Thursday 11 June 2009

Nixon & Complexity

Prior to George W Bush the most reviled president by pretty much unanimous opinion in recent American history was Richard Nixon. However, after a few years of listening to my early American baby boomer friends or non octogenarian civil rights supporters trash the name of Richard S Nixon I took the time to read into this complex figure who in my eyes is pretty much inseparable from Kissinger as they both dominated the political stage that extended from a year before my birth in 1969 to 1974 when Nixon was ceremoniously (sic) squeezed out of the Whitehouse while walking across the Rose Garden lawn towards the helicopters with one final wave to the cameras before a life of relative obscurity.

There's something about seminal helicopter shots in U.S. history such as the last line of South Vietnamese people desperate to bail out of Vietnam before the Viet Cong triumphed with the fall of Saigon. Yeah, helicopters and history is something I'll always associate with the Americans in much the same way that the Chinese will forever be associated with Tanks and squares.


 Incidentally this famous photograph of the fall of Saigon was taken by Dutch photojournalist Hugh Van Es who died just under a month ago here in Hong Kong. It is all connected you know even if it's largely some illusory Black Swan post rationalised causality.

Traditionally the view of Nixon is one of mendacity, vulgarity and sneaky subterfuge, and yet, it is one I can reconcile with the other side that I want to talk about because let's face it, the problems don't lie with our politicians, they lie with the electorate and our complete inability to handle the truth or even discuss it in an adult manner. That doesn't mean I'm not surprised by the sheer scale of human fallibility over on the other side of the Atlantic with the MP's expense claims which are surely not that far morally from those who claim income support while having an income from work. Benefit cheats sounds so much more dramatic and I'm surprised the press haven't dreamed up a more sticky label for the "right dishonourable members of the Parliament". I digress.

 Clearly the thorniest role that confronted Nixon was Vietnam and there's no denying that in order to extricate the United States from that holy fuck up of ideological warfare in proxy countries that a lot of nasty, ugly and criminal decisions were taken such as the bombing and warfare that took place across the Ho Chi Minh trail which veered into Laos (the most bombed country in the history of the world) and Cambodia thus compromising the lives of millions of their own inhabitants. I'm on record as being hugely fond of the Laotians and the Khmer because of the inexplicable and retarded snobbery they face from other developing world candidates such as Thailand who exercise the rule of marginal superiority acted out from deeply evident insecurity in the manner of the arriviste nouveaux riche against old money while more than aware that side by side with the Benz and it's logocentric Star, is the sticky steamed rice, the stink bean and the ubiquitous calloused hands from pre-school tilling of the paddy fields of Isaan, more often than not controlled by the plutocratic Siamese Chinese families as indeed they do across South East Asia.

 But back to Vietnam because despite the claims of denial by Kissinger  (Nixon is now gone) there can be little ground for conceding that nobody knew what was going on in the Mekong Delta and it's a crime against humanity that only the land of the free are obliged to defend themselves against. However we all know that 95% Americans don't even know the difference between Taiwan and Thailand because as long as the milk and honey is flowing in the lands where territorial transgressions are the sticky issues there's little need to have an empathy for what is known as 'the other'. When it's always about two sides isn't it?
 Which brings me on to the nature of this post because I'm of the opinion that the duality of binary classification is no longer a simplistic luxury we can afford and it's time if you haven't started to look, for the complexity and infinite shades of grey that exist between the polar states of good and bad, black and white, north and south or up and down.

 Life isn't some post war halcyon consumer years of rosy cheeked goodness and evil empire badness, though of course that latter term was Reagan's contribution to political history, yet we now see Obama introducing the nuance of different types of Islam between Cairo and Jakarta and which it would be wise to pay attention to (if taking a look at Islamic country birth demographics for example).

To bring anything to the advertising planning table is the ability to embrace complexity and distance oneself from the relentlessly overly simplistic reductionist role of account planning which is one part science to two parts art and not the other way round.  Particularly now we know that homo economicus is forever dead. And so with that mental perspective in mind I want to reverse back, full speed and with screeching tires (distant sound of police siren in the background) into Nixon's career because it was his role with the Plumbers and the repeated and subsequently scandalous 'break ins' of the Democrat National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate office complex and now forever preserved in political history and it's meme like propensity to term any scandal with the suffix of 'gate' and which first came to light when on June 17, 1972, Frank Wills, a security guard at the Watergate Complex, noticed tape covering the locks on several doors in the complex. He took the tape off, and thought nothing of it. An hour later, he discovered that someone had retaped the locks. The scandal revealed the existence of a White House dirty tricks squad but to my mind, the democrats could have played a smarter game with what they left out for the uninvited breaking and entering squad.

More to the point is that the labeling of Nixon as  monolithic-bad doesn't do justice to one of the more contradictory and paradoxically subtle minds of the post-war Whitehouse. Here we have a president as in the above video playing his own Piano Concerto.

Furthermore once we distance ourselves from the morally repugnant Indochina actions and the break ins that subsequently required extensive lying, we have a figure who was easily one of the most intellectually qualified of his era, and a character who was responsible for the detente that was fostered in partnership with the Soviet Union (unthinkable really given the postwar context) and most markedly became the first president to visit Chairman Mao and extend the hand of tentative friendship with the Communist China.

 One only has to think of the McCarthy era to understand the deeply Pavlovian response of the American peoples to anything of a socialist nature despite the recent global socialization of the banking system from the efforts of their last GOP president.

Nixon was also responsible for the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) "clean air, clean water, open spaces" and so we have a complex figure with both the vulgarity of a Bronx bare-fist fighter and the intellectual subtle fingered sensitivity of  a concert pianist, the diplomacy skills of the long term thinker and player as well as the DNA of a progressive environmentalist. Arguably the only game in town as we observe the decline of the American empire.

So in summary embrace complexity and only settle on reductionist simplicity once the really hard work of weeding out the immortally terrible and the infinitely unworkable.

A lot more difficult than one might think.

(I'll come back and try get the formatting right but it's still a mess in draft blogger)