Uncle Shhh

How big government squelches sensible discussion

Issue: "Quayle's presidential bid," June 19, 1999

Three vignettes have tumbled through my mind in recent days. Can you identify the common thread?

Scene 1. A small business with which I'm acquainted employs a competent and likable fellow who is a U.S. Army veteran from the Persian Gulf years-and now active with the Army Reserve. The business's manager would like to promote this young man to a more responsible position, confident that he has earned a new level of responsibility and the increased pay that goes with it.

But there's a problem. The promotion involves so much responsibility that the young man simply won't be able to keep up with his new assignment if he continues his pattern of taking two or three months a year for Army Reserve duties. Federal law requires an employer to preserve both position and pay level for a Reserve member, and in this case, the employer is supportive of that requirement. For several years, he's happily complied with that standard.

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But now, he's in a dilemma. On the one hand, he could keep trundling along with the present situation-and with no gripes. On the other hand, he'd like to offer the promotion-but only with the understanding that his employee would set aside the regular military absences. Yet, even to suggest such an arrangement to his employee runs the risk of running afoul of a well-intentioned law. It's even possible the employee could sue him for discrimination if the employer proposed anything like a quid pro quo. The employer doubts if his employee actually would sue; but he's not totally sure.

End result: The young man is probably stuck without the promotion, and doesn't even get a chance to discuss it with his boss.

Scene 2. Another businessman I know quite well, since I am that businessman, employs several categories of people. Included are some-like writers and editors-whose belief systems are critical in their work. Also included are some-like mailroom packers-who could theoretically be profane pagans and still do at least some of their work quite well.

While we will naturally insist in our workplace that those who shape editorial opinion must be mature Christians, we have regularly asked whether the same rule must apply throughout the company. Do we not risk sinking deep into a ghetto, losing all contact with some who need to see the gospel worked out in the workplace?

But suppose now that I knowingly employ an openly unbelieving book packer who over the next couple of years goes on to do a sterling job in her position. She sets new standards for excellence

in her performance on the job. Then, three years from now, her supervisor quits, leaving an important vacancy. Will I promote someone who rebels against all I think is important to that new supervisory role? Not on your life. But if I don't, I'm open to a costly discrimination suit.

End result: I don't hire the woman in the first place, making me appear even more discriminatory than I want to.

Scene 3. In half a dozen conversations over the last year with exceedingly sharp representatives of the U.S. Armed Forces, including a week-long visit last June at the Army War College, I've been struck with the bluntness of various men and women as they criticized both the conduct and the policies of their highest leaders, including their commander in chief. Few of the mid- to upper-level officers seem to have either agreement with or respect for the decisions shaping the world these days-including the recent conduct of the war in Kosovo and Yugoslavia. But everything they've said had to be "off the record."

So what's also struck me is that here we have men and women who have pledged nothing less than their lives to preserve our nation-and I believe them in that commitment-but who at the same time seem unwilling to risk their careers to speak out against policies they privately disdain. Yes, I understand how deeply ingrained in the military's scheme of things are both loyalty to the chain of command and the subordination of the military to civilian leadership. Yet having acknowledged those worthy values, does there not come a time when truth is more important than all else?

Easy for me to say? Of course. My own career isn't threatened when I open my mouth to yap about hard issues.

What's common to all three circumstances is that the nature of government stifles rather than promotes open discussion. Granted, you could probably find similar sketches from any walk of life-pictures including the use of corporate power to squelch open discussion, illustrations from academia where frank pursuit of fact falls victim to political correctness, and examples from ecclesiology where tradition trumps truth.

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