Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Triumph of Convenience

In his award winning book, The Ingenuity Gap, Thomas Homer Dixon illustrates how the catastrophic failure of modern systems -- like the electricity grid which left millions of North Americans without power five years ago -- can be caused by several smaller but cascading failures. Like it our not, we live in an interconnected world; and a failure in any of the many links which tie us together can bring the house down.

What is true of technical systems is increasingly true of social systems. A striking example of this phenomenon is contained in an essay in the Armed Forces Journal of April 27th. Its author, Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, criticizes the current senior officer corps at the Pentagon, claiming they lack moral courage. The "tendency of the executive branch," he writes is "to seek out mild mannered team players to serve as senior generals." And the senior generals perpetuate that leadership template. What we are left with is a system where "senior officers select for promotion those like themselves." What this means in practice is that career advancement lies in saluting and marching uphill, rather than questioning the wisdom of one's superiors.

This is not a new phenomenon. It happened during the Vietnam War and it happened in Renaissance England. In Robert Bolt's play, A Man for All Seasons, Thomas Cromwell -- the real villain of the piece -- lectures Thomas More on his failure as an administrator. More not only serves at the king's convenience, Cromwell says. He serves to expedite whatever the king deems convenient -- meaning that when he assumes public office the good administrator checks his conscience at the door.

More's reply has rung down the decades, ever since the play debuted almost fifty years ago: "I believe when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties . . . they lead their country by a short route to chaos." Thus, the debacle in Iraq comes down to, as Yingling amply illustrates, a team of weak leaders, acquiescing in one bad decision after another. Or, as Homer Dixon would put it, each bad decision in the public sphere forms a link in a chain, which eventually contributes to catastrophic public failure.

Whether it be at the Pentagon or at Enron, or -- closer to home -- in the self-dealing of the sponsorship scandal, we have seen the triumph of convenience over conscience. The path to success is not to speak truth the power, but to enable it. Those who do so are rewarded. Someone like More, who has the courage to disagree and offer reasoned arguments to whomever is the king, will lose his or her head -- or, as was the case with General Shinseki, his career.

We live in a time of wars and proxy wars, ecological degradation and extreme economic injustice. If we are to arrive at solutions to these problems, our public servants must hold to the courage of their convictions. Perhaps that explains why I feel so uncomfortable every time I see Stephen Harper making another public policy announcement. I watch as the minister or ministers who will manage the policy stand behind him, nodding silently -- like religious fundamentalists at a camp meeting, punctuating the preacher's sermon with silent "amens." I suspect that Mr. Harper does not seek out dissenters; and, despite the first part of that old saying, it seems to me that -- more often than not -- fools never differ.

In the absence of dissent at the highest levels of government, we, mere citizens, must have the courage to disagree. The disaster in Iraq or the Holocaust in Germany could only happen because thousands of Adolph Eichmanns sought career advancement, despite the demands of justice, in service of the king.

When Edward R. Murrow took on Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954, he ended his broadcast with an allusion to Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: "Cassius was right: 'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves.'" McCarthy died an alcoholic mess -- a fitting end for a man who thrived on fear and character assassination. His demise was the product of a kind of courage which -- at present -- is in short supply. Without such courage we will bring the house down.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...