Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Camille Paglia on Relationships

From atop her lofty academic perch Camille Paglia often regales us with incisive commentary. In a column about the Obama administration's gaffes she offers some advice on gift-giving. She says that this "all important ritual ... has cemented alliances around the world for 5,000 years." Link here.

A gift show who you are and how you see the other person. It can show respect or disrespect; it can cement an alliance or degrade it.

Similarly with ceremony. Participation in ceremony signifies presence to the relationship; failure to do so signifies absence.

Paglia was inspired by the multitude of diplomatic errors Obama made during last week's visit by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

One mistake might have been an oversight. Consistent errors could only be interpreted as a repudiation of the special relationship that has existed between the countries at least since World War II.

Obama may have been sincere when he said that he wanted us to be better liked around the world, but he is not going to achieve that goal by disrespecting our closest ally.

After 9/11 Tony Blair had loaned the White House a bust of Winston Churchill. It was a gesture of friendship and solidarity in a time of distress. It had been sitting in the oval office ever since.

As a prelude to Brown's visit Obama unceremoniously sent the bust back to the British embassy. Returning gifts is a slur on the giver.

Paglia was chagrined by Obama's failure to offer appropriate gifts to his guest. This lapse in protocol was also a lapse in reciprocity. When someone offers you a much better gift than the one you offer in return, the relationship becomes one-sided.

Prime Minister Brown offered a pen holder made from the timbers of a 19th century warship that had helped to stop the slave trade. Its sister ship provided the wood which was used to construct the president's desk.

To that Brown added a first edition of a biography of Churchill.

In return Obama offered 25 DVDs of American movies. The British press was grossly offended and could talk of nothing else for days.

Gordon Brown is blind in one eye and has difficulty watching movies. And it is possible that the movies will not even be watchable on British DVD players, given the different formats used in the two countries.

In a single gesture Obama damaged our relationship with Great Britain and embarrassed our nation.

Next, Mrs. Brown offered the Obama daughters pretty new dresses, carefully selected from a trendy London shop. In return, Mrs. Obama gave the Brown sons model helicopters that seemed to have come from the White House gift shop.

To add insult to injury Obama canceled a joint press conference, did not offer a state dinner or a trip to Camp David. This break with tradition and ceremony undermined the relationship further.

We are not talking about a person-to-person meeting. The United States just told Great Britain that it was not a very important ally. Consequences are sure to follow.

This is easy to understand: how would you feel if your best friend all of a sudden started treating you like an everyday acquaintance?

We should draw a couple of lessons from this imbroglio.

Too many people believe that they need to take the temperature of their relationships by measuring the depth of feeling each party has for the other. This causes considerable frustration because there is no way of really knowing what each person feels for the other, and no way of ever knowing how that feeling will or will not translate into action.

Paglia's insight is that gift-giving, ceremony, and ritual are the stuff that relationships are made of. If you want to know where you each stand in your relationship, pay closer attention to the kinds of gifts you are offering each other and take a closer look at public gestures.

Of course, if you want to degrade your relationships without having to go through a long, drawn-out, soulful conversation, then you would do well to follow the example set by our new president in his first encounter with the Prime Minister of Great Britain.

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