Thursday, November 10, 2011
A Guy Named Joe
THE BRIAR PATCH. Something of a portmanteau post, encompassing a lot of what I'm disgusted about these days. The flashpoint is Paterno, of course, but there's also reference to Occupy Wall Street, Eric Holder, Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Herman Cain, and Ron Paul (all of whom I've been asked about in recent comments). I'll even be touching on my own personal history. Not to mention political philosophy. Are you ready?
The clip above is from a 1948 movie of an Arthur Miller play, All My Sons. Here's a pertinent 'user review' from IMDB.com:
Arthur Miller's First Stage Success, 3 May 2006
Author: theowinthrop from United States
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The film/play takes place in 1945 - 46.
[Manufacturer Joe] Keller's oldest son has died in World War II, in a
military aviation crash. His younger son Chris (Burt Lancaster) has
returned too from military service upset -- he is aware that something
is wrong about the death of his brother, but he is not sure what. He is
also aware that his father has a secretive side -- one that he is
sensitive about. It appears to be connected to the wartime trial of
Keller's partner Herbert Deever (Frank Conroy). It seems that Keller
and Deever's plant got a big government contract that required the
delivery of airplane motors at a particular date. It was a very
lucrative contract: in fact, it built their company. But there was a
defect in the motors -- which did not prevent Deever from completing
the delivery of the defective motors. As a result, twelve planes
crashed in the South Pacific, killing their pilots and crews. Deever
ended up going to prison, but the critical decision was made without
Joe Keller being present (he was ill that day) and so Keller did not go
So why am I recommending that you all watch a big chunk of All My Sons? (Whole movie available here. Some loading problems due to length... I recommend skipping to 59 minutes in, which worked for me. You'll see everything that matters.) Because in this play at least, Arthur Miller's ear as a writer served him better than his political views. The tragic flaw of Joe Keller is not capitalism or aggressive business ambition. It's his own character. His rationalizations may involve the primacy of family and the right to make a buck, but the solution to his frailties isn't the elevation of the collective; it's the sense of personal moral responsibility for his own actions. They are all my sons. Not a conviction any government can enforce. It's a personal, individual contract with life.
What Joe Paterno forgot. His moral lapse had nothing to do with capitalism. He wasn't a money-grubbing CEO. He was a deity. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. His elevation of "the program" over basic moral imperatives which require virtually no decision by decent men has more in common with ideologues than businessmen. At some point Joe Paterno forgot that the ends don't justify the means. Who else forgets that at greatest cost? Lenin. Stalin. Mao. Castro. Pol Pot. What I'm doing is so intrinsically important that it's okay if some nameless innocents suffer.
Businessmen don't come to conclusions like that unless they are no longer capitalists but factotums of the powerful who have the ability to eliminate the most essential element of capitalism -- competition.
Which brings us to another fascinating nexus. So-called "kids" at Penn State riot in response to the dethroning of their football god, which has absolutely nothing to do with the 'Occupy' protesters mounting anarchic attacks against the capitalist system, also involving violence and, well, tantrums, with no regard for the 'proletarians' they're hurting by shutting down restaurants, shitting on doorsteps, and otherwise demonstrating their ignorant infantilism.
But isn't it really all the same thing? A failure of consciousness? Always returning to the same bankrupt assumption. I'm not responsible. Everyone else is; that is, everyone else is responsible to me and my whims. Because I have this half-assed idea of how everything ought to be, and it doesn't matter at all that I haven't the slightest idea how to get there. I just want what I want, whatever it is.
And we've been taught to let it all go. As if having what we conceive of as a pure idea outranks all the hard work grownups have to do.
Ron Paul. Why am I so hard on him? I was asked. Is it just because I "disagree" with his foreign policy? No. He's the Joe Paterno of libertarians. Ask him about Iran and he answers that if we're nice to Iran, Iran will be nice to us. That's akin to pretending that a child molester will stop being a child molester because that's what's convenient for our 'program.' But it doesn't end there. This kind of delusional thinking feeds back into areas where we're supposed to be competent. Ron Paul has also called for the immediate end of the Federal Reserve, the Energy Department, the Education Department, the Commerce Department (excuse me, the constitution does require federal oversight of interstate commerce), and the immediate sale of all federal lands (parks too?). The plan is published as a spreadsheet, with no description of how any transition is to be accomplished. The problem I've always had with libertarians. We're right. Who gives a shit about what happens when we finally take charge? He's not a politician; he's a cult leader. Almost like the coach of a team that doesn't want to hear anything but a great halftime speech.
Eric Holder. No, he won't get canned unless there is no alternative but to throw him under the bus. Not only because Fast & Furious is a federal government version of the Joe Paterno scandal (did he know anything and if not, why not?), but because he's done so many incompetent things that the hearings for his replacement would turn into a nightmare of muckraking that would drench the Obama administration in ignominy. See? It's not about capitalism. It's not about money. It's about power and the careless arrogance that goes with it. The man never reads his memos. Pretty much the Paterno defense, eh?
Barack Obama. Another federal government version of the Paterno scandal. Solyndra. What did he know, and how could he have been so careless, egotistical and stupid? Because he has absolute faith in the virtue of his program. It's all of us who worry needlessly about the little people victims nobody honestly cares about, let's face it.
Herman Cain. A Republican version of the Paterno scandal. You're an embarrassment. Have the good grace to go. But your ego apparently won't let you.
Mitt Romney. Everyone's concerned he might compromise his principles. If he has any. Guess what. I've been there.
Sometimes you land smack dab in the middle of a moral mess. I did. I worked for a Fortune 100 computer company division that developed a risky product strategy. They accepted a huge custom contract for a software platform and then lied to the corporation that the custom product was a commercial product with immense market appeal. They made a big deal about a "Big Bang" release of all its parts and bullied the software organization into productizing it. There was even a huge mural reprising Pink Floyd's "The Wall" album cover intended to drive the code writers above and beyond the call of duty to a set-in-stone deadline. A colleague and I fought the "Big Bang" release tooth and nail. Toward the end, we shared a 36-hour day that began at world headquarters and ended in the software organization's auditorium as we argued that releasing such a product would be tantamount to fraud. The way we were thanked at the end of our presentation by the division VP made it clear our careers were over.
Did I resign? No. I was responsible for generating all the marketing materials for this phantom product. I delivered them on schedule and put them on the VP's desk knowing that I was the only one in the organization who had made the deadline he set. Then I gave him a one-page memo describing exactly how to avoid committing fraud without alerting the corporate brass that we had utterly failed in our mission.
I described the creation of a brand new Major Accounts Marketing Organization which would automatically take over the sales effort when an eager rep in the field tried to sell any part of the "Big Bang." The stated purpose of the new marketing organization was to make sure that nobody bought it.
A week or two later my boss, not the VP, informed me that my plan was being implemented. The Major Accounts Marketing Organization never earned a single dollar of revenue. Maybe the greatest achievement of my business career.
A year after that, the entire division was gone. I resigned right before the end, and I don't regret what I did. I trusted that if I did what I thought was right it would all work out for the best. What people forget about capitalism. The market decides -- when it's allowed to function. The market will decide the fate of Penn State as a football program and as a university. It hasn't done that yet but it will. The market will also decide about big Wall Street banks. The protest I happen to agree with is the decision by citizens to transfer their accounts out of the government-mobbed up giants into local savings & loans. We are the market.
And being part of the market, we bring to the market everything we've been brought up to be as moral human beings. Capitalism is a system. The purpose of being raised properly by parents is to know what the right thing is and when it's the right time to do it. Individuals operate within the system and contend against it when necessary. An idea inherent in a constitution which concedes that justice is God's province and the law our feeble attempt to imitate that justice.
You are the market too, and all your moral bases are part of that market.. If Mitt Romney is unacceptable, you will decide that. I don't know about him. Why I understand all your chaff. But he can't possibly be worse than Barack Obama.
The only positive point I can conclude on is that if we absolutely demand men of principle, they will eventually appear. That really is the American Way.