Violence is appealing. It’s probably in the DNA. Thus, violence sells. Bestsellers, movies, video games, comic books, and television, to name the main media venues, market violence. Consumers become addicted, and purveyors make a ton of money.
Now, there is a certain vague but elaborate justification for that. Periodically, persuasive formal bulls are promulgated regarding the sanctity of the free market by those best in position to profit from economic free-for-alls. Cocaine, opioids, guns, armaments, mercenaries, surveillance technologies, private prisons, contemporary slavery, money laundering, and shell companies domiciled in offshore tax havens aren’t necessarily defended per se, but the free market principle, treated as a sacred cow, at least keeps inconvenient questions at arm’s length.
And, truly, one can sympathize with the universal desire to make a buck. It’s hard for people to take serious issue with anything which helps pay the mortgage, even if it, you know, kills people. That’s the commercial world, a world, seemingly, gone wild, and dragging the earth’s population behind it down the burning streets.
But what about the political world? How is it that every political leader from Washington to London to Moscow to Beijing, and most points in between, seems compelled every morning to announce a new enemy, a new outrage, and a new mission to stomp the enemy and stop the outrage?
The usual explanation is that it’s a dog-eat-dog world, and any sign of cheerful, convivial cooperation is an invitation to complete destruction. But is it so?
Notice, if you will, there’s never proof of these assertions. Which brings up the possibility that unapologetic exploitation and aggressive dominance are more lucrative personality features of the leaders than they are national survival necessities. Indeed, rampant violence would seem to involve at least as many costs as benefits for the general public, at least as much national risk as security. And notice, too, that economic exploitation often follows right on the heels of the righteous violence. Paranoia and profits appear to be connected!
What follows is a review of some books which avoid belligerent paranoia, and which avoid violent exploitation, but which make money in an atmosphere of cheerful confidence. That is . . . agape.
Agape is an ancient Greek notion which goes something like this: get along with everybody; don’t make enemies; give at least as much as you expect to get; consider everyone kin, even if a tad distant. Oh, and you could dress up a bit; and try to be in a good mood; and be friendly—everyone likes those things; they bring out the best in others. An ancient term for this kind of attractive, genial generosity was charisma, derived from the more fundamental concept charity.
Now, I know what you’re saying—you’re saying all that was a long time ago, and no one in the modern world of, say, the last hundred years, is either going to be like that, or is going to find that appealing; it won’t work; that was then, this is now. But is that so?
Here is a proposal: agape is just as appealing, just as sensible, just as peaceful, and just as prosperity-generating as it ever was—an eternal virtue. Consider the following books. They are by, or about, people and cultures exemplifying agape. These people and cultures make a sparkling impression, are friendly with most everyone, are associated with very handsome incomes, and represent, altogether, class acts in a peaceful world.
Jane Ridley’s Heir Apparent is a biography of Edward VII, the British king. Ridley is a university professor who obtained extraordinary access to primary records in the UK and even in Denmark related to “Bertie”, as he was called, and who took copious notes. (She shares many, many of these notes with the reader.)
But she takes a bold, refreshing angle on King Edward and the Edwardian era. Bertie was rejected by his mother, the rather rigid Queen Victoria. In his rebellion, he became a bon vivant rake, a playboy prince. Little was expected of him when he assumed the throne at fifty-nine years of age. He surprised everyone.
He was fluent in German and French, his wife was Danish, and he spent much time on the Continent. His diplomatic objective was to remain on good terms with everyone. He even adapted to the growing power of Parliament. He was careful, in his own way, with the royal finances and thereby relatively independent. He ended up presiding over and guiding an era that, in hindsight, may have been the peak of the British Empire. Overall, it was elegant and prosperous, courteous and convivial, upbeat and proud. It was a society that enjoyed living, even down to those simple Edwardian pleasures of walks, boating, family picnics, and tea-time. Eminently, manifestly, powerfully, confidently civilized.
Elaine Sciolino was at one time the bureau chief in Paris for the New York Times. The cover of her book, La Seduction shows a woman’s bare legs and feet in high heels walking up steps. Just slightly scandalous and evocative. Which is a shame, because her whole point is the reverse of that impression.
La Seduction is a relatively breezy and entertaining read. Sciolino covers some of the obvious themes—the iconic Eiffel Tower, bistros and food, perfume, fashion, and romance, and along the way she provides a fascinating glimpse of what it was like to be the Paris bureau chief of the American newspaper of record. But all this functions as a premise for her larger point.
The concept of “seduction”, within the French culture, is perhaps closer to the English concept of charisma—to engage and persuade with attractiveness, with pleasing, magnetic charm. There may not be (regrettably or otherwise) such a place as the “London of the Middle East”, or the “London of the East”. But there are places once widely known as the “Paris of the Middle East” (Beirut) and the “Paris of the East” (Saigon—Ho Chi Minh City). That is because the French way of life is so appealing, so glamorous, so beautiful, so inviting—people absorb it on their own initiative.
Sciolino mentions that, “The whole French culture has love at its center”, characterized by a “General fearless and joyful contact with life”. Such an attitude is far more impactful than it appears. That is, charisma, affection, and beauty form a surprisingly viable principle of living, relating, and prospering, even at the international level. Elegant France is the most-visited country in the world, and, in addition, has one of the largest economies.
The next books form an intriguing quadrumvirate, describing the lives of four smart, kind, wealthy women who are remarkably similar. Then offered is a biography of the beloved icon, Mr. Rogers.
First, Oscar-winning actress Sophia Loren began life during the World War II era in Naples, Italy, desperately poor, in a brutal environment. Fortunately, she was born to a brave, shrewd, and loving mother. Loren’s autobiography, Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: My Life, is a chatty romp through celebrity existence. However, it is also profoundly intelligent and integritous. Throughout her life she defined success as developing talents, working hard, and accumulating sufficient capital to thrive, but all within a framework of honesty, affection, and good relationships. Her character was the foundation of her success, as much as her beauty and her silken personality.
Second, the character of Oscar-winning actress Audrey Hepburn also was forged in the crucible of World War II, in danger and dire poverty, though in the Netherlands. Her son, Sean Ferrer, in Audrey Hepburn, An Elegant Spirit, produced an easy-reading, short, photograph-filled homage to his mother who, he said, was the exact same sweet, thoughtful, intelligent person who appeared on the screen. “She believed in love. She believed love could heal, fix, mend, and make everything fine and good in the end.”
Suspected of being a child member of the Resistance (which she was), she was captured by the Nazis, but she smoothly escaped and emigrated to Britain. From Britain, living on a pittance, she still managed to regularly send money to the Dutch Resistance, at great risk to herself.
Third, Nana Mouskouri, one of the best-selling female singers in the world, also began life in the bone-chilling, starving brutality of World War II, though on Crete, in Greece. Her straightforward autobiography, Memoirs, details her scrupulous, conscious attempt to build a wildly successful career while maintaining her sensitivity, open-minded respect for others, and personal integrity. Though initially trained as an opera singer, what apparently stunned popular music audiences all over the globe was her sincere warmth, her manifest love for people, for life, for the world, the radiant power of the Greek concept of agape—selfless caring for others. Her compassionate attitude was the foundation of that agape world which she imagined, which she experienced, of which she sang, and which, in her performances, she partly brought into fruition.
Fourth, Oscar-winning Julie Andrews, in Home: A Memoir of My Early Years, details her graceful and ebullient exit from trauma—family illness and alcoholism, poverty, then the German blitz and sleeping in the subway shelters, then a grueling life of performance. Succeed or die, was the situation.
To some extent, she forged her own sterling character: “I made a resolve to myself that whatever I did, I would do it to the best of my ability and make myself useful”. Her mantra was, “We will get through this”. By the time she was about fourteen, she was singing professionally, still going to school, and taking financial and personal responsibility for her entire family. A truly inspiring story about a marvelous personality.
Is there a more cherished man in the history of America than Mr. Rogers? Many children over the years have mentioned that they came home from school sad and upset, turned on the television, watched Mr. Rogers put on his tennis shoes and his red sweater, and heard him tell them he was their neighbor. Then, almost magically, they felt reassured, and calm again. In Kindness and Wonder: Why Mister Rogers Matters Now More than Ever, Gavin Edwards traces the pilgrimage of Fred Rogers from theologian to childhood talisman.
Edwards’s tome doesn’t have quite the satisfying gravitas and punch of Julie Andrews’s memoir, but then Mr. Rogers was always more local television than Broadway. Kindness and Wonder clarifies that Fred Rogers’s ability to make children feel grounded and secure was pure intent, a kind, golden hand reaching out of the anonymous darkness into the living rooms of Main Street every afternoon.
Hepburn, Mouskouri, and Andrews were Goodwill Ambassadors for UNICEF. It might be argued that what could be called agape diplomacy, the kind that UNICEF seems to practice, is limited. There may be something to that, seeing that force can have a tonic, and thus somewhat mesmerizing, effect on opposition. Yet force, too, is limited.
Violence versus Agape
Almost no recent military system had the explosive power of Nazi Germany, rolling over almost everything in its path. Yet, in just fifteen years the Third Reich imploded, and its leaders committed suicide, leaving the nation, wakened from its toxic dreams, a starving, smoking, shrunken wreck, grasping, like a drowning man, for the right side of history.
Genghis Khan, too, exploded out of Mongolia and mowed down everything in his path across Asia to Europe and the Middle East in a terrifying, massive homicidal tragedy. But now Genghis Khan is a giant statue gazing across the lonely, rolling grasslands of northern Asia that “stretch far away”, as Shelly put it in “Ozymandias”, having left almost nothing of distinct cultural value, his people to a great extent returning to their traditional ways, surviving on the very edge of world consciousness.
Indeed, the dramatic power of violence may be something of an illusion.
Some could argue that elegant, caring charisma—agape—might be alright in personal circles, but wouldn’t have any traction in the economic realm, which, for many people, is the bottom line of existence. However, the Hawaiian manager and leadership coach Rosa Say has built a career of applying and teaching the very similar principles of ‘ohana (family) and aloha (the spirit of love) to managers, described in her book Managing with Aloha. Great business leaders, according to the distinguished Jim Collins in Good to Great, are caring, generous, thoughtful people—just the kind of manager top employees want to work for.
Synthesis: Agape Diplomacy
In the end, what humans want perhaps more than anything else is not violence and domination, but a vision of a good life, in a beautiful place, full of wonderful people—earthly paradise. Over the years commentators have virtually dismissed the Edwardian world as being insubstantial, not quite real, not real in the way that violence is! Women in boaters and long skirts on plaid blankets eating picnic sandwiches and listening to Handel . . . men in striped cotton coats and white pants, sipping ale, and exchanging witty repartee . . . children holding balloons and listening to the adventures of Alice and Peter Pan. Convivial relations among nations . . . a world largely at peace. Really—was that so bad?
These topics and figures—the French lifestyle, the Edwardian era, and Loren, Hepburn, Mouskouri, Andrews, and Rogers—are not only easy to dismiss, they are difficult to register. It is not obvious that elegant, caring charisma is a trait per se, or, if it is a trait, that it might be well worth developing, and applying to world problems. It tends to slide pleasantly and innocuously into the public’s presumption of a correct world. Thereby it becomes almost invisible. But when fully realized it is brilliant and dynamic, as can be affirmed by any visitor to Paris with its charming booksellers by the Seine, its cozy cafés, and its stimulating street life, or by any drop-in to a cheery Brit pub, as in the SoHo’s of Hong Kong or London, or by any fan of Loren, Hepburn, Mouskouri, Andrews, or Rogers.
So charming, so enjoyable, so humane . . . so entrancing and persuasive across time and across borders . . . agape diplomacy. Is this not a higher road of existence? Isn’t it time we routinely heard about agape-style relationships and communication from our schools, our leaders, and our media? And if not now . . . when? (Not, one hopes, when it’s too late.)