Wednesday, November 28, 2007




Have you ever noticed how much easier it is for some people to see the faults of other’s than it is to see their own? I was listening to one of my neighbors talking to my wife one day. She was gossiping about another neighbor. She said, "Girl, she is the nosiest woman I’ve ever seen. I was watching her out my bedroom window the other day. The gas man pulled up, and she was peeping through her drapes trying to see whose house he was going to." It was all I could do to keep from laughing in her face. Here she was, peeping at another woman peeping, then calling the woman she was peeping at nosy–and she completely missed the hypocrisy in that. But that’s the way people are, and not just older people. I first became aware of this flaw in human nature when I was in the kindergarten, believe it or not. We had just finished eating and it was nap-time. I wasn’t sleepy, so I was spending the time eyeballing the room, when suddenly I heard Katrina Millsap saying, "Miss Kikuchi, Eric’s got his eyes open." Katrina was a beautiful child, but even then I recognized that a career in brain surgery was definitely not in her future.

I referred to this blind spot as a flaw, but as I’ve gotten older, I now realize that it’s not a flaw at all—actually, it’s an example of God’s compassion, and his grace. While it’s necessary for us to recognize our flaws in order for humanity to improve as a species, in order for us to both gain that knowledge, and at the same time, maintain our sense of self-esteem, God had the good sense to allow us to recognize human flaws, but only as reflected through others. That’s yet another example of the genius of God’s design. If we saw our own shortcomings with the clarity that we see the shortcomings of others, we’d be so self-conscious and depressed that we wouldn’t be able to hold our heads up. That’s why I taught my kids to always remember, before you point your finger at others, you should smell it first. Well, the fact is, I just sniffed my own finger, and I don’t like what I smell.

Every week I sit up in the comfort of my den and point my finger at Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and Democrats in general. I accuse them of sitting back and allowing Bush and Cheney to drag this country through the mud with impunity. In spite of the fact that I wrote an article entitled "Don’t Preach Me a Sermon, Live Me One", every week, just like a preacher, I come to this page with a sermon about how cowardly our representatives are, and how they’re selling the people out by putting their political careers ahead of what’s in the best interest of the people. That’s been very easy for me to do, because I don’t have anything to lose. But now I’m faced with a situation where I do have something to lose, and the ramifications of actually having to live the sermon that I’m so quick to preach.

The fact is, I’m not one of those people who’s been afforded the luxury of just kicking back and making a comfortable living through my intellectual productivity. I’m, literally, a man of the people. I have a 9 to 5 just like you—if you’re one of the lucky ones. When I’m not sitting on my high horse, I work for a government agency--an agency that the people of this country are intimately dependant upon. Yet, in spite of all my holier than thou pontification, I’ve sat back and watched that agency cut your throats on a daily basis—and needlessly, just so a handful of bureaucrats can save a dollar, look good on paper, and pad their bonuses that measure into multiple thousands of dollars. As I pontificate, I’m watching millions suffer for the benefit of a few. But I do have a defense. There’s a difference between my not speaking out and congress not speaking out—because in this case, we’re not talking about Pelosi’s job, we’re talking about mine.

I’d been very successful in keeping this hypocrisy in that comfortable blind spot that our minds reserve for such matters. Then, a couple of things happened, that for some reason, shock me out of my comfort zone. First, a gentleman called me who was very distressed over the hardship he’d sustained as a result of our reckless failure to follow through on a service that should have been routine. Then on that very same day, a citizen was distressed enough to take the time to come up to the agency and request to speak with a specific supervisor. Thereafter, the supervisor was paged to the window, by name. But this particular supervisor just happened to be in a discussion with a friend at the time. I noticed that while she was being repeatedly paged, she was laughing and talking, and didn’t even look up. They continued to page her for 15 minutes, until finally another supervisor responded. But by that time it was too late. The person got tired of waiting and left.

It was clear to me why the supervisor didn’t respond, I had discussed it with her manager the day before. She knew that the shortcuts she was taking to save money, and the way she was running her unit was causing the public a severe hardship, so she’d made it a point to avoid speaking to the public at all costs. She’d made it a personal policy to avoid taking ownership for her purposeful irresponsibility.

I decided at that point that the situation was unconscionable, and something had to be done. I could no longer hide behind the fact that I was repeatedly referring these issues up the chain of command. But what should I do? What’s more important, my livelihood, or my self-respect? That’s a hell of a dilemma. In theory, my course was clear, but the consequences of reality are much more biting than the ethical abstractions that I discuss in my columns. But if I relegate my punditry to the realm of simple abstractions that are impractical in the real world, what’s the sense of even writing? So I was caught. The very same logic that I’ve always been so wedded to had come back to bite me. The bottom line was--either I should act on the courage of my convictions, or I should shut up.

In the end, however, there were two things that ultimately determined my course of action. First, everything I do is documented and archived for my grandchildren. When my grandchildren get old enough to want to know who I was as a person, I don’t want them to have to depend on anecdot al accounts, I want them to have a written record of who I was, so they’ll know what I stood for–and I want the record of this incident to show that character counts. I want them to know that I consider character as one of the most important things in life—in fact, so important that I’m willing to fall on my sword to get that message across. When they’re reading this account, I want them to know that while riches, honors, and positions can be given, and/or conferred upon you by man, no man, or institution, can confer or take away, your wisdom, knowledge, and integrity. So seek to enhance those qualities, and protect them dearly. Because in the final analysis, that--and only that--is the measure of a human being. If you keep that in mind, you'll never be intimidated by any man.

The second thing that has determined my approach to this matter, is my firm belief that everything that happens, happens for a reason. When I was growing up I fell victim to all of the corrupting influences that this society has hoisted upon our community. As a result, I was less than an ideal student. Due to the influence of drugs, a troubled home-life, and the many other distractions in the Black community, I only got snippets of an early education, but I’ve learned to trust those snippets, because they’ve served me well. Thus, I see it as more than a coincident that I just happened to be wide awake the day that they taught civic responsibility. The odds against my not only showing up at school, but being fully alert, the day my civics teacher quoted Edward R. Murrow as saying "A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves", were tremendous. That coincident alone was enough to convince me that these people just weren’t meant to get away with what they’re doing to this community.

So I emailed the head of the agency (a Black man, I’m ashamed to admit) and described to him what took place with his supervisor, and suggested some changes that needed to be made. He got back with me, and we set up a meeting in his office. He invited the area manager, and we discussed, basically, what I’ve pointed out in this article. The area manager indicated that I should have gone through the chain of command. I responded by pointing out that the problem is in the policies that’s being put into place at the top, so the chain of command wasn’t the solution. In fact, the chain of command is part the problem, because it’s giving the those at the top layers of the bureaucracy others to hide behind. What’s been happening is the agency would cut corners irresponsibly, and do everything it could get away with to save money, then when all hell starts breaking loose as a direct result, they’d go into damage control mode and act like they’re shocked at what was going on. They would then pretend to address the issue by replacing the manager, who was simply following instructions. Then when things cooled they'd put that same manager back in place, or in many cases even promote him.

We’ve had six (6) managers in the past year and a half as a result of that kind of scapegoating. That not only avoids truly addressing the problem, but makes things worse, because everybody is on a continuous learning curve. It also breeds inefficiency, because as soon as a manager puts his policies into place and begin to get a feel for the unit, he’s replaced. In addition, it lowers employee morale, because the employees are constantly having to adapt to new people, and new ways of doing things. The only way that things are going to change is to remove plausible deniability from the people at the top. They need to be held accountable for their actions. So I pointed out during the meeting that if they didn’t address the issue that I was going to take the matter to Congressman Henry Waxman, Chairman of the Government Oversight and Reform Committee—and I meant it (reference my article on never trying to fight half a fight–once you commit, go for broke).

That meeting took place two weeks ago. The head of the agency requested that he be given a couple of weeks to address the issue, but I think he’s just pressing for time (he’s due to retire at the end of the year). Since the meeting a lot of pressure has been put on me—I was sent home for a week without pay, I’m no longer allowed to address public complaints, (which was my job for the past eight years), and I’ve been relegated to doing menial assignments. They’re also saying I’m not a "team player." But the fact is, I’m the ultimate team player—they’re just on the wrong team.

America is indeed under siege, but our greatest enemy can’t be defeated by the valor of our troops. This most insidious enemy that American faces can only be defeated through millions of acts of courage by millions of ordinary citizens–because America’s greatest enemy is within.

So stay tuned for further developments. The head of my agency thinks he’s going to get away clean by going into retirement. That may or may not be true. But while he may get away with his bonuses and his tidy little retirement, I can guarantee you one thing—if he doesn’t fix this situation before he leaves, he won’t get away without everyone in this community knowing how he cut their throats. And mark my word, when the citizens he was trusted to serve find out what they’ve endured for no good reason, they’re gonna be mad as hell.

Eric L. Wattree

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