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June 15, 2008

Understanding The Origins Of Samantha Power's Dimwittery

How could Samantha Power manage to lose a debate to Charles Krauthammer? In front of a bunch of Canadians? In Toronto? The answer is found in her recent commencement address to Pitzer-Claremont College:

One young man came into my office recently and said, "I want your life. I want to write books and magazine articles and get to know a Presidential candidate." My response was: "you so don't want my life!" Now don't get me wrong: I love my life. But this student knew that life only in silhouette. He knew nothing of my many missteps, of the internal struggles, of the constant tradeoffs, and he knew nothing of how I set out on a path hoping to do one thing and ended up doing something radically different...

I promise you that I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing if I had set out to reach a specific end state. Every choice up to this point, I have made by following my nose. I went to Bosnia as a journalist in the early 1990s not so I could somehow, one day, end up having the honor of speaking at your commencement, but because I was one of many Americans sickened by the television images of emaciated men and women imprisoned behind barbed wire in modern-day concentration camps.

There's a lot that's unpleasant about this: the smug Gen-X diction, the preening self-regard that Power thinks she's camouflaged, etc. But the most important part is that, at age 37, she still hasn't asked the central question about what set her on the path to where she is today: Of all the millions of people being hurt on planet earth in the early nineties, why were those the ones she saw on her TV?

UPDATE: Power failed to ask the exact same question in a recent column for Time:

I would not be doing what I do today if not for two encounters I never would have sought out on my own. After my freshman year in college, I interned in the sports department of the CBS affiliate in Atlanta and spent my days taking notes on the then hapless Braves' baseball games. One day news from Tiananmen Square suddenly interrupted the CBS feed. Chinese soldiers mauled students and then lunged toward the CBS cameraman filming the scene. I sat looking at my clipboard, wondering what on earth I was doing with my life. Three years later, I got a second push when the nightly news (all three networks!) and the New York Times showed images of emaciated Bosnian men imprisoned in concentration camps in Europe. I went off to the Balkans to cover the war as a freelance journalist.

Of course, if she weren't capable of missing this incredibly obvious point when it's staring her in the face, she wouldn't be a professor at Harvard or writing a column for Time.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at June 15, 2008 06:29 PM

Jonathan asked:

Of all the millions of people being hurt on planet earth in the early nineties, why were those the ones she saw on her TV?

Answer: race.

Glad I could help.

Posted by: No One of Consequence at June 15, 2008 07:28 PM

Note that our Official Friends in your example were also white. But I'll admit the narrative is a tinch more complicated.

Posted by: No One of Consequence at June 15, 2008 10:39 PM


She's not an activist. She doesn't seek out injustices that aren't in front of her nose and said as much. I'm unclear on what you expect from her. Do you expect her to recognize atrocities, not as an opportunity for career advancement, but as you do - to empathize with strangers, plights, and causes as an activist would?

Most of the time I love your stuff. I think this the most insightful blog on the internets since ol' Billmon shut down. (And thanks for turning me onto IOZ) But every once in a while you write a post that has me scratching my head - what's the point here? that people who rise to the top aren't as humane as you'd like them to be? That powerful people work according to different motives than normal people? I'm really curious how this post measures up to your typical insightfulness into the trappings of power.

Am I just daft? Cause this reads like you just rediscovered for the first time that powerful people work differently. Different motives, different processing abilities, different perceptions, different morals, different psychological make-ups... different different different. I demand an explanation or a refund.

Posted by: A Different Matt at June 16, 2008 12:06 AM

She's not an activist.


She's definitely an activist, at least if you go by how she identifies and presents herself. She definitely seeks out injustices. That's her entire shtick.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at June 16, 2008 12:23 AM

I find myself picturing an SNL sketch in which her ancient mother keeps begging her to stop writing 'those horrible books' because it'll make it more difficult for her to find a husband.

Samantha argues with her, but we sense that her resolve is weakening as the conversation goes on.

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at June 16, 2008 05:27 AM

I'm a bit dimwitted myself. The first several times I read this post, I thought your frustration and anger were directed at Samantha Power. Now I realize you are speaking to the institutions here (which include places like Harvard which should be far better) that will only make "insiders" of people who are blind to American injustice, and thus are actually employed to be enablers of further injustice.

Because she is blind to American injustice, she is necessarily ambivalent about the appropriate use of American power, and thus indecisive in a debate about the moral use and ethical role of American power. If she wasn't clearer about this, she shouldn't have been in a debate about it.

Like you, I instinctively distrust all forms of nativism and find the notions of exceptionalism that drive American discourse and action disturbing and abhorrent -- particularly when the only evidence of American exceptionalism is the Bill of Rights, an ancient document which is also the subject of our considerable violence. I'm amazed by the irony (and saddened by the ignorance) of a country that proclaims to love the Bill of Rights, but abhors the ACLU.

I know how far corporatism has taken us into darkness, and how deeply corrupt (alien and inhuman, actually) a philosophy that gives human rights to property (if it's corporate) while stripping rights from real people, including even the voice of those who actually labor in corporations and must sign non-disclosure agreements about the very dark sins of those very corporations. I just don't know how much responsibility to lay at corporatism's door.

Most of this country, not just its leadership, has embraced torture. I never thought I'd see that. Some people I meet know we bombed Laos a bit during our Vietnam incursion -- none know we dropped something like 2.4 million tons of bombs on Laos, more than the allies dropped on Germany and Japan combined in World War II. None I've met know how methodically we stripped England of her empire as our price for our delayed support during World War II. It's considered unpatriotic and traitorous to even make the argument that America and Americans are not different -- exceptional -- from others.

I'm beginning to feel I'm so far outside the norm of discourse in this culture that I have no shared reference, no Archimedean standpoint from which to move in this world. I'm so far left I'm almost a pacifist, which is, I think, actually a very violent stance, and one that requires a different kind of certainty. Dr. King was not a quiet man. Another of my personal heroes is the poet William Stafford (1914-1993), who was interned as a conscientious objector from 1940 to 1944. Imagine the courage of that.

I suspect one of your heroes was Mark Twain, who mastered a method of telling people how ignorant and violent and mean they are while getting them to laugh at the same time. And they paid him for this.

Since I'm now far off topic, I'll finish with my main point; gratitude. You have an extraordinary dead-on accurate political blog that is my second read every day (after 3quarks). I've learned more from your writing here than I can measure. I've certainly done more research as a consequence of things I've read here than anywhere else on the net. Thank you.

Posted by: ehj2 at June 16, 2008 10:54 AM

I guess this is why Chomsky and Herman set out to describe a model of US propaganda(*) If only CBS had made a documentary about it that Power could have seen.

(*) It's most descriptive of media from the 1950s to early 1990s, though still somewhat applicable.

Posted by: me at June 16, 2008 11:41 AM

Powers: "all three networks!"

Practically a sign from God, eh?


Posted by: Nell at June 17, 2008 01:47 AM

I thought those images just came over the air waves automatically, like water or electricity. Like, the antenna or something pulls them in, or it's through a cable thingy you have to pay for.

Isn't that right?

Posted by: Baldie McEagle at June 17, 2008 11:19 AM

Aren't you being a little harsh? Power is talking about how her personal experiences shaped her career. I agree that the commencement address is cringe-inducing because it's pompous and full of cliches, but there's nothing dimwitted about the story of how she became a war correspondent.

Power says she was moved by pictures of starving Bosnians. She explains that these images motivated her to cover the war as a freelance journalist. That experience altered the course of her life. Covering a war, any war, could do that to a person.

Part of the reason we know how Bosnian oppression ranks on the global atrocity scale is that journalists like Power risked their lives to get the facts.

Posted by: Lindsay Beyerstein at June 18, 2008 03:42 AM

Great post; it's sad that people like Power aren't as enlightened, committed, articulate and all around brilliant as we are.

In other news, I won my 400th straight game of Jeopardy from home yesterday. God, those contestants on the TV are morons. They also have no fashion sense, and their banter with Alex is never as witty as the things I would have said.

Posted by: Whistler Blue at June 18, 2008 12:08 PM
I find myself picturing an SNL sketch in which her ancient mother keeps begging her to stop writing 'those horrible books' because it'll make it more difficult for her to find a husband.

Samantha argues with her, but we sense that her resolve is weakening as the conversation goes on.

I just had to see that again.

* * * * * *

The prickly response by some here is amusing, if predictable.

Not too terribly long ago, there was no shortage of teary-eyed, indignant neocons howling about the horror of all those burqa-donning Muslim women. And, dear God, the torture of Iraqi dissidents at the hands of Sadaam's sadistic goons.

But now that we're the ones torturing the same population, it's a different story. Why, torture is as American as apple pie, and only terrorist sympathizers are critical of torture and rendition and the outright murder of innocents. Perfunctory criticism of the methods is tolerated, but not the policy. Those who actually perform the rendition, the torture and the murder - the individuals with whom Americans share our citizenship and income - must also be insulated from criticism. Everybody's a victim.

The Iraqi women who managed to survive being liberated from their secular state lost homes, families and dignity. And if they're among the many thousands forced into prostitution and slavery in Syria, Jordan, Egypt, their own country and who knows where... well, at least they don't have to worry about Sadaam's degrading rape rooms.

Empathetic wonkishness is all well and good on the surface. But when the wonk is fetching water for empire, concern takes on a perverse character due to the myopia required for the position. For the wonks though - and all who lap up their selective compassion like kittens at a bowl of warm milk - well, a certain amount of pragmatism goes with the territory.

Posted by: Arvin Hill at June 19, 2008 11:50 PM

God save us from the white man's mercy. Better to have his wrath.

Posted by: No One of Consequence at June 20, 2008 01:58 AM