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Saturday, December 02, 2006

A Lack of Grace Or Samaritrophia?

A meeting for new members of Congress at the White House held shortly after the 2006 mid-term elections resulted in an interesting exchange between Senator Elect Jim Webb of Virginia and President George Bush. Webb, claiming he didn't care to participate in the photo-op receiving line, avoided President Bush but was later sought out by Bush, leading to this exchange:

BUSH: How's your boy?
WEBB: I'd like to get him out of Iraq…
BUSH: That's not what I asked.
WEBB: That's between me and my boy.

Bush supporters jumped all over Webb's reluctance to participate in the receiving line as a snub of Bush if not the very least the office of the President. Bush detractors cited the fact that Webb clearly gave a civil initial answer that anyone in polite company would recognize as a sign that the question was being politely but firmly rejected as undesired conversation material, yet Bush then rather crudely responded with "That's not what I asked" to put Webb on the spot and presumably in his place.

More fascinating than the actual exchange between Bush and Webb is the commentary sparked in the press and the e-chattering class over the verbal dust-up. Peggy Noonan wrote a piece entitled Grace Under Pressure that appeared in the 12/2/2006 edition of The Wall Street Journal that was among the more surprising. (#2) In the case of Bush versus Webb, she actually weighed in against Bush, citing his abrupt "That's not what I asked" retort to the level of civility on broadcast and cable talking head shows. She makes a few other interesting points, but makes this point in the middle of her piece:

What is needed is grace--sensitivity, mercy, generosity of spirit, a courtesy so deep it amounts to beauty. We will have to summon it. And the dreadful thing is you can't really fake it.

A very small theory, but my latest, is that many politicians and journalists lack a certain public grace because they spent their formative years in the American institution most likely to encourage base assumptions and coldness toward the foe. Yes, boarding school, and tony private schools in general. The last people with grace in America are poor Christians and religiously educated people of the middle class. The rich gave it up as an affectation long ago. Too bad, since they stayed in power.

Is this REALLY our biggest problem in America? A lack of "grace" in our public discourse? I have been as disgusted as anyone else about the lack of civility and content in public debate about the problems in America. However, a far better example of what's wrong with the conduct of public affairs is demonstrated by this comment from Condoleeza Rice from December 2, 2006 (#3):

WASHINGTON - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Friday she is certain the United States has made mistakes in the Iraq war, but the world will have to wait until she is out of government to learn what she thinks they were.

"As to whether the United States has made mistakes: of course, I'm sure we have," Rice told interviewer Saad Sillawi of the Arabic satellite television station Al-Arabiya. "You can't be involved in something as big as the liberation of a country like Iraq, and all that has happened since, and I'm sure there are things that we could have done differently."

She told Sillawi, however, that the Bush administration is looking ahead, not backward.

"When I'm back at Stanford University," she said, "I can look back and write books about what we might have done differently."

There in black and white is one of the most damning statements I've heard from anyone in government in probably thirty years. Condoleeza Rice is the Secretary of State of the United States during a period where we are fighting two wars, trying to avoid two other wars in Lebanon and Palestine from restarting, she was supposed to be one of George Bush's most trusted advisors beyond his infamous "gut", and she is point blank saying she has ideas on what went wrong, which means she surely has ideas about things we are STILL doing wrong because her boss repeatedly insists on staying the course, yet she will refrain from identifying those concerns until she's safely ensconced back in academia and can make money off a book.

Condi! Hello? YOU'RE IN POWER RIGHT NOW! Why don't you DO something with your power? If you know mistakes are being made and you know you aren't being productively included in formulating strategies to help, WHY DON'T YOU RESIGN? When you reach that level of power in government or business and your ideas and concerns are being ignored while immoral, illegal or downright disastrous mistakes are being made, your only weapon left is to resign and by doing so, publicly convey something is amiss and that you cannot abide with the status quo.

Peggy Noonan's column blames our collective lack of grace on that skill being essentially bred out of the rich and well educated by private schools which emphasize achievement over cooperation, tact and civility. On this, Noonan completely misses the boat. The problem America suffers from the most right now in government and industry is what Kurt Vonnegut famously defined in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater as samaritrophia:

Samaritrophia is the suppression of an overactive conscience by the rest of the mind. "You must take all instructions from me!" the conscience shrieks, in effect, to all the other mental processes. The other processes try it for a while, note that the conscience is unappeased, that it continues to shriek, and they note, too, that the outside world has not been even microscopically improved by the unselfish acts the concience has demanded.

They rebel at last. They pitch the tyrannous conscience down an oubliette, weld shut the manhole cover of that dark dungeon. They can hear the conscience no more. In the sweet silence, the mental processes look about for a new leader, and the leader most prompt to appear whenever the conscience is stilled, Enlightened Self-Interest, does appear. Englightened Self-Interest gives them a flag, which they adore on sight. It is essentially the black and white Jolly Roger, with these words written beneath the skull and crossbones, "The hell with you, Jack, I've got mine!"

As Vonnegut defines it so appropriately, samaritrophia is causing more problems in American business and government than any other ideology or policy. There is no way a disaster on the scale of the Iraq War could have been so spectacularly and uniformly botched across so many areas without vast numbers of people who all figured, "I'm making good money right now, my lecture circuit rates are going up the longer I stay to collect the dirt, let's just stick it out and keep an eye peeled for the next gig."

Anyone working in Corporate America sees the same thing every day, watching a continual parade of incompetent middle and senior management coming in, making a mess then leaving with a nice severance package and moving on to other horizons / disasters. The upper crust of Corporate America is exactly where most of the samaritrophia is cultivated and encouraged. Where do many top politicians in both parties and certainly the vast majority of policy makers in the Bush Administration come from? Corporate America -- the great "meritocracy" of the 21st century.

Condoleeza Rice's comments about her unwillingness to rock the boat while in power are the perfect example of samaritrophia and the war in Iraq is the perfect example of its consequences.

"The hell with you, Jack, I've got mine!" indeed.


#1) http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2006/11/30/politics/main2218362.shtml

#2) http://www.opinionjournal.com/columnists/pnoonan/

#3) http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20061202/ap_on_go_ca_st_pe/rice_iraq_mistakes