Statistics show that there is a marked uptick in the amount of genuinely hateful yammering one finds in public and political discourse. “Interactive” media are all well and good, but there does seem to be a recurring motif of pointlessly fulminating ping-pong, no matter what the subject at hand. Someone writes an article. Some readers like it, some readers don’t. At first they fling praise or invective at the author, but soon they’re calling one another political poopy-heads and snarling about who’s stupider than whom. Then it goes from being accusative in the singular (you’re an idiot) to the stereotyped plural (your kind are all idiots).
Rush Limbaugh has applied this schoolyard Punch and Judy narrative to every topic he touches. But it has also been spread by “reality” TV and extends from Jon and Kate to Congressman Joe Wilson. Donald Rumsfeld was masterful at it, and George W. Bush used it to suck the air out of every diplomatic space he entered. As a national discourse, it’s silly and uninformative. When elevated to the level of international relations, it has been disastrous, as clichés like “You’re either with us or against us” have shown.
I say all this because I think that the art of diplomacy is something that has become largely invisible to us in the United States. We value directness, even where it insults someone; we want instant responses, even where answers don’t come easily. Diplomacy, a carefully choreographed ballet with words, is quite foreign to our perceptions of the world. We tend not to think about strategies of approach and deflection, negotiation and accommodation, patience and translation, and care in choice of words combined with pointedly applied pressure.
This was certainly evident in the response to President Obama’s having been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Lots of sniffing about his readiness, lots of disparagement about his “pretty words” and “empty promises.” And then, of course, the formulaic fights: he’s a wizardy warlord with the power of hypnosis! He’s a dangerous con man whose only gift is charisma. You’re wrong! You’re wronger! Dope slaps all around!
It’s helpful to consider exactly why President Obama was cited. It was given to him, said the Nobel judges, for his having “created a new climate in international politics.” “Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future.” Indeed, Obama has brought the United States back to the status of the most admired nation in the world, based on a survey of thousands of people in twenty countries around the globe.
Some commentators have chalked this up to Obama’s silver tongue, as though great oratory is inherently about smoke and mirrors, emptiness and hype. But what Obama has done is nothing less than steer our huge ship of state back from the brink of “preventive war” and economic free fall. He restored competing theories of constitutional interpretation. No longer is the executive branch battling in a different textual universe: between due process and none at all; between the courts and images from 24; between privacy and supersurveillance; between accountability and official holes of dark secrecy.