Thursday, October 7, 2010

Reality Checks

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While musing about Principles... for Life, and Iraq… I thought of Sheldon Cooper, the young theoretical physicist on the CTV hit comedy Big Bang Theory. The guy who plays Sheldon won an Emmy Award for best actor. Naturaly, Sheldon is very competent and very confident… so why is he a nerd? Easy: he trusts his own judgment: Completely. He never wonders, “If you say ‘tomahto’ but I say ‘tomato’ then who will end up with red on his face...?” Which means he never faces any incongruities in his life, which means any need for humor can be safely avoided: Completely.

If only Sheldon was comfortable in the messy world of human variables he might have harkened to the advice of Dan Kennedy, a brave extroverted entrepreneur. Kennedy stresses not depending on your own opinion. When it comes to advertising and marketing, he says, you must test, test and test again. I think that’s a good principle.

I wouldn’t want Sheldon, a true nerd, to conform out of fear, not like some overly fashionable teenager, but still, having an "awareness level" never hurt… Some principles for an individual to live by include reality-checks, perception-checks, checks and balances… anything but hubris.

What’s true for individuals is true for groups. Let me set the scene: Years ago I was part of a weekly self-help meeting of not-very-functional people. An even less functional person, call him Bozo, wanted us to give up an evening every month to his pet project: a guest speaker meeting. I was against it, but was “outvoted.” As time passed I was proven right. At first, as I began to suspect the speakers project wasn’t working out, I just didn’t feel comfortable talking with Bozo to try figure out what wasn’t working: he really didn’t like me. His chosen speakers were just aimlessly drifting around- they didn’t seem to be very useful to hear. Later, when my light bulb came on overhead, I knew precisely what change was needed: the principle used by speaker meetings in Alcoholics Anonymous is to say: “How it was; what happened; how it is now.” No drifting. However, I didn’t think Bozo would accept my feedback, admit he was wrong, and be man enough to do the needed work.

Today, looking back, I wonder: At that meeting where Bozo got the “go ahead” what could I have said to the group to prevent this stupid misuse of time? The others were unsure; Bozo got his way, as a minority of one, by emotional blackmail. (Anger and appeals to pity.) Since I was unsure myself I couldn’t have argued purely on the merits of the project. But I could have confidently referred to guiding principles.

I could have said, “Um, you guys, I’m thinking of ‘checks and balances’ and how in parliament, as a reality-test, if a motion does not merit a seconder, then it is not realistic to use the group’s time for discussion. If this idea of Bozo’s is indeed realistic then, in principle, there should be a “seconder,” a second person willing to team up to help him work on it… Because, you guys, what if I want to give Bozo feedback? It might be too much for him if he is responsible all alone.” But alas, I didn’t say that, and now I’ll never know.

In our everyday life we avoid being “responsible all alone” by appealing to people off stage. When a drab science nerd, as a perception-check, asks me, “Would this shirt be too colorful?” I can reply than “other people” would say it is quite fashionable, that “everyone” would like it. Of course Sheldon, growing up smarter than everyone else, has become comfortable with being alone.

What is true for groups is true for governments. When the U.S. government thought there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, AND claimed, like some New York City con artist, there was no time to delay the drastic step of an invasion, then what? …If only, instead of being a minority of one, they had done a perception-check as to why their peer groups in Japan, and Asia and Russia, and in continental Europe, and their own neighbor Canada, all disagreed. No, it wasn’t just a really big coincidence.

Of course we the people know that for every person in Washington with the ability to listen, for every Abe Lincoln or Harry Truman, there are unfortunately plenty of guys who put the “H” in hubris, guys like Defense Secretary Rumsfeld who over-ruled the generals, the state department, the economists and everyone else. Perhaps, to be charitable, the strain of their position forces such people into being as “overconfident” as Sheldon Cooper.

The check and balance, then, has to be we the people. For example someone too young to personally remember Vietnam could have recalled from history how some U.S. government departments conspired to orchestrate lies about enemy troop strength… right up until the Tet Offensive. Someone else could have pointed out how national hysteria, as in the time of Truman, (Truman himself stayed calm) can inhibit the media, inhibit everyone's brain from thinking… And then the media could have distributed such information and enabled public dialogue…

I know of an internationally syndicated journalist, Gwynne Dyer, who has re-printed his writings, starting with the day of 9/11, covering the months before the invasion, and also those months afterwards when the liberators still didn’t have the guts to call what they were doing an “occupation.” (Remember?) Not just as a citizen, but most especially as a journalist, Dyer feels deeply responsible for his failure to discern the U.S. government’s bad faith. And so between his old essays he has new “interstitials” as he tries to grapple with how he and all of his journalism peers could have failed so badly. His forward alone makes With Every Mistake (2005) worth buying. The principle here would be “Own your mistakes so you can learn.”

I know of no U.S. journalist, syndicated or otherwise, who has done the same as Dyer. Sorry Yanks, he lives only in Canada. (And Britain) Such a pity.

Despite the gloom of Iraq, I now have something to be excited about: reality checks. Before I close by grappling with what I could have said, about a reality-test principle, to those Bozos in Washington, let me share something.

Last week I read a Reuters (September 29, 2010 Calgary Sun) article about a chief executive officer (CEO) responding to an oil spill from a pipeline in Kalamazoo River system in Michigan. The main headline: Embridge CEO played it smart. In smaller type: Stark contrast with blundering BP boss Tony Hayward. I was struck by the contrast between CEO Pat Daniel and the sort of Bozo politicians who would blandly expect a mere weekend conference of the G-20 in Canada this summer to cost “millions upon millions” of dollars to the taxpayer.

From reading The Ugly American I know that many people, if they set foot outside the U.S. border into, say, South Vietnam or Iraq, instantly turn ugly. They forget about trying to even understand the villagers, let alone to “win their hearts and minds” for democracy. Instead they stay at fancy hotels, in Saigon or the Green Zone, and mingle with the native elite. But not Pat Daniel.

He stayed in a mere motel in the area for two months. Like many of the locals Daniel was an avid fly fisherman, and he told the folks he wanted to return to fish when the tributaries were cleaned up. They liked him. Michigan State University PR instructor Robert Kolt said, “If you’re affected, it’s really hard to understand how an executive could be both respectful and humble in Michigan, but we kind of saw that. I think people gave him high marks compared to Tony Hayward.”

I only wish that politicians in Washington could be as capable as that businessman. In Canada they are apparently as capable as business CEO's, or so the Canadian government claims: The excuse given by the Ottawa politicians for increasing their absurd salaries was “they had to compete with the business world.” Did the Canadians bother to reality-test this perception? During Vietnam I would have said their excuse had a “credibility gap.”

I suppose the people in Washington, like their counterparts in Canada ("millions upon millions") have their fantasies of being excellent at managing and organizing. As it happens, the historical record of Iraq proves otherwise. In Washington they were Bozos, and we enabled them to function as Bozos. There is a great line at the end of a book on Iraq. (Either Fiasco or Chain of Command) Throughout the book the writer names the insistent manipulators. I won’t steal his thunder by giving his exact figure, but he ends by saying, in effect, that history will wonder how (exact figure) men were able to get an entire nation into a war.


National Correspondent James Fallows, in his Blind Into Baghdad, (2006) names the same over-confident individuals as Hersh does. Fallows adds, 

“On the basis of all available evidence, it appears that the very people who were most insistent on the need to invade were the most negligent about what would happen next.” 

Such an obscenity: It seems that, after dragging the rest of us into a war, each of the very men responsible walked away and lost interest, fell asleep, leaving our boys to fight and die. As they were dying by the dozens, then the scores, then the hundreds… The boys with merely military training must have wondered weakly, helplessly, how the Americans were to teach democracy and peace. The (exact figure) with their extensive pre-war Iraq knowledge and their broad university education, as the U.S. casualties reached one thousand, then thousands, never gave the boys any help or guidance. 
I said “obscenity” and I meant it. I’m angry. When I was chairman of a board of directors we never tried to micro-manage the executive's decisions, but by God we never failed to enforce principles. (see my Olympics and Boards essay of Feb 14, 2010)

My thought experiment, my daydream, is that I am controlling my temper at a meeting at a big long oak table in the White House. This is well before any official decisions to invade Iraq. Not wishing to argue with close-minded people about the merits of the invasion I would look to principle.

“Gentlemen, no one doubts your ability as leaders and managers. If the president dies the vice-president can step up to the plate; if he dies then the secretary of state is certainly capable.” I would remind them that by their very own words the invasion and security of Iraq was Extremely Important.

“Will the secretary of state, or of defense, for example, resign to go to Iraq and be in charge? Will any of those very few who have been pushing so very strongly the “Iraq agenda” be willing to be in charge over there until the last American leaves? Will no one ‘bell the cat?’… Gentlemen! In principle, if this motion to invade, no matter how “Extremely Important,” does not have even one “seconder” willing to take full-time long-term responsibility, then... surely... it is not worth doing!”

... ...

... Principles are like proverbs: they help people to manage their lives and they are difficult to argue against. I'm thinking of the failed U.S. invasion during my childhood, which I studied in management class, that gave the world the lesson of “group think.” Next time a group is planning to invade the Bay of Pigs I could recite the resulting proverb: “If everyone is thinking alike then no one is thinking.” From  what I've read, for Iraq, persons with hubris ordered everyone in the White House to think alike, and publicaly crucified the first man (a general) who dared to disagree.

The Bay of Pigs invasion provided a bloody "reality test." At  least we learned something. Today, when no one has been reprimanded for Iraq, let alone fired, we are obviously not yet ready to learn. I hope that one day, as Fallows believes, the mistakes of Iraq will be owned and studied.

Just now, I’m a little angry, and in no mood to be musing about hubris. I think I will go escape into laughing at Sheldon and those other lovable nerds on Big Bang Theory.

Sean Crawford
On the Great Plains
October 2010

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