June 2009

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I Have a Dream

By Thomas G. Vincent

I’ve been having this waking nightmare recently. It’s about a man, intent on doing good in the world. A man of integrity with solid moral and ethical principles. A man with only one flaw: He is a pragmatist.

Given the choice between standing on principles or compromising, he will invariably choose the latter. In other words, he lives by the code, “If you can’t accomplish what you should, at least accomplish what you can.”

In my dream, this good man achieves a position of great power. He is ecstatic. At last he will get his chance to right the wrongs, to conquer evil, and make the world a better place. He aches to do good. He yearns for it. He knows he will not accomplish everything he wants. But he is a pragmatist. If he has to compromise to accomplish some good, so be it.

Meanwhile, in his steamy underground bunker, “Evil” smiles his evil smile. He sees immediately the man’s pragmatic streak for what it is: his Achilles heel. Evil knows that all he needs to do to win in any confrontation against this man is stand his ground, be unreasonable and act recalcitrant. Eventually his opponent, so desperate to accomplish some good, any good, will give in. At the bargaining table he will be the first to make concessions. In debate, he will always be a gentleman and cede that his opponent has a valid argument to make. In tennis, if it’s a close call, the man will always give his opponent the benefit of the doubt. In short, the man is reasonable – a fatal handicap that Evil does not share.

And so it is. No matter the arena, whenever they face off, Evil wins again and again. Despite the good man’s best efforts, the rich continue to fatten while the poor starve, wars continue chew up people and spit them out like scrapple, greedy corporations continue to pollute without penalty. It’s inevitable. For when it comes to winning, Evil takes the cake... the whole cake... then argues about how he deserves the crumbs as well.

Through it all, Evil’s great accomplishment is not just in defeating the good man. Rather it lies in the seemingly effortless success Evil has in convincing the good man to move further and further away from his core principles. In the guise of helping him to do good more easily Evil offers to give the man some extra power. (Who can refuse more power?) Or maybe he shows the man a simple way to nullify troublesome opponents. With each suggestion, Evil dangles shortcuts like bait, to tempt the man to surrender more and more of his morality and ethics till, one day the man wakes to find he is no longer doing good. The things he accomplishes are no longer helping people. In fact, to his horror he discovers that in his desire to be practical and accomplish “what he can,” he has surrendered so many of his principles that he himself has become evil.

By now you’ve no doubt discerned who the protagonist in this fable is. I voted for Barrack Obama in the last election. Like many, I considered him to be a good man. I had hopes he would truly change the direction this country was headed in. I had hopes that he would stick to his ethical principles, that he would right at least some of the wrongs of the Bush administration and possibly, change the nature of the game that is government rather than merely altering the style with which it is played.

Sadly, in decision after decision, he is providing little of the change for which I had hoped. Today we have more wars, a bigger defense budget, a worsening financial crisis, and ballooning unemployment figures. On top of this, Obama has supported wiretapping, rendition, and increased use of assassinations with unmanned drones. He has re-instated military commissions and is now talking about “preventative detention,” the establishment of permanent prisons where detainees can be held indefinitely without trial. As others have pointed out, in it’s decision making, not only is this administration little different from the one that preceded it, in many ways it is becoming worse. And while I do not doubt that Obama’s ethical and moral principles are still superior to Cheney/Bush/Rumsfeld/et al, I fear that in his desire to be pragmatic and “accomplish what he can,” Obama is abandoning the very core ethical and moral principles that won him the White House. The result can not be good.

This is my nightmare. That instead of reinforcing and protecting our liberties, through executive action, our basic freedoms will be removed one by one. No more right to privacy, or habeas corpus, or freedom of speech. I worry that this precious democracy of ours, will die, not quickly with a bullet, but slowly, like blood dripping from a thousand cuts. Worst of all, my fear is that our country will meet its demise not at the hands of a Hitler or Stalin bent on creating a totalitarian regime. Instead it will be undone by a good man, a principled man, a man with solid ethics and morals who just so happens to also be a pragmatist.