The more we and other democracies can show the world that we can deliver, not only for our people, but also for each other, the more we can refute the lie that authoritarian countries love to tell, that theirs is the better way to meet people’s fundamental needs and hopes. It’s on us to prove them wrong.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken
Moving abroad in the post-WWII world, Bob and Nan Amerson were steeped in liberal democracy. Their years at Macalester College (Dad, Class of ‘50; Mom, ‘49), like those of Walter Mondale (Class of ‘51), were deeply influenced by President Charles J. Turck’s commitment to internationalism, community service, and civic affairs. Fritz Mondale became a champion of liberal politics, while my parents expressed their civic spirit in their willingness to live abroad as America’s representatives, allowing the world to get to know our country through them. For a quarter century, my parents shared American culture, hospitality, arts, and traditions, believing in the vision so beautifully described by David Brooks.
Liberal democracy is based on a level of optimism, faith and a sense of security. It’s based on confidence in the humanistic project: that through conversation and encounter, we can deeply know each other across differences; that most people are seeking the good with different opinions about how to get there; that society is not a zero-sum war.
When my parents joined the US Foreign Service in 1955, they became part of, to borrow from President Obama’s memoir, A Promised Land:
the American army of diplomats and policy experts promoting the principles of a liberal, market-based system — individual freedom, the rule of law, strong enforcement of property rights and neutral arbitration of disputed, plus baseline levels of government accountability and competence — and the economic and political heft to promote these principles on a global scale.
Barack Obama, A Promised Land (get here on Audible, narrated by President Obama)
Around the world, American diplomats are carrying out that duty today, holding to the challenge laid forth by President Biden in his speech to Congress last week.
Can our democracy deliver on its promise that all of us — created equal in the image of God —have a chance to lead lives of dignity, respect, and possibility? Can our democracy deliver on the most pressing needs of our people? Can our democracy overcome the lies, anger, hate and fears that have pulled us apart?
President Joe Biden
Our diplomats are counting on us to answer with a resounding yes.
My father, Robert C. Amerson, had the good fortune to serve in Italy twice during his diplomatic career, meaning that I grew up speaking Italian in the 1960’s and again in the 1970’s. Maybe that’s why this morning’s article about the death of an Italian diplomat caught my eye, but Luca Attanasio’s story is so much more.
The Milan daily eulogized Luca Attanasio, the Italian ambassador to the People’s Republic of Congo, who was gunned down yesterday, along with a carabinieri official and a United Nations driver. According to a New York Times article by Megan Specia and Gaia Pianigiani, were in a World Food Program convoy en route to a school in the eastern part of the country when they came under attack. It is presumed that the ambush was a kidnapping effort gone wrong by one of myriad rebel groups who are vying for control of the mineral-rich area.
If your image of “diplomat” still looks like a stuffy eminence grise in white tie and tails, look at who this man was.
He was just 44, one of the youngest ambassadors on the globe. His was a meteoric rise through the diplomatic corps: commercial secretary in Berne, counsel in Casablanca, chief-of-mission and then ambassador in Kinshasa.
He met and married his Moroccan wife in Casablanca. Zakia Zeddiki is the founder of Mama Sofia, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the education of street children. Attanasio was honorary president. They had, wrote Anne Le Nir for Radio France International, dedicated their lives to helping others.
For their altruistic work in the support of humanitarian projects the couple was awarded the International Nassiriya Peace Prize, wrote RFI.
Everything that we in Italy take for granted is not so in Congo where unfortunately there are still many problems to be solved. The role of the embassy is above all to stay close to the Italians but also to contribute to the achievement of peace.
NOTE: Today, I am launching Politics Monday, following the PBS NewsHour model, kicking off my blog week with posts relating to government. My Wildcard Weekend post was a book review. Coming up: Travel Tuesday, Wellness Wednesday, Family Friday.
Inauguration night’s Celebrating America television program featured Tom Hanks’ earnest declamations about democracy, inspiring songs from Springsteen and Bon Jovi about better days ahead, and touching vignettes from first responders, children volunteers, and other pandemic heroes. It was both corny and moving, from Hanks’ Lincoln Memorial opening to Katy Perry’s Firework fireworks.
Biden’s inauguration concert a safe, soothing tribute to anti-fascism.
It made the hairs on my neck stand up.
American public relations was my father’s USIA work overseas
Celebrating America was exactly the type of program about American democracy that my father, Robert C. Amerson, would have shared with foreign audiences during his career with the United States Information Agency (USIA).
The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 authorized the State Department, USIA, and the Voice of America (VOA) to exercise “public diplomacy,” telling the truth, painting a convincing picture of America, and explaining our motives in a manner that combatted Russian propaganda. It was the Cold War, and America was vying with the Soviet Union for world domination.
Truth can be a powerful weapon.
Smith-Munda Act of 1948
But the same products were prohibited in the USA
USIA told good stories about our country, like a film about Wilma Rudolph, the Black track and field athlete who won three gold medals at the 1962 Rome Olympics during my father’s Italian assignment.
It seems a shame that Americans will never see it, but USIA’s enacting legislation prohibited the domestic dissemination of its materials.
Robert C. Amerson journal entry,
Aiming the propaganda machine toward our own citizens was not permitted. The chilling example of the Nazis controlling Germany by saturating the airwaves with Hitler’s demonic messaging was a cautionary tale, and America’s effort needed to stand in contrast to the USSR’s propaganda machine.
Apart from Freedom of Information law access, the prohibitions of the Smith-Mundt Act still stand.
And now we’re selling democracy to americans
The Trump administration took America on a steep slide down a slippery slope into rage-filled self-interest that culminated in the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Giving his inauguration address standing where domestic terrorists had stood, President Biden included the word “democracy” ten times in his Inauguration Address — five times in just the first ten lines — and he closed by exhorting us to work together.
And together, we shall write an American story of hope, not fear. Of unity, not division. Of light, not darkness. An American story of decency and dignity. Of love and of healing. Of greatness and of goodness.
President Joe Biden
The evening’s program continued these themes, said The Independent, “highlighting from their very inclusion just how fragile those ideals had become beneath Trump’s fraudulent thumbs.”
Much of the show resembled a public health warning about fascism.
Wednesday’s opposition rally against Venezuelan President Maduro (and pro American-supported activist Guaidó) marked the 61st anniversary of the overthrow of Venezuelan president Perez Jimenez.
I have recreated the events of that day in the title story of my draft memoir, WHEN THE DICTATOR FLEW OVER OUR HOUSE & OTHER TRUE STORIES, from which this excerpt is taken. For more insight into the American Embassy’s delicate diplomatic position, I will post portions of Dad’s 1994 historic first-person account of that day, the attack on Vice President Nixon some months later, and the rest of his 1955-59 first post: HOW DEMOCRACY TRIUMPHED OVER DICTATORSHIP. https://www.amazon.com/How-Democracy-Triumphed-Over-Dictatorship/dp/1879383330
PART II. [Perez Jimenez has fled Venezuela. The American Embassy team is watching and listening through the night.]
Dad turned down the radio for a minute and leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. He took a deep breath. “We’re to sit tight. Hard to tell what’s going to happen, but better to be here together than get caught up by a crowd in the street.”
He wasn’t sure how much my mother had heard about the deadly chaos of rampaging mobs the last time Venezuelans threw out a tyrant. The Canadian Embassy had approached the office several months ago about consolidating evacuations. That had seemed like a remote possibility. Maybe not anymore. The Embassy was in downtown Caracas, several miles away from the tree-lined residential neighborhood on the western edge of town where we and several other Embassy families lived. Time to touch base with one of those colleagues.
“Let me give Russ a call.” He lifted the receiver and dialed. He spoke quietly into the receiver as Fina arrived with the coffee, her face noticeably more relaxed.
“Algo mas?” Anything else?
My mother forced her lips into a smile.“No, gracias, Fina.”
The maid nodded.“Pues, buenas noches.”
“Buenas noches.” Good night. My mother took a sip of the strong brew. None of that wimpy American coffee down here, and there was so much more they truly loved about this place. She took another sip, allowing the liquid heat to relax her back into the sofa.
Dad hung up the phone and turned the radio back up. Better to know what’s coming. He sat back. “Okay, so maybe there’s something,”
My mother was instantly back on high alert.
“We may want to hide the car,” he said.
“Hide the car?”
“They’re looking for PJ’s head honchos. Russ just had a mob in front of their house thinking his diplomatic plates were Venezuelan issue for the regime. Lucky for them they headed down the block before Russ pulled out his gun.”
“His gun?” Mom sat up straighter. “We don’t have a gun.” She paused. “Do we?”
“No. And, no, I don’t think it’s going to come to that.”
The radio crackled as an enthusiastic voice broke in.
“Periodistas!” he said. Newspaper editors! You are finally free. Tell the public that the dictator is gone!
“Imagine that,” my father said. “An uncensored paper. First time in ten years.”
“The car?” my mother prompted. The diplomatic plates on the Oldsmobile sitting in our driveway a few feet from the street could easily be confused with those issued for the Venezuelan government. “Do you think maybe we should put out the American flag? I mean, we’re the good guys, right?”
My father considered the suggestion. “Well, we know we’re the good guys,” he said, “but I’m not so sure everyone agrees. Better play it safe. Got some Crisco?”
My mother hurried back to the kitchen and returned with the blue tub. Dad dipped out a handful. He opened the front door slowly, paused, and stepped out. The air was still and heavy with the scent of ripe mango. The pop pop pop of fireworks echoed from downtown, or was that gunfire? But nothing closer.
My mother huddled by the doorway as Dad crept across the little yard to the Oldsmobile, dropping down to smear the license plate with grease and dirt. He hurried back inside and my mother shut the door, securing the lock. Dad turned off the radio. They both took a breath.
“Let’s try to get some sleep,” he said.
The words were barely out of his mouth when a car careened around our corner, brakes screeching, horn blaring in defiance of Perez Jimenez’ edict against honking. My mother froze, her eyes wide. Would the Olds camouflage work? They didn’t have the firepower Russ had used to intimidate the crowd at his door. But the driver and his euphoric passengers flew by cheering and continued toward downtown.
“Like winning the big game,” Dad said, downplaying the anxious moment with a shrug of his shoulders. Another car swept loudly by. “I think all the action’s downtown. Nothing more to do except get that rest. I think it’s going to be a long day.”
Mom looked in on us girls again. Susie and I were still fast asleep, untroubled by the noise and innocent of the drama unfolding around us. Mom wondered if she’d be up to the task of keeping to a normal routine in a city that was in chaos. My preschool would be closed so both us kids would be home, and Mom hoped that Dad would stay home as well. She’d need to watch Fina: Susie and I would absorb her mood without understanding it. Everything needed to be normal.
She climbed back into bed.
“Everyone OK?” Dad said.
They lay still, eyes closed and ears open. Another few cars gunned by. In the distance, the bleating of car horns sounded. And gunfire. The night wore on.
As dawn made its tentative advance, they heard a whispered sound like prairie grass in the summer wind. It grew steadily louder. They crept to the living room window and peered through the glass slats and metal bars. Out of the fading night, a parade of men and women shuffled by, their passage marked by the soft whoosh whoosh of the alpargata slippers worn by the people that lived in the shacks up the hill. It was like the Easter processionals, only instead of the statue of a saint, each person carried a chair, or a television, or a file cabinet.
“Looters,” my father said. “They’ve broken into the police station.”
This was way more than my mother had signed up for.