Sunday, November 25, 2007

long ago and far away

Drove through the streets of Gainesville with my father, who talked about a book he is writing about Brazil. He said when he was in Brasilia as a political officer in the mid-60s he had no idea what was going on, and neither did the other political officers (Purdy, Lavitsky). Herb Okun [head of mission] might have known something, he had contacts, he spoke excellent Portuguese, but he did a terrible job. He should have been having cocktail parties, inviting his contacts to meet the junior officers. 'I don't know what he did all day, probably sat at home in his apartment reading Edmund Wilson.'

I said I was surprised, I had always though of Mr Okun as a great socialiser.
My father: Maybe he was when he was down in Belo Horizonte, he did a good job in Belo, he knew all kinds of people, in fact through one of his contacts he heard early that the military were marching on Rio, so he was able to tell the Embassy they were coming. He didn't do any of that in Brasilia. In fact, the best contacts we made were through Mary [my mother], she was teaching English at the Binational Center and she had all these deputies in the class, there was Bernardo Cabral who later became Minister of Justice, X [forget name], there was a very right-wing guy, there was a governor, I guess there were five in the class. So we had these guys over to the house and got to know them. Some of the other wives were also teaching English, but Mary had the most interesting students.
He explained: Anyway, we didn't know what was going on, sometimes Fred Purdy and I would say, Hey, let's go over to Congress and see if we meet anyone! and sometimes we would.
He said: It should have been easy to meet people in Brasilia, the deputies were there three days a week, anyway, even if they were away on weekends, they were away from their families, some of them left their wives at home, they were bored, but Herb just sat at home reading Edmund Wilson.
He explained: Well, the problem was, Herb was brought back en route to Moscow. He did a very good job in Belo, and then he spent a year in Brasilia, and then he was appointed to Moscow. So he actually left, and then the Ambassador decided he couldn't afford to let him go. The guy who was supposed to replace him was a very nice kind of guy but ineffectual, and it was a sensitive time, and they didn't think they could afford to have him in place, so the Ambassador called the State Department and they sent Herb back. And he bitterly resented it. They gave him a second title, he was also Political Counsellor for the whole of Brazil, you'd think it would have meant something to be indispensable but he bitterly resented it. So he didn't do anything. There was a special suite at the Embassy where you could give dinners for 12, it would have been perfect for inviting deputies to meet people, but Herb didn't use it once. He just sat in his apartment reading Edmund Wilson, and then he and Loraine went to Moscow and Steve Lowe came, and he didn't know anybody and didn't speak Portuguese. So nobody knew anything.


In a separate but not unrelated incident my father explains that he is finding all kinds of information about the activities of the CIA at the time. He expresses horror at the current practice of waterboarding, he can't believe these are AMERICAN CITIZENS. I remind him that his career advice to me was to join the CIA. My father: You'd have been good in the CIA. (My comment at the time of the advice was that I did not like the idea of going around assassinating people. My father: You would probably not be in the field. You would probably be analysing data.)

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

People should be educated so they don't cause so much harm. People do end up causing so much harm because eventually we all become CIA agents or data analysts or soldiers or ambassadors and then we cause so much harm. This is why education is so important.
--smb

Ithaca said...

I think the point my father was making was that insufficient effort was made to get information about what was going on from people in a position to know. The younger political officers all accepted the importance of talking to people, they were simply not able to act on this because they had no contacts, while the man they reported to made no effort to introduce them.

It would be comforting to think that only stupid, ignorant people are capable of evil; that highly- educated people do much better. Whatever we may want to say about Kissinger, though, he was hardly uneducated; his particular version of Realpolitik, in fact, was based on his research on the history of international relations in Europe (he admired Metternich, despised what he saw as the naivety of Woodrow Wilson). Nixon graduated top of his class from Duke Law School. They are not the rare exceptions one would like them to be.

It would be possible to imagine a society where one comes across bus drivers and panhandlers and university professors and reasons as follows: well, it would be hard to combine this with work as a data analyst/soldier/ambassador, they must be CIA agents in disguise. I assume you don't think we literally live in a society where everyone holds one of the four jobs you mention. It is not always possible to say something one knows to be true; it is not a good idea, though, to get into the habit of saying things one knows to be untrue.

Leitmotifish said...

No, what I meant was that to be a bus driver is LIKE being a data analyst or a soldier, in terms of the harm one may cause on other people. This is why people should be educated. I am sure if the man the young officers reported to were to read the right thing, to be educated in the right way, he would not have acted in such a stupid way.
I can't believe you thought by "educated" I meant the top of the class at duke, at any right I think I was completly misunderstood. The current president of America I think went to andover and yale and harvard, he was probably just not reading the right things, it seems to me. That is why it is scary to think you may not be reading the right thing.

Ithaca said...

I would have said that soldiers harmed other people by killing them, which bus drivers who observe the rules of the road generally don't do. I wouldn't have said the ways a data analyst can do harm have much more in common with the ways a bus driver can.

It seems implausible that books should exist the reading of which would ensure intelligent, energetic, ethical conduct of business in those responsible for American foreign policy. We should then have to believe that this remarkable degree of efficacy had mysteriously escaped the notice not only of the public at large but even of its beneficiaries. (After all, if a diplomat knew that his excellence was the result of reading certain key books, his natural course of action in dealing with recalcitrant superiors would be to force on them the magical books.)

Nathaniel said...

Perhaps the right books can influence a person for the better and the wrong ones for the worse, but in the end the person has to be open to being influenced in the first place.

These "right" books only become right because they influenced the person for betterment, and the "wrong" books become wrong due to their negative influence, and maybe depending on the person in question every book has the potential to be a good or bad influence, which also in turn depends on our definition of good or bad I suppose.

So, to be more accurate, certain books can influence a person for the better or the worse, but once again, in the end it depends on the person and how they might be/let themselves be/and maybe even are predisposed to be influenced.

Anonymous said...

bravo nathaniel.