Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Welcome A New Country

This week, a new country bounded onto the world stage. Kosovo. An area of ethnic Albanians which has long struggled to assert its own identity. Previously a province of Yugoslavia until that country broke up, then a province of Serbia – neither of which was particularly accommodating to those people. Now it is on its own, a small but newly independent country.

Serbia is objecting to this unilateral declaration of independence. Russia and China are likewise objecting to recognizing this separation. But those two major powers admit that their objections are based upon their own fears of such a move potentially enticing similar separatist movements in their countries. Given all of the varieties of ethnic and religious groups that have been swallowed up by those countries over the course of their histories, it is likely an entirely valid concern. (Think Tibet in China; Chechnya in Russia.)

The Bush administration has encouraged Kosovo’s independence, and has moved quickly to recognize the new nation. Of course, as quickly as we paint Russia and China as being anti-freedom bad guys, we gloss over our own history regarding separation. An extremely costly war (both financially and in human life) was fought in this country 140+ years ago over whether a state(s) could opt out of the United States union. Slavery and economics created a deep national division in this country; the legality or not of succession created a civil war. The outcome of this war determined that, once in, no succession is allowed. It’s been a settled legal question for a century and a half, although the cultural divisions resulting from that war are still with us. Therefore we stand on somewhat shaky ground when we frequently encourage nationalistic separations around the world.

Except in Iraq. Here we continue to try stitch a country together that was created from yet another attempted intervention by post-World War I European powers to create a world map defined by their colonial histories and ambitions. Modern Iraq has existed only in the minds and force of successive despots, ending with Saddam Hussein. Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis are distinctive cultures, with their own histories of confrontation among themselves. The physical separation of these groups within Iraq has already happened through ethnic cleansing and a relocation of people into affinity enclaves.

Senator Joe Biden has long advocated a 3-region partition solution for Iraq. It is almost already in place now, with each group just waiting for our overdue departure to make it a formal reality. We should follow Senator Biden’s advice. Nations can be formed among people of mixed backgrounds where respect and shared values can be in place; witness this country over 300 years, though not without our periodic difficulties. But in the long run, nations cannot be built and sustained where there is no common aspiration, where a shared identity cannot be established around which to unify a people.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Ode To Missed Perfection

Indulge me, please, in a more personal entry to this blog. It is late Tuesday evening, two days after the Super Bowl, where my New England Patriots lost to the New York Giants. And I remain in a funk that has not yet been shaken over this entirely unexpected outcome. So I must ask myself “Why?”

The Giants legitimately earned their victory. There was one key to their chance, which everyone acknowledged going in: for any chance to win, they had to stop the mega-talented New England quarterback, Tom Brady. And they did. They took the gamble no other team had attempted, and threw every defensive thing they had at the quarterback, risking being burned and defeated by “the one big play.” But they succeeded. Eli Manning may have been selected as the game’s MVP, but that was a mis-call. The MVP was the collective Giants defensive line, who rose to a challenge and pulled it off. They are where the accolades should go.

The Patriots deserved the win. But they were not able to earn it when they needed it. They deserved a better end to a spectacular season of record-setting performances. The awards and records will be there for awhile, deservedly so. But to end it with that particular loss, that particular way, seems so wrong. I cannot possibly imagine how those 50+ guys must still feel at this moment; how many “should haves” and “if onlys” have been replayed in their minds over and over. My own imagination has certainly been on continual replay these past days, and it wasn’t even my game to play. So I can only commiserate and empathize with their all too human feelings from a distance.

I think perhaps my personal unending attachment to this loss reflects my disappointment in seeing excellence, if not perfection, go unachieved. We collectively came so close to seeing something that has been significantly missing this past decade: a demonstration of excellence that is all too rare, and is done on a scale that is sharable by the collective many. Few opportunities present themselves for such uplifting reaffirmation of human potential. In my lifetime, there has been the “greatest generation’s” accomplishment in Europe and Asia in 1945; stepping onto the moon in 1969; the fall of the Berlin Wall; the end of apartheid in South Africa; the indelible image of one man standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square in Peking. Various moments in sports and the arts have enhanced our sense of shared culture, such as the Olympic hockey “miracle on ice” victory at a similar time of great emotional need in America. Moments not just of excellence achieved, of arriving at a place well beyond expectations, but doing so in a way that invites millions of people to share in it together. Tiger Woods is unarguably the greatest golfer today, perhaps ever, with a string of accomplishments; but millions of people are not joined in together watching him on the 18th green.

That is the opportunity we have missed. With all of the cash rewards and riches flying around some of us, we nevertheless live today in such a time of mediocrity, missed opportunity, minimalist goals and divisive ambitions. Yet every now and then something is needed to remind us how far human beings can reach in certain rare moments. We have need of that reminder these days; I am saddened that we did not get it. So we can only hope yet again, “wait until next year.” Even the Red Sox finally won, for all of us.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Buying The Presidency

Only slightly into this year’s primary voting, drama and surprises have certainly been a regular occurrence. The primary campaigns also continue to affirm what was predicted: this will be a protracted exercise involving an incredible amount of money. In amounts that many of us could think of as better applied to a host of other needs in this country.

Generally, my goal is to try to be as non-political as possible in this blog, especially as regards plugging or advocating any particular party or candidate. However, one candidate is particularly disturbing to me on the issue of campaign financing: Mitt Romney. Admittedly, there are many things this candidate says that concern me, but one is his continuing emphasis on presenting himself as the “businessman candidate.” From this basis, he promotes that he will bring an understanding of economics and a business/managerial style to his performance as President. In fact, what he really illustrates is the world of the pampered super-rich and overpaid business executive of today: overly slick, excessively wealthy, oblivious to the immoral vertical wage structure that has evolved in America, and freely buying his/her toys of indulgence. Except this time Mitt Romney’s toy is the U.S. presidency, and he’s buying that toy from all of us. And he will make his sale using statements of beliefs that are drawn from, and are no more credible than, a focus-group based Madison Avenue advertising campaign. Two points to observe:

1. Candidate Romney has constantly stressed that one of the chief reasons and benefits for voting for him as the Republican Party’s nominee is that he has the funds to see the whole race through. Maybe this sounds good at first hearing. But these funds he references are, of course, not the funds he has raised from Americans who support his views and candidacy. They are funds from his own bank account. As onerous as our whole campaign financing environment is today, it is at least premised on the idea that funds raised come from people who believe in and support you as a candidate; therefore dollars raised equals one form of measurable support and a statement of viability of a candidate. (Or, it is a measure of how many favors and advantages people expect you will throw their way if you are elected, but we’ll save that discussion to another day!) To ask people to vote for me, instead of McCain. Huckabee, or another candidate, simply because I have more personal money than they to make it through the primaries, is highly distasteful and reflects an incredible non-understanding of the governing role of the presidency. Mitt Romney does not ask us to “vote for me because you believe in my abilities and vision”; instead, vote for me because “I am the richest.”

2. It was recently revealed that Romney is signing up students to solicit donations to his campaign. That is what many candidates do to try to mobilize and captivate the young and energetic emerging voters in this country. Except that Mr. Romney seems to have once again added a new twist to that idea: he is paying such student fund-raisers a 10% commission if they raise at least $1,000 for him. AND they become eligible to win “cool prizes” based upon the level of their results. This is a brand new technique for getting campaign money and attracting student leaders to your cause, never before practiced by a presidential candidate. Don’t bother attracting people to your ideas and persona; just buy them! Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy is now inventory for your small business!

Both of these instances, combined with other related episodes, reflects just how distorted a person’s perspective can get by ambition and an inflated ego that sees the world only through one’s own lens of experience. Being a successful businessman is to be complimented, I have no issue with that. Seeing elective office as an inherently deserved prize to that business success, or seeing leadership and government as just another business management job, reflects a very frightening view of politics, government, and leadership. Especially when you advertise that skewed view so blatantly.

We all understand that the last 50 years have come to treat the election of public officials as just another sales campaign at the grocery store; the presidency as a can of soup. I remain surprised that none of the presidential debates have so far been held at a local Super Wal-Mart (at least to this point!). The good news: the American people have so far continued to draw their votes from their hearts instead of their wallets. All of Romney’s dollars have so far yielded pitiful returns on investments vis-à-vis his competition. (Think Huckabee in Iowa, McCain in South Carolina and Florida.) For a management consultant and venture capitalist who claims to be the only real businessman in the race, the results of his business management and funding strategies do not seem to make an overly impressive case for hiring him.

Once again, God bless the common sense of Americans. Mitt Romney is not the first, nor will he be the last, to try to buy elective office through the largess of their wealth. Many such political wanna-bes have thankfully been consigned to a footnote in history. These business-success stories do not understand that Americans do not really want a business executive as President; they already have a “boss” that they have tolerate every day at work. Americans still like the underdog, still want to be moved by someone who can relate to them, and are still moved towards governmental leaders by the force of their ideals and the intangible of leadership, not by their bank account.