Friday, June 02, 2006

The Idiot

Friday afternoon, minutes to closing. I'm sick, trying to supervise my company via e-mail. Then I learn that someone has committed a devastating error: he has e-mailed proprietary internal information to all our customers, instead of our publications.

I am surrounded by idiots!

Two people checked this. One was less experienced than the other, his oversight is forgivable. But the other, who has been setting up this routine e-mail for five years, what is his excuse?

I would like to put him in front of a firing squad, then have the squad shoot and miss killing him, the way the French did in Madrid when Napoleon invaded Spain.

(People talk about the "cruel Spanish," but no one ever mentions the round-the-clock summary executions by the French in Madrid, with firing squads so exhausted that they routinely missed and left people bleeding to death for as long as three days.)

OK, so I won't execute anybody.

Instead, let me ponder the idiot for a moment. The Greek idiotes had nothing to do with the 19th- and early 20th-century common word for a condition now called "profound mental retardation."

To the Greeks, the word was more closely connected with the name that Sigmund Freud gave to the unconscious center of very basic, visceral desires, such as hunger, rage, and sex. I'm referring, of course, to the Id.

(Yes, yes, the Greeks didn't develop scientific theory about the unconscious, but their art and culture showed an intution of it, much as Fyodor Dostoevsky explained guilt with pristine clarity 40 years before Freud came along. This is why Nietzsche was absolutely right in calling Greece the cradle of every archetype in Western thought. But I digress.)

The Greeks believed that democracy could only thrive if people participated in public life and concerned themselves with the interests of the community. Those who focused too intensely on their own self-interests without regard for the commonwealth were called, you guessed, idiotes. The selfish idiot made bad decisions for the community and eventually his incompetence is what stuck to the word, instead of the original selfishness.

The ancient Greek sense of an idiot explains perfectly well what is going on in our economy and our society. Everywhere incompetence reigns supreme, from the White House to the tradesmen that service your house.

Indeed, yesterday a military helicopter crash in perfectly good weather killed four people in Georgia. So I searched for military helicopter crashes and got over 4.8 million hits. Crashes in Georgia, in Iraq, in California, everywhere.

There's even a Web site for military humor with a whole category of jokes about helicopter crashes!

Based on an actual 1995 purchase by the Royal Air Force of Chinook helicopters similar to the one crashed in Georgia, I'm guessing that each one of these babies costs about $60 million.

So, ha, ha, funny, a group of 20-somethings piloting the craft, or a group of 40-somethings who built it or maintained it, just wasted $60 million of our tax dollars! (And let's not forget the human loss.)

When you observe the self-serving leadership and the self-serving tradesmen and the self-serving military incompetents and all the idiotes that seemingly have taken over, is it such a mystery that everything is going so wrong everywhere?

At the core, incompetence flourishes because we have lost attentiveness to detail, caring, pride in one's work, or a genuine interest in the effect of one's behavior on the community at large. The citizenry and the mass of employees have become atomized Ids, looking after their primal urges and little else.

The company be damned, the taxpayer be screwed, the nation go to hell, the world ... the world doesn't even exist to the Id.
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