A question for Everyman and Everywoman, living our life in the world as we are, the world of the CIA and Senate reports on terrorist interrogations, the world of Ferguson and Cleveland and Staten Island— and of Nazi generals too, which is where this story begins.
Though the dialogue in the film, “Diplomacy” is unusually rich, with honest attention to the complexity of history and human hearts, it is those words that are most haunting. Set in the final hours of the Nazi occupation of Paris, with the Allies at the literal gates of the city, the story is of the Nazi commandant responsible for Paris, and of a Swedish diplomat who masterfully makes an apologetic for why the city and its citizens matter.
The issue? Hitler had ordered that Paris was to be destroyed, and with the Allies entering, plans are fully in place for every architectural glory to be blown up. The Louvre, the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, the bridges over the Seine— everything. And now the hour has come, and the only decision left is when, not if, the order will be given.
But it is the question, “What kind of man are you?” that caught my heart, and it is the question which finally found its way into the heart of the general. Everything about him was formed by the belief that “orders are to be obeyed at all costs— always.” The drama is over the question of means and ends, the complicated calculus by which we decide about our responsibility for history. Are there ever other reasons to choose? What might they be? What could they be? That we still know Paris as an incredibly beautiful city is due to the fact that at the last minute, the general chose his humanity over his politics, deciding to be a human being first, a politician second.
I saw the film last night, and went to bed thinking about it, pondering as I was the political brouhaha over yesterday’s release of the CIA’s interrogation policy and practice, post-911. Because it must be, one more time we are faced with the question, “What kind of man are you?” and to put it more corporately, because it is a question for all of us, “What kind of people are you?” Who are we? What is the truth about us?
I have had conversations in the last day with friends who have spent years of life within the CIA and the State Department, and who know the reality of realpolitik— so are not romantics about anything that matters to all of us and the world. The state exists to steward power well, with justice for all, for the sake of all. Simply said. The one with the CIA history spent 20 years with the “agency,” rising to the most senior level of authority; the other had senior responsibilities with both the Senate and the State Department; together they know the world of international diplomacy and intrigue, inside and out.
Who are we? What kind of people are we? Those questions were our conversations, and while there were answers, they were not cheap.
Of course it is not only Nazi-occupied Paris, or even Washington wrangling over itself that is the only issue here. The same question, “What kind of man are you?” is the heart of the Ferguson, Cleveland and Staten Island tragedies as well, wounds to our national soul that they are. Who are we? How are we going to live? Who do we want to be? Who in truth are we?
The question, complex as it is, is one that I have been thinking about since I dropped out of college, living in communes for two years, one in the Bay Area and one in Europe, trying to understand my place in the world. I had questions to ask, and college was not a very good place to ask them. I still remember that first year, living in Palo Alto, CA not so far from the Stanford campus, when I began to understand that the way we answer the question of our humanity— who are we? what does it mean to be human? —affects everything else in life. Sex and love, economics and politics, the arts, what history means and doesn’t mean, every part of life is formed from what we believe about the human condition, and of course that is why understanding the truth about ourselves matters so very much.
What kind of man are you? It is still a question that runs through my life, but it is a question for everyone everywhere.