Friday, September 28, 2007

Where have all our manners gone?

On September 23, 2007, the CBS program 60 Minutes carried an interview with Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The interview, conducted by Scott Pelley, was conducted in the customarily aggressive 60 Minutes style. One does not expect politeness or good manners in 60 Minutes interviews; that is not their style. It was, however, shocking to hear Pelley quote President Bush. The transcript of the program shows that Pelley said this:

I asked President Bush what he would say to you if he were sitting in this chair. And he told me-quote-speaking to you, that you've made terrible choices for your people. You've isolated your nation, you've taken a nation of proud and honorable people and made your country the pariah of the world. These are President Bush's words to you, What's your reply?

President Ahmadinejad seemed slightly taken aback, but he regained his composure quickly and said he did not believe President Bush had really said those things. Pelley claimed that he was quoting the American president directly. If Pelley was telling the truth, it is a truth that should make all Americans feel deeply ashamed and embarrassed. There is no excuse for one head of state to say to another, even through a television interviewer, that the other head of state has taken a nation of proud and honorable people and made his country the pariah of the world. That, of all people, President Bush, who has disgraced his own country in the eyes of the world, should say such a thing is a prime example of a pot calling a kettle black; but that is not the point. The point is that no head of state should ever speak in such undiplomatic and unprofessional language of another. Speaking in such a way is inexcusably rude, not to mention potentially dangerous. It is conduct unbecoming a president of the United States.

Perhaps emboldened by President Bush's carelessness and rudeness, a few days later Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, addressed aggressively rude remarks of his own to President Ahmadinejad, who was an invited guest speaker at the university. President Bollinger said:

Let's then be clear at the beginning. Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator. And so, I ask you—and so, I ask you, why have women, members of the Baha=E2=80=99i Faith, homosexuals, and so many of our academic colleagues become targets of persecution in your country? Why, in a letter last week to the Secretary General of the UN, did Akbar Ganji, Iran's leading political dissident, and over 300 public intellectuals, writers and Nobel laureates express such grave concern that your inflamed dispute with the West is distracting the world's attention from the intolerable conditions in your regime within Iran—in particular, the use of the press law to ban writers for criticizing the ruling system? Why are you so afraid of Iranian citizens expressing their opinions for change?

Then, before he invited President Ahmadinejad to speak, President Bollinger closed his introduction by saying:

Frankly—I close with this comment—frankly and in all candor, Mr. President, I doubt that you will have the intellectual courage to answer these questions. But your avoiding them will, in itself, be meaningful to us. I do expect you to exhibit the fanatical mindset that characterizes so much of what you say and do. Fortunately, I am told by experts on your country that this only further undermines your position in Iran, with all the many goodhearted intelligent citizens there. A year ago, I am reliably told, your preposterous and belligerent statements in this country—was at one of the meetings of the Council on Foreign Relations—so embarrassed sensible Iranian citizens that this led to your party's defeat in the December mayoral elections. May this do that and more. I am only a professor—I am only a professor who is also a university president. And today I feel all the weight of the modern civilized world yearning to express the revulsion at what you stand for. I only wish I could do better. Thank you.

I, too, am only a professor. But if Lee Bollinger were the president of my university, I would demand his resignation as president for making such embarrassingly disgraceful comments in full public view to an invited guest. There is no excuse whatsoever for inviting a guest to speak and then to introduce him by accusing him of being a petty and cruel dictator with a fanatical mindset who makes preposterous and belligerent statements.

As Alexis de Tocqueville observed long ago, the United States of America has never been the envy of the world for being a bastion of refinement and polished civilization. That notwithstanding, the United States has in the past been a place of decency and civility. Are those days gone forever? Are we now to expect the president of the country to make rude and disparaging remarks of other heads of state? Are we to take it as a matter of course that prominent academics associated with our most prestigious universities will blurt out schoolboy taunts to invited guests? If so, we have become a sadly fallen nation indeed.

If no one else will apologize to President Ahmadinejad for the brazen crudeness and impudence of our public figures, then I will. President Ahmadinejad, on behalf of the American people, I apologize for the shoddy treatment you received while visiting my home and native land. While I myself have many differences of opinion with you, I admire the gracious cheerfulness with which you received the rudeness of my countrymen, and I thank you for saying several things about the policies of my country that desperately needed to be said. May your criticisms of us not fall on deaf ears.

Friday, September 07, 2007

A grandson of Confucius assesses America

In “America's report card” we saw what grades the United States might get if graded by the standards set by Walt Whitman's poem “The Broad-axe.” In this squib, we'll take a look at how the United States might be graded if we used the standards of Kongji, the grandson of Kong Fuzi (Confucius), who is credited with writing these words:

There are nine standards by which to administer the empire, its states, and the families. They are: cultivating the personal life, honoring the worthy, being affectionate to relatives, being respectful toward the great ministers, identifying oneself with the welfare of the whole body of officers, treating the common people as one's own children, attracting the various artisans, showing tenderness to strangers from far countries, and extending kindly and awesome influence on the feudal lords.

Applying the criteria

Kongji goes on to explain “If the ruler cultivates his personal life, the Way will be established. If he honors the worthy, he will not be perplexed.” Our current ruler seems to cultivate his personal life, if we understand cultivation to mean keeping in good physical fitness. The President reportedly has many rigorous workouts every week and loves to ride his bicycle vigorously enough to work off 1000 calories per session. He also claims to read more than one hundred books a year. So we are off to a good start. When it comes to honoring the worthy, our President seems to believe that he does just that, although his criteria of who is worthy could be questioned. All appearances indicate that being worthy in the eyes of the President consists mostly in being loyal. While loyalty is a good quality if it is toward a noble and honorable person, loyalty to a person of low or questionable integrity is not always a positive quality. In the interest of not prejudging the situation and coming to a conclusion without adequate evidence, we should perhaps say that there is not enough impartial information to give the President a grade on this criterion.

Konji says of the ruler: “If he is affectionate to his relatives, there will be no grumbling among his uncles and brothers.” The President does seem to be affectionate toward his father, his mother, his brother, his wife and his children. Once again, he would probably receive high marks from the grandson of Confucius.

Konji says “If he respects the great ministers, he will not be deceived.” Here most of the evidence suggests that the President is not especially good at listening to great ministers. He does seem to do well at listening to those who agree with him, but there are many well-informed thinkers who have excellent advice to offer who seem to go unheard, or at least unheeded. In this area the President is right on the borderline between failing and getting a barely passing grade. (A tougher grader than I might just fail him.)

“If he identifies himself with the welfare of the whole body of officers, then the officers will repay him heavily for his courtesies.” From the very outset, the commander-in-chief has earned a reputation for being selective in which of his generals he heeds. Those who seriously question or openly disagree with the command-in-chief's policies find themselves on the margins. If one understands officers as including non-commissioned as well as commissioned officers in the armed services, and if one asks whether the command-in-chief identifies himself with their welfare, he cannot, I'm afraid, be given a passing grade. American members of the armed services are being exposed to unnecessarily dangerous circumstances, as a result of which serious injuries and psychological traumas are being sustained, and follow-up care for the wounded has not been even close to adequate. It is alleged that the commander-in-chief has not attended the funeral of a single uniformed serviceman who has died in the war in Iraq. It is difficult to escape the impression that the commander-in-chief has a difficult time expressing his care for the people whom he has sent into perilous situations. It is reported that he regularly cries when he thinks of the dead and injured, but his tears have not been translated into policies that would help better to prevent them from dying and being wounded.

Kongji says of the successful ruler: “If he treats the common people as his own children, then the masses will exhort one another to do good.” Here the President receives his lowest grade. His sluggish response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina has been well documented. The poor, the weak and the helpless citizens of the United States have never been the focus of the President's attention. Indeed, their share of the economic resources in the United States has steadily decreased during the past seven years. The rich and powerful have fared much better. They have enjoyed tax cuts and various other advantages that have resulted in dramatic increases in their wealth and power. Regulations that have restrained the greed of major corporations have been steadily eroded. No progress has been made toward providing universal health for everyone, including the poor and the powerless, in the country. The quality of public education has declined noticeably. If the common people had been our President's children, they would have been disinherited or treated as medieval tyrants treated their bastard offspring. Even giving the President an F might qualify as grade inflation.

So how are we doing in the realm of commerce? Konji says “If he attracts the various artisans, there will be sufficiency of wealth and resources in the country.” Encouraging, through a relentlessly dogmatic commitment to free markets, business enterprises in this country to seek the lowest-paid labor in the world has resulted in the steady diminishing of industry in the United States. Artisans have not done well at all in recent years. The principal beneficiaries of the President's policies have been the extremely wealthy and those in the poorly paid unskilled service sector. A larger percentage of people live in poverty in the United States than in any other industrialized nation. If there is a sufficiency of wealth and resources, they are so poorly distributed as to be almost non-existent to those with the greatest need. Once again, a fair-minded evaluator would reluctantly have to give a grade of F.

“If he shows tenderness to strangers from far countries, people from all quarters of the world will flock to him.” In this area the President himself has apparently had the will to show kindness to strangers from foreign lands, provided their plan is to come to this country to work at wages so low as to be tantamount to economic slavery. Unfortunately, he has failed to convince his most ardent supporters of the wisdom of showing compassion to people from foreign lands. As a result, there has been a collective paralysis of legislators to arrive at any workable remedies to the problem of economic refugees who have come to this country in hopes of making a decent livelihood. Our ruler seemingly has good intentions, but is it not with good intentions that the road to hell is paved?

“And if he extends kindly and awesome influence over the feudal lords, then the world will stand in awe of him.” The world has never stood in awe of the current ruler of the United States, and the world stands in less awe of the country as a whole every passing week. A Confucian would no doubt find a close link between the qualities of the President and the declining international prestige and influence enjoyed by the United States.


Taking all the criteria of Confucianism into consideration, our current ruler does not fare much better than when America's greatest poet, Walt Whitman, were used as a basis of evaluation. If the country had had inadequate leadership for only eight years, we might have hope to expect a slow but steady recovery to health. Unfortunately, incompetent leaders have been the norm in the United States for at least the past twenty-five years. Some Presidents have done better than others in specific criteria, but none have been consistently admirable, noble and competent leaders of the sort that Confucians always dreamed. It is, therefore, difficult to be both reasonable and optimistic about the future of the United States. If we stay on our present course, there is probably nothing to look forward to but steady cultural decline.

There may be an alternative. Hints on what the alternatives are may be found in the Declaration of Independence. A detailed look at how that revolutionary document might be applied to our current situation may be the subject matter of a future squib.