`Miss Willmott's Ghost'

July 23, 2010

Gardeners often can’t resist sowing seeds in other people’s gardens. 

One of the most tragically romantic seed sowers was 19th century English heiress and gardener Ellen Ann Willmott who secretly scattered sea holly seeds in her friends’ gardens. Now called  Eryngium ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost,’ the draught tolerant pale blue flowers grace my garden in July. It took quite a while for these sea-hollies to establish themselves in Oglesby Garden; but now, I notice, that they are prolific self-seeders and seem quite at home.

Closer to home, Americans, tell the tale of Johnny Appleseed. An evangelist of more than apples, John Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed roamed across America in the 18th century spreading the gospel and sowing the seeds of our first fruit of knowledge. He sought to feed both body and soul as he headed west across the frontier.

Both Miss Willmott and Chapman came to mind this week while I read the New York Times Sunday magazine article on two modern day seed-sowers working in the State Department. Digital Diplomacy is a hopeful tale of faith, global activism and social media. Two technologically savvy young men, Alec Ross and Jared Cohen, roam the planet enabling societal gardeners abroad to grow their own democracies more effectively. 

These tech evangelists do not foolishly believe that democracy is like a Chia Pet: add water and the Chia seeds grow full and green instantly on any earthen (terra cotta) surface. They are not oblivious to the political dangers that technology in undemocratic hands might create. Still, like the good liberals they are, they have faith in human goodness and believe that progress flows from empowering the people. Through their global digital missionary work they encourage the arc of history to bend a bit more quickly toward justice, assuming all the while that curve aligns with American values and foreign policies.

Technology itself is amoral, but purposeful technological intervention in a sovereign nation abroad is a highly political act. Policy and Planning Director, Anne Marie Slaughter may believe such deliberate manipulation of a foreign society is better than the “propaganda” of old, but surely she must know that just “making it possible for people to continue communicating” during Iran’s post election upheaval is a bald attempt to influence the outcome. There is an agenda embedded in the process chosen even if there is no effort to control the message delivered.

I was cheered to read that following the logic of this line of thinking, the State Department “cut financing for some activist groups based outside of Iran that promote democracy and began to focus on providing information technologies that would facilitate communication among dissidents in Iran.” All politics -- like gardens -- are local after all. And, where we have embassies abroad, I would hope that Ross and Cohen are taking the lead from skilled Foreign Service Officers resident in the field. Much like wise agricultural extension agents, these professionals are familiar with the local terrain and what is likely to grow there. They know who’s gardening in that national patch and who could benefit from a bit of technological assistance. Working hard to develop Washington and field coordination will be considerably more important to effective 21st Century Statecraft than any BOF (blowing out Farah) strategy concocted in Washington around a “really good hash tag.”

Without grounding in field reality the currently high flying digital seed sowers might, like Miss Willmott -- who lost her own garden -- end up with increasingly hollow horticultural honors. Beware Miss Willmott’s Ghost!

Except where otherwise noted, all original work produced by Donna Oglesby is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License