Thursday, January 18, 2018

Timing Is Everything

Among the ancient Greeks, Plato is often credited with having shaped Western political philosophy. According to The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
“He was so self-conscious about how philosophy should be conceived, what its scope and ambitions properly are, and he so transformed the intellectual currents with which he grappled, that the subject of philosophy as it is often conceived (a rigorous and systematic examination of ethical, political, metaphysical, and epistemological issues, armed with a distinctive method) can be called his invention. Few other authors in the history of Western philosophy approximate him in depth and range.”
In Book VI of Republic, Plato expands on the metaphor of a “ship of state” by comparing the governance of a city-state to the command of a naval vessel. Essentially, he posits that “the only men fit to be captain of this ship are philosopher kings, benevolent men with absolute power who have access to the Form of the Good.”

That sounds like a pretty good description of the Obama administration. However, as we near the first anniversary of Donald Trump's ascent to the Presidency, many Americans remain traumatized by the calculated obliteration of Obama's achievements by an incompetent band of wealthy grifters whose level of statesmanship barely rises above a food fight in a school cafeteria. In Book VI of Republic, Plato offers a noteworthy metaphor for a "ship of fools."
“A fleet or a ship in which there is a captain who is taller and stronger than any of the crew, but is a little deaf, has a similar infirmity in sight, and his knowledge of navigation is not much better. The sailors are quarreling with one another about the steering -- every one is of the opinion that he has a right to steer, though he has never learned the art of navigation and cannot tell who taught him or when he learned, and will further assert that it cannot be taught, and they are ready to cut in pieces any one who says the contrary.”
Often, as I rise from sleep, flashes of my dreams pass through my mind combined with snippets of musical theatre. On a recent morning, the music was from Andrew Lloyd Webber's score to Sunset Boulevard, ending with Norma Desmond's claim that "We taught the world new ways to dream."

However, after watching a screener of The Final Year, I was reminded of Mr. Lundie's speech in which he reveals the miracle of Brigadoon:
“Two hundred years ago the Highlands of Scotland were plagued with witches. Here in Brigadoon we had an old minister of the kirk named Mr. Forsythe. He began to wonder if there wasn’t somethin’ he could do to protect the folk of his parish not only from them but from all the evils that might come to Brigadoon from the outside world after he died. Finally, on an early Wednesday morn right after midnight, Mr. Forsythe went out to a hill beyond Brigadoon an’ made his prayer to God. There in the hush of a sleepin’ world he asked God that night to make Brigadoon an’ all the people in it vanish into the Highland mist. Vanish, but not for always. It would return jus’ as it were for one day every hundred years. An’ when we awoke the next day, it was a hundred years later.”
I fervently hope that Americans don't have to wait another century before we have an administration as free of scandal as Barack Obama's. One of my guilty pleasures during that time was watching the West Wing Week episodes that documented Obama's travels and the people he met as part of his Presidency.

Filmed over 90 days in 21 countries, Greg Barker's new documentary (which will premiere on HBO this weekend) follows Secretary of State John Kerry, United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, Ben Rhodes from September 2015 (when President Obama visited the United Nations General Assembly) until the early morning hours of January 20, 2017. As Barker explains:
"This film is my sixth collaboration with my longtime producers John Battsek and Julie Goldman, and it was by far the most challenging in terms of access, storytelling, and the sheer logistics involved when filming inside what’s known as 'the POTUS bubble,' especially overseas. Editorially, John, Julie and I always recognized that this film would be controversial (the very nature of its subject matter almost guaranteed that, but my intention all along was to make a film that went beyond the politics of the moment, and helped foster a wider discussion about how America can and should relate to the wider world). We started with a simple idea: Was it possible, I wondered, to make a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the last year of a presidency, in the spirit of the classic campaign film The War Room, only in reverse? Senior officials inside the U.S. national security apparatus are not used to having a documentary film crew hang around for months on end. We all took a leap of faith and began filming, slowly at first to build trust and figure out the broad parameters of how and when we could be present with cameras."
Ben Rhodes, Samantha Power, John Kerry, and
President Barack Obama in a scene from The Final Year
"As anyone who has worked in government knows, behind the access, the crises of the moment, and the elusive but seductive sense of power, there is simply an enormous amount of hard, usually thankless work. Witnessing that up close, and seeing how dedicated our public servants are, was truly humbling and inspiring -- honestly the greatest privilege of my professional life. It was only very late in the process that I realized what the film wanted to become. This is a story about a small group of people who came together nearly a decade ago, rallying behind a man and his cause. They set out to change the world, and against all expectations, found themselves in a position to effect that change. They believed they could redefine American foreign policy, promote diplomacy over large-scale military action, and alter how we as a nation think about questions of war and peace. They had their share of victories (the Iran deal, climate change, Cuba) and despite their own internal divisions over one of the toughest foreign policy questions of our age (Syria), at the outset of 2016 they believed they had largely succeeded, and that their legacy would define U.S. foreign policy for decades to come."

Following a year of Trump's aggressive Twitter taunts, The Final Year often seems like the last gasp of a government which relied on a group of qualified adults capable of operating with strategic intelligence rather than an administration driven by malignant narcissism that relies on bombastbellicosity, and belligerence for its tools of diplomacy. With aching clarity, the film documents the personal and professional lifestyles of self-avowed public servants devoted to helping others less fortunate than themselves and offers a stark contrast between the exhausting pace of working at the top levels of government versus Trump's persistent golfing and bloated concept of "executive time." As Barker astutely notes:
"This was the end of an era (everyone felt it) and, for me personally, the end of an epic 15-month film shoot that took me on a once-in-a-career journey inside the workings of our foreign policy machinery. In retrospect, what our cameras captured was more than just high-ranking government officials at work, as fascinating and informative as that may be. We captured a worldview, an attitude, an approach to international affairs that we now know was fleeting and unique to a particular moment."
Poster art for The Final Year

As one watches Barker's documentary, the grim determination with which Trump and his associates have gutted the Department of State (and numerous other governmental agencies) becomes a growing source of anguish made increasingly acute by one's awareness of the power-hungry, self-serving assholes now running the government. In a perverse way, The Final Year is as much a political morality tale as any of the desperate warnings about the ongoing effects of climate change. It offers a grim lesson in how hard foreign policy work can be and how quickly any social or political gains can be lost in the hands of incompetent fools.

Those who applauded Obama's achievements in regaining the trust of America's allies and resurrecting America's image as a global leader can only watch The Final Year in a state of shock and awe knowing what happened once Donald Trump moved into the White House. On a positive note, aviation fans will be thrilled by some of the footage of Air Force One. Here's the trailer:

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A note to readers of My Cultural Landscape. For the past 10 years my columns have also been appearing in the arts section of HuffPost. This morning I received notice that HuffPost has discontinued its platform for contributors (this is not surprising considering the recent acquisition by Verizon). If any friends ask why they can't find my columns on HuffPost, please let them know about this change.

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