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A political primer (part 2)

The entry in Hammarskjöld’s private journal, Markings, for the weekend of November 19–20, 1955, is one of his most provocative reflections, a political primer of great depth. This is the second of four consecutive blogs that explore and interpret it. For the complete text of the entry and more detail about time and place, see the previous entry. This discussion takes up two points from the primer.

Hammarskjöld wrote:

The other’s "face" is more important than your own.

If, while pleading another’s cause, you are at the same time seeking something for yourself, you cannot hope to succeed.
(Markings, 114)

Two observations that go to the heart of political process, each with a jolt, a shock of recognition somewhere among the few words. 

"The other’s “face” is more important than your own." A severe observation, it makes one re-examine recent behavior. Has one met that mark or not? The question grinds deep. That is very like Hammarskjöld. He held himself to stringently high standards; virtually everyone knew it who worked with him, and his presence on the scene had an influence, created a field in which many people—though of course not all—instinctively wanted to act as he acted, with that kind of probity.

He had thought deeply about self-sacrifice. His observation about "face" is of a piece with that line of thought. But we readers may protest, and why not: isn’t my "face" also important? Are we to go out of our way to preserve a political adversary’s good name and sense of self-worth when he or she is, in point of fact, a miserable creature? Hammarskjöld’s perspective looks to be just that. But he writes "more important", not "unimportant." Putting the dignity of the other first and overlooking—presumably with grace, even humor—whatever personal slights or upsetting factual distortions come one’s way may well be the high road toward successful outcomes, by which he meant political solutions founded in both reality and justice. He, too, hit a wall in this regard: the relentless attacks launched against the UN effort in the Congo, 1960–61, and against him personally by the Soviet bloc. He found it necessary to defend both the UN and his own role, answering blow for blow, countering lies with facts.

Earlier in 1955, he said at a youth forum: "Fight for your team, but remember that your adversaries of today were your friends of yesterday and will have to be your friends of tomorrow" (Public Papers 2, 464–65).

Hammarskjöld was ever so wary of the influence of egotism, personal motives, pique, and vainglory in political processes among individuals representing large constituencies—in his professional world, typically entire nations. "If, while pleading another’s cause, you are at the same time seeking something for yourself, you cannot hope to succeed." The point he’s making speaks for itself. Its basis, as almost always with Hammarskjöld, is his breadth of observation, encompassing not only others but also himself viewed from inside. "The diplomat must keep himself under the strictest observation," he once wrote. Acutely aware of the possibility of mixed motives cropping up secretly, he had long since declared peaceful war against his own contradictions of that kind. He needed to know where he stood and to scour away self-serving—or at least see it for what it was, and that is the beginning of a scour.

The jolt or shock of recognition in this insight lies in how categorical it is: you cannot hope to succeed if…. Like much in Hammarskjöld, practice required—what he’s suggesting is unlikely to be second nature in most people, even those in high office, and asks for practice.