A Requiem for Some Rogues: What Artists Can Teach Us About Diplomacy
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.
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.
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 Washington, DC 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.”
Who said: “In order to change the world, you have to get your head together first.”
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.
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.
As Much Power As a Word: Hard, Soft, and Smart Power
Remarks at the Australian Fulbright Symposium Canberra, Australia 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.”
The Ambassador & The King: Honoring Ambassador Bleich
Remarks in honor of Ambassador Jeffrey Bleich The Fulbright Gala Canberra, Australia 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.”
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 .
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:
Building Tomorrow: Hillary Clinton and the Fulbright Legacy
Remarks at the inauguration of the J. William Fulbright-Hillary Rodham Clinton Fulbright Fellows Washington, DC 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.
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 Washington, DC
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.
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.
Potatoes, Monks, Gossip and Electricity: How Friendship Is Vital to Science
Remarks at the Fulbright NEXUS Meeting on Climate Change Medellin, Colombia 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 Washington, DC 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.
“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.
You can take it from a much greater Washington magpie than myself. It was Eleanor Roosevelt who said„ “The giving of love is an education in itself.”
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.”
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.
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.
I don’t want to affect local property values, but I want you to hold that contradiction in mind—shame and grace—while I quote from King James version of the story:
“For an Angel went downe at a certaine season into the poole, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in, was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.”
So sickness turned into health, ignorance into strength, a house of personal fear and shame turned into a house of possibility and grace—all because an angel troubled the stagnant waters, stirred fresh air into what was flat and still.
Troubling the waters. That’s how my teacher taught me to understand teaching. And it’s stuck with me.
Before you worry that I’m going to start giving a sermon, though, I just want to explain that what you do, what all teachers do, is so important, so urgent that it’s hard for me not to talk about it in dramatic and emotional terms.
At a time when we are worn-down by the demonization of teachers, by jargon that attempts to measure education like factory widgets, I hope you’ll indulge me a few hallelujahs, a little old-fashioned praise of the teaching profession.
I believe by troubling stagnant waters, you do something close to miraculous—providing cures to things that ail us: from the diseases of poverty and troubled homes and lack of hope, you offer knowledge and dignity and opportunity. From the diseases of prejudice, you offer tolerance and understanding. From the dis-ease, the un-ease that comes from being unsure of our future prospects, uncertain of our place in a crowded, complex and rapidly changing world, you offer the tools and the strength for students to create meaningful lives.
John Stuart Mill wrote that teaching is the noblest profession, because, “while physicians only cure one person at a time, teachers instill greatness in many, who themselves go on to do good things.”
And there’s good reason to believe that great philosopher. The idea of nobility actually has its origin in education. It comes from the word gnoscere, which means “to come to know”; not just knowing, but coming to know, which is learning.
Today I understand you’re going to be working with Veronica Boix-Mansilla from Harvard’s Project Zero. Project Zero was started by the psychologist, theorist and Fulbright scholar, Howard Gardner.
Gardner created the well-known theory of multiple intelligences, which explains how people learn things in different ways, how we come to know things in so many different ways—so many ways for children discover their innate nobility, you might say—and so there isn’t just one way to measure this intelligence. Which also means there is far from one method, one curriculum, one strategy to teach.
Gardner wrote a book with another great psychologist—and Fulbright scholar—Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who created the popular idea of “Flow,” which is the sense of attention and engagement in work that makes people happy and productive by putting themselves in new experiences, creating a balance between new challenges and skills we already have—stretching ourselves to our limits.
We know the idea by many names: flow, being in the zone, in the groove—doing something that requires such intense concentration, everything else falls away.
And when that happens, Csikszentmihalyi says we experience a kind of ecstasy—literally standing outside ourselves—participating in a reality that is so different from everyday life.
Gardner and Csikszentmihalyi collaborated on a project to blend their two areas of research to explore how the ways we learn, the ways our curiosity is piqued and we develop passion for our goals in life. They wrote a book together called Good Workwhere they argue that, “if the fundamentals of good work—excellence and ethics—are in harmony, we lead personally fulfilling and socially rewarded lives.”
And I would say to you that teaching is exactly that kind of good work. Gardner said once at a lecture I attended, “I want my children to understand the world, but not just because the world is fascinating and the human mind is curious. I want them to understand it so that they will be positioned to make it a better place.”
Making the world a better place. Teachers help us do that, teach us to want to do that. If I can bring back the hallelujiah chorus for a moment and steal a phrase from Abraham Lincoln, I would say that teachers are “the better angels of our nature.”
You know, speaking of President Lincoln, this year marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which paved the way for the Thirteenth Amendment. You’ve seen the movie and you know about the political machinations to get that historic amendment through Congress.
Emancipation. It’s a weighty word, but it literally means to take ourselves out of the hands of others. But then what? You know that emancipation has meant a long history of struggle for freedom that still goes on.
Frederick Douglass said it best: “Education … means emancipation.”
Teachers set us free.
And that’s exactly why we always remember our best teachers because they were the ones who set our minds free, let us see some part of the world that had once been invisible to us, just beyond some horizon.
I remember my first great teacher: she was my fifth grade music teacher. I grew up in a very small farming community and had never left my town before until she took us to sing in the county youth choir. Our little group expanded from ten small voices to one hundred and fifty.
So many kids I’d never met before. So many voices. I was astonished. And I believe Marisol Ponte-Greenberg, a choir teacher who taught traditional music in Argentina, knows a lot about that astonishment.
But okay, enough of the choirs and the angels. I have certainly never been called an angel!
But like you, I am a teacher. And I know that good teaching is really not a gift from the heavens. In the end, it really comes down to hard work. And today is a celebration of that hard work. The hard work you actually do:
Whether it’s supporting Mexico’s LGBT youth in its public schools as Ileana Jimenez did or helping Moroccan students learn by using their mother tongue of Darija as Farah Assiraj did or teaching Singaporean students that their environment can be used to clean itself up through phyto-remedition as Eric Goff of West Virginia did.
The hard work of leaving home to go somewhere else, to Finland, South Africa, Argentina, the UK, India, Mexico, Morocco, and Singapore, and to learn and to educate.
You’re here today because, as some of the best teachers in our country, you’ve undertaken the hard work of crossing borders, borders so often defined by bodies of water—rivers, lakes, and oceans—the real and imaginary waters you troubled.
But in crossing those borders, in creating these powerful teacher exchanges, you have actually changed the map of education. It’s no longer rigidly here or there, us or them, my students and their students.
And that, above all else, is the genius of Fulbright. For the past sixty-five years, this program has been a large scale, complex system of making new maps of the imagination, new worlds of exploration and connection—or as the work of Distinguished Fulbright Teacher Lilliana Monk explores—new human geographies of friendship, collaboration and understanding.
In a world in which most people—even in the 21st century—will never live outside the country they are born in, all of you have helped find new ways to unite us
Whether it’s looking a group performance in mathematics classrooms in Finland, learning about biodiversity in South Africa, or learning to develop communication skills through art and technology in Argentina, you have all been making new maps of what we know, who we know, and how we know.
Dr. Markram is turning four vending-machine sized black boxes in a basement at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology into a virtual networked equivalent of the human brain.
This is a map of unprecedented scale. As Jessica Pritzker knows from her Fulbright teacher exchange work on neuroscience, the brain has nearly 100 billion neurons. That’s a total of 100 trillion connections. Dr. Markram’s has enlisted 150 institutions around the world to help with the mapping, that’s how massive the project is.
It’s important work. It’s exciting work. It may even be unsettling work. What will be revealed to us about the nature and mechanics of how we think, how we learn?
One thing I do know, is that this kind of quantitative scientific knowledge will never replace the emotional, personal, creative and practical intelligence that are at the heart of teaching- the map-making that helps point us to the future as prepared as we can be and as thrilled as we should be.
It’s hard to find the right words for what teaching is. Beware of anyone who reduces it to test scores or evaluations or even algorithms and neural maps.
I’ve looked to metaphors—to water, that gets wonderfully troubled, to the natural boundaries, often formed by water, we have needed to cross, to maps that help us find our way, and, yes, to angels hovering over it all, just to remind us that there will always be something mysterious, something otherworldly about the skills that teach us to comprehend, protect, treasure and live peacefully in this world.
It’s the wonderful and urgent mystery of what you do that we’re here to honor today. And it’s a privilege to say thank you.
Remarks on Poetry and Politics Cairo University Cairo, Egypt March 30, 2013
Do you know what a jasmine flower looks like? If you close your eyes, can you see it? Can you smell it?
It is the ancient smell of calm. The cool beauty of the night. You know the jasmine flower only opens after dark, when the sun sets and the temperature drops. The small white flowers look like the stars painted on the ceilings of the tombs of pharaohs.
The ancients knew the power of jasmine. The name is Persian. It means “a gift from God.” The Persians, the Greeks, the Egyptians all knew it had healing properties.
Studies show that inhaling the molecules of jasmine oil transmits messages to the limbic system of the brain, the area involved in controlling emotions.
Have you seen jasmine flowers picked for oil? I was able to visit a place last year in upper Egypt where this is done. The flowers are gathered at night when the odor is strongest. Workers must pick the flowers carefully because they are so delicate. They are laid out on cotton cloths soaked in olive oil for several days and then extracted, leaving the true jasmine essence. More than five million flowers must be gathered to produce one kilo of what is known as “pure jasmine absolute.” The power of jasmine is as strong as it is rare.
This week, I have talked to many mothers fearful for their children in these troubled times. Jasmine is the flower of motherhood.
And this week, I was reading the poems of your fellow student at this great university, Mohammed al-Ajami. As you know, al-Ajami is in prison in Qatar, his home country. He is in prison for writing a poem called “Tunisian Jasmine.” Last month, his life sentence was reduced to 15 years.
15 years for a flower. 15 years for a human life as delicate as a flower. 15 years for poetry, the flowers of language, the intense fragrance of words.
I want to talk today very briefly about words and their power.
I want to talk about the strange bedfellows that poetry and politics make. They are most definitely relatives. But their relations are what we might call in the United States “a dysfunctional family.”
Imagine that for a moment. Who lives outside history? Such a profound and provocative question. But even if we were to accept that some people are largely spectators to dramatic political events, far from protests or Tahrir, are they really outsiders? Who decides inside and out?
The poet Andrew Joron wrote an essay called “The Emergency of Poetry,” which is a play on the title of a famous poem by the great American poet, Frank O’Hara, “Meditations in an Emergency.” O’Hara wrote that poem in 1954. There was no political emergency in his life in America, in New York in 1954. In fact, he tells us in the poem that there is only the emergency of his eyes being the wrong color, that he is bored, that he is full of erotic possibility.
But are these not emergencies?
Perhaps the most famous lines in O’Hara’s poem are: “I am the least difficult of men. All I want is boundless love.
That sounds exactly like most poets I know: I am perfectly reasonable. I only demand everything. Right now.
In his essay about poetry and emergency, Joron asks a question that always gets asked—what good is poetry in a time like this? He rehearses two arguments—that poetry is politically useless, so it is free. Or that poetry can expose ideologies and speak truth to power, give a voice to the powerless and be a call to action, to counsel and console.
And then, of course, he discusses all the arguments about this. Why is that kind of language “poetry?” Is it really any different from a good speech?
When Barak Obama was first running for President, his eloquence was striking to many people. But it also made some people wary.
Another American poetry critic, David Orr, tells a story about one particular campaign event where this skepticism came out. There was a union boss in Ohio, an advocate for factory workers who supported Hillary Clinton instead of Barack Obama. At a campaign rally he criticized our future president, “Give me a break! I’ve got news for all the latte-drinking, Prius-driving, Birkenstock-wearing, trust fund babies crowding in to hear him speak! This guy won’t last a round against the Republican attack machine.”
And here’s the point: “He’s a poet, not a fighter!”
As Orr explains, there are two assumptions here: Poetry is passive and spoiled, out of touch and doesn’t know how to fight or get things done. Politics is active, messy, aggressive. It’s a fight. It’s like war. And yet, those assumptions always seem to get confused.
Even politicians speak about how great moments in public life are great because they are “poetic”: the Gettysburg Address, Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. And of course, at other times, like that union official, they dismiss poetry as frivolous, the words of the weak.
Both politics and poetry are actually all about talk. Think of how much political talk you hear in this country! It’s tempting to think that this dependence on works makes poetry and politics quite alike. Both are about rhetoric and persuasion and both make people listen carefully to hidden means, to subtleties. And both live in the life of the mind more than the life of the body. Or do they?
It is, of course, bodies that are summoned to the authorities. Bodies that face tear gas. And it is poet Mohammed Al-Ajami’s body that is in prison.
David Orr reminds us in his essay about poetry and politics that in the English literary tradition, two poets stand out for their engagement in the debate about poetry and politics: the romantic Percy Shelley and the wry W.H. Auden.
And then Orr quotes Auden, but a lesser-known passage: “All poets adore explosions, thunderstorms, tornadoes, conflagrations, ruins, scenes of spectacular carnage. The poetic imagination is not at all a desirable quality in a statesman. In a war or revolution, a poet may do very well as a guerrilla fighter or a spy, but it is unlikely that he will make a good regular soldier, or, in peacetime, a conscientious member of a parliamentary committee.”
But as David Orr explains, Auden is actually agreeing with Shelley on something fundamental: both seem to think that poetic thinking is apocalyptic thinking, that poetry thinks big and urgently, about dramatic change, about absolutes, about utopias and possibilities for grandeur or despair. Poetry is not comfortable with the ordinary.
Of course, Shelley thinks this tendency is thrilling: it’s good, it’s something we should trust about the creative imagination, it’s something we should demand. I think I hear Shelley in Mahmoud Kourani demand that poets live in history, that they make history.
Auden is much more wary. He’d like poetry to be comfortable in the ordinary, to be accepting, to be quieter, to be observant, to be interested in weakness. To express Frank O’Hara’s kind of emergency: the need for boundless love.
But both Shelley and Auden believe that throughout history, the poetic impulse has tended to be grand, romantic, apocalyptic, dramatic, making large claims about how the world is or should be. Both believe that this is essentially how poetry works.
And this is how poetry can be like politics, when we think of politics as something more than legislating, as something about a vision. Every kind of politics—absolute, revolutionary, or just routine and legislative—has a vision behind it, a set of beliefs—“I have a dream!”—that rallies its supporters. And every politics, revolutionary or conservative, has its poets, poets who mirror the values of their community.
But here is where the complication comes in, here is where the family relation between poetry and politics becomes dysfunctional. And here is where we find that it’s often so difficult for different families, with different politics and poetries, to understand one another.
In America, the poetry that I write, the kind of poetry that most people write is lyric poetry, poetry that has heard Auden’s skepticism about grand claims and large voices. The lyric poem turns inward, it tries to create an entire world out of the inner life of the poet, a solitary, meditative voice, a voice of solitude, a voice of escape, a voice that resists the loudness of the world. It is a voice that David Orr wonderfully describes as “insisting on privacy.”
How has this happened to American poetry?
Orr thinks it has something to do with the individualism inherent in the habits of democracy. He quotes the famous French student of the early American experiment in democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville. Tocqueville was very wary of ways democracy can weaken communities, fray our connections to the past: “Not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants, and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone, and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.”
In truth, that does sound a lot like America at our worst, and a lot like poets I know. We feel alone, alone in the crowd of confusions and ambivalence that make up modern life in a wealthy consumer society. And it sounds a lot like what frustrates Mahmoud Kourani about writers “living outside history.”
If it is true, if our lyric poetry is in some important ways a function of centuries of individualism, if poets turn inward and seemingly away from politics, then why, Orr asks, does this very poetry constantly seem to insist on itself, insisting on the poet’s right to some privacy, to some alternatives from overwhelming noise, vulgarity and boredom? If we are insisting, we must be insisting to someone, unless we are only talking to ourselves.
And that creates a struggle for American poets, because we wonder whether we really have an audience. We expect people to read us privately rather than to hear us publically. We do not have a moment of revolution where people gather to hear poetry to give them the strength for the fight of politics. We reach one person at a time.
Are we irrelevant, powerless? Where is the American jasmine?
The struggle to get out of ourselves, to be engaged in something larger—the struggle for community, the struggle to be inside history—that’s one of the great struggles of American culture, of the American soul.
Perhaps, this is the opposite of the soul of the poet in revolution.
Even if we Americans can have the desire of Shelley in our bones, we live in the politics of Auden, a politics not in upheaval. True, it is a politics that is often angry and divisive, but it is one that exists more in stale legislative stand-off than in the urgent sounds of change, danger, life in the street.
It seems to me, though, that there is a place for art, a place for poetry that can be found in the meeting of these different souls. If we need to turn up the volume and break in to the solitude of the American soul, does it also make sense for artists in times of revolution to turn down the volume, to see also the solitude? To find something at least acceptable about moments stolen away to breathe in quiet, outside history?
I can’t answer that. I even propose it as a question with great hesitation. I am not living the revolution you are living.
But what I do know is that all of our poems—yours and mine—will take on lives, or not, without us. The political poem may later be read as a love poem. The love poem transformed into a political emergency.
Andrew Joron, whom I spoke of earlier, said that poetry in times of emergency is probably not the poem of anger or solitude, but the poetry of lament.
“The lament, no less than anger, refuses to accept the fact of suffering. But while anger has some urgent reason, something right now to cause it –He says the lament has a universal cause, and rises undiminished through millennia of cultural mediation. Unlike anger, the lament survives translation into silence, into ruins.”
I’d like to end with two poems—old and new, Western and Arab—to look at two forms of lament, that might express he possibility of a meeting of minds, a space where different kinds of poetic souls understand and accept one another.
First, the famous English sonnet by Wordsworth, who warns against the danger of the materialist, self-absorbed soul that is too content in the world as we find it:
THE world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.—Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.
Wordsworth offers, in the beauty of this lament, poetry as a modest alterative to “getting and spending.”
I think this rhymes with another lament for and of the present moment, a lament that is formed in the question and hopeful definition of poetry that we can find in an excerpt from Saadi Youssef’s Nostalgia, My Enemy:
Is poetry merely a reading of life?
I believe it is deeper and more vast than that.
Humans have numerous ways of reading their life, including science and politics.
But poetry is a different matter.
If science and political struggle promise and prepare for another time, poetry is current, direct and immediate. I mean that poetry’s ability to read, participate, and change is more effective and deeper in the veins.
Poetry is transformative.
On the street, in our hearts, quiet or loud, urgent or anxious, populist or solitary, on this much we can agree: our lives must be transformed. That is what good poetry does, what all good art does. And, in fact, it is a pretty good definition of what politics should be: a way to transform our lives.
So here we are in the dysfunctional family where both are necessary, both are related, both so often at odds, so full of heat and anger. Perhaps what we need is some jasmine, some cool weather, the darkness and stars, a sweet scent that can make us remember what’s beautiful, that magically, even in emergencies, can make us calm.
Essay on the winner of the 2013 TED Wish Prize TED/The Huffington Post Long Beach, California February 27, 2013
Last night, as I listened to famed educator Dr. Sugata Mitra speak at the TED Conference, I thought about the impossible. Mitra had just won TED’s 2013 Wish Prize: $1million to do something powerful, dramatic, profound to make the world a bit better and to inspire broad, grassroots participation across the globe.
Dr. Mitra was talking about children. He was describing some experiments he’s done that led him to develop SOLE—self-organizing learning environments. The idea came out of Mitra’s thinking about a critical paradox in education: how difficult it is to find good teachers where they are needed most, in low-income and rural areas where people are too poor and the neighborhoods too dangerous, too out of the way to attract the necessary educators. It’s not only difficult, it’s often impossible.
That got me thinking about something else Arthur Clarke said that I love to quote: “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.” And that’s what Mitra believes we must do to to make the radical changes necessary for education in this new century: we must venture into the impossible. That’s what Mitra’s experiments did, and out of the impossible, he came back with the incredible: an approach to education in which children learn to teach themselves, in small groups, everything from English to brain science. A little speculation, a little science fiction, a lot of dedication—and suddenly we go from paradox to the possible.
In a world of cynicism and defeat about education, with reduced budgets and restricted approaches to learning, where innovation is too often kept at arm’s length by lotteries and districting, Dr. Mirta’s SOLE idea emerged out of his famous hole-in-the wall experiments. It is an innovation that emerged out of Mirta’s almost child-like playfulness and quiet observation, a radical openness to just watching poor kids and listening to them to see what they did on their own with computers—but without assumptions, without vested interests, without teachers.
Some of our most interesting accomplishments today meet, like Dr. Mirta’s learning environments, at the intersection of technology and education: the MOOCs of Harvard and Penn, where 30,000 students, including a U.S. Senator, are studying modern poetry with professor Al Filreis; MIT, Harvard, and Berkeley’s collaborate, web-based learning initiative, EdX, is another. These online strategies are new, but have already accomplished much. However, with Dr. Mitra’s approach, we can finally begin to see a web-based learning system for children that is limited only by our questions and curiosity. The more children ask, the more they seek to learn, the more what Mirta calls a virtual “school in the clouds” can grow.
For all the newness of this approach, what interests me most is the history of Dr. Mirta’s experiments and the debt they owe to the thinking of one of the 19th century’s greatest educators: Maria Montessori.
While studying in Rome, Montessori isolated at a young age the biggest problem in education: the lack of focus on the student. As she said later, “No social problem is as universal as the oppression of the child.” Montessori also said, “Our care of the child should be governed, not by the desire to make him learn things, but by the endeavor always to keep burning within him that light which is called intelligence.” More than one-hundred years later, there are strong echoes of Montessori in the passionate and provocative philosophy Dr. Mitra espoused in his TED wish: that education should be less about teachers teaching and more about children learning—by teaching themselves and one another.
Mitra developed his philosophy by watching children in slums who had no teachers and still showed remarkable abilities to learn. He discovered what children already know: there are virtues in some cruel necessities. Children can teach themselves if we let them.
It’s a philosophy that’s actually being put in practice all over the United States and the world. In the U.S., educators like Geoffrey Canada in Harlem have renewed the 19th century’s spirit of innovative, self-directed education, creating classrooms that draw their energy on the freeflow of community, rather than the intense, rote question-and-answer classroom.
As Marie Montessori said more than a hundred years ago, education must be about keeping the flame of curiosity burning. It’s a powerful metaphor. And, in fact, we heard it at another TED Talk yesterday when Stuart Firestein quoted the poet W.B. Yeats: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” If that seems eloquent but too intangible when the issues of education policy and cost seem so complex and daunting, I think it’s worth thinking about in the simple terms of that old proverb about how it is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.
TED’s million-dollar prize will certainly light quite a few candles. But for each of us, it really only needs to be one candle at a time—one child at a time, whose curiosity we’ll take responsibility for nurturing. Forget all the testing and policy-making and top-down education factory building. Just one child, one flame. From each of us. And suddenly the sky will brighten, Mitra’s school in the cloud will billow with illumination. And the impossible might just become possible. We certainly need it to be.
Remarks at the Institute for International Education Annual Board meeting New York, New York January 28, 2013
I had just come down out of the mountains from a three-week trek in the Himalayas. It was early June, but the weather was so bad, the kind of small planes that had flown us in to the lower mountains couldn’t reach my trekking partners and me.
I had just come down out of the mountains from a three-week trek in the Himalayas. It was early June, but the weather was so bad, the kind of small planes that had flown us in to the lower mountains couldn’t reach my trekking partners and me.
A white-knuckle trip, but, as you can see, I made it. I took my first shower in weeks and back on terra firma at a more sensible altitude, I had my first cocktail. Who knew you could get a perfect martini at the Dwarikas hotel?
In my freshened state, and in the nick of time, I made it across Kathmandu’s chaotic unpaved streets to a gathering of Nepali Fulbright alumni celebrating the 60 anniversary of the program in their country. There was a long line waiting, hundreds of people who had come to greet the ambassador and me.
From each, a slight bow. Hands pressed in greeting. Namaste. And I smiled and did the same.
At the end of the line there was a small man in his late 8o’s. He slowly walked up to me. But when I bowed, he took my pressed hands in his own and I realized he was holding a frayed and folded piece of paper he wanted me to look at.
I unfolded the paper. It was a letter from 1953 signed by Senator J. William Fulbright congratulating this man on his award.
It is difficult to describe my emotions in reading the letter and holding that broad man’s hand. I am no Senator Fulbright.
But since I am chair of the Fulbright board, my signature does go on similar letters to the thousands of Fulbright students and scholars going to more than 150 countries this year.
The man could see I was deeply moved. He smiled and said four words that I have heard unceasingly in the year and a half I have been on the Fulbright board. He said, “Fulbright changed my life.”
Hearing that so often fills me with deep admiration for the genius Senator Fulbright had in creating this program. But it also gives me pause. Whatever we do, we can’t screw this up. Our job is to preserve this extraordinary legacy of international exchange and to extend the opportunity to countless more people. Their lives will be changed and they will change the lives of others.
You can think of a map of the world as a vast network of all these connected lives. A wounded but hopeful world – not flat, but more tightly-woven, more interdependent, more shared.
When I hear those words “Fulbright changed my life” I think of four other simple powerful words that President Obama often speaks when he reaches out to people in this divided time, “We’re in this together.”
But being in this together, sharing the world, changing lives – how does it happen? What’s the magic? How do we preserve it? Can we do it better?
I was just reading about a Fulbright scholar from the Ukraine, Lyudmyla Baysara, who has been doing work on how we learn other languages – a critical part of the Fulbright experience. Dr. Baysara draws on the work of two great social scientists and – Howard Gardner and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Gardner created a well-known theory of multiple intelligences, which explains how people learn things in different ways, that there isn’t one way to measure people’s abilities.
Csikszentmihalyi, a famous psychologist and himself a prominent Fulbright scholar, created the popular idea of “Flow,” which is the sense of attention and engagement in work that makes people happy and productive by putting themselves in new experiences, creating a balance between new challenges and skills we already have – stretching ourselves to our limits.
We know the idea by many names: flow, being in the zone, in the groove – doing something that requires such intense concentration, everything else falls away.
And when that happens, Csikszentmihalyi says we experience a kind of ecstasy – literally standing outside ourselves – participating in a reality that is so different from everyday life.
In other words, exactly what is meant when people say, “Fulbright changed my life.”
A New York Times reporter was doing a piece on De Kooning and asked to observe him painting. De Kooning told him to occupy the building across the street and watch him from there. The reporter did. And he waited there for two days.
Nothing happened. De Kooning didn’t paint. He sat in a chair and listened to music.
The genius of Fulbright is that we don’t just wait for people to find that state. The whole idea of the exchange of people and ideas is that they are thrown outside their comforts – a new language, a new city or village, new friends and colleagues, different weather.
And then extraordinary things happen.
Csikszentmihalyi has made a very interesting observation about how this works: “If you are interested in something, you will focus on it.” Obvious enough. But, crucially, he adds, “and if you focus attention on anything, it is likely that you will become interested in it.”
“Many of the things we find interesting are not so by nature, but because we took the trouble of paying attention to them.”
At its core, Fulbright is all about taking the trouble of paying attention. Looking at the larger world, encountering people, experiences, values, and traditions different from our own.
Csikszentmihalyi took his notion of “Flow” and worked with Howard Gardner on his theory of multiple intelligences and wrote a book together called Good Work where they argue that, “if the fundamentals of good work – excellence and ethics – are in harmony, we lead personally fulfilling and socially rewarded lives.”
Fulbright is good work. It is good work done by extraordinary people. Yes, they are fulfilled and rewarded. But because of their linkages across the globe, because of what they do on their Fulbrights, they fulfill and reward others too. As Gardner said at a lecture I attended, “I want my children to understand the world, but not just because the world is fascinating and the human mind is curious. I want them to understand it so that they will be positioned to make it a better place.”
Could there be a better way of expressing the critical role of international education and programs like Fulbright?
Fulbright changes lives. And the world gets a little better.
It’s a privilege to play a small part in that mission. And I am so grateful to our partners such as IIE who play a profound role in the success of Fulbright. There is much to do. The world is out there. And it is not waiting.
Remarks at the Fulbright NEXUS meeting on Climate Change Banff Springs, Canada Friday, November 9, 2012
So on my journey through turbulence, delays, lightning and then icy roads to get here, I couldn’t help but think it must be a wry climate scientists joke for all of us to be gathering in this rugged, Canadian Rockies winter wonderland, where it’s 8 degrees and snowing outside, to discuss…global warming.
I noticed that other guests in this lodge are gathered around fireplaces, laughing and drinking. But somehow I don’t see this group of climate scientists sitting very comfortably around the hearth, listening to the crackling of more carbon spewing into the atmosphere.
So I ask you to use your powers of imagination to conjure a fire for us to gather around—because I want to tell you a story. The story of a monster. The father of all monsters, in fact, according to Greek mythology.
His name was Typhon, the storm demon. The word means smoke, darkness. Typhon stole Zeus’s thunderbolts and transformed himself into the most destructive, fearsome monster in all of nature. Typhon had the scaled, coiling body and tail of a giant viper, with a fierce Schwartzenegger super-human torso that could suddenly heave itself up from the dust of a village or from the mild surf of a calm sea into a dark rage that would blacken the sky and touch the stars. Typhon’s back was covered in wings that whipped up vast, apocalyptic winds. His arms could quickly circle the world and suffocate cities. And the tips of his fingers were giant dragon-heads, spitting fire and ash. Lightning flashed from his eyes. The violence of his voice was deafening.
Recently, fierce Typhon fathered a little girl. Her name was Sandy. We’ll come back to her.
Over millennia, of course, Typhon has had countless children. The word typhoon comes from his name, and it has cognates in Arabic and Persian. But before modern storm forecasting, actual hurricanes were rarely given names, mostly because no one had the ability to see them coming. With advances in weather science, the urgency of keeping track of destructive weather systems during WWII gave meteorologists the idea of naming these storms.
1947 saw the birth of the first American hurricane child with a name: a boy, George. (There was another birth in 1947, by the way, that has been a much more creative, constructive force. The first Fulbright scholars went out into the world that year. You are joining a remarkable lineage, now mid-way through its seventh decade.) But back to Typhon’s children. Two years after George came the first girl, Hurricane Bess, named for First Lady, Bess Truman. I’m not sure how much she liked that.
Storm genders mixed for a few years, but starting in 1953—I guess you could say the beginning of the Mad Men years of meteorology—the guys with skinny ties started using only female name for hurricanes: that year alone saw Alice, Barbara, Carol, Dolly, Edna, down the alphabet to Tina, Vicky, Una and Wallis, for that seductive American who wrecked the royal family.
And this huge and growing dysfunctional family has worked its way sixty-some years down to ill-tempered Sandy.
What’s in a name?
Well, Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at Wharton, recently reported that:
Baby names that begin with K increased 9 percent after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. And names that start with A were 7 percent more common after Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
Berger says, “It wasn’t that people named their babies after the storms. (In fact, fewer people named their children Katrina and Andrew after each respective hurricane.) Rather, it was similar sounding names that spiked after particular storms.”
And then consider the cartoon in this week’s New Yorker Magazine showing a couple hip-deep in their flooded living room. The man says to the woman, “If they want us to take these storms seriously, they have to start giving them scarier names.”
There are jokes and there is seriousness behind the origin myths of storms, the names we choose to give what attracts and repels us, the stories we tell about things we struggle to understand. My quick mix here of mythology and meteorology, etymologies and cultural history is only meant to point to the obvious: science is not the language of everyday culture, even, often, for scientists. And because of that scientific facts alone have not and will not be enough to get us to comprehend or cope with the scale of the issues our planet faces, the clouds of crisis that with that sweet name Sandy, literally gathered around my hometown within minutes, when the power went out and put half of Manhattan into a week of darkness.
Let’s step back again to language of the Mad Men years, to 1959 to be precise. The seeds of the climate storms and changes that bring us here today go back to scientific debates that took powerful shape in 1959. In that year, two scientists provoked some weather in our intellectual discourse that matters significantly for how we think and talk about climate change – and climate change denial – and how we give name to things and ideas in a world where the children of Typhon increasingly rage wildly.
But Snow believed both cultures had rich knowledge to share, that the gap between them was bridgeable. He dedicated his life to that possibility. I hope our being here together is further dedication to that same conviction, that we can understand one another and that there are urgent things to say. Perhaps, though, the gap is not most urgently between us—not between the humanities and sciences. It is really more that all of us together must find the language to bridge the gap between science and the public imagination, between the dangers the world faces and the complacencies that fuel them.
We say that the Fulbright program fosters mutual understanding. And usually we talk about doing this by reaching across different cultures separated by geography. But there is also an urgent need for mutual understanding between different cultures that even share the same cities and towns and popular culture, but are divided by education, income, opportunities, histories of belief, habits of mind.
The urgency is difficult to overstate.
Since those two 1959 lectures—the first concerns about climate change and the blunt acknowledgment that smart people could not seem to talk to each other—since then, in 50 years, trillions of dollars have been spent in coastal development, with attendant deforestation, air and water pollution with millions of people pressed, often desperately, into flood zones or on the barren edges of growing deserts, while carbon dioxide emissions have doubled in the last decade, and sea levels have risen as much as five inches—five extra inches of water in the past half century for the children of Typhon to throw at us, while millions of others have no water at all.
The higher the water rises, the faster it flows because it faces less friction above the surface. So storm surges run inland faster and farther – drowning more of our kith and kin. The US Army Corps of Engineers calls this the “depth-damage function”: as the waters rise, the damage rises exponentially. My neighbors and I saw this with stunned surprise as Sandy “depth-damaged” New York and New Jersey with speed and ease that we were not prepared for.
Hardest hit will be primates, including tamarins, spider monkeys, marmosets and howler monkeys, some of which are already listed as threatened or endangered …Nearly all the hemisphere’s primates will experience severe reductions in their ranges, on average about 75 percent.
The problem is that climate change will catch up with mammals before they have the capacity to adapt. And because of human habitation, they will have nowhere else to move.
Consider human habitation itself. Consider it in just one small, tragic and beautiful place. Consider Haiti where I was last week with the Secretary of State and President Clinton to celebrate the opening of a sustainable power plant, new housing, roads and an industrial park.
It was a joyful occasion, but it doesn’t change the fact that Haiti, as I’m sure you’ve heard, happens to be directly in the path of a hurricane corridor. Each year, during the rainy season, it is battered by a rising number of tropical storms. In 2008, four hurricanes—Ike, Fay, Hannah and Gustave—struck Haiti within just 30 days. Talk about the children of Typhon. 1,000 people died. And 60 percent of Haiti’s crops.
And now this year. My own city is just beginning to pull itself out from the havoc and suffering and loss of Sandy. More than 100 dead. Thousands homeless. $60 billion of damage and counting.
In Haiti Sandy destroyed 70 percent of the country’s crops. Between drought, tropical storm Isaac and Sandy, 90 percent of Haiti’s crops have been destroyed by natural disasters this year.
Let’s bring this right into this room. I see lots of coffee cups. I’m not so sure how well our over-worked, underpaid, sleep-deprived world of the academy would be prepared to lose our coffee. I had my first cup at 4:30 this morning, which is, to be honest, very, very unusual for me. But my eyes focused pretty quickly as I sat there reading that 65% to as much as 100% of entire Ethiopian coffee could be wiped out in the next 75 yrs.
Despite Kyoto, despite the kind of crushing economic, social and historical costs that I’ve just touched upon-despite the risk of caffeine withdrawl—carbon levels are still rising; they are rising faster now than they were 20 years ago.
We’ve certainly had successes and can point, for example, to how Europe has dramatically reduced carbon production: 15% in the UK in the last 20 years. But unfortunately, carbon consumption in the UK is up almost 20%. The power is just imported from elsewhere. Meanwhile, three new coal plants a week are fired up in India and China. And meanwhile, almost 50% of US power still comes from coal.
And yet, according to Al Gore, in this election cycle in the United States climate change was mentioned less than any time since 1984. Until the final hours and Sandy, of course.
The 2012 election was supposed to be, was always described to us as, a “referendum” on President Obama—or, if you take an opposing view, a “referendum” on the policies and values of the Republican Party. Take your pick. Of course, in one sense, it’s a little redundant to say an election is a referendum because, well, yes, that’s what referendum means: a vote. Every election is a referendum on an incumbent’s policies. But in this election debate, people usually meant “referendum” as “indictment.”
But I want you to think about another part of the meaning of “referendum” that comes from its Latin roots: the word, in its gerundive form, also means “referring back.”
What I want to say is that I think we should think about Sandy in that way. In a powerful sense, Sandy has been our referendum in this election. She brought one of the most crucial discourses being conducted today back to the spotlight and the public forum. And what she brought back was certainly an indictment of how little we are doing to acknowledge, lessen and adapt to dramatic climate change.
As the great writer and environmentalist Wendell Berry has written, “Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.”
So this is an auspicious time for this second year of Fulbright Nexus collaboration into critical and creative ways to address climate change and energy needs.
Life on earth, in all its flowering, breathing, tempestuous variety is only sustainable if we keep our carbon emissions to under what? 350 ppm? 450ppm? More? We keep crossing one threshold of danger after another. The issue is not the number. The issue is now. It is our responsibility as scientists, lawyers, architects, politicians, and artists not only work to reduce these emissions, but to salvage what we can from the wreckage we have already caused.
This will require creativity. All of us must become curators and stewards of a diminishing environment. And it is our responsibility—whether scientists like yourselves studying ways to provide clean water, new bio-fuels, and other environmental risk reductions as the temperatures and seas inevitably rise—or writers like myself struggling to communicate what it is like to live on a planet that is so different from what future generations may know—all of us must do something. Together.
Today—or what’s left of it—is November 9th. It seemed so felicitous to be able to talk about bridging divides, creating mutual understanding, sharing urgent ideas for change, on this specific date. Because today is the birthday of the late Carl Sagan. No one worked to bridge the cultures of science and the popular imagination with more eloquence. Sagan wrote,
It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure things out robs the world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works?…It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it.
As if in answer to Tython’s wrath, which we have so dangerously fed, Sagan, that giant of science, a bard of our yearnings to understand the universe, asked urgently toward the end of his life that we work “to understand the world in order to save it.”
“Our obligation to survive and flourish,” he said, “is owed not just to ourselves, but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring.”
And we know that sprit of inquiry, even that eloquence, can break into political life too. It must. And we must bring it there. Senator Fulbright himself said, “With a little wisdom and foresight, surely it is not yet necessary to forsake life in the fresh air, and in the warm of the sunlight.”
By being here, you obviously agree. I’m so pleased to represent the Fulbright board, to bring greetings from President Obama and Secretary Clinton and to have the privilege of listening in on some of your wisdom and foresight this weekend.
Remarks to incoming U.S. Fulbright Scholars to Australia Thursday, August 23, 2012 National Portrait Gallery Canberra, Australia
At a meeting of the college faculty an angel suddenly appears and tells the head of the philosophy department, “I will grant you whichever of three blessings you choose: Wisdom, Beauty or ten million dollars.”
The professor doesn’t hesitate for a second and chooses Wisdom.
There is a flash of lightning, and the professor appears transformed. But she just sits there, sadly staring down at the table.
One of her colleagues finally whispers to her, “Say something.”
The professor whispers back, “I should have taken the money.”
I’m happy to say to the new Fulbright scholars gathered here tonight that we’re so glad you have chosen the fellowship money, however modest it is in comparison with your talents and intellectual ambitions.
As for the wisdom, we’re hoping that you’ll offer that to us. It’s certainly been the greatest pleasure, as chairman of the Fulbright board, to be literally startled into questions, fascinating ideas and extraordinary stories through my meetings with thousands of Fulbright students, scholars and alumni around the world.
So I congratulate you on behalf of the entire Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board. And I bring greetings from President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, who both believe so passionately in the power of Fulbright.
And let me thank the many partners in this great program, at all levels of the Australian government, within the world-class Australian university system and under the leadership of the Australian-American Fulbright Commission, chaired by Vice-Chancellor Stephen Schwartz and led by the tireless and wonderful Dr. Tangerine Holt. And thank you to my hosts and friends from the American embassy and consulates who have taken care of me all across Australia from Perth to Sydney, Ambassador Jeffrey Bleich, Deputy Chief of Mission Jason Hyland and their wonderful diplomatic team.
So here we are in the National Portrait Gallery. I love portrait galleries. They offer clues into how a country sees itself. Or how a certain official part of a country sees itself at a certain time and place. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if some government somewhere irreverently carved a slightly different name in the granite and called it the National Rogue’s Gallery? Or at least rogues and saints?
Australians from every corner are represented in this building: Officials in wigs (and I don’t just mean Dame Edna), workers in coveralls, scientists, socialites, business leaders and artists: the great, the good, the bad, the beautiful and the … not so much. The portraits here tell the stories of Australians by Australians, whether it’s a calm, elegant painting of the prime minister or the big, amorphous, blob-like sculpture you passed on your way in, which might also be a portrait of a prime minister, perhaps just after Question Time. The artist of the blob, James Angus, is, of course, a Fulbright scholar. And, come to think of it, you’d really have to call the color of it “Tangerine,” though our brilliant Commission director could never be portrayed without heat and motion.
A portrait is many things—a representation, a statement, an idealization, even an evasion, always an outright fabrication—but most of all it is a gesture, an incomplete effort toward an understanding of ourselves, where we’ve been and where we’re going. And as the great portraits here (and not here) remind us, a portrait gestures both toward the well-remembered and toward the forgotten.
And for that reason, portraits are always imbued with at least a bit of controversy. Nothing is fixed or final about them. None of them is the last word. I certainly hope that about portraits taken of me.
Some of the Americans in the room will remember, only two years ago the curators at our own National Gallery in Washington bowed to pressure and removed David Wojnarowicz’s Fire in My Belly, which was his video portrait of his religious upbringing. It was removed from exhibition because some people didn’t like what Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS, had to say, they didn’t like the kind of angry story his self-portrait told.
Or, down the street here in Canberra at the National Gallery of Australia, you can see Tony Albert’s powerful work about how people are portrayed by others – with the stereotypes, fantasies, misunderstandings and even malevolence that can happen when people want to take our pictures.
In his work, Albert collected a large series of kitsch souvenir ashtrays from all over Australia, metal, ceramic, plastic, all shapes and sizes. But when you look at them closely, you realize the images aren’t tourist maps or slogans or typical images of iconic destinations. The ashtrays are all stamped with portraits of indigenous peoples – and you suddenly get a chill realizing these ashtrays were deliberately made for cigarette butts to be stubbed out on the faces of the Aboriginal men, women and children. These were common, everyday ashtrays that many people had.
A portrait is always something of a controversy because it risks, but never fully offers, the truth. Whether idealized or actual, whether admiring or hostile, it is frozen and distilled, trying to capture what is never fully knowable. Who is that person? Who wants to know? And why?
We all know, usually much less drastically, but still urgently to ourselves, what it feels like to lose control over our image-making. A portrait is always something of a controversy because it risks, but never fully offers, the truth. A portrait risks the truth because people are always different from who we think they are or who they think they are.
But the alternative to the gestures of portraiture, to the attempts at bearing witness and telling stories about people, is silence, anonymity, disappearance.
That is the urgent meaning Oscar Wilde also intended when he wrote the now-cliched, emotional truth, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”
But in our age of indescribable narcissism – reality TV shows and the endless assault of people’s personal broadcasts through Twitter and Facebook and Flickr and YouTube – perhaps we’re at no risk of people not being talked about – or at least not talking about themselves.
All is bared. All is out there. TMI. Too much information. (I have a running joke with people in government about how often they use acronyms. But a consular officer told me that if TMI were a government acronym it would mean “Totally my idea.”) In any case, showing us supposedly everything 24/7 isn’t the same as telling the truth or even telling us a good and necessary story. The truth is hard to find.
And so, many stories are not told. Billions of people, critical ideas, endless discoveries and rediscoveries are waiting out there – as are endlessly subtle, brave, elegant and accurate ways of telling them, ways that just might not fit into 140 characters typed with your thumbs.
So, Fulbright scholars, we are actually very eager for you to talk about yourselves, to talk about others, when what you’re trying to share is something different, something urgent, something that will do good, even if it is just to wake us up from some complacency.
Taking new portraits of people and ideas and the world means taking the risk of disagreement, of debate, of difference.
As Senator Fulbright, the founder of this program, once said, “In democracy, dissent is an act of faith.” And here you are down under, in Oz, where, as that great Australian Clive James once bragged, “Democracy works better … than almost anywhere.” A good democracy is a great place for stories, for inner worlds and out, for seeing yourself in everyone else, for reverie.
The demoi of ancient Greece were bound into a single state not only by a legal system, but by a national literature of storytelling, of portraiture: Herodotus, Sophocles, Homer. The first image of the Iliadis a portrait of a man.
And, of course, portraits aren’t limited to the arts. Portraits are written, sung, and painted by science. Think of the archeological restoration efforts of our first images of ourselves in the caves of Lascaux or the new photograph from Mars last week shot by Curiosity – a portrait of the horizon, above which hover three tiny white lights: Earth, Venus and Jupiter—a reminder that, in the words of astrophysicist Neil Degrasse-Tyson, we’re only “a speck on a speck on a speck.”
Seeing pictures of ourselves can be humbling.
But science paints some essential portraits of us: from Darwin’s theory of evolution to that first famous photograph of the earth looking back from the moon, taken forty-six years ago today.
Like that amazing bite out of the globe hovering so fragilely in the black void over the curve of the moon, every portrait is a map, tracking a borderless place of undiscovered depths, uncharted areas of experience and understanding that will never be fully knowable. We will never exhaust the stories that need to be told, the experiences we need to document.
As Fulbrighters, you will have the obligation and the thrilling privilege to make unique portraits, stories, and maps of your journey—as did the over 300,000 Fulbrighters before you. And it very much matters that these are your journeys, your investigations, your stories. It is only the entire array, the interconnection of all your stories, that offers the rest of us some glimpse of accuracy.
Think of aboriginal Dreamtime, which the many tribes here still tell of in the “Dreamlines,” those songs that record the travel of the legendary gods across Australia as they sang out, in the words of the great traveler writer Bruce Chatwin, “the name of everything that crossed their path—birds, animals, plants, rocks, waterholes—and so singing the world into existence.”
A portrait can be a reverie.
As Chatwin wrote in The Songlines, one of the many, many great books about this country that have nourished me over the years, “Each totemic ancestor, while traveling through the country, was thought to have scattered a trail of words and musical notes along the lines of his footprints,” which not only mapped Australia, but wrote it into existence in the songs of those living there. “In theory,” he concludes, “the whole of Australia could be read as a musical score.”
I like the way a Warakurna indigenous artist put the same idea: “All the stories got into our minds and eyes.” Stories get inside us.
Let the stories of Australia get inside you, notice how these stories change you. Then you change them, make them personal and release them again. Or, as the much-mourned Ray Bradbury, that great, generous, novelist with an uncanny ability to see into our future, frequently said, “Pay it forward.”
Just keep in mind that we are only a speck on a speck on a speck. And, although all of our talents are limited, we learn far more than we teach. As another Fulbrighter, Rachel Smith, told me a few months ago, “Fulbright is not about changing the world. It is about sharing the world.” And, of course, where did she have her Fulbright? Right here in Canberra at ANU.
I’ve meant to thread together some themes of how we are connected, how great our responsibilities are to connect to others, to share with one another, in our complicated, troubled, but hopeful world.
So I leave you with what I hope will be a lifelong task: Make portraits and maps of the ways you experience this country, understand its songs, tell your stories and listen for stories you will find here.
Then bring all of it back with you. You didn’t get $10 million dollars, but we did choose you to go find wisdom. We will be eagerly waiting to learn what you’ll bring back home, your portraits, your self-portraits, and you.
Remarks to U.S. Fulbright students and scholars departing for North Africa and the Mideast.
Tuesday, June 26, 2012
Key Bridge Marriott,
When I walked home a few hours ago to write something to share with you tonight, I couldn’t help thinking about another night when the weather was just as beautiful—the kind of weather that gives you heartache it’s so lovely.
The night I was thinking of was just a few months ago. I was in Rabat in a place called Chellah in the hills on the outskirts of the city, overlooking the Bou Regreg River, which opens out into the Atlantic Ocean in the distance.
Chellah is the site of an ancient Roman port town called Sala Colonia, founded in about the year 40. The Romans abandoned the city less than 100 years later and then, sometime in the 14th century, a Moroccan sultan built on top of it. He built a mosque and huge minaret, a school and royal tombs.
Now it’s a public garden with this strange and wonderful mix of Roman and Moroccan, classical and medieval, solitary columns and overgrown arches, orange and olive trees, Arab mosaics and Latin inscriptions, the smell of lavender and a sea breeze.
But what you actually notice first about Chellah are its inhabitants. Hundreds of cats wander the paths and lie in the shade. And then there’s the air force: huge storks perched in gigantic nests of sticks and branches they weave together on the top of the minaret and telephone poles and the Roman columns.
It’s a site Dr. Seuss or Tim Burton or the writers of “One Thousand and One Nights” might conjure up. It’s definitely a place for storytelling.
I mention it because I need to tell you a sad story of that beautiful spring evening in Rabat. I was in Morroco with a group of Fulbrighters who were all studying and working and teaching in countries throughout North Africa and the Mideast. A group much like all of you.
And I’ll never forget walking down the 2000 year old decumanus maximus, which is always the main east-west road in any ancient Roman city, because I was listening to a brilliant, funny and charismatic young Fulbrighter who was telling me about her research on the struggle for women to enter the political process in Bahrain.
Her name was Kelly Dalla Tezza. Two days later, Kelly died in a car accident. She was a remarkable person.
I’d like to ask you to join me in a moment of silence to remember and honor Kelly and Bassel.
I don’t tell you about Kelly and Bassel to darken this occasion of celebration and thrill as you prepare to depart for what will be remarkable journeys, joyful stories, experiences that I hope you will carry far into old age.
I only tell you about them as a request: I want you to undertake your Fulbright with the same passion, intellect, personal warmth, modesty and curiosity that Kelly and Bassel had.
It is the same spirit the young novelist Ana Menendez had on her Fulbright to Egypt in the fall of 2008. Ana was there when President Obama was elected and she tells wonderful stories of the surprise and excitement people throughout the Mideast had to that election. You will all certainly have stories to tell of reactions to these elections: both the American and Egyptian elections—and the wave of change throughout this Arab summer and fall.
Ana Menendez sent me a note on Facebook just today to share with you. She wrote that with Fulbright,
“I don’t like to talk about ‘making a difference’ because it’s such a cliché and so paternalistic. But what I feel I did do was offer a complication to people’s somewhat simplistic view of what America is. (That I was a woman, with a Hispanic surname who also looked like them further complicated matters!)
And in return they did the same for me.
I always think of Camus when I travel. When you keep the individual in mind, it is very hard to fall sway to prejudice and abstract ideology.”
Keeping the individual in mind. That is why I am dwelling on the idea of telling stories—the sad and the joyful—the importance in keeping, sharing and telling your stories, your encounters with people.
The great American poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote, “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.”
When I once shared that quote with a writer in Dubai, he said to me, “It’s funny, a few years ago, a sixteen year old girl in Beirut said to me “I am made of stories, not atoms.”
The universe, each one of us. We are our stories.
The writer in Dubai participated in an organization called Haykaya, that is trying to revive the art of storytelling throughout the Arab world.
Long before “One Thousand and One Nights” was composed in the ninth century, skilled storytellers made their living gathering people to hear them in courtyards of small medinas or in grand public squares like Djemaa el-Fna in Marrakech.
The organization Hayaka believes that stories are “the reading of life,” not simply the reading of texts. Their fifth annual festival will take place in Amman in September. For those of you lucky enough to be nearby, I encourage you to look it up.
Yahya Rajel, a storyteller from Mauritania who has participated in Hayaka, has said with melancholy that he is afraid storytelling is being lost in modern life. He has said of the traditions from the Mauritanian desert, that “The wilderness is the ideal environment for a story, but people have no time for that now in the city.”
But whether you are an artist or an architect or a nano-scientist or a climate change researcher, you know that is not true.
Stories are made, stories are told every day, in the wilderness and in the city. Sometimes, they are just told differently. Sometimes—in our time—stories are made new.
I’ve been reading a story by a Brooklyn writer, EA Marciano who uses Twitter, Tumblr, Blogspot, and YouTube. And I don’t mean he just writes about them. He actually employs all of these platforms in telling the story.
Mariano’s different characters—with their different styles of speech and visual expression and plotlines—are developed in different social media.
As he’s said, “Twitter is rapid, spontaneous, and fragmented”; Tumblr is for thinking in pictures; and “Blogspot is for raw, aggressive rants.”
YouTube? Well, he says, “I mean, who isn’t making videos these days? It’s an incredible force that allows for the widest range of weird and awesome.”
“The widest range of weird and awesome.” That seems like a pretty good description of what I hope your Fulbright experience will be.
It’s not necessarily easy to tell good stories, of course. As Ira Glass of “This American Life” has said, “Great stories happen to those who can tell them.”
But you’re going to be at a huge advantage by having great material. And we want you to share that experience with us.
I know you’ll be overwhelmed and engaged and busy. As Emily Dickinson, one of America’s greatest conjurers of the weird and the awesome, admitted, ”To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else.” Maybe that’s why she wrote short poems.
But you can do always 140 characters. You can take a picture on your phone. Post to Facebook. Do haiku. Whether you use social media, mail us a postcard, write essays or send us a Powerpoint presentation, we want to hear what you’re doing, what you’ve done.
Whether you use social media or you mail us a postcard, we want to hear what you’re doing, what you’ve done.
Keep in mind what another Fulbrighter, Rachel Smith, told me, “Fulbright is not about changing the world. It is about sharing the world.”
Some economists and social theorists say this is actually a larger phenomenon, that instead of a consumer society we are moving to a “creators economy,” where people are starting to think less about ownership and more about sharing.
Now perhaps these theorists are wearing Panglossian rose-colored glasses. But I do want you to think of sharing as the heart of what Fulbright is.
Whatever your field, whatever your work and research and study, Fulbright is, essentially, a shared world of stories—of the thousands of students and scholars who have come before you, connected to you and all the Fulbrighters who will come after. And connected to all the colleagues and friends and even passing strangers you will meet in the countries where you’ll be living.
All those experiences, voices, pains, frustrations, discoveries, triumph. All those stories …
Fulbrighter Lauren Bohn who was in Egypt in 2011 has written very beautifully about this idea:
“Egypt’s story has at times seemed like an existential struggle between the future and the past.” But, “while photogenic revolutionaries grabbed the world’s attention, the country teems with a varied 80-some million people all their stories.
And all these stories matter, Bohn writes. Because the future is still being fought over, “the voices of different people tell us why ‘revolution’ is relative and why, like in any story, sometimes the most difficult part to conceive is the end.”
So I want to leave you with a request and a challenge. Prove that storytelling is very much alive—in the wilderness and the city, in medinas and souks and villages, among the cats and storks, up in the world’s tallest buildings, out in the slums and labor camps, on artificial islands lined with McMansions, along the fragile coast, in the sandstorms of the desert.
Tell us about the worlds you find and the worlds you make. Tell us your stories. Begin tomorrow or even tonight. You’ve got your whole lifetime to think how they’ll end.
Remarks celebrating the five-year partnership between the Fulbright program and MTV at the United States UN Mission, hosted by Ambassador Susan Rice, Permanent Representative of the United States to the United Nations
Tuesday, June 12, 2012
United States Mission to the United Nations
New York City, New York
Good evening. And thank you so much to my wonderful friend and our generous host, Ambassador Susan Rice.
In a room that’s full of creative talent, artists, writers, musicians, actors, political actors—even real people—all prominent on the world stage, I know it will be very easy to ask you to use your imagination for a moment.
I want to take you back. I want to take you back to summer.
So, first, imagine it’s not cold and raining like tonight. In fact, let’s put all the umbrellas in our drinks. Nice cold drinks in the middle of a long, hot summer. You’re in shorts. Your feet are up. And the music is on.
I want you to imagine it’s actually a specific date: August 1st.
It’s Thursday, August 1st, 1946. President Harry Truman is probably not wearing shorts. More likely, he’s wearing his trademark linen suit. Earlier in the day, he signed legislation to form the Atomic Energy Commission. Now, he’s lit his cigar, poured a glass of bourbon and is celebrating the real feat of the day: signing the Fulbright Scholarship program into existence. That’s 65, now almost 66 years ago.
Now, help me fast-forward this endless-summer reverie by exactly 35 years.
It’s still August 1st. But it’s a Tuesday. And it’s 1981. Diana Ross might be on the radio singing “My Endless Love” or maybe it’s Eddy Rabbit’s staccato thrum through “I Love a Rainy Night.” Or, if you were a farm kid like me, it might be the 10th time that day you were hearing Dolly Parton baring her … soul … for folks working “9 to 5.”
But forget about work and forget about 5pm. If you were just across the Hudson River from here in Northern, New Jersey and and you flipped on the TV one minute after midnight, August 1st 1981, you were lucky enough to hear—and see—a revolution.
First, you saw images of the space shuttle and Apollo 13 and a strange new flag being planned on the moon. And then you heard the pinched voices of those shiny suit and white sunglass-wearing British New Wavers, the Buggles. They were singing “Video Killed the Radio Star.”
I was 19 years old on August 1st, 1981. A few days away from my 20th birthday. I was nowhere near Northern New Jersey. But it took me no time to hear all about MTV.
There’s another 19 year old I’ve always wanted to ask about the night MTV was born. What was he listening to? I know he’d left after the exams of his first year of college to travel all the way to Indonesia to visit his sister and his mother.
That other kid just a few days away from his 20th birthday was Barack Obama. We’re the generation that became adults with MTV.
And maybe MTV killed the radio star but it gave birth to an extraordinary era of creativity, new ways of blending sound and image, of telling stories and sharing lives.
Telling stories and sharing lives. Fulbright and MTV have a lot in common.
And both started out small.
The Fulbright sent its first scholar, Derk Bodde, to China. 300,000 of the world’s best and brightest have followed. Nobel Prize-winners, heads of state, entrepreneurs, environmentalists, teachers, farmers, inventers, scientists, artists, athletes, and, of course, great musicians.
Today you can find Fulbrighters in all 50 states and 155 countries around the world, studying everything from disease prevention in South America to hip-hop in Mongolia.
And since that first day of 210 music videos with occasional blackouts when the VJs changed the tape, MTV has also expanded all over the world, in England, India, Brazil, Israel, Japan, Pakistan, Australia, Mexico and just about everywhere else, with programming that spans from music videos to reality television. And they’ve expanded into universities with mtvU, their an Emmy-winning 24-hour student-oriented channel.
Now that MTV broadcasts to more than a hundred million viewers around the globe, it seems hard to believe its first audience was just a few folks across the river in Jersey. I think it was really just the parents of Snooky and The Situation.
Seriously, what both MTV and Fulbright know, and why we work together, is that music—good music—has always given voice to what is otherwise silent. As Jimi Hendrix said, “Music doesn’t lie.” Music offers endless possibilities for telling our stories, sharing our joys and pain, especially when words fail us.
Senator Fulbright himself was passionate about music. He co-sponsored the American Folklife Preservation Act on 1976, which helped to continue a century-long project to to rescue the great American folk tradition that would have virtually been lost had he not intervened.
And the program that bears his name has supported great musicians from Aaron Copland to Renee Fleming to Philip Glass to now five years of MTVu Fulbright fellows, young American musicians and ethnomusicologists who have taken their Fulbrights in Indonesia, Mongolia, France, Mexico, Uganda, Malawai, and Cambodia. The list keeps growing, expanding the audiences for the voices and stories of countless communities into one linked, global community.
As Fulbrighter Philip Glass has said, “Traditions are imploding and exploding everywhere—everything is coming together, for better or worse, and we can no longer pretend we’re all living in different worlds because we’re on different continents.”
It’s one world. What do we do with that complicated truth? How do we live together?
Fulbright and MTV are committed to making the world safer, less hungry, less traumatized and divided, more empowered, more creative, more in tune with the sounds and rhythms of our diversity, more in tune with solutions to problems we can no longer ignore.
But there are far better people to tell you about that. And one of them is our great friend and partner, Stephen Friedman, the president of MTV.
Under Stephen’s leadership, MTV’s already record-high ratings have continued to soar. MTV ended 2010 with its biggest ratings gains in a decade and 19 of the top 20 cable telecasts excluding sports. And just last year their Facebook pages totaled 100 million likes. That’s a staggering number—and one that matches the number of screens they reach.
And Stephen, who, like me, was a director of the PEN American Center (the international writers’ human rights organization), has made raising social awareness central to his career—and to MTV. He and his team have expanded MTV’s long-standing commitment to powerful initiatives for justice and social change from their first efforts to increase youth voter turnout to their work with Harvard, Google, and the United Nations to raise awareness about the political situation in Sudan.
Stephen Friedman has been praised everywhere for his network’s “A Thin Line” campaign, which has combated digital abuse among young people. He was deeply involved in MTV’s award-winning “Fight for Your Rights” campaign and its ”Choose or Lose” political drive. Stephen created the Peabody Award-winning Half of Us campaign to raise awareness of mental health issues on college campuses. And there’s much more.
With Stephen at the helm, MTV has converted television and computer screens into outlets for all kinds of stories to be told, voices to be heard—powerful truths to be revealed.
Remarks on the 60th anniversary of the Fulbright program in Indonesia and the 20th anniversary of AMINEF, the American-Indonesia Exchange Foundation.
Sunday, May 6th, 2012
Happy Birthday to Fulbright in Indonesia!
I bring you greetings from President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton and the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, on which I am honored to serve.
The American-Indonesian Exchange Foundation turns 20 this year and the Fulbright program in Indonesia goes back 60 years, to 1952.
20 and 60. The Net Generation and the Baby Boomers.
Forgive those American analogies. This is my third short trip to Indonesia, but you can tell I wasn’t a Fulbrighter, can’t you?
So let me revise that just a little: I was reading in the Jakarta Globe about American pop stars who’ve performed in Indonesia … or are coming any day now. So at 20 and 60, Fulbright manages to be both a Dylan fan and one of Lady Gaga’s little monsters. I think we call that cultural diplomacy.
Our mood tonight is celebratory. But let me offer a few reflections about this extraordinary shared experience our two great democracies are engaged in.
I’d like to begin in 1952, when the first Fulbrighter from Indonesia left on a steam ship for America. He was a chemical engineer.
In 1952, the population of Jakarta was one and a half million people. It only takes five minutes in traffic to realize that was a tiny village compared with today. Now, Jakarta has more than ten times the people. Now, everyone idles in cars or careens around on motorbikes. But the first American Fulbrighters who came here most likely made their way through the streets pedaled around on Bekaks. I got to ride in them on some harrowing trips before they were banned a few years ago. In the 1950’s, they were everywhere. Imagine 160,000 exercycles out in the rain and heat. Indonesia participated in the Olympics for the first time in 1952. Surprising that it was for badminton and not for cycling.
1952, in the early years of independence, was a tense, complicated time in Indonesia. The first Fulbright exchange took place. But so did the Mutual Security Agreement with the US, which led to demonstrations and tanks surrounding the presidential palace and then the resignation of the Sukiman cabinet.
1952 wasn’t quiet elsewhere in the world either. The Big Bang theory was first proposed. The Diary of Anne Frank was published. The polio vaccine was created.
In England, Princess Elizabeth became Queen Elizabeth. In India, Sister Theresa became Mother Theresa. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela was arrested.
In the United States, Dwight Eisenhower was elected President and the Republicans gained control of the White House and both houses of Congress.
I certainly don’t want to interject politics into the evening, but I told one of President Obama’s campaign advisors that I was going to say that and he said I should tell you that 2012 will not be a Washington repeat of 1952.
Perhaps my favorite marker of that year comes from my own hometown of New York City: the first “Don’t Walk” signs were installed in 1952. People have been ignoring them ever since.
Fast forward to 1992 and we had a major advance in the Fulbright program with the establishment of the American-Indonesian Exchange Foundation. Congratulations to the AMINEF team for the extraordinary job they’ve done.
The European Union was founded. The Earth Summit was convened. The space shuttle took its maiden voyage.
The Queen of England was still Elizabeth, but in 1992 she started paying income tax. She hasn’t been the same since.
Bill Clinton was elected President in 1992.
And apartheid finally ended in South Africa.
Some things change. Dramatically. Some stay the same.
One thing that stays fundamentally the same is the Fulbright program’s commitment to bringing Indonesians and Americans together to share both our histories and our new ideas, to share cherished beliefs and to dwell respectfully in our differences, differences we only really understand when we live and work together, when we know the satisfactions of complicated problems solved together or simple moments of good food, good humor, good times together.
Tonight is one of those good times.
Fulbright students and scholars have shared the modest and the nearly-miraculous. 3,000 Indonesians and Americans between our two countries over the years. Stories of brilliance, success and accomplishment. Many of these Fulbrighters are with us here tonight. Please, let’s give them a round of applause.
Fulbright has been a success. But we must do more. Countries as large as ours, partnerships as important as ours in a world as fraught and complicated and interdependent as ours, must expand their efforts to share knowledge, to teach our children, to solve the challenges of poverty and pollution, to find common purpose in the diversities of our faiths and traditions, to work for peace.
And on this wonderful anniversary, I am happy to report that we are doing more. Both of our governments, both of our presidents have expressed strong commitment to growing the Fulbright exchange. It is a mutual commitment, a mutual partnership. And it is now one of the largest Fulbright programs in the world. This year, 300 students and scholars will participate in the exchange between the United States and Indonesia. That’s ten percent of the entire history of the program just this year.
So I have come to celebrate with you, to congratulate Michael McCoy and the dedicated staff of the American-Indonesian Exchange Foundation and to thank the many honored guests here tonight.
Let me give a special thanks to our hosts, Ambassador Scot Marciel and his wife Mae. If anyone embodies the values of the Fulbright program, it is Ambassador Marciel. I have traveled to many countries and talked to many ambassadors. No one is more passionate about expanding opportunities for education than Scot Marciel. He is truly an education ambassador.
Speaking of education, perhaps my greatest lesson as I travel and speak around the world about Fulbright comes from my wonderful mother. If she were here in the audience, she would be looking up impatiently at me right about now. “Remember,” she has told me when she sees me speaking, “there are three rules when you get in front of an audience. Be brief. Be sincere. And be seated.”
Remarks at the final gathering ofNEXUS, the Fulbright’s pilot program for innovation and collaboration in science and technology in the Western Hemisphere.
Monday, April 23rd, 2012
It’s a pleasure for me to be with this vanguard group of Fulbright scholars participating in our NEXUS experiment. And it’s an honor to join the directors of the Fulbright commissions throughout the Western Hemisphere whose imaginative thinking and leadership have made this new program a success. Welcome also to Fulbright’s many partners and the terrific team here at the State Department who have been provided wise and careful stewardship of NEXUS from the beginning.
I want to take you back in time this morning. To 1947.
Jackie Robinson signs with the Brooklyn Dodgers and becomes the first African-American player in professional baseball.
Marlon Brando stars on Broadway in A Streetcar Named Desire.
The first mobile phone is invented. The Polaroid instant camera.
The hologram. The transistor radio. Pilot Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier and Howard Hughes flies the Spruce Goose.
Alan Turing conducts the first experiments in artificial intelligence.
And the lights in the city of Philadelphia literally dim as the first digital computer is switched on. It is 100 ft long and weighs 30 tons. It has 18,000 vacuum tubes. The press calls it the Giant Brain. But its official name is ENIAC, the Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer.
ENIAC. That sounds like an acronym that could have been dreamed up here at the State Department.
Now something else happened in 1947 that millions of people have talked about ever since, and many say explained all this rapid advance in technology.
On July 8th, an alien spacecraft supposedly crash-landed in Roswell, NM.
Talk about foreign policy. That’s intergalactic engagement.
And there’s more. In 1947 the Marshall Plan was released. The UN voted on the partition that created the State of Israel. India and Pakistan were divided. The Voice of America began broadcasting behind the Iron Curtain.
Harry Truman gave the first televised presidential address.
And though the legislation was signed the year before, the first Fulbright scholars were named in 1947.
If scholarship programs were people, Fulbright would be getting its AARP card. Its senior citizenship papers. But as you twenty scholars participating in NEXUS know, Fulbright is just getting started.
Fulbright, as we’re going to hear over the next few days, is full of experiment and change. It’s feeling young and fit and trim and on the move.
Just like our Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who—you’ve probably guessed it by now—was born in 1947.
There’s a reason I want to take you back to the first year of Fulbright, to its promise for creating mutual understanding in a fraught, complicated world.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, the globe was in a state of rapid change and redefinition. There was science and there was science fiction. There was violence and there was diplomacy. There was fantasy and experiment.
In 1947, the Norwegian explorer and writer Thor Heyerdahl pushed off from the coast of Peru and floated across the Pacific for 101 days in his raft Kon Tiki—hoping to show that Polynesia could have been settled by inhabitants of South America.
Most scientists now think Heyerdahl’s theory was wrong.
But let me read you another theory that appeared in American newspapers for the first time in 1947. It’s headline read: “WORLD IS WARMING UP, SAYS PROFESSOR.”
KEW .YORK (A.P.).-Professor Hans Ahlmann of the University of Stockholm, a prominent geographer and glaciologist now on a lecture tour of the United States, says the world is getting warmer. All over the world, even in the tropics, the temperature is rising, he says, adding that the Arctic glaciers are melting so fast that if something does not happen to retard the rate vast areas of in-habited coasts and low-lying country then various sections of the world may become flooded.
The more things change—well, they DON’T stay the same, do they?
The people in this room know the urgency.
You look at climate change and see that it demands solutions. You look at sustainability issues in a world of seven billion people and growing and you see the need for new energy sources and housing and food and health care and education and rewarding work.
At Fulbright, we talk frequently about innovation. It’s interesting that if you look at the history of that word, it doesn’t mean just making new discoveries. The Latin roots of innovation are two words—novus, which is new—coupled with in, which means new within the old.
Innovation is about the old being altered, getting renewed. It’s a subtle but powerful idea. The past isn’t discarded, it’s built upon. Innovation is rooted in the practical, it is grounded in the here and now – taking what we have and changing it, making it better, more useful, adapted to new needs.
Like the projects that you’ll discuss the next few days— turbines that usually need high winds being adapted to create ones that can work with micro winds, existing transportation networks that are changed to work more efficiently, present health care models that are being improved upon for immediate results.
That sense of the practical is what NEXUS is all about. And it makes me happy that nexus is not an acronym, but it’s also a powerful Latin word with practical meaning. Nexus is the active process of binding or joining together.
Here we are at a nexus of innovation in the Western Hemisphere. People from many disciplines, many nations collaborating. You began in Buenos Aires. You met again in Mexico. And now we are here in Washington, just one step in an ongoing process, one moment between 1947 and the future.
We on the Fulbright board have been with you at each of your meetings. Our former board chair, Anita McBride was at your first meeting. Ambassador Guerra-Mondragon was with you in Mexico City. All of us are eager to hear your progress and your ideas about this program over the next few days.
For us, Fulbright cannot and will not stand still. The entire program must innovate to meet the vast changes in how we teach and learn and share knowledge in the 21st century.
From the Arab spring to the explosive growth in Asia, from the crises in Europe to the rapid development of our own hemisphere, this program is global in ways that its founder could barely have imagined when that first group of Fulbright scholars arrived in 1947.
Some by ocean liner, some by train, perhaps a few on their flying saucer. Even with Fulbright scholars, there are some things we may never know.
Introduction of Fulbright Board member Christie Gilson
at the Fulbright International Students Enrichment Seminar
Thursday, April 19th, 2012
For any of you who studied classical Greek—or maybe a few who struggled through the very basics like I did for one semester freshman year—those are the two words that gave this city its name.
Philadelphia. City of Brotherly Love.
You’re in Philadelphia this weekend to study American democracy.
The Greeks may have invented democracy. But America begins here. The first Continental Congress met here, the Declaration of Independence was signed here. The American constitution was written here. Rocky Balboa did his training runs up the steps of the museum here. And—now I’m going to date myself—but Dick Clark, who died only yesterday, created one of television’s all-time greatest hits right here in the City of Brotherly Love: American Bandstand, which introduced audiences worldwide to the sounds of everyone from Tina Turner to the Talking Heads.
But enough about the guys already. Philadelphia is Betsy Ross and Louisa May Alcott. It’s Grace Kelly and Tina Fey. And it’s all the women here in the room tonight. So let’s put our hands together and cheer for Philadelphia as the city of Sisterly Love!
If you think of Fulbright as a big international family—8,000 of the best and the brightest in 160 countries and all 50 states– well, then you might think of the people the President appoints to the Fulbright board as the big brothers and sisters watching over the program. The really cool big brothers and sisters, of course. The ones you really loved.
Seriously, tonight, I have the pleasure of introducing you to the newest Fulbright board member, Dr. Christie Gilson.
Dr. Gilson brings a unique voice to our board. She herself is a Fulbrighter. She was awarded a Fulbright in 2006 to Hong Kong and she conducted research on higher education for students with disabilities.
The subject of disability is a personal one for Dr. Gilson. She is blind. She is, in fact, the first blind member of the Fulbright Scholarship Board.
Bringing a rigorous, sophisticated and compassionate understanding to the study of disabilities and to the methods and practice of education for people with disabilities—this has been Dr. Gilson’s life work. She’s known across the world for her pioneering approach to disability studies. And she is known for her eloquent advocacy of diversity, her determined commitment to social justice.
Dr. Gilson is an assistant professor of Education at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, only a little over an hour from here. She also teaches English to blind adults in China, connecting with them over the internet. And she has mentored youth with disabilities in Germany, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Spain, Taiwan, and the United States.
She’s taken her studies everywhere, and she’s made everywhere her study. That quality seems to be quintessentially Fulbright.
And tonight, everywhere includes Philadelphia. It is particularly compelling to have this leader in disability studies here in the city that gave the United States its founding documents.
Why is that? Well, how many of you know who Stephen Hopkins was? A lot of people signed the Declaration of Independence in this city, but many names we never hear about. We know Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, John Hancock, and others, but 56 people signed that original, history-making document.
From Rhode Island and one of the founders of Brown University, Hopkins was much loved by the other Founders for his friendship and camaraderie. John Adams told the story that after the long days of working on the Constitution, with blackflies and heat and dust plaguing Philadelphia – and few baths and no air-conditioning—Hopkins would gather his compatriots around and pour himself some “Jamaica Spirit”—some rum—and then he would regal all those men in wigs with what Adams said was “Wit, Humour, Anecdotes, Science and Learning.”
Now I’ve learned that Dr. Gilson doesn’t like rum. She loves chocolate. But she definitely has the wit, science and learning. And she also shares with Stephen Hopkins something else: the challenge of living with a disability.
It turns out that Hopkins was born with cerebral palsy. Imagine what an astonishingly difficult condition that would be to live with in the 18th century.
When Hopkins signed the Declaration of Independence, some of the Founders evidently said, with some impatience, that he had the worst handwriting in America.
Hopkins responded, “My hands may tremble, but my heart does not.”
Dr. Gilson—and all of us—are here because of that kind of brave determination, that wisdom, that grace. Dr. Gilson’s work, her strong character, her motivation to make the world a better place, and the untrembling heart that drives her—in a minute you will experience how extraordinary these are, how remarkable she is.
The founder of this program, Senator J. William Fulbright, liked to say something that applies to Stephen Hopkins and applies to Dr. Christie Gilson: Sen. Fulbright said, “We must dare to think unthinkable thoughts.”
That’s your job as Fulbrighters. To be like Stephen Hopkins, like Christie Gilson. With untrembling hearts, think the unthinkable, do the undoable.
But, right now, I ask you to witness the unstoppable—and welcome Dr. Christie Gilson.
Remarks at the Fulbright International Students Enrichment Seminar
St. Louis, Missouri
Thursday, April 12th, 2012
I’m originally a farm boy. But tonight I want to talk to you about cities.
Jerusalem. Belfast. Beirut. Mostar. El Paso. Berlin. Rome. Johannesburg.
Who here has lived in or visited any of those cities?
So you know what it’s like to inhabit a city that has been divided. In many of these places, the divisions were—or are—physical. The walls and barbed wire, the watchtowers, the enforced ghettos, the guns, the rations—these are ordinary facts that millions of people wake up to, the violence of everyday living.
And there are also the divided cities whose barriers were made by laws and tradition, by the barricades of language and the concrete of prejudice that sets hard in the heart.
This very city, St. Louis, in the heart of America, has had those barriers.
(One of the largest race riots occurred in East St. Louis by Jacob Lawrence)
And, yet, it has had a history of remarkable people who have worked to break them down, slip under them, float over them. As the old proverb goes, you show me a mile-high fence and I’ll show you a ladder that’s a mile high and just an inch more.
St. Louis is often referred to in the media as one of the most divided cities in America—divided between city and county, divided racially, economically, divided even in its beginnings, back to when Missouri was first admitted into the Union as a slave state.
This weekend, you may hear a lot about two people who helped bridge this divide. One is a great American, one of Missouri’s most famous native sons, even though the reason we know him is because Missouri didn’t want to count him as a son. They said he was a slave. Dred Scott.
Dred Scott refused to believe that he was not a son of Missouri. He refused to believe he was not an American citizen. He refused to believe America didn’t believe in itself.
Dred Scott refused. He went to court to voice that refusal. And he changed America. Imagine being a slave in the 1850’s and believing the justice system could work fairly for you. Dred Scott sued his so-called “owner.” Whe he lost and she died, he sued the inheritor of her estate—and the supposed inheritor of Scott himself and his family.
Scott’s case eventually made it all the way to the Supreme Court where, in a ruling tampered with by the newly-elected President James Buchanan, the Court ruled 7-2 against Scott.
The Court said Dred Scott was not a man. They said he was not an American. They said he was property. As Chief Justice Taney wrote: slavery was now forever “beyond politics.” It was a legal fact.
But what’s that saying? Facts can be stupid things. Particularly when they’re wrong.
Settled questions often means someone has been silenced. Someone settled on one side and someone settled—shoved, corralled, divided—on the other.
The work of democracy is, in fact, the work of unsettling us. Democracy puts us all together in the honest difficulties of trying to live amidst one another, freely. And democracy is unsettling because it demands that we acknowledge that fundamentally we are all politicians, we are our own legislators. We are what the Athenians, those great experimental democrats, called the polis, the city. And you don’t need to be a New Yorker to know that nothing is settled in the city. The city never sleeps.
Martin Luther King, Jr. so eloquently told us, and President Obama has so eloquently reminded us, the history of the American people isn’t settled. Whether that history comes originally from Addis Ababa or Athens, St. Lucia or St. Louis, American history, American public life is a journey along an arc of progress. And that arc bends toward justice.
The arc is long, but because it’s unbroken, Dred Scott was not silenced. His voice reaches across time, answered by a chorus of other voices that praise and honor and agree with him. Dred Scott’s unsettled, unsettling voice becomes a common voice, a voice that in all its registers speaks hope.
That’s what the Fulbright is about, what the United States in partnership with all our global neighbors is about: a common voice, an unsettled voice. From our divided cities, a shared city, a shared belief.
All of you here came from around the world to be here, to study, to learn alongside women and men of countries and creeds and histories different from your own. It’s wonderful, but, strangely, still uncommon.
Now, I was sitting at my kitchen table while I was writing about the voices and stories and divisions and shared beliefs along this arc of history. And I was thinking about coming here - to St. Louis and the great Gateway Arch. And I started thinking how much would I have to twist things to get from “arc” to “arch”? From Dred Scott to Eero Saarinen. From St. Louis to Helsinki and back – and how would I do that before the keynote speaker got impatient and jumped up to grab the mic?
And I realized—I was actually sitting at a Saarinen table!
Of course, it’s moments like this when I realize it’s a very good thing they don’t actually give poetic licenses because mine would be revoked.
But I promise you, there I was sitting at my Saarinen table having cereal. I’ll post a picture to prove it—and I realized there’s only one obvious way to get from arc to arch. And it’s the reason we’re here. It’s Fulbright.
Sen. Fulbright started this extraordinary experiment because he wanted to bridge divides. This former segregationist senator from Arkansas—who was, in fact, born right here in Missouri—found a common voice with Dred Scott, with Martin Luther King and many civil rights leaders. He even found a common voice long ago with a young woman in Little Rock, Arkansas—our current Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who leads and champions the Fulbright Program
Okay, that’s the arc, but the arch? Helsinki? Saarinen? Well, he wasn’t a Fulbrighter himself, but it turns out that an entire generation of Fulbrighters studied under Eero Saarinen.
And when St. Louis and Helsinki, where Saarinen was from, noticed that a relationship had been built between the two cities, the Sam Fox School at Washington University in St. Louis started to bring in more Fulbrighters from Finland to study architecture here—in fact more than 150 architecture students, of which Fulbright scholars make up a large portion, have come to Washington University in the last ten years.
And big numbers going the other way too. As a professor at Washington University said, Helsinki may be thousands of miles away, but you’d think it was next door.
You don’t get next door in a divided city. You don’t talk with your neighbor across a wall. You don’t share the journey of politics together when you don’t share even the same side of the street, when you don’t stand toe to toe.
There’s an old joke about the Finns: How do you know if a Finn is outgoing? The answer: he’s looking at your shoes instead of his own.
Healing the divided city is about looking at your neighbor’s shoes, it’s about seeing into your neighbor’s hearts and minds. And in our global community, your neighbor can come from almost anywhere.
I’m happy to be here tonight in St. Louis. Here with friends. Here in the Fulbright neighborhood. I can’t see your shoes. But I can see your eyes.
And I’d like to close with the words of another native son of Missouri. He’s more famous for living in Harlem, but he was actually born a century ago in a little town near here called Joplin. Joplin is a small city now and it has suffered terribly. Just a year ago, tornadoes ravaged through in an hour and killed more than 150 people. Joplin was ripped in half. But even in its quieter times, Joplin was divided, divided by race. And its native son started looking for words that could heal that divide. I’m talking about the great poet Langston Hughes.
I love Langston Hughes because his singular work somehow constructs a common voice. The magic of Hughes’s poetry is that he made it seem as if it could have come from any one of us. It speaks to something deep, that urge to reach out to a strange world an see something familiar—the shoes, the eyes, the heart.
There is a poem by Langston Hughes that had long been considered lost. It’s called “I look at the world.” It was found and only published in the last few years. I think it’s a perfect poem for Fulbright, a perfect poem for tonight:
Remarks at the Fulbright International Students Enrichment Seminar
Wednesday, March 28th, 2012
A few days ago, I returned from a very moving trip to Egypt. One of the privileges I had was the chance to teach some high school and college classes. I talked about the subject of poetry and politics, poetry and protest.
In one class, just so our conversation wasn’t all passionate and serious, I asked some University of Cairo students if there had been any good jokes about the revolution. They had several to share. I think with any subject that’s deadly serious, there’s usually some powerful humor that gets right to the truth.
My favorite joke was the one about the worried Army commander who went to Hosni Mubarak after watching the protests in Tahrir Square. “Mr. President,” he said, “Everything has come to an end. You should write a farewell speech for the people!”
And Mubarak answered, “Oh? Where are they going?”
Where are the people going?
Riffing on Martin Luther King, Jr., President Obama has so eloquently said that the arc of history bends toward freedom. On a planet of seven billion people, of many nations and languages and beliefs, there are many arcs of history, there are many journeys toward freedom.
Sometimes, the curvature of the earth on the horizon looks like a slow, graceful slope. Far away, but we tell ourselves we can get there, we can do this, with calm and gentle change. And sometimes, up close, the arc of history can seem like a confused, dangerous, twisted knot, that’s tangled and barbed, difficult to unravel.
One of the other great moments of humor in Tahrir Square was broadcast around the globe when cameras captured a weary man sitting on the ground, weakly holding up a protest sign. It said in Arabic, “Would you leave already? My hand is hurting.”
In Egypt, people’s hands continue to hurt. People told me their heads hurt with the complexities they face, with the cacophony of voices and competing interests and ideologies. Their hearts hurt with the suffering and the violence that presaged the revolution and that continues after it.
There are no easy answers. Always, behind the slogans, behind the marches, underneath the placards, however weakly held aloft, there are unanswered questions. There is struggle, there is sweat and sometimes blood, and always the arc of the journey toward something uncertain but hoped for.
One of our great Founders, the writer Thomas Paine, understood that exhaustion. He said, “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must … undergo the fatigue of supporting it.”
Or as I saw on a sign at Occupy Wall Street in New York, after a few months into the protest, when people started complaining about the encampment – the smells, the noise, the confusion:
“Sorry for the inconvenience,” the sign read, “we are trying to change the world.”
I love the signs and slogans of protest.
Another, that I saw at a Tea Party rally, said, “Generic Angry Slogan!”
And another that I saw on television at the John Stewart and Stephen Colbert protest as parody event here on the Washington Mall read: “We have no idea what we’re talking about!”
Of course, one of the great slogans of American protest is: Question Authority.
In the United States, we think of this coming from Vietnam protests. But it was first written by Benjamin Franklin who said he took it from Socrates. But it’s cropped up in the Tea Party Movement.
Which it turns out is full of Fulbrighters. I’ve recently been reading books by two of them:
And Elizabeth Price Foley, a Fulbrighter to Ireland, that great land of protestors and poets where my family is from, wrote a booked called The Tea Party: Three Principles.
One of the arguments Foley makes is that much of what the Tea Party is and does and stands for has been horribly distorted by the media. It’s interesting because, I have to admit, when I was Googling images of Tea Party and Occupy protests to look at their banners and signs, over and over again, the focus was on the cool, hip and clever signs at Occupy gatherings and the misspelled or factually inaccurate signs that reporters found at Tea Party protests.
It makes you wonder. It makes you question authority—the authority of journalists and the Establishment, which includes my own friends.
A Fulbrighter from Egypt reminded me, of course, that the slick, the fashionable and the most literate have no special access to the truth. She said the most powerful sign she saw at a protest was a farmer who had come from the Nile delta to the center of Cairo carrying a sack of vegetables on his back. He could not read or write. But he said, “I carry my protest on my back. The work for which I am not paid a fair price.”
Fulbrighters have observed and participated in protests everywhere. From Tiananmen Square to Tahrir Square to perhaps even some protests at these round tables before the night is out.
You are gathered here in Washington this weekend studying activism and protest and how they have shaped American politics. I understand that you’ll actually be having a mock Presidential election. And when I heard that, I have to admit, I was a little disappointed to see where I was seated. All your tables say “Democrats” or “Republicans” or “Independents.”
But my table? Somehow, I don’t think this is an image that’s going viral and getting people excited: a guy in a suit under a sign that says, “Reserved.”
But the man in the suit who founded this program back in 1947, Senator J. William Fulbright, did not want Fulbrighters to be reserved. He said, “In a democracy, dissent is an act of faith. Like medicine, the test of its value is not its taste, but its effect.” And he said, “The citizen who criticizes his country is paying it an implied tribute.”
I’ve been talking about signs and slogans—and they’re easy to mention in a speech—but that’s not really where true dissent lies. It’s not what true protest or where change happens.
You could see this in the example of another Fulbrighter, a young performance artist from Greece, named Georgia. Because she believed no one should stand out or above anyone else, she only uses her first name.
Georgia was in New York in the very first days of Occupy Wall Street. She had taken part in many protests in her own country as Greece was being convulsed by economic shock and hardship.
And what she found in Manhattan was the familiar American-style protest: the kinds of banners and signs I’ve been talking about, the lists of demands and speaker after speaker yelling commands and slogans into the megaphone.
She said, but this an effective way to protest. She grabbed the microphone and told the crowd, “You’re not here to shout or even just speak at people. You’re here to have a conversation.”
Protest as conversation. It’s been a strange, often frustrating, sometimes easy to mock, but essential ethos of the Occupy movement. And if you think about it, true conversation is democracy. All sides get to speak. It continues to be such a radical idea.
And true conversation, the one that brings unheard voices to the table, emerges not from agreement, but from dissonance—when we don’t agree, when we’ve talked but haven’t listened, when we’ve stood by and haven’t stood up.
The poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox said that to stand by when we should protest is “to sin by silence.”
A few hours ago, the great American poet, Adrienne Rich died. There is so much I’d like to tell you about her. But dinner is coming.
But I want to leave you by giving a short tribute to this extraordinary artist. It is fitting that we do so here where we’re talking about protest and activism. And it is fitting to do so during Women’s History Month. Adrienne Rich was a brilliant, fearless writer—a feminist, an activist, someone who truly spoke truth to power.
In keeping with Wheeler Wilcox’s argument that we sin by silence, Rich wrote, “Yes, lying is done with words, but also with silence…. Telling the truth creates the possibility for more truth to be told around you.”
I’d like to think that this gathering of Fulbrighters is evidence of your willingness to listen and study and find out what the truth is and to take the risk of trying to tell it, to take the risk of making room for more truth to be told around you.
In our culture of bravado and aggression, Rich wrote something about dignity and protest that a friend quoted to me a long time ago. “There must be those among whom we can sit down and weep and still be counted as warriors.”
Perhaps, if you know the work and life of Adrienne Rich, you will weep with me for this eloquent, fallen warrior.
And if you have not read her, I urge you to, even this weekend as you think about what true protest means. Protest can be in our tears and our conversations as much as our signs and slogans.
Let me leave you with just a few lines of one of her great poems:
and I ask myself and you, which of our visions will claim us
which will we claim
how will we go on living
how will we touch, what will we know
what will we say to each other.
What will we say to each other? The question is urgent. Never stop asking it.
You’ll have to indulge the writer in me, but I’m always curious about the origins of words. “Smart” has its roots in the word for fire: a source of warmth and light that’s quick and powerful and beguiling.
No one embodies the concept of smart power better than she.
But here’s something you may not know about how Anita conducts her shuttle diplomacy, as she goes from one group gathering around her to another.
Anita drives a Smart Car. One of the very first Smart cars ever to hit the streets of Washington, D.C.
I want you to picture this glamorous, smart woman in her cutting-edge smart car: This is the 21st century.
Now when a Healy praises a McBride, there’s definitely a bit of Irish involved. But, of course, for this wonderful, proud Italian-American, it’s only by marriage that Anita became a member of the McBride clan.
But there’s no question she shares some important characteristics of that McBride history: the McBrides trace their beginnings back to St. Brigit. St. Brigit of Kildare, who, with St. Patrick, was one of the early leaders of the Gaelic Church, the Irish community, one of the most powerful women in early Christendom. The McBrides were the tribe who gathered around Brigit’s communal fire.
Brigit is the patron saint of children and the patron saint of poets. (Okay, that may be the same thing!) She’s also the patron saint of travelers and scholars and the poor. And do you know what St. Brigit’s symbol is? In every painting and icon you’ll see of St. Brigit, she carries a lamp. She carries a sacred fire.
I was struck by this image as I thought about the smart power embodied by someone who has carried the lamp of opportunity while working for three presidents, one first lady, two secretaries of state—traveling to 70 countries, supporting scholars and poets and children, holding a lamp toward freedom and hope, being one of our country’s true and great leaders for women and for all of us. She helped launch the African First Ladies Initiative, the US-Afghan Women’s Council. She participated in the UN Commission on Human Rights and the UN Commission on the Status of Women. She has been passionately engaged in literacy, youth issues, the arts, and the fights against diseases, from malaria to HIV/AIDS.
Anita McBride is that charismatic person who lights a fire and gathers us around, that brilliant woman with the Smart car who also somehow has the ability to slow down and be such a wonder with each of us one on one. And the remarkable ability to connect not just with adults but with children. I’ve seen Anita with her own lovely children and I’d like us all to offer our thoughts and prayers for her young daughter who had a serious concussion recently.
You know, Anita lost her own mother when she was only three years old. That difficult, tragic experience of growing up without a mother is one she actually shares with the great Harriet Fulbright, who is here with us tonight
Somehow, through that pain and loneliness, Anita – and Harriet too – became a wonderful mother and a smart, loving, generous, mentoring figure for so many more of us.
It is a great honor to follow in the light of Anita’s smart power. I’ve even gotten a ride in her Smart car.
We are so deeply grateful for your service as chair of the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board. And we are so pleased that you’ll be our colleague, our friend and mentor in the years to come
Remarks to American Fulbright Students in the Mideast
at the Fulbright Mideast Enrichment Seminar
Monday, March 12th, 2012
Thank you for that brilliant morning of presentations and discussion. I’m always so inspired by the serious scholarship, the passionate commitment to teaching, and the generous spirit of friendship that I find every time I’m with a group of Fulbrighters.
It’s such pleasure to be visiting Morocco again.
A lot of foreign dignitaries have been here recently. Secretary Clinton was just here. I’m not sure whether you heard, but Morocco actually had a visitor from Mars in July. From a meteor. It was a long trip. The meteor left Mars about a million years ago and floated around the galaxy before crashing to Earth at Tissint. Nomads saw the fireball and heard sonic booms—of a fairly tiny meteor.
Only 61 meteors have come from Mars in modern times. And this was the first one anyone seems to have seen coming.
After arriving in Tissint, then the meteorite really got busy. The biggest chunk went to Paris then to New York (where it biked around Manhattan in someone’s backpack) then finally it was flown to London.
It almost sounds as complicated as the itineraries some of you took to get here.
Now that you ARE here, I wanted to bring up what may sound like a very impatient, New York question? So what’s next?!
Actually, Jim Miller asked me to talk to you about that. He also asked me to implore you not to go to law school. But I’ll get to that in a minute.
It’s strange, isn’t it, that you’re in the middle of some of the most extraordinary experiences of your lives, and yet it’s difficult not to think about where you’re going next.
It’s what we do.
It’s the extraordinary thing about being human: we don’t really spend much time looking at the world the way it is; we actually see the world as it isn’t.
We remember the past; we imagine the future. We imagine things being different.
We’re always planning and dreaming and getting ready. So what is next?
Well, if I can really offer my profoundest hope for you, it’s that the plans you have will get messed up! Of course, you won’t need my help with that. Life never turns out how we expect it to. There are surprises. And we even make mistakes. Which is good. It’s essential. And perhaps for over-achievers like yourselves, something you may need to be reminded of: make mistakes. If you don’t, you’re not living. Or you’re certainly not living enough.
All of you remember from the introduction to philosophy that Descartes provoked a huge shift in how we think about ourselves. “Cogito ergo sum:” I think, therefore I am.
But, as the writer Kathryn Schultz has noted, seven centuries earlier, St. Augustine wrote something that, to her mind, is an even keener and more important insight: “Falor ergo sum.” I err, therefore I am.
Schultz makes this the focus of her fascinating book, Being Wrong: Making mistakes is what we do.
But we’re taught to deny our mistakes, we’re taught to pretend we didn’t make them or blame them on others.
Something I’ve learned in teaching and spending most of my life with art and artists is that art is particularly good about shining light on our mistakes. In a sense, that’s what art is for, what stories are about—showing us how people fail, showing us how what we need and what we love often come into conflict. Art is a good mirror for our human frailty. We can see our mistakes without being blamed for them.
I love the story of the Fulbrighter who was actually the rare medical doctor in the program: a thoracic surgeon in Cameroon. He went around the countryside doing very essential surgery to help people with gangrene. His specialty was amputations. Often there was no hospital, sometimes there was no clinic. Occasionally, he did the surgery on the hood of his car. Someone asked him once whether or not he had malpractice insurance. And he said, “Of course I do. I have a ticket home.”
Fortunately, he never needed that insurance; he became renowned for his work. I’ll tell you, though, it’s a lot easier being a writer. It’s a good thing no one’s limbs are at stake in how often I get things wrong in poetry.
We have all gathered in a country of great poets. And I think that’s because Morocco is a country of great travelers. Not just the traditional nomadic past or the world migration of Moroccan Jews, but high-tech, 2012 global travelers. 10% of all Moroccans live abroad.
Moroccans love the talk of travelers. That talk is in their poetry, in the folklore, in the curiosity that greets strangers, in the quiet warmth in how Moroccans greet one another, how they travel in their talk through the hours of the day.
What I’m talking about is Darijah, the Maghreb dialect, the daily speech.
I don’t speak Darijah or any Arabic. But I’ve learned, as many of you already know, that it is Arabic mixed with Berber, French, Spanish, Portuguese and more recently German and English. It’s a process that all you linguists here know is called “code switching.”
Daily speech is all about switching between the words and expressions and habits of speech from one language to another. I’m fascinated by the way that the vast, traveling, cross-cultural Moroccan experience gets put together—in language.
And I’m interested in just how delicate the translation can be of making what is unspoken into something spoken, and then making what gets spoken into what gets written. And it’s ever-changing and accelerating. Darijah adds everything from Twitter to hip hop in its mash-up, in the hybrid of writing and speech.
But no matter how cotemporary it gets, Moroccan Arabic relies on a web of proverb and parable, small, compressed expressions of shared wisdom and tradition.
That is fascinating to me as a writer because it’s almost as if Darija embodies the Fulbright program’s values—a stirring together of differences in which all the original tastes remain the same. This is so beautifully described by another proverb: A jug can pour forth only what it contains.
Think of all that you contain. There is the Darijab of Fulbright—in your conversations, in your films and websites and poems and essays and blogposts and research.
The Navaho say that it takes a thousand voices to tell a single story.
You are the voices of the Fulbright. YOU are the Fulbright’s great story. Without you here to tell us what’s going on, we’d have no idea where to start.
And there is a Russian proverb that says: If you don’t know the trees you may be lost in the forest, but if you don’t know the stories you may be lost in life.
Your stories are maps to keep us from getting too lost in the complexities and troubles our big, interconnected world is facing.
But let me code-switch back to America. I was just in Atlanta and met with other Fulbrighters at another Enrichment Seminar in another darkened hotel ball room.
But of course I met some extraordinary people. And something one of them said struck me:
“You know, Fulbright is not about saving the world. It’s about sharing the world.”
Or in the words of a Moroccan proverb: In the desert of life, the wise person travels by caravan.
Or perhaps if we get a little closer to the research talk of this morning and measurable impact, there’s this proverb:One bee makes no swarm.
I want you to swarm with creativity. And leave behind some honey—some sweet success you have made by sharing your lives and your travels with others.
Speaking of travel:
You know, the great Beat writer Jack Kerouac would have been 90 today. He didn’t even make it to my age. But he certainly defined a way of American life.
As he wrote in the long scroll version of “On the Road, “ “There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars.”
But is that the American way of life?
When I graduated from high school, 80% of Americans had drivers licenses. Now it’s dropped to 65%. Public transportation and a clean environment? Well, even American bike sales are down over the last decade. And the portion of Americans your age who still live at home with their parents has doubled.
All this sedentary life makes the huge popularity of video games like Grand Theft Auto a little ironic, doesn’t it?
Atlanta has zombie film festivals, zombie parades, zombie haunted houses, zombie everything. The Walking Dead is filmed here.
If you see anyone around you who looks dead but is still walking, it’s probably just an exhausted official from the State Department. But be on your guard.
As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.
Again, my name is Tom Healy and I’m the chairman of the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board.
Now, I grew up a poor kid on a small farm and if we saw some car coming down our dirt road, stirring up dust and looking all official, and then someone got out and said, “Hello, I’m here from the board of this or that”—we’d run for the hills. Because you know they wanted something.
And true enough, I do want something. I want your stories.
Let me explain.
The Navaho say that it takes a thousand voices to tell a single story.
You are the voices of Fulbright. YOU are Fulbright’s great story.
And there is a Russian proverb that says: If you don’t know the trees you may be lost in the forest, but if you don’t know the stories you may be lost in life.
Your stories are maps to keep us from getting too lost in the complexities and troubles our big, interconnected world is facing.
The great American poet Emily Dickinson said, “To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else.”
And I know you have little extra time. But I want you to remember your Fulbright stories, cherish those stories, share those stories.
My Twitter account is @tphealy and the Fulbright board is @FulbrightBoard. I want to hear a chorus of tweets. A chorus of your stories.
Rachel studied African-American literature and graduated with honors. She was awarded a Gilman scholarship to Australia and a Fulbright teaching assistantship in Turkey. She’s now studying journalism in Boston. And look out, Oprah, because Rachel has recently started her own show.
Rachel was describing the challenges of teaching English when she was in Turkey. It was hard. She doubted herself. You know that story. But being as smart and determined and as caring as she is, like all of you, she figured it out. She made things happen.
But she also said something that struck me. She said, “You know, Fulbright is not about saving the world. It’s about sharing the world.”
Fulbright is Rachel’s story threaded together with your stories from Afghanistan to Uzbekistan, from Udaipur to Atlanta. Your stories threaded together with thousands of other Fulbrighters and the literally millions of people all of you come to know.
Now about that board … The Fulbright board is appointed by the President to oversee your program, to guide the policies that will take Fulbright into the 21st century. And we also have the job of answering that big question—yes or no—to the more than eight thousand Fulbright applicants each year.
You are here in Atlanta learning about American politics and elections. You are here learning about the struggle for civil rights, the courage of leadership, the power of words, the possibility to overcome evil and ignorance, the power to do good.
Here in Atlanta, here in Black History month, here on the night before the fifth anniversary of Barack Obama’s historic announcement on Feb 10th, 2007 that he was running for President of the United States …
Here in this place—and at all times—we must remember the struggle for equality, we must remember the sacrifices of all the people who came before us, we must remember all the work ahead.
I say this because when the Fulbright Program was founded in 1947, no African Americans needed apply. Senator Fulbright himself was a segregationist from Arkansas. He lived to be 90—but, he said it was never long enough for him to outlive the shame, the injustice, the deep scar on the American psyche, of our racist past.
And yet, we are all on the road to freedom. Fulbright is certainly on that road, including people from every walk of life—city, rural, poor, privileged, women and men of every race and belief, and physical challenge. It’s the road to a better world.
And our way forward has been guided by so many, including Dr. King whose memorial you can walk to from here. Including President Carter, whose great library is hosting us tonight.
Do you know the only other city where you can make a short walk to see two Nobel Peace Prize medals? You can do it here in Atlanta with Dr. King and President Carter. And you can also do it in Johannesburg with Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela.
Speaking of Peace Prize winners, there’s one in Washington, D.C. too. I said that tomorrow is the fifth anniversary of President Obama’s announcement that he was running for President. I wonder if he’s going to make a similar announcement this year.
What do you think?
That’s tomorrow. But let me close with tonight.
Tonight is the birthday of one of the great writers of our time, one of the great daughters of the State of Georgia, Alice Walker.
Ms. Walker wrote something that could easily be guiding words for Fulbright:
“Look closely at the present you are making: it should look like the future you are dreaming.”
Goodnight, Fulbrighters. Great work. And—except for those zombies out there under tonight’s full moon—sweet dreams!