Friday, July 24, 2015

THE EYES AND EARS OF HISTORY: A Perspective on the Iran Deal

Chinese Red Guards (circa 1970) read
from their 'Little Red Books'
At the point I arrived at college in 1977, just about everything I knew about the rest of the world came from leafing through old issues of LIFE magazine while lying on the floor of the sunroom of the house I grew up in at 16 Fuller Avenue in Chatham, NJ.

One of the things I thought I "knew" was that the United States and the rest of the world was threatened by a country called China -- a very big country, and what that was very mysterious.

China had nuclear weapons, and "they" were "just crazy enough to blow up the world." Or at least that is the extremely clear impression I carried with me. (I remain fairly certain that if I spent enough time looking through stacks of old magazines in antique stores I could uncover the ur-issue of LIFE with these very words, perhaps next to a photo of parading Red Guards.)

LIFE magazine, February 11, 1966
The other thing I learned about in LIFE magazine, of course, was the Vietnam War.

So in college I embarked on a course of study about Asia, believing that if more of us learned about that part of the world, we could contribute to some other kind of interaction besides war.

I had imagined I would be a diplomat or a scholar; I ended up in the import/export business. I didn't deal in communiques, or demarches, and I never wrote a famous cable to from some US embassy somewhere back to the State Department in Washington, DC.

But I did log travel to every corner of Asia, and negotiate lots of contracts, and build relationships with people, and lay down patterns of engagement that were governed by monthly shipping schedules and inspection trips and celebration banquets and factory visits. And along the away I had a key insight:

When people are intent on doing business with each other, they're too busy to fight.

In the decade or so after I graduated from college, doing business in China went from being a curiosity to being mainstream.  Everybody was doing it.

Little by little, I realized that all of us -- even us greedy businessmen (and women) -- were doing our part for peace. By the late '80s and early '90s, the idea of military conflict between China and the US had become a dim memory.

*   *   *

John Adams: Nixon in China (An opera in three acts)
Some time in the '90s I became increasingly interested in classical music, and even (!) in opera. I discovered the work of an American composer named John Adams, and was fascinated to discover that he had written an entire opera about Nixon's 1972 opening to China: Nixon in China.

I remember thinking how remarkable it was that he had written something so specific to my interests -- even though I wasn't quite sure why the general public would or should be interested. "Seems a bit esoteric," I thought. "But: works for me!"

Sure, I understood that Nixon meeting Mao was important -- hell, I had even been a part of the activity that was borne of that meeting -- but I didn't really understand how important.

It wasn't until ten or fifteen years after that, when I was no longer focusing all my time on China, and when I had a chance to actually see a production of Nixon in China, that I saw the situation with new eyes (and heard it with new ears).

Nixon in China: historic handshake
The opera begins with Air Force One on the tarmac in Beijing, and Nixon's reflections on arriving in China. Nixon sings the words "mystery" and "history" over and over again, to stress the way in which the direction of history can be massively re-directed by a seemingly small event:

News has a kind of mystery:
when I shook hands with Chou En-lai
on this bare field outside Peking,
just now, the world was listening.
"the eyes and ears of history caught every gesture"
Though we spoke quietly
the eyes and ears of history
caught every gesture...
and every word, transforming us
as we, transfixed, made history.

(Nixon in China - from the libretto by Alice Goodman - see video clip)

It took repeated listenings to understand the way in which the entire rest of the opera swirls around those two words -- "mystery" and "history" -- recognizing that something enormous has started, while realizing that it is nearly infinite in its complexity and diverse ramifications.

I think this is similar to the years and years of reflection that it has required for me to extract myself from the thick of my own business activities, and see the main tendency: it had its good and bad aspects, but the diplomatic and commercial opening of China was part of a massive move away from conflict and toward peace.

*   *   *

Now . . .

Now we are at another historic moment -- or one that looks historic, anyway.

And though it can be difficult to say in advance that a particular step will be historic -- that it will, in fact, bring an enormous change in the world, over decades to come -- the agreement with Iran on curbing nuclear weapons development feels to me as if it could be another "Nixon in China moment."

 What do you think? Do we have the chance to "make history"? And . . . if we do, what should this lead you to do today?

Related posts

There will be no shortage of members of Congress who see this as an opportunity to puff out their chests and wave their arms and insist on continued conflict. It will be the work of the people to insist that the path of peace be followed through.

(See Talk With Somebody About Iran Today. (Maybe a Member of Congress?))

"How can it be that no one is speaking directly to what happened?" I wondered. "Should I say something? Is it just me? Can it be possible that most people aren't like me, tremendously troubled by how we should respond to what has happened in China?"

(See Remember June 4)

Ever since I went there to study Chinese as a junior in college, I've considered Taiwan my "second home."

(See Taipei c. 1979 )

What people in Asia (and others) have seen for the past century is that something is happening in the Pacific, and it's being driven in part by advances in naval (and, subsequently, aviation and electronics) technology, and in part by powerful nations (principally, but not limited to, the U.S.) proximate to the area.

(See The Imperialized Pacific: What We Need to Understand)