“The Corporation”: Discover a Key Root Cause of our Current Woes

Date October 16, 2007

After having viewed the film “The Corporation” when it was in the theaters, I recently decided to read the book of the same name. Although much of the information was similar, I found the tone of the book different than the film (or my memory of it, in any case) and I felt profoundly moved by it.

In brief, the cogent and powerful book summarizes the history of the legal creation of corporations, the nature of their intent, and the subsequent role that they play in current society. Since their one and only legal goal is to generate profit for their shareholders, they cannot legally make decisions to protect the common good, or take care of others/the environment, unless it might some how be financially beneficial to them. In fact, they are compelled to “externalize” their costs as much as possible (meaning, to behave in ways that would cause the surrounding communities, government or environment to absorb/pay for collatoral damage. To do otherwise would be illegal.

Soak on that for a minute. To do otherwise would be illegal. We have created a legal structure that is compelled to do things that many of us abhor.

In particular, I greatly appreciated the author’s distinction between the goal and outcomes of the corporate structures and the intentions of those men and women who direct them.

It never ceases to amaze me how we as a people (myself included) can demonize the directors of a company (say, in the oil, automobile or real estate development industries, to name a few frequent targets), and yet when I meet and work with them, they are fine, well meaning, caring people.

Too often, we as humans fall into a behavior of angry blame or demonization, creating “Us vs. Them” dynamics between people or groups. I see this in every single large organization I come in contact with, as well as in more troubling arenas where the consequences are far-reaching (Democrat vs. Republican, US vs. the Arabic/Muslim world). This also tends to be the analytical frame of most books/films of this genre (what I would call “exposé”): “Sicko” by Michael Moore is a recent example of this, or “Who Killed the Electric Car”. They expose the “evil-doings” of these corporate monsters. These types of films tend to get us (or me, anyway) angry and reproachful, all the while feeling powerless to effect change against these monoliths.

The tremendous value of this book lies in stepping out of this dynamic and reminding us that the CEOs leading corporations committing these (at times, atrocious) acts are for the most part very humane people. They are simply caught in the system, and they divorce themselves emotionally from the costs of their decisions in order to survive. Of course, they could do something different (and they often do), but the structural pressure is very difficult to resist (and it’s illegal, as Bakan points out with tremendous irony).

Due to the spectacular power that corporations wield (through lobbying and campaign contributions, etc, especially in the US), it seems unlikely that government will be able to dramatically guide, control or eradicate the externalizing behavior of corporations. Perhaps after the excesses of the past 6 years, the pendulum will swing… In the meantime, I kept asking myself as I read this book what solution there might be at a legal/structural level. If we attempt to limit or regulate the current corporations through government, there will continue to be the same uphill battle. Teddy Roosevelt (the Trust-Buster) and Franklin Roosevelt (with his New Deal) were able to implement changes that brought the system more into balance; but following generations always forget, and we regress again to a state where more rapacious corporate behavior dominates. In any case, it would be a battle fought tooth and nail, with no victory ever really safe.

So I believe that our ability as a human race, within the current structure of the public-private system, to limit the corporation’s pathological behavior is insufficient, especially given the current pace of impact on the planet. We cannot afford to watch the runaway train barrel towards destruction much longer. I do not know a lot about law, but I believe that we need to examine if it is at all possible to create a different legal framework for corporations.

For example, today, the two main non-governmental organizational structures are ‘for profit’, and ‘not-for profit’. We have created a dichotomy with profit as the dominant criterion. Is there no other choice than this duality? Can the legal structure of private corporations be modified or transformed in order to integrate a broader goal, or multiple goals? Can we invent an organization that reflects our whole self (the self that incorporates both our desire for financial abundance, but also relational connection and a sustainable future for our children)? We have many brilliant people on this planet; surely such a legal structure is inventible?

As much as I believe that corporate powers would deride and resist governmental and other attempts to limit their influence (for fear of not succeeding as dramatically as they do without these limitations) perhaps a proposal to abolish the current limited liability structure and to integrate humane and environmental values with financial goals could be more palatable? As I’ve written the idea above, it certainly sounds more radical, but on the other hand, we would be giving something precious back to all the corporate executives currently signing big checks to lobbyists: the legal and social incentive to make a difference. Every one of them wants that deep inside, they’ve simply forgotten or don’t know how given the constraints they work in. If we change the system, their behavior will follow. Perhaps many of them would even be grateful to be able to work in alignment with their aspirations and values…

Problems that I see with my proposal:
— First, I have no idea if it is legally feasible to have a corporation with two goals (or more?). Are we capable of operating without one dominant goal to guide us?
— What would these other values/goals be? I have suggested ‘humane and environmental’ above, but it is not terribly developed. Could we define something universal enough that it would function clearly in all cultures?
— How would we measure the success or failure of these other goals? We can’t account for humane/environmental goals on a spreadsheet, like we do for profit. Money is objective, clearly quantified. Maybe we need to invent a new kind of currency?

I was very grateful to read “The Corporation.” It has helped me more than any other book in recent memory to understand the root causes of our current social and environmental challenges, both thanks to the basic concept it describes, as well as the non-combative mindset Bakan models.


Shayne Hughes


Dick Cheney 1994-2003: A curious and incomprehensible tale

Date September 25, 2007

This Dick Cheney video has had a ton of press of late. If you haven’t viewed it, you need to. It’s astounding:

Cheney’s analysis is simple, accurate, thoughtful. And it is exactly what happened, except that it has turned out even worse thanks to the dramatic incompetence of the Bush Administration. (Even Cheney couldn’t predict that).

The real question I have been asking myself is “what happened”? It would be too easy to just mock him and use this as proof that he was wrong to advocate invasion in 2003. The really troubling question is how did he forget, rationalize or convlnce himself that his original intelligent analysis was false? Is it that he and his cohorts operated in such a bubble of group think that they lost touch with their original clarity? Is it that Cheney’s 8 intervening years in the private sector gave him a taste for the corporate boondoggle that could be had at the expense of the Iraqi people and the American taxpayers? That the quagmire that he knew we would fall in was worth all the profit that the US govt would pay out to its corporate sponsors? [Don’t forget that every time the US Congress approves another $80B USD for the war, it is really just more cash we are paying to the US private sector for arms, transportation, security, etc.]

Or could it be that Cheney was just seeing red after 9/11, and he had to make somebody pay? Perhaps Cheney and Bush were simply irrationally angry and unable to contain themselves? That would certainly make them less “ill-intended” or evil. When we want something really bad, we will do anything to convince ourselves and others of good reasons to do it. As an old wise man once said: “First we make up our mind, then we find reasons to back up our decisions.” That’s problematic enough when we are just running our own life, but if we are responsible for a country as powerful as the US, I think the bar needs to be quite a bit higher in terms of self-mastery.

Is that one of the criteria we are taking into account in 2008?


Shayne Hughes


Movie: “Who Killed the Electric Car?” and a Reflection on Change in our Society

Date July 13, 2007

If you haven’t seen this movie, it is a must. I consider myself relatively well-informed, and I had no idea that electric vehicles had been so effectively and broadly produced. When I sat down to watch the movie, I expected to hear about a prototype that had been muzzled before it hit the street, not discover that in fact fully functional electric cars (as big as Ford Rangers and Toyota Ravs) were overjoying their owners. The cars were competitively priced, fun to drive, very economical, convenient to charge and required a fraction of the maintenance of internal combustion engines.

I found the film enlightening, inspiring and frustrating. I don’t want to review it here (other than to reiterate the importance of seeing it for yourself) but reflect on what brought up in me. Like all documentary, news and other publications (like this blog), it is presented thru the eyes of the director and reflect his views on the topic. I would imagine that certain facts are highlighted, others minimized, in order for us to fully buy his story. Wikipedia lists a few of these critiques.

The film details how the auto companies shut down the production of the electric vehicles (EV), and provides its conclusion of who are the perpetrators of the crime. There are the usual suspects (oil companies, auto companies, the Bush Administration…), but then a few that I appreciated being exposed (namely, you and me, the “consumer”). It’s true, the vast majority of us meander along in our self-absorbed way, buying what is sold to us, and lamenting the lack of choices (Hummer or Expedition? Hmmm). We listen to Washington back down yet again from setting mileage standards, and we don’t scream in protest.

I suppose already the difficulty is that we are not a homogenous ‘we’. Many do scream in protest, others scream the contrary, and then there is the we that isn’t paying attention. Perhaps when (not if) we reach a moment of crisis that is acute enough, the percentages of our current mix will evolve.

In the meantime, the big decisions are made by large corporations (or the government they fund). It is at this point that those of the liberal ilk leap to conspiracy theories: the rich, the right wing, the powerful, they are all in cohorts, working together to get rich and oppress the powerless. This is quickly followed by conclusive opinions about their integrity (they have none), intentions (selfish greed and power) and humanity (ignorant and evil).
It would be wonderful if it were that simple.

The People
My work brings me in contact in a fairly personal way with people from all sides of the political spectrum, many many Republicans, a large portion of which are in the oil industry. They are very wonderful people, very caring, warm, and committed to life and people. [In a confession that should be taken with a grain of salt due to its general nature, I have consistently found the right wing Republican business people in the South far more genuine, thoughtful, caring (and sane) than their more liberal (and ‘evolved’) Democratic counterparts in California. The fact that I find this surprising reveals something about which direction I lean politically.] The cold hard fact is that these people are like us, no worse and no better. The people in the oil industry, for the most part, care about the environment, global warming, the future. They also, like us, care about their financial security and career aspirations.

If you look around you in your own work place, and acknowledge how often decisions get made because no one took the time to really think it thru, or no one dared voice certain concerns for fear of being judged/criticized, or the loudest voice won the argument, or this is the way we always do it so why change, or … Need I list more ways in which we all make small and large decisions for the wrong reasons? Do you think it is any different in the oil or auto industry? Why would they be any less dysfunctional than us?

I think we hold onto conspiracy theories because they are actually less frightening than the reality. And they allow us to hold a righteous, powerless position from which we don’t have to challenge our own thinking.

The Corporate Structure
Who Killed the Electric Car brought me careening back to a film I saw several years ago, The Corporation. They explore in this film how the actual legal structure of corporations in America encourages them to act in a socially irresponsible way (and they do).

The fuel of the universe is goals. People, animals, plants, corporations: we behave in accordance with our most fervently held goals (which is why, if you are not behaving in a way that you think you should to achieve your goals (e.g., over-eating, not exercising, getting angry, not doing your work, whatever) you actually have a more dearly held goal that you are not aware of that is in there directing things). Corporations have one clear goal: create profit. There is nothing built in there about taking care of natural resources, employees, the community, etc. So when a corporation does it, it is because the leaders of that company actually directed it to do so in spite of the corporate structure. Think of the inertia, in a multi-billion dollar company, that must be overcome to act in a socially or environmentally responsible way! Even the CEO can’t make that happen unless s/he is superhuman. There is no reason nor reward for them to do so. See the section in Thomas Friedman’s “The World is Flat” in which he discusses Wal-Mart vs. Costco. Nobody on Wall Street cares that Costco takes better care of their employees; the management of that company does it to the detriment of its stock price. We have set up a system that is structurally at odds with the values that we hold dearest.

And so it goes for the auto and oil industries. They need to make money or they will be out on the street (or gobbled up by a bigger competitor). I can have compassion for them — even as I rue their impact on the world — because they are not evil. They are just caught in the system like everyone else. For instance, I couldn’t understand why GM wasn’t making money on these cars; you make them for a cost and you price them at a profit. I realized that it isn’t necessarily at the point of sale that it is a problem: there is little to no maintenance to do on an EV. There is only one moving part! The oil, oil filters, turbo chargers, pistons, etc — all these pieces of metal in constant friction, destined to break at some point… Gone. A whole industry of products and service was threatened, and one upon which the dealers depended for most of their profit. Of course they panicked.

Why do I bring up The Corporation in the context of the Electric Car? Because in fact significant change will continue to be incredibly difficult until we change the system. When someone makes a film like “Who Killed the Electric Car” or “Why We Fight” or “Sicko” they are often driven by a sense of outrage at the actions and results that they see. I understand the outrage, and yet the behavior is normal, in light of the system that we have created.

Do we have the courage and the skills and the collective leadership to effect a change at the level of the corporate structural system? A change that could legally embed principles in business that ensure the longevity of natural resources or protect the interests of mankind, a community? So many of us would react to that, decry the negative financial impact that it would have. Yet, in a generation, or even in 5-10 years, it would become the new “normal” frame of reference. We would have forgotten the system that we were so miserably addicted to.

Nothing is written in stone. It must be possible. Perhaps we need to suffer a bit more as a people before we seriously contemplate it.


Shayne Hughes


Would Someone Please Think When They Propose an Iraq Strategy?

Date May 11, 2007

It has been disheartening to watch the Congressional attempts to rein in the Bush Administration on the Iraq war. As promised, Bush vetoed the Democrats’ bill calling for an imposed troop withdrawl, and he did well to do so. The only thing worse than American troops fighting indefinitely in Iraq (Bush’s current strategy) would be the chaos that would follow any premature US departure, without a deeply rooted stability in place (Democrat’s current strategy). Why is the only debate in town an argument over who is going to enforce their own ill-conceived pseudo-plan? Why are we as the American public forced to choose between two polar opposite, although equally futile, proposals? Are any of our elected officials doing any serious thinking about this awful situation?

Let’s resummarize the essential argument on both sides:
Bush: Whether or not you agree with the decision to go to war, if you leave now you will make it much worse. Power vacuum, civil war, terrorist breeding ground for Al-Queda, another 9/11, etc etc.
Democrats: A surge is not a strategy; the war is already lost; we need to bring the troops home asap to minimize losses; the American people have spoken (“End the war”), so Bush should listen.

Both positions are correct. [Except for the last point in the Democrats argument: the message the American people sent was that they are fed up with the ineffective and incredibly naive decision-making of Bush/Republicans in Iraq; they didn’t tell Democrats to go do something even more short-sighted and destined to fail than the fallacy that got us into the situation in the first place (I’m of course assuming with incredible arrogance that I think I know what the rest of my compatriots were saying; I’m really just projecting my opinion onto the other 100 million voters with unabashed certainty, but give me the benefit of the doubt for the moment).

The problem is that both of these parties are totally missing the point. We cannot get ourselves and the Iraqi people out of this quagmire with the same tunnel vision, posturing and politically-framed thinking that got us into it. I think the American people are starved for something different.

I want to hear substantive debate on Capitol Hill:
— How to engage Iran, Syria, Lebanon and our other Arab allies to help us stem the tide of jihadists streaming into Iraq. What public and private pressure can they bring to calm the insurgency? We’ll need to come off our high horse to do this and actually engage them as human beings with valid perspectives and interests.
— Owning up to the world that we collectively made some very costly mistakes in our decision to invade Iraq, and now we need their help to clean up our mess. I say “collectively” because as much as we all like to blame Bush today, the number of Democrats who voted against authorizing force in 2003 was very small. We all approved this war, so let’s collectively deal w/ the seeds we have sown.
— Dust off the Iraq Study Group’s report. The experienced brainpower of that group produced some very well thought out, bi-partisan suggestions. What happened to them? We were all (very briefly) hopeful that some thoughtful leadership might emerge from their work, but alas, they have been all but forgotten, at least in the public dialogue.

Republicans are complaining that Congress is micromanaging the Commander in Chief, but with all due respect, Bush needs to be micromanaged. Quite frankly, why should we trust Bush to do anything well at this point? Everything he has done leading up to and in this war has lacked: a rigorous fact-based analysis; even a basic understanding of and sense of caring for the people involved; a disciplined and competent implementation. From Hurrican Katrina to tax rates to national debt management to Medicare/Medicaid to Iraq and the War on Terror to managing Iran and the Muslim world to building bi-partisan governance to the environment, he has been a complete failure. We should not be giving him any leeway whatsoever right now. We need to minimize the damage he can do in the world over the next 18 months. Micromanaging this commander in chief sounds like a really smart thing to do.

But we need to be more thoughtful and open-minded than he has been if we are going to do it. Simply replacing his “stay the course” with a Democratic “stop the fight” will have terrible consequences. Start looking for and proposing real solutions. If you are going to put deadlines on him, demand that he implement key provisions of the Iraq Study Group.

And one more question: We keep talking about the impact on soldier morale if we express our doubts about the winnability or validity of the war. Has anyone asked the soldiers their opinion? If I were over in Iraq fighting a war that I have second thoughts about, I’d damn sure want my leaders taking every precaution that we were killing ourselves for the ‘right’ cause, with the best strategy. I’d like to see the Democrats learn to reframe the spin that Republicans put on them vs. stammering defensively…


Shayne Hughes


The Morality of Abortion: Missing the Point

Date April 27, 2007

The recent decision about partial birth abortion has stirred up all the old ire on both sides of the issue re: the legality and morality of abortion. Here is another place where we argue and harangue incessantly, but in a very myopic fashion. In my humble opinion, we debate principle (it is or isn’t murder) and totally skip a more pragmatic and essential nub of the problem (who is going to take care of these unwanted children if we force the mothers to birth them)?

Of Course Abortion is Murder
So what is our definition of ‘alive’? Consciousness? A beating heart? A separate physical entity (in or outside of the uterus)? Able to live and breath on its own?
For anyone who has been close to a pregnant woman, the fetus in her uterus is obviously alive. It moves, it responds if you talk to it or rub the mother’s belly (very satisfying and sensual), and all this as early as the 4th month. By the 7th month, its personality already seems to be showing itself. It is very obviously alive. Terminating a pregnancy at any point is ending a life – “murder” as the pro-lifers say.

This is kind of irrelevant, isn’t it?

Aren’t the civilians in Iraq alive? What about the children who pick up the cluster bombs the US military drops in vacant fields in Baghdad suburbs? Aren’t we pretty inconsistent about how much we care about human life? Let’s not be so righteous about morals; we’re constantly killing people when we think it’s worth the cause. (It’s a very powerful capacity of the human brain called “justification”. Try it, it works on everything.)

(Righteous) Morality is a Core Problem in the Abortion Debate
What’s ambiguous and potentially dangerous about what I’ve written above (and for effect, I’m aiming to be a bit provocative) is that it could seem to be pointing towards a mindset of amorality or immorality. I’m not at all seeking to encourage us to let go of our goals of being humane to each other, (nor advocating that abortion should be legalized and practiced without taking into account the gravity of the act) but rather suggesting that we let go of our righteousness before we tackle the question of whether or not to allow abortion.

This righteous stance of principle is in fact an enormous part of the abortion problem. The pro-lifers insist that life is precious and abortion is murder, while the pro-choicers say that a woman has a right to choose what she does with her body. Hmm, both sound like pretty sound positions to me. Is it possible to acknowledge the validity of both points of view? And who is fighting to protect the life and emotions of the children who are born to parents who would have preferred (for whatever reasons) to not have them? The pain of feeling unwanted, unloved, or unnurtured is a brutal, heart-wrenching experience for a child. Growing up in such an environment produces troubled, hurt teenagers, and often creates scars that are carried into our adulthood (which we then pass onto our children). This raises all sorts of issues, such as the impact of such youth on society, or the resentment and guilt such a parent is liable to experience in not being there for a child as fully as needed. Raising a child is so incredibly challenging, who should really be able to dictate this experience to anyone? It is very noble of me to insist that you protect the life of your unborn child, since I don’t need to be there day and night for the rest of its life to take any responsibility for my position.

A Different Compass
This is where the responses that typically jump out are: ‘well, they should have paid attention (or abstained all together)’, or ‘they just need to live with the consequences’, or ‘too bad, it’s murder, so anything else is a sin’. I understand and even emotionally relate to each of these positions. And yet I think these come from this place of righteousness I discussed briefly above. Life is imperfect, we make mistakes, we hurt others — it is so much more complex and gray than our little morality. I suppose in all of this I think we need to find another compass, but I’m not sure what it might be. Perhaps that’s partially what I’m searching for in musing on this topic.

For example, resolving the question of an abortion in a context for humanity might seek to take equally into account: the life of the fetus; the emotional trauma the parents may experience in committing the abortion; the likely emotional experience of the child if it is preserved, including a deep discussion of just how sensitive and precious children are and what it entails to raise one; the ability and desire of the parent to fully assume all the changes and challenging emotions of parenting; and what else? A compass of humanity vs. that of morality. Perhaps it is better to abort a child than to bring it into a world where it is not wanted by its parents, the ruling ethnicity, the economic machine of society? Is making such a choice really worse/more immoral than the terribly loved and wanted children we are indiscriminately killing in Iraq for such dubious reasons?

If we sought to bring these elements into the discussion, I think we (including the pro-lifers and pro-choicers) would all be far more aligned with each other than we are today; I think that repeat abortions would drop, as people became more aware of the emotional consequences of their actions; we would have a higher percentage of ‘wanted’ children; perhaps the parents who have gone thru this would eventually pass on this greater sensitivity to their children when they do have them. I plan to.

Conditions for Making Abortion Illegal
So perhaps we could outlaw abortion unilaterally (or forbid it in a case by case basis) if we could furnish people who are ready to love each child, want them, and raise them as their own. This means families, not orphanages. The people that stand outside abortion clinics in outrage could instead meet that day’s clients and immediately adopt (with a commitment of parental love) whatever and however many prospective children they want to. If you are not ready to take resopnsibility for the child, than you have no say in whether the mother should keep it. The day that every single child in the world is deeply wanted, then we can tell women, “Listen, you didn’t mean to get pregnant (we could even use the word ‘mistake’ but I got chastised for employing that term in another post); the consequences are that you need to bear this child to term, and give birth to it. It’s liable to be painful (of course, there are drugs…). After that, the child will be taken in by these people that are ready to love him/her.” We would give the importance to the child’s emotional experience that it deserves. But until such time that we (society, government, each of us in our cozy little righteous positions) are ready to collectively commit to the future lives of these fetuses, outlawing abortion is more inhumane than preserving it.

So having said all that, I respectfully protest the Supreme Court’s recent ruling.


Shayne Hughes


Inability to Dialogue on Iraq (or much else)

Date April 12, 2007

I was forwarded a post about another out of the box idea regarding our current Iraq Quagmire. It involved drafting all the 18-35 year olds in Iraq to occupy them with reconstruction instead of leaving them to their own (destructive) devices. I’m not sure the idea will work, but I like the mindset of searching for a completely different way to respond to the currently unsolvable situation. We can’t leave and we can’t stay, and the idea I proposed as the only way to win in Iraq can’t be considered less out of left field. Unfortunately, we have reached a point where we need to be looking somewhere else for a solution besides where we are now. Are these ideas crazy, or are they creative, seeking not to be constrained by the same type of thinking that got us into the problem in the first place?

More to the point of this post, I believe an enormous part of the problem is that we don’t know how to forge a useful discussion about this very painful, expensive, dispiriting and complex problem called Iraq. The Republicans and Democrats can’t talk about it without accusing and being accused of spin and political opportunism. In Iraq, they can’t talk about it without killing each other. It’s so easy to throw up our arms in disgust with all of this. But they’re not the only ones having difficulty.

When I read all the comments on this idea, both on Marginal Revolution and Economist’s View’s original posting of Kotlikoff’s idea, most of them (if I’m reading sub-text correctly) are sarcastic, critical, derogatory, belittling, etc. I can’t help but think that the rest of us don’t know how to dialogue any better about this issue than the people who are deciding what to do. Nothing terribly constructive is happening over in Iraq, but are we doing any better? Sure we’re not killing each other, but our language is pretty violent/aggressive.

I suppose the above observation can come across as judgmental, but I don’t mean it that way. We’re all angry, frustrated, hurt, righteous, despairing and confused about this situation, regardless of what side of the argument (leave/stay) we’re on. It’s hard to keep our cool, especially when we feel like other people aren’t listening or the stakes/consequences are too high to bear.

In my personal life experience, however, when we talk in this frame of mind, we end up escalating the situation. I feel hurt/criticized, so I get angry in response… which hurts and angers you. And so goes the cycle of violence. I find it very difficult, in situations that are charged for me in my life, not to behave this way. But we no longer have the luxury of indulging these behaviors. The world situation could get A LOT worse, if we leave and if we stay.

How can we build on each other, seek for the nugget of genius in each idea, cultivating and evolving it, combining with other little nuggets, questioning our certainties about the world, engaging instead of belittling each other (here I mean we on these blogs, and we the US with the Middle East)?

Now that would be a marginal revolution.


Shayne Hughes


“The Good German”: A Challenging Look in the Mirror

Date April 12, 2007

I recently saw the play The Good German at a local theatre. I’m not sure what I expected, since the film was apparently mediocre, but this mise en scene was a tour de force of excellent acting and extraordinarily insightful writing that made me think long and hard about myself.

In a few words, it is the story of 4 people (3 Aryan Germans and 1 Jewish German) during World War II in Berlin. Two of the characters have hidden, with some reservation, this Jewish man they barely know in their home to avoid his deportation. The fourth character is their friend and frequent visitor, a young, ambitious administrative clerk in the Nazi army. I will say no more about the plot, except to mention that at no point did I suspect the next step in the play’s evolution.

Striking in playwright David Wiltse’s ruminations on history and human nature is his ability to see into the motivations, frailties, fears, emotions, and contradictions of each of his characters and to bring these sentiments to life in compelling and damning (if perhaps too transparent to be lifelike) ways. In each of these characters, we find feelings and weaknesses to love and empathize with, as well as behaviors and mentalities to passionately hate. We understand each of them, even as they fail to understand each other. No one is spared the hard and brutal exposure to our eyes, including we the audience; we see too much of ourselves in each one of them for our own comfort.

The perspective of time too often allows us (in the present) to say, ‘were I alive then, I would have known better or acted with more integrity.’ We judge these players in the past with the comfortable righteousness of those who were not involved and yet know with retrospect what was the ‘right’ or just decision to make. We tell ourselves we would have had the wisdom, the courage, the strength, to act differently. And then we avoid really examining the ways in which we unthinkingly act as bystanders in our own moment or history, or justify our own large and small “atrocities” in our present life. Wiltse shatters this certainty; it both hurts and awakens. As I watched Siemi, the young Nazi clerk, devolve in his acts of persecution, I was struck with the damning realization that were I in his shoes, I wouldn’t have had the courage not to pull the trigger either.

There was much discussion in the post show Q&A about the parallels with our present time; for the most part, they were ‘external’ (societal/political), such as Rwanda, the Bush Administration, the recent immigration raids on the local Latino illegals, etc. I was equally, if not more, disturbed by the ‘internal’ parallels: how their actions, despite their best efforts and intentions, were ultimately self-centered (protecting me, my comfort, my ambition, my view of myself and my dignity, etc); how their thinking justified their actions (a reminder of one of our brain’s most troublesome mechanisms: first we decide, then we find reasons to make ourselves right about our decisions/actions); how much more reassuring and powerful it feels, regardless of our professed values, when we are angry, righteous, better than others.

A frightening and memorable moment is Siemi’s empassioned explanation for why he has chosen hate: in a time of chaos, it is the one emotion you can count on. It isn’t fleeting, like happiness, nor does it dissipate, like lust once satiated. It is a constant, day in and day out. It gives energy and drive, a sense of purpose. It is his compass now that he has lost his bearings. In reflecting afterwards, I was all the more troubled by this monologue, and this was perhaps the most upsetting parallel to today: when we are hurt, or scared, or disoriented in our cultural/moral values, we feel vulnerable, weak, powerless. These feelings are too unbearable to live with for long, and so we target, we blame, we stoke our fire with anger. Left unattended, we learn to hate.

We are not naturally hateful, but it is in our nature to hate, if we are not vigilant. And if we do not make a different choice, it will only grow with time in its intensity and righteous justification.

I believe this parallel to be true in individuals, but also in peoples. The US fell into this trap after 9/11. with the Muslim world. Perhaps there is still time for us to make a different choice, but each passing month and reinforcing event brings us further down a path the end of which no man can foresee.

It is this message that makes The Good German an ultimately uplifting play (despite my focus in this review on some fairly ‘negative’ personality aspects). Wiltse gives us clues and insights for how to understand behaviors we don’t want to repeat, as well as an emotionally charged reminder of why we would want to do differently. It is up to us, however, to act upon the clarity.

Are we ready? Are you? Am I?


Shayne Hughes


The End of ‘Parent’ Status for America

Date April 9, 2007

Of course, no can predict for sure what future is like and how the past will be remembered and analyze. That’s probably why it’s fun to do it.

I believe Bush Jr’s election and choices in his governance will mark a turn in American’s history. That could be true in a lot of ways and I could develop this in many directions. I will focus on the US as a parent, a mentor, a force of stability.

The US has been seen by many as the hero of WWII, bringing an end to the tyranny of Nazi Germany, and helping the reconstruction of Europe with Marshall’s plan. Since then the image they conveyed in most of the developed world has been one of world police. Many citizens of these countries would at times make fun about the US, bad mouth the Americans, disagree with some of their choices, criticize some of their policy, French President De Gaulles even precipitated the end of the fixed changes based on gold and dollars but nonetheless the US was in the end always respected and looked up to, almost as if it was a parent of the world. The fact that the US was the biggest nuclear and military in the world was a source of security. In other words, the US was a moral authority.

Then came 9/11. The reaction of a huge part of the majority of the world was by and large supportive of the US, even in most Muslim countries. Demonstrations of support were happening all over the world. No one really knew what to do or how to react. We looked up at the US leadership for that inspired guidance. We were in a new area. After 50 years of cold war, there was no more big bad enemy. The world wasn’t divided in 2 camps anymore. So many new possibilities were opening.

Today we are back in a dual divided world. The US is plunging in to debt and very vulnerable for it, stuck in a military swamp in Iraq and the image of America is at the lowest in every country in the world including in Europe that is supposed to be its most precious ally. A big part of this situation is the result of Bush’s decisions, which he supported as a response to 9/11. Well if you respond to violence by violence, and especially if you do it while everyone thinks it’s unjustified, if you work around the Geneva Accords and authorize practices border line torturous, if you allow for people to be arrested without due process, naming them unlawful combatants, you are not a moral authority anymore. You are one of the participants in the problem who needs to be kept in check. I expect more from an adult who shows wise leadership and discernment than to qualify entire countries as being good or bad, part of an “axis of evil,” and qualify people freedom-haters, especially after revoking some of the basic rights of freedom like the Habeas Corpus.

So the US is not the revered as a moral authority anymore. If anything it’s perceived today as a bully, driven by self-interest and unable to make wise decisions. And that mainly because of the way that George W. Bush expresses himself in the media, and approaches (or doesn’t) diplomacy, cooperation and dialogue.

But the bigger point is that I believe America has lost its status “forever.” It may rebuild its image to one of a partner at the table but it will probably never benefit from the same trust that it once had. I am not saying it’s a bad thing, it might be healthier that way. Maybe one country shouldn’t have that much power and responsibility. Or maybe we have just reached the time where there is no one parent anymore but all countries must be considered a adults and equal in their participation in all negotiations. Or it might just be time to start considering a president of the world?! Today we have many important global decisions and the US is not the leader in that realm (take global warming and the Kyoto threaty as an example).

I just hope that the American people can become aware of the failure of the system and its disastrous consequences of the past years, and rethink its internal political structure. We can’t expect one man – the president – to have so much power, or (and?) we would need for that person to be extremely evolved, intelligent, skilled in discernment, wise, knowledgeable about history and its lessons, caring for all people on the planet and more; we would need to create some exam to verify these skills that every candidate need to pass before being eligible. The elections rely on the current mix of vague action plan (which no president has to be accountable for) and charisma. Because one of the lessons of GW Bush’s election is that there is actually too much at stake for the world to take the risk of electing a president that isn’t skilled enough.

In the end it might just be that we really need to find a better balance in leadership in the world. There is no empire that lasted for the ever from the ancient time to the current times, whether it was based on physical domination of population or more currently the colonial system. France and England were among the biggest players in the world at the turn of the 20th century controlling countries all over Africa and Asia, Spain was a huge force before that. Who today sees these countries today as setting world policy? One could easily look at the trend and evaluate that US hegemony is coming to an end.

In some ways this might be the time to think of a system where there is not one country that is in the parent role anymore.


Starting over with Iran & the Bush Doctrine

Date April 7, 2007

In perusing “Iran: An Inconvenient Truth” I was reminded again of my concerns that our current thinking on Iran will lead us nowhere useful.

Let’s start with an exercise in empathy:
You live in America. During your parents’ generation, a more powerful country (let’s call it the USSR simply to facilitate identifying emotionally w/ the exercise) executes a coup d’etat and deposes your democratically elected president, replacing him with a pro-Communist Dictator. Under him, you suffer the loss of political and free speech rights, poverty ensues as he pursues policies that favor his sponsor’s economy and you feel strong humiliation at how you are really just a puppet of their whims. You feel exploited for their gain, and that your voice doesn’t count.
After almost three decades (all of your living life), you finally overthrow the dictator and regain some modicum of autonomy. Your economy and culture have languished and you see the rest of the world leaving you behind. To add insult to injury, the USSR (still vastly superior in military and economic strength, not mention world respect) continues to have a negative view of you and your intentions. A decade later, you get into a war with your close neighbor (and bitter rival) Canada, and the USSR supplies them with immense amounts of arms and biological/chemical weapons. You lose millions of people. The certainty builds that these people are really out to get you. Yet another decade later, the USSR begins to threaten you publicly, claiming that you are dangerous to world stability (sense the injustice you feel!). Through a series of unpredictable events, this deeply feared enemy starts wars with both Canada and Mexico (despite the protests of the UN and international community), occupying both countries with hundreds of thousands of troops, not mentioning patrolling the nearby oceans with their aircraft carriers. They seem accountable to no one, and then they begin to intensify their bellicose rhetoric towards you. You know that if they invade your country, they will run you over in a matter of months. What protection do you have? Who will stop them…?

As I mentioned in my comment on Iraq , were I in Iran’s shoes, I’d be developing nuclear weapons just as fast as I could, primarily because I’d be terrified that the US is sure to attack me now or later. It’s already difficult to trust other people and other countries, but with the baggage we have with Iran, why would they ever think we have their good will in mind? We’re constantly making overtures about how they are evil, to be distrusted, potentially next on the Bush Doctrine hit list. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t say all these things, but then I don’t think we should be surprised if they take steps to protect themselves. Isn’t that normal human nature?

Some fairly intelligent people seem to be missing this perspective in the halls of power.

In summary, we have zero empathy and understanding for who they are or what motivates them. We would deny them a role as an important regional player when, were we in their shoes, we would be striving ambitiously for the same. By isolating them, we simply reinforce and empower the extremist elements in them. The common Iranian on the street doesn’t want that.

The Bush Doctrine is at best impractical (because we don’t have that many voluntary soldiers that we can afford to kill off in forays around the world) and is based, to our peril, on the premise that our world view is the right world view. We need to develop a doctrine of international engagement that takes into account all the gray zones in international relations, the intricate relationships that don’t involve us (yet signficantly impact us), as well as includes the equal validity of the very differing (from us) points of view of other countries and ethnicities. What if we gave equal weight to Iran’s concerns and goals as to our own? And then worked from there? Would that be weak? Would we really be in a worse off place than we are now? We’re about as close to a regional war as I’d care to get. Where would we be now if the leader of Britains’ 15 soldiers captured off the coast of Iran hadn’t had a cool head when the Iranian Navy surrounded them aggressively? (Remember, Tonkin Gulf never even happened).

Undoubtedly, this needs to be fleshed out in more depth, holes and obstacles found in its application. But today’s path is not working. I don’t think we have any other choice than to evolve from our ‘me first’ mentality or we are going to continue drag along behind us far too many people that want to destroy us than we can keep out for very long.


A Long Way Gone

Date April 4, 2007

What is so striking and moving in Ishmael Beah’s account of his life as a child soldier in war torn Sierra Leone is how deeply he pulls us as reader into his soul as an innocent child. Almost half of the book recounts his experiences during the war before taking up arms. The tension of what we know will come (but not how) is harrowing, and when at last he does enter into a world of violence, death and drugs, we are no longer able to separate his actions from the soul we have grown so close to. He has let us into his inner world, from which we are somehow able to understand his most inhumane actions. As a child soldier, he becomes completely severed emotionally and pscyhologically from his behavior. We, like him, watch it from the outside. We can never ultimately escape from our own actions, however, and with equal depth and honesty, he takes us through his reckoning with himself.

Equally disturbing in this memoir is the inescapability of his situation and that of his countrymen. One of our greatest weaknesses in America, it seems to me, is our ability to numb, to forget that something unpleasant is going on (whether in our life or in the world). We feel compassion or distress when we see the news, then we go back to our normal life. We are adept at both forgetting and hiding. It has been many generations since we as a people have experienced this horror of having no place to hide nor run to, and having the danger and violence be too pervasive to forget. [This is a general statement, which has certain exceptions such as inner city ghettos, but today the average American simply cannot understand what it feels like to live in Baghdad, and have no other choice.] When the war catches up w/ Ishmael in Freetown, after his rehabilitation, the prospect of being replunged into violence provokes a despair far greater than that of his first brushes with the war. He is conscious now, having made clear and hard choices about who he wants to be as a man, and yet his aspirations are being torn from him just as he begins to believe in hope again. There is nowhere to hide, no way to make it go away.

In the end, what is most inspiring to me in this book is the commitment of this young man to stop the cycle of violence and revenge, no matter how much his rageful reactions pushed him to do otherwise. This is a story about taking a stand, and the obstacles we as people can go through to be a positive force for humanity. We all have something to learn from Ishmael about who we are as citizens of the world irregardless of the circumstances life throws our way.


Shayne Hughes