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Archive for May, 2010|Monthly archive page

BP AND THE OILBLECK

In Bureaucracy, Politics, Social commentary on May 29, 2010 at 10:12 pm

Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel) published over 60 children’s books, which were often filled with imaginative characters and rhyme. Among his most famous books were Green Eggs and Ham, The Cat in the Hat, and One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish.

Honored in his lifetime (1904-1991) for the joy he brought to countless children, Dr. Seuss may well prove one of the unsung prophets of our environmentally-threatened age.

In 1949, he penned Bartholomew and the Oobleck, the story of a young page who must rescue his kingdom from a terrifying, man-made substance called Oobleck.

The story is quickly told: Derwin, the King of Didd, announces he’s bored with sunshine, rain, fog and snow.  He wants a new kind of weather.

So he calls in his black magicians and gives them the order.  The magicians assure him they can create it.

“What will you call it?” asks the king.

“We’ll call it Oobleck,” says one of the magicians.

“What will it be like?” asks King Didd.

“We don’t know, Sire,” the magician replies.  “We’ve never created Ooleck before.”

The next morning, Oobleck–a greenish, glue-like substnace–starts raining.

The king orders Bartholomew, the royal page, to tell the Bell Ringer that today will be a holiday.  But the bell doesn’t ring because it’s filled with Oobleck.

Bartholomew warns the Royal Trumpeter about the Oobleck, but the trumpet gets stopped up with the goo.

The Captain of the Guards thinks the Oobleck is pretty and sees no danger in it–until he eats some.  Instantly, his mouth is glued shut.

The Oobleck rain intensifies.  The falling blobs–now as big as buckets full of brocolli–now break into the palace, immobilizing the servants and guards.

At the climax of the story, Bartholomew confronts King Derwin for giving such a rash order.

“If you can’t do anything else,” says Bartholomew, “at least you can say you’re sorry.”

King Derwin refuses, and Bartholomew says, “If you can look at all the horror you’ve caused and not say you’re sorry, you’re no sort of king at all.”

In real-life, the king would have almost certainly ordered Bartholomew’s execution.  But this is a children’s story.

So, overcome with guilt, King Derwin utters the magic words: “You’re right, this is all my fault, and I am sorry.”

Suddenly the Oobleck stops raining and the sun melts away the rest. With life returning to normal, King Derwin mounts the bell tower and rings the bell. He proclaims a holiday dedicated not to Oobleck, but to rain, sun, fog, and snow, the four elements of Nature—of which Man is but a part.

* * * * *

Flash forward to May 29, 2010: BP has admitted defeat in its latest attempt to plug the Gulf of Mexico oil leak by pumping mud into a busted well. More than 1.2 million gallons of mud was used, but most of it escaped out of the damaged riser

In the six weeks since the spill began on April 20, BP has failed in each attempt to stop the gusher.

First, the company used robot submarines to try to close valves on the massive blowout preventer. But the valves wouldn’t close.

Two weeks later, BP tried to place a 100-ton concrete box over the leak. But this was soon clogged with ice-like crystals.

Then engineers used a mile-long siphon tube to suck up the gushing oil. But the tube sucked up only 900,000 gallons of oil—out of an estimated 18- to 40 million gallons of oil pouring into the Gulf.

“This scares everybody,” admitted BP PLC Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles. “The fact that we can’t make this well stop flowing, the fact that we haven’t succeeded so far. Many of the things we’re trying have been done on the surface before, but have never been tried at 5,000 feet.”

There is a moral to be learned here—but not by right-wing fanatics like Sarah Palin and the “Drill, baby, drill” crowd. It’s only for those who are willing to confront the truth head-on:

There are forces in Nature far more powerful than anything Man and his puny strength can defy—or harness. And we invoke the wrath of those forces at our own peril.

In the world of children’s stories, it’s possible for a king to undo the terrible damage he’s unleashed by finding the courage to say: “I’m sorry.” BP’s top executives—and the government officials who refused to hold the company accountable—have been saying “I’m sorry” for the last six weeks.

It hasn’t proven enough, and the residents of Louisiana—and states well beyond it—will be living with the damage of this environmental holocaust for decades to come.

MACHIAVELLI: ADVICE FOR PRESIDENT OBAMA

In Bureaucracy, History, Politics on May 29, 2010 at 2:49 pm

From: Niccolo Machiavelli
To: Barack Obama, President of the United States

I regret to inform you, Mr. President, of two unpleasant pieces of news.

First: On April 20, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank about 40 miles southeast of the Louisiana coast. The resulting oil spill has pumped millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, with no end in sight.

Second: A May 24-25 USA TODAY/Gallup Poll gives you a poor rating by 53% of your fellow countrymen in your handling of the oil spill off the Gulf.

Fortunately, you can turn this situation around–but only if you’re willing to make some hard decisions and make your enemies even more angry.

First, you should realize that you are partly responsible for the sharp drop in your popularity.

During the 2008 Presidential race, you vigorously opposed offshore oil drilling. This got you the votes of all those liberals who now call themselves “progressives.” But after you became President and the public demanded lower oil prices, you decided that offshore oil drilling was all right after all.

Remember the counsel I offered you in The Prince on how to avoid becoming despised or hated?

…The prince must…avoid those things which will make him hated or despised….He is rendered despicable by being thought changeable, frivolous, effeminate, timid and irresolute—which a prince must guard against as a rock of danger….

I sought to warn Bill Clinton against this mistake, but he never listened to me–and kept making it throughout his Presidency.

I also warned him to stop making constant concessions to his worst Republican enemies. Right to the end of his Presidency he thought he could charm his enemies into liking and supporting him. So he never learned:

…One ought to be both feared and loved, but as it is difficult for the two to go together, it is much safer to be feared than loved. For it may be said of men in general that they are ungrateful, voluble, dissemblers, anxious to avoid danger and covetous of gain. As long as you benefit them, they are entirely yours: they offer you their blood, their goods, their life and their children, when the necessity is remote; but when it approaches, they revolt.

And the prince who has relied solely on their words, without making other preparations, is ruined. For the friendship which is gained by purchase and not through grandeur and nobility of spirit is bought but not secured, and at a pinch is not to be expended in your service.

And men have less scruple in offending one who makes himself loved than one who makes himself feared. For love is held by a chain of obligations which, men being selfish, is broken whenever it serves their purpose–but fear is maintained by a dread of punishment which never fails.

I greatly fear, Mr. President, that you will share the same disappointed–and disappointing–fate as President Clinton.

I also fear, Mr. President, that you have not fully accepted the realities of your position–and the world we all live in:

Many have imagined republics and principalities which have never been seen or known to exist in reality. For how we live is so far removed from how we ought to live, that he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done, will rather learn to bring about his own ruin rather than his preservation. A man who wishes to make a profession of goodness in everything must inevitably come to grief among so many who are not good. And therefore it is necessary for a prince, who wishes to maintain himself, to learn how not to be good, and to use this knowledge and not use it, according to the necessity of the case.

Finally, Mr. President, you must be prepared to act boldly or cautiously, as the situation demands–and must be able to recognize which quality is called for at any given time:

There are two methods of fighting—the one by law, the other by force. The first method is that of men, the second of beasts; but as the first method is often insufficient, one must have recourse to the second. It is therefore necessary for a prince to know well how to use both the beast and the man.

A prince…must imitate the fox and the lion, for the lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to avoid traps, and a lion to frighten wolves. Those who wish to be only lions do not realize this.

You are now almost 18 months into your Presidency. You have made some mistakes and suffered some setbacks–as all Presidents must. But there is still time to learn from them–and create victories that will live on in the hearts of your countrymen long after your term of office has ended.

MACHIAVELLI: ADVICE FOR EXECUTIVES – PART TWO

In Bureaucracy, History, Politics on May 29, 2010 at 10:45 am

EVALUATING A SUBORDINATE:
For a prince to be able to know a minister there is this method which never fails. When you see the minister think more of himself than of you, and in all his actions seek his own profit, such a man will never be a good minister, and you can never rely on him. For whoever has in hand the state of another man must never think of himself but of the prince, and not mind anything but what relates to him.

And on the other hand, the prince, in order to retain his fidelity, ought to think of his minister, honoring and enriching him, doing him kindnesses and conferring on him favors and responsible tasks, so that the great favors and riches bestowed on him cause him not to desire other honors and riches, and the offices he holds make him fearful of changes. When princes and their ministers stand in this relation to each other, they can rely the one upon the other; when it is otherwise, the result is always injurious either for one or the other of them.

TAKING COUNSEL:
There is no way of guarding oneself against flattery than by letting men understand that they will not offend you by speaking the truth. But when every one can tell you the truth, you lose their respect. A prudent prince must therefore take a third course, by choosing for his counsel wise men, and giving them alone full liberty to speak the truth to him, but only of those things that he asks and of nothing else.

But he must be a great asker about everything and hear their opinions, and afterwards deliberate by himself in his own way, and in these counsels and with each of these men comport himself so that every one may see that the more freely he speaks, the more he will be acceptable. Beyond these he should listen to no one, go about the matter deliberately, and be determined in his decisions.

A prince, therefore, ought always to take counsel, but only when he wishes, not when others wish. On the contrary, he ought to discourage absolutely attempts to advise him unless he asks it. But he ought to be a great asker, and a patient hearer of the truth about those things of which he has inquired. Indeed, if he finds that anyone has scruples in telling him the truth he should be angry.

UNWISE PRINCES CANNOT BE WISELY ADVISED:
And since some think that a prince who gains the reputation of being prudent is so considered, not by his nature but by the good counselors he has about him, they are undoubtedly deceived. It is an infallible rule that a prince who is not wise himself cannot be well advised, unless by chance he leaves himself entirely in the hands of one man who rules him in everything, and happens to be a very prudent man. In this case, he may doubtless be well governed, but it would not last long, for the governor would in a short time deprive him of the state.

FORTUNE:
I think it may be true that fortune is the ruler of half our actions, but that she allows the other half or thereabouts to be governed by us. I would compare her to an impetuous river that, when turbulent, inundates the plains, casts down trees and buildings, removes earth from this side and places it on the other; every one flees before it, and everything yields to its fury without being able to oppose it. Still, when it is quiet, men can make provisions against it by dykes and banks, so that when it follows it will either go into a canal or its rush will not be so wild and dangerous.

ONE’S OWN NATURE:
No man can be found so prudent as to be able to adopt himself to [time and circumstances], either because he cannot deviate from that to which his nature disposes him, or else because having always prospered by walking in one path, he cannot persuade himself that it is well to leave it; and therefore the cautious man, when it is time to act suddenly, does not know how to do so and is consequently ruined. For if one could change one’s nature with time and circumstances, fortune would never change.

NEUTRALITY IS USUALLY RUINOUS:
A prince is further esteemed when he is a true friend or a true enemy—when, that is, he declares himself without reserve in favor of some one or against another. This policy is always more useful than remaining neutral.

MACHIAVELLI: ADVICE FOR EXECUTIVES

In Bureaucracy, Politics, Self-Help on May 29, 2010 at 10:28 am

“The man who builds a factory,” said President Calvin Coolidge, “builds a temple. And the man who works there worships there.”

No doubt that’s how many American corporate executives still feel about themselves–and their employees. But those heady days of knee-jerk worship of CEOs and their oversize salaries and egos are over–at least, temporarily.

Americans have (reluctantly) learned that the robber barons who rule Wall Street are not God’s own elect. Even former Federal Reserve Chairman Alllen Greenspan, the longtime champion of de-regulation, has admitted he totally underestimated the role greed plays in the making of financial decisions.

It’s thus time for Americans to demand wholesale reforms in the ways corporate executives are allowed to operate. And a good place to start is with the advice of Niccolo Machiavelli. The Florentine statesman (1469-1527) wrote extensively about how bureaucracies truly work–as opposed to how people believe they do.

Excerpts of his observations follow:

IMITATE THOSE WHO HAVE ATTAINED GREATNESS:
Not always being able to follow others exactly, nor attain to the excellence of those he imitates, a prudent man should always follow in the paths trodden by great men and imitate those who are most excellent…. If he does not attain to their greatness, at any rate he will get some tinge of it. He will do as prudent archers, who, when the place they wish to hit is too far off…aim at a spot much higher than the one they wish to hit. [They do so] not in order to reach this height with their arrow, but by help of this high aim to hit the spot they wish to.

REALITY VS. FANTASY IN POLITICS AND LIFE:
Many have imagined republics and principalities which have never been seen or known to exist in reality, for how we live is so far removed from how we ought to live, that he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done, will rather learn to bring about his own ruin rather than his preservation. A man who wishes to make a profession of goodness in everything must inevitably come to grief among so many who are not good. And therefore it is necessary for a prince, who wishes to maintain himself, to learn how not to be good, and to use this knowledge and not use it, according to the necessity of the case.

CAUTION AND BOLDNESS:
A prince…must imitate the fox and the lion, for the lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to avoid traps, and a lion to frighten wolves. Those who wish to be only lions do not realize this.

SANCTIONS VS. FAVORS:
Princes should let the carrying out of unfavorable duties devolve to others, and bestow favors themselves.

RISK AS A GIVEN:
Let no state believe that it can always follow a safe policy, rather let it think that all are doubtful. This is found in the nature of things, that one never tries to avoid one difficulty without running into another, but prudence consists in being able to know the nature of the difficulties, and taking the least harmful as good.

A RULER’S SUBORDINATES:
The first impression that one gets of a ruler and his brains is from seeing the men that he has about him. When they are competent and loyal one can always consider him wise, as he has been able to recognize their ability and keep them faithful. But when they are the reverse, one can always form an unfavorable opinion of him, because the first mistake that he makes is in making this choice.

There are three different kinds of brains: the one understands things unassisted, the other understands things when shown by others, the third understands neither alone nor with the explanations of others. The first kind is most excellent; the second is also excellent; but the third is useless.

YOUR CALL IS VERY IMPORTANT TO US–PART TWO

In Bureaucracy, Self-Help, Social commentary on May 27, 2010 at 10:35 pm

So you’ve spent the last half-hour or more on the phone, listening to one recorded message after another (and probably a symphony of bad music). And you’re no closer to solving the problem that caused you to phone the company/agency in the first place.

What to do?

(1) Go on the Net and look up the company’s/agency’s website. Look for links to their Board of Directors. Often enough you’ll get not only their names but their bios, phone numbers and even email addresses. A good place to start looking is at the bottom of the website page. Many companies/agencies put this information there–and usually in small print.

(2) Look for the names of officials who can help you. That means the ones at the top–or at least high enough so you can be sure that whoever responds to your call/letter/email has the necessary clout to address your problem.

(3) If you call, don’t ask to speak directly with Mr. Big–that’s not going to happen. Ask to speak with Mr. Big’s secretary, who is far more accessible.

(4) Keep your tone civil, and try to make your call as brief as possible. Don’t go into a lot of background about all the problems you’ve been having getting through to someone. Just tell her (yes, it’s usually a woman) the gist and ask her to refer you to someone who can help resolve your problem.

(5) If she says she needs more time to study the problem before referring you to someone else, be patient. Answer any questions she asks–such as your name, address, phone number and/or email.

(6) Tell her–specifically-what you want the company to do to resolve your problem. If you want a refund or repairs for your product, say so. Too many consumers don’t specify what they want the company to do–they’re so caught up in their rage and frustration that this completely escapes them.

(7) But be reasonable. If you want a refund, then don’t ask for more money than you paid for the product. If you want to return a product for an exchange, don’t expect the company to give you a new one with even more bells and whistles–unless you’re willing to pay the difference in price. If you want an agency to investigate your complaint, don’t expect them to drop everything else and do so instantly. Give them time to assess your information and that supplied by others.

(8) Remember that it’s usually possible to get one agency to sit on another–if you can make a convincing case that it’s in that secondary agency’s best interests to do so. For example, if you’ve been roughed up by local police for no good reason, you can file a complaint with that department–and you can ask the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office (federal prosecutor) to investigate. That doesn’t guarantee they will. But if you can show that the cops have violated several Federal civil rights laws, the odds are that someone will take a serious look at your complaint.

(9) If a company/agency official has acted so outrageously that the company/agency might now be held liable for his actions, don’t be afraid to say so. But don’t threaten to sue–just point out that the employee has acted in such a way as to befoul the company’s/agency’s reputation for integrity/efficiency and that the organization is not well-served by such behavior. Whoever reads your letter/email will instantly realize the legal implications of what you’re saying–and, in most cases, will take quick action to head off a lawsuit by trying to satisfy your request. The foremost priority of every bureaucracy is to ensure its own survival.

(10) Give the CEO’s secretary at least one to two days to get back to you. Remember: Resolving your problem isn’t the only task she needs to complete.

If you’re writing the CEO, make sure you use his full name and title–and that you spell both correctly. People don’t get to be CEOs without a huge sense of ego. Nothing will turn him off faster than your failing to get his name and title exactly right.

As in the case with his secretary, be brief–no more than a page and a half. Outline the problem you’re having and at least some (though not necessarily all) of the steps you’re taken to get it resolved. Then state what you want the company to do. Again, be fair and reasonable.

YOUR CALL IS VERY IMPORTANT TO US

In Bureaucracy, Social commentary on May 27, 2010 at 9:55 pm

How many times have you called a government agency or company and instantly found yourself put on hold?

As if that weren’t bad enough, you usually wind up serenaded by recorded music that would be totally forgettable if it weren’t so unforgivably irritating. And every 30 seconds or so a recorded voice comes on to assure you: “Your call is very important to us.”

Have you ever wondered: “If my call is so important to you, why aren’t you answering it?”

The truth is that most companies and government agencies don’t want their employees speaking with the customers who make their existence a reality. To have you get your questions answered by another human being requires the company/agency to hire and assign people to do just that.

Most hiring managers don’t want to hire any more people than they absolutely have to. They want to siphon off as much of the company’s profits for themselves as possible. And assigning people to answer customers’ calls means that many of those calls will take time to answer, because some problems can’t be solved in a matter of seconds. To a bean-counting executive, time is money.

Even government agencies like police departments don’t want to spend any more time than necessary taking the calls of those who need to reach them. Even calls to 911 can wind up with you talking to no one, with only a recorded message telling you to hang on until someone comes on to speak with you.

That’s why so many bureaucracies make certain that when you call for help, the first–and sometimes the only–response you get is a recorded message telling you to visit the company’s or agency’s website.

This assumes, of course, that you have a computer–and that, if you do, you also have Internet access. If you don’t have a computer, or you have a computer but don’t have Internet access, or you do have Internet access but the service is down, you’re flat out of luck.

And the agency/company couldn’t care less.

But it need not be this way. Companies and agencies can treat their customers with respect for their time and need for help.

That’s why companies that genuinely seek to address the questions and concerns of their customers reap strong customer loyalty–and the profits that go with it. One of these is LG, which produces mobile phones, TVs, audio/video appliances and computer products.

LG actually offers an 800 Customer Care number that’s good 24-hours a day. Its call center is staffed with friendly, knowledgeable people who are willing to take the time to answer customer questions and guide them through the steps of setting up the appliances they’ve bought.

Such an approach to customer service is not new–just rare these days. In his 1970 bestselling primer on business management, Up the Organization, Robert Townsend offered the following advice to company CEOs: “Call yourself up.”

“When you’re off on a business trip or a vacation,” writes Townsend, “pretend you’re a customer. Telephone some part of your organization and ask for help. You’ll run into real horror shows. Don’t blow up and ask for name, rank and serial number–you’re trying to correct, not punish. Just suggest to the manager (through channels, dummy) that he make a few test calls himself.”

So how do you cope with agencies/companies that don’t care enough to help their customers?

I’ll address that in my next column.

CONSPIRACIES VS. STUPIDITIES

In Bureaucracy, Politics on May 26, 2010 at 11:04 am

In his May 24 column, “Rand Paul’s Amazing Meltdown,” conservative columnist Michael Medved poses the question: “Could it be that the media establishment wanted [Rand] Paul to win and treated him respectfully in order to preserve his chances of victory?”

Specifically, he states: “Rand Paul’s amazing meltdown in his first week as the GOP Senate nominee in Kentucky raises serious questions about media conspiracies–not because the network talking heads decided to ask him tough questions, but because they waited to pose those challenges until after he’d won his primary and the Republicans were stuck with him.”

It’s easy to make a conspiratorial argument for anything. And such thinking has huge appeal for both the Left and Right. For almost 50 years, liberals like Mark Lane and Oliver Stone have lived well off the contention that JFK died at the hands of a conspiracy.

On the Right are those who believe that members of the Nixon Administration deliberately sabotaged the President by sending burglars into the Watergate Hotel to be arrested in the act.

Indulging in such conspiracy theories is easier than accepting the brutal truth that Kennedy died at the hands of a malcontented loner, and that Nixon was brought down by his own criminality rather than traitors within the Republican party.

Both sides conveniently forget this truism to be found in Niccolo Machiavelli’s classic work on the gaining and holding of power, The Prince:

Experience shows that there have been very many conspiracies, but few have turned out well. For whoever conspires cannot act alone, and cannot find companions except among those who are discontented. And as soon as you have disclosed your intention to a malcontent, you give him the means of satisfying himself.

Medved, too, has apparently forgotten this. Medved cites the media’s respectful treating of Paul as evidence of a conspiracy to sabotage not just him but the Republican party’s chances of victory in the Kentucky Senate race.

But what if the media had not treated Paul respectfully? It’s a sure bet that Medved and his fellow conservatives would have then accused the media of publicly trying to derail his candidacy.

Since the media treated Paul with the same respect they showed the other candidates in the race, Republicans like Medved must shop for a new theory for Paul’s “meltdown.”

That is, they must find a way to explain his remarks that while he opposes racial discrimination, he also opposes laws–such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964–that ban it. They must also put a spin in his more recent comment attacking President Obama as “really un-American in his criticism of business” by demanding that BP be held accountable for the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

It’s certainly easier to attack the media as conspirators than to accept that one’s party has cast its lot with a man who says things that outrage a great many voters.

Consider, for example, his positions–as listed on his own website–on:

ABORTION: “I believe we may be able to save millions of lives in the near future by allowing states to pass their own anti-abortion laws….I would strongly support legislation restricting federal courts from hearing cases like Roe v. Wade. Such legislation would only require a majority vote, making it more likely to pass than a pro-life constitutional amendment.” In short, Big Government should not intrude into the lives of its citizens–unless a woman wants to control her own body.

ENERGY: “Our energy crisis stems from too much government intervention. The solution requires allowing businesses and ideas to compete.” If you like the way BP has handled the ever-spreading oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, you’ll love Paul’s attitude that “What’s good for BP is good for the country.”

HEALTH CARE: “Like other areas of the economy where the federal government wields its heavy hand, health care is over-regulated and in need of serious market reforms. As Senator, I would ensure that real free market principles are applied to fix this problem.” In short, if 31 million Americans don’t have health care, that’s their tough luck. It’s not the role of the Federal Government to protect its citizens from life-threatening illness just because they can’t afford extortionate medical fees.

For more than 50 years, Republicans have portrayed themselves as the only party worthy of trust. They have repeatedly accused their Democratic opponents of not simply being wrong, but of being traitors–of lusting for the chance to “sell out” America to whichever group seemed most frightening at the moment: Communists, criminals, terrorists or “tax-and-spend” liberals.

Those who believe themselves charged with a sacred mission are prone to see evil conspiracies at work when they slam into a roadblock–especially if that roadblock is of their own making.

TAKING AND GIVING ADVICE

In Bureaucracy, Politics, Self-Help on May 26, 2010 at 12:20 am

Some people–like President Richard Nixon–like to make their decisions in private, consulting almost no one and then springing the surprise announcement on an often-shocked public.

Others, like President Bill Clinton, care more about what their enemies than their supporters think of them. As a result, they usually wind up alienating their supporters and winning at best only token support from their enemies.

But there is another way to reach decisions–that suggested by Niccolo Machiavelli, the father of modern political science. In his classic work, The Prince, he offers an approach that combines the private with the public.

Having served as Florentine ambassador to courts throughout Italy, Machiavelli well understood the temptations of power. He thus fashioned an approach that accepted as a given the power of flattery–and the need to guard oneself against it.

This danger is best illustrated in the famous joke about a corporate president asking his private pilot, “What altitude are we flying at?” and the suck-up pilot replies, “What altitude do you want it to be?”

And having met rulers both wise and foolish, Machiavelli realized how essential it was for those in power to keep a steady grip on the truth about people and events. So he offered the following advice:

There is no way of guarding oneself against flattery than by letting men understand that they will not offend you by speaking the truth. But when every one can tell you the truth, you lose their respect. A prudent prince must therefore take a third course, by choosing for his counsel wise men, and giving them alone full liberty to speak the truth to him, but only of those things that he asks and of nothing else.

But he must be a great asker about everything and hear their opinions, and afterwards deliberate by himself in his own way, and in these counsels and with each of these men comport himself so that every one may see that the more freely he speaks, the more he will be acceptable. Beyond these he should listen to no one, go about the matter deliberately, and be determined in his decisions.

Whoever acts otherwise either acts precipitately through flattery or else changes often through the variety of opinions, from which it follows that he will be little esteemed.

A prince, therefore, ought always to take counsel, but only when he wishes, not when others wish. On the contrary, he ought to discourage absolutely attempts to advise him unless he asks it. But he ought to be a great asker, and a patient hearer of the truth about those things of which he has inquired. Indeed, if he finds that anyone has scruples in telling him the truth he should be angry.

But what about the giving of advice? Machiavelli has some brilliant counsel on that, too. In his great work, The Discourses–which deals with how to preserve liberty within a republic–he warns:

Certainly those who counsel princes and republics are placed between two dangers. If they do not advise what seems to them for the good of the republic or the prince, regardless of the consequences to themselves, then they fail of their duty. And if they do advise it, then it is at the risk of their position and their lives, for all men are blind in this, that they judge of good or evil counsels only by the results.

In reflecting as to the means to avoid this dilemma of either disgrace or danger, I see no other course than to take things moderately, and not to undertake to advocate any enterprise with too much zeal, but to give one’s advice calmly and modestly. If either then the republic or the prince decides to follow it, they may do so, as it were, of their own will, and not as though they were drawn into it by your importunity.

In adopting this course it is not reasonable to suppose that either the prince or republic will manifest any ill will towards you on account of a resolution not taken contrary to the wishes of the many. For the danger arises when your advice has caused the many to be contravened. In that case, when the result is unfortunate, they all concur in your destruction.

And although by following the course I advise you may fail to attain that glory which is acquired by having been one against many in counseling an enterprise which success has justified, yet this is compensated for by two advantages.

The first is, you avoid all danger. And the second consists in the great credit which you will have if, after having modestly advised a certain course, your counsel is rejected, and the adoption of a different course results unfortunately.

WHAT THE BOOKS TELL US: PART TWO (END)

In Bureaucracy, History, Politics, Social commentary on May 23, 2010 at 11:47 pm

Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.
–George Orwell, 1984

“The problem with writing about history in the Soviet Union,” went the joke, “is that you never know what’s going to happen yesterday.”

The same can now be said about writing history under the new guidelines of the Texas Board of Education.

The changes to the state’s history textbooks were opposed by historians and civil rights leaders. The new curriculum presents history from a right-wing perspective and de-emphasizes the role of blacks, Hispanics and other minority groups.

The board’s decision will affect students living outside Texas because of the state’s major impact on the nation’s textbook publishers. Because the Texas textbook market is so large, books assigned to the state’s 4.7 million students often become bestsellers, decreasing costs for other school districts and leading them to buy the same materials.

“The books that are altered to fit the standards become the bestselling books, and therefore within the next two years they’ll end up in other classrooms,” said Fritz Fischer, chairman of the National Council for History Education, a group devoted to history teaching at the pre-college level. “It’s not a partisan issue, it’s a good history issue.”

The new version of history given Texas students will:

  • Celebrate the free market;
  • Minimize the role of labor movements; and
  • Give greater prominence to conservative figures like Phyllis Schlafly.

Additional changes will include:

  • Students will now study Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ inaugural address alongside President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
  • Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle, which documented the horrors of working conditions in the meatpacking industry and led to calls for greater regulation, has been removed from the list of suggested readings.
  • The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” has also been removed.
  • Thomas Jefferson’s name has been removed from a list of the country’s great thinkers because he advocated the separation of church and state.
  • In a sop to the Christian Right, references have been added to “laws of nature and nature’s God” to a section in U.S. history that requires students to explain major political ideas.
  • The word “democratic” has been removed in references to the form of U.S. government, and this will now be described as a “constitutional republic.”
  • A reference to the Second Amendment right to bear arms has been added to a section about citizenship in a U.S. government class.
  • Economics students will be required to “analyze the decline of the U.S. dollar including abandonment of the gold standard.”
  • The names or references to important Hispanics throughout history also were deleted, such as the fact that Tejanos died at the Alamo alongside Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie.
  • All references to “capitalism” have been replaced with “free enterprise.”
  • U.S. “imperialism” no longer exists; there is only “U.S. expansionism.” Only the Europeans are guilty of “imperialism,” just as only the Soviets committed “aggression.”
  • In a rare setback for the radical Right, the slave trade will not be renamed the “Atlantic triangular trade.”

At one time, Americans believed that such wholesale rewriting of history could happen only in the Soviet Union. A classic example of this occurred in 1953, within the Great Soviet Encyclopedia.

Lavrenti Beria had been head of the NKVD, the dreaded secret police, from 1938 to 1953. In 1953, following the death of Joseph Stalin, Beria was arrested and executed on orders of his fellow Communist Party leaders.

But the Great Soviet Encyclopedia had just gone to press with a long article singing Beria’s praises.

What to do?

The editors of the Encyclopedia wrote an equally long article about “the Berring Straits,” which was to be pasted over the article about Beria, and sent this off to its subscribers.  An unknown number of them  decided it was safer to paste accordingly.

In the 1981 film, “Excalibur,” Merlin warns the newly-minted knights of the Round Table: “For it is the doom of men that they forget.”

Forgetting our past is dangerous, but so is “understanding” it incorrectly. Deliberately omitting events and persons from the historical record–such as Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King–can be as lethal to the truth as outright lying.

Stalin, for example, ordered the deletion of all references to the major role played by Leon Trotsky, his arch-rival for power, during the Russian Revolution.

Similarly, requiring students to study Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ inaugural address alongside President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address should be seen for what it is: A thinly-veiled attempt to legitimize the most massive case of treason in United States history.

(The Civil War started on April 12, 1861, when Confederate artillery opened fire on Fort Sumter, a United States fort in Charleston Harbor. Fort Sumter surrendered 34 hours later. At least 800,000 Southerners took up arms against the legally elected government of the United States.)

The late broadcast journalist, Edward R. Murrow, would have referred to this as “giving Jesus and Judas equal time.”

All of which simply proves, once again, that the past is never truly dead. It simply waits to be re-interpreted by each new generation–with some interpretations winding up closer to the truth than others.

CHANGE AND CHURCHES

In Bureaucracy, History, Politics on May 23, 2010 at 1:24 pm

On May 22, 2010, Nicolaus Copernicus, the 16th-century astronomer whose findings were condemned by the Roman Catholic Church as heretical, was reburied by Polish priests as a hero, nearly 500 years after he was laid to rest in an unmarked grave.

The burial occurred at the cathedral where he once served as a church canon and doctor. And this, in turn, proves how far the church has come in making peace with the scientist it once condemned as a heretic.

It was Copernicus who taught that the Earth revolves around the Sun–and helped usher in the modern scientific age. For the church, this removed Earth and humanity from their central position in the universe.

Copernicus (1473-1543), died as a little-known astronomer working in what is now Poland, far from Europe’s centers of learning.

The reburial and celebration occurred 18 years after the Vatican rehabilitated the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei, who was persecuted in the Inquisition for carrying the Copernican Revolution forward. In 1992, Pope John Paul II, said that the church was wrong in condemning Galileo’s work.

Religious institutions are by nature highly conservative–especially if they stretch far back into history. Even religions as radically different as Catholicism and Islam share the belief that there was once a “Golden Age” to which their followers must return if they are to find God’s favor.

Which is why most religions are unwilling to change their doctrines–and behavior of their members. Consider the following news story:

In November, 2009, a 27-year-old woman who was 11 weeks pregnant with her fifth child was admitted to St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix. The pregnancy was causing severe health problems for the woman, who suffers from pulmonary hypertension.

Her doctors warned her that if she continued the pregnancy, she risked an almost 100% chance of death–and the fetus would die as well.

So the ethics board of the Catholic hospital deliberated with the woman and her doctors and decided this was an exception to the code of Catholic health care directives that govern hospital ethics and care. One of the members of the ethics board was Sister of Mercy Margaret McBride, a top administrator at the hospital.

The abortion was performed, and the woman survived.

But in May, 2010, Phoenix Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted learned of the hospital’s actions. Taking a “fetus first, mother last” stance, he decreed that Sister McBride–and every other Catholic involved in the decision–were automatically excommunicated. This included the patient.

Said Olmstead in a statement: “”We always must remember that when a difficult medical situation involves a pregnant woman, there are two patients in need of treatment and care, not merely one. The unborn child’s life is just as sacred as the mother’s life, and neither life can be preferred over the other.”

Olmsted does not have direct control of the hospital. But his decisions on matters of faith and morals can regulate whether the hospital and its employees maintain a Catholic status.

St. Joseph’s reassigned Sister McBride to a lower-ranking administrative post. But the hospital also defended the decision, saying the directives–which it adheres to–do not cover every possible situation.

In a letter to the The Arizona Republic on May 18, Dr. John Garvie, chief of gastroenterology at St. Joseph’s, called Sister Margaret “the moral conscience of the hospital” and said, “There is no finer defender of life at our hospital.

“What she did was something very few are asked to do, namely, to make a life-and-death decision with the full recognition that in order to save one life, another life must be sacrificed. People not involved in these situations should reflect and not criticize.”

In this case, as in the case of Nicolaus Copernicus, what we see is an “I-Am-the-Law” decision made at the highest levels of an organization by men (literally) who utterly lack scientific training and/or experience but whose power to make decisions remains absolute.

Nicolaus Copernicus was branded a heretic by men who knew-and cared–nothing about astronomy. What they did care about was the primacy of the Catholic Church over the lives of others–and their own privileged positions within it.

They feared that all of this would change if people started to believe that the Earth–and the Church–did not lie at the center of the universe. (And for people of that era, our own solar system meant the entire universe.)

Similarly, a Catholic bishop who cannot become pregnant or a parent, is allowed to make decisions governing the lives of women who can. A man who utterly lacks the medical training to save a life is authorized to punish experienced physicians who save lives daily.

In this we see the constant bureaucratic tension between those who are forced by cruel fate to make life-or-death decisions, and those who make decisions based on power and the arrogant belief that they–and they alone–speak for God.

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