In a few sentences, an older Public Diplomacy officer gave me a key insight about many of the “isms” since the French Revolution – Jacobinism, Marxism, militarism, fascism, Communism, and Islamism among them. And it came from his study of inanimate machines. Here’s the story:
In 1985, Arthur J. McTaggart (1915-2003) — a USIA officer who, after retirement, became a much-loved teacher at Yeungnam University in Daegu, Korea — was honored by the publication of a festschrift by students and faculty.
As Director of the American Cultural Center in Daegu (then “Taegu”), I was asked to contribute a chapter to the festschrift. My chapter of the volume first reviewed McTaggart’s education, early work as a machinist, and Army service in World War II.
He had an interesting career path. Studying in Italy after the war, he became a locally engaged disbursing officer at the American Embassy in Rome, and after he became a Foreign Service Staff Officer (FSSO), he was assigned to Warsaw and Seoul. In 1953 he became one of the first Foreign Service Officers of the U.S. Information Agency. Art’s own Ph.D. was in industrial education, which added to the mix of knowledge and talents recruited into USIA when it was formed.
During his Public Diplomacy career, Art served in Korea for eleven years (Pusan, Daegu, Seoul) and for some years in Vietnam (Binh Tuy, Tan An, and Hue). He also worked at the Voice of America.
After he retired from the Foreign Service, he spent his remaining years in Daegu, Korea’s third city, textile capital, and home of Yeungnam University. He taught English at the University and at the downtown American Cultural Center. He donated all of his university salary to the school’s scholarship fund.
The whole chapter in the festschrift can be read here. In this piece, I simply highlight one insight Art communicated to me as I interviewed him for my chapter. It’s about his work as a machinist in Logansport, Indiana, before the war.
“You learn that machines are irrational; though their operation should follow defined laws of metallurgy, electric energy, and mechanics, they often defy the operator with some irrational element. What you learn from this is to accept that man too has an irrational side that cannot be confined by a fixed political creed. Humans rarely follow the dictates of some ordained political philosophy – usually ordained from above. They have minds of their own.”
There’s a lot to chew on in these four sentences. They offer a commonsense rebuke to the great murderous “isms” defined by supposedly universal laws (like “revolution” or “class struggle”). They reject the societies that sought to channel their citizens’ actions and thoughts, to give societies “one mind.” They imply all the freedoms enjoyed by Americans. They undergird the system of markets and enterprise that has made many societies prosperous. And isn’t “they have minds of their own” a salute to diversity?
Art McTaggart. He never made the Senior Foreign Service. He never had a plum European assignment. But thanks to Art, hundreds of students spoke better English for their careers. Over the years, hundreds of students received a university education thanks to his generosity. He was selfless. And his memory still warms the hearts of the dozens of Public Diplomacy officers who were his colleagues.
Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications in the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years.