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Question time — eye contact?

Friday, March 31st, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — i’d like to know more around a fly-by comment re Rex Tillerson — autism, Japanese tantrism, Medusa — any takers? ]
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The allegation is that State Department employees, some of them, were instructed not to make eye contact with new State boss Rex Tillerson. That’s from WaPo:

Most of his interactions are with an insular circle of political aides who are new to the State Department. Many career diplomats say they still have not met him, and some have been instructed not to speak to him directly — or even make eye contact.

**

Gaze is a fascinating business.

When I came back to the UK after living in the US for a couple of decades, my mother was appalled by my tendency to look her in the eye when speaking to her. She told me that you should look away from the person you are addressing, to avoid shaming them by closely observing their reactions to what you’re saying, but should then watch them while they (with eyes averted from you) responded, so as to catch the nuances of their response. Your interlocutor thus gains precious moments in which to modify the immediacy of their response to the suitable response of their choosing. This, I imagine, incoudes but may not be limited to the very rapid, easily missed facial responses knoan as microexpressions.

I by contrast like the direct gaze, and think of it as a sign of authenticity or perhaps earnestness.

**

Investgations of those on the autism spectrum (somewhere, at some time, likely recently and in a specific population) reveals ASD subjects “shifted their gaze away from a speaker earlier than the control groups.”

Eye contact, or lack of it, can have enormously strong affective implications, as we see in this example taken from Sophocles‘ Antigone:

The stage ‘etiquette’ of Attic tragedy calls for actors/characters visually to acknowledge one another or the Chorus before establishing verbal contact. The title character of Sophocles’ Antigone flouts this custom to interesting effect by keeping her gaze lowered to the ground after the guard, having caught her in the forbidden act of burying her brother, leads her back into the playing space. The Chorus of Theban elders obliquely acknowledge Antigone’s presence at 376, expres sin their consternation at the sight of ‘this supernatural portent’. They address her directly as child of Oedipus at 379–80. But Antigone remains unresponsive, reacting neither to the Chorus nor to the guard’s announcement a few lines later that ‘this is the one who did the deed’ (384). Instead she keeps her gaze fixed on the ground and stands silently by for over 65 lines, while the guard explains to Creon and the Chorus how she was captured. Readers of Sophocles’ play become aware of Antigone’s earthbound gaze only retrospectively at 441, where Creon addresses her with a brusque ‘Hey you, the one bowing your head to the ground …’

The three sacred treasurs of Japan are presented to the Emperor during the Japanese equivalent of coronation — during a tantric ceremonial in which the Emperor is united with his Sun Goddess and originating ancestor, Amaterasu Omikami — see:

  • Robert S. Ellwood, The Feast of Kingship: Accession Ceremonies in Ancient Japan
  • D. C. Holtom, Japanese Enthronement Ceremonies: With an Account of the Imperial Regalia
  • And famously, Medusa must not be looked upon directly, lest one be turned into stone. It transpires that Medusa was once a beauty indeed to be gazed upon. In the words of Dryden‘s Ovid:

    Medusa once had charms; to gain her love
    A rival crowd of envious lovers strove.
    They, who have seen her, own, they ne’er did trace
    More moving features in a sweeter face.
    Yet above all, her length of hair, they own,
    In golden ringlets wav’d, and graceful shone.
    Her Neptune saw, and with such beauties fir’d,
    Resolv’d to compass, what his soul desir’d.
    In chaste Minerva’s fane, he, lustful, stay’d,
    And seiz’d, and rifled the young, blushing maid.

    Athena’s gaze at this scene, and turning away of that gaze, is the topic of Ovid’s next lines:

    The bashful Goddess turn’d her eyes away,
    Nor durst such bold impurity survey;
    But on the ravish’d virgin vengeance takes,
    Her shining hair is chang’d to hissing snakes.
    These in her Aegis Pallas joys to bear,
    The hissing snakes her foes more sure ensnare,
    Than they did lovers once, when shining hair.

    And thus Medusa becomes the famous face which cannot be directly gazed upon in peril of being turned to stone:

    That horrid head, which stiffens into stone
    Those impious men who, daring death, look on.

    so that:

    Two hundred, by Medusa’s head were ston’d.

    Medusa is killed only when Perseus observes her reflected in his polished shield:

    But as he journey’d, pensive he survey’d,
    What wasteful havock dire Medusa made.
    Here, stood still breathing statues, men before;
    There, rampant lions seem’d in stone to roar.
    Nor did he, yet affrighted, quit the field,
    But in the mirror of his polish’d shield
    Reflected saw Medusa slumbers take,
    And not one serpent by good chance awake.
    Then backward an unerring blow he sped,
    And from her body lop’d at once her head.
    The gore prolifick prov’d; with sudden force
    Sprung Pegasus, and wing’d his airy course.

    One wonders how much irony there is in that phrase, “not one serpent by good chance awake” — chance, or fate?

    **

    I don’t have direct access to the World Encyclopedia of Lowered Eyes and Direct Gazes, but there’s clearly plenty to read in social anthropology, depth psychology on the topic —

  • Scientific American, Eye Contact Can Be Overwhelming
  • Psychology Today, The Secrets of Eye Contact, Revealed
  • Jane Lydon, Eye Contact: Photographing Indigenous Australians
  • — and so forth

    So I’ve titled this post Question time, hoping Zp readers will chime in with significant readeings that explore the reasons Tillerson may have requested no eye-contact — if in fact he did.

    Because this whole post, and a flurry of activity on the web, hinges on a very short phrase in that WaPo piece:

    some [diplomats] have been instructed not to speak to him directly — or even make eye contact

    which presumably falls within the category RUMINT unoess otherwise corroborated by named and trustworthy sources.

    Eye contact — any suggestions?

    New Article up at Divergent Options

    Monday, January 16th, 2017

    [by Mark Safranski / “zen“]

    I have a piece up at Divergent Options, a new national security site that aims to provoke thought regarding foreign policy with a concise template that distills the essence of foreign policy problems and provides but does not recommend options. As DO describes it:

    What We Do:  In 1,000 words or less, Divergent Options provides unbiased, dispassionate, candid articles that describe a national security situation, present multiple options to address the situation, and articulate the risk and gain of each option.  Please note that while we assess a national security situation and provide options, we never recommend a specific option.

    Who We Communicate To:  Our intended audience is National Security Practitioners worldwide.  We keep our articles short and to the point because we know that Practitioners have a limited amount of time and are likely reading our content on a digital device during a commute, a lunch break, or in-between meetings

    My post is an effort to reconnect Syrian policy, widely regarded as a disaster by most foreign policy pundits, back to a coherent grand strategy.

    Syria Options: U.S. Grand Strategy 

    […]

    Background:  Aleppo has fallen and with it the last shreds of credibility of President Obama’s policy on Syria.  None of Obama’s policy goals for Syria since the Arab Spring revolt were achieved.  In Syria, the Assad regime has crushed western-backed opposition fighters with direct Russian and Iranian military ground support; the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) still controls swaths of Syrian territory[1] and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally Turkey has conspired with Iran and Russia to exclude the U.S. and UN[2] from Syrian settlement talks.

    Significance:  While Syria itself is of little strategic value to the U.S. beyond secondary implications for Israeli security, the utter failure of the Obama administration has brought U.S. diplomatic prestige to a nadir reminiscent of the Iranian hostage crisis or the fall of Saigon.  Worse, defeat in Syria occurred in a broader context of successful Russian aggression in Ukraine, uncontested Russian meddling in an U.S. presidential election, and perceptions of U.S. strategic concessions to Tehran in the Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA[3]).  Should the next administration want to accomplish more than Obama, it is vital that they  1) address Syria within the context of increased Russian-U.S. competition and 2) seize the initiative in restoring the influence of U.S. leadership with substantive and symbolic policy changes in regard to Syria and Russia.

    Read the rest here.

    The issue of women as sex-slaves in current news

    Thursday, August 4th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — why grokking is an important quality in analysts and diplomats, policy-makers and journos ]
    .

    Update on the long-running diplomatic snafu between S Korea and Japan:

    Welsh imam explains why sex slavery is okay:

    **

    And here we are in 2016 CE.

    I keep, keep, keep saying this: whether we’re dealing with Japan in WWII or ISIS today, we need to understand that worldviews differ, that the differences matter — and that knowing that intellectually is not enough, we need to be able to know it in the holistic, visceral-to-intellectual way Heinlein’s character Valentine Michael Smith in Stranger in a Strange Land called “grokking“.

    Recommended Reading—Summer 2016

    Monday, July 11th, 2016

    [by J. Scott Shipman]

    Storm of Creativity2017

    wright-brothers-biographyserendipities

    Paradisejssundertow

    white horsewashington

     

    The Storm of Creativity, by Kyna Leski

    2017 War With Russia, by General Sir Richard Shirreff

    The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough

    Serendipities, Language and Lunacy, by Umberto Eco

    Paradise, Dante Alighieri, translated by Mark Musa

    Undertow, by Stanton S. Coerr

    The White Horse Cometh, by Rich Parks

    Washington The Indispensable Man, by John Thomas Flexner

    This list starts the first week of May, so perhaps the title should be Spring/Summer. Most of these books are quick reads and all are recommended.

    I picked up Ms. Leski’s book at an MIT bookshop on a business trip in early May and read on the train ride home. Books on creativity are ubiquitous, but Ms. Leski takes an interesting approach by describing the creative process using the metaphor of a storm. Several ZP readers will find of interest.

    2017 was recommended by a friend. The author was the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe and the book focuses on a Europe/NATO response to a Russian invasion of the Baltics. Written in a Tom Clancy-like style, the plot is fast-paced even though the good general provides sometimes provides detailed insights into the inner workings of NATA and the North Atlantic Council (this is one of the values of the book—bureaucracy writ-large).

    David McCullough’s Wright Brothers delivers an approachable and human accounting of the first men of powered flight. Some reviews on Amazon complain McCullough lifts and uses too many quotes to tell the story. At times the quotes were distracting, but not enough to prevent the enjoyment of the story of two brothers who changed the world. This book was a gift otherwise I probably would not have read.

    Serendipities is a short book, but was a long read for me. Eco explains how language and the pursuit of the perfect language has confounded thinkers since time immemorial. He refers to Marco Polo’s unicorn (also used in his Kant and the Platypus which is excellent) explaining how language is often twisted to meet a preconceived notion or idea. The first couple of chapters were quite good, chapters three and four did not hold my interest or were over my head. The closing chapter was good enough to convince me I’ll need to read this little book again. (My Eco anti-library has been growing of late.)

    Eco’s book led me to reread Musa’s excellent translation of Paradise. My son gave me the deluxe edition with parallel Italian and English, plus commentary. Eco referenced Canto 26 and 27, and I enjoyed the break so much I read the whole thing!

    Undertow is my good friend Stan Coerr’s second book of poetry.  His first book Rubicon was a moving collection of poetry of men at war. Undertow deals more with the heart and is quite good, too. You won’t be disappointed.

    White Horse is also a book by an old friend, Rich Parks (we’ve known each other since the mid-80’s). White Horse is self-published and in places it shows, but the overall story is quite good for a first book (I’ve already told him his book would make an excellent screenplay.). The plot is quick and entertaining even if a bit unbelievable, but the story is fiction. Rich is following up with a sequel in August in 2016 and I’ll be reading it, too.

    Mr. Flexner’s Washington was a gift, too. In this quick biography Washington is made approachable and human. And when I say “quick,” I mean quick…Trenton and Princeton took one chapter compared to David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing which took up a standalone book. If someone were looking for a first Washington biography, this would be a good place to start.

    This isn’t the conclusion of my summer reading, but a pretty good start.What are  you reading this summer?

    Not China’s Choice but Ours

    Sunday, June 5th, 2016

    [by Mark Safranski / “zen”]

    China’s Blue Water “Coast Guard”

    T. Greer of Scholar’s Stage has an outstanding post on the strategic reality of China and American foreign policy. It is a must read:

    “China Does Not Want Your Rules Based Order”

    …..McCain’s words echo those spoken by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter last week to the graduating midshipman at Annapolis. Read them both. Compare what they say. Behold the quickly crystallizing American narrative on China. This is a bipartisan message. It will be the starting point of a President Clinton’s policy. Whether a President Trump will endorse it is hard to say. In either case, it is a narrative whose momentum is building.

    There is much that is good in this narrative. McCain proclaims that “no nation has done as much to contribute to what China calls its “peaceful rise” as the United States of America.” He is right to do so. No nation has done more to enable China’s rise than America has. No country’s citizens have done more for the general prosperity of the Chinese people than the Americans have. This is true in ways that are not widely known or immediately obvious. For example, the role American financiers and investment banks played in creating the architecture of modern Chinese financial markets and corporate structures is little realized, despite the size and importance of their interventions. Behind every great titan of Chinese industryChina Mobile, the world’s largest mobile phone operator, China State Construction Engineering, whose IPO was valued at $7.3 billion, PetroChina, the most profitable company in Asia (well, before last year), to name a few of hundreds–lies an American investment banker. I do not exaggerate when I say Goldman Sachs created modern China. [2] China has much to thank America for.

    However, I cannot endorse all that is included in this emerging narrative, for part of it is deeply flawed. The flaw may be by design; if the purpose is to stir cold hearts and gain moral admiration of others, such flaws can be excused–that is how politics works. But this sort of things can only be excused if those delivering the speeches do not take the implications of their own words seriously when it is time to make policy. 

    I speak of  China’s “choice.” The thread that runs through all of these talks is that the Chinese have yet to choose whether they aim for order or disruption, the existing regime or the chaos beyond it. The truth is that the Chinese have already chosen their path and no number of speeches on our part will convince them to abandon it. They do not want our rules based order. They have rejected it. They will continue to reject it unless compelled by overwhelming crisis to sleep on sticks and swallow gall and accept the rules we force upon them. 

    China has made its choice. The real decision that will determine the contours of the 21st century will not be made in Beijing, but in Washington.

    T. Greer, in my opinion is correct but this is not a message Beltway insiders are wont to harken – making strategic choices is for lesser nations. America is so rich, powerful, unipolar, indispensable, exceptional that we can pursue all objectives, in every corner of the globe, without choosing between the vital and the trivial. We can do this even if our goals are contradictory and ill-considered or serve manly as a prop for domestic political disputes, the business interests of political donors or career advancement of apparatchiks and politicians. We can safely delay and indulge in fantasy.

    If this was true once, it is less so today and will be still less twenty years hence.

    Greer sharpens his argument:

    ….Last spring it finally sunk in. Chinese illiberalism not only can endure, it is enduring. The old consensus cracked apart. No new consensus on how to deal with China has yet formed to take its place.

    But old habits die hard. We see this at the highest levels of policy, as in the McCain speech, where American policy is justified in terms of giving China a chance to choose the right. The same spirit is invoked further down the line. Ash Carter, for example, recently described American tactics in the South China Sea as a “long campaign of firmness, and gentle but strong pushback… [until] The internal logic of China and its society will eventually dictate a change.” [3] In other words, American policy is a holding action until China sees the light.

    What if they never do?

    The Chinese believe that our international order is a rigged system set up by the imperial victors of the last round of bloodshed to perpetuate the power of its winners. They use the system, quite cynically, but at its base they find it and its symbols hypocritical, embarrassing, outrageous, and (according to the most strident among them), evil. In their minds it is a system of lies and half-truths. In some cases they have a point. Most of their actions in the East or South China Seas are designed to show just how large a gap exists between the grim realities of great power politics and soaring rhetoric Americans use to describe our role in the region

    ….In simpler terms, the Chinese equate “rising within a rules based order” with “halting China’s rise to power.” To live by Washington’s rules is to live under its power, and the Chinese have been telling themselves for three decades now that—after two centuries of hardship—they will not live by the dictates of outsiders ever again.

    The Chinese will never choose our rules based order. That does not necessarily mean they want to dethrone America and throw down all that she has built. The Chinese do not have global ambitions. What they want is a seat at the table—and they want this seat to be recognized, not earned. That’s the gist of it. Beijing is not willing to accept an order it did not have a hand in creating. Thus all that G-2 talk we heard a few years back. The Chinese would love to found a new order balancing their honor and their interests with the Americans. It is a flattering idea. What they do not want is for the Americans to give them a list of hoops to jump through to gain entry into some pre-determined good-boys club. They feel like their power, wealth, and heritage should be more than enough to qualify for  automatic entrance to any club.

    Read the rest here.

    Richard Nixon, who was the external strategic architect of China’s rise in order to use China as a counterweight against an increasingly aggressive Soviet Union, faced a similar situation that Greer described above with the Soviets. Nixon’s détente summits with the Russians were diplomatic triumphs where LBJ’s summit at Glassboro with Kosygin had been a failure because Nixon shrewdly understood Soviet psychological insecurity, a deep sense of paranoid inferiority and the hunger for respect as a superpower equal of the United States. Leonid Brezhnev, Kosygin’s ascendant rival was desperate for this American political recognition and Nixon and Kissinger played this card (along with the geostrategic shock of the China opening) to wrest concessions in arms control and restraint (for a time) in Soviet behavior from Brezhnev.

    Playing this card is not possible with China.

    While there seems some emergent rivalry between China’s prime minister Li Keqiang and China’s President Xi Jinping that loosely mirrors the Kosygin-Brezhnev dynamic, the analogy is otherwise a poor one. Despite sharing Marxist-Leninist DNA in their institutional structure, China is not at all like the Soviet Union in terms of culture, history or ambitions. The Chinese not only lack the national inferiority complex that drives the Russian psyche, they suffer from the opposite condition of a superiority complex that outstrips their actual capacity to project military or even economic power. This has given rise to popular frustration and manic nationalism in China, with bitter recriminations about “small countries” and “hegemonic powers”. It also has created a strategic lacunae where China has in a short span of time gone from enjoying good relations with most of the world to a state of habitually irritating almost all of its neighbors and periodically threatening two great powers – rising India and Japan – and one superpower, the United States.

    In short, China already is as T. Greer argued, a committed revisionist power.

    We cannot buy off or bribe China. Unlike Brezhnev who needed American credits for his domestic economic program to cement his place as supreme leader, Xi Jinping has carried out a ruthless purge of the party and government under the pretext of an anti-corruption drive. Xi does not need or want our help in his domestic squabbles. Nor would he or another Chinese leader be content with symbolic gestures of Beijing’s “parity” with Washington. “Parity” will not satisfy Chinese leaders unless it comes with attendant symbolic humiliations for America and an American retreat from Asia. Forever.

    If American leaders do not wake up to this reality and do so quickly then it is time for a new leadership class with less sentimentality and clearer vision.


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