10 Things You Just Don’t Do In the 21st Century

A handy cheat sheet for American secretaries of state

Mon, Sep 7, 2015
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An authority on good manners

Demonstrating a spectacular knowledge of modern history – unprecedented among American politicians, for whom there is only “now” or “ancient history”, US Secretary of State John Kerry has contrasted the 21st and 19th centuries. 

He famously stressed that there are certain actions that don’t really belong in the 21st century, even though one might have done them two hundred years ago. He put it this way:

"You just don't  in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext.”  

Even though that particular charge against Russia’s annexation of Crimea can be disputed, the historical knowledge of the Secretary should clearly be praised.

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Furthermore, it is worth expanding the list--in case his successors decide to manifest even greater historical acumen.

1.  In the 19th century, Americans viewed wars as a “European Affairs,” preferring industry, trade, and economic advancement to wars and international interference. You just don’t do it in the 21st century. Wars have become primarily an “American Affair,” the engine behind the economy as our country continues to be engaged in endless military conflicts, plenty on a “completely trumped up pretext.”

2.  In the 19th century, intellectuals and writers like Tolstoy, Zola, and Mark Twain used to protest militarism, violence and arbitrary use of force. Tolstoy was writing denunciations against Tsarist government’s abuses, Zola accused the French government of organizing a travesty of justice on the basis of trump-up charges against Dreyfus, Mark Twain wrote his brilliant expose, “United States of Lyncherdom.”

Nineteenth century calls for peace and understanding are so passé. You just don’t do that in the 21st Century.   Nowadays, intellectuals prefer bombs to pens.  Mocking the spirit of Munich, they demand “action,” coining such inimitable slogans as, “Give war a chance,” “bomb into a stone age” and other intellectual nuggets of the same magnitude.  See this excellent Counterpunch article for some examples. 

3.  In the 19th century, leaders in most countries would change by succession within a royal family. Sons would replace their fathers; brothers replaced each other; or wives would replace husbands.  But not in the in 21st Century.  In the United States, for example, the leaders come from two different families. First Bushes, then Clintons, then Bushes, then Clintons. For the sake of avoiding endless and meaningless ideological arguments, endless TV shows and debates, maybe we should simply rename the two main parties “Bush” and “Clinton.”  

4.  In the 19th century, diplomats and statesmen would burn papers with documents that they didn’t want to world to see, and that would be the end of it, despite Mikhail Bulgakov’s bold claim that “manuscripts don’t burn.” In the 21st century, we just don’t use paper documents. It becomes very difficult to delete the unwanted letters, however. Rephrasing Bulgakov, we can say, “internet files don’t burn,” to a great chagrin of many lying and myth-making individuals in various positions of power.

5.  In the 19th century, Britain’s Lord Elgin stole beautiful sculptures from the Acropolis and brought them to London. You just don’t do that in 21st century since an act like that will surely provoke universal condemnation. Instead you bring bombs and destruction, and create chaos that engulfs invaluable historical artifacts and ancient civilizations. You might then “remove” valuable artifacts from its museums for safety. An even better policy would be to bankrupt the country and then slowly strip it of all its valuables. With today’s technology you can transport the whole Acropolis. And then turn it into some theme park in Germany or casino in Las Vegas. (Hope Donald Trump is listening).

6.  In the 19th century, refugees left Europe and arrived in their new countries wretched and hungry, but in one piece. In the 21st century, you don’t do that. Instead, the heirs to these refugees (Brzezinski, Albright, Nuland, Power) design brilliant policy that destroy the political, economic and physical infrastructure of remote countries as Syria or Iraq, then flood Europe with the refugees from these countries, in various degrees of deadness one might add -- drowned, suffocated and so on. Judging by recent events in the news, maybe it is high time for Tom Petty to change the refrain to his song: “you don’t have to die like a refugee.”  

7.  In the 19th century, authors would write stories like, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” exploring the strange metamorphosis of the human psyche. You just don’t do that sort of thing in the 21st century. Instead, you put people like Dr. Jekyll in positions of power. People like that very State Secretary John Kerry who in his youth would address the Senate with passionate words protesting both the execution and the rhetoric of the Vietnam War; yet who in the 21st Century would champion the very politics he vehemently oposed.

In 1971 Kerry has this to say on behalf of Vietnam vets: 

what threatens this country, the fact that the crimes threaten it, not reds, not redcoats but the crimes which we’re committing are what threaten it; and we have to speak out. … The country doesn’t know it yet but it’s created a monster, a monster in the form of millions of men who have been taught to deal and to trade in violence, and who are given the chance to die for the biggest nothing in history; men who have returned with a sense of anger and a sense of betrayal which no one has yet grasped.”

Likewise, only in the 21st century do you first receive a Nobel Prize for Peace, then bomb seven countries, as did President Obama, who clearly needs to get the Robert Louis Stevenson prize (author of Dr. Jekyll and Hyde) before he leaves his office.   

8.  On the subject of literature, it is worth noting that in the 19th century people wrote novels about historical events: War and Peace or Le Rouge et Le Noir. You just don’t do that in the 21st century. Instead, you turn the fantasy of the novels into reality, be it Kafka’s nightmares, or Orwell’s satire. Instead of imagination coming to term with reality, you mold reality into what you imagine. To quote the politician who articulated this process:

“That’s not the way the world really works anymore… We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities.”  (Karl Rove quoted in the NYT, October, 2004)

9.  In the 19th century, foreign policy was taken seriously. In 1855 Lord Aberdeen resigned from his post of British Prime Minister when there was a Parliamentary inquiry about the British conduct in the Crimea War.

It was the journalistic dispatches of Sir William Howard Russell on the suffering of British soldiers that made British citizens question the competence of Lord Aberdeen’s government. Sir Russell did not denounce his British opponent, Tsar Nicholas I; he did not pontificate against the corrupt Russian society, even though it was an easy thing to do. Instead, he wrote about the neglect and cruelty that common English soldiers had to experience in the hands of their superiors. Sir Russell naively presumed that one shows one’s patriotism by revealing what one’s government does to ordinary citizens and soldiers.

You just don’t do that in 21stcentury. You first dismiss journalists like Sir Russell as Kremlin stooges, and then try to imprison, silence, and intimidate the citizens who share his old-fashion understanding of patriotism.

As for politicians, nobody resigns in the 21st century. In fact, the more bloody and unsuccessful your foreign adventures are – be they of Clinton, Bush, or Obama – the greater are your chances to remain in power.    

10.  In the 19th century, Russia created a culture that the French poet and thinker Paul Valéry viewed as a miracle while considering it a splendid contributor to a wonderful yet fragile European civilization. We are not interested in various contributors to European civilizations in the 21st century. In our jingoistic fever, it is our own nation that we proclaim “exceptional,” while dismissing Russia as a country that “doesn’t make anything.” We also encourage journalists with an equally jingoistic grasp of western civilization to pontificate endlessly on Russia’s anti-western character.  

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