Sunday, January 29, 2006


In looking at all the things that seem to be going wrong in the world, thoughtful analysts often point to the law of unintended consequences.  While recognized centuries before, this idea was brought into the contemporary discourse by sociologist Robert K. Merton in The Unanticipated Consequences of Purpose Social Action written in 1936.  “Chance consequences”, he wrote, “are those which are occasioned by the interplay of forces and circumstances which are so complex and numerous that prediction of them is quite beyond our reach.”  Without question, that is often the case, especially for most of us mere mortals who go about our daily business not always thinking through the next step or “what might happen if”.  Recognizing that limitation, we nonetheless are much more forgiving of actions that lead to unintended consequences by the young than by the experienced.  Indeed, integral to maturity is gaining a greater sensitivity to potential consequences.  Managing what we do and what it may yield is essential to our interpersonal relationships in every aspect of our lives.  Throwing up our hands and saying the consequences were unintended is so often a convenient and transparent cop out. 

We expect our leaders to be mature, and most importantly to think ahead about the ramifications of their actions.  It isn’t that they don’t get caught in the unexpected from time to time, but that being the norm is intolerable.  Perhaps asking more of them than we ask of ourselves is unfair, but isn’t that why they get the big bucks (real and/or psychic)?  There isn’t a leader in the world today who didn’t want to be where she or he is, and that includes those who are seen as being unexpectedly thrust into power.  Remember, to be chosen they had to be in place and where they position themselves is rarely an accident.  The reigns of leadership normally fall to those with unbridled ambition.  They wanted the job (badly) and as the much quoted philosopher Harry Truman might have said, “cop outs don’t cut it”.

Unintended consequences usually result from what are purported to be purposeful rational decisions – like arming Saddam during his war against our enemy Iran, supporting of Islamists in Afghanistan and other places to subvert the spread of Communism, holding on to Palestinian land in the name of security, casting a blind eye on repressive regimes to keep our energy-dependent economy going, just to name a few.  But as Merton pointed out, “it must not be inferred that purposive action implies 'rationality' of human action.”  Translated, some of our actions are stupid rather than rational or to put it more politely, ill conceived and not thought through when they should be.  In that regard, I would suggest that much of turmoil that we are now witnessing around the globe, as I pointed out with regard to the Hamas victory, is more in the nature of predictable rather than unintended consequences.  Decision makers at best should have known better, and in some cases acted with such opportunistic self interest that they apparently didn’t care.  When our leaders (and that is by no means restricted to those currently in power) act with only today in mind they risk tomorrow.  They do so consciously and recklessly.  One of the downsides of term limits is that they know someone else will have to pick up the pieces or live with the terrible consequences – "it will be on her watch, not mine".  When we don’t consider consequences today, we act particularly irresponsibly. In a world of real, as opposed to imagined, WMDs that’s playing Russian roulette with our children’s lives, and in all likelihood with our own as well.

It’s not that I don’t admit to unintended consequences, but only that there are far fewer of hem than we are often led to believe.  Making deals with the proverbial devil is not something new.  Sometimes we excuse that by blithely saying, it’s better to deal with the devil we know than one whom we don’t.  But that is the biggest copout of all.  In most cases we know exactly what were doing, with whom we are engaged and what is like to flow from that.  We know that borrowing money from a loan shark is far riskier than from a reputable bank. Perhaps the bank will put us into credit-ruining collection but they are unlikely to break our legs or worse for non-payment.  We’re not the first generation to act opportunistically, to claim that what happened as a result amounted to unintended consequences, but in following this path any further, we could be the last.  Perhaps that’s not probable, but we better start acting seriously as if it is possible.  What we need today is not more of a “my gosh” attitude, I didn’t mean that to happen, or much of the same.  What we need is the courage to change direction, to think through where we are headed and what that is likely to bring.  We have to start spending more time considering alternative and safer routes, correcting course and most of all taking more control of the consequences that follow from our actions. 

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Now Hamas

The news that Hamas is likely to hold a parliamentary majority in the still to be declared Palestinian state is a stunning turn of democracy.  It should not come as a surprise.  Beyond reminding us that the very nature of democracy is that people with whom we may disagree often land in power, this victory represents a logical and in many ways predictable outcome.  The move toward Hamas coming so closely on the heals of the election in Iran and the apparent rejection of secularists in Iraq makes perfect sense.  We think of Hamas in terms of terrorism, but on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza, it has been the source (sometimes the only source) of social services that connect to the real needs of ordinary people.  Conversely, Arafat and his successors have spent decades skimming and scheming to better their own condition (the late leader is said to have socked away many millions in foreign banks).  They are more known for their corruption than for bettering the lives of citizens.  Finally, and this is painful to say, Israel’s holding on to the Territories from which it should have exited years ago has not surprisingly hardened the opposition and made heroes out of its most extreme factions.

Religion plays a large and disturbing role in all of this, both the narrow story of yesterday’s election and the larger picture.  Jews, like me, have a special interest and stake in the survival of Israel where, beyond its history, many of us have family.  Everyone, ourselves included, have an even larger stake in the big picture which threatens the entire world.  Today’s geopolitical landscape is dominated by a religious right which, more than anything else, dictates the course of events.  It is said that we entered Iraq because of oil or because our President didn’t so much want to vindicate his father as to show him up.  Both are probably true.  But equally so is the fact that the people making decisions in Washington these days follow a specific evangelical religious agenda.  Whatever nice things they may say about Moslems, they are replaying the Crusades.  At the very least, they believe (and probably rightly so) that the acts of terror which have so taken over our lives are religious based, or at the very least use a certain kind of religious ideology to legitimize violent action.  When Islamists talk of infidels, there is no question about who they mean.  This is not to suggest that it is exclusively against Christians and Jews – the Taliban destroyed irreplaceable Buddha’s in Afghanistan – but there is no question about their primary focus.  The unmistakable shift toward fundamentalism in the Arab world, which mirrors extreme social conservatism here, coincides with ever increasing danger.  These are not simply people with deeply held personal beliefs, but ones who seek to turn back the world clock and do it with both aggressive militarism and unbridled hate rhetoric.  In the case of Palestine (still the Territories), Israel would be long gone were it not for the Jewish religious fundamentalists who, with Ariel Sharon’s encouragement, settled into occupied land not as temporary caretakers but as permanent residents.  These are the people who killed Rabin and who, after his remarkable turn around, gloated about Sharon’s career ending illness.  Now we have the spectacle of two religiously extreme groups physically sitting in the same place, an explosive situation to say the least.

In the early days of Israel’s existence a group of Jewish terrorists found themselves sitting not in but at the edges of power.  Moderate, but nonetheless strong, secularists dominated the landscape for years.  But those militants, after making alliance with the ultra-orthodox, ultimately took power.  They still maintain considerable strength and what effect this will have on the soon to come Israeli vote is still unknown.  Make no mistake Bibi will try to make the most of it.  But it is this history that could give us some reason for hope.  It was after all the onetime terrorist Menahem Begin who accomplished the first real breakthrough toward peace and it was his disciple, Ariel Sharon, who took the first step toward returning land in Gaza.  If real peace ever comes, these men from the extreme will share much of the credit.  There will be a lot of tough rhetoric in the days to come and perhaps even an extended period of great continued unrest.  Hamas will likely engage in the predictable posturing – a common problem for outsiders who take the reigns of governance for the first time.  But words don’t feed people and ultimately their success will depend on improving Palestinian lives. One can only hope that, once in office, they will take a page from Israel’s own history and that whoever emerges as their primary leader might be a Begin is disguise.  Hopefully sooner rather than later.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

I'm Pro-Life

I have a confession – I’m unashamedly pro-life.  I’ve been listening, I’ve been watching and frankly feeling a little ashamed not to have written earlier about where I really stand.  I’m pro-life and nothing anyone says will change my mind.  Every time the morning news euphemistically reports “collateral damage” in this place or that, I know they mean people are losing their lives.  They are always civilians, the so-called innocent, but frankly I feel no differently about those uniformed men and women shown “in silence” at the conclusion of the Lehrer Hour night after night.  When I hear that another New York City cop has been the victim of gun violence, I know a precious life has been needlessly lost.  When I read that someone is standing in the way of stem cell research, I know that human lives are less likely to be saved or improved than might have been.  When I hear that condoms have been denied to people by restrictive “faith-based” ideology, I know lives are bound to be needless taken, slowly and with unimaginable agony.  When 7 out of every 100 infants (14 out of 100 African Americans) die in the United States shortly after birth – more than in 27 other developed countries – it breaks my heart.  Lack of prenatal care is usually to blame.  Surely such deprivation of life must be unconstitutional, settled law.

If you think this is tongue and cheek, it isn’t.  I could not be more serious or more disturbed that someone has hijacked pro-life as a proprietary slogan of personal values and agendas I don’t share and all the more so that you and I have let them do it. I’m pro-life because it’s important to me that children who come into this world are wanted, survive their birth, will be nurtured and have a chance to enjoy and get the most out of life.  I am pro-life because I want people to have the opportunity of living with a partner, any partner, of their choosing and be able to solemnize that life choice without some total strangers demonizing and devaluing their life-driven relationship.  I’m for life and for our right to decide when terminal should be become a pain and dignity saving reality.  I’m for the life of the mother, of the father, of the child.  I detest guns, the instruments of taking life and remain uneasy about death sentences that never undo crimes, no matter how terrible.  Mistaken executions are never acceptable and I can’t accept the risk which usually falls heavily on those most disadvantaged.

There is a popular cliché, “don’t judge them for what they say, but for what they do.”  Nonsense.  Sure what they do is important, but what they say can be equally consequential.  Words matter and can lead to loss of life.  We have been much too lose about them, not only about using them, but letting others usurp them and in the process denying our right to use them as we see fit, to exercise our free speech.  I’m pro-life people, proud of it and don’t think anyone can take away my right to say so.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Beyond Confirmation

If Sam Alito wins Senate confirmation, which seems likely, the first thing he should do is rush up to the Court and thank his soon-to-be fellow Justices (including Sandra Day O’Conner).  It was their action in Bush v Gore that ultimately will have put him and the new Chief on that bench.  Perhaps Judge Alito doesn’t consider Roe settled law, but you can bet that he has a special place in his heart for the settlement in that landmark case.  When the Supremes made their decision breaking the deadlock in 2000, many Democrats, while infuriated, naively felt that the new president would not be able to do much harm given the closeness of his disputed victory.  That notion was quickly put to rest by his aggressive executive orders and religiously-based tilt to the right within days of his inauguration.  Now comes Alito, whose future decisions can’t be guaranteed, but who will likely be more doctrinaire (Scalia-like) than his predecessor’s.  Whatever the case, who sits in the White House and who rules Congress and the Court (the majority appointed by Republicans) makes a difference.  As John McCain put it in a recent interview and Lindsay Graham intoned during the first day’s hearing, “elections have consequences.”  They do.  President Bush’s polls are down and his administration is surrounded by ineptitude and scandal.  We’re still waiting for the shoe to drop on Karl Rove and the fallout from Tom DeLay, Jack Abramoff et al.  But make no mistake, Bush still holds the executive pen and will for the next three years.  As Mrs. Loman’s said, “Attention must be paid.”

The life-threatening illness of Ariel Sharon which has almost certainly ended his career is yet another reminder of the leadership vacuum faced in so many countries including our own, most especially in the Democratic Party.  Admire him or not, Ronald Reagan brought something to the political landscape that set in motion years of Republican domination.  It is hard to see who on our side has that kind of crowd appeal. Leadership is important and, while Republican say ideas count (which they certainly do), charisma matters greatly. In all honesty, while we may have thought that Gore won in 2000, he ran a lousy campaign. He had a strong economy and a healthy surplus behind him not to mention a general feeling of hope about our technology-driven future. He simply blew it.  So too did John Kerry who caught George Bush with his WMD pants down in Iraq and economic anxiety at home. He should by all accounts have walked away with that election and didn’t. His campaign was haphazard to say the least and he let the Rove disinformation machine get the best of him early on, never recovering from or responding to those Swift Boat lies.

So here we are with an assumptive Justice Sam Alito who will be sitting on the Court for perhaps three decades to come. The recently economically secure United States is a big time debtor. The recently all powerful United States is in fact unable to respond to the threat of a nuclear North Korea or Iran in any meaningful way – a tiger without teeth. We are unquestionably less safe than we were before these guys came to power. We’re losing our edge in technology (Intel’s newest chips are being designed in Israel) and we aren’t developing nearly enough talent at home to compete in the next generation. The world no longer looks up to us, and don’t think their reassessment is limited to the Bush gang. We’re no longer seen as special, or at the very least are on our way toward that sad definition. Sure much can be blamed on those in power, but perhaps even more to those who have allowed them to take it. As Sean Connery’s character in the Untouchables challenged Eliot Ness, “what are you going to do about it?” Yes, what are we going to do about it and when?