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A Few Lights in Corporate America

In The New Yorker this recent April 10, George Packer wrote of the American soldiers he had visited in Iraq, in a place of some highly unusual success.  Packer put this success in the context of the primary pattern in Iraq, where American units across that country still deal with the insurgency in each unit's own way.  No unified strategy yet prevails in Iraq, Packer wrote, because of the recent years political leaders in Washington spent in their fantasy world.  Their neo-con fantasies spun them in blithe denial of the Iraqi insurgency, along with a refusal to form any coherent strategy to deal with it.

"The most stubborn resistance to the idea of an insurgency came from Donald Rumsfeld, the Defense Secretary, who was determined to bring about a 'revolution in military affairs,'" wrote Packer, describing Rumsfeld as bent on a "transformation of war fighting into a combination of information technology and precision firepower that would eliminate the need for large numbers of ground troops and prolonged involvement in distant countries."  Packer's article, "Letter from Iraq:  Lesson from Tal Afar," quoted an officer on the field there who commented on Rumsfeld's views as "a vision of war that totally neglects [its] psychological and cultural dimensions."

Packer's article detailed the singular success of that one officer and his men in the northwestern Iraqi town of Tal Afar.  This officer, Colonel H. R. McMaster, had served in the 1991 Gulf War, where he earned a Silver Star for "battlefield prowess."  Later on McMaster earned a Ph.D. in history, with a doctoral dissertation called "Dereliction of Duty:  Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam."  This thesis argued that the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "knowing that Johnson and McNamara wanted uncritical support rather than honest advice, and eager to protect their careers, went along with official lies and a split-the-difference strategy of gradual escalation that none of them thought could work."

Packer's article in The New Yorker focused on the unique blend of cultural understanding that McMaster and his 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment fit to judicious application of military force in Tal Afar.  Packer quoted McMaster describing the need for soldiers to understand and respect on-the-ground culture:  "When we came to Iraq, we didn't understand the complexity. . . . When we first got here, we made a lot of mistakes.  We were like a blind man, trying to do the right thing but breaking a lot of things."  His conclusion:  "You gotta come in with your ears open.  You can't come in and start talking.  You have to really listen to people."

Americans have a major problem listening to people, or so claimed another source this recent month.  Just days after the appearance of Packer's article on McMaster and his unit's success in Iraq, a U.S.-based non-profit organization began distributing a 50-page pamphlet, World Citizens Guide, to many of our corporations most invested in international business.  Business for Diplomatic Action, the organization responsible for the pamphlet, sought to give practical advice to the many who otherwise often exhibit insensitivity or worse to foreign cultures.  The pamphlet addressed such things as Americans being too loud, too casually dressed, and other behaviors that recall Lederer and Burdick's Ugly American of 50 years earlier.  This new pamphlet sought, rather – like McMaster and his unit in Iraq – to have Americans see the value of listening to others.  Said Cari Eggspuehler, executive director for Business for Diplomatic Action, speaking of the most contemporary failures of Americans abroad, "the most consistent word in every region was 'respect.'"  When surveyed just after 9-11 by the advertising conglomerate DDB Worldwide, people in over 100 countries most characterized the Americans they saw as "arrogant," "loud," and "uninterested in the world."  The bottom line, as Eggspuehler put it, was that foreigners see Americans in one consistent failure:  "we don't respect their cultures."

Later in this recent month came news of another book, this one, too, on how our corporate culture positions all of us aloof from local culture.  In this case the culture being spurned at best, exploited at worst, is our own American culture – spurned and exploited by our own American corporations.  This time, however, corporate America has systematic connivance of officialdom in Washington D.C. to do its bidding against local interests.  Or so claims David Sirota in his new book, Hostile Takeover.  Sirota describes case by case how regulatory agencies in Washington now dedicate themselves to serving corporate interests rather than to being their public-interest regulators.  As a result, Americans continue to hemorrhage jobs at home to overseas outsourcing.  We continue to lose pensions and health care benefits.  Average wages fall.  The gap widens between the very rich and everybody else.  Corporate CEOs and other executives have no shame in the multi-million-dollar pay and bonus packages they arrange for themselves.  Their lobbyists systematically and lavishly pay the elected representatives of the people to set corporate interests above the people.  Concludes Sirota in an op-ed piece at the time of his book publication, "our politicians are wholly owned subsidiaries of Corporate America."

The recent month also brought spiking gas prices for Americans – and historically high profits for corporate oil.

The recent month also brought continued news here in the San Francisco Bay region of the ongoing pay scandals that in recent years have become the norm for the highest-placed administrators extra-legally rewarding themselves throughout the ten-campus University of California system.  As these souls exhibit their corporate culture, it evidently has but one set of ethics:  to serve the privileged.  To do this best, corporate academia flaunts two interlocking sets of practices:  1) it divides all "personnel" into niche specializations and 2) it has all pretending the most polite banalities of impersonality.  Thus corporate academia spins its flow-chart webs of mutually-isolated departments and, within them, it intones its culture of depersonalized listening skills:  sophisticated charades of roboticized souls, as in Don Siegel's 1956 film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  A few lights, meanwhile, shine – not in corporate academia, but in Packer's soldier McMasters, and in some of our international business people sincerely trying to do better.

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