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Closing Keynote Address
The Louise Blouin Creative Leadership Summit
September 25th, 2013
New York City
In Memory of Kofi Awoonor
A few months after the revolution in Egypt, I met a young American artist named Erik Blome at the Academy of the Arts in Cairo.
I could tell Erik was a bit of a showman and he promised me an event if I were willing to stick around for the morning. We had tea. Then I was introduced to a dozen or so students and faculty. Lots of hugs for Erik as well as gossip and the cadging of cigarettes. Then Erik gathered everyone into a small courtyard for the first pouring of bronze that anyone could remember happening at an art school in Cairo.
Supplies at colleges are always limited in Egypt and there was no money for metal work. It seemed everyone was learning to repair sun-damaged antiquities. But Erik thought it was essential for these young artists to learn how to make and use bronze and he found the alchemy of it - melting, pouring, molding, pounding, polishing - too thrilling to pass up. He said there were great sculptors in that shaded dirt courtyard who just hadn’t been discovered yet. Everyone certainly looked as if they believed him. Erik was that kind of teacher.
His students had salvaged the necessary tin and copper from all over Cairo. And out of his own small living allowance, Erik paid for the kiln, propane, torches, safety goggles and much more. I kicked in all the cash I had in my pockets that day.
A crowd of fifty gathered around. Erik taught in English and broken Arabic, but mostly he taught with the movement of his body. His gestures of safety and calm, his encouragement to his hesitant assistants, his attention to shy students and to young women who’d been pushed to the back, bringing them forward—it was an one of those memorable experiences of seeing a master teacher. Time slowed. Two dull metals were transformed into a third, gleaming. It was just a small rectangular mold cooling in a hole in the dirt, but we looked at it as if we’d just dug up treasure from an undiscovered pharoah’s tomb.
Of course, even in your own backyard garden, there is always something solemn about digging into the earth. The slow rhythm of the shovel as it stabs into the dirt, the smell of soil and sweat, the awkward bend of your back, your body as machine, the mound that slowly balances the emptiness taking shape under your feet. You are connected to ancient rituals of planting, building or burying.
I think about that Saturday morning often. I’ve thought about it all this week, because as the world knows, this past Saturday morning, Kofi Awoonor, the great Ghanian poet, was shot dead having breakfast with his son in Nairobi, at the Westgate Mall.
Awoonor’s first name, Kofi, is the birth name given by the Ewe people of Togo and Ghana in West Africa to boys born on a Friday. It is not a name for death. It is not a name for the headlines on Saturday.
Awoonor was in Kenya taking part in the fifth Storymoja Hay literary festival. I have been to the Westgate Mall. I have been to the Nairobi Museum and its garden full of songbirds where Storymoja’s tents and banners and stages were set up on Saturday. And I met Awoonor once at another writer’s festival.
He was a traveler, a poet and scholar, a political prisoner turned diplomat, an ambassador to the United Nations, and, as he liked to say perhaps most devishly about himself, a rogue.
Interesting the history of that word: rogue came about in the 16th century on the edges of academic life. It’s from the Latin word that means to ask. Rogue was thieve’s slang for a vagabond beggar, someone who pretended to be a scholar in order to get some sympathy when he begged for food.
Not a strategy I would particularly recommend for the 21st century on the subway or outside the gates of Columbia or NYU. Nowadays, both scholar and rogue ask and shalt often not receive.
Awoonor called himself a rogue because despite his serious scholarly achievements and diplomatic credentials, he liked being the playfully mischievous outsider, larger than life, breaking convention, the solitary artist in love with his audience. “Not for nothing,” Awoonor wrote, “is the WORD an important part of magic.”
He also wrote once that the writer is someone who “pushes beyond the boundaries of the obvious …becomes more than a chronicler. He is a technician, magician, mythmaker, shaman, priest, diviner.” He fervently believed that all artists, all his fellow rogues, have responsibilities not only to themselves but to their communities. They must, he wrote, “keep faith with the artistic impulse of the community,” even as they found their own way.
It’s not an easy commandment to follow- a deep commitment to others as well as ourselves. It’s not even an understanding of what an artist is that many, at least in the West, continue to share. Irony, alienation, cynicism, doubt – truisms of our time that nonetheless don’t make it any easier for us to imagine or believe in “keeping faith” with anything.
But Awoonor was no easy optimist or cheerleader. He took his inspiration from the ancient stories of suffering of his Ewe ancestors. The Ewe are famous as poets and singers of the dirge, the lament for the dead, those expressions of loneliness and sorrow for those who have suffered and died, who have so rarely been able to go in peace The dirge tells the stories of what the Ewe believe is next in their journey. Since the recently dead are thought to be travellers between the living and the community of the past, The dirge is filled with messages and prayers of the living for the recently dead to carry to their ancestors, to the community of the past. By creating a link between the living and the dead, the dirge looks beyond present sadness.
Dirges are traditionally sung by Ewe women. Awoonor’s grandmother was an honored dirge singer. While the women sing, Ewe men carry drums on their heads and men who walk behind them play the drums. I don’t think you have any trouble that way feeling the rhythm deep in your bones.
The dirges themselves are songs of repetition. Exclamations and particular words are sung over and over as a way of making someone’s personal lament a chorus, a way for the community to enter the grief of the family – and the rhythm and repetition become ways of slowing down consciousness. Dwelling in the sounds of words and not their meanings helps ease the intensity of the grief by pulling mourners away from the intensity of the awful facts into a wave of shared feeling.
In the last 25 years of reliable electricity, now there are DJs at Ghanian funerals, what they call spinners. The mash-up of Brooklyn and Accra and all over from the West African diaspora of slaves, exiles and people seeking a better life is extraordinary to behold. Already, the dirges being sung for Awoonor have been profoundly beautiful in their sorrow.
We get the English word for dirge from the 8th verse of the 5th Psalm, which opens the Matins service in the Office of the Dead. “Dirige, Domine, deus meus"—"Direct, O Lord, my way in thy sight.” When we are lost, we need ways to direct us, people to help tell us what to do. Poetry can do that, songs can do that, tradition does that.
Who are we? How did we come to this? Every culture has its myths of origin and identity. The Ewe tell the story of their journey from Sumeria after the Biblical Floods, to Babel to Egypt long before Erik Blome, then through the Sudan to the hell of Ketume, which means “inside the grinding sand.”
The Ewe then fled the Sahara to Ethiopia, then west to the Niger, to Walata near Timbuktu, then down the coast, eventually into the snares of King Agokoli who ruled a kingdom called Notsie, in the south of present-day Togo. The tyrannical king made the Ewe people labor and hunt and fight for him. To enslave them, he made them build a huge wall around themselves —24 feet high and 18 feet thick—using whatever poor materials were at hand – thorns, brush, hedgehog bristles, broken pots, broken glass. By the end, their hands and feet were also broken, but not their spirit.
The Ewe storytellers say “Sise gli loo.” (Listen to the story.) And the people say, “Gli neva.” (Let the story come.)
Finally, the Ewe made a plan of escape. While the men did forced labor, the women marked one place on the giant wall where the entire community would splash all its wash water and waste to desecrate the wall with their anger and disgust, but also to weak its waddle and mud.
Eventually, a small part of the wall gave way and in the middle of the night a hole was made big enough for escape. But the Ewe didn’t just rush out. They turned around, and line after line, they hurried out backwards, so when the King came and saw the hole, at first he would be confused, seeing tracks in the mud coming in to the Kingdom. And while he tried to hunt down whoever supposedly snuck in, the Ewe who snuck out would have time to flee.
The Ewe celebrate this great escape every autumn on the first of November. They call the ceremony Hogbetsotso which means the day of uprooting and crossing over. It is a ceremony for remembering both suffering and joy. But this year, the joyful escape of the ancient Ewe will be remembered with the pain of honoring one of the Ewe’s great descendants, who did not escape, their son Kofi, born on Friday, killed on Saturday.
“Something has happened to me,” Awoonor wrote in “Songs of Sorrow,” one of his last works:
The things so great that I cannot weep …
I have wandered on the wilderness
The great wilderness men call life.
The rain has beaten me,
And the sharp stumps cut as keen as knives
I shall go beyond and rest.
I have no kin and no brother.
Death has made war upon our house.
So forgive me, that I’m here with this sadness, in this weather of pain and war and confusion, to close the Creative Leadership Summit with some thoughts on art and diplomacy.
I have my doubts.
One of the risks to getting art and diplomacy to work together is a tension inherent in the words themselves. The roots of the word “art” are words for skill, practice, preparing, and making. But diplomacy is founded on things already made.
Both diplomas and diplomatic papers are official documents that give license, authority and privilege. Diplomacy comes from the Greek word meaning “to double, fold over.” The privilege of a paper for your eyes only.
There’s certainly nothing new in associating art with privilege, with access and envy, with wealth and scarcity. I’m as thrilled as the next person to get an invitation to dinner, say, with the Ambassador to the Court of Saint James and have the opportunity to ogle the double Rothkos in Winfield House.
But if you’re asking art to matter – or even asking whether art does matter in making peace – then it seems essential that we should ask about the nature of that privilege, to keep asking hard questions about what art is, where it is, who sees it and how. Although, I wonder how tough we can be on ourselves with these questions at an exclusive lunch in a private, members-only club.
In fairness, the risk of art collected, supported and organized by governments and their embassies is essentially no different from the serious risk that exists to art in museums: the art might disappear.
And I mean this as a serious risk. It’s not only that art gets hidden and inaccessible behind the physical security fortresses of modern institutions, but that it can become invisible psychologically, collected among rarities and objects we’re meant to be impressed by, covetous of, art that’s a thing, not an experience.
Because the fact is, art as an experience is so damn fragile, so sensitive to our vices. If we’re not looking and even when we think we are, it can vanish before our eyes. Art might have status, it might have authority, but without our questions, without our flirtations and loitering, without our awkward openness, uncertainty, humility, the one thing art won’t have is us.
Let me turn to Marcus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz to help explain what I mean. Mark Rothko. Born today, September 25th, 1903.
We’ll all be having lunch after this talk, so we can consider it a birthday lunch for Rothko. He actually thought a lot about art and lunch. When he was commissioned to paint the famous murals for he Four Seasons Restaurant at the Seagram Buliding just a few blocks from here, he wrote to a friend, “I hope to paint something that will ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room.”
Unfortunately, I’m told there are are no Rothkos in the dining room of the Metropolitan Club. But it gets back to the question of privilege and art, who sees it, where it needs to be. Rothko thought a lot about this. He wrote, “A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer.”
But—and the “but”, the qualification, the quarrel, is where Rothko always gets really interesting—though art lives by companionship, Rothko continued “It dies by the same token. It is therefore risky to send it out into the world. How often it must be impaired by the eyes of the unfeeling and the cruelty of the impotent.”
It’s risky to send art out into the world. You rarely hear that. Certainly, artists nowadays are not likely to be the romantics Rothko was. His spiritualism can seem foreign to us, in need, perhaps, of its own passport. But to me, there’s still such power in his anxieties, arrogance and doubt. And I hear in his reds, in the intensity of his colors, some sounds of lament and mourning and fear not unlike that rogue poet, Kofi Awoonor.
Because I knew I’d be in polite company this afternoon to talk about art and diplomacy on Rothko’s birthday, in a private club where men have to be gentle and wear a jacket and tie to get in the door, I thought I should clutter this elegant stage with the presence of yet another angst-ridden artist who would gladly have been rejected for membership, the great novelist Walker Percy.
In fact Percy wrote a novel aptly called The Last Gentlemen and it has a famous scene that conjures the fear I’ve been having about what happens when we try to do good with art, how risky it is that art really might disappear:
“Now here comes a citizen who has the good fortune to be able to enjoy a cultural facility. There is the painting … bought at great expense and exhibited in a museum so that millions can see it. What is wrong with that? Something, said the engineer, shivering and sweating behind a pillar.”
The protagonist, the engineer who is shivering and sweating is named Will and he’s bored and anxious because as Percy writes, the harder he looked at art in the museum, “The more invisible the paintings became.”
But then Percy brings a loud family into the museum. Will turns to look at them, as all of us would. And so does a museum worker who happens to be standing on a ladder touching up the ceiling in a corner of the gallery. The worker loses his balance and falls off the ladder. Will rushes over to help him up. And then, as Percy writes,
“It was at this moment that the engineer happened to look under his arm and catch sight of the Velázquez. It was glowing like a jewel! The painter might just have stepped out of his studio and the engineer, passing in the street, had stopped to look through the open door. The painting could be seen.”
Like Rothko, like the Ewe dirge singers, like Kierkegaard, whose birthday is not today, and countless other Cassandras of our passive consumer culture, Percy believed it is a constant struggle in contemporary life to stay awake, even to realize that we’re often sleepwalking, and then to find ways to recover ourselves, to experience things on our own, not just as we’ve been taught or told or assume they should be.
Percy was saying we should forget our superstitions about ladders. We should in fact go looking for them, because perhaps sometimes someone needs to fall off a ladder for us to see, though sometimes, of course, the trouble comes looking for us.
Official art, like official diplomacy, does not like rickety ladders in the gallery or on the stage, in view of the television cameras, messing with the scripted ceremonies. When they are hand in hand, art and diplomacy often seem to work hard to block out the trouble. But that may be exactly where the art is. If making things safe and comfortable and good, requires working hard to block out trouble, we ironically risk leaving art out in the cold.
50 years ago, in 1963, the art in embassies program was founded. Today is not my birthday either, but the program is almost as old as I am. JFK came to Manhattan for the ceremony at the Museum of Modern Art. Diplomacy was glamorous, the world was new.
And today, because of the generosity of donors and the creativity of artists, there are 10,000 art works exhibited in over 200 American missions around the world. But these are missions where increasingly you must be on the list, keep your ID out and visible, remove your shoes, empty your pockets and put everything onto the conveyer to be scanned before you’re let in.
I am not being facetious. These are the realities of a dangerous world. I have been to countless of these buildings in countries where the lives of diplomats are constantly in danger. I have known too many who have lost their lives. And I’d say without hesitation it’s better to have art inside these fortressed official buildings than blank walls or bland motivation posters with waving fields of grain. Who knows what art might do for the people who work there and others who do get in to see it.
But, again, the challenge I’m worrying about is inherent to the enterprise.
1963 was a big year for art and diplomacy. It was JFK and Jackie and art in embassies. And even better, it was the Mona Lisa. Step aside, Mr. Smith, because in 1963, Mona Lisa goes to Washington.
Perhaps even a Ewe dirge would have trouble capturing the extent of the Mona Lisa’s travels and travails. But there she was in Washington, 50 years ago, which, as it happens, was exactly 50 years after she famously came out of hiding. 50 plus 50: 100 years ago this fall, in 1913, the Mona Lisa showed up after going missing from the Louvre for almost two years.
I’m sure you’ve heard the famous story of how the Mona Lisa disappeared, how the painting was stolen and how no one at the Louvre even seemed to notice for more than a full day.
In fact, the Mona Lisa only seemed to become really visible at the Louvre after she left. When the theft hit the newspapers, people flocked to the Louvre. They lined up patiently just to stare silently at the empty space on the wall, where the painting had hung. More than one visitor left flowers.
Now close to 8 million people a year go to the Louvre to see her. Almost 90% of the museum’s visitors go just for that. It’s as if the entire population of New York got on the subway and got out at Pyramides Metro stop just to spend an average of 15 seconds in front of that lonely smile behind the bulletproof glass.
A few do more than that, of course. In 1956, a Bolivian man threw a rock at the painting and chipped Mona’s left elbow. In 1974, a Japanese woman sprayed it with red paint and just four years ago, a Russian woman who had been denied French citizenship threw a terra cotta mug at the painting. Talk about art and diplomacy. The woman bought the mug in the Louvre’s souvenir shop.
And then, of course, there are the Italians. Vincenzo Peruggia first stole the painting because he just wanted to take her home to the mother country after she was stolen by Napoleon. And recently Silvano Vincenti, the head of Italy’s National Committee for Culture and Heritage, got people looking at the painting very closely again because he seemed to be proposing a very contemporary kind of theft: identity theft. The sitter’s identity for the Mona Lisa has been assigned by scholars to at least ten different people over the years, but Vincenti claimed she wasn’t even a woman. He called a press conference to say that the real Mona Lisa was Leonardo da Vinci’s young male lover in drag, Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Orena, or Little Devil, as Leonardo liked to call him.
Of course, whether famous or not, official or not, the thing we’re talking about is art made strange, art made new. And there is no question that much effort in official projects of art and diplomacy is undertaken to do just that –countless projects to bring us in contact with the unfamiliar, to take us away from our safe habits of seeing things, to become aware just what a grip our culture has on our behavior, our personalities, our biases and values—whether it’s an anime film festival in Ghana sponsored by the Japan Society or the U.S State Department helping bring craftsmen from all over the Muslim world to help build the new galleries for art from the Mideast and Central Asia, these project do good, they enrich us.
Sometimes, art is talked of as one of the tools of diplomacy’s soft power, a way I can change your perceptions of me, so you might do something I want without me forcing you to.
And I believe passionately we must always try alternatives to force. People and governments need to persuade, people need to be persuaded. There is never a day without crisis, never an hour without the need for alternatives to violence. All hands on deck, all tools in hand. That great persuader with the cigar had an inimitable way of putting it. “Diplomacy,” Churchill said, “is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions.”
But that kind of “art” isn’t what art itself ever is. Art that persuades is art that disappears. Now maybe it’s good enough art that it can also be coopted and come to mean things officialdom didn’t intend. Maybe a man on a ladder comes crashing down.
When art is mis-recognized, its official purposes disavowed or some distance inevitably develops between what an institution wants and what an audience takes, then Awoonor’s magic happens. When art doesn’t have an agenda, it becomes a gift, a gift someone can take without any loss of self. Then, wonderfully, what you take, you can also give.
It’s what artists mean when they talk about inspiration, the breath they in-spire comes from the work of other artists. And breathing in, they’re given the energy, the urgency to make their own work, which then can become inspiration for others.
This, of course, is the famous “gift economy” that the anthropologist Lewis Hyde and many others have studied and written about with great eloquence. If art is an object, then if you have it, I don’t – like those gorgeous double Rothko’s inside the American ambassador’s home in London. Art then, is power, and even Churchill probably couldn’t have persuaded you to give it to me. And he didn’t have much use for abstraction.
But if art is an experience, a gift of time and memory, pain and love, then art can be inspiration, a gift you might take it and keep moving. And as it moves, through each of us, we make it grow. Since the armies keep growing and the resentments and scarcity and misunderstandings, we need the good things that come with peace to keep up and sometimes, if we’re lucky – as Kofi Awoonor was not – we might outpace the violence and hate.
Two final recommendations: try not to demand a jacket and tie or a name at the door or other rules and codes, diplomatic papers or privileges for entry. And try when you can to sneak a ladder on stage, with a bucket of paint precariously on top. If things get boring, you might just have to give it a little kick.
An Address on Climate Change and Storytelling
To the Fulbright NEXUS Scholars
September 18, 2013
How about a pop culture quiz for a gathering of scientists and scholars?
I have three quick questions. Three claims about philosophy, profundity and doing good in the world:
Who said: “Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens.”
Who said: “When the power of love overcomes the love of power the world will know peace.”
I’ll make it easy. The answer is the same for all three. They are all the musings of one of the greatest artists of all time.
You know, for $11.99 on Amazon you can buy the “Vandor 34010 Jimi Hendrix 24-ounce stainless steel water bottle, multicolored.” It is, the ad says, “Recyclable, Non-toxic and reusable, Eco-friendly and recyclable, with High quality graphic. A Great gift idea.”
I thought really hard about getting one because I was playing “Bold as Love” this morning, remembering that Hendrix died today, September 18th 1970.
I always get a little parched when I’m having my Hendrix Experience. And with “Tears of Rage,” “Smoke on the Water,” “Waterfall,” I thought, “Hendrix water bottle? Why not?” And then, after a little too much online procrastination, I found out that a Hendrix water bottle could actually do some double duty in marking this day. It turns out that September 18th actually is all about water. Today is World Water Monitoring Day.
Happy World Water Monitoring Day. You probably didn’t know, did you?
You have to worry about an environmental effort so clumsily named and marketed. The occasion wasn’t even marked on the organizer’s own website.
World Water Monitoring Day was originally supposed to be October 18th, which is the anniversary of the Clean Water Act. That legislation is one of the signal accomplishments of the environmental movement. Signed in 1972, it was very much a product of Hendrix era and attitude of getting your head together enough to change the world.
But unfortunately, for World Water Monitoring Day, in Canada and in may of the northern European countries that wanted to participate in celebrating the Clean Water Act, October gets just a little too cold. Water is already starting to freeze up north and much more difficult for school children and citizen volunteers to go out and monitor. So they didn’t get a better name and they didn’t market things very well, but they did move the whole thing to the day Jimi Hendrix died. Still, hundreds of thousands of people take part in 66 countries to something very valuable: to study, document and report on how clean and available their local water is.
I was thinking about the sources of water, its vulnerabilities and scarcity and it made me think about the lyrics to the last song Jimi Hendrix was known to have played.
It was at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London, two days before Hendrix died. He was accompanying Eric Burdon & War on their cover of Memphis Slim’s famous down-tempo blues classic “Mother Earth,” with its famous chorus:
Don’t care how great you are, don’t care what you’re worth
When it all ends up you got to, go back to mother earth
“Back to Mother Earth.” That’s where Jimi Hendrix went, that’s where the water goes. That’s our home. The home we cherish and despoil, the home we map and measure, the home we’re in danger of making a cemetery for itself.
On a much happier note about Mother Earth, do you know what also happened on September 18th?
In 1977 – perhaps you tell the ‘70’s were my formative years? - Voyager I took the first photograph ever to show the Earth and the Moon together. I remember seeing that photograph in the New York Times. And, you may now have guessed it, yes, today is the birthday of the New York Times, which published its first issue on September 18th, 1851 for a penny a copy.
Last week, you could read in the Times – and in countless other media - the remarkable announcement from NASA that now 36 years and 13 days after it was launched, Voyager 1 has crossed the heliopause and entered interstellar space. No other manmade object has ever done that.
I love the idea of the heliopause: the boundary theorized where the solar winds are no longer strong enough to push back against the winds from other stars.
But back again to Mother Earth. Back to the calendar. Back to this city, Washington, DC. It also happens that today, in 1793 – 220 years ago - George Washington laid the cornerstone on the Capitol building across town, where many of you have spent time talking to Congress about climate change, about Mother Earth and her melancholy.
The original Capitol building was brick, clad in sandstone, and later clad in marble as the country got richer. I like to think of the bricks of our polity first coming from the earth as mud and clay, then in George Washington’s hands and now in ours. The urgent fate of the Earth is certainly in our hands. And we need urgent political solutions if we are going to do anything that can make a difference.
This is the fourth time I’ve spoken to the Fulbright Nexus scholars. Once before in Washington, then I followed you to Canada in the snow and then I stalked you in Medellin, Colombia in the spring rain.
I’ve told you stories about the creation of the Giant Brain, Storm Demons, the electrocution of monks, the invention of vodka, even the invention of the word scientist.
And I’ve often used the dates and anniversaries of the occasions we’ve gathered, not because in themselves these coincidences mean something. But because stories and speeches and science all depend on collections of data points to make meaning.
I choose some data, some facts and figures as points of departure because I want us always to think of the work we do, the lives we lead, as connected to the past as much as prelude or preparation for the future.
You have been sharing your research, hypotheses, commitments and passions about how to tell a new climate story, a story that can cut through skepticism, that can break through the paralysis of political will, that can tell about possibilities and hope and not just tragedy and doom. You’ve been explaining specific strategies and technologies for adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change, not only on the precious resources of land, energy and water, but on our mindsets and habits, on our openness to fact, on our imaginations of who we want to be, what kind of world we want future generations to inhabit.
The philosopher and Brazilian politician Roberto Mangabeira Unger has written, “At every level the greatest obstacle to transforming the world is that we lack the clarity and imagination to conceive that it could be different.”
NEXUS, a unique effort throughout the Americas, has been a critical effort in getting Fulbright to have the clarity and imagination to conceive how our own efforts at research, international collaboration and cultural understanding can be different. You have invented a new model.
Jimi Hendrix was once asked if he were an inventor – of wawa, psychedelic music, rock and roll guitar. He always laughed when he heard those questions. He joked that fans and critics often fantasized that he had a “mad scientist approach” to music. But he believed art shouldn’t be reduced to strategies of invention. Instead, he said his music – all transformative art – is “just asking a lot of questions.”
As for those words? “Imagination,” Hendrix said, “is the key to my lyrics. The rest is painted with a little science fiction.”
Now, I am not a scientist, but I firmly believe a little fiction is actually critical to the question of climate change. Not the fiction of false belief and denial, but the fiction of what doesn’t exist now, but that we can imagine, the fiction that could become reality.
To address climate change, we must find ways to mobilize big, collective strategies for regulation, legislation and large-scale investment. That will take immense time, resources and collective will. Right now, that’s science fiction. But it’s a possibility. We have the imagination to make it reality.
We need a radically new narrative, profoundly difference approaches to leadership and the effectiveness of governments and civic organizations. We need to mobilize billions of people and change enough minds to make fundamental shifts in our behavior as consumers and global citizens.
And in the meanwhile, as we work for such a wildly new story, we need to make urgent decisions now as individuals. We can make crucial progress by reducing our own carbon footprints voluntarily, by sharing the kind of monitoring and research, success stories and dead-ends that can quietly add up to a greater movement.
There is fascinating new thinking happening in how this new kind of climate story might become fact, not fantasy.
Whether we talk of Frankenstorms or droughts or other extremes, the threat of climate change, is often presented in narratives of doom.
But Dan Siegel, a noted UCLA psychologist, has done research to show that this might be counterproductive. What he’s discovering is that our cognitive behavior works through maps of neural activity in the brain.
He’s identified what he calls “me” maps and “we” maps of selfish vs.communal thinking and behavior. Dire environmental stories seem to trigger a fight/flight/fear response in us, making us nervous, but trapped and inactive, in a state of denial. But when our stories about the climate appeal to “we-maps” of our families and communities, and ultimately to the world itself, remarkably, our brains respond differently. They trigger us to behave optimistically, to get engaged, to take action.
But how do you tell that kind of story, about positive, action-oriented, public engagement, and tell the truth? Harvard climate scientist Dan Schrag has said that the time scale of making actual change to the climate is staggering. Even if we made the most radical interventions and had the greatest political will, and did everything technologically possible right now to drastically reduce carbon fuel consumption and emissions and change everything we can about industry and transportation, the world would not really see much result for 75-100 years.
How do we think about such sobering realities? How do we motivate people for 100 years from now? How do we ask people to bear costs for which even their grandchildren may experience little direct benefit? What Schrag says to these questions is humbling in its honesty: “I don’t know.”
President Obama’s science advisor has said there are three things we can do about climate change: we can mitigate, we can adapt and we can suffer. We are likely to do all three.
Mitigate, adapt, suffer. Suffering from climate has certainly more than begun. And we have poets, guitarists, and artists who capture our grief. But what about mitigating and adapting?
Here, the stories we must tell become practical again; they don’t need to be science fiction. They must be the kinds of useful stories that come out of our childhoods, that even come out of the motto shared by Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts:
And this, in fact, is now the President’s focus, his goal for efforts on climate change: national preparedness.
Focusing on preparedness means getting practical, it means translating the complexities of the future into the present, it means making our concerns about the climate local and positive: what can we do now for our families and communities and for people suffering and at greater risk than ourselves?
Not only can being prepared mobilize us to suffer less, it can help teach us more deeply about the long-term nature of the threats to our environment. Regular, constant, visible efforts at preparedness will change how we live, but also who we imagine ourselves to be. And it will change these brick by brick, person by person.
Mitigate, adapt, suffer certainly is not a very optimistic strategy. But I did open with Jim Hendrix’s death, after all. I also opened with water bottles and mass mobilizations to monitor our water. So we can reverse the order: and after being honest about suffering, we can mitigate and adapt. It’s what humans have always done. It is what your work as scientists involves.
Strategies of preparedness—research about how we can mitigate and adapt to climate change, clear truths about the suffering that is likely as the world warms and what we can do about it— embody what the environmental writer Annalee Newitz has called a “grim hope.”
I believe this is the kind of hope we should have. It’s a responsible hope. It’s an engaged hope. But it’s not naïve. It’s not dishonest: the truth as it is, the search for truth as we need it to be, as it might be feasible to imagine the world becoming.
Happy World Water Monitoring Day.
Remarks at the Australian Fulbright Symposium
Thursday, August 22, 2013
When I was trekking in Nepal a few years ago, I came down from the ice and snow of the Himalayan high peaks to the Khumbu Valley, where the great Tengboche monastery stands. As my friends and I trekked down from the Everest region into the warmth of spring, whole forests of rhododendron were in bloom: first white, then pink, then red as we dropped altitude. We could hear birds again. We could sleep at night without fear of frostbite. And for dinner, we had more than rice and yak meat stew on the menu. We had vegetables.
After almost a month of tough climbing, I was in a giddy, open frame of mind, attentive to the smallest things: folds of cloth, the grain of the wooden table. A monk from Tengboche caught me enraptured by the flutter of colorful prayer flags hanging from the roof of the temple.
He told me there is an ancient Buddhist parable about the flags. A master overhears two students debating whether it is the wind that is moving or the flags. Back and forth they argued, each sure he was right. Finally, the master said, “Don’t you see? Back and forth, argue and debate. It is, in fact, your minds that are moving.”
The banners or the wind?
I have always been suspicious of dichotomies: friend or foe, truth or beauty, rich or poor, dead or alive, sick or well, spend or save, win or lose, hearts or minds.
Think how many of these (and other) oppositions seem essential to our way of thinking. Think too, at least in English, how these words are often so basic, so often monosyllables of communication: love, hate; yes, no; left, right – perhaps even wired into our very cerebral makeup.
But there is trouble with us thinking either/or. As Catullus wrote in his famous poem 85, “Odi et amo.”
I hate and I love. Why I would do so, you may well ask.
I do not know, but I feel it and suffer.
Embedded here is the question that Kierkegaard said was the most important in philosophy: “Who am I?” In one of his first great works he answered with the contest of ideas and impulse, Either/Or. Our lives are a history of complicated, dialectical struggle between inner and outer, ethical and aesthetic, habit and hope.
The poet John Keats called the mature acceptance of our irreducible complexities “negative capability” – the strength, the gift of being able to live in and with contractions. Or, as the poet Emily Dickinson wrote, “I dwell in possibility, a fairer” – she means more beautiful – “house than prose.” Or did she mean fairer as in more just?
This is all simply to say at the outside that I bring an innate suspicion to schemas and categories such as hard vs soft or even the alchemical triangulation that lead to what I fear risks being a too dangerously self-congratulatory third definition, if we claim that our power is “smart.”
Smart to whom? As my mother-in-law has never ceased to tell me, “Smart is over-rated.”
"[Soft power] is the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments.” Attraction rather than coercion or payments. I read this—Joseph Nye’s definition of soft power—to my 84 year-old mother-in-law. She said, “We all pay.”
She got me thinking.
Let’s consider the argument. First of all, the activities of soft power—whether it’s educational exchange like Fulbright or foreign aid programs or other projects—cost money. Nowhere near as much money as war. But interestingly, when you look at the history, the major expenditures and commitments to soft power usually come after war: funded through the sales of military surplus after World War II, the Fulbright Program was formulated along with other extraordinary achievements like the Marshall Plan. Budgets for educational and cultural exchange have always increased after violent events.
This does not diminish the urgency or the effectiveness of education and international cooperation, of all the engagements of friendship, trust, mutual understanding, but it does mean we must be wary of the kind of utopian confidence one can often hear in safe and prosperous places that programs of peace can overcome the habits of hate and war, that they can offer sufficient alternatives to defense, to our natural wariness of those who might do us harm.
Think of the brave man who stood down the tank in Tiannamen Square. Think of the massacres that followed. Think of the jasmine revolution and think now of Egypt. Think of Occupy Wall Street and remember the arrests and pepper spray.
The political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg says our beliefs about peace and violence are complicated and intertwined, that even advocates of non-violence can use and depend on the violence of others.
In a recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, provocatively titled “Why Violence Works,” Ginsberg examines the American civil rights movement and the strategies of Martin Luther King, Jr, one of our greatest moral leaders in modern times, a brilliant and courageous hero of peace and justice.
He writes, “One of the most famous protests King organized, in March 1965 at Selma, Alabama is instructive. King picked Selma partly because racial discrimination there and in surrounding Dallas County was so obvious … [King] was confident the state and county political leaders were fools. He expected them to respond with violence and, in doing so, imprint themselves on the collective consciousness of a national television audience as the brutal oppressors of heroic and defenseless crusaders for freedom and democracy. With network cameras rolling, Alabama state troopers viciously attacked marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, seriously injuring many of them in what the news media called ‘Bloody Sunday.’”
The marchers knew what they were doing. They were extraordinarily brave. And they were powerful. They were successful. But was this power soft or hard?
I have traveled all over the world and talked to Fulbright scholars. I have been privileged to hear countless eloquent stories about its power, its impact. Again and again, whether the Fulbright scholar is 25 or 90, I hear this distilled in one short sentence, the same four words, “It changed my life.”
I am often moved to tears by those words, these stories.
But recently, I read those four words in the account of a very different story. Like Fulbright, it’s a story of mutual understanding. But it’s a story that occurred a year before the Fulbright program was founded. It’s a story that took place on April 11th, 1945. The story of Harry Herder, a young American solder who was part of the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp. Buchenwald means “beech forest.” Embedded in the gates of the camp in a fashionably modern san serif all capital type font were the words, “Jedem das Seine.” Literally, this means “To each his own,” but its common meaning is “Everyone gets what he deserves.” To add to the perversity, the text was meant to be read by people on the inside who could not get out.
The blunt evil of the inscription at Buchenwald was the exception. Most camps had the hideous words Rudolf Hess commanded be inscribed in their gates, “Arbeit macht frei.” Work makes you free.
As Herber and his fellow soldiers tried to comprehend the horrors they found—the piles of dead bodies, the still raging furnaces, the living hell of the few survivors, he came upon a boy. Here’s what he writes about the encounter:
He was young, very small, and he spoke no English. He was dressed in bits and pieces of everything, ragged at best, and very dirty. He chattered up a storm and I could not understand one word. First, I got him to slow down the talk, then I tried to speak to him, but he could not understand a word I said. We were at a temporary stalemate. We started again from scratch, both of us deciding that names were the proper things with which to start, so we traded names. I no longer remember the name he taught me, and I wish so badly, so often, I could. Our conversation started with nouns, naming things, and progressed to simple verbs, actions, and we were busy with that. As we progressed I reached over into my field jacket to pull things out of the pocket to name. I came across a chocolate bar and taught him the word “candy”. He repeated it, and I corrected him. He repeated it again, and he had the pronunciation close. I tore the wrapper off the chocolate bar and showed him the candy. He was mystified. It meant nothing to him. He had no idea what it was or what he was to do with it. I broke off a corner and put it in my mouth and chewed it. I broke off another corner and handed it to him and he mimicked my actions. His eyes opened wide. It struck me that he had never tasted chocolate. It was tough to imagine, but there it was. He took the rest of the candy bar slowly, piece by piece, chewed it, savored it. It took him a little while but he finished the candy bar, looking at me with wonderment the whole time. While he was eating the bar, I searched around for the old wrapper, found the word “chocolate ” on it, pointed to the word, and pronounced the word “chocolate”. He worked on the correct pronunciation. I am sure that was the first candy the little fellow had ever had. He had no idea what candy was until then. We worked out words for those things close around us. He was learning a bit of English, but I was not learning a word of his language—I do not even know what language he spoke. This wasn’t something that happened consciously, it was just something that happened.”
Harry Herder said this encounter changed his life.
If there is ever a power I would ask you to privilege in the discussions you have today, in the work you continue to do when you leave here, it is the power of words, the power of stories and the power of questions like Harry Herder’s, trying to understand this encounter with a little boy, a stranger whose name he didn’t learn, whose life we know nothing more of.
I began by saying I was skeptical about our understanding of even the simplest words.
What is soft? What is hard? What is power? Can power be created or is there a finite amount, a zero sum game that means if I have the power, you do not? If power is the ability to get others to do what we want, have we asked who these others are? Who are we? Do we really know what we want?
I don’t mean to seem coy or self-indulgent with such questions. Life is full of real emergencies, the day-to-day demands of our own work and families and larger crises, the demands of billions of people whose most basic needs for safety, food and shelter go unmet day after day, hour after hour. All of us must put our shoulders to the wheel for ourselves and for one another and we must work.
But because we are human, we cannot escape ourselves. We are always asking how and why. We are always searching for meaning.
What I am asking is that we bring depth and discipline to our questions: not just any questions, but difficult questions as well as serious efforts to conceive of alternatives to the lives we are leading and the lives our governments, businesses, media, schools, families and even powerful strangers are constantly trying to persuade us-or force us-to lead.
What I am arguing for is the power of imagination. The late poet and activist Adrienne Rich said it is imagination’s job is to “transcend and transform experience.” This may not be the project for your commute to work in the morning, but it is where freedom really lies—not in simple consumer choices or ballot boxes, but in our capacity to imagine and to make our own lives. And how many of us truly have that ability? “Ultimately,” Elie Wiesel—who was imprisoned at Buchenwald—has written, “the only power to which man should aspire is that which he exercise over himself.”
So I just ask you to be wary of cognitive or political schemas that reward us with the comfortable belief that we are good and that we are right, that we have intentions and values it is important to persuade others to share.
In our culture of technology and measurement, we try to classify and contain things that might actually be indefinable. Too often we try to possess certainties, rather than share questions
If it is difficult to understand what power is, it’s even more difficult to imagine what it really should be used for. How do we make it possible for people to flourish in a wounded world? How do we create the possibilities for happiness when there are shortages, greed, violence, differences of history and value? Whose happiness deserves to prevail?
One expression that has a long history in the exercise of power is the conviction that we must “win hearts and minds.” In 1818, almost 200 years ago, in John Adams wrote a letter to a Baltimore newspaper editor named H. Niles describing where the American Revolution really took place: “in the minds and hearts of the people.” “This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people,” he wrote, “was the real American Revolution.”
Skip a century forward and Franklin Roosevelt often employed the expression, seeking “the union of the hearts and minds of the people in all the states … devoted with unity to the human welfare of our country.” Then, 50 years ago, on April 2, 1963, John F. Kennedy began using the term in its current sense telling Congress how in Latin America “perhaps most significant of all [would be] a change in the hearts and minds of the people—a growing will to develop their countries.”
And only two years later, Lyndon Johnson claimed that “ultimate victory [in Vietnam] will depend upon the hearts and the minds" of the Vietnamese people. From the American military point of view, the Vietnamese hearts and minds were obviously not so dependable.
Since Vietnam, both in earnest and with sarcasm, “winning hearts and minds” has been a way to describe our military engagements. It became a central theme in our counter-insurgency planning under President George W. Bush, with a newly published Army and Marine Corp counter-insurgency manual claiming, “Protracted popular war is best countered by winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of the populace.”
What would it really mean for me to win your heart or your mind? Stop to think what that seriously. Such a “win” would be a kind of fragile miracle, wouldn’t it? And what I had won would be an immense responsibility; it would be risk and trust. Would it be love?
If I had, through my charms and powers and persuasions somehow won your heart and mind, would you have also won mine? What if you then changed your mind – or had a change of heart?
No matter how decent our intentions or benign our strategies, one of the problems with persuasion is that it is not an effort of tender wonderment and questioning. Persuasion is not meant to explore truth, but to enforce it. Soft power is still meant to be power, our power.
Yet, the point of truth is not that it is possessed, but that it is sought, that it is provisional, that we are free to choose it—and to contest those who claim to know what the it is or are certain they have it.
Perhaps what we should struggle to look for, then, is not so much power, but a related idea: authority, in the sense of being the authors of ourselves, working toward an understanding of who we are, which would mean that power of saying who we are would belong to others as much as it would to us, because others see and hear what we say and what we do and form beliefs about what that means, who we are.
Our authority in presenting ourselves to the world and—using the same linguistic root—the authenticity with which we do, might convince others to bestow on us, however briefly, some power. Power not won, but freely given.
So let’s not pose as power brokers today, but attempt to be authors, to use our words to make questions, to have conversations, to share the gifts of possibility and surprise, the power of learning from one another.
Speaking of questions and gifts, back in Nepal, when I was ready to leave the monastery, I saw the same monk who’d told me the parable about the prayer flags and the wind. I asked him how long it would take us to get down to the final base camp. And he said, of course, “Well that reminds me of a story.”
A monk was traveling in a strange land and saw a woman working in her garden. He asked her how much further he had to go to get to the mountain temple. She looked at him but didn’t say anything. He asked again. Nothing. So he shrugged his shoulders and walked on. When he was about a hundred yards up the road, the woman shouted to the monk, “It will take about two days.” The monk was startled and turned around. He shouted back, “But why didn’t you answer me earlier? I thought you were deaf!” She shrugged her shoulders too and shouted to him, “Well, you never know. I had to see how fast you walk.”
You never know …
So look, listen and ask lots of questions. It’s what my favorite poet Emily Dickinson did her entire life. Let me give her the final thought on power:
“I know nothing in the world that has as much power as a word. Sometimes I write one, and I look at it, until it begins to shine.”
Remarks in honor of Ambassador Jeffrey Bleich
The Fulbright Gala
Thursday, August 22, 2013
I want to close our gala tonight with a tribute to a great American diplomat. He came here to Australia in 2009 and is returning to the States in just two weeks. I know all of you will be sad to see him leave.
I’m talking, of course, about Elvis Presley.
There have been many tributes to Ambassador Bleich and I understand there will be several more. In fact, our beloved Ambassador pretty much embodies that old joke about the difference between the Americans and the French. When they come to visit, the French leave and don’t say goodbye. The Americans say goodbye and never leave.
Now it turns out that the real Elvis Presley, who died 36 years ago this week, never made it to Oz. He did serve in the U.S. Army in Germany exactly 50 years before Jeffrey Bleich was named Ambassador by his good friend, President Barack Obama, in 2009. We’ll let it slide that Elvis’s own presidential friend was named Richard Nixon.
Now why is it that Elvis’s diplomatic journey to Australia happens to coincide exactly with the dates of Jeff Bleich? Well did you know that Elvis’s birthday – January 8th – is Jeffrey Bleich Day in San Francisco? And perhaps you did not know that you are in the presence of one of the greatest Elvis fans of all time.
Ambassador Bleich is not only deeply knowledgeable about Elvis Presley’s life and music, he is an avid collector of Elvis memorabilia with everything from signed records and guitars, Elvis bookends, pillows, a footstool, a lunchbox, a framed black-and-white photo of the King’s wedding and a bottle of Love Me Tender shampoo. Though he owns a life-size cut-out of the King, I can neither confirm nor deny that there is a sequined Elvis costume hanging in his office closet that he wears while talking on the phone to President Obama.
Like diplomatic service, Ambassador Bleich has described his interest in all things Elvis as “a calling.” Since we’ve been talking diplomacy the last two days, I’ll avoid just calling it weird.
Certainly Ambassador Bleich has been as popular as a rock star here. He and his wife Becky have served the United States with extraordinary intelligence, skill, generosity, and grace. To substitute some names I’ll quote what Ed Sullivan famously said the third time Elvis appeared on his show, “I wanted to say to Jeff Bleich and the country that this is a real decent, fine boy.”
Not quite what we might say about Elvis’ granddaughter, Riley Keough, who it turns out strips down to her lace undies to pose as the spokeswoman for the Australian underwear line Bonds.
Thank you, Mr. Ambassador for your great strides to strengthen Australian-American relations.
But I digress. Back to Elvis himself.
The most we know about Elvis’s actual diplomatic skills outside Memphis and Las Vegas were his brief Army years in postwar Germany and his week’s leave in Paris in 1960 with some of his buddies. In Paris, he seems to have had held several seminars on American values in his hotel room with the entire chorus line of dancers from The 4 O’clock Club. And then there were those three concerts in Canada.
But talk about power. Elvis said, “Ambition is a dream with a V8 engine.” And though he didn’t, his V8 actually did make it to Australia. 45 years ago, in 1968, RCA promoters brought the King’s1960 Series 75 Fleetwood Limousine to Oz on a promotional tour raising money for charity while scoping out the possibility of an Elvis tour.
Sadly, the tour never happened, but people mobbed the car to see its sleek exterior painted with pearl and diamond dust and oriental fish scales. The hubcaps, wheel covers, headlight rims and front grille were plated in 24kt gold. Gold lamé drapes were used to cover the back windows and to separate the front and back seats. And the limo was outfitted with a gold plated phone, shoe buffer, refrigerator, RCA automatic ten-sleeve record player, swivel-TV and tape deck. A little different from Ambassador Bleich’s standard issue General Motors SUV that’s used around the world by American diplomats.
A huge sum was raised for charity in 50 stops—more than 17,000 miles through every state and territory except the Northern Territory—from Rockhampton in northern Queensland to Hobart, Tasmania and Perth .
I’m not sure if Ambassdor Bleich has the 58-page collector’s item of Elvis Presley’s GOLD Cadillac Tour of AUSTRALASIA 1968-69. With rare archival photos and press clippings the booklet is an important record of a little known art of Elvis history.
There’s another fascinating piece of Elvis memorabilia in the State Department archives in Washington.
In large part because of Elvis, rock ‘n roll music thrived in the United States but got almost no play in Stalinist Soviet Union. People were so desperate to get records of new American music that they came up with ingenious ways to smuggle it in. One way was to press the soundtrack from a record onto discarded x-ray film. The State Department has a Soviet x-ray of human ribs with a recording of Elvis Presley singing “I’ve Got a Lot of Living to Do.” Millions of similar records were sold on the black market for a ruble or two. Each would play for a few months before wearing out. Because X-rays were used, this way of getting music into Russia was called “recording on the bones.”
I was thinking about this earlier this week when I drove out from Melbourne into the beautiful Yarra Valley. It was one of those days where it’s difficult to do my job—forced to sit by a crackling fire at a vineyard restaurant and have a four-course lunch and a flight of good wine followed by a tour with the curator of the Tarrawarra Museum, who was very patient with my midday indulgences.
The museum has a brilliant small show on right now with the not so inviting title “Animate/Inanimate.” But the works are very compelling. There is an extraordinary video work by two American artists, Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla.
In the video, which fills the wall of a dark room in the museum, a musician is standing holding a small white flute. The background blocked out of the video, so she seems to be hovering in the blackness. And right next to her, a huge majestic Griffon vulture is perched on a stool. The vulture looks almost as large as the musician.
It turns out that the flute the woman is holding is 35,000 years old, found just a few years ago in a cave in southern Germany. It is possibly the earliest musical instrument ever found. The last ice age was waning 35,000 years ago and thick glaciers still covered half of Europe and North America. Neanderthals had not yet died out. All the archeological evidence points to a time of intense day-to-day struggle for survival for these early homo sapiens.
But what’s so moving, so extraordinary about our species, about the history of the human heart and mind is that this tiny flute is evidence that these early humans were doing more than just trying to survive in the ice and bitter cold: they were making music. What’s more, three small-sculpted figures were found in the cave: a horse head, an aquatic bird, and a lion-man. These are three of the earliest known works of art. They are clues to the rapid development of human consciousness, to yearnings and spiritual needs for meaning and happiness greater than safety and a full stomach. These creative abilities show that Homo sapiens had become self-aware – both part of the world, but apart from it – surviving in it and responding to it. And miraculously – just as Elvis communicated to young Russians behind the Iron Curtain through recordings on the bone, these early humans could communicate to us through the possibilities of music, a language that we can still understand today. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, “Music is the universal language of mankind.” I’m not so sure he would have been an Elvis fan.
Of course, we don’t know what the music was from 35,000 years ago sounded like. What was so beautiful in the video work was the German musician was trying all kinds of techniques with her fingers and breath to make the flute take flight in song, while the vulture stretched its wings, cocked its head, sometimes seeming to listen, sometimes acting quite bored—as anyone tends to get when a video art piece goes on too long.
But the story gets stranger—in just the way music gets deep into our bones. It turns out that this 35,000 year old flute the musician was trying to play was actually made from the bone of a Griffon vulture 35,000 years ago. The scene had an uncanny quality as I watched the bird watching the musician playing a song on the bones of its ancient ancestor. And the musician, who was German and lived near the caves where the flute was found, was herself the descendant of the early humans who lived in that cave and played that flute thousands and thousands of years before her.
Then Elvis came into my head and the lyrics of Snowbird, which perhaps Ambassador Bleich could sing for us:
Beneath this snowy mantle cold and clean
The unborn grass lies waiting
for its coat to turn to green
The snowbird sings a song he always sings
And speaks to me of flowers
that will bloom again in spring
The snowbird in the video seems to listen to the sound of the flute. What does it hear? There was something both profound and shocking about the scene and the ideas behind it. Imagine listening to a flute made from the bone of one of your relatives.
And what was Elvis doing here? What was I doing? I looked up the expression culture vulture and it turns out it was coined in 1947, the first year people went out across the globe on their Fulbright scholarships!
How far can I spin this? In 1947, Elvis Presley was 12 years old, living at 1010 Green Street in Tupelo, Mississippi and attending the seventh grade at Milam Junior High School. This was the first time Elvis ever sang in public. A hillbilly singer named Mississippi Slim put him on the bill in a dance hall. Elvis had such stage fright he couldn’t go on. He had to try again the following week.
For the next 30 years, he never looked back. But then it ended. Elvis Presley died this very week – on August 16th, 1977. Ambassador Bleich was 16. He was probably getting his first V8. I like to imagine Elvis on 8-track, the windows down saying what Elvis said that summer on his last tour:
“‘Til we meet again, may God bless you. Adios.”
Remarks at the inauguration
of the J. William Fulbright-Hillary Rodham Clinton Fulbright Fellows
July 29, 2013
Stan Lomas would have been 100 this summer. Born in 1913, Stan wasn’t a Fulbright Scholar. He was a famous New York ad man of the old school. I met him once when he was in his late 80’s.
Stan created the famous ad for AT&T: “Reach out and touch someone.”
When Stan was just a baby, only a one year-old—99 years ago today, July 29th 1914 – the first transcontinental telephone call was made. Alexander Graham Bell was in New York and Thomas Watson was in San Francisco, repeating the famous call they made 27 years before when Bell first invented the telephone. On that occasion, Bell immortally said, “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.”
Well, by 1914, Mr. Watson could no longer just walk to the next room. Never before had one voice connected with another 3,000 miles away. The best technology could do was reach New York to Denver before the sound weakened and became too faint to make out the words.
It’s interesting to note that Stan Lomas’ full slogan for that AT&T ad was: “To communicate is the beginning of understanding. Reach out and touch someone.”
Come here. I want to see you. I want to communicate with you. I want to understand you. I want to reach out and touch you even when you are far away.
Those words, that idea, it seems to me, are the values—the urgency—that are the essence of the Fulbright program. To connect, to communicate, to understand.
And no one exemplifies that spirit or that sense of service and optimism better than the 28 young Fulbright fellows in public policy who are with us today.
Now if we were scripting this for TV, someone’s phone would go off right about now with a very long distance call. But in the absence of that distraction, let me thank my great friend Jane Harman and the staff of the Wilson Center for so generously hosting us this evening.
And then there’s that other brilliant, wise, tough, dynamite blonde I’m madly in love with: Harriet Fulbright—the guiding family light of this program, its historical legacy, its most elegant advocate.
And there’s Ann Stock, our departing Assistant Secretary of State for Education and Cultural Affairs. Ann has been my friend for 20 years, my mentor and the true head honcha of the Fulbright program at the State Department. She is remarkable. She is a transformational leader. It is almost impossible for me to imagine this journey without her.
And there is that brilliant brunette, our departing Undersecretary of Public Affairs, Tara Sonenshine, who knows that diplomacy happens in stories we tell about who we are, who our friends (and adversaries) are. And as we all know, Tara knows how to tell the stories that are good news, that make us all feel more connected, that make us believe tolerance and peace are possible.
Please give a round of applause of these remarkable public servants. And please excuse me for obsessing a bit too much about their hair. But remember: it’s a bald guy talking to you.
Still, there is just one world leader we are here to thank and honor tonight, our ever-so-recently-former Secretary of State, who has come to tell us what no one would tell the frenzied media today: exactly what President Obama and she talked about at their private lunch today.
Seriously, we are gathered here to announce and celebrate the re-naming of the Fulbright Program’s fellowship for future leaders in public policy.
This is a program that was formed under Secretary Clinton’s leadership and, effective today, the public policy fellows who participate in it will be known as the J. William Fulbright-Hillary Rodham Clinton Fellows. Or for people like me who need simple things to say, the Fulbright-Clinton Fellows.
Twenty-eight Clinton Fellows and their name sake. Please give these remarkable individuals a hand.
In her book, Living History,” Hillary Clinton wrote, “In this world and the world of tomorrow, we must go forward together or not at all.”
"In this world and the world of tomorrow."
When I first read that ten years ago, I was struck by the fact that Secretary Clinton didn’t mean a fantasy or a daydream. She meant the world we actually will make with our hands and hearts, the world we will be responsible for. All of us. Together.
That’s what a fellowship is—a joining together. That’s what the Fulbright-Clinton Fellows will do. And each one will get a pair of fierce dark Hillary sunglasses to wear and a bottle of Hillary’s famous put-Tabasco-on-everything-sauce so they can go out there to save the world looking cool even when the situation is very, very hot.
Bringing people together, creating fellowships—often with people ignored and unknown, left behind, left out—this is what Hillary Clinton has spent her life doing.
Talk about reaching out and touching someone! Look out, AT&T!
Through all her travel, her passion advocacy for human rights, for education, girls and women, for peace, for prosperity, I think the Fulbright program has always thought of Hillary Clinton as an honorary Fulbrighter. Perhaps it’s a good thing she never went on that Fulbright to India when she graduated from Wellesley. What if she’d never gone to Yale Law School. What if she’d never met that charmer from Arkansas?
And, of course, Hillary became a good friend of that other great Arkansas politician, Senator Fulbright. She and President Clinton celebrated the Fulbright’s 50th anniversary at the White House. And Hillary was even born the same auspicious year the Fulbright program was born. (Though the State Department speech vetters won’t allow me to say exactly what year that was. Google it.)
Hillary, I hope you find the Fulbright program looking as good and showing itself to be as optimistic and engaged as you are.
As the U.S. government’s flagship international exchange program, Fulbright is one of the key elements of what Secretary Clinton has famously championed as “Smart Power.” Under her guidance, we’ve rethought Fulbright goals to strategize development, diplomacy, and defense with new and targeted scholarship programs, including the one we’re inaugurating today.
Hillary saw in Fulbright, and in the students and scholars who drive it, precisely what Senator Fulbright saw: an opportunity—for a cultural exchange between the countries of the world that might broaden our understanding of one another while sharing our knowledge, our lives.
Or as Senator Fulbright put it so eloquently: “The rapprochement of peoples is only possibly when differences of culture and outlook are respected and appreciated rather than feared and condemned, when the common bond of human dignity is recognized as the essential bond for a peaceful world.”
Human dignity is the essential bond.
Those words animate the mission of the Fulbright program. I know they have animated Hillary’s commitment to public service throughout her career.
When I was first appointed to the Fulbright board, I happened to see Hillary at the World Trade Center site during the 10th anniversary ceremony for the September 11th tragedy. She came over and congratulated me on the Fulbright board appointment, which I would never have gotten without her, and she told me that Fulbright is one of the essential tools of peacemaking that could help prevent other events like September 11th.
And then she grabbed my arm and said to me—I will never forget this—“Tom, there have been 300,000 Fulbright scholars since this program started. I want to have better access to their talents. When we combat global warming, I want to be able to gather Fulbright scientists. When we fight human trafficking, I want people in the room who know how to stop it. When we are figuring out how to make the food supply safe, I need to be able to call Fulbright experts. I need you to do this. It’s important.”
What do you say at a moment like that? I said, “Yes Hillary. Of course.” And then the first thing I did was hurry to my Fulbright orientation to learn what I was getting into.
I jumped into Fulbright by faith, by faith in the example of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s public service. She has written, "Faith is like stepping off a cliff and expecting one of two outcomes- you will either land on solid ground or you will be taught to fly."
These Fulbright-Clinton Fellows—these talented young Americans—have taken the plunge of faith. They will both land on solid ground in several developing nations from Burma to Malawi. And they will also fly as experts, as advocates, as friends and colleagues and professionals building ties and making these nations more safe, more prosperous, more accountable and effective for their own people.
They will hit the ground running to build the future, that world of tomorrow Secretary Clinton has written about so eloquently, proven her commitment to through her work, her travels, her passion for young people.
On behalf of my wonderful colleagues on the Fulbright board, on behalf of Fulbright scholars and alumni and foreign members of the foreign service and Fulbright partners in countries across the globe, please help me welcome my good friend, my mentor, the extraordinary diplomat and Fulbright family member, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Remarks to the Fulbright Science and Technology Fellows
Tuesday, June 11, 2013
Strange things sometimes happen over lunch.
Take this very day, June 11th. Not here in the humid Washington basin, but off the coast of the Land of Oz. Onboard a ship on a flat, calm southern ocean under horizon-wide blue skies pierced only occasionally by perfectly-round white cloud—and nothing else as far as you could see.
The June 11th I’m talking about was in 1770. And by Oz, as you probably know, I mean Australia. 243 years ago. It was a warm, but crisp day, the start of winter in the southern hemisphere.
And it was lunchtime for Captain—actually, he was still only Lieutenant—James Cook on his famous ship, The Endeavor. Cook was on the first of his three great voyages of discovery, in search of what at the time he only knew to be some fabled “southern continent” that no European had yet seen.
From Cook’s journals we read
We dined today upon the stingray and his tripe: the fish was not quite so good as skate … the tripe everybody thought excellent. We had it with a dish of the leaves of tetragonal cornuta, boiled, which eats as well as spinach or very near it.
Don’t you just love the British?
Unfortunately, though, Captain Cook’s midday meal was rudely interrupted. His ship lurched forward and suddenly stalled mid-ocean. The wooden planks creaked, the crew started shouting. The Endeavor had hit something, but land was nowhere in sight.
During his quiet, delicious and healthy lunch, James Cook stumbled upon, bumped into and accidentally discovered the largest structure of living organisms in the world: the Great Barrier Reef.
The botanist onboard, Joseph Banks, was not particularly amused or enthusiastic:
The dreadful time now approached and the anxiety in everybody’s countenance was visible enough: ear of death now stared us in the face; hopes we had none but of being able to keep the ship afloat till we could run her ashore
But free her the sailors did, with the help of the onboard astronomer and a small retinue of scientific assistants and artists. After a hair-raising escape, 11 days later, on June 22nd, the Endeavor steered into a gorgeous bay, then silently up the mouth of a river. Cook’s next great discovery: the north coast of the great continent he had been looking for. Here was Oz, the great Down Under, a land, of course, that Cook immediately annexed for the Crown, saying it was terra nullius, no one’s land. Big surprise: he named the river Endeavour and the beach settlement Cooktown. And I’m sure you can imagine one of his first meals: kangaroo, of course.
But back to today, that day of the interrupted lunch, the surprise, anxiety, and unexpected discovery. It took Cook and his men all day and more to free his ship. So, at first they weren’t at all interested in what they found. They wanted to flee, to go where they were looking to go.
But by finding the Great Barrier Reef, Cook found something all of us would become fascinated with for forever: one of the seven wonders of the natural world, a great, living, teeming body of undersea life—from forests of anemones to leatherback and flatback turtles to dwarf whales and humpback whales and humpback dolphins, nine species of seahorses, four hundred species of coral and more than five hundred species of algae and seaweed. He found a vast array of extraordinary flora and fauna living as a giant organism, an orchestra of life in harmony.
One of the most beautiful places to see the Great Barrier Reef is evidently from outer space, which, given the damage done to Endeavor, Captain Cook might have preferred.
But Cook’s spectacular lunch spot is in growing jeopardy. Here’s how to put things in perspective: the first large reefs in the area began more than half a million years ago. The current living coral reef is itself at least 20,000 years old. And more than half of it has died in just the last 25 years.
Enough to make you put down your fork.
I began writing this speech with some excitement about Captain Cook’s spirit, an ethos of ambition that seems to be at the heart of scientific inquiry: the willingness to take the kind of long-shot risk—of approaching the cutting edge, of nearly sailing to the ends of the earth—that Cook took in order to reach discovery. It takes a passion I think all of you know about and have.
And I still have that sense of thrill when I read about your own research and study, your own ambitions for discovery. But my optimism and, I’m sure yours too, is blunted by the knowledge of the consequences of human ambition. It is climate change, pollution, even damage from shipping and more than 1,500 shipwrecks that have endangered the Great Barrier Reef and countless other ecological systems in the world, at rates compounding startlingly in just our lifetimes.
I love the names of ships, their histories. Endeavor is a wonderful name for an explorer’s ship because in comes from the Latin expression “in dever” which means “in duty,” which comes from the word for debt. An endeavor is something you owe, which later came to mean “the pains taken to achieve something.”
You’ve been experiencing the joys and pains of the immense focus discipline to prepare for your doctorates. You’ve been doing something that you owe to your families, your teachers, your countries, to this program.
But let me leave you with another ship, one that foundered on the Great Barrier Reef only 20 years after Endeavor’s close call. That ship was Pandora. She had fought against the Americans in the Revolutionary War, and on this fated voyage she plied the South Seas in search of the mutinous crew of The Bounty. Pandora found 14 of Bounty’s crew in Tahiti, including the ship’s fiddler. But Pandora’s captain wasn’t a music lover. He locked his fourteen prisoners in in a makeshift cell, just eleven-by-eighteen feet, built on the quarterdeck, and called, of course, Pandora’s box.
And then on the late afternoon of August 29th,1791 – long after lunchtime—Pandora struck the Great Barrier Reef. She sank the next morning. Pandora’s box broke open: 31 crew died and 4 of the 14 prisoners.
Pandora means “all-gifted” or “the gift of all.” Hesiod tells us in Works and Days that Pandora was the first woman on earth, forged of water and dirt by Hephaestus, the god of craftsmanship. And all the gods gave her presents: Poseidon gave her pearls and the promise she would never drown. (He obviously wasn’t listening when the English shipbuilders hoped their ship with that name wouldn’t sink.) Aphrodite gave her beauty, Athena gave her style and grace, Demeter gave her a green thumb, Apollo taught her music, Hermes gave her speech and cunning, Hera gave her curiosity.
So the all-gifted Pandora was blessed and privileged, like those of us here. But, of course, you know she was also born cursed. It was inevitable she would squander her gifts because of that last essential but dangerous gift from Hera: curiosity. Pandora just had to see what was in the box – and all the ghosts of pain, struggle and misery rushed out into the world: disease and death, greed and dishonesty, hunger and need. From then on, all other humans would have to toil, work and suffer.
Now have I gotten everyone in a joyful mood in time for dessert? Shipwrecks, environmental disaster, squandered gifts and suffering. And add to that the news that, because of budget cuts, this is the last class of the extraordinary program of Fulbright Science and Technology Fellows to fund a small group of the very best young scientists to get their PhD’s in the United States.
None of you is a stranger to hardship. Even at your young age, each of you has faced failure and loss. But the thing we can’t forget is what remained at the bottom of Pandora’s box after all the evil escaped.
There was a slight, meek girl curled up and hiding there, holding a sprig of half-wilted flowers. Hesiod says her name was Elpis. The Romans called her Spes. The Greeks were ambivalent about her; the Romans built her lavish temples. In both languages, her name means hope.
You leave here with many gifts—some of them possibly double-edged and dangerous—but the gift I ask you to keep safe and always within you is that small, shy spirit clutching the partly wilted flowers. Because in the end, hope is most necessary, hope makes the most profound sense, when trouble is in the air, in our worry and in the doubts we harbor; hope is what we have taken great pains to achieve.
I’ve gone far afield to the Oz and lands of mythological creatures, so let me come home—to a writer and thinker as American in his philosophy of pragmatism as you can get, Henry David Thoreau, a man who lived on a famous pond but never left the solid earth of his native New England.
Thinking about the way we shape our hopes, endeavors, and ambitions, Thoreau wrote, “Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much life so. Aim above morality. Be not simply good, be good for something.” This is the pragmatist’s answer to finding hope cowering in the bottom of Pandora’s box.
How do you take your talents, your research, your skills and put them to use? That seems to be the moral dimension of science: to share with others in order to make the world a more connected, and possibly better, place.
Fulbright—and your work—are about the collaborative spirit of exchange: of ideas, experiences, knowledge, and passion.
Share that knowledge, stay connected to Fulbright and to one another. Remember that what you do and who you are must not only be good, but good for something.
Remarks at the Fulbright NEXUS Meeting on Climate Change
April 21, 2013
T.S. Elliot called April “the cruellest month.” Eliot made London his home, but even in tropical Colombia people are known to gripe about the year’s fourth month.
But just after dark, cradled in the gorgeous Aburra’ Valley of Medellin, and handed a glass of wine as I gathered with a group of Fulbright scientists, all friends and collaborators from countries throughout the Western Hemisphere, I took part in an April evening last month that was the furthest from cruel.
It was a humid-meets-cool evening that seemed expectant—some electricity in the air about the work the scientists were going to share with one another at a climate change conference that week, about the questions they were eager to pose, the answers they were seeking.
Pulling those threads together—the moral character of April, the sweet lull of drink, the electricity of friendship and inquiry—I thought about a story I’d read about a different April gathering, at a place and time that seemed so distant, but seemed so close. On an April day in 1746—247 years ago—instead of Dan Kammen, the famous and charismatic Berkeley professor who was the lead scientist of this Fulbright project, it was a French monk, Jean-Antoine Nollet, who was man of the hour. Nollet was the abbot of the famous Carthusian monastery in Paris. And on that 18th century spring Parisian day, Nollet lined up all his monks, making each one grab hold of one end of a 10 meter length of wire in one hand and the end of another length of wire in the other hand. More than 200 monks, connected in series, wound through the fields on the grounds of the monastery in a line over a mile long.
I hope they were praying, given what happened next.
Without telling his monks, the abbot took the final stretch of wire that was in his own hand and dropped it into the acid bath of a primitive battery. The whole line of monks suddenly got a tremendous shock.
Nollet was fascinated by all the shouts and cries and jumps, the contorted faces of pain. And, who knows, maybe even a few curse words that broke the monastic silence. Nollet was fascinated because he saw that the angry chorus of monks actually twitched and groaned at almost exactly the same time. The entire mile wincing and whining in unison. Quite surprising to him, the electrical current from his makeshift battery traveled almost simultaneously across 2000 burning fingers, two hundred brown cassocks and a mile of wire. It was the greatest distance anyone had known electricity to travel. And it happened in an instant.
Nollet was astounded. And as Tom Standage so beautifully tells this story in his wonderful book, The Victorian Internet, witnessing and measuring this speed and distance was one of the first insights that led to the invention of the telegraph 45 years later. Telegraph means “far” or “distant writer.” Those Carthusian monks standing hand-to-wire-to-hand were the predecessors of wifi, our ability to be connected instantly to friends and ideas, to experiment and debate.
It’s a lovely sidebar to note that those monks were not just experimenting with electricity in the 1740’s. In that very same decade at that same Parisian monastery, monks invented the sweet green herbal liqueur that’s named for their religious order: “chartreuse.” Perhaps one of the electrocuted monks seriously needed a drink.
Given that the audience of scientists I was with last month was all holding glasses, I thought I’d ask them if they knew what other alcoholic beverage was also invented that decade, in fact invented in the very same year as the Great Monastic Shock, 1746. No hands were raised. But it turns out 1746 was a good year for jolts to the system: potato vodka was discovered. Eva Ekeblad, a glamorous Swedish aristocrat—a countess and agronomist and first female member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences—discovered that year that alcohol could be made from potatoes.
And what that meant was that while potato vodka made people sing and smile and go all wobbly, Sweden’s precious crops of wheat, rye, and grain could be saved to make bread instead of drink. And the result was a dramatic decrease in hunger and famine throughout Sweden.
Countess Ekeblad also figured out that potatoes could be the source of powdered cosmetics that—imagine this—wouldn’t actually burn the woman’s face it was supposed to make beautiful. She also promoted the potato flower as something to wear in your hair. So with a potato blossom over your ear and perfectly smooth makeup on your face, you could brave the long Swedish winters with a smile and a stomach full of bread as you went out to dance and get potato drunk.
Now that is applied science.
But I want to go back to France for a moment and that brief April shower of electricity that singed the monks. I don’t know whether or not Abbot Nollet was a sadist, but he was, like Countess Ekeblad, a noted scientist, even though neither of them would have used that word.
We had to cross the British Channel and wait almost another century before the word “scientist” came into being. And we can blame that on an old poet, one far more famous than unknown me: Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
June 24, 1833 in the Senate House at Cambridge University. We are just at the edge of the Victorian era. And this is the third meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Not unlike the Fulbright gathering I was attending in Medellin, smart and famous people had come from many countries to attend.
A young but already esteemed physicist, William Whewell, one of the founders of the Association, stirred the room with eloquent and excited talk of advances in science, about the new rigor attaching facts to theory, about endless possibilities of research and exploration on the earth and in the sky.
When Whewell finished and the thunderous applause died down after his eloquent, optimistic remarks, the old and ill Romantic poet stood up, haughty and scowling. He was famous, so everyone knew who he was, but somehow no one expected Coleridge to be there.
After a dramatic silence, Coleridge spoke. “It used to be,” he said with much distain, “that men of science,” (I don’t know if he’d met Countess Ekelblad or any of the few other brilliant women with the opportunity to study and conduct research) used to be called “natural philosophers.” But “a man digging for fossils or experimenting with electricity?” Coleridge scoffed. Such a man didn’t deserve such a great title. In fact, Coleridge said, getting even more imperious and saying he was speaking as a “real metaphysician,” he forbade the people gathered to use the title natural philosopher.
There was a hue and cry. But William Whewell rose again to speak and he was young and handsome and smiling and confident. Fine, he said. Let’s have a new name. “If philosopher is taken to be too wide and lofty a term, then by analogy with “artist”, may we form scientist.”
There is a wonderful book by the Fulbright scholar Laura Snyder called The Philosophical Breakfast Club, which tells this story of the creation of the modern scientist and the dangerous rift that grew between what became science on one side and the humanities on the other. And Snyder tells this story through the lives of four friends, William Whewell who created the science of the tides, Charles Babbage, inventor of the modern computer, John Herschel, who mapped the southern skies and helped invent photography, and William Jones, who shaped economics as a scientific discipline. What’s so moving about Snyder’s book is that she tells the story of four remarkable men who helped create a revolution in scientific thinking, in technology and industry as a story of friendship – and food and drink.
Now to be honest, since so much of that took place at breakfast, potatoes were put to a different use and I don’t think any chartreuse was consumed. But the story interested me so much, particularly as I was mingling with a present day group of scientists who were friends sharing meals and ideas, that I looked for more examples of the importance of friendship to the history of science.
Not surprisingly, there are many. But what’s funny is that if you Google “science and friendship,” you don’t find these stories. Instead, almost every listing comes up for the science of friendship, which is itself a fascinating and relatively new area of study begun by Robin Dunbar and others in the last decade. Dunbar is known for “the Dunbar Number.” And the Dunbar Number is 150.
Dunbar’s research showed that humans beings only have the brain capacity to manage a maximum of about 150 relationships. When we exceed that number in our social groups and encounters, communication seems to break down dramatically.
But because humans are gregarious and because we’ve used technologies of warning and solidarity since our early history, Dunbar theorizes that language, laughter and even group music-making evolved as ways for us stay connected to a larger group of individuals than might be possible through more directly physical acts of communication like communal grooming, common to our primate ancestors. As Dunbar writes, “Not only can we speak to many people at the same time, we can also exchange information about the state of our networks in a way that other primates cannot.”
“Gossip, he argues “is a very human form of grooming.”
And so I went back to that evening Fulbright gathering in the spring in Medellin with heat lightning over the April valley, with drinks in our hands and gossip on our lips and the electricity of expectation linking scientists hand to wire to hand, not just across an 18th century monastery field, but simultaneously across continents, and I experienced a heady (possibly vodka-assisted) moment of hope that the sharing of canapés and the fruit of fermented potatoes and then lots of coffee and eggs at breakfast might lead to something we might call progress, something we might call science, which after all is just a form of knowledge we can test and use to predict.
Science, as that famous showdown with Coleridge began to make clear, is not simply a predisposition to curiosity or deep, serious thinking. Science is a way of doing the business of inquiry that demands we come together as a community of skeptics and analysts and seek common language and common values, shared trust and shared rigor. And it turns out that a meal or a drink, or more than a few of both, helps create the bonds of community that science needs. We may be surprised, sometimes shocked by what we discover. But we’ll always have ways to relax with fermented grapes and potatoes (or coffee and bacon) to gossip about and question what went wrong or what went right.
Remarks for the Jumpstart: Children First Gala
The University Club
May 8, 2013
Do you know what a magpie looks like? You don’t find them here in Washington because it’s too warm. They like Colorado and London. But who doesn’t?
A magpie looks like a crow in a tuxedo. Black head and shoulders, white wings and belly. You have to watch yourself around magpies because they love to steal shining things. One grabbed my sunglasses right off my head last year. They chatter all the time – something I’m accused of doing. And at night they get together in big groups to eat – just like us, though I’m very happy we didn’t have to wear tuxedos.
According to an old superstition, it matters how many magpies you see. Because they eat and chatter together and because they are monogamous and have one mate for life, it’s bad luck to see just one.
There’s an ancient nursery rhyme:
One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret never to be told.
I’m talking about magpies and superstitions and a little sorrow tonight because I’ve been thinking all day about an old neighbor of my partner’s and mine who lived a few floors below us in the same apartment building in New York City. He died one year ago today, May 8, 2012. But he’d lived a rich, full life. All of you actually know this neighbor of ours. He was Maurice Sendak.
All of us know and love his work—with its dark, but loving stories of children confronting their feelings—being afraid, being bored or jealous or frustrated or even in danger—in a world that can seem to have too many monsters, too much trouble, too many adults.
In an interview for her show on NPR Terry Gross asked Sendak if he had a favorite response to his work. Sendak said one boy in particular stuck out:
“I answer all my children’s letters, somewhat very hastily, but this one I lingered over. I sent him a postcard and drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, ‘Dear Jim, I loved your card.’ Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, ‘Jim loved your card so much he ate it.’ That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.”
He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.
And isn’t that just what a magpie does? The noisy and sneaky little bird with a voracious appetite, eating anything in its path.
Now if there are any child psychiatrists in the room, you might respond a little differently from Sendak and possibly diagnose little Jim with Pica Disorder, which is the clinical term for when can’t stop eating everything in your path.
But guess what pica means? It’s just the Latin word for Magpie.
Seeing, loving, devouring. That’s the temperament Sendak had. It’s what all good writers are up to- absorbing the world, soaking it all up.
As the animals say to Max, “Oh, please don’t go—we’ll eat you up—we love you so!”
That other great New York writer and illustrator Art Spiegelman actually once described Sendak has having “that magpie thing,” a sense “of things you wouldn’t necessarily know all cocktailed together because of the way you find things out when you’re just nosing around.”
Nosing around. And then, aha: She saw it, she loved it, she ate it. Not a bad way to describe what happens when we’re learning anything.
Curiosity, hunger …and love. This is what good teachers cultivate in our kids. It’s what Jumpstart does. Susan Werley Slater, Jumpstart’s Chief Program Officer wrote, “There’s something about the energy Jumpstart brings to a classroom. There’s something about the connections we’re able to nurture between caring adults and preschool children in low-income neighborhoods.”
I’m not qualified to speak to you about the methodologies of early childhood education or the metrics of language acquisition. But I do believe strongly what the educator Jack Shonkoff has said, that “how children feel and interact is as important to their competence and success as how well they think.”
Kids must be encouraged with those magpie feelings of curiosity, hunger and love.
Remember what my neighbor wrote, “And Max, the king of all wild things, was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him most of all.”
In the end, I really believe education is all about love. Love of words, love of questions, love of the attention, generosity and concern children can feel from adults who care, adults who believe in them.
Coincidentally, Roosevelt died only few months before “Where the Wild Things Are” was first published in 1963. But I’d like to imagine she would have loved it and that Sendak and she might have been great friends. She had an extraordinary gift for friendship.
One of Roosevelt’s friends was the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral, a poor rural girl who never went to college but whose older sister was a teacher in a one-room school and fed her hunger, encouraged her curiosity and gave her love. This poor Chilean girl went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature– the only Latin American woman ever to do so. She also became a leading education reformer, a women’s rights advocate, a diplomat here in Washington, but, as she said, always a teacher.
"Many things we need can wait,” Mistral wrote. “The child cannot. Now is the time his bones are formed, his mind developed. To him we cannot say tomorrow, his name is today."
“Su nombre es hoy.”
Whether it’s Gabriela, Maurice, Eleanor or Max, the child’s name is today. And that is why we are here tonight.
A JumpStart isn’t something you give tomorrow. That name is definitely today.
So fellow magpies, I ask you to jump in and join me. Let’s help DC kids learn to read.
Let’s help them see it, love it, eat it just like little Jim did with Maurice Sendak’s postcard.
Or as my old neighbor wrote of his famous imaginary boy Max, “Then from far away across the world he smelled good things to eat, so he gave up being king of the wild things.”
If Senator J. William Fulbright were still with us, he would be turning 108 today.
That’s a lot of candles.
But with a powerful legacy like his—his legislative achievements, his anti-war activism that inspires so many today, and, of course, the world-famous Fulbright Program—he is still with us in spirit.
Senator Fulbright is probably known to most people as the founder of the Fulbright Program, which is the State Department’s leading international exchange program, sending our best students, scholars and professionals in almost every field to study, teach and engage with people around the world in return for the world’s best students, scholars and professionals spending time studying, teaching and living in the United States.
8,000 people participate in the Fulbright Program each year. From 155 countries. And in almost every field of knowledge, from astrophysics to zoology, Arabic to Zulu, arts education to vocational training. Fulbright has been a springboard for Noble Prizewinners and prime ministers, poets and farmers, journalists and engineers. There’s nothing else like it - building tolerance, mutual understanding and shared knowledge, all to create a more peaceful, more connected world.
But Senator Fulbright’s accomplishments in and out of the Senate extend to an even wider range of legislative and moral victories.
He spent his career forcefully inveighing against tendencies to use military force unnecessarily and he was one of the most vocal opponents of the Vietnam War. He was an eloquent skeptic whenever he sensed we Americans were too sure of ourselves, too unquestioning of our beliefs and values, too ready to hit first, ask questions later. He started the Fulbright program by drafting legislation that required the government to sell war surplus supplies and use the money to start the Fulbright Program in 1946. Later, in 1954, he was the only senator to vote against appropriations for the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, the vile home of McCarthyism.
Fulbright came to his skepticism through acknowledging his own terrible moral blindness: he had been a segregationist senator from the South, filibustering against civil rights legislation on several occasions. The racism he learned to rid himself of and denounce was an enduring shame for which he felt he could never be forgiven, though many civil rights leaders did forgive him and called him their friends.
Few legislators have ever been so skilled at the alchemy of turning hate to good, swords into ploughshares. And that alchemical effect extended to those who knew and worked with him. Think of that young part-time staff member from a Place Called Hope who experienced the Fulbright Effect and became an ambitious young governor and President of the United States.
And there’s that young Vietnam veteran invited by Fulbright to testify before the 1971 Congressional hearings on the Vietnam War, who later became a senator and is now the very Secretary of State who oversees the Fulbright program. In fact, Secretary Kerry created the largest Fulbright program in history when relations were restored with Vietnam. And his daughter Vanessa Kerry was a Fulbright scholar.
And, of course, there are the hundreds of thousands of scholars and students on whom J. William Fulbright and his extraordinary program have worked their alchemy to make the world a better place. Wherever I go and meet Fulbright scholars, they always say to me the same four words: “Fulbright changed my life.”
As Senator Fulbright himself said, “The rapprochement of peoples is only possible when differences of culture and outlook are respected and appreciated rather than feared or condemned, when the common bond of human dignity is recognized as the essential bond for a peaceful world.” And that bond is exactly the one that links Fulbright scholars and students to universities, governments, artists, and people around the world, promoting not only acceptance and understanding, but the exchange of ideas, the transcendent values of knowledge and inquiry that link us all, no matter where we live.
Forty-two years ago this month, John Kerry, then a young veteran, testified before Congress on how to end the Vietnam War. After Kerry’s testimony, Senator Fulbright said, “You said you wished to communicate. I can’t imagine anyone communicating more eloquently than you did.”
The eloquence of communication: it comes in many forms. It can be a simple word. “Shalom” or “Shokran.” Or it can be the nuance and complexity of a full year of living abroad in a new language, a new culture. But to use the language Senator Fulbright would have used, it is an ethical duty for all of us as citizens in a interconnected, troubled and complicated global culture to find the eloquence to understand and accept other people, other values, other ways of living.
Senator Fulbright closed that hearing with the young John Kerry by reaffirming the value of our institutions even in a time of acrimony and distrust, when he told the veterans and reporters in the room, “not to be too disillusioned and not to lose faith in the capacity of our institutions to respond to the public welfare.” Secretary Kerry, now the steward of one of those great institutions, said much the same this week after one of the youngest Foreign Service officers in the State Department, Anne Smedinghoff, was killed on her way to deliver textbooks to children in Afghanistan. Anne was only 25. She had been in Afghanistan less than a year. But everyone talks about how fast she moved to engage with Afghanis, particularly women and children. Because of her, the Afghan national women’s soccer team is on its way to getting its own stadium.
Secretary Kerry said, “Anne was met by a cowardly terrorist determined to bring darkness and death to total strangers. These are the challenges that our citizens face, not just in Afghanistan but in many dangerous parts of the world - where a nihilism, an empty approach, is willing to take life rather than give it.”
Anne Smedinghoff lived by giving, trying to make a world of fewer strangers, less hate and more hope. She was a kindred spirit of Senator Fulbright, who said before he died, that he hoped the Fulbright program and other efforts like it would” bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs and thereby to increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship.”
In Anne Smegdinghoff’s memory, it’s worth celebrating Sen. Fulbright’s birthday, his passion for peace and the belief he and Anne Smegdinghoff shared—even in the face of conflict and hate-that there is a “common bond of human dignity” and that it’s our responsibility to find that bond, to strengthen it, wherever we are in this troubled, complicated but increasingly interconnected world.