When I feel ornery about the state of world affairs, I turn to Dan Whitman for a cure. Because he gifted me a large stack of his books, he doesn’t always know this.
Whitman’s essays reflect on wide-ranging issues for the foreign affairs professional. They cut across decades (mostly post World War II) and continents (mostly Europe, Africa, and the top and bottom of the Western Hemisphere).
But it isn’t the topics that grab me. It’s the taunts.
‘They were great heroes,’ he says of Louis Armstrong and Dave Brubek. ‘Yet to be replaced as we seek to tweet ourselves out of the Islamic State and Putinism.’ This taunt is all the richer for its prescience: the 2015 dateline on the piece precedes today’s massive hemorrhaging of Twitter barbarism.
In the good old days of cultural diplomacy, our work really meant something, i.e. Armstrong and Brubek, ‘Charming publics in hostile nations and freeing the human spirit in ways that transcended political differences.’ Today it’s Twitter FU this, #DyingSenator that.
Whitman’s an intellectual of classical training… music, philosophy, the arts, you name it (not a braggart, he certainly won’t). His essays betray a perspective on global issues that see beyond the moment, offer a larger context than today, leave one thinking, ‘If only he were in charge.’
Neither he nor I could say in charge of what. Of anything, really. It isn’t going to happen, but it should, and it won’t, so we’re left turning to him in moments when the world has us feeling ornery.
Lately for me it’s Answer Coming Soon, a collection of blog posts written between summer 2012 and summer 2016, but covering much more ground than that.
Remember what happened 17 months ago in Washington DC? Changes here put the Blood telegram back in the news. Cable to Nowhere examines the necessity—and futility—of diplomatic dissent, in this case with a view from Haiti.
More broadly relevant is Managing Information Technology for a New Us, offering two perspectives on one frustration: your next conversation with IT. The IT professional shouldn’t accept your rudeness as a consequence of urgency; likewise, you shouldn’t insult the IT pro by telling him exactly what you need. As in reality, the 34 rules of the road to IT happiness contradict at least one other rule on the list.
Faulkner Trending suggests the glory days of cultural programming weren’t all glory. Whitman recalls the spineless colleague who left him holding the candle at a historic French-style opera house in Alexandria while touring Egypt with a virtuoso country fiddler. Never mind the quick recap on the demise of the U.S. Information Service’s Arts America division (‘snuffed out in its sleep by President Clinton’s USIS Administrator, Joe Duffy’). Whitman is more concerned with what happens when large crowds scuffle outside his venue, beaten by cops while Egyptians in exotic garb form ordered rows backstage. The opera house double-booked, Whitman’s skittish colleague alludes to a ‘booking confusion’ and ducks out, leaving Whitman to face angry crowds, police, and the Egyptian national dance troupe puzzling over the American music nobody wants to hear.
So it goes.
There’s an answer somewhere in Answer Coming Soon. The answer is the statement itself, inspired by the very mystery it suggests.
Whitman earned it manning a folding table in the lobby of a Venetian hotel, assigned to help 7,000 or so journalists gathered for the 1987 G7. Revenge for linking Secretary of State George Shultz with a Russian TV crew rather than the assembled free press to announce nuclear weapons reductions, Whitman found the scribbled missive on a scrap of paper upon return to his duty station at the Lido.
‘This will be the first time in history that two major powers will have voluntarily given up an entire class of weapons,’ Shultz told the world. ‘Thanks for nothing,’ snarked the G7 free press. Whitman carried the message with him throughout his career.
Want to stay sane in a world gone mad? Turn to Dan Whitman. Ask your library to order his books.