Don't look at me!

One of the Presidents I admire is Harry Truman. This is not for his policies (although he certainly was a good President, and particularly supportive of the Jewish drive for self-determination), but rather because on his desk he had this sign reading "The Buck Stops Here". He took responsibility for his decisions, something we rarely see in today's political (or even civil) leaders.

Leadership is, in my opinion, all about taking responsibility. In our tradition, the responsibility of leaders shows up quite often. In the Garden of Eden story, Adam failed the test of responsibility when God asked him "why did you eat from the tree I forbade you?"... his answer: (paraphrased) "She made me do it!". That is just the first of many places on the Biblical narrative where the issue of responsibility figures prominently.

Closer to our times, a common defense of those on trial at Nuremberg was "I was just following orders", as they refused to take responsibility for their crimes.

But these days, the passing of the buck appears to have taken a completely new dimension. Let's take a politician making an inappropriate comment for example. When confronted with the inapproprietness of the comment - do they take responsibility? do they do their "Mea Culpa"?. Some of them do, but a growing number fo them are falling into the habit to just dig their heels and proclaim that they have done (or said) nothing wrong, and that it is their critics who are wrong. This tactic, while a good political defense (best defense if a good offense) stunts the intellectual grow of said politician - he/she is not allowing himself/herself to challenge his/her intellectual beliefs, and often prevents said politician of addressing his/her shortcomings - be it knowledge of the subject or the precision of language.

When a well-known politician recently equated the mass detention camps for migrants on the US/Mexico border to "Concentration Camps", many rose to challenge her on the use of the term - a term heavily loaded with historical resonances. Her response to the challenges was (paraphrasing) "If these are not Concentration Camps, you tell me why not"; in other words, "I am right, and if you question it, the burden of proof is on you" - in other words, "don't look at me - the problem is yours"

This attitude also affects the unwillingness of some politicians to assume responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Every action has consequences, and those consequences are normally a mix of good and bad, because we are imperfect. But denying responsibility for the consequences of our actions or words is denying ourselves the possibility of learning, of growth.

This "denial of mistakes" (for lack of a better description) also leads to the formation of groups that rally around the same ideas, and often even to the denial of any fact that contradict their beliefs, creating what Peter Berger called "cognitive minorities"; groups that are not interested in hearing anything that challenges their own ideas, beliefs or understanding of reality.

I remember two stories (I don't know if they are real or not, but they make good examples). In one, a subject came in front of the Chinese Emperor with a new innovation technology. The Chinese Emperor asked him what he wanted for it. The subject responded "not much, and taking a chess board he says: I want one grain of wheat on the first square, double that amount on the second, double the amount of the secon ond the third and so on". The Emperor thought he was getting a bargain and accepted the deal. When trying to meet the price, he found out there was not enough wheat in the Empire to do it. He ordered the subject to be killed.

A second story is set in the Roman Empire during the reign of Constantine. A subject presented the Emperor with two pieces of glass on a wire structure. If used in fron of your eyes, it allowed you to see better. Constantine's answer? "The Emperor does not wish his subject to have better vision"

There are other stories to make the point, but it all comes down to the same... when we are unwilling to listen to the challenges to our own beliefs and ideas, we become intellectually (an humanly) poorer.

May our elected officials and our leaders and ourselves learn to listen to those who challenge us - for that is the true path of wisdom... "Mi Hu Chacham? HaLomed mikol Adam" - "who is wise? the one who learn from every person" (Pirkei Avot, Babylonian Talmud)

I welcome your comments. If you have any, please email me to execdirector@jewishaugusta.org.

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