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The Land Where No One's to Blame


Washington. -- School is out. Children large and small are bringing report cards home, touting good grades as examples of their brilliance and bad ones as someone else's fault. It's either the teacher, the principal, the other children or the whole rotten school system.

They have learned well. They have had their eyes and ears tuned to the voices of America and absorbed the country's utter disdain for responsibility. "It's not my fault" is the theme song of countless millions of people and organizations.

It's everywhere. Just listen for its irresistible, haunting melody. It's not my fault that the company lost the contract or my competitor just stole away my market. It's not my fault the mail isn't sorted on time or a phone message has been lost. It's not my fault the customer walked away angry or my work isn't in on time.

The Democrats still blame the Willie Horton commercial for their loss in 1988, not their own out-of-touch economics and politics. Richard Nixon blames his resignation on the fact that he didn't destroy the tapes, not the damning evidence on them. In politics, there is no end to no-fault thinking.

Corporate America is rampant with no-faultism. The words of John Akers, the top man at International Business Machines, are still ringing in the ears of IBM's employees.

Not long ago, he told a group of managers there were too many people standing around the water cooler and not enough serious thinking and innovating by a company suddenly in trouble.

One wonders what took Mr. Akers so long to recognize what many experts have long perceived. One wonders why a manager of one of the United States' premier companies doesn't bear responsibility for the attitude that pervades his organization. One wonders whether Mr. Akers should not have kicked himself first, since he was in charge when the IBM slide began.

It was not uplifting to hear an extraordinary interview on Ted Koppel's "Nightline" with the chief executives of the three indigenous American automobile manufacturers. They sounded genuinely hurt that Americans had not perceived that their cars had improved to the point that they were nearly equal, if not equal, to the Japanese.

When Mr. Koppel showed them interviews with customers who expressed unhappiness with their cars, they fell back on the "perception" argument. And how did they propose to change these perceptions? Limit the import of Japanese cars. More quotas. They were saying: "It's not our fault the industry is in the tank, it's the people's fault. They're too dumb to understand reality."

Grant them credit for improving quality, but not too much. Any other course would have been suicide. But one wonders: With the rather obvious perception prevailing that Japanese cars are "better" than American cars, why did the automakers stop at merely being close to the Japanese? Why not an all-out plan to leapfrog the technology and quality of today's U.S. cars to the truly superior "car of tomorrow"?

But automakers are no different from most people. A "victim mentality" runs through most of American society, and those with a difficulty first seek help from others without relying on their own resources, or perhaps correcting their shortcomings. People out of work usually blame the recession, even if they've never taken the trouble to improve their skills.

Inner-city poverty is a complex problem not easily reduced to simple ideas, but examples abound of impressive neighborhood improvement when local citizens decide enough is enough. The same goes for school systems, or any other institution or group of people in trouble.

No-faultism is so alluring because it can be enriching if you have power. Corporate executives in the 1980s justified huge salary increases, even when their companies weren't performing, by telling themselves they personally did outstanding jobs. Their profits were down, they said, because of other forces, such as an industry downturn, high interest rates or a bad climate on Wall Street.

Any close observer of government will see no-faultism practiced in its most sophisticated form. The White House chief of staff, John Sununu, justified his chauffeured limousine trip to New York, where he attended a stamp auction, on grounds that he made a lot of official telephone calls on the way up. Just let him go to China on a personal trip, and think of all the phone calls he can make.

Ask former President Reagan about the huge debt he rang up during the 1980s, and, if he remembers it, he will blame it on everyone but himself. Ask the Democrats about it, and they will deny any culpability. It's all Mr. Reagan's fault, they will tell you.

Then there's George Bush's education program. It has many good ideas, but the president has set it up so that if it fails and schools continue to perform badly, it isn't his fault. He blames the problems of the schools on "society" and television, broken homes and dysfunctional families, on big forces not so easily identifiable.

And that's our real disease in this country. It's never us, it's "them," and usually that "them" is a nebulous array of unconsciously invented demons that prevent us from looking within, where often the real fault lies.

William R. Neikirk is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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