Our Word Is Our Bond

03.02.02

 Currently the U.S. may decide to go to war with Iraq:

  • whether or not there is international agreement that such action is justified
  • whether or not there is United Nations support
  • whether or not conclusive evidence is discovered that Iraq is constructing and intending to use weapons of mass destruction and/or provide such to groups targeting the U.S. and other nations it views as threatening
  • whether or not the citizens of the U.S., the tax payers – the supposed, Ultimate Authority of the Land, feel that the weapons and soldiers they pay for should be deployed abroad to this purpose.

 For my own part, I can not grasp why we would want to get further involved in the Middle East. It seems that there are some significant troubles in the region which must be worked out by its inhabitants. To my observation, such troubles are the following. The first issue is that women have, to varying degrees, less opportunity available than almost anywhere else in the world. This is made apparent to them by means of media and reports of women who do go abroad and access to the internet now makes this reality acutely ever-present for any woman with access to the web. So without us inserting ourselves, the region is due for a significant cultural discussion and shift that will probably result in tensions and instability. Second, there are, seemingly, issues derivative of tyranny, violence, and instability of either a theocratic or militaristic nature that are entrenched in the military, political, and economic establishments of many of these countries for a long time – at least long enough that for most of their current citizens, such tyranny, violence, and instability is mostly all they’ve ever known – thus they may be desensitized to it. Third, wealth distribution is very uneven in some countries in the region, which can result in significant pent-up frustration and means there may be a large, listless population just itching for a fight. These reasons alone are enough to suggest that there are probably large segments of the population who are disgruntled and without means or a venue to better their community, their prospects, or themselves. Such a situation can lead to desperation which can lead to violence and revolution no matter the culture, ethnicity, or heritage of a society. Added to this are further complications, such as that other nations with as much wealth do not suffer the same problems or have already passed through their own civil insurrections and are now beyond those disruptive processes. In addition, it may in fact seem that foreign interests have long made great gains at the expense of the people’s of the Middle East, and so there may be a general, and justified, mistrust of outsiders, especially Western imperial powers interested in their oil. In summary, the area is ripe for a horrific regional war even if our Imperialistic aspirations are removed from the situation. Possibly the most significant catalyst for revolt is the fact that the fundamentalist forms of the predominant faith in the region are having a very difficult time reconciling their worldview with those of the people’s with which they engage in commerce. What makes this a significant catalyst is the aforementioned unequal distribution of wealth, tyranny, and lack of avenues to affect the situation or better one’s own circumstance, which make the more radical sects of the fundamentalist groups seem very appealing to people struggling to come to terms with their own difficult circumstances and any violence, inequality, or injustice they may have suffered.

 If this description of the situation is in fact accurate, I see involvement in the region as risky beyond justification. Any foreign intervention, no matter how well-intentioned, given the situation as described above, is likely to be seen in a suspicious light and strongly resisted. The intervening people are likely to be turned into a scapegoat for the region’s problems, which only temporarily distracts the inhabitants of the region from dealing with their actual institutional, civic, and economic difficulties. The risk to the invaders that this will end poorly is only increased when the invaders, calling themselves liberators and protectors, have a very mixed track record in the region, having offered ample reason over many generations for the citizens of Middle Eastern countries to doubt the genuineness of the invaders’ claimed good intentions — that their only interest is to facilitate amenable, healthy change, equality, and prosperity. To offer an example from our own history, I doubt a foreign body could have interjected itself into our own race tensions of the last two centuries without drawing the ire of all sides in the U.S. and affording us a common foreign enemy with which to delay the solving of our own race-related problems. Could you image if NATO used our race tensions, resistance to the equality movement, lynchings and violence, and the ensuing riots of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s as justification for invading the U.S. and establishing a peace-keeping and nation-building force while at the same time giving themselves preferential treatment and access to our natural resources? We, the citizens of the U.S., would have immediately and proudly engaged in gorilla warfare against the NATO occupiers and refused to accept any rule of law imposed by NATO. How much worse would it be if NATO did not go along with the idea and France or Britain had decided to take on the ‘humanitarian occupation’ of the U.S. as its unilateral mission? If this had happened, the U.S. would have declared war against the offending country and any allies. So why is it that we, the citizens of the U.S., and certainly the current Administration, seem blinded to this likely fate if we invade Iraq unilaterally without sufficient cause? Why does this not play as insanity and hubris here in the US? I think it comes from a fundamental difference in the organization of our society and the rest of the world.

 My speculation is that the difference has its very basis in certain aspects of the Protestant history of the United States, which is carried through, even today, in every aspect of our society. It has to do with how different denominations conceive of the relationship between intentions and actions.  To my knowledge, most, if not all denominations of Christianity in the U.S. teach that to sin is both to think and to act in a way deemed inappropriate or evil.  This notion stems from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount where he re-framed the Ten Commandments so that, for instance, not only is adultery a sin, but seriously and routinely entering thoughts of adultery is also a sin.  That is, it is possible to commit the sin in one’s heart and mind and that is just as evil and sinful as committing the act physically.

Some denominations interpret this in a strict sense and reason that the ultimate expression of one’s heart, one’s words, one’s mind, is taken to be one’s actions. The reasoning is that if you’re not indulging the thought you won’t commit the action because in the end, the thought will inevitably lead to the action. So by this reasoning, one’s actions are a reflection of what one’s thoughts and feelings truly are. Somehow, in some very popular denominations of Christianity in the U.S., this has been interpreted in a different, looser way.  Some Protestant denominations, especially some Fundamentalist and Evangelical denominations, have developed an alternate view of the relationship between intentions and actions.  In it, the relationship between thoughts and actions is considered to be more tenuous and actions are not considered as important as one’s intentions. “Salvation is through faith alone!”, I’ve often heard it said. If you don’t always act appropriately, this is forgiven by God — you are only human and fallible, after all. What is important is that you profess your belief in and obedience to the one Lord Jesus Christ, read the Scripture, and are thereby ‘Saved’ — and try one’s best to act right — the important thing is to be ‘saved’, which is about one’s orientation toward and acceptance of God, not about one’s behavior as proof of that orientation or acceptance.  In this view, one’s intentions can be good and one’s actions can be bad…or one can be saved but have both bad intentions and bad behavior.  In this view, actions do not inherently flow from intentions, and even poor intentions may be excused, because even if we have the right orientation toward God and have accepted God into our lives, our sinful nature and Satan intercedes to derail our good intentions. In summary, this view espouses that one’s actions are not as important as one’s intentions and sometimes even one’s poor intentions can be forgiven as long as one claims the right allegiance.

 I am not making a moral valuation as to the more correct interpretation of the Scripture but only asserting that there is, in my experience, this difference. It is the latter interpretation which I find to be thoroughly engrained in U.S. culture and which, compared to the ethics of most societies, is a bit of an outlier position — and therefore the source of our problem — namely, others don’t see things how we do and our view is the minority, extreme position in this case. 

In the United States, intention is everything, action not so much. This observation was really illuminated on a semester of study in Spain. The classes were not very difficult, we were, after all, there mostly to experience the Spanish culture. Still we had two classes a day for two three hours each. The first began at nine and ended at noon with a twenty minute break in the middle. The second began at three and ended at six with a twenty minute break also. Often people skipped classes. More often they showed up…but how! In the morning class many had only come in a few hours prior from a night of drinking, dancing, smoking, and hooking up. They showed up to class still hung over, wreaking of smoke and alcohol, yawning, sleeping in the seats, without assignments done. When asked how they enjoyed the local culture, typical responses were that, “…it’s okay – kinda cool, I guess – but the people are nicer and the food is better in the United States…” Many of them would eat at Burger King or McDonald’s or Kentucky Fried Chicken and hang out with other people from the U.S. After a particularly unapologetic exchange between the teacher and a student who’s stench of alcohol and cigarette’s was palpable from across the classroom and who had not done the assignment and was not even trying to apologize for not doing it or lie to smooth over his indiscretion, the teacher’s response was as follows:

 “Many people here do not really like U.S. citizens. I do and they don’t understand why. You are undermining my position when you behave this way. How can you come to a new place, try nothing, meet no one, hang out with only your own, and say you don’t like it? And how can you expect me to be nice to you and give you good grades when you don’t do your work? Or if you do, it is hastily and poorly done and you come into my class half-asleep, with hair uncombed, wreaking of alcohol, yawning and sleeping?”

 This made several students uncomfortable because, though one in particular was being brazen about it, several had not done their homework, had not yet bathed, and wreaked of the night before. The brazenness of the one student and the subsequent reprimand made them all feel reprimanded. So these upper-middle-class, good little Christian Southern boys and girls, suddenly uncomfortable for being called out on their inexcusable behavior, grinned their big southern grins and replied, “Aw, we don’t mean anything by it, we like you.”

 The teacher’s reply was powerful and gets at the core of my point. She responded that she doesn’t know what to think because they say they respect and like her and she’d like to believe them…but they show no respect for her, for her country, in which they are guests, for her class or her lessons, and seem not to care at all what impression they make as representatives of the United States of America.

 How can someone’s behavior be so egregiously inappropriate if that is not what they are thinking about? If it is not his/her intention to behave that way? The students were suddenly uncomfortable because someone with whom they had entered into a relationship of trust and obligation and mutual respect was calling them out for not following through on conducting their business and then expecting the other party to look the other way or cover for them. But more than that, she was pointing out that she found it hard to believe they could act this way without the actions being representative of their intentions. And if their behavior is in fact representative of their intentions, then their intentions are not good. Then their intentions are self-centered, exploitative, slovenly, and lacking In grace and dignity. And if that is the case, then they are no longer deserving of the respect and trust she had granted to them. They don’t want that sort of relationship, but they cannot have it both ways. Either both parties act with honest intent and respectfulness; or there is no basis for a social bond.

 The title of this musing is, Our Word is Our Bond. It arose from the contemplation of what exactly a bond is, specifically in relation to this issue of how intentions and actions are viewed in the U.S. and what it means that we want to invade another nation, maybe unilaterally, with uncertain justification — and that we want other nations and societies to accept what we are about to do because they can and should assume our infallibly good intentions and that they can take our word for it that the evidence to justify the action will emerge after the fact. (Just writing it makes it sound absurd.)  When a political or commercial body wishes to accomplish something for which it does not already have the means, if floats a bond. It, in essence, proceeds with its plan on borrowed money with the intention of paying it back at a later date. Bonds are not floated when the means of accomplishing the project are readily available. People don’t need to enter into relationships of trust and shared goals and risks with other people if they possess all of the means needed to act on their own. Bonds are like intentions between parties. To mean something, to really embody what they represent, there must be follow-through. We intend to pay you back, they say, in exchange for the opportunity to provide this service and reap the benefits of doing so. That one gets a bond is a sign that the bond holder trusts your intentions and trusts you to make your actions follow through on your intentions. Bonds are not given when the bond holder does not believe the actions will follow the intentions. If a bond is given when the bond issuer does not believe there will be follow-through, it is a red flag that corruption is occurring.

 In the US, our bond system is somewhat skewed in favor of intentions, just as in the predominant denominations of Protestantism in the U.S., it is our intentions which matter much more than actions. This notion is entrenched in U.S. history, culture, politics, and business. Much of the U.S. has been built upon bonds … and intentions… As to whether or not, after acquiring the bond, they are always paid off or dealt with appropriately, that is another story.  Plausible deniability is a clever deflection in the moment but it has a lose-lose end-game.  The same can be said, all too often, of intentions in the U.S. with respect to how we deal with other countries. In the U.S. it is the intention which matters most, not the follow-through, and we get very upset and self-righteous when our intentions are questioned. We are afforded to continually indulge this seemingly counter-productive behavior — this behavior of the junky (nod to Burroughs) — because we have so much political, economic, and military clout and opportunity. While internally, we may have come to accept that we can’t always follow through on political, economic, or social intentions, and we assume most people and organizations that fail to do so were well-intentioned, this attitude does not play as permissably in other parts of the world that do not enjoy our excesses of resources and opportunities. In fact, there are many places where actions are what matter most, in part because actions are considered the true indicators of intentions – not words. You see, while in the U.S., it is true that our word is our bond, in most of the world, our actions are our bonds. When viewed this way, we realize why we have a problem and why Iraq may go south on us real fast if we do not follow-through.

 For a long time, the U.S. has been allowed to negotiate its international interests based upon its intentions because its resources and might make it so that no one will complain too loudly to our faces. But that doesn’t mean they don’t realize each and every time we promise and don’t follow through or we deceive and then deny the agency to have delivered on what we said. That is, so far, many nations have enabled our bad habits and indulge our outlier belief that our word is our bond when in reality, as they see it, it is only our actions that matter. Though the world order is shifting and in time we will no longer be able to get away with playing by our own rules, we are not, as of yet, in a situation where our actions must match our intentions. Our economies of scale still give us a privileged position. There is still much debt we can accumulate on our intentions and speculations and people will indulge us because they have no other choice. Although, wouldn’t a truly ethical and decent people realign their behavior before our circumstances force us to do so?

 Few nations in the world have the luxury of acting this way, none certainly to the extent with which we employ it, and many whose very political, social, and religious views are in conflict with such a mode of negotiating the world. For them, such is not a viable or even a desirable strategy. When we export it…even force its upon others – when we demand that they enable us and tolerate our lack of follow through or our games and tricks and misdirection and our questionable belief that our character is derived from what we said, not what we did – we only increase feelings of resentment toward us.

 There is one other major contributor to our using this mode of operation; that is, if we have developed a bad habit, it is not entirely our fault – our environment did contribute to it. Through our first few hundred years as a nation there were always more lands and resources to the West. Thus if our intentions failed to result in desired actions – or if we were dishonest – we could recuperate or at least disperse the loss and start anew by means of opening up new veins for consumption (another nod to burroughs) and striking out to form new networks with people who don’t know about our past indiscretions. In essence, our word (intention) is our bond (contract of trust, support, and resources in exchange for action) and that has been good enough to move the entire enterprise forward because our nation’s abundance blunted the impact of a failure to follow-through. When there has been follow-through, it is ‘icing on the cake.’

 We are now contemplating invading people who have not enjoyed our abundance, who do not feel the same leeway to not follow through with action on their intentions, whose culture does not divorce action from intention, who see action as a true reflection of intention, and whose history with us has taught them that we cannot be trusted. For them, our intentions are not good enough and our actions are likely to be a very mixed blessing/curse. I do not think the current Administration, or many Americans, realize the gravity of the situation — of how valuable and delicate is that trust – if it exists at all, on the part of the Iraqis. I hope for our sake that we do more than offer the right intentions. I hope we have actions to back up the bond we are taking out with the Iraqi people and that we realize that our actions must be our bond.

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