Friday, September 13, 2013

Sean Astin comments on Putin's NYT Op-ed Piece

Sean Astin @SeanAstin
13th September 2013

I think the folks that we can usually count on in the pundit class to give us a little useful insight into these issues, are letting us down a bit now. The President of #Russia Mr. #Putin cleverly took to the #NYTimes to do a bit of propagandizing. He cloaked himself in the tonality of moral superiority. For many who have studied his biography, his policies and his behavior (dating from his reign as head of the KGB) think that it would be laughable if it wasn't so absurd that a guy known for thuggery could present himself as a noble actor on the world stage. But, mark my words, he may become a perfect candidate for the Nobel Prize this year (Think Yasser Arafat).

The American people are (or should be) more than capable of reading patiently and respectfully the words of the leader of one of the three great superpowers in the world. We are not so easily mesmerized by the wily entreaties of a beguiling shirtless foreign head of state. We, the People of the United States of America, shouldn't be too reactionary, even with each other. We can just say to ourselves, hmm, thank you Mr. President, we wish you and the Russian people health, peace and longevity. Unless we don't. Do we wish them that? It's clear we don't trust him, specifically, but do we extend that we impugn the collective will of the broader majority of the Russian "electorate"... They may consider Putin a dictator who oversees corrupt "elections" but the second We Americans reveal our animus, they...the them of us verses them fame, will close ranks with their leader, their flag, their country.

In the age of social media, every misanthrope in any Starbucks in America, for better or worse, is practicing Statesmanship, or failing to. Finally, this idea of American exceptionalism is terribly problematic. Politicians and pundits are largely cowardly when it comes to explaining this concept in 30 second soundbites. Here is the truth contained in Putins assertion that it is dangerous to claim that we are exceptional. What he meant, whether cynically motivated or not, is that when we think that we are better than other people, we might tend to treat those people with less than generous behavior. We, the people, of the United States of America are the unfortunate heirs to a catalogue of heinous behavior carried out by our government over time. Since we lack the capacity to remedy many of the terrible things we have done (Slavery, Maltreatment of our indigenous people, Secret-criminal behavior toward many governments in Central America & the Middle East to name a few), we largely ignore the bad parts of our past and arrogantly puff ourselves up on the basis of all of the truly wonderful things we have done at home and abroad. From knocking down totalitarianism, and providing massive amounts of humanitarian and other kind of aid to people and governments in need, we should live with pride in our hearts for the generosity and sacrifice we demonstrate.

We have invested extraordinary sums of money in our military. Consequently, we enjoy the prowess and attendant responsibility of being the most "powerful" Nation on earth. Sadly, our economic capacity has been strained to such an extent, that the projection of our power around the world is showing serious signs of strain and more severe limitations than in the last 40+ years.
So Putin says it is dangerous for us to consider ourselves exceptional. Well, we are in many many ways exceptional. In terms of our innovation, our creativity and so many other areas of life, we, as a people, have out competed and scored innumerable "victories" of achievement relative to our International neighbors around the world. But, does that make us better than "them?" Is our core humanity, "better" than theirs. Well, as humanitarians, the answer must be no. We must also consider that when we assert ourselves diplomatically and militarily around the world, particularly in the Middle East, our claim to be "exceptional" may be read as a declaration of Religious Superiority. We are predominantly a Christian country. Other citizens of the world may not be able or disposed to understand the legal distinction of our protected right to worship freely from the reality of our predominant religion. So, does the fact that Putin chooses to point this out make him righteous? We should be strong enough to say, "hey, he makes an interesting point. Thanks Mr. Putin. We have actually known this about ourselves, but we are confident enough in our autonomy, that we can hear your constructive criticism as such, even if we fail to honor your perspective as a legitimate barometer of our National Moral Compass, or heed your condescending warning, because we can see your threats for what they are, a brazen way to refract an heir of strength to your people."

The other Nations around the world whose interests are clearly aligned with Russia will interpret his words as enlightened. For those Nations aligned with us, his words will seem strategic and therefore devoid of power." There is an international game of chess happening. It is extraordinarily interesting to watch, not just because the stakes are so high, but also because of the intrinsic drama of human beings simultaneously fighting in their own self interest, while purporting to act selflessly.

The problem that I see at the moment, is that we Americans, at least the most vocal among us, don't seem ready, willing or able to temper our rhetoric as we heckle our own guy from the sidelines. So many among us are willing to conclude that the legitimacy of Obama's Presidency has been irrevocably damaged, that the credibility of the Presidency of the United States has been crippled and that our National leaders are spastic and unable to function properly. Well, some of that may be true to a greater or lesser extent, certainly historians will have their day to comment. But, in my experience, WE create our own reality. If you constantly tell a kid he's bad, he may be more likely to feel that way than if you constantly tell him he's good. Instead of showering our Government and Our President with support and reassurance, we hack away at him, calling him incompetent and negligent and unworthy of representing us.

But, we must remember that a majority of our citizens voted twice to put him in that seat of power. There will be much time to politic against his policies and against his party and against his legacy. So, even as we avail ourselves of our God given right to be heard, as we try to affect a different course of action, the quality of disdain, and disrespect shown by so many, both to the man and to the office threatens to undermine our civic circumstances. The phrase disagree without being disagreeable has lost its currency because those who espouse it, don't practice it. But, the great secret is that any one of us at any given moment can lead by example, even if, especially if those around us are failing to. In such a way, we will rightfully enjoy a superior posture.

There are a few obvious reasons that many people don't speak respectfully or artfully when they disagree with someone. 1st, they are not in the habit of doing so. 2nd, they have not fully thought through the argument from both sides. When one understands ones "opponent" well, it is much easier to frame a disagreement in an advantageous light. 3rd. Many don't posses the vocabulary or the critical thinking skills to handle themselves properly in an argument. 4th and finally, many people are simply impatient. Winning an argument, not just in the eyes of a third party bystander, but much more satisfyingly getting the opponent to release the grip of their own position, takes time. The nature of true statesmanship is the instinct and discipline to work together, slowly if necessary over time, with our friends, neighbors and especially our opponents.

We live in the real world. There are finite resources on the planet. VIolence and violent people threaten the safety of every innocent person in the world. Sometimes, this truth necessitates self-defense, occasionally requiring a violent action of our own. We are a complex species. We want peace, but we seemingly, historically and with all evidence around us, need to fight. Well, when world leaders like Putin choose to use the concept of peace as a tactic, there may be an opportunity to exploit him/her. Wading into the morass, struggling to draw out the voracity of the leaders willingness to effectuate peace, is a risky business. Few things in life feel worse that getting duped or made to look stupid. Obama deserves high praise for his willingness to look foolish. The nuances of the moment, those that are clear to the public and many which aren't are so vast that people who offer glib comments reveal themselves to be petty and irritating.

It's easy to hate someone. It's easy to distrust. But, the type of personality that I'm referring to (they know who they are), is the type of personality that will knee jerk attack me, rather than dismantle my little rant/treatise here, point by point in a loving & respectful manner. So, in the twitter sphere, we sometimes play out the same uninspiring exchange that we see writ large on the global stage. It's so much better when we don't. And, my mention strand runs 97% positive.

But, get this, I enjoy reading viewpoints that differ from my own. Perhaps that's why I wasn't bothered in the least by Putin's op-ed. In fact, I like that he brought me into the equation. I was pretty non-plused when he called Kerry a liar. I knew that his particular charge had no merit, because I watched our Secretary of States testimony and I knew that Putins accusation (specific) was inaccurate. But, his op-ed came on a different day and I'm disposed to let go of my anger.

Despite Russia's antagonism, in the UN, for example, and even knowing his transgressions and bad behavior, there may be a way to help people who are suffering. It is that potentiality that must always be remembered. There are tons of displaced Syrians. If Putin & Obama & Kerry and the discredited Syrian leader can stumble their greedy way into a situation where fewer people die, and many more can return to normalcy, I will reserve my antipathy. If Asad deploys chemical weapons during this period of diplomacy, I will be quite happy to endorse a military action that Obama & the Generals feel will work.

The fact that Sunday night Asad wouldn't answer Charlie Rose's questions about the existence of a chemical weapons stockpile and by thursday he signs the UN Chemical Weapons treaty, is a MAJOR & POSITIVE turn of events.

I look forward to soberly and diligently continuing to educate myself and explore, for my part as a citizen, and play the parlor game of analyzing the way forward. As for op-eds, I'd love for Obama to write one to the Russian People.

[Vladimir Putin's editorial is here.]

1 comment:

  1. BRAVO! BRAVO! Very well stated and written. Your ability to clearly and succinctly dissect the Putin op-ed and put it into context related to our past experience with his blustering and school yard bullying.
    White House spokesman Jay Carney said of Putin's remarks "Unlike Russia, the United States stands up for democratic values and human rights in our own country and around the world...The New York Times publication of Putin's column underscores the American commitment to freedom of expression, and that is not a tradition shared in Russia ... And it is a fact freedom of expression has been on the decrease over the past dozen or so years in Russia."

    Thanks you Sean! Bravo!