I feel fortunate to have attended a liberal arts college.
I also feel fortunate that, during those years, I wasn’t fixated on some specific future. Unlike the pre-meds and pre-laws who could rarely stray from their focused, discipline-specific requirements, I had the freedom of selecting courses for the most personal of reasons. And when I chose Introduction to Art History for one of my second-semester freshman year classes, I had such a reason: I wanted to understand why people liked to go to museums.
By the end of that semester, I had aced the Art History course, and I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a regular basis. I “got it,” and I also knew that I owed my parents an apology. So, that summer, when I was home in Virginia – regularly donning tacky polyester for my minimum wage cashier’s job at Hardee’s – I expressed my regrets to Mom and Dad. “I’m sorry,” I said to them, reflecting on the summer we’d gone to Europe, back when I was nine. “I’m sorry that, shortly after we entered the Louvre, I announced – in my headstrong way – I’ll just sit on this bench until you’re done.”
But that wasn’t the first time that I had behaved stubbornly, and it would not be the last.
… By my senior year of college, I’d declared my Poli-Sci major, and I had identified my particular interest in electoral politics. As I selected courses for the first semester of that year, I had some leeway, and I once again applied a personal reason as I selected a particular course.
The course was Introduction to International Politics, and the professor, whose last name began with a Z, was known as a force to be reckoned with. She also included, in the syllabus she distributed year after a year, the requirement that her students read The New York Times – front to back – every day. Having never been much of a newspaper reader, I needed that requirement. And it was for that reason, and that reason alone, that I signed up for the course.
Unfortunately, Professor Z was on sabbatical that year, and the mousy, young, untenured so-and-so who was hired to lead the course not only made no mention of our reading the Times, but she provided me with little incentive to meet any of the course’s requirements. I ultimately took advantage of the college’s rather lax rules on attendance.
Since I wasn’t going to class very often, I totally missed the announcement: we were to have some big Mock International Conference. We would be assigned countries to head and conflicts to confront. And because the instructor had distributed all our phone numbers a good week or so ahead of the gathering, we were empowered (or maybe encouraged) to conduct a lot of mock diplomacy prior to the actual three-hour faux event.
One night, in the suite I shared with five other students, the phone rang.
It was for me.
I sauntered down the hall and perched myself on the stool that was within reach of the wall phone and just outside the bathroom.
“Hello?” I said.
The guy at the other end immediately began talking about armies and factions and allies and enemies and treaties and… I was quick enough to realize he was from the International Politics class; my disinterest was profound.
So I just listened. And he talked and he talked.
And when he was finally done, I said, with little inflection, “You know, I really don’t care what you do with your troops or your forces. Just be sure to put those little soldiers back in the toy chest before you go to bed.”
And I hung up, thankful that college transcripts do not allow comments on whether one “works and plays well with others.”
… That course didn’t teach me to read The New York Times, but it did teach me this: I do not view myself (or most people) capable of understanding international politics adequately, and where wars or other forms of global conflict are concerned, I will never "get it."
But I also know that we need for people to get it.
… At the end of April, I was experiencing blogger burn-out, so I opted to run a four-part piece during the Wednesdays of May, when I would usually post something new. A week after that decision, I experienced another type of burn-out: NPR (which provides me with all the information I don’t read in The New York Times) was dwelling on the biggest story in ten years: Osama Bin Laden’s death. The accounts of what happened were reported, and when those accounts changed, they were reported again. The questions arose. The news was non-stop, and I got tired of hearing about it. Yes, I agree that it was a moment in history, but there is a whole lot of evil out there. One really bad guy being done away with is not going to make everything suddenly peaceful and right.
Two weeks later, I was visiting my Mom in Virginia, and the news had died down. Maybe because it had, a question popped into my head: if the exact same scenario had played out under Bush II’s watch, what would I believe?
Would I believe that he was really killed? Would I be pissed off about the fact that he was killed as opposed to being taken captive? Would I question the burial at sea? Would I wonder what really happened at that little compound where he had managed to live, undiscovered, for five or six years?
I’m grateful that what happened did not occur under Dubya’s watch, because – frankly – I wouldn’t want to dwell on those questions. But the fact that they came up for me, in that what if context, reminded me of the importance of trust. When it comes to the complexities of international politics, we must trust the “deciders.” If we don’t, it will be impossible not to entertain conspiracy theories and the like.