Misc: Justice Breyer, Someone from the State Department, George Shultz

April 13, the law school brought Supreme Court Justice Breyer on campus.  It was just a small gathering in one of the law school buildings; it wasn’t like when Justice Kennedy came and talked to several thousand people.  That makes two Supreme Court Justices that I’ve seen.

I was unimpressed.  Aside from the horrible acoustics, there wasn’t much content in his talk. 

The next week, someone from the State Department came to talk.  It was more of a “this is what to expect if you have a career in the State Department” than I was expecting.  I do remember being struck by a conservativism in the organization that seemed to transcend any given administration, though, which disturbed me.  Kind of the same thing that I talked about in the section on Hannah Arendt (“Radical Responsibility”): just like Eichmann was willing to kill for his job, the speaker said that she felt like it was her job to paint America’s actions in a positive light even when she thought those actions were immoral.

On May 11, George Shultz came to talk.  The talk was on fidelity – to his family, his state, his morals.  Shultz didn’t really answer any of the questions posed to him, though.  The few philosophical observations that I had of him:

1)  He doesn’t really care about cosmopolitanism.  That is, he feels very little fidelity to the global community.

2)  In any instance where he has a strong moral belief about something, fidelity to his own values comes before fidelity to his superiors in the state.  That is, there were several instances where he stood up to Regan and Nixon. 

3)  In any instance where he doesn’t have a strong moral belief about something, he’s fine with fidelity to the state.  This seems disturbing to me on the same Eichmann lines.  It seems like cases where he doesn’t have a strong moral belief are the majority of cases (he gave one or two examples where he stood up for his values against the state, but I didn’t get the impression that he did it very often), so it seems like he was content being an automaton for the state – even when he disagreed with something (as long as it wasn’t one of very few hot button issues for him).

I think I’m beginning to discover what the archetypal politician is.  It makes me think of the character Bernard from “I Heart Huckabees” who he keeps on telling the mayonnaise story to everyone.  All of these politicians have a stock story – mostly meaningless – that they tell to no end. 

When Colin Powell came to campus, he told a story about getting his son a car.  In short, he takes his son to the car dealership, fakes getting a call from the president, leaves, comes back a few minutes later, and gets a good deal on the car.  When Powell told it, though, there was some moral attached to it (the rich get richer?  Wait, that doesn’t sound like something Powell would overtly say…), lots of jokes, and the telling took 4 or 5 minutes. 

Shultz told stories too.  In one of his stories, he was talking about getting Powell into his country club (or it may have been an equivalent elite(ist) institution).  However, this story involved retelling the entirety of Powell’s car story with some context at the beginning and some garnish at the end (“You should admit Powell so that you can hear his car story” – imagine that in a dramatic tone after hearing the car story for 5 minutes).

In other words, this meaningless story is so important that they not only tell it, but others retell it and others discuss the telling of it. 

I guess the moral of my story about politicians (the rich get richer?) is that it seems like the personality, not the values, is what politicians have in common.  You may have noticed that when I write about speakers, I have the political speakers separated from the public service speakers, whereas when talking about my own life those two categories are not separate.  That was my recognition about politicians: the institution of politics was created to provide a public service to the people, but the American political system has drifted away to become a cult of personality.  It’s like what Dr. Brilliant’s said (see “Stanford Service Summit” keynote): America has lost its public intellectuals who theorize on democracy for all citizens to hear. 

What will it take to redeem America’s politics?

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Monday, April 13, 2009