I had lunch with an old friend on Tuesday. Like me, he was trained first as an engineer then as a public administrator, and spent most of his career working for the fire service in local government. He recently retired to accept a new position with a Fortune 100 company.
Over a very nice lunch, we discussed our common interests and experiences of feeling more than a bit disillusioned of late with the career we had chosen. Still passionate about public service, my friend noted that few of our colleagues seemed to be aware that the situation in which they find themselves these days is very much of their own making.
By the end of our conversation, the topic had shifted from work to life in general. My friend is Iranian. His parents sent him to the U.S. as a boy of sixteen to study out of fear for his safety if he stayed in his homeland after the Shah was deposed. (My friend, like me, tends to be more than a little outspoken, a trait his father feared would mark him with the authorities.) When he finished college, he helped his parents emigrate to the U.S. to join him.
His observations about the state of affairs in the Middle East and the U.S. role shaping the changes in his native land intrigued me. We agreed that the situation in which the U.S. finds itself with Iran and so many other hostile states in the region is largely of our own making.
It occurred to me later that the U.S. and firefighters have a lot in common this way. They both think pretty highly of themselves. They both know they have flaws, but do not seem to see them reflected when they look at themselves in a mirror. Many firefighters and many U.S. leaders alike take their influence for granted. They presume they deserve the respect and admiration of others to such an extent that they have difficulty understanding why anyone does not revere them, much less give them everything for which they ask.
As the U.S. looks upon the situation in the Middle East, what they see situations adapting according to their own rules and needs, not our national will. To be certain, people in many Arab nations are embracing democratic principles, pluralism and tolerance, values we purport to cherish. But not universally.
In many of these nations, democracy is not simply a question of individual liberty and respect for human rights. Achieving a balance of power means something much more difficult and delicate there than it does here. Balance must be achieved not only among co-equal branches of government or between the government, civil society and corporate interests or between secular civil society and competing or conflicting religious traditions and their peculiar institutional strictures and structures, but among all of these, all at once.
Our society can trace its democratic traditions back more than 200 years. Persian society, as just one example, can trace the emergence of democratic ideals in its literature, culture and customs back more than two thousand years. Clearly, we do not have that market cornered.
Whether we are wondering about the future of democracy in the Middle East or the sustainability of local and state government finances in the United States, we have to ask ourselves not only what we see but what perspective gives us the impression we perceive as reality. Not long ago, someone told me an old joke with a slightly new twist: “An optimist looks at the glass and says, ‘It’s half-full!’ A pessimist looks at the same glass and says, ‘It’s half-empty.’ An engineer looks at the glass as well and says, ‘It’s twice as big as it needs to be.’”
As engineers, my friend and I agree about quite a lot, both in respect of the situation in our chosen profession and our view of world affairs. In both cases, we feel obliged to help others see these problems differently. Engineering is not just a way of evaluating alternative solutions to problems, it’s also about the ways we define the problems themselves.
As we parted after our meal, we both left feeling satisfied not only with the quality of the meal we enjoyed, but also with the quality of the company and conversation we shared. Perhaps more importantly, we left one another confident that we just might avoid making matters worse if we’re willing to be patient enough and astute enough and open enough to our own faults to accept the things we cannot change by ourselves.