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Stamp collecting saves politicians from stupid mistakes

Rev. Jack Van Ens

After Franklin Delano Roosevelt planned the Normandy Invasion with Stalin and Churchill in 1943 at Teheran, Iran, he met General Dwight D. Eisenhower in Tunisia. FDR impressed Eisenhower with his astonishing geographical knowledge. The President had shrunk the globe within his mind. He was no stranger to any part of the world. Prior to becoming President, FDR had traveled extensively overseas.FDR partially gained this global knowledge in his youth when his parents, as wealthy Hudson River families did, frequently traveled to Europe. No one fooled Roosevelt about world affairs because he avidly collected postage stamps. Behind every stamp lie stories to tell, histories to share, and countries to explore. FDR spent precious time throughout his life with his magnifying glass, philatelic tongs and albums in which he carefully hinged stamps. Within those albums, he mastered the world.”The world is a book,” wrote Saint Augustine, “and those who do not travel read only a page.” FDR found thick books crammed with geography, social patterns, and the history of war and peace because he took philately seriously, immensely enjoying the hobby.FDR didn’t always correctly measure geography. He toyed with some outlandish plans to carve up Europe after World War II. He desired to form a country he named Wallonia from the French part of Belgium, Luxembourg, Alsace-Lorraine, and part of northern France.Such musing seems outlandish mainly because Roosevelt knew so much about Europe’s history and geography from dealing with stamps. “There was, at this early stage of postwar discussion,” writes biographer Conrad Black in Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, “indeed something of the stamp collector in Roosevelt’s approach. He mused on detaching and reattaching faraway places to each other.”FDR adroitly moved over the face of the earth “with supreme confidence” and in a “benignly capricious way,” observes Black. By placing stamps in international albums, he moved “from Ruthenia to … peanuts,” he admitted to key aid Harry Hopkins.At the close of World War II, Roosevelt met again with Stalin and Churchill at Yalta. Leaving this conference, FDR felt wobbly and weak. His heart had enlarged. Still, he found time to meet with three Arab sultans on the U.S.S. Quincy in the Suez Canal.First came Egypt’s Farouk, followed by Haile Salassie of Ethiopia, on the rebound after his miserable and humiliating treatment from Mussolini. These meetings culminated with a visit from Ibn-Saud, ruler of Saudi Arabia. Numerous wives followed in his royal retinue, plus forty-two sons. As a gracious gesture Saud would sometimes offer a wife or two to guests who charmed him. FDR was intrigued by these strange Arab customs. Saud spied Roosevelt in a wheelchair and wanted one. He mistakenly assumed this leisure vehicle served well-heeled Americans who exuded Yankee ingenuity. An American uses a wheelchair, surmised the king, to spare him unwanted exercise. Saud went berserk when Roosevelt suggested that a small number of Jews should be allowed to immigrate to Palestine. The King, knowing Nazis had slaughtered three million Polish Jews, did not see this as an argument for granting survivors asylum in the Middle East. He turned the Holocaust on its head, asserting that Jews didn’t need Palestine because space for three million had been created in Poland.Roosevelt knew inside out cultural customs foreign to American experience. Stamp collecting paid him valuable dividends. He spent the intellectual capital he gained from the hobby by promoting trust and understanding by our nation in the Arab world.President George W. Bush isn’t a stamp collector. He did not travel the world, encountering strange Arabian customs, before taking office. Evidently, Texas was big enough for him.”Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,” wrote Mark Twain. Those who travel little may hold parochial views, seldom perceiving big pictures. They don’t focus as “a light to nations, to open the eyes that are blind” (Isaiah 42:6).President George W. Bush does not realize that throughout history three kinds of wars have been waged. The easiest to win is a conquest of territory. With superior fighting power, the U.S. shows superior strength when our troops need to control territory. War can be quickly waged and won when winners gain hunks of territory losers give up.A war caused by competing ideologies takes longer to win. In the Cold War, the Soviet Union bucked up against our nation. It was a battle pitting freedom against enslavement, free enterprise clashing with a controlled economy, belief in God versus atheism. Given time, an inferior government will implode, crushed under the weight of its own inefficiency. Stronger ideologies win over vacuous worldviews.People who learn about other cultures by researching the geography behind stamps know that war set up for failure involves a clash of cultures. Iraq lacks a vibrant middle class. Those without hope embrace a militant Islam in which Allah approves suicide bombings. Women are not allowed to drive cars. They don’t rate, denied social rights Arab men enjoy. A rigid hierarchy defines society where corruption and coercive power reign. These cultural norms are not easily changed. A militant Islamic faith ties itself to social customs where men dominate. Such norms form a national identity, the key way people look at themselves. War does not change such societies; it reconfigures them. The beaten powers go underground and fight shadowy wars. Travel might have taught our President lessons stamp collectors learn from their beloved hobby. The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the non-profit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries, enhancing Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.


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