Thursday, June 4, 2009

Blogging Post Script: Blog, Blog, Blog or Blah, Blah, Blah?

Now in Hong Kong and heading home. Two weeks of inspiration (seeing my Cambodian friends who have done so well), frustration (mainly with network connections and technology failing to meet unrealistic expectations and levels of patience), surprises (the intensity of engagement in Hanoi with all sectors), pride (the thoughtfulness and maturity of USF law students in Cambodia and Vietnam), coincidences (being in Hong Kong for the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square and hustling myself sardine-like on the subway with my Twittering, photo-snapping phone to the middle of a candle light demonstration of 150,000 people in Victoria Park), joys (the Central and Russian Markets in Phnom Penh and sipping a gin and tonic at an outdoor bar cooled by a warm evening breeze), amazement (at progress made tempered by hurdles yet to be hurdled), and humility (why is it that we think we know so much when we know so little?)

And through it all I’ve tried to engage through new technologies, blogging and Twittering as best I can from wherever I could. I come away from the experience mixed. These are great (and still developing) tools to communicate and deliver messages about the work we do and the aspirations we have. The technologies create a real (indeed almost surreally real) sense of connectedness to community. They also provide a historical record and reality that is not likely to evaporate into the ether after coming home. And best case, the technology helps you think things through in ways you might not have had you not been putting fingers to keyboard. Diaries and travelogues on steroids, I suppose.

But all that said, it takes time and patience (some times too much of each). And, blog, blog, blog can too easily become blah, blah, blah. Twittering can too easily devolve to nonsensical syllables in a frantic effort to avoid the 140 character limit set by some now-retired twenty five year old who came up with the idea in the first place.

It distracts. I cannot count the number of people at Tiananmen Square, including myself, who were pecking away on phones or hammering out words on laptop keyboards while perched on fences, sitting at fountains or sandwiched between people right in the middle of the demonstration. If the point of travel is to experience, imagine, fantasize, pay attention, relax, and see the world through the eyes of others, then the tweeting and the blogging and the emailing and the texting may not be helping. Right now, I’m in a beautiful lobby of the Shangri-La Hotel with so many interesting people discussing this and that, but I’m staring at my laptop screen. At this particular moment, I might as well be at the French Hotel on Shattuck (oy!)

And this: the access of everyone in the world to our self-styled musings should give us all pause and make one wonder about the line between what’s private and what’s not. For example, I had intended this last blog piece to focus on my love of cities like Phnom Penh and Hanoi, in some ways more than the Paris’ and Londons of the world. That was until I started to think about the answer which involved sometimes sophomoric thoughts about a ‘simpler’ life, experiencing the unknown and unknowable, and other thoughts that I’d prefer not to share with myself let alone the world. (See also: when blog, blog, blog becomes blah, blah, blah.)

All that said, I would and will do again. It’s too much fun imagining who might be reading whatever and who might be having an imaginary coffee or drink with you as digital bytes fly around the world. Thanks for listening. To be continued.

Some "Engaging" Thoughts

Short vignettes. That’s what these blogs really should be. There is no way to capture every minute or experience. Who would want to? Have keyboards replace imaginations?

I’m thinking about this while I spend three whirlwind days in Hanoi after an overnight stop in Ho Chi Minh City (the site of my last blog entry at the powerful War Remnants museum). And here are two vignettes from Hanoi: One is about why I think we engage the world and the role that a law school like USF can play. The other is about the charm and warmth of cities like Phnom Penh and Hanoi that make them so compelling to me in ways that a Paris and London will never be. My trip is winding down. (I’m in Hong Kong today Thursday for meetings with the Hong Kong City University Law School to continue discussions about student exchanges.) I’ll end with these two vignettes today and tomorrow (when I come home) which explain a lot about why these trips are so important to me.

On Tuesday, I had plenty of experiences to help me understand why engagement is so important and what the law school’s role should be in developing countries. Through a series of serendipitous events I spent virtually the entire day lecturing, discussing, talking, engaging, challenging, being challenged, and working with four very different institutions in Hanoi: the Ho Chi Minh Academy which is the educational arm of the Communist Party; the Vietnam Diplomatic Academy, a new, prestigious law school in Hanoi focusing on degrees in international law; the Ministry of Labor with whom I’ve worked in the past and who invited me back; and, a group called the Young Lawyers of Vietnam, a loose association of recent law graduates, some of whom got their LL.M.s at USF, who are intent on discussing, planning for, and dreaming about the future of Vietnam and the role they can play. It turns out that coincidentally, I spent the day with the past, the present and the future of Vietnam. A few sentences and images about each:

You know you are at a party-affiliated institution the minute that you approach the Ho Chi Minh Academy housed in its French-style, open-courtyard building. How could you not know: there is a statue of Ho Chi Minh and Vietnamese flags to greet you. Once inside, a statuette of Ho sits approvingly in the table-clothed conference room where a sign announces the seminar we are about to begin on Administrative Tribunals in the U.S. and Vietnam. We begin at 8 AM. Present are my good American hosts who have arranged this visit, the Vietnamese lawyers with whom they work, and 50 or so members of the HCM Academy, male and female, seated around the table and in rows of seats along side it. For three hours we talk and talk as the circumscribed topic quickly morphs into ruminations about Guantanamo and abuse of power, about the brilliance of our system if it is working the way it is supposed to, and about why some Vietnamese around the table are concerned about the consequences of some U.S. governmental structures. We talk and talk. I find myself proud of what America can offer and respectful of Vietnam’s efforts to find its own way (certainly different than ours). They too are respectful of our ways in their polite, incisive and smart questions. We applaud each other as the session ends.

In the humid heat (it’s 90 degrees plus), I’ve shed my black sports coat, but my tie remains despite the fact that the Vietnamese men are tie-less in their shirt sleeves which is as much a uniform as the Western coat and tie. We head in a van to the Vietnam Diplomatic Academy. There we meet three women, two Professors and the Dean, each no more than forty and each educated in the West (Tuft’s Fletcher School for two of them). They run this impressive institution which offers international law degrees. I’m the Dean so they want to know about fund raising and sustaining their institution, but more critically they want to create partnerships and programs with us – an idea which intrigues me and which I hope will come to pass in ways similar to the relationships we have had with the Hanoi Law University and the Ho Chi Minh City University Law School. Pictures taken, conversation ended, we head to our next stop – the Ministry of Labor.

In 1998, USF (I and others) did a week long training of labor law judges. So I have visited the Ministry many times before and I am gratified that some remember me and the training. Now we sit around yet another conference table as a small group of lawyers, labor inspectors, directors of training and the like listen as I present an overview of American labor law and relate my own experiences as an Administrative Law Judge hearing disputes between growers and farm workers. They listen and ask question after question – good questions that reflect a sophisticated understanding of what I’ve been saying and an acute interest in improving their own labor processes. Again the photos and the handshakes mingled with a couple of hugs with folks I met more than a decade ago and with whom we now begin to plan future work.

Finally, an evening lecture and dinner with the Young Lawyers of Vietnam who meet informally, but regularly to network and to discuss issues facing them and the future of Vietnam. This is a very different setting. We are jammed into a small conference room. The formality of microphones and translators and table clothes has given way to my standing at the end of a table dodging cables and my own computer that is displaying a primitive power point on the screen behind me, a Diet Coke can holding the cable in place to make sure the image is clear. The topic tonight is legal education and lawyering in the U.S. and Vietnam in the midst of the economic crisis. Again, rapt attention, good questions, challenging retorts as we talk about the role that lawyers may have played in causing the crisis and the role that skilled, ethical courageous lawyering can play in making the future better for everyone.

And from these four experiences, I sense again what I already know – it is critical that the law school engage as we are trying to do. The thoughts are repetitive, complementary, obvious, and surely not original. But there they are, vivid in my head all day long. Here are my Top Five:

1. Engagement breaks down stereotypes: Yes, the HCM Academy is an arm of the CP in Vietnam. But that does not mean that these are not smart folks questioning the way they do things and wanting to make things better. In that sense, they are no different than we are.

2. We learn by engaging: At the HCM Academy I learn how much I admire our system (a fact I sometimes resist as the horrors of an Abhu Graib or Guantanamo unfold). And I learn from the Vietnamese perspective as they fairly critique our system, asking difficult questions about the separation of powers and the possibility of gridlock and as they reflect on judicial precedent in the context of perpetuating bad caselaw as well as good caselaw. The Vietnamese also learn. They learn about our system to better understand their own. The long session proves the obvious: The more you learn about others, the more you understand yourself.

3. We all have common hopes and dreams: As I lecture and speak a theme keeps recurring to these very different audiences. Our systems are very different, I tell them, but I also emphasize that I believe that we all have the same goals: a fair way to administer vast regulatory states (I say at the HCM Academy), a great way to educate students (I say at the Vietnam Diplomatic Academy), justice for workers (I say at the Ministry of Labor), and a desire to lead professional lives that are ethical, useful and balanced to promote our individual well-being and the common good (I tell the Young Lawyers of Vietnam). And this brings into sharp relief another proposition that is almost too obvious to state: if you stay focused on the positives and common dreams you can discuss almost anything as my sessions with the party members, the Dean and professors, the labor inspectors and the young lawyers demonstrate – hard questions emerge in all settings, but the discussion flows energetically and productively because no one is trying to proselytize or judge. Each session ends with all applauding at once – presenters and audience – an act of sincere mutual appreciation.

4. We have no choice: What is clear to me in all of these settings (as my phone sits next to me and I photograph and Twitter and connect instantly) is that engagement is not optional. We are all in this world together in ways we could never have imagined even 15 years ago.

5. Engagement is fun, exciting, adventurous, unknown, and sometimes risky.

We all pick our spots. Serendipity often writes the script. Engagement means different things to different people: a local school or institution? Work on a death penalty case? Work in Guatemala in a small town in need of medical care (as my remarkable young nephew does)? Work in Cambodia or Vietnam? We engage because of the excitement of working with others and the sense that we can make things a little better. We engage perhaps because of naive optimism that somehow we can make a difference. We engage as much for ourselves as for others.

I’ll admit that there are many moments on these trips when I wonder what I’m doing and why I’m in some random place. Tuesday’s lessons learned in Hanoi help me answer those questions. For me, they are lessons that I need to remember

To be continued!