We need such heroes.  We ought cherish his or her flaws as much as we celebrate the virtues.

If we listen carefully to others, respond self-critically, and take action consonant with our tragic condition, we can each push back the horizons of what is possible.  We can draw strength from recognizing both threat and vulnerability.

Most societies have focused on a few heroic exemplars: mythological forebears, honored saints, victorious warriors.  It has been the American conceit — or genius — to make a hero of the common man (and woman).  Mr. Smith goes to Washington and Horatio Alger succeeds.  But beyond the myth, Paul Simon does, in fact, go to Washington.  Orville and Wilbur Wright take wing.  Abraham Lincoln fails and fails again, until he gives his life to save the republic and transfigure its original sin.

This democratic alchemy requires a discipline and realism that some aspects of contemporary culture tempt us to neglect. For most of our history obvious mutual dependence encouraged cultivation of a radical individualism.  The trials of frontier, and war, and depression, and war once again, allowed us to indulge in happy fantasies without losing sight of tragic reality. 

But at the pinnacle of power, we have increasingly confused reality and fantasy. This is not unprecedented.

Cynicism is hardly new. Self-righteousness is the original pandemic. Know-nothings have a recurring role in American history.  But typically these perpetual temptations have been objects of wide and effective disdain. Today they more often seem launching pads for celebrity and financial success.

There was never a democratic Eden, not even when Washington presided over a pre-partisan cabinet and took the Senate’s advice face-to-face.  The Era of Good Feelings produced the Missouri Compromise and, perhaps, set the stage for a terrible Civil War.  But even in that most destructive of wars, we recognized it was brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor.  In the midst of mass murder, there was an understanding of shared tragedy and immutable relationship.

When tempted to think otherwise, Lincoln reminded us; and Whitman as well.

More people, by far, read Dee Walker’s essay on TSA searches than have read all my posts added together.  Her essay is a great example of close observation, meaningful analysis, and gracious writing.  Another cause of the extraordinary readership is our relationship with one another around the issue.  We recognize our own experience in Dee’s experience.

We need a sense of relationship that extends beyond shared offense with airport security lines.

There are practical, empirically demonstrated, ways to do this.  Many of our most modern discoveries of complex self-organization restate — and may yet reclaim — the most ancient principles for how humans are in  relationship with one another.  Some of these principles have been proven in how total strangers who come to this blog relate productively with one another.

Thank you for your attention and contributions.  The contributions are crucially important.  Participation, collaboration, and deliberation are the key means by which resilient community is crafted.  If you have been reading, but not participating, please begin to participate with Jess, Chris, and Mark.  Join the community, forsake mere observation, take the risk.

Your contributions to Homeland Security Watch are also one way you can participate, collaborate and deliberate in a broader community. The Watch is read, especially inside the beltway, by individuals in a position to take direct action — or wisely choose to refrain from action. 

These men and women also thirst for honest, constructive feedback.  They have plenty of erstwhile opponents and craven syncophats. They benefit from the informed perspective of those outside the particular frameworks of the Hill, Pentagon, West Wing… and, soon to come, St. Elizabeth’s.

With a self-critical sense of your own, please share your informed, thoughtful, curious, deliberative, reflective perspective.  After a few weeks hiatus, I plan to join you “behind the wall” in the comments.

A Nation announcing itself,
I myself make the only growth by which I can be appreciated,
I reject none, accept all, then reproduce all in my own forms.
A breed whose proof is in time and deeds,
What we are we are, nativity is answer enough to objections,
We wield ourselves as a weapon is wielded,
We are powerful and tremendous in ourselves,
We are executive in ourselves, we are sufficient in the variety of
We are the most beautiful to ourselves and in ourselves,
We stand self-pois’d in the middle, branching thence over the world,
From Missouri, Nebraska, or Kansas, laughing attacks to scorn.
Nothing is sinful to us outside of ourselves,
Whatever appears, whatever does not appear, we are beautiful or
sinful in ourselves only.
(O Mother-O Sisters dear!
If we are lost, no victor else has destroy’d us,
It is by ourselves we go down to eternal night.)
Walt Whitman; By Blue Ontario’s Shore
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Comment by Claire B. Rubin

November 9, 2009 @ 9:30 am

Many thanks for your thoughtful and provocative blogs.

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 9, 2009 @ 12:51 pm

Whitman has always amazed me for the fact that his long service helping wounded veterans did not destroy the poetry within him. My belief is that the only thing that ultimately survives and often little enough of that is art, music, and poetry. It is this that is the core of our humanity and life force. Not war, not destruction, but letting what is in US let itself out. Phil, I think your selections of topics and poetry is a very skillful reminder of what it is to be alive and human. I finished recently a book by a British historian and poet called the “Age of Wonder” about the development of science in England from 1750 to Darwin and also the age of the Romantic Poets. The author, whose name at the moment I blank on, weaves skillfully poetry into his narrative. He well documents William Coleridge as one of the best minds of his time. Who knew, because my favority poems of his seem grounded in his use of psychtropic stimulants to see visions. Well ever on words and thanks again Phil for the wonderful posts and poetry. This too will last in my opinion. And thanks for recruiting Mark Chubb, if you did, because his comments on posts have a depth and resonance that I find extremely interesting and useful to helping me formulate my thinking. And thanks to Chris and Jessica too for their continued efforts on behalf of this blog.

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