Thursday, July 29, 2010

Gateway of empires

I'm sick unto death of every article and blog response on our futility in Afghanistan referring to that nation as "the graveyard of empires." Even the estimable Maureen Dowd has not been immune when it comes to falling for that canard.

While it is true that fierce, forbidding Afghanistan proved to be the undoing of the British and the Soviets in the modern era, it is equally true that Afghanistan was the gateway of empires in earlier days. The Persians, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan -- pick your autocrat and your period, they all conquered Afghanistan with varying degrees of difficulty.

Alexander, for example, waged a long, bitter guerilla-style war there. (For an account of this, see Frank Holt's critical "Into the Land of Bones: Alexander the Great in Afghanistan." Those who like their history fictionalized might prefer "The Afghan Campaign" by Steven Pressfield, the man who wrote "The Legend of Bagger Vance" as well as a more general Alexander novel, "The Virtues of War.")

In the end, though, Alexander conquered Afghanistan, as he did the whole of the Persian Empire. To say it was his undoing merely because it was hard would be like saying the Yankees lost to the Red Sox simply because they won 8-7 instead of 8-0.

Yet such is the complete lack of classical education, historical knowledge and thus context in our country that people believe anything they read and repeat it wholesale without questioning it.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: History is not the past. It's the story of the past. Without a knowledge of that story, you cannot project yourself into the future.

Far more useful for us in Afghanistan than who conquered whom -- the country's conquerers remained tethered to that region, something we have no intention of doing -- is what other lessons can be gleaned from various campaigns. In the case of Alexander, he was very eye-on-the-prize. For all his romance and questing spirit, he pursued his enemies with a laser-like focus that was truly daunting, as when he tracked down Bessus, who betrayed the Persian king Darius III and thus posed a threat to his successor, Alexander himself.

It's that kind of single-minded determination that could've served us well in the pursuit of Osama bin Laden.

It could serve us well still.

Read Georgette Gouveia's pieces for Westfair Business Publications at

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The lion in winter

As a longtime Yankee fan whose family were season ticket-holders, I have many memories of George Steinbrenner, whom I first encountered when I was a teenager and he was the team's new owner, a lion in his prime.

I can still see him sitting at a front table at the Stadium Club at Shea Stadium (during the years in exile, 1974-'75), loudly berating his players. I remember then thinking he was an overbearing father figure. Later, I came to view him as a person of tragic, almost Shakespearean conflicts -- a vulnerable human being whose terror at that vulnerability drove him to despise it in other brilliant, damaged men, namely Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson.

My last memory of Steinbrenner has some bearing on an arts blog as it took place a few years ago at what was for me an artistic event. I was waiting to interview Ralph Fiennes about his film "The Constant Gardener" during a press junket at Manhattan's Regency Hotel when Steinbrenner -- who stayed at the hotel during the baseball season -- strode through the lobby.

As I subsequently wrote, the crowd of tourists, young people and hotel employees parted as if he were Lorenzo de' Medici holding court in Renaissance Florence.

"How ya doin', Boss?" people said. "We're going to win tonight, Boss." And especially, "Thanks, Boss."

Even Fiennes and company were intrigued. Fiennes stood there watching the proceedings and chatting amiably with his colleagues, his hands thrust deep into the pockets of his cream-colored pants, his pale-pink shirt untucked. He struck me as someone waiting for the jitney to the Hamptons -- a latter-day Gatsby still in search of his Daisy.

There was something elegiac about that warm summer evening. Or perhaps the mind merely ascribes to the past the emotions of the present.

"Who is that?" Fiennes' party wondered.

"That's George Steinbrenner," I whispered, "owner of the New York Yankees, the most successful team in American history."

No acknowledgment, so I tried again: "The team has some sort of partnership with Manchester United."

Smiles of recognition. Fame is both great and limited.

For his part, Steinbrenner took little notice of the sleek movie star, the other film people milling about, the teenagers giggling on the couch, the exhausted tourists and their hungry children, even the eager well-wishers.

Like a character out of F. Scott Fitzgerald, he got into the waiting limousine and sped off into the night.

Mooning over Miami

For the July 19th edition of the Westchester County Business Journal, I reported on Thom Collins leaving his post as director of Purchase College's Neuberger Museum of Art to become the new executive director of the Miami Art Museum. I've shared many pleasurable business lunches with Thom over the years and have always savored his wit and his far-ranging, quicksilver intelligence. I shall miss him terribly. But at the same time, I know this is a wonderful opportunity for him that comes at a time when that city is in the midst of building a $220-million Museum Park.

I have to say, though, that what struck me most about his departure was that it coincided with the LeBron James imbroglio. (The coincidence plays a role in the article and in Thom's pointed comments.)

There are some -- OK, very few -- similarities here. Both are going to Miami. And both worked in Ohio, Thom as chief curator of the Contemporary Arts Center there.

Reaction to their leave-takings has been very different. Everyone is sad to see Thom go but wishes him well. Whereas you would think James' first name was Jesse (as in the outlaw and Sandra Bullock's cheatin' ex-hubby.)

Why? In truth, the similarities are more extensive than they might appear to be. Both men are very talented. Both used their talents in service of their profession for a number of years in a particular locale. And both have decided after doing all that they could in their current assignments to seek professional challenges and fulfillment elsewhere.

Yet why is one a villain? The easy answer is that no one cares about art, which is, comparatively speaking, not the big money that sport is. Many of the infantile comments about James seem to suggest that because he has been paid so exorbitantly by the Cleveland Cavaliers he must remain chained there forever.

I wonder if these same bloggers would turn down a lucrative, creative job in an exciting market that would reunite them with old friends. By their reasoning, we should all remain precisely where we are, even, I guess, when the boss no longer wants us. (You can bet if the Cavs wanted to dump James, the word "loyalty" wouldn't enter the picture.)

The hard, complex truth is that all choice is about affirmation and rejection. In choosing for something or someone, you're choosing against something or someone else -- hence the words in the marriage vows "and forsaking all others".

James made a decision that CEOs, opera directors, conductors, museum executives and other high-profile, ambitious people make all the time: He chose to move on. It has nothing to do with how nice he is or isn't, how much money he makes or whether other cities desired his abilities. It has only to do with his own view of career fulfillment. He may not be the intellectual Thom is. But surely, he understands that his decision is mainly about business.

As for loyalty -- well, he hasn't abandoned his mother or sold secrets to the Russians, has he? Loyalty is a commitment to family and country. Often it's a one-way ticket that requires the sacrifice of the self.

Loyalty in business, however, is a two-way street. And considering how many workers in this economy have given their hearts to a job only to have it handed back crushed, it's looking more and more like a boulevard of broken dreams.