Company Policy

This will be sort of a departure from what I normally write on here, but every so often you read something that begs to be passed on. In this case, it is Lewis Lapham’s “Notebook” (subscription required to read, sorry) from the July issue of Harper’s magazine. The title of this particular Notebook column was “Company Policy,” and it began with a quote from John Milton, “There is no art that hath been more canker’d in her principles, more soyl’d, and slubber’d with aphorisming pedantry then the art of policie.” Wow, that was a mouthful. Lapham uses the quote as a stepping stone to a very thoughtful analysis of the NYPD shooting of Sean Bell. That case has been covered extensively elsewhere, but to refresh your memory, as I’m sure you read about it, it was the case where four undercover NYPD officers unloaded 51 rounds into an unarmed man during his bachelor party. Of course there are more details than that, but those’ are the basics.

After a juryless trial, the presiding judge cleard the officers of any misdoing, citing the real source of the problem as the *policy* (or policies) of the NYPD that allowed the officers to engage a “suspect” in the manner they did. From here, Lapham segways into a discussion of the Iraq war, and points out that on both sides of the aisle, the discussion is on whether or not the policies (there’s that word again) leading into, and executed during, the Iraq war were appropriate. Did we have enough troops? Did we mobilize properly? Etc., etc. As with the Bell case, there was no discussion of fundamental rightness or wrongness. Was it wrong that Bell lost his life? Was it (and is it) wrong that thousands of American troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis lost (and continue to lose) their lives? Not the correctness or merit of the policies that led to those outcomes, but the actual rightness (or wrongness) of the outcomes themselves.

I’m reminded of the International Bill of Human Rights first article, All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. There is no discussion here of policy. It’s a simple fact that people have rights. I like to think they have the right not to be killed. That sits sort of fundamentally in my mind. Laws are, in many cases, a very necessary thing. But when policy replaces morality, something is wrong. When kids are killing other kids in schools, the question “how did this happen?” is not a question of rules and laws, but of morality and ethics. When the only reason that you have for not killing someone is that it is against the law (or the rules), that is a problem. That is the definition of a sociopath. I’m not sure what the word would be when applied to a government or a group, but the idea is the same. Amoral, I suppose. Better certainly than immoral, I think, since it’s not about being against or opposed to anything. It’s really about an absence. These discussions of policy never mention what is right or wrong. They eschew that sort of gray area they way a politician always avoids that uncomfortable area where actually using his (or her) brain and his (or her) moral compass is required. I suppose it’s not surprising that the only bill that ever seems to pass through Congress with universal support is the one that raises their salaries.

I watched “V for Vendetta” again the other night. Every time I watch that movie, I get more out of it. It’s a movie for our time, certainly. More than anything else, I realized after watching that movie and reading Lapham’s article within a few days of each other, the movie is about what happens when policy replaces choice. Policy is not a substitute for choice, because policy is simply a set of rules. Policy is something a computer can follow. And choice, well choice is what makes us human.

I think that’s enough heavy lifting for one morning. I thought about trying to tie this back in some way into sport or something more similar to what I normally right here. But I won’t. I will say that thinking about this makes me feel incredibly lucky. My life, my world, my profession, really all that I do is determined by what I choose to do. And that is quite astounding. I have a choice. And when you consider how many people do not – or have that choice taken away – it makes you pause and simply say, “Thank you.”

One thought on “Company Policy

  1. Good one… There’s another thing to add to morality and ethics… common sense. Just. Do. Good.V for Vendetta… I love that movie… gets your brain moving.

    Like

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