There seems to be a disconnect between the attitude and language deployed by Biden in yesterday’s “Summit” and that of Garry Kasparov, world champion chess player, former Russian citizen and long-time critic of Vladimir Putin.
Kasparov, for his part, argued yesterday that the talks should not have taken place, that the only thing Putin ‘understands’ is action, not words.
From Kasparov’s twitter page:
EU keeps caving in to Putin without American leadership. Biden was supposed to stop that, even campaigned on it. He called Putin a killer—correctly. But looking tough in Geneva or using strong words doesn’t matter. Action matters, and so far Biden is failing that test….When someone robs your house, you don’t ask him for a meeting in Geneva. You want him arrested, you want your stuff back. And if he does it again? And again?....What is good for the country is below what looks good for the president to his domestic supporters….Biden admin talking about some areas they could work with Putin and some no. First, Putin doesn’t care, he nee4ds chaos. And if he helps out in Afghanistan that means he can continue attacking Ukraine? Absurd.
The protracted media talk-fest about whether the summit should have been held, and whether or not it “produced” measureables, the newly minted word about objective evidence of success, hinges on a couple of variables: the meaning and significance of measureables, and the importance of time in the public and participants’ perspective.
Obama’s presidency, and his continuing presence in the public eye and ear, both polishes and demeans linguistic artistry. In one sense, his capacity to articulate his thoughts and feelings, is far removed from the ‘street’ (gutter) talk of his successor. In another sense, that (married to his race) gives his opponents, and those attempting to re-establish America’s ‘standing’ in the world a gap in both understanding and credibility among those who voted for his successor. Effete, arrogant, snob, ‘out of touch’ and downright dangerous are some of the epithets his successor implanted in the American culture, seemingly without restraint or sanction in a cultural garden ready and open to the hate. Both world and domestic issues come with obvious and agreed conflicts and tensions, many exposed through linguistic framing of political opponents.
It was (and still is?) a longstanding perception that Canada was/is ungovernable, because the tension between the French and the English was not resolved, and potentially could and would not be resolved. In America, and beyond, much of the world seems ungovernable, given the continuing and seemingly unresolvable tensions between autocracy and democracy, business/profit and public needs, truth and outright lies, legality and criminality, environmental protections and jobs/profit/dividends/immediate needs, and the everlasting tension (growing in the last twenty years) between immediate gratification and long-term planning and vision.
Each public figure brings a perspective s/he hangs on what advisors consider a “sellable slogan”….e.g. Build Back Better. Each framing of the political culture attempts to bridge opposing views, in the hope of both presenting and then profiting from a vestige of reconciliation. And, given the length and depth of unresolved tensions (indigenous in Canada, blacks in the U.S., the Northern Ireland border after Brexit, dictatorship versus some form of public participation in state decisions, capitalism and some form of state ownership, various initiatives in military/cyber/reconnaissance/hard power and efforts to de-escalate, to some of us, it appears we are riding a cyclical, spiral, spinning wheel of historic repeats, revisions, as if each idea has a new generation of revivalist impressarios…all bent on leaving a lasting legacy for their chosen ‘cause’ and name.
The engine of these public debates, discourse, summits, doctoral theses, curriculum designs, and the rising and falling tides of careers, reputations and the flow of public orientation and attitudes can be adjudged to be a form of theatre. There is a long-standing and highly reputed narrative of theatre and the arts, from countries like Greece, Great Britain, Italy, Africa, China, Japan, (indeed whether we are conscious or them or not) from every country, village and hamlet that integrates, if not gives articulate voice to the public (and private sentiments) at any given time and place.
Even in pursuit of sacred and religious themes and identities, there is a tension between writings considered to be poetry, subjective, emotive, aspirational and those deemed to be empirical, historic and literal. Somewhere in that vortex, various forms and faces of a deity appear, depending on the stage of development of the culture. Public figures, irrespective of their role and responsibility, have to take account of the language, the tone, the choice of images they both represent/incarnate and choose to portray, underline, emphasize and ‘sell’. Naturally, there is, then, no escape from the “personal” or the archetypal image as a central component in any public messaging.
As in all exercises in communicating, the envisioned specific audience is an important variable in the design and delivery of every message. This is especially true in the public arena, where “message merchants” (public relations firms, including political candidate preparation schools abound. The public, nevertheless, is fed a menu of all messages and their spokespersons, regardless of the “position” or purpose of the speaker/writer.
President Biden illustrated this divergence of message when he paused to speak with a group of Washington/White House reporters just before flying back to Washington from Geneva. He was specifically addressing Caitlin Collins of CNN, about his need to provide optimistic messages, regardless of the file or the audience, in order to help facilitate “movement” on those files. The old adage, no one wants to get on a train locked at the station….only a moving train will get their attention and hopefully eventual participation…applies.
Is Biden a prisoner of the media constrictions? Is Kasparov freer to say what he considers the ugly truth? Is Putin merely polishing his autocrat’s image at home, supported by a sycophantic and state-controlled media? Did Biden and Putin attend the same summit, given the wide and unbridgeable gulf in their respective reporting? How is a North American audience expected to integrate, collate and interpret the various media messages, from pundits and politicians, that predictably pour out of any summit.
It is both noteworthy and somewhat disingenuous of the Biden administration, (perhaps operating on the professional advice of their “message merchants”) to show the same kind of “cards” after the Vice-president’s visit to Central America as Biden has following yesterday’s summit.
Working groups, to investigate, assess, and then recommend “next steps” in Central America to stem the tide of undocumented immigrants, and after Geneva, to stabilize national security on both sides of the ideological divide. The headlines, as expected, will favour their respective “leader” in a somewhat sycophantic manner, (allegedly more in Russia and in America…really?) and people like Kasparov will be brushed aside as another cranky, pessimistic, ideologue who obviously still despises Putin. Putin, himself, can be legitimately criticized for his false equivalency of Navalny, currently suffering tuberculosis in a Russian prison, and those who stormed the Capitol in Washington on January 6.
So, another summit has come and gone and whether or not our calendars and the reporting on world events in the coming months will show a move to separate the potentially growing alliance between Russia and China, once again, will depend on the source of the reporting, the audience to whom it is directed, the relative authority and credibility of the source, and the nature of the message.
Truth telling, by its very nature, is far less sensational than heroic headlines that are a blatant and unapologetic pitch to win support of some group(s). Often, too, the truth is far more complex, nuanced, weedy, marshy, and even swampy that those crisp, unequivocal, literal black and white headlines portraying victory or defeat, again depending on the source, the interpretation and the relative gravitas of the source.
As we are all drowning in advertising sloganeering, headline grabbing, pundit pontificating, and even historian reductionisms, there can be little if any surprise that our public discourse has sunken to highly radioactive words, phrases, weaponized to support a “side” and to eliminate the other “side” in what has become in too many cases a zero sum rhetorical “game”.
Trouble is, the future of the planet’s ecosystem is in peril. The future of the cybersphere is up for grabs, as is jurisdiction in the Arctic, in Space, as is cryptocurrency, as is the regulation of the internet itself, as is the pathway for universal vaccination and the lingering impacts of COVID-19, especially as the Delta variant continues to slither and slide among those not vaccinated, refusing to be vaccinated, and those outside the reach of available vaccines.
Pandering to specific audiences, with micro-managed messages that are designed to assuage whatever the communicator considers the most pressing fear, anxiety, desperation, hopelessness or even ultimate survival, depending on the situation, will simply not “cut the mustard” as the vernacular adage puts it.
We have watched and permitted our public servants to become puppets of those message merchants, and in the process we have sacrificed our legitimate and requisite need for the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And those who manipulate information for their own narcissistic purposes and goals have succeeded in attaining power in too many capitals, allegedly threating the capacity of messy democracy to justify its superiority to autocratic regimes.
Glib and superficial reading of important public events like the Geneva summit, yesterday, that ignore the glaring omission of any discussion, let alone specific committed steps to ameliorate the scourge of global warming and climate change, are inexcusable. And yet, very few observers have paid much attention to this omission. The fact that a conference on global warming is upcoming in October in Glasgow, notwithstanding, there is no reason to let both Biden and Putin off the hook from facing their respective nations’ need to significantly reduce emissions in the short and medium term. Vaccination development and distribution is another ‘sin’ of omission, given the large segment of the world’s population without access to vaccination, and the potential threat that such exposure poses for us all.
Some will argue that time did not permit such ancillary topics from the agenda agreed to by the two leaders. That argument, too, is both specious and insulting. Who is to determine the range of files, and the time dedicated to each, in a world suffering from both a biological virus, and a credibility and trust deficit.
Biden can say that ‘trust is not the issue, only waiting to see if Russia will produce those things it committed to work on…and yet the public trust in the leaders of the G7 and NATO, and the WHO and even the UN Security Council is at a level even lower than the low level of the relationship between the U.S. and Russia, and between the EU and the U.S.
Global leaders, in this case men of 68 and 78 respectively, while both are relatively healthy and cognizant of their respective responsibilities, are nevertheless caught in a culture and time-warp that puts them talking about, and also in terms of long-abandoned, and even more abandonable perceptions, attitudes, and certainly language.
Our younger generations can only turn away in sad and disaffected disappointment when they see contemporary leaders bury themselves in agenda items, diplomatic approaches and language, and personal stories of their mothers, when the world is already ‘burning to the point of frying’ in the western half of North America, suffering water shortages also in the south-west of the U.S. and the vaccine’s complicated and unresolved treatment approaches remain incomplete, at best and incompetent and dangerous at worst.
Truth telling should not, and in the current period of history, must not defer to the message merchants. They, themselves, including their professional principles and practices, could well help to spell the demise of and the hope for global solutions for real global problems that would not be “nice” to address, but require immediate, universal and total commitment from the world’s leaders.
And we are clearly not seeing that kind of language, or commitment this week! And if this week is considered a “success” by those who participated, then the prospect for truth-telling in upcoming conferences is very low.