Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Over Here, over there, and eveywhere

I began reading a novel last week called Over Here, by Jame Hockenberry.  (My wife gave it to me for Christmas last year, autographed by the author; thanks Nora).  It is the fictionalized account of the activity that occurred in the United States just before America entered World War One.   While I am just about 1/3 through the book, I am finding it to be an interesting portrayal of the mixed emotions that existed in our country before we entered WW1 in April 1917, especially among those who considered themselves German-Americans, either because they were born in Germany, or because they were raised by German born parents in the United States.

Obviously, those Americans with ties to Germany, were conflicted by the war in Europe, a war which many considered to be the primary fault of German leaders' desires to break the Franco-Russia alliance, while elevating Germany to the class of world leader nation.  Throw in the rumors on both sides of the war of atrocities against civilians, and the unwillingness for all concerned to contain the initial outbreak to a localized war between Serbia and Austria-Hungary, and we have a recipe for both individuals and nations to be torn over which side to support.

Perhaps the parallel is not quite as solid, but I have to imagine that similar internal battles exist in the hearts of Mexican Americans when they here some of our our leaders disparage their country and its people, as well as those Americans who practice Islam, when they hear the phrase Islamist terrorist bandied about without regard to the vast majority of Islams who are not infected with a deep case of "ism-ness".  In each case, I imagine that being proud of one's heritage or religion, as well as one's adopted country, should not necessitate the need to choose one over the other.  Unfortunately, like some Americans during World War 1, distrust of their German neighbors, fueled by the occasional act of violence, is easy to see in action today by some who distrust people born south of our border or who worship a different God.    

One particular moment in the book struck me as both interesting and poignant.  At one point, one of the Bomb Squad detectives is discussing with his wife the recently released movie they had just seen; A Birth of a Nation.  The wife, Corinne, pushes her husband to understand that the awful actions of the KKK as depicted in the movie are similar to those being perpetrated by the mostly German American saboteurs that he is sworn to hunt down and stop.  But more importantly, while we might agree that their actions are horrible, to them their actions are in defense of their way of life.  In essence, Corinne is acting as the conscious of all of us to remember that men do many awful things in the name of self preservation, loyalty to country and family, and to defend their beliefs and values. She reminds her husband that those who used guerrilla tactics during the War for Independence were most likely considered barbarians and traitors by the majority of people in England at that time.

Corinne ends her side of the conversation with the question, if all people on both sides of a conflict believe that God is on their side, whose God is right if there is only one?

Which brings us "over there" where a nation of people institutionalized by government propaganda which controls their news, education, and virtually every aspect of their lives, believes that the only way to protect their way of life is to construct a huge military, enhanced with nuclear weapons capability.  While we may know that their leader, Kim Jong-un, is a brutal dictator who prefers to spend his country's money on weapons rather than food and medicine, they only know from years of teachings that America may strike first, at any moment, and their only alternative is to acquire similar weapons.  Certainly, Kim Jong-un is a despot of the worst magnitude, but when our President threatens to bring "fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen" he is only adding fuel to the fire of those poor people who live in an ignorant cloud of deception.  The sad thing is that it is those very same people who will suffer the consequences of some type of military operation, while the escalators of the violence, the two leaders of the countries, will emerge unharmed.  And, in the end, the majority of North Koreans who have no other source of information, will have their worst fears about American aggressiveness realized.  

And then there is Charlottesville, Virginia.  A small town rocked over the weekend by violence over the plan to move some statues of Civil War era heroes.  Certainly, there are some people who feel pride in their Confederate heritage.  They do not glorify the horrors of the War between the States, but do respect the values of the South, which helped build and bind their communities, perhaps conveniently ignoring the damage caused by slavery, but not maliciously so.

Unfortunately, there are too many who would eagerly bring back the days of white domination over other races.  Their rhetoric was all too obvious in the signs and speeches of the march, as was the intent of the young man who drove his car into the crowd of protesters.  The good news is that, while vocal, it is a minority of people who learned to hate, as ex-President Obama's tweet so eloquently described.  The bad news is that, purposefully or not, President Trump's election has emboldened some of these groups into thinking that making America great again means putting minorities back in their place, and recognizing that America was founded by white men for white men and that their heritage is at risk due to the insidiousness of diversity.

History, while occurring, is a fluid thing.  Individual historic moments can be recognized when they occur, but generally are not realized until time has passed.  We of course, egocentric as we are, tend to think that everything that is happening is historic.  With the advent of the "Breaking News" crawl on every opinion and news show, it is no wonder that we think our time is so important.

I can only hope that future historians will mark this time, and the next few years, as an important watershed in America, as a time when the electorate realized that a democracy ignored is doomed to collapse, that a true moral compass requires a moral foundation upon which the needle moves, and that those who have learned to hate can be taught, if not to love, at least to un-hate.

        

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Joseph Heller, Fear and Immigration

Today I read an excerpt from Something Happened by Joseph Heller.  It is the beginning of the second chapter, entitled "the office in which I work", and I read it in the summer edition of Lapham's Quarterly.  I also spent some time today reading the recently released transcripts of President Trump's phone calls during his first weeks of office to the Presidents of Mexico and Australia.

The first paragraph of the reprinted portion of Something Happened is as follows:

"In the office in which I work there are five people of whom I am afraid.  Each of these five people is afraid of four people (excluding overlaps), for a total of twenty, and each of these twenty people is afraid of six people, making a total of 120 people who are feared by at least one person.  Each of these 120 people is afraid of the other 119, and all of these 145 people area afraid of the twelve men at the top who helped found and build the company and now own and direct it."

At some point in my career as a mid level manager, I internalized the notion that management by fear was an outdated concept.  While certainly, a respect for the chain of command was necessary for the orderly functioning of any organization, the management style that emphasized blind obedience over constructive disagreements, the promotion of yes men (women) over those who questioned inefficient procedures, and the overall belief that keeping one's staff in a perpetual state of fearing for the loss of their job or promotion opportunities, inexorably led to the best people leaving for more challenging opportunities, condemning the organization to mediocrity, at best, eventual failure at worst.

Of course, Heller wrote Something Happened in the 1970's, yet it seems that management by fear and intimidation is still alive and well, perhaps not surprisingly within the biggest corporations and most extensive bureaucracies.  What is unfortunate is that, as Heller continues to describe the various bosses at his present and past employers, it becomes clear that once fear is the modus operandi of an organization, it permeates all levels, from the top to the bottom, even going so far as to create the insidious feeling within many of the workers that "someone nearby is soon going to find out something about me that will mean the end, although I can't imagine what that something is."  In essence, an outlook of fear and dread is created which infects other aspects of the employee's life, even outside of work.

I recently saw this kind of dread in a number of people in my circle of acquaintances.  For one, a lurking fear that his employer, after 25+ years of service, is setting the table for dismissal, just when the fruits of his longevity are about to pay off.  For another, that a reassignment is the result of an opinion viewed, not as professional disagreement, but as questioning the decisions of those in charge, and for a third, the harrowing perspective that the skill set of a mature worker is not applicable in today's employment market, so its best to tolerate poor working conditions and sub par instructions for fear of loss of income and health care insurance.  

I had often stated that I hoped that those employers who took advantage of the recession of 2008-2010 by cutting benefits, salary or both with the admonition that workers "should just be grateful they have a job", would be the first to lose good people when the economy recovered.  Now, 8 years into the recovery, there is still little progress on raising minimum wages, addressing overall income inequality, and creating a foundation for the middle class to recapture the loss of buying power that has resulted from the love affair with trickle down economics.  All the while, and sadly, despite having a two term Democratic President, the incomes and wealth of the top 5% has improved at a staggering pace.

Which brings us to President Trump.

While I hope that these first 6 months can be chalked up to the learning curve of a CEO who must absorb the difference between running a business and running a government, I am not encouraged by his use of fear in his dealings with the media, his critics, those in the GOP establishment, various judges, our allies, our healthcare conundrum, and, it appears, even those he has chosen to be in his cabinet.

Clearly, his travel bans, a policy based on the fear of immigrants and refugees and which played well with those Americans with a similar fear, as well as his recent reversal of allowing transgender people to serve in the military, establish a pattern of blaming various minority populations for all our troubles which enhances the fears of those who find it easy to dehumanize a group based on their differences.

When I read the aforementioned transcripts, especially the one detailing his conversation with Australia's Prime Minister, I found a man unwilling to listen to the specifics of the deal created to provide new homes for some middle eastern refugees.  He had promised his supporters to ban those "bad" people, and was unable or unwilling to separate economic refugees from terrorists.  He had successfully used blind fear to gain votes, and was not about to attempt to separate blind fear from a reality based fear for those who were so easy to sway.

Additionally, in both conversations, President Trump emphasized, at times even exaggerated, his popularity, in part to hammer home his points that he couldn't go back on his campaign promises about the wall and about immigration, but also, it seemed, to remind the foreign presidents that they should also fear the ramifications of statements and actions not in line with Trump's perspective.  Not that I would expect our president to do anything rash against either of these countries, rash being defined as a military response, but it reveals an attitude that says "Your lack of cooperation and agreement will ultimately result in a detrimental consequence".  Whether that level of consequence is trade related or force related seems dependent on the country and its misstep.

Curiously, President Trump does not seem to exhibit that same attitude when it comes to Russia. Even in signing the bipartisan sanctions bill against Russia he found it necessary to express his displeasure with the bill, a displeasure that may reflect both his opinion of the sanctions and the fact that he felt compelled to sign them.

Is immigration, illegal and otherwise, the biggest threat to America?  Is ISIS and other forms of terrorism?  Is it North Korea and their over the top nationalism that is fueled by a dictator who is loved by all his citizens and takes pains to prove it everyday?

Or is it the threats to our democracy? Threats that have existed since the Cold War began and are very really positioned at the end of thousands of ICBM's pointed to Europe and America, threats that were exercised in both overt invasions of minor countries and subversive cyber invasions which created and enhanced misinformation meant to sow doubts in our allegiances to other democracies.  Threats that attack our democracy from within by legitimizing the power of money to sway elections, and that leave the vast majority without recourse when the minority creates laws that reinforce the circle of influence, power, and control.

We all feel fear, personally and collectively.  We don't always gauge it properly, whether it is an unhealthy fear of closed spaces, or a xenophobic fear of those who look differently.  But we should expect, especially from our leaders, an assessment of fear that is based on facts not phobias.