Sunday, August 21, 2011

UNsung Heroes

Vincent Cochetel arrives to Moscow after his release

In 2008, when Samantha Powers’s biography of Sergio De Mello, “Chasing the Flame: One Man’s fight to Save the World,” was published it was a bit of an oddity.  Jon Stewart’s interview with Rachel Weiz prior to the release of her new film “The Whistleblower” last month was more run of the mill. 

“I am going to lose faith in our institutions,” Stewart quipped, “to hear that the UN mismanaged military contractors in a war-torn nation.” 

I cringed.  As an American “International Civil Servant” you get used to a certain degree of reflexive anti-UNism in our political discourse.  But, when it comes from the left, from a pundit you actually respect, it is unexpected and stings. 

I happened to be in New York when Powers’s book came out and I excitedly bought it in hardback.  Powers painted a picture of Sergio De Mello as a very cool and deeply flawed guy who, while accomplishing incredible things at some of the defining UN missions of his era, was also (for most of his life) a hard-drinking womanizer.  I couldn’t put the book down and, okay, I admit it – I became a bit of a Sergio groupie after finishing it.*  Many of my UN colleagues gently chided me,

“It’s ridiculious to lionize a man just because he happened to be killed at the bombing of the UN Headquarters in Baghdad.”

The unspoken paratheses at the end of this sentence seemed to be, “no UN staff member deserves to have such praise heaped on them.”  Why not?  Sergio’s death was tragic, but his life was extraordinary.  When I was in the Marine Corps I pored over the autobiographies of Chesty Puller, Dan Daly and all the rest.  I devoured every detail of these men’s lives and remained hungry for more – what made these guys tick?  Ask a Marine what he loves most about the Corps and the words you will hear mentioned most frequently include, comraderie, esprit de corps, tradition and history.  Part of this ethos is the mystquie of the larger than life men whose stories are the story of the Marine Corps.  Was it so strange to be fascinated by the UN’s luminaries?  More to the point, was it so strange to assert that we have even had luminaries? The UN has had its share of heroes: Ralph Bunche, Paddy Ashdown, Dag Hammarskjold – these men’s stories are the story of the United Nations.  And not every one of them gets the attention they deserve.    

In the summer of 2009 I attended the United Nations / Scotland Yard Hostage Incident Management Course.  Here 32 professional UN Security Officers were indoctrinated in the nitty gritty of the negotiation process and the ins and outs of managing a hostage incident.  All week I had been waiting excitedly for the Friday session, when we were to hear from Vincent Cochetel.  Vincent is a senior manager at the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and holds the dubious distinction of being the UN staff member held longest in captivity – 11 months in Chechnya. 

As Vincent stepped in front the class I thought he looked a bit like the American comedian Robin Williams, like your favorite college professor – ruffled, scholarly.  At the beginning of this talk he apologized for his strong French accent.  You don’t really apologize for a French accent though, you draw attention to it and then smile as the crowd warms up to you.  Say what you want to about the French, but you have to admit, they are some charming sons of bitches.   

Vincent was abducted from his apartment in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia.  A gun was put to his head and he was told to kneel.  He commented that when you watch films or read books you always think of what you would do in such a situation.  No one thinks they will kneel.  But, as Vincent put it, when the gun is pointed to your brow, “You kneel.  And you are afraid.”  The weight of these two sentences hung in the room for several moments after he said them.  He spent 72 hours in the trunks of various vehicles on his way to Chechnya.  When he arrived he stank of dried piss and was so cramped he could hardly stand. 

The men tending to Vincent in captivity rotated.  He spoke of sexual advances, of days without food, of eating soup he knew had been fouled by a particular nasty pair of teenagers’ urine.  Don’t try to set limits for yourself he warned; when trying to purchase survival, you forfeit the right to negotiate the price.  He spoke of life inside his skull, playing translation games in his head from French to Turkish to English, of decorating an imaginary house in his mind, of working out with the frame of his bed.  He spoke of a near release.  He spoke of UN Security Personnel with a degree of respect that is not often heard in the organization.  Sometimes he paused and sometimes his voice wavered, but when it did so it wavered with courage. 

Vincent is a professional United Nations staff member who bravely endured terrifying conditions in the service of others.  I cannot imagine the pain he felt when one of his captors whispered his thanks for the UNHCR shelter that housed him and his family during the first Chechen war.  Vincent tells his own story much better than I ever could – here’s a clip of an interview he gave on World Humanitarian Day in 2010.  If there is a part of the heart that produces valor, then the experience left that part of Vincent’s heart swollen. 

Most days I’m glad I ended up a Field Security Officer in the United Nations and not in the alphabet soup of U.S. government agencies where I thought I would find myself after graduate school.  Like any big bureaucracy, the UN has its defects (but, as someone who has been a defense contractor, I cannot say they are any worse than the waste and abuse I saw at the Pentagon), but there are also great things about the organization and the people that serve within it.    In U.S. political culture, one’s attitude toward the UN traditionally constitutes a sort of political litmus test: positive = liberal, negative = conservative.  But, after you see the missions in Chad, Darfur, Haiti and all the rest, you understand that the United States is dependent on the UN for cost effective peacekeeping and humanitarian intervention.  My experience in the United Nations has made me a true believer in it. 

That’s not to say that I don’t find myself sometimes nauseated when my colleagues casually justify risky field trips with spongy humanitarian buzzwords like “encouraging sustainability,”  “fostering a gender balanced approach” and “capacity building.”  The end-goal of any humanitarian program should be to make itself unnecessary.  I worry that this is not always the objective of people whose livelihoods are tied to specific projects.  But, while it may sound hopelessly jingoistic, the raw fact of the matter is that if there was no UN the United States would often be forced to choose between letting chaos continue unchecked in many parts of the world or footing the bill of intervention alone.  What would be the third option?  In terms of human life, international security and money, it is bi-partisanly in U.S. national interest that UN peacekeeping and humanitarian interventions be done well.  The sooner American policy makers recognize this and give the organization the capabilities to live up to its obligations, the better.       

I made a point of approaching Vincent after his talk and I wish I could have come up with something better than a firm handshake and “Thank you so much for that.”  It was a good reminder for me: despite my occasional disgust with the more fervent tree embracers among my colleagues, the vast majority of the women and men serving in the organization are proud dedicated, international civil servants.  And many of them are made of tougher stuff than they are given credit for.  Happy World Humanitarian Day.**

**On August 19 2003 22 people were killed in the bombing of the United Nations Headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq.  World Humanitarian Day is held on the anniversary of this attack. 

***Vincent, thank you for your permission to write about this.  

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Straight Liberal Guilt

Mildred and Richard Loving - June 13, 1967

“The struggle for marriage equality is about more than the definition of marriage; it is about the definition of justice.”  David Remnick

Recently, during a conversation about marriage equality a colleague asked, "how can you be in favor of gay marriage, but against affirmative action?" It struck me as an odd question that convoluted two unrelated issues.  Isn’t that kind of like asking how can you be in favor of federal funding for stem cell research and still support a two state solution for Israel and Palestine?   “Not at all,” he replied coolly, “for me both affirmative action and gay marriage are clear-cut issues of social equality.”


Back in 2008 a friend of mine got married in Santa Barbara, California.  As one would expect from a wedding in Santa Barbara, it was a beautiful ceremony.  Another friend was one of the bridegrooms.  There are things about being a bridegroom that suck – the requirement for a witty toast alone is a lot of pressure.  At this particular wedding, my buddy and the other bridegrooms were expected to start the dancing at the reception. My friend, like me, is not a dancer.  To make matters worse, apparently there were more bridegrooms than bridesmaids because my pal ended up standing around on the dance floor like a kid who just lost at duck-duck-goose. Except in a tuxedo. With about a hundred people staring at him. Jokingly, I stood and offered my hand.  Most people laughed. The gay dude at the table across from me did not. In fact, he stared daggers at me for the rest of the evening.  I ended up standing next to him at the bar later that night and his one word answers to my attempts at small talk confirmed that it wasn't my imagination. I had really offended this guy.  It was a road to Damascus moment for me.  I’d always found white liberal guilt annoying, but I never fully appreciated the futility of it until right then. 

About six years ago I interviewed for a job in Washington, DC.  At the time I was doing a "paid" fellowship at a U.S. Government agency.  I had just finished two years as a penny pinching graduate student and another six underpaid months on a fellowship abroad.  I was sick of being broke.  I really wanted this job.  The interview was conducted in the panel format. When I walked into the room I faced three surprised white people determined not to betray their shock that one of the interviewees for a position that called for fluency in Russian was a young black man.  The white liberal guilt in the room was palpable.  I just wanted a job. These three people on the other hand, desperately wanted to show me that they weren't racists.  The same way I wanted to prove to that guy at the wedding that I wasn't a homophobe.  How do you prove such a negative?  And more to the point, should one have to?   

The roots of white liberal guilt are difficult to explain to non-Americans.  It’s easiest just to say that the legacies of slavery and segregation have left a unique stamp on the collective American consciousness.  But, it does not make any sense for whites to feel guilty or for blacks to feel outrage about these things now.  Thomas Sowell contends that much of what is said and done in the United States regarding race which makes no sense emanates from a,

"…desperate desire of whites to avoid being considered racists and a desperate desire of blacks to avoid being considered inferior."*

Thomas Sowell is kind of the Clarence Thomas of black intellectuals.  No, he's never been accused of sexual harassment, but, similar to Thomas, most black Americans view Sowell with a mixture of disdain and apathy.  Mostly apathy.  This is unfortunate.  An economist by training, Sowell makes well-informed and (refreshingly) honest assessments about race in the United States.  Sowell consistently poses the one question that is rarely addressed regarding Affirmative Action programs: do they work?  That is, if the stated goal of such programs is to right historic wrongs or encourage diversity or increase economic equality (or some weird hodgepodge of these three), how well do they accomplish this?  Again, Thomas Sowell:

“The general orientation of white liberals has been one of “What can we do for them?”  What blacks can do for themselves has not only been of lesser interest, much of what blacks have in fact already done for themselves has been overshadowed by liberal attempts to get them special dispensations – whether affirmative action, reparations for slavery, or other race-based benefits – even while the net effects of these dispensations has been much less than the effects of blacks’ own self-advancement.”* 

I am not an across the board Sowell advocate (he is too dismissive of the courageous men and women who participated in the Civil Rights movement and his indictments of liberals are too broad and sweeping) but the points he raises regarding Affirmative Action deserve further and serious inquiry within the black American community.  One thing is sure, guilt driven politics makes for ineffective policy.  Affirmative Action programs are unnecessary, unfair, counter-productive and chiefly designed to alleviate white liberal guilt.  The justification for marriage equality, however, is guilt free and justice heavy.  Gay couples are not petitioning for special rights, but equal ones.  This is the distinction between these two issues. 

After New York State’s passage of the Marriage Equality act in June, I found myself again discussing this topic, this time with my friend Suad in Moscow.   Suad is a former Colonel in the Bosnian Army – a very tough and smart guy.  He’s the type of dude who will walk into your office in the morning, throw a cord on your desk and demand that you show him all of the knots that you can tie.  Suad is also awesome, because he’ll then take 30 minutes to teach you three knots and explain to you why it’s useful to know them.  He’s still a Colonel at heart; for him training your men is just what you do.  He saw enough frightening stuff during the bad old days in the Balkans to know that it might save someone’s life one day.  I was surprised to find that this guy, whom I have so much respect for, had never really considered some of the nitty-gritty, practical justifications for marriage equality: health and life insurance, the right to see your loved one if he/she is incapacitated, shared bank accounts, estate planning, Social Security benefits.  Not special rights, equal right.  Suad got caught up in what makes him uncomfortable and lost sight of this.  Your comfort level (or religious views or sense of propriety) have no business infringing on other people’s rights.                     

A little over fifty years ago in the American south, a young man white man fell in love with and married a young black woman.  The young man’s name, Richard Loving, demonstrates that in addition to being long and bending towards justice, the moral arc of the universe also has a great sense of irony.  One night in 1958 three armed law-enforcement officers entered the Loving’s home in Central Point, Virginia.  The sheriffs roused the couple from bed and placed them under arrest for violation of Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act; at the time fifteen other states had similar anti-miscegenation laws on the books.  On that July night, in the Untied States of America, Richard and Mildred Loving spent the night in jail.   The Loving’s marriage was not legal in all 50 states until 1967 when the American Civil Liberties Union successfully argued their case before the U.S. Supreme Court – Loving vs The State of Virginia. 

Neither was an activist of any kind – just two people in love.  They were not after special rights, just equal ones.  We all would like to think that we would have been on the right side of this case back then.  But, would we have?  Or would we have dithered over what society is “ready” for?  If you have an argument against gay marriage is it an argument that the State of Virginia might have used in 1967?  Mildred Loving did not make many public statements, but in 2007 she said this: 

“Surrounded as I am now by wonderful children and grandchildren, not a day goes by that I don't think of Richard and our love, our right to marry, and how much it meant to me to have that freedom to marry the person precious to me, even if others thought he was the "wrong kind of person" for me to marry. I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. Government has no business imposing some people's religious beliefs over others. Especially if it denies people's civil rights.

I am still not a political person, but I am proud that Richard's and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That's what Loving, and loving, are all about.”
It takes a special type of hatred to sincerely believe that two people who love each other should not have the right for their relationship to be equally respected under the law.  Fuck what makes you uncomfortable.     

**This obituary ran in the Economist when Mildred Loving passed away in 2008.  Worth reading.