Time Becomes Horizontal

I think the people who support the UN can be divided into three broad groups: anti-Americans; people who were taught at a young age that the UN is good and who don’t pay close attention to current affairs; and people for whom support for the UN is a matter of religious faith, not unlike faith in the benefits of recycling or the threat of global warming. Obviously there is overlap between these groups. – Jonathan G ewirtz responding to a Rummel post.

Jonathan is right, of course, that the UN isn’t what we thought it would be when I was growing up. I suspect he doesn’t know how strange it seems to be critical of it now, how strange to worry about its usefulness. I’m one of those who was taught at a young age the UN is good, but that is because it represented much that we still like: a forum for international debate, a chance to listen to other perspectives. The critics either seemed to see it as wielding power it didn’t have (the black helicopter types) or were isolationists. I can understand drawing back from the world in the fifties; Europe seen from a tank and Asia from a Navy deck didn’t make the world outside our borders all that attractive. But, frankly, distaste for the UN was associated with the kind of cranks who, a few years later, would obsess about the Kennedy assassination.

I don’t disagree with Jonathan that the UN isn’t what we wanted it to be. When Bush spoke before it, the subtext seemed to be that he was willing to back its words. It could count and someone might listen if its words had consequences. As it turned out, perhaps there were no wmds but there were also few honest votes. He took the UN more seriously than did those who were willing to sell their votes That’s now.

But all this got me thinking about then and so I went to the internet late one night. On the web, we are in a sense all in one place, though our bodies are spread across continents. But from its depths, like the depths of our minds, we can retrieve the past and put it in the present. I’ve found I can retrieve elusive memories, give a few hints to Google and it throws up images connected to our pasts. So, I found I could retrieve from a memory hole back fifty years and across more than a thousand miles. Of course, Craig isn’t too different, we are somewhat predictable characters, after all. But long gone from my village, I still wonder about those men who used to sit around and talk to my father, listening to Brubeck and Jerry Mulligan, to their wives who shared coffee and cigarettes with my mother, as they basted a seam or waited for the bread to rise.

Villages in Nebraska grow eccentrics. My father was a liberal Republican; my mother’s parents were Democrats but she’d switched to the Republicans not because of my father, she assured me, but because of Roosevelt’s court-packing scheme. They didn’t talk about politics or the government much. In fact, after my father’s death, my mother went back to the Democrats. They were patriotic in a quiet understated way; my mother was one of the first Wave officers, joining because she saw it as her fight, too. They were fond of the UN the way people were in the fifties. They liked Ike; they had doubts about Vietnam; they subscribed to Time. I don’t remember ever seeing anything very political in the house.

The UN seemed a good thing in our household. For people of my generation and certainly theirs a lot of vague hope rested on that institution. I can still remember Henry Cabot Lodge standing before those marble backdrops and Pauline Fredericks reporting; she was interesting and his jaw and gestures were attractive in a kind of solid 50’s way. We tended to think the UN was keeping Europe quiet. Looking back, we were wrong – it was those troops on those bases. But I do think that the relative harmony in Europe was part of the glow of references to the UN in our grade school.

There was a guy down the street who didn’t have a stereo. You don’t have acquaintances in towns like ours – everyone is closer than that. Anyway, our stereo had a pretty good sound – my father liked jazz and he (and later my brothers) did Heath kits. He didn’t have a stereo, so he’d come to our house and while we ate dinner, he’d listen to his records in our living room. They weren’t just music but I don’t know what else. While no intellectual, he was literate. I’m not sure why the records were important to him. But well, everyone thought he was a Bircher. They weren’t really friends; Craig was a Methodist and didn’t drink, for one thing. I don’t think my father had any close friends that didn’t drink. But in a town like that, everyone knows everyone fairly well and my father said he could use our record player, but he sure didn’t intend to listen with him. So Craig would sit there, staring intently into space, and we’d move around the house. We didn’t listen – I don’t have the vaguest idea what was being said.

My father’s friends also included some erratic leftists. One guy had drug problems (well, that was my father’s theory and I’m pretty sure he was right), but he’d talk about overthrowing South American governments. One with few farming skills but some family money called himself an anarchist. He and my father would argue late into the night about South America and Viet Nam and Cuba. The Bircher complained to me that my father just wouldn’t see the truth. Actually, I think he did; he just found these people that wandered in and out of our house entertaining. And that was the truth – they were entertaining. If any of them had had any power perhaps someone somewhere should worry but give them a bottle of liquor and a pack of cigarettes and they became, well, anecdotal. Sometimes it seems to me there was more time in the fifties; more time for eccentrics to spin their tales. A couple had sufficient inheritances to make life easy but not luxurious. We didn’t have that comfort but we did have time. Time and liquor and cigarettes.

But this comes to something that is bothering me about myself or this country or maybe the guy down the street. That he was crazy was a given in our house, in the community. His wife left him after I’d gone to college and the general rumors were it was because of his crazy politics. He inherited that money and left. She remarried and left. Their sons became SDS types and did some minor (rumors were major) demonstrating during the late sixties. I was long gone. And so, I hadn’t thought of him for years.

Idly, late at night last week, reading Jonathan’s comment, I googled that old name. I was mildly surprised to find anything; he is probably in his late seventies or even eighties. But there he was, being awarded some kind of plaque for his fifty years’ service in fighting the ‘un.’ He (like the anarchist and various others) had long ago left our village for Colorado. This newsletter Google threw up was the type neighborhood groups put out. Congratulating members on a job well done, rallying the troops – it reminded me of Red Green addressing his clubmates. (Red Green understands the Great Plains – Canadian or American.) The newsletter was wacky & counterculture & cheerful, clearly having a small audience of the like-minded. In fact, it was a bit like ones you might expect from a Cloggers’ or Contra Dancing group. It always referred to the un in lower case but also described bake sales and t-shirt sales, designed to help a long-standing member who had faced personal losses. Of course, there was much honoring of the constitution and the awards tended toward rifle scopes. Sure, it was different. But in a lot of ways it was the same.

In my world, he and I have something important in common – that living room, my parents, his mother and my grandparents, a world of fifties small town life. For fifty years all of us have been going our separate ways. Like my father, I find eccentrics entertaining. And now I’m trying to balance – how close was that intent stare of his to Timothy McVeigh? Would he, younger and in another place, have agreed with McVeigh, seen the government as evil. Would he have supported violence? (The rumors were his sons had set off a bomb during the war protests.) The newsletter describes him passing out the Constitution for those fifty years. How does he read it? What does he see in it? What doesn’t he see in it?

On the other hand, did he see the UN more profoundly than the rest of us; was it inevitable that it would end up as a place where warnings about Rwanda were pushed around on desks until they became pointless, where in Srbenecia it collected for rather than protected from slaughter, where its troops raped the refugees left to their tender mercies. Did he see clearly what Shannon notes, that it wasn’t really designed to do much.

Of course, because I know that guy, his family before and after him, I don’t think what he saw, staring intently at the record player, was hateful. I doubt he’s done all that much damage in the fifty years since I last saw him. I suspect he’s still a bit, well, eccentric. I’m sure most of what he has argued for the last fifty years I would find silly; perhaps some was repugnant (though I don’t remember any anti-Semitism nor white supremacy and there was none in that newsletter, I wouldn’t be surprised if that was a part of it the late sixties rather shadowy group he joined.

The UN remains a serious business. I wrote part of this and took a break. Ben Wattenberg was talking about his new book, Fewer; doing his demography thing, it was a striking description of the dramatically falling rates of reproduction throughout the world. Much of his presentation was dependent upon facts that had been gathered by the United Nations and the facts were important. He muttered occasionally about some of the interpretations, but clearly these statistics were the core of his book and led him to quite important and useful observations.

And, if my old neighbor got his way, some good things would be thrown out. I suspect his America would not be the country I love. I’m pretty sure he’s still a crank. I suspect his distrust of the un is based on his belief we can isolate ourselves. I’ve left that village and gone farther away from him than I could have imagined. And the lives of my family are more thoroughly and actively committed to the internationalism in which my parents believed. We are connected and the more we all are connected, they believed and I believe, the better off we all are.

But I pause and wonder if some of my distrust of the UN hasn’t brought me closer to him, too. I googled him because, well, I’m beginning to think about the UN in different terms. And in the long run, looking at this group of gray-headed, smiling men and women, selling their t-shirts and earnestly dumping (literally and figuratively) on the UN, I find the continuity remarkable.

A lifetime has passed and in some way things are still the same. And yet they look different, now that my hair, too, is gray. I feel unsteady – I’ve lost my bearings.

I’m definitely in the category of those whom Jonathan believes just haven’t been paying enough attention. And I’ll accept that verdict. But I believe I would still argue with our old neighbor who remains, I am sure, an isolationist. And perhaps it is a futile thought but I can’t help but believe a transparent UN (one with perhaps a good fewer stories) that recognizes the limitations that come to an agency without power except that of a bully & international pulpit, does have something to offer. It needs some humility; some understanding that respect must be earned, not commandeered. That pulpit has been abused. It needs to be honest, consistently, if it expects any authority. Trying to extort money from America during tsunami relief was not an attractive picture. It needs humility when faced with tragedy but more importantly, it needs to put those hit by the tsunami first in its attentions. Still, as another Chicagoboyz commenter, Richard Heddleson, observes: ‘I’ve always thought it was little more than a talk shop and debating society. As such, it has value and will survive.’

(And thanks to James Rummel for actually writing about ideas which gives me a chance to mainly wax nostalgic.)

12 thoughts on “Time Becomes Horizontal”

  1. I think that the reason that most people were reassured by the existence of the UN is likely the same reason they’re, when told of let’s say, next years flu epidemic, are glad that the CDC, the NIH, that someone’s looking at it. The fact that bureacracies seldom actually solve problems doesn’t enter in to it. (The reality is the these organizations prolong whatever thing they’re looking at.) Just so someone’s on the job.

  2. I think the UN is more like a neighborhood watch group, who made the mistake of letting the local crack house participate. And now they can’t get anything done, because the Crips are running the committee on gang activity, and the hitman down the block has veto power over what they do.

    The fatal flaw of the UN was to include as equal members the unfortunately large number of countries which are not democratically legitimate. And that flaw was obvious from the start, even if it took a while to bear it’s full fruit.

  3. Right wing cranks from the old days were more correct about the facts on some issues than the supposedly sensible people. The problems is they always took things too far. The UN wasn’t just a bad idea, it was controlled by the Kremlin, or was a consciously controlled instrument of a cabal of Wall Street investment bankers, semitic or otherwise, etc. But the basic insight that it was an unaccountable bureaucracy that did not serve the interests of the USA was correct all along.

  4. Thanks for a great reminiscence, Ginny.

    The neighborhood watch is a great analogy. But it doesn’t quite put the UN in the proper historical context of American history.

    America does not like to live with countries that are not liberal democracies, or at a minimum purport to be such. America does not seek to conquer the world or to own it, but it will see it remade in its own image both to assure its physical security and to demonstrate its superiority over the alternatives.

    Our tensions with England only eased as it became a constitutional monarchy and Canada became a semi-independent liberal democracy, assuring the safety of our northern border. After we completed the unification, conquest and settlement of the balance of North America in the late nineteenth century, we saw to the destruction of the European empires through the twentieth century in order to replace them with national democracies, like us.

    After the Second World War, we saw to the dismantling of the overseas European empires. As the peoples of the world were liberated, there was confidence that they would yearn to be free like us. And so, there really being no alternative, we welcomed them into the General Assembly much as the freshman class is welcomed into the high school student council. At the U. N. they would learn to be liberal democracies, just like us. And this is the UN Ginny and I grew up believing to be good.

    But things didn’t quite work out as planned. The new nations quickly reverted to tyrannies, much as our own might had it not been led by Washington. But, in spite of the wisdom of his example, the supply of Washingtons was far short of the demand. And so the petty tyrants of the world became pawns of the superpowers, the other one being the world’s crack dealer, in their game of global chess. And the U. N. became the stage on which this farce played out.

    Now that the other superpower is gone, America can more actively resume its efforts to clean up the neighborhood and surround itself with liberal democracies. The UN, like it’s predecessor the League of Nations, foisted on the world by America to help Make the World Safe for Democracy, has failed in its assigned task from America, to spread liberal democracy. So it, like so many organizations that have lost their direction and motivation, will remain bobbing about aimlessly in the waves of history until it is succeeded by a new instrument that will better suit America in its task.

    This is the source of much of America’s frustration with the UN. The old European reaction, from wise men like Ambassador Ischinger is to recognize that things evolve much more slowly and not to be so impatient. The American way is to figure out what didn’t work last time and try something else without wasting a lot of time regretting that things didn’t work out better or concluding that we shouldn’t try another solution. So we will with the UN.

    What I find fascinating is that in light of this track record so many question whether the US has the will or the attention span to see Iraq through to democracy. While not every step over the last century or two has been up and to the right, the trend of American activity has been remarkably consistent and persistent. We need liberal democracies to be secure, and have them we shall.

  5. Ginny, thanks for sharing your stories. Is this a description of Chicago Boyz: Still, as another Chicagoboyz commenter, Richard Heddleson, observes: “I’ve always thought it was little more than a talk shop and debating society. As such, it has value and will survive.”

  6. I greatly enjoyed your recollections, Ginny. Liquor and cigarettes lubricated many an hour of “not-so-small talk” in my parents’ home in the sixties and early seventies.

    Please pardon me if I unleash my contrarian (I’ll put him back in his cage later). It’s very likely that people who, in Gerwitz’ words, “were taught at a young age that the UN is good and who don’t pay close attention to current affairs; and people for whom support for the UN is a matter of religious faith..” are actually the same souls. But, with silvered hair and the deep impressions from recent history furrowing their brows, some of these are now experiencing a late conversion to agnosticism.

    And, contrived political inter-connectedness does not in itself make us better off. The impetus to form transnational committees can actually be a nation’s weakness, fatique, or outright defeat. After WWII our nation was bone-tired of wars, and aching for someone, some entity, some drug, or god to salve the ache. So we hung window dressing, as Shannon implies, and boasted self-satisfactorily about our grand internationalism.

    If only our incompetent “overlord” didn’t demand such steep taxes. Brett Bellmore named one – the need to deliberate on a par with “the Crips” from the crackhouse (good one, Brett). Another lien is the chronic inefficiency that plagues the U.N.’s actions. This stems from its biggest flaw, its artificiality. Like the E.U., it is a contrived, centralized bureaucracy. If it was a truly spontaneous outgrowth of actualized nation-states based on real comity and economic inter-dependance it would not lack direction when a Rwanda, or Darfur raised its ugly head. And it wouldn’t use it’s funds to sponsor anti-American conferences on “racism,” nor waste it’s time equating Israel with Nazi Germany.

    Thank God America stepped up to push reform in the Middle East. There’s much serious work to be done, and like you, I am hopeful that Bush’s attempts to force integrity back into the U.N. will succeed.

  7. The only participant less tired at the end of World War II than the Americans was the French. That’s because they didn’t fight at all, except against the British and Americans for a couple of hours in 1942. If we had been so tired, we wouldn’t have gone into Korea or Viet Nam. Only the Anglosphere countries fought on the winning side of every major war in the twentieth century from beginning to end. Tired? Perhaps, but not so tired as one who’s been defeated. The UN was Roosevelt’s attempt, feeble though it was, to impose liberal democracy on the post war world.

  8. I don’t mind the UN as a global diplomatic swap meet and flea market. It is certainly cheaper, especially for small or impoverished countries, to send a single embassador to one venue than to try to cover the globe. Maybe it could be reorganized along less ambitious lines and actually serve a purpose. First, though, we would have to explicitly disavow any world government utopian nonsense and get some value from what we have.

  9. Richard, you make some good historical points. Every institution seems appropriate in the eyes of its progenitors, at the time of its genesis.

    But FDR’s legacy is ripe for review. In this libertarian capitalist’s mind he was a socialist in a top-hat. Hence his solutions to the economic and political puzzles of both the depression and the post-war order necessarily reflect his fondness for centralization.

    I’m with Mitch. Let’s get past the utopian opiate of “one-world government” and get down to brass tacks. There’s a job to do.

  10. In hindsight, my categorization of UN supporters was incomplete and uncharitable. There are also plenty of people who aren’t cranks, fanatics or ignorant and who think that the UN, though flawed in execution, is based on a good idea, does some good things, and is worth supporting with the intent of keeping the good programs and improving the institution. I disagree with these people on multiple points but don’t think they are unreasonable. They are merely reading the history and prospects of the UN more optimistically than the critics do.

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