Saturday, May 23, 2009

On Speaking Truth to Power

Two things recently brought this topic to the forefront. One was the movie "The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell". This is a true story, about a highly-decorated World War I veteran who spoke out in the 1920's about the need to develop air power, and when nobody in the military would listen to him, he spoke out to the news media, knowing it would get him court-martialed. His position was there should be a separate branch of the armed services for the air force, that the air force should have its own academy, that more resources should be put into making flying safer, etc.

At the time the brass simply rejected him, laughed at him, and demoted him. Then after the press conference, they court-martialed him. An incredible moment happened during his cross-examination at the court-martial, when the hot-shot army lawyer asked him what bases would be vulnerable to an attack from the air, and he mentioned Pearl Harbor. Then the guy asked who might want to attack Pearl Harbor, and he said the Japanese. This court-martial was in 1925!

Billy Mitchell has of course since been elevated to the status of hero, but the point is that at the time he was laughed at and scorned.

The second instance was a United States Senator who spoke out againt the deregulation of the financial industry 10 years ago. I saw a clip of his speech, and it is eerie how accurate his predictions were as to the consequences we could face if the bill to deregulate would pass. Nonetheless, very few listened to him (the bill passed overwhelmingly), and look where we are now.

There are two lessons to be learned: 1) We should be willing to speak truth to power whenever the opportunity arises; and 2) When we do we will be scoffed at by the powers that be.

On a somewhat broader topic of speaking current truth as opposed to prophetic truth, we have the example of the appearance of Larry Wilkerson on "Hardball" yesterday. Larry Wilkerson was chief of staff for Colin Powell when Powell was Secretary of State. Wilkerson was responsible for working with Powell to prepare the presentation Powell made before the United Nations in support of invading Iraq. He now understands that this was based on completely bad intelligence, and he readily admits he feels "ashamed" (his word) for his involvement in this fiasco.

I say the world needs more people like Larry Wilkerson, people who aren't afraid to admit they screwed up. As the famous Jonathan Swift saying goes, "A man should never be ashamed to admit he is in the wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than yesterday."

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