Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Philip Bennett & the Washington Post

The toe was throbbing, and yet there was still time to read the interview between the Washington Post's Philip Bennett and the China NY-Washington Post-Times or whatver the hell they call that rag.

We're reluctant to quote the actual interview at length because despite the world-class-ness of world-class publications like the China Intelligencer and Tribune-Blatt or whatever it was, the translation really did sound a lot like a laundry ticket delivered by extras in HBO's Deadwood. For example, we can't help thinking that the following translation of an exchange between the Chinese interviewer and the American Harvard graduate interviewee isn't word-for-word accurate:

Yong Tang: The most glorious period for The Washington Post was during the Watergate days. When could the Washington Post regain that glory?

Bennett: We like that glory. Reporters should try to reach for something important. The chance to change the history is a huge burden for you if you don't have the courage to take it. That episode is extremely important for the Post and even the whole country. Investigative reporting is still a big part of what this newspaper does.

I think the Watergate is important to us and it is a present to us. Because that was also a very difficult period for the newspaper. The newspaper was under great pressure to conform, to drop the investigations and to give up. The Post showed that courageous ownership, courageous editors and courageous reporters could prevail. That is a value hopefully we have not lost.

I think the Watergate is important to us and it is a present to us. All right, call us western-biased. We're biased to think that a Harvard-educated editor of a major newspaper knows when to use definite and indefinite articles in oral conversation.

On the other hand, maybe it's like the United Nations, where everything that's true is true is because it's always been true, because the foreigners always know better, what with having been around for several thousand years screwing up their people's lives before America was ever even a gleam in some racist autocrat's eye. It's on this chance that we present the following "quote" from Bennett's interview:

Yong Tang: Is the circulation of your newspaper falling down?

Bennett: It is not falling by big number. But after many many years of growing, it is going down in a gradual way. It is alarming. We are trying to figure out ways to keep that from continuing.

It is not falling by big number. Even InstaPunk with his throbbing toe can recognize that there's something off about the language of this exchange. Yet it also reminds InstaPunk of something that some people out there in America may never have experienced. Because -- and it pains him to admit this in so many words -- InstaPunk is also a graduate of Harvard College, in which place he occasionally ran into what what were called Foreign Service Brats. And he suspects that Mr. Bennett is one of this breed. Why?

Bennett joined The Post in 1997 as a deputy national editor for coverage of national security, defense and foreign policy. He came to the paper from the Boston Globe, where he was a reporter on the metro staff, a foreign correspondent covering Latin America and later the Globe’s foreign editor. He has written about Latin America for a variety of magazines. He started in journalism as a reporter for The Lima Times in Peru.

The Foreign Service Brats were usually good looking, articulate but infinitesimally accented in their use of English ("Where is he from, anyway...?), and indescribably superior to just about everything. They were faintly amused that anyone could care who won the Harvard-Yale game. They dated beautiful girls. They had the BMW 2002 the farmer sold for big bucks in that commercial. Does it sound as if InstaPunk was jealous? Well, he wasn't. He thought they were stateless nobodies, flashy drifters with no identities, a lot like John Kerry, who lost his bid for the presidency because he was a flashy drifter who couldn't convince people he was from Boston instead of the World.

Yong Tang: In such sense, do you think America should be the leader of the world?

Bennett: No, I don't think US should be the leader of the world. My job is helping my readers trying to understand what is happening now. What is happening now is very difficult to understand. The world is very complex. There are various complex forces occurring in it. I don't think you can imagine a world where one country or one group of people could lead everybody else. I can't imagine that could happen. I also think it is unhealthy to have one country as the leader of the world. People in other countries don't want to be led by foreign countries. They may want to have good relations with it or they may want to share with what is good in that country.

That is also a sort of colonial question. The world has gone through colonialism and imperialism. We have seen the danger and shortcomings of those systems. If we are heading into another period of imperialism where the US thinks itself as the leader of the area and its interest should prevail over all other interests of its neighbors and others, then I think the world will be in an unhappy period.

You see, InstaPunk is from New Jersey, which gives him a leg up on understanding those whose first job is in Lima, Peru. Even in Lima, Ohio, people look down their noses at New Jersey. "You're from there? How awful for you." It turns out that there are only two ways to be from New Jersey -- you can pretend you are happy to have escaped the terrible place of their imaginings, or you can be happy to have escaped the terrible place of their imaginings.

I can remember feeling vaguely ashamed of being from New Jersey for years. My home state seemed to be a joke whose punchline everybody knew but me. Just the name was enough to send them into gales of laughter. But I wasn't from the place they seemed to know. My New Jersey was more rural, less overcrowded, more physically beautiful, and more entertaining than the various paradises inhabited by the scornful critics of my home. I figured they must know something I didn't, and I tried to laugh with them, pretending to be in on the joke.

Years later, I (like most New Jerseyans) returned to my home state and lived somewhere near its middle. I finally discovered the source of all the jokes, a ten mile stretch of the NJ Turnpike near New York City, where everything stinks of industry and intense chemicals. It made me laugh. So this is the New Jersey everyone looks down on, I thought. What parochial little idiots they are. And what parochial idiots New Jerseyans are for not defending their home the way everyone else does. New Jersey is the most topographically diverse state in the union, possessed of mountains, forests, lakes, and miles of dazzling beaches. Its native sons have included some of the greatest American icons -- Thomas Edison, Woodrow Wilson, Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, and many many others. Its infamous Turnpike is the Appian Way of the east coast. It's the livable haven where both New Yorkers and Philadelphians go home to at night. And thus it is the target of the genial contempt of those who merely pretend they're from somewhere else.

That's the lot of the Foreign Service Brats. They're from the U.S., butt of a million condescending jokes of the so-called sophisticates of the old world. They don't get the joke exactly, but they're eager to pretend they do, to demonstrate that they too are superior to this clicheed backwater called America, despite the passport they carry. And so they never quite go the next step, never dig in their heels and say, "That's right, I am from there -- and damn proud of it too." As a result, they're nothing but stateless little weenies, incapable of achieving final acceptance from the ignorant snobs whose opinion they value more than their own.

It's not a conspiracy. The Kerrys and Bennetts are to be pitied for the most part. People who act superior to things they are inferior to never achieve happiness, and you'll never find them strolling contentedly on the candlelit streets of Cape May on an idyllic summer evening.

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