Saturday, January 31, 2009

A Place Called Nope

Dear Children:

Everybody has an opinion about the Middle East and its troubles. One hopes that you too will take an informed view of the history and present goings on there as well. Maybe you will be the one that finds the right formula that satisfies the dizzying buffet of competing interests in that region and disconnects them from the dizzying variety of competing forces across the globe that complicate and harden those interests. The death, the destruction, the wasted resources, the wonton hatreds, the deferred progress, the misdirected innovation, the slavish cult of revenge, the petty tit for tat, the fresh quarrels and manufactured slights that crop up with each new generation multiply and flourish. There is little optimism and less hope.

As you are thinking and learning about this region, keep a few practical considerations in mind.

1.) Innocent people are difficult to find. Once someone joins a political party, writes a letter to the editor, paints a slogan on a wall, lobs a stone, teaches conjecture as truth, contributes money for propaganda or weaponry, harbors a criminal or shuts his eyes to wrong-doing … all of them have taken a side. Truly innocent people, by extension, are invisible and unrepresented. To be sure, there are lots of innocent people. They just don’t seem to matter.

2.) There is plenty of guilt to go around. Every faction has its own version of history, its own ethnic and religious mythology, its own justifications, its own thugs, its own warmongers, its own blinders and its own simmering suspicions. There is no shortage of factions. If this region is rich in anything, it is rich in factions.

3.) Strife is normative. In our country, we have succeeded lately and in some minimal way in settling our differences peaceably. Peaceable resolution of dispute is thin and fragile. We could lose it at any moment. Nevertheless, it has made us smug and superior toward those who don’t settle grievances in court or through the ballot box. Violence is the resort of choice for a largish fraction of the world’s leadership. For them, it works.

4.) Motives are impossible to assess with certainty. No one knows the mind of another. As such, it is dangerous to act on the basis of perceived motivation. The manifest actions of others are tricky enough. Whatever you do, though, beware of those who claim unique, didactic or exceptional knowledge.

5.) The Socratic method lets us down as well. In the Middle East we insist that our interlocutor agree to a specific set of facts or circumstances as a condition of civil discourse. This is, to be sure, a cultural locution that works well in tribal settings and is not meant as a criticism. Far from a trope, it allows all parties to be right all the time. To us it looks like the parties are not engaged at all. Rather, they seem to be talking past each other with no particular ambition for agreement. This is, indeed, the case.

Does all this mean the peoples of the Middle East face utterly intractable problems? Yes it does. So far, the only stable regimes in that part of the world have had to rely on either oppressive police-state rule or other forms of fear. Bugbears are as numerous as the factions that animate them.

So, what do you think: More cops or more bogeymen?

I’ve decided what I’m doing. My prayers are with Senator Mitchell and his mission to the Middle East. I hope President Obama will be serious and courageous about peace. A new model is required. The cycle of violence must be broken.

Much Love,


Thursday, January 8, 2009

Not My Job, Man

Dear Children:

By now everybody knows Governor Rod Blagojevich of Illinois shot his mouth off about profiting from his power to fill a vacant senate seat. It remains to be seen if narcissism over a tapped ‘phone line is a crime. We’ll see if prosecutors can convict someone of being a bully. All that is for the future. For now, the governor’s reputation has taken a hit from which it will never recover.

How does something like this happen?

Well, my dears, one answer is that the governor was always a braggart. He was always a bully who hid his pettiness and mendacity from the electorate through four elections – twice for Governor and twice for Congress. True enough. Who knew the guy was like that?

The answer to that question should be on all our minds. Who knew?

Lots of people knew. Lots of people helped him pull the wool over the eyes of voters. Lots of people sat around watching him browbeat donors. Everyone on his staff, everyone who was intimidated by his antics, everyone who signed off on the fruits of his extortion and everyone who heard informed whispers knew all about it. There must have been thousands who knew. That’s who knew: Thousands.

Which begs a question or two about the ethical duty of those who knew: At the very least shouldn’t someone who knows about notorious and barefaced criminality turn on her heels and run in the opposite direction? Shouldn’t someone victimized by unlawful persuasion pick up his iPhone to tell the cops? What about those who had a fiduciary, judicial and friendship duty to the governor? Did they try to correct his behavior?

If everyone who knew discharged his lawful and ethical duty toward the governor, he would not be twisting slowly, slowly in the wind.

There is nothing new about this problem. It has ever been thus. It is possible to be responsible but not guilty. The enabler is far more difficult to prosecute than the ganef. The wives, children, aunts, uncles, cousins, landladies, tailors, waiters, dog groomers and clergymen who know they’re getting a slice of pelf all have a stake in the misdeed. Those who knowingly benefit share culpability to some lesser or greater extents yet are granted a smug chuckle at the expense of the exposed felon.

See, in the end, we are responsible. We are responsible to recognize those situations where harm is forming. We are responsible to correct the behavior of those who would do harm. Failing correction, we are to hop the first stagecoach out of Dodge. When all else fails and the wrong done sufficient, we are obliged to snitch.

Making these decisions will haunt your whole life. By now you have seen situations such as these and struggled with your conscience. School is a petri dish for moral ambivalence. Anyone who tells you that your duty is always clear is obviously unclear on the meaning of duty. Doing the right thing is messy business.

Much Love,


Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Rationing Rationalization

Dear Children:

The dearth of recent posts comes about for a reason. In the same way as events respond to causality, the absence of events is rooted in causality. We hold this to be true intuitively. More important, it’s evidenced by the way language works, especially English. Our received logic is anchored by “if/ then” and “if not/ then” constructions. Our scriptures are expressed using this device. It works well most of the time and is most useful in the doing of business. The Law of Contracts depends on it. Every action or inaction has a consequence. Culture is anchored by an adherence to the proposition that action and inaction have consequences that affect us all.

Mathematicians are beginning to find ways of expressing this idea in a purer form than classical logic. They call it Game Theory. In its crudest expression, Game Theory offers the promise of finding a way to get over on another by locating the vulnerability of the other – usually identifying greed – and capitalizing. It turns out that “right action” and “wrong action” are not mutually exclusive. The games theorists, rather, express it as cooperative and uncooperative action. In their models it makes a difference when one decides to be cooperative or uncooperative not just whether one is cooperative or uncooperative. As its evolving, Game Theory offers the hope that we will be able to recognize and predict optimal mixes of cooperation and tension.

These guys are on to something important. In fact, they’ve opened up the tiniest hole in the mystery of causality. While it’s given we operate intuitively with the notion of causality, we have not the smallest understanding of the thing that is causality – the why of things. The need to know why something is the way it appears to be is so fixed in us that we cannot appear to abide that it is unknown.

That fixation compels us make stuff up. The scientists call it hypothesis, the rest of us engage in rationalization.

My Dears, the urge to hypothesize is a good and noble one. To try something on for size, to experiment, and to probe is in the service of maturity and education.

The shortcut of rationalization is profoundly bad for you. To make something up for the purpose of avoidance, evasion or short-term gain is, on its face, immature and destructive. Nothing good will ever come from it. This I know from bitter experience that has manifestly chastened me.

Try this on for size: Submit everything you say and do to the rationalization test. Did I say that thing to evade responsibility? Did I do that thing because the alternative is too painful for me to face? Did I tell the whole truth? Did I answer the question directly? Did I parse my answer to give a false impression? Are my questions asked respectfully, honestly and directly? Like that.

For now, don’t do anything with the honest and private answers you get back from the test. Merely collect them. You will find that rationalizations are everywhere and everyday. Soon you will recognize them for the toxins they are. You will recognize them in others.

That’s what you should care about. You should care that you recognize and own-up to shortcuts, shuckin’, jivin’, dissembling, lying and insincerity. You need only to admit these things to yourself for now. It’s difficult but important work. It will help you learn what is right and the importance of timing. Armed with this knowledge, you will learn the futility of pretense and the peace that comes from simple, honest, humane expression.

If you’ve gotten this far, you may ask what this has to do with all those missing months of posts.

I don’t know. The simple truth has eluded me. That could be the subject of another post.