31 October 2010

The Punishment and Proliferation of Error

These days we're so beastly afraid of being stupid and inept. And not without good reason. Indeed I doubt if there's anything this present efficient globe considers more shameful, more grossly indicative of a want or failure of moral character, than stupidity and ineptitude. I'm reminded of the great Ayn Rand of blessed memory, berating her poor aging husband for his stubborn and willful dementia.

Not that our own recent attempts at wisdom-through-intimidation have been any less barren of results. Or rather are the results no less easy to predict. The upshot, anyway, is that our present global society drives out of us precisely those kinds of stupidity and ineptitude that are least self-conscious, least ashamed, and so most easily corrected and overcome; while it only more deeply ingrains in us those core incompetencies that are the hardest of all to detect and uproot, because they are rooted in that most crippling and debilitating of all forms of cowardice, the fear of making a mistake. But imagine a society even marginally less judgmental of the slightest slip-up. Who can tell what other kinds of government leaders we'd elect, and what other kinds of business leaders we'd promote, if only we weren't so deathly terrified of looking stupid - and not just in our organizations and on our jobs, but in sometimes even the smallest, most unsupervised moments of our daily lives. Almost as if we were afraid somebody important might be watching or listening, who would then use it as damning evidence - as reason not to hire us, or contract with us, or even have anything to do with us. You really can't be too careful these networking days.

But then think how much easier to employ we might be, and how much more productive of good results our employment (at anything) might prove, if only we tired, depressed, preoccupied 21st-century souls were even intermittently free of this albatross of fear. And then, just think how much less real stupidity we'd be guilty of.

29 October 2010

A Boldly Multicultural Foreign Policy

You don't hear much talk about the Western Alliance these days. And to think barely a generation ago, such language was not only still common but - in view of the great common enemy we all understood ourselves to face - quite vigorously employed. Yet how many of us today would argue that even the linchpin of that alliance, the United States, is fundamentally the same country it was back in 1985 - whether in its internal demography, its place on the world stage, or even its perception of itself?

One point at all events seems clear to me: Over the past twenty years in particular, we Americans have made certain interesting choices of policy and alignment, which in turn have worked powerfully to shape not just our self-perceptions, or even our demographic makeup, but something still more essential to who we are. A certain "something" I find easiest to describe not as our historical, or traditional, but rather as our emerging, self-identity. But what have we been emerging from?

It seems to me that since the end of the Cold War, we Americans have been understanding and defining ourselves less and less as one Western nation among others, and more and more as a singular and unique post-Western civilization. One so unique, I would argue, as to be utterly defiant of comparison even with younger English-speaking countries like Canada and New Zealand. Mind you, I'm not saying there is no comparison; only that more and more of us - and especially our pundits and policy-makers, both Left and Right - are talking and behaving as if there were none. More and more we're being defined, in effect, as a microcosm of every nation on earth - and so by implication as not just a but the immigrant nation. And occasionally even, by some of our bolder visionaries, as not just the salt of the earth, but the cream of its crop too.

Naturally, many global economists and others would like us to see these recent choices we've made, and this bold new self-identity we're forging, as powerfully self-limiting factors - i.e., as arrangements both binding all our present moves and constraining all our future choices throughout the world. And particularly in matters of trade. After all, they say, we're a multicultural nation now, and so must choose our trading partners accordingly. Indeed, I'm sure many of them would not unwisely urge us that, at least in these abstruse and difficult commercial matters, the outcomes of the pending elections have been largely decided in advance, regardless of which flavor of tea or party we choose on Election Day.

And yes, at times it does seem all so completely sewn up, long before the first absentee votes have been cast. Yet I keep wondering how it got that way. Just what was it, I wonder - what radically new definition of national interest (or civilizational ambition?) was it, that made us Americans practically break our necks hoop-jumping, over the past two decades, to accommodate the agendas of countries so profoundly different from ourselves? And different not only in language and recent history, but in longstanding and deepseated political traditions and culture? Imagine if, just fifteen years ago, we'd applied the same urgency and substance to our strategic ties with, say, Britain, Australia, or India, that we've since been according our commercial ties with China, and Mexico, and Saudi Arabia. If I'm not mistaken, our present tight nexus of economic alignments dates largely from the period 1995-2005. All part of our project to "stand taller and see further" - if I remember correctly. Why yes, all the way to Bremer and Rumsfeld's Baghdad.

Neither, since then, have the prevailing arrangements, much less the visible outcomes, been to everyone's liking by any means. Yet today, popular outcry notwithstanding, we seem to be more closely than ever enmeshed in the affairs, aims and problems of these three - more or less sacred - multicultural trading partners. More closely than ever, I'd say. But are we, or they, or the world any stabler - any safer - because of it?

I know, for the thousandth time: It's not about mundane, pettifogging things like stability and safety. It's about productivity, and growth, and the unimaginable glory and power of untold future generations. (It surely isn't present ones we're thinking of.) In that case, allow me to rephrase my question . . .

16 October 2010

A People So Good They Don't Need Good Leaders

Without fuel, as they say, the engine won't run. No amount of even the most American hope or optimism is likely ever to change that. And so I keep marveling at all the various things human optimists think we can do without - or even throw out the window - and still be a more or less healthy society.

For one thing, on the whole I'm much too pessimistic about human nature to believe even we Americans can manage things well without fundamentally decent people occupying our political and business leadership. And here I mean an almost tenderly human, ungimmicked, unpretentious kind of decency. One that isn't just humble, or considerate, or conscientious, but all these things combined, even to the point of the closest self-examination. And even, on occasion, to the point of self-distrust. And not just in private relationships - as in being faithful to and caring of one's spouse, but also in public affairs - as in being faithful to and caring of one's constituents and clients. Including, if I may add, those among them who aren't all that well-connected, or up-and-coming, or ideologically of your own persuasion. After all they're your voters and your customers too. But above all, I mean a kind of elementary decency that adamantly refuses to look down on, or string along, or otherwise take advantage of, your average man or woman - no matter how miserably either may fail to live up to your most exalted American expectations.

"Excuse me?" you gasp, mildly appalled. "Average?" Why yes, you know - the kind who aren't quite so politically astute or well-informed, or ambitious for power and influence, or bold and entrepreneurially-minded, as our obviously more enlightened leaders in politics and business. The fact that certain people seem more stupid than you or I (they may simply be more worn-out, or broken-down, or just plain confused and discouraged) is no excuse for either of us taking them to the cleaners. I keep thinking it was Chesterton(?) who wrote - in so many words - that a society which believes its chief moral function is to punish slowness and stupidity will soon find itself rewarding the most accelerated, arrogant and ultimately destructive forms of stupidity. In any case, superior initiative doesn't give you or me rights of ownership or exploitation over anyone - any more than the Biblical Cain, hard-working and enterprising as he was, had the right to take things out on his, let us say, more contemplative brother Abel, simply because his own honest efforts weren't getting the Divine recognition he knew they deserved. And if you think Cain overcame a bad start to finish up a roaring success, just consider how things played out over the next twelve generations (Genesis 4: 23-24; 6: 5-7). In fact, much like nowadays, the time-tested Cainite method of global management was to put only the must ruthless and unscrupulous people in charge of affairs (Genesis 6: 12-13). It must have seemed like a wonderful idea at the start. But I doubt if that was any great help or consolation to the bulk of mankind once a certain unprecedented - and alarmingly steady - rainfall began. And let's not forget that even now there are floods in human affairs that have nothing to do with water. My own best guess is we've been through at least four or five of this latter kind over just the past decade.

And speaking of the past decade, I'm aware that certain unique cultural pressures of our time (c. 1995 - present) are making the averageness of the average man or woman harder than ever to recognize. Indeed, I suspect the recent bent of our culture has been inclining more and more average people to pretend to be - or even worse, to become - far more politically aroused, and socially ambitious, and entrepreneurially aggressive than they are by nature. Or would be by nature, if allowed to follow a bent that was more natural and less culturally obligatory. But even our new self-assertiveness might prove rather a good thing if only these same folks were becoming more activist, ambitious, entrepreneurial, etc, in ways that were intelligent rather than just arrogant, and more considerate and respectful of the needs of others, rather than largely snide and mean-spirited and opportunistic. And even, on occasion, back-stabbing. In short, many of us have been doing our literal damnedest to imitate our political and economic leaders. And not because we've suddenly fallen in love with the rat race, but simply to keep our heads above (flood)water. And that, more than anything else so far, is what continues to amaze me: The extraordinary things we everyday folks are prepared to resort - or stoop? - to, when led to believe that not just our financial well-being but our economic survival is at stake. Like, for instance, taking out mortgages on homes we can't afford (I know, I know, "Where's your vision, man? Where's your optimism?").

But still more amazing to me is the next thing that happens. Because even when we average folks do embrace these "extreme" survival tactics, that in itself is no guarantee of greater respect from our public leaders. Indeed, if anything our leaders may feel all the more at liberty, and even morally justified, in "putting one over" on us. As in "Who cares how much the average jerk gets ripped off, or led down the primrose path? I mean, look at the way he lives. He's just a jerk anyway, right?"

Nor do I believe, even today, that our "newly assertive" average Joes are specially qualified to speak for all the rest of us. Even in these strenuous times, there will always be plenty of us regular folks who don't choose - or who fail miserably - to "better" ourselves in these demanding modern ways. And in that case my original question remains: Just who are even the smartest, most gifted, most driven politicians and businesspeople to step on the rest of us, or push us around, or hoodwink and sell us down the river? I mean, aren't they human too? And don't they therefore also have human - and by implication damnable - souls?

Next, of course, you'll be telling me:
"Why, eternal salvation's got nothing to do with it - that's just the way the real world operates! And all of us, without exception, must needs adapt or die."

But in that case you must admit, the real world has been really running itself into the ground of late. And then what becomes of the poor earthly souls who must needs both adapt and die? Who must needs risk losing not only their souls in the next life, but their shirts - if not their very skins - in this one?

And yes, I'm fully aware that, for at least three decades now, the supreme maxim of our American culture has been "Hey, you snooze you lose." But now really, think about it: Haven't our most energetic, aggressive, enterprising souls been losing enough sleep already? And hasn't their insomnia already produced quite enough loss to go around for one generation? If not for our children? and our children's children?

Finally, there will always be those who argue that, our country having chosen a bad path - and I believe with all my heart we have - we deserve all we get down the road, and worse. But that in turn only makes me wonder: If a fundamentally sick public culture deserves only the sickest, most conscienceless public leaders, how's it ever going to get well?

Some Ideas That Could Be the End of Us All

I'm always uneasy when I hear educated and rational people - among them such luminaries as Dennis Prager, or Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama - describe the United States as primarily an idea, or an ideal, which ideally it is the job of each and every American to embody and live up to. And what's supposed to happen to those who don't, I wonder?

I'm reminded of those 20th-century movements whose partisans came to regard their own particular country as not just a flesh-and-blood people, or a physical territory, but as also, or even above all, as an idea. I'm thinking in particular of those German Nazis, and Chinese Communists, for whom it was not enough to be born German, or born Chinese; it was also a choice that had to be made. And made correctly. These were par excellence the sort of fellows for whom the degree of your Nazism was the measure of how authentically German you were, and the degree of your Communism the measure of how authentically Chinese. And while no doubt this is a development that can happen far more crudely and savagely in other countries than in America, I emphatically do not believe it is something that can't happen here.

I've got nothing against ideas, so long as they know their place. A good idea is always modest and quietly attentive in the presence of anything really real. And especially in the presence of that particular reality it seeks to approach, and love, and serve. Or even of the reality it seeks to change. In that respect it's not unlike the handmaid of the Biblical Psalmist, whose eyes are ever-attentive upon the every slightest mood or expression or gesture of her mistress. Even if her intent is to reform the woman who owns her, she understands that no amount of reciprocal contempt, of "badness" on her part, is ever going to make a bad mistress better. She knows that, in the realm of real human affairs, impatience, cruelty and disdain are only overcome by their Opposite. Only in physical nature, or in the more ethereal realm of human ideas, does fire ever actually fight fire.

Above all, a good idea never imagines it can do anything like justice to the complexity of even the simplest concrete, real, living thing (and only its Maker knows what wealth or poverty of life - or love - may residually subsist even in a lump of coal). Justice is a quantity no good idea ever presumes to be on intimate terms with - any more than a good plot-synopsis pretends to do justice to the human intricacies of a novel, or the most detailed map to the human geography of the smallest country. And just as no good honest handmaid would ever presume to play proxy or "stand in" for her mistress, so the good honest idea is always keenly aware of its inferiority to the indescribable thing it is laboring to put into abstract words. Indeed, I doubt if at its best the whole labor of abstraction has ever been other than hit-and-miss; after all, even our boldest, brightest, most hell-for-leather ideas occasionally miscarry. And even when they've largely "succeeded" at their labors, just think of the sometimes hideous monstrosities, as well as improvements, to which they've been known to give birth.

Take, for instance, the idea of capitalism. Take it, for once, not as the omniscient explanation of everything that goes right in a society, and the omnicompetent solution to everything that goes wrong. Take it, rather, as a decent, sensible, fruitful way of doing business, as opposed to merely thinking or preaching or obsessing about it. Or take it as a way of getting business done, and for the time being out of the way - as opposed to pretending that business alone is able to do everything in a society that needs to be done, all the time. Even in churches - or families. At its best, capitalism is always busy making its own distinctive and invaluable contribution to what I call the truly Good Society - in other words, to that blessedly real, tangible time and place (we've all known them) in which human creatures have so many more important things to think about than the sacredness - or the omniscience - of capitalism. At its worst, on the other hand, capitalism sees nothing either distinctive or invaluable in anyone's contribution but its own: it simply equates itself to the Good Society, leaving no remainder to the equation - as if profitable enterprise were the one active and constant ingredient in a medicine to which all else that had gone into it was mere replaceable filler.

Except, of course, that in real human affairs ideas don't do anything of themselves; they have no life at all apart from our wisdom or our foolishness. In real human affairs it is human beings who try to make capitalism into something more ideal than real; it is human beings who do the actual equating of capitalism with everything that makes a society not just maintainable but worth maintaining. My point is that in themselves good ideas are no different from any other good tool: they are morally neutral. Ultimately even the best ideas are only as good as the people who use them, or as bad as the people who idolize them. And no good idea is so flawlessly designed, so revolutionary and state-of-the-art, that it cannot have criminal or other destructive consequences when placed in the wrong hands. Which I think may be another way of saying that ideas don't kill or oppress; their worshipers do.