Tone Deaf: Restoring Attention to How and What We Influence, Dr. Robert Zuber

2 Jul

Tone Deaf

Of course you will insist on modesty in the children, and respect to their teachers, but if the boy stops you in your speech, cries out that you are wrong and sets you right, hug him! Ralph Waldo Emerson

The way glass can be molded or blown or cut into any kind of shape made me think about how we as people – our characters or souls – can be shaped or changed by outside influences. Lisa Kleypas

The squirrel that you kill in jest dies in earnest.  Henry David Thoreau

As readers of this space know, we don’t spend much time analyzing national issues per se except when they begin to overwhelm multilateral space, when implications for national behavior create tensions – or lessons – for that space that we feel need to be highlighted.   We seem to be in one of those moments now with respect to the US and its relationship to the global community. Thus on the eve of the July 4th holiday, we offer a few sobering thoughts on the current state of our wobbly and occasionally destructive national influence.

The departure point for this post is a book that recently crossed my path and then utterly consumed my interest.  “Hitler’s American Model” by James Whitman is a book that I wish I had written, or rather that I wish I had the skill to write.  There is no time or room here for a thorough review of his argument, but in an age characterized by ever-more violent entertainment, gross economic inequalities, apoplectic media personalities and seemingly endless White House images of aging white males and their multilateral hostilities, it is important to take stock of not what we do or fail to do, the influences that our actions and inactions can (and do) have on others.

The premise of the Whitman book is to revisit what was clearly a fascination by German Nazis in the 1930s with what was considered by far too many at the time to be an “innovative” system of race laws – specifically anti-miscegenation laws – that were in vogue in the US and for which the US was dubiously pegged at the time as a “global leader.”   In addition to this particular dimension of influence, Whitman deftly points out the degree to which that fascination spread beyond Jim Crow to the US’s westward conquest of native peoples as well as efforts to maintain “second class citizen” status for some major immigrant groups including Filipinos, Chinese and Japanese.

Whitman both skillfully characterizes this fascination and then carefully delineates the limitations of his analysis.  He does not maintain that Nazi preoccupations represented the only (or even primary) influence to emanate from “New Deal America.” He does not maintain (nor do we) that the US is the source of all racist malevolence in the world.  Nor does Whitman attempt to posit causal linkages between the US “common law” model which reinforced so many efforts to “keep foreign elements out of the gene pool” with what became a mass, grotesque genocidal project aimed at Jews and others.   Ironically, at least in the early years of the Nazi regime, much of US race-based and overtly anti-miscegenation lawmaking was actually deemed “too harsh” by some leading Nazi lawyers, in part a function of the latitude granted to US judges to adjust the law to “real life circumstances,” many such “circumstances” being themselves avowedly and often violently racist.

In telling this difficult story, in positing this uncomfortable relationship, Whitman is claiming not imitation but influence, not “copy-catting” but cutting and pasting.   He is not seeking to blame one state for the conduct of another but is, in an uncomfortably jarring manner, reminding all of us that we bear some deep responsibility not only for what we do, but what our behavior enables in others; not only the damage we create directly via our own initiatives, but the tacit permission to damage that our actions inadvertently or otherwise grant to those within our various “orbits” of influence.

This “news” regarding the complexities and urgencies of influence is not news at all to anyone raising or educating children, settings where occasions for influence are always present and where, as children leave home and school to start their adult sojourns, we are left to ponder whether the content and strength of our influence were indeed calibrated correctly.  Were we the “do as I say, not as I do” parents, the ones who attempted to repair with reproving words the damage caused by our own sometimes willful neglect and self-damaging habits?  Were we the teachers who represented ceilings for students rather than floors and who scorned those who called out our mistakes (in my own case mistakes made several times an hour) rather than applauding them for respecting truth even more than they respect authority?

There is influence-insight here for our geopolitics as well.  Indeed, the continued existence of nuclear weapons is one instance of a security policy grounded in a fundamental hypocrisy:  that the weapons which some states overly rely on for their own national security are somehow grave violations of international law when found in the hands of others.   Indeed, if the current “Ban Treaty” negotiations concluding this week at UN headquarters (negotiations that do not include nuclear weapons possessing states nor many other states whose security is tied to “nuclear umbrellas”) are to truly “move the pile,” it is likely to be in its determination to demystify the general authority and influence of nuclear weapons, undermining both the avowed “need” for these weapons and the signals such weapons send to the rest of the global community. Such “signals” have too-long suggested that our menacing arms race and wildly expensive arms modernization are both self-justifying and worthy of envy by both state and non-state actors alike. In this instance, as is the case with other policies and practices at the UN and in other multilateral settings, we are still pumping out messages to other entities that establish a baseline of influences and permissions that might well fail to serve any national interests, let alone a global interest.

Through our family life, our social policies, our political and legal institutions, and long before the relentless, annoying intrusions of social media, we have been sending complex messages to others, messages that influence what is possible, but also what is permissible.  As the young (still) have their views of the world influenced by families and schools, people from many cultures and walks of life worldwide continue to take their cues from our major global institutions and global capitals. Sadly, some of those contemporary “cues” are coming via the broken politics within and beyond Washington, our unresponsive and predatory economics, our mean-spirited responses to migrants, our massive arms spending, even some of our multilateral policy stalemates and “tone deaf” policy compromises here in New York.

On this 4th of July, we in the US have much of our own to sort out, including leadership in retreat from global challenges and multilateral institutions, our double-standards regarding the legitimacy of armed violence, attempts to gradually dismantle our “rainbow” and replace it with various “shades of white,” and our ongoing, habitual neglect of the people who grow our food, protect our water, serve in our security sector and have largely (and often needlessly) been left behind by the too-rapid assaults of a globalized world.

Each of these concerns represents both an internal tribulation and a clear message that we send out to others, a message not only about what we are prepared to do but also to what we, tacitly or otherwise, have agreed to lend our permission.   Simply put, we all need to be more attentive to how and what we influence, to better ensure that the messages we communicate have consequences with which we are prepared to live.   The Whitman book is a chilling example of what we as a species remain capable of perpetuating once we delude ourselves into thinking that no one else is paying attention.


One Response to “Tone Deaf: Restoring Attention to How and What We Influence, Dr. Robert Zuber”

  1. Marta Benavides July 3, 2017 at 2:45 pm #

    SALUD.. again to thank you Bob for keeping with the call to be salt of the earth and light to the world.. very much appreciated.. very much.. For many of us in the “Global South, we must see clearly our task and path ahead.. and for that we need to have a working compass, so as we say for us, in our compass the South is our North (we must decolonize, decolonize, decolonize.. the Doctrine of Discovery is central to this task) here a bit of a reflecction to accompany the reflection you so caringlgly have shared:

    I see that in the context today’s world, and in the context of the USA celebration of its INDEPENDENCE DAY – JULY 4TH.. the reflection of Thomas Jefferson, one of the drafters of the USA Declaration of Independence in 1776, is valid TODAY for the USA as well as for the world over, SEE THE TWIT @benavides_marta :

    #July4th -ThomasJefferson1785: Indeed I tremble 4 my country when I reflect that GodIsJust,that HisJustice Can’t Sleep4Ever @RobertoValentUN

    Thus, let those who have eyes to see, ears to hear, a brain to think, hands to act.. DO ! in a united and effective way for care of Planet, Life and Peoples

    Our rallying points must be:

    Keep Under 1.5 degrees Celsius
    Work to spell out and carry out the JUST TRANSITION


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