January 19, 2011
Tina Brown, editor of the Daily Beast and Newsweek, checks in again for the occasional recommended-reading feature Morning Edition likes to call Word of Mouth.
This time, she brings with her a book and two articles about people faced with change, a constrained set of choices and the limits of control — from President Obama to the highest of private-sector achievers to, finally, a first responder cracking under the weight of his job.
‘Violence of Peace,’ Lessons Of Leadership
Brown’s first choice is Stephen L. Carter’s latest book, which she calls “a brilliant meditation on the morality of war and how Obama is faring as a war president.”
“[Obama has] had to accommodate himself, in a sense, to the absolutely unknown pressure … that transforms the occupier of the Oval Office,” she says.
How Obama has handled his transformation from a peace candidate to a war president figures prominently in The Violence of Peace. (The title is published by Beast Books, the imprint associated with Brown’s online journal.)
Obama, Brown notes, was a harsh critic of the Bush administration’s foreign policy and national-security efforts during the 2008 campaign. Since taking office, he has “actually followed the Bush maxim, and he’s increased the use of everything from missile strikes to secret military operations.”
But “rather than rushing to condemn him, Carter, who most of us would see as a liberal — he’s a law professor at Yale, knows Obama quite well — he regards this really as a signal that the vehement attacks on Bush, in fact, were overblown,” Brown says.
Those partisan attacks, which Brown cites in a passage from the book, distract from essential warfare strategies:
In so dangerous an age, we dare not treat arguments over warfare as opportunities to indulge our partisan side. There’s not a Bush way to fight, adopted by Obama; there’s an American way to fight, common to many of the nation’s wars, adopted by them both. Put most simply, we fight to win.
They’re core American interests, to put it another way, which any American president will be compelled to pursue with whatever means are available.
Carter in fact is critical of Obama, Brown says, “for not being more willing to talk about winning.”
“He actually makes a very good point,” she says. “In the Vietnam generation, [people] were intimate with the battles that took place during Vietnam. They could actually name the names of the battles — you know, the Tet Offensive, Khe San. But [Carter] says, ‘How many battles of the Iraq or the Afghanistan War can the public name?’ “
“He says that if Obama regards the wars that he’s fighting as moral imperatives … then he really must be willing to talk about winning.”
A ‘Social Animal,’ Caged By The System?
Brown goes from the geopolitical to the personal with her next choice: a New Yorker article by David Brooks, the New York Times columnist and NPR contributor. In “The Social Animal,” Brown says, Brooks writes about nothing less than how “the new sciences of human nature can help make sense of a life.”
And just as it will surprise some to find Stephen Carter defending Bush administration policies, Brown says, it’s startling to discover Brooks — “the consummate intellectual thinker” — writing about “the necessity of understanding the inner flows of consciousness.”
There’s a cultural bias in American society, as Brooks notes in the piece: We’re keen on teaching and learning career skills, but we’re “inarticulate when it comes to the things that matter most.”
“Young achievers are tutored in every soccer technique and calculus problem,” Brooks writes, “but when it comes to their most important decisions, they’re on their own.”
Brown is particularly fond of a narrative device Brooks creates for the story: Harold and Erica, “the quintessential modern achieving couple.”
He calls them “members of the composure class,” Brown explains: “They got good grades in school, established solid social connections, joined companies, medical practices, law firms. He writes, very memorably, ‘Wealth settled down on them gradually, like a gentle snow.’ “
And then Harold, listening to a lecture, has an epiphany. The speaker is a neuroscientist, and as Brown explains it, he’s talking about “the many flows of information that create a mind.”
“There’s the evolutionary piece, the genetic piece, the unconscious-response piece,” she says. “There is also the intellectual piece.”
The point of Brooks’ article is that “all of these things kind of meld to make a mind — and right now we’re very, very focused on the outward part [and] really ignoring some of these other components.”
Seeing A Future For ‘The Man Who Saw Too Much’
Brown’s final pick digs into the story of a 60-year-old Colorado man who, after decades of responding to Aspen’s worst emergencies — from the skiing accident that took the life of Michael Kennedy in 1997 to a horrific, fiery plane crash that killed 18 in 2001 — developed a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder. A man who for years chose to risk his life saving others, but who couldn’t choose to turn off the part of his mind that recoiled from the scenes that job entailed, Michael Ferrara is the subject of a profile in the January 2011 issue of Outside magazine.
A Story That Hit Close To Home
In May 2010, ‘Tell Me More’ host Michel Martin filed this essay about her brother, a former New York City firefighter and Sept. 11 responder who had recently taken his own life.
Norman McQueen Jr.
Can I Just Tell You?
Maybe Someday Love Will Cure Despair
“This piece talks about what we don’t realize — [that] post-traumatic stress syndrome can apply just as much to first responders as it does to military vets,” Brown says.
Author Hampton Sides chronicles the long catalog of catastrophes that wore Ferrara down: “Plane crashes that kill every single person,” Brown says. “People who fall from the mountain and kill themselves. Infant death syndrome.”
As Ferrara begins to unravel, he is haunted by what he calls “a slideshow of horror,” flashbacks from the worst of these tragedies. It leads to drug abuse, and eventually to a nervous breakdown.
Now recovered, Ferrara no longer works as a first responder. Instead he works to raise public awareness of just how harrowing the job can be, and how to help the men and women who do it.
Starting in March, to boost the profile of his First Responder Recovery Project, he plans to ski across the state of Alaska — “an altogether ridiculous and beautiful idea,” as Hampton Sides writes, and a feat Ferrara believes has never been accomplished before.