Tag Archives: Jimmy Carter

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The Conciliation Imperative

[Another national election is taking place. It’s a good time to remember that we will have to get beyond celebrating the unilateralism that has dominated too much American rhetoric. The challenger this time seems more open to seeking common ground with political foes. But the President still seems locked into a binary mindset dominated by the abuse of other Americans as scapegoats. He appears to not have the emotional intelligence to change. And it is our collective problem that this characteristic is one source of his popularity.]

Lawrence Wright’s book on the intense negotiations that led to the historical Camp David Accords is a good indicator of what is so frequently missing in our politics. Thirteen Days in September (2014) documents the efforts of President Jimmy Carter to find a way out of the chronic Arab/Israeli impasse, working with Israel’s Menachem Begin and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat as his partners.  Without doubt the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize had—and still has—the instincts of a peacemaker.  By contrast, prior to the negotiations in 1978, Begin and Sadat had contributed more than their share to the blood-letting that still occurs along borders that surround the Sinai Peninsula. In modern usage, they might have justifiably been labeled terrorists. And yet Carter put his already shaky presidency on the line to cloister these foes in the mountains of western Maryland on the outside chance that they could be induced to produce a lasting peace.

It was a risk and an act of political courage, even though new problems developed in the years that followed. Presidents and congressional politicians rarely put themselves on so uncertain a course unless there are guaranteed outcomes.  And that’s a problem.  A politician who won’t risk failed efforts at conciliation is little more than a poseur: a pretender to the role of a leader.

To be sure, the recent brokered deal between Israel and Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates is a welcome step. And yet the region still festers, with most of the Muslim world hostile to American leadership.  And the agreements seem more strategic than something closer to a grand gesture of conciliation that would help resolve the issue of a Palestinian homeland.


Somehow we are going to have to get beyond celebrating the unilateralism that is now our preferred rhetoric.

The current American challenge of negotiating differences is made worse because of an old national habit of honoring heroes who are supposedly unsullied by the impulse to compromise. We cherish the self-made person, the inner-directed leader, the lone single agent who rejects anything less than what they brought to the bargaining table.  This preference plays out in the narrative tropes that show up in our love of John Wayne’s film characters, or James Bond’s free-style execution of his own form of foreign policy.  We like our heroes to be dominant, assertive, fearless and ready to bolt at the first suggestion that they might make a concession. And so they continue to come in waves of narratives that celebrate intellectual unilateralism: everyone from cinema superheroes, to larger-than-life thinkers like Apple’s Steve Jobs.  Even the small screen occasionally cherishes the mini-rebellions of office workers stuck in the anonymity of drab cubicle farms.

Our preference for the defiant loner has grown so great that words to describe the team player now read like labels of surrender.  “Compromise,” “concession,”  “conciliation,” and “mediation” all carry the odor of appeasement.  And so our interest in performing the rhetoric of defiance is self-defining;  its a cheap way to create a persona suggesting “strong values” and ostensibly settled thinking.  Even history’s great conciliators—among them: Nelson Mandela, Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln—seem more distant than the characters we conjure up to illustrate “decisive” and “uncompromising” leadership.  One can only guess at what former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani had in mind when he called Russia’s increasingly dictatorial Vladimir Putin a true “leader.”  The statement is a reminder that unearned certainty can be the perfect sign of a fool.

If we are wondering where to begin, I suggest that we reconsider the kinds of people we want to serve in legislative offices. Deliberative bodies require deliberators. And yet our Congress is filled with too many self-styled media stars who show little interest in finding ways to attain mutual consent. They show up for their close-ups in hearings.  But they are often absent from caucus rooms where differences must get hammered out.

Somehow we are going to have to get beyond celebrating the unilateralism that is now our preferred rhetoric. It’s a recommendation that especially holds for our chosen leaders, but also for most of us as we weigh the need for ideological purity against the more functional objective of solving problems.

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Which Gettysburg Did He See?

Source: wikipedia.org
Gettysburg  After the Carnage     wikipedia.org

We can be surprised when an audience member begins to describe what they heard in a given presentation. It’s frequently not what we believed the presentation was about.

Most of us operate on a daily basis using what is sometimes called a “correspondence view of reality.”  This approach assumes that the material world offers up an endless parade of experiences that we take in and understand in more or less similar ways. The reality on view to all has certain reliable and corresponding meanings.  At least that’s the theory.

But after forty years as a rhetorical critic and analyst, I must say that I don’t see much evidence that the world we describe has much in common with what others believe to be present. We all know the experience of listening to a description of an event witnessed by ourselves and others, only to hear an account that misses what we thought were important defining features. There’s nothing new in this, but its a cautionary condition that ought to make us wary of the correspondence view.

I was reminded of this recently by a scene laid out in Lawrence Wright’s book on the negotiations that led to the historic Camp David Accords. Thirteen Days in September documents the 1978 efforts of President Jimmy Carter to find a way out of the chronic Arab/Israeli impasse, working with Israel’s Menachem Begin and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat.  The President put everything else on hold in Washington to spend time with these men at Camp David in the Maryland mountains.  Days passed as these three leaders looked for a way around their considerable differences.

When the talks seemed to be irrevocably breaking down, Carter decided to pack up his entourage for a quick side-trip to Gettysburg, not far the famous presidential retreat. He reasoned that perhaps a look at the bloody American fratricide that occurred on the lush hills surrounding the small Pennsylvania town would help reset the talks.

Over three days in 1863 the Confederate and Union armies saw 8,000 of their members slain and 50,000 badly wounded.  This was carnage on the scale of the 1967 Arab-Israeli Six Day War.  Begin and Sadat took all of this in, with detailed narratives provided by Carter and the local National Park staff.  But as Wright notes, the two old warriors saw very different Gettysburgs.

Like most visitors, Sadat, known for his peace-making instincts, seemed fascinated by the strategies of the generals leading the two warring armies. The timing of attacks and counterattacks are usually at the center of most narratives about this key battleground. But to Carter’s surprise it was Begin, the old guerrilla fighter, who was sobered by the magnitude of the carnage, and especially the words of President Lincoln’s short address at the site.  The Israeli leader interpreted the speech as a call for political leadership to rise above the brutal factionalism of civil war. Begin saw Gettysburg as a reminder of the horrible price that strife between neighbors can cause.

We see surprisingly different understandings play out in all kinds of prosaic ways: films we loved that others disliked, the often surprising “lessons” that individuals take away from a story about communication or interpersonal breakdown, the incomprehensibility of a cable news report.

Against the simpler correspondence view of reality that we assume, communication analysis needs something which can be called a phenomenological view of reality.  The phenomenologist tends to accept the likelihood that experience is individual rather than collective,and  that the material worlds we share are still going to produce separate and unique understandings.  Our personal values and biographies are likely to feed into interpretations of events that are specific, distinct, and often exclusive to us. Meaning is thus not a matter of consensus among strangers, but a mixture of ineffable and lifelong influences. In simple terms, two individuals may look at the hilly terrain of Gettysburg’s Little Round Top, but may be taking very different lessons from it.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu