Monday, June 22, 2009

Our Iranian Response

The past few weeks we have witnessed some amazing events occurring in Iran. A normally controlled, if not docile, population has risen up in substantial numbers to publicly protest and defy the announced outcome of their latest presidential election. Fueled by our detestation of much of what Iran’s government stands for, a number of American politicians and commentators have rushed to their pulpits arguing for the US government to come out in strong support of these “revolutionary patriots” (our media terminology), as well as for a harsh denouncement of the current Iranian power regime. To those speakers I say, “Back off. Your arrogance is once again creating your own story as you want to see it, but you are not truly listening to the Iranian people themselves.”

There is certainly a shared goal among many that would like to see an Iran no longer isolated from international connections, acting responsible to its neighbors instead of antagonizing or threatening them, and withdrawing its support of fanatical terrorists. America shares this goal not only with all of Europe, but also with much of the Middle East community. It is at least one area where very diverse governments can come together. But that is not what we are watching occur today in Iran. What is occurring there is much more of a local event, fueled by local grievances. It is not another cultural explosion of American wanna-be democratic aspiration in yet another foreign land as is being portrayed in many media. We need to be clear about what we are witnessing.

Iran is a theocracy. A state where religion and government are intricately mixed together. Where Islamic religious beliefs and its power structure within a homogeneous society lies behind the illusion of secular government. Given the natural way that the practice of Islam integrally permeates one’s daily life, such a religious/secular integrated governing structure should be no surprise. The minimal separation of religious and secular life is similar to what we see within the Tibetan culture (in its exiled form, not as controlled by the Chinese within Tibet). It is close in form to what we see in Israel. And, of course, in the Vatican, an independent state as well as religion. Historically, England, Japan and China were all theocracies at different times. And, closer to home at the local government level, we have seen it practiced here with the Mormons and groups such as the historical Shakers and the current Amish. If some would have their way, it is what we would come to in America, except that we are too religiously diverse for that to happen within my remaining lifetime. The conduct and aspirations of theocratic countries may differ, but the concepts and the structures are the same.

From all responsible insight, the protest occurring in Iran, while as inspiring in their courage as the Chinese in Tiananmen Square, is not about overthrowing their theocratic system. Rather, in a country highly literate, demographically young, politically aware, and increasingly middle class, the protest is about cleansing the current structure. In its amateurish mishandling of the presidential election, the Iranian government moved into blatant arrogance and made the people’s true powerlessness unmistakably apparent. And the clumsy threat of the cleric Supreme Leader threatening people to “go home and accept the election result because I said so” was just yet another insult. The Iranian president may be a virtual figurehead standing in for the real power of the supreme cleric, but the people’s right to pick that figurehead is highly important to them. As individuals, each of us picks our own symbols that we use to disguise our actual powerlessness. These are important protective symbols for us, and we do not react well to having our truth exposed.

It may actually be true that, if the votes had been honestly counted, Ahmadinejad could well have won, although highly unlikely with the landslide margin claimed even before the balloting ended. In his fear of losing to a close competitor, his arrogance of authority, and his Cheney-esque disdain for the public, he overreached, perhaps unnecessarily, and brought this chaos on. What the Iranian people have reacted to, and now want, is a redress to that insult. An enforcement of the process in place. A return to the observance of their constitution. A rebuilding of the trust that had existed among religion, government, and the people. If we are prepared to be accepting of those national goals and such an outcome, then we should in fact be supportive of the Iranians we see out on the streets in the cell phone pictures coming to us. But if our goal is to subvert their state integrity in our zeal to overthrow the current distasteful Iranian clerical and governmental regimes, then we need to withdraw and mind our peace. For in such an instance, our efforts to overthrow that regime is our own selfish goal, and our pronouncement of support for the Iranian people is hypocritical at best.

We forced a regime change once before in the 1950s via a CIA-engineered coup that threw out the then government and returned a western-friendly king to the Iranian historical throne. It took them 20 years to throw out our puppet king, and we have thereby endured 30 more years of distrust to no one’s advantage. And we aggravated this distrust by our support of Iraq in its 1980s war with Iran. Thus, we have our own stained hand in the Middle East life-and-death poker game, a fact we are most uncomfortable acknowledging. So from their vantage point, Iran’s suspicions of our intentions and trustworthiness, like it or not, have been well grounded.

We can rightly decry and seek to influence the actions of governments, but it is not up to us to tell other nations how to live and what form of government to utilize. Just as we would not accept being told how to live and govern. In spite of our local critics, we should not act now in such a way as to confirm to the Iranian paranoia that we intend to repeat our 1950’s intervention, nor make Iran into another Iraq-style adventure. The reality is that we are not in any position or capability to eliminate the Iranian government, so hollow threats of such bring no desirable result. Decry the actions of Iran’s government; yet respect the people to be who they are. They are not us, and do not need to be.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Mighty Also Fall

On June 1, 2009, General Motors filed for bankruptcy. Granted, it was Chapter 11 bankruptcy for protection against creditors while they produce a new organizational plan and business strategy to attempt to become viable again. But Chapter 11 reorganization does not mask the fact that the company has collapsed and no longer works for whatever multiplicity of reasons.

With General Motors, its collapse carries a different resonance than the failures of the innumerable financial institutions and mortgage companies we have witnessed. Those institutions were abstract entities removed from our sense of connection, done in by insatiable ambition combined with a no sense or responsibility to the general good for their decisions and conduct. But GM? This was a company cobbled together in the early 1900s from a series of mergers with various standalone individual car companies. Back when there were many car companies built by energetic entrepreneurs – Buick, Cadillac, GMC, Chevrolet, Pontiac. Henry Ford may have invented the assembly line and created a mass market for the automobile. But GM built that mass market to new levels of demand, and then became the predominant company to supply that demand. In the process, it became the largest manufacturing company in the world, and the biggest auto producer for over 75 years.

It was an institution that was synonymous with the American Dream, that was married to American’s love of the open road, that symbolized the growth of the middle class. Through its extended network of suppliers and franchised dealers, it anchored small-town America and its social fabric. Long before the Japanese form of life-long employment emerged, GM supported a multi-generational workforce with a rising blue-collar income, complete with something brand new: medical insurance to protect those employees and their families from debilitating illness. It was a cocoon of an economic sanctuary on a scale never seen before in America. And the company grew, and grew, a growth assumed to continue forever.

Forever ended on June 1, 2009. Now General Motors is just a shell of its former self. In 1962, GM had 51% of the US auto market and 464,000 domestic employees; in 2009 that had shrunk to 23% of the market with 92,000 domestic employees. When the car designers and the car builders lost out to the marketers and the accountants years ago, the vulnerabilities began to set in. Not readily visible, but a hole was opening, just waiting for someone new to fill it. Workmanship became shoddy. Buyers’ needs for cars changed, but GM wasn’t listening to them anymore. Greater societal demands grew, but “we can’t do it” became the corporate mantra instead of “we will get there before anyone else.” And for reasons I still fail to understand, Detroit married itself to the gasoline industry and thereby became dependently whiplashed by those rogue capitalists. So a company once known for innovation became seen as an unresponsive can’t do obstructionist. The door was now open to someone who could see this opportunity and exploit it – and along came Toyota (now the biggest automaker) and Honda to do just that.

So good old American competition got turned on its head in the 1980s, and the once biggest competitor got out-competed. The new guys saw the gaps in the market no longer being served by GM, so they were happy to draw that market away by good products that lasted, better prices, appealing designs, and responsiveness to the safety and fuel goals that GM said could not be done.

Management stood lead-footed and blamed everyone else for its woes. Employees, now conditioned to expect lifetime job security, stuck their heads in the sand and remained dedicated to job security and rising incomes disconnected to market realities.

Now it has all come home to roost, like so many other course corrections Americans are experiencing. There is an incomprehensible chorus of protests being voiced: that now the US government has nationalized the auto industry; that the government is running the company, closing plants and dealerships, throwing employees out of jobs; that the government is inappropriately dictating new car directions and fuel standards that GM fought for years. And of course, President Obama is a socialist overly involved and now dictating the US economy.

What GM managers, workers, apparently some Congressmen/women and some of the general public seem to have forgotten is that last fall GM said it was broke, with enough money to last only a few months. It was GM that came to Washington looking for a handout to stay alive, not Washington traipsing to Detroit looking to give away money. Without such bailout money that was provided, GM would have disappeared and been completely out of business six months ago. Today a lot of people are still employed, not because of what GM leaders and workers did but because the American public bailed them out at their request. It is only right in such a circumstance that there are strings attached to that help, a refusal to simply underwrite business-as-usual failure. If you are insistent upon driving off a cliff, please don’t ask me to fill the tank of your car so that you can accomplish that goal.

Failure can come from several causes. The causes are often different for the new ventures in our lives than for the breakdown of an established order. For an established order, whether it is we as individuals or a collective organization, failure usually comes from an unwillingness to hear, a resistance to new learning, resulting in an inability to adapt. Such we have seen in the demise of General Motors. There is a shared sadness in all of these events. In the end, companies are simply groups of people moving together en masse. And when this many people move downhill at the same time, even if as a result of their own folly, and when a familiar icon is no longer what it once was, some part of all of us goes with them on that sad trip.