Saturday, June 09, 2007

Sorenson, Kennedy and the third Sachs' Reith lecture.

This is another post in a continuing series on the BBC 4 Reith Lectures 2007: Sachs and the modern world. The MP3s are no longer legally available but the BBC has put the transcripts online.

The first lecture was rather good, though several of the comments were pompously silly. Is immortality worthwhile if it means being mocked forever?

The second lecture, in China, spent too much time managing the tender sensibilities of the host nation. This was probably politically wise, but it made for a dull speech. I was starting to get tired of the Kennedy references, but I was about to change my opinion.

The third took place in Sachs' home base - Columbia University's Earth Institute. There was no need to worry about the sensibilities of the insensate American government of course, so the material was quite a bit sharper. I was particularly impressed by Sachs discussion of fear and human nature:
... Two deep aspects of human psychology are crucial here. The first is that human beings hover between cooperation and conflict. We are actually primed psychologically, and probably genetically, to cooperate, but only conditionally so. In a situation of low fear, each of us is prone to cooperate and to share -- even with a stranger. Yet when that trust evaporates, each of us is primed to revert to conflict, lest we are bettered by the other. Game theorists call this strategy "Tit for Tat," according to which we cooperate at the outset, but retaliate when cooperation breaks down. The risk, obviously, is an accident, in which cooperation collapses, and both sides get caught in a trap in which conflict becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In that all-too-real nightmare, we end up fighting because we fear that the other will fight. This fear is confirmed by fear itself. Wars occur despite the absence of any deeper causes...
In responding to a comment Sachs discussed the nightmarish indirect impact of 9/11 ...
... September 11 was an extraordinary event, clearly without being banal about it. It opened up the possibilities for much worse than we could have imagined, much worse about us. It led to an end of introspection for several years, to bellicosity, to faith in the military approach, to the idea that we could bludgeon them all - after all we are the world's sole superpower.
Future historians, I suspect, will treat 9/11 as in some ways analogous to an assassination that has a certain (in this case considerable) direct impact, but a potentially much larger indirect impact. Will America's post-9/11 psychotic break be one day seen as the beginning of the end? It is miraculously mysterious to me that we have not had another significant attack -- for that, I think, would have been a fatal blow to America's fragile psyche.

The most remarkable part of the lecture, however, was the presence of Theodore (Ted) Sorenson in the audience. Mr. Sorenson is 79 years old, but he evidently has one of those lucky minds that by virtue of brilliance and biology resist entropy. Of course he must have prepared in advance, but even so ...
... SUE LAWLEY: We have, as you mentioned, during the course of your lecture, Jeff, we have Theodore Sorensen - Ted Sorensen - sitting on the front row there, lawyer and writer who was Special Advisor and speechwriter to President Kennedy. I wonder, having heard everything you've heard this evening, sir, whether you'd care to say something?

THEODORE SORENSEN: That's very nice, thank you. It's been an extraordinary experience for me to sit here tonight and listen to such a wise and wonderful lecture, with so many references to a speech given forty-three years ago, and I'm sure if President Kennedy were alive and here tonight he would be moved and touched as I am to think that that speech of his, that basic message of his forty-three years ago is now going out through these BBC lectures all over the world. Since I know a little bit about the speech that you frequently cited, I wonder why…

SUE LAWLEY: Can I just say, did you write it?

THEODORE SORENSEN: Oh I never acknowledge that. President Kennedy was the author of all of his speeches. (LAUGHTER & APPLAUSE) Or I, or what I should say in answer to that question is, 'Ask not'. (LAUGHTER) So my recommendation to you, Jeff, when you make this lecture again, is to cite two other parts of that speech. One is a passage where President Kennedy said, 'The world knows America will not start a war. This generation of Americans has seen enough of war.' Haven't heard that recently! The second was where he not only asked for a re-examination of our relations with the Soviet Union, but praised the Soviet people for the enormous contribution and sacrifice they made in World War Two, which no-one had ever done before, and the Soviets rather resented it, and it was one of the ways that he reached Khrushchev. Seems to me we live in a world where the people of Islam have been rejected and humiliated for generations, and if someone took the time to praise their contributions to civilisation over the centuries, that might help.

(APPLAUSE) [jf - this applause went on for a decently long time]

JEFFREY SACHS: Don't you think we have the makings of another speech coming? (LAUGHTER) I think it is so astounding that President Kennedy's and your speech was not only so brilliant that it gives shivers when you read it or listen to it, but it literally worked within weeks. It did exactly what it was meant to do: it changed history. This is an astounding, astounding truth, and it's an astounding accomplishment of, of this man before us tonight. It's just amazing.
And thus I came to change my opinion of Kennedy/Sorenson's 1963 speech, an oration that Sachs feels saved modern civilization. His case is persuasive, and so I now understand Sachs weaving the speech throughout the 2007 Reith lectures.

Whatever Kennedy's many (many) flaws, he assembled an astounding group of people, and he drew upon the best parts of America in a way we cannot imagine today. We seem, by comparison, a shriveled and brittle people. We have no choice, however, but to imagine that there is a road back for this country and for the world.

There are two lectures still to go.

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