Dan Whitman–Blaming No One

Warning: the reading police, disguised as the media, have infiltrated the State Department.

Based on a stroll through the Harry Truman building cafeteria, one journalist for The Atlantic pretends to understand our present condition: “As the staffer and I walked among the tables and chairs, people with badges chatted over coffee; one was reading his Kindle.”

Forgive me for not pausing to gasp at the news.

Federal workers everywhere hang badges, like nooses, around their necks.

Feds everywhere across the years have gathered over coffee in the cafeteria. What kind of journalist willfully ignores the Kindle’s potential to hold entire libraries of professional reading in order to insinuate acts akin to reading Archie at the back of the class?

The answer: a hack.

Let’s agree: it’s no crime for colleagues to chat over coffee and read from a Kindle (even myself, dimwit reader of genre fiction, can find Dante Paradiso’s The Embassy among my contents). For letting details like these stand as representative of a respected institution in decline, an editor at The Atlantic should be looking for work.

If this writer really wants to understand the Foreign Service and the Department of State in its entirety, she should turn instead to Dan Whitman’s collection Blaming No One.

Originally published from June 2011 to June 2012 at Punditwire.com, the four-score of posts are as relevant today as they were five years ago (‘The State Department is not immune to budget woes,’ 12/20/11). Better, they are as relevant today as they were when Mr. Whitman first took up exploring foreign lands, mostly in Africa but also Europe, the Caribbean, the Middle East, over four decades back.

But the real wisdom in Blaming No One goes far beyond its connections between past and present. Unlike today’s media hatchet men and women, Whitman knows a thing or two about the warts on the ass of our institution. Our warts are far more salacious and despicable than reading Kindles over lunch or seeking camaraderie among the rodents in the caf. Take the employee at a foreign mission who cites federal regulation to get out of working the Ambassador’s Fourth of July event and then complains about not being invited to the party (Looking Back and Fourth); or the superiors who solicit input, hoping to be told what they want to hear, denying the existence of advice to the contrary when met with failure from ignoring it (Looking into the Sun).

Aware of our warts, the proud men and women of the Foreign Service and the State Department writ large are aware as well of our strengths, of the legacy behind our Esprit d Coeur, even in the face of near-daily public floggings.

Take The Power of the 164thSpirits were high, the camaraderie already established, the 52 psyched for consular assignments in parts of the world some never imagined. One officer, trained in Swahili and French, was blindsided by an unexpected assignment to Shanghai. She quipped, ‘In the future I can serve in Africa with three African langauges. Swahili, French, and Chinese. Adaptability is the mode most favorable to a career of uncertainty in an unpredictable world.

Best of all, throughout Whitman’s work is the running joke on us all, like a mysterious jest between Kafka and Heller. We are both victims and playthings, survivors and the damned, discarded wrecks, hopeful remains of the absurd, of the tyranny of paradox, of surreal nightmares built by an invisible malevolence too great to care even about its own random cruelty. We are trapped by the absurd.

That, to the uninitiated, is where the Foreign Service Officer excels: making sense of nonsense, thriving amid uncertainty. Adaptability is the mode most favorable to a career of uncertainty in an unpredictable world.

In Johannesburg, a thief smashes your passenger window. The dealer will replace the window, but it must be ordered from the States. It arrives, weeks later, and upon opening the crate you find a sticker: Made in South Africa. You write a whimsical blog piece titled The Window that Went Around the World.

Far from yellow journalism, of which there is too, too much, Blaming No One is more like a Yellow Pages of survival, as common sense extinguishes itself all around us.