Decision-makers’ Twilight Zone

Solzhenitsyn’s historical fiction study of the causes of the Russian Revolution, The Red Wheel, focuses on three “nodes”–the disastrous initial Russian campaign into Germany in August 1914, the November 1916 period of breathless anticipation and organizational ineptitude, and the March 1917 anti-Tsarist revolution, each dealt with by an eponymous novel. The third of these novels begins with a chapter examining the thinking of pathetic Tsar Nicholas, who contemplates, as he calmly rides away from his wife and palace toward  military headquarters on the eve of the revolution, the irony of the short-sighted nature of human psychology:

наше спокойствие или безпокойство зависят не от дальних, хотя бы и крупных событий, а от того, что происходит непосредственно с нами рядом. Если нет напряжённости в окружении, в ближайших часах и днях, то вот на душе и становится светло. После петербургских государственных забот и без противных официальных бумаг очень славно было лежать в милом поездном подрагивании, читать и не иметь необходимости кого-то видеть, с кем-то разговаривать. [Solzhenitsyn.ru.]

…notre quietude ou notre inquietude dependent non pas des evenements, meme importants, qui se deroulent au loin, mais de ce qui arrive dans notre voisinage immediat. Si aucune tension n’est perceptible dans ce qui nous entoure, dans les heures et les jours a venir, eh bien notre ame aussi devient sereine. Apres les soucis du pouvoir a Petersbourg et sans ces horrible papiers officiels, qu’il etait merveilleux de rester allonge, dans la chere vibration du wagon, de lire et de n’avoir besoin de voir personne, de parler aved qui que ce soit. [Alexandre Soljenitsyne, La Roue rouge, Mars Dix-Sept, Tr. Anne Coldefy-Faucard, Genevieve et Jose Johannet, Sean-Paul Semon (Fayard: 1993) 17.]

We all tend to focus on what affects us immediately and for perfectly logical reasons, but any intelligent person must know when to take a broader view. There is a difference between calmly facing the storm because it is still just a thunderhead on the horizon and tuning out. As for decision-makers, their lapses into a comfortable twilight zone where sycophants or their own naive daydreaming leave them serene in denial on the cliff-edge of disaster is a personal and professional failure all too common. “If no tension is perceptible in our immediate surroundings,” well then, everything must be just fine. After all, “the people love me;” those I conquer “will welcome us with flowers;” financial regulation is unnecessary because “the market will regulate itself.”

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N.B.: Shamefully, no English translation of March 1917 exists. Fortunately, a delightful French translation is available.

 

Guilt

Guilt, innocence, and justice–albeit favorite crumbs for tossing out to the crowd–are, to most politicians, acidic concepts whose merest touch can corrode that all-important amour-propre. “Team players,” as one says in Washington–does anyone know what the term would have been in the old Soviet Union???–would never allow such rudeness to pass their lips in a policy meeting. Continue reading

Mankind As Test Mice

We think leaders have purpose, try to fulfill a vision. We even are happy to assume that “our” leaders pursue national security, if, perhaps, with something of a self-serving bias. Might it be more accurate to view leaders as tinkerers, folks who pursue power because they are full of ideas they want to try out, like a scientist who does experiments simply for “the sake of knowledge,” worrying no more about the fate of their subjects than the scientist worries about his test mice? Continue reading