Generous Orthodoxy  

Monday, March 24, 2008

Yahoo, Oprah, and a moral giant

I am revising this post and bringing it forward because it seems to me very important.

This post first appeared in November 2007. As indicated below, I was deeply impressed by Congressman Tom Lantos, chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee. I was amazed and saddened to read in January that Mr. Lantos had died of esophageal cancer only two months after the hearing that I describe below. Still more amazing (though, upon reflection, not surprising in view of Mr. Lantos' lifelong commitment to human rights) was the fact that he was the only Holocaust survivor ever to serve in Congress. An added item of interest is that he was one of those who survived through the heroic efforts of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.

Here is a slightly revised version of the earlier post. If you read it knowing that this Holocaust survivor was looking his own death straight in the face as he presided over the hearing, the story takes on a much greater power.

Let what you say be simply 'Yes' or 'No'; anything more than this comes from evil. (Matthew 5:37)

On November 7, 2007, on C-Span, I had an opportunity to watch a couple of hours of testimony in the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Our much-disrespected Congress is generally at its best in the hearings that it conducts, and this was an exceptional example.The subject was the harsh imprisonment in China of at least two (probably four) Chinese political dissidents whose plight is a direct result of the collusion of Yahoo with the Chinese government. (Yahoo has admitted fault in this regard in the case of two of the prisoners.) As Committee Chairman Tom Lantos quite angrily made clear, the testimony of Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang and Yahoo General Counsel Michael Callahan before the committee was extremely disappointing, to say the least. The two men were repeatedly asked, over a period of two hours, by Democrats and Republicans alike, to answer simply "yes" or "no" to various questions, and in no case were they ever able to do so. The fog of Orwellian circumlocution that they created around themselves made it impossible to discern any semblance of integrity or humanity on the part of either, let alone get answers to the questions. (If you saw only the clips on the evening news, you didn’t get the picture.)

In particular, Yang and Callahan were being asked why Yahoo, one of the most successful companies in the world, had done precisely nothing financially to compensate, or personally to comfort, the families of the two incarcerated and tortured prisoners. One prisoner's family was sitting directly behind Callahan and Yang in the hearing room. With some difficulty the Committee was able to extract the reluctant admission of Yahoo that they had not reached out to this family in any way, not even to shake their hands, not to mention financial help for the loss of their breadwinner. At the end, under the persistent tutelage of the various members of the committee--especially Chairman Lantos--Callahan, having finally grasped the fact that he was not making a good impression, attempted to restate his non-positions in order to be more responsive to the committee. Chairman Lantos sharply reprimanded him for being focused on placating the committee, rather than the Chinese family. He said to Callahan that he should examine his own conscience; and I quote: "Look into your own soul and look at the damage you have done to an individual and his the enormous damage your policies have created."

It was interesting to watch Jerry Yang, a relatively young man, absorbing the instruction of the committee. Obviously it is possible to achieve enormous success in the world of cyber-business without being a mature human being. Yang seemed mentally slow during most of the hearing. He hardly seemed to understand what he was being asked. He did not seem to grasp the fact that human suffering was involved. After an hour and a half of intense questioning it seemed that he was beginning to learn something. His answers at the ending seemed marginally more human and more humble than those of Callahan.

A powerful example in contrast to Yahoo has been offered by Oprah Winfrey. I have never been an Oprah fan, but her television conference a few days ago was a winner (again, if you did not see the whole thing, you could not get the full impression). Her apology for the sexual abuse that occurred at her South African girl's school was clear, forthright, thorough, passionate, and convincing. She followed the rule of "tell it early, tell it all, tell it yourself." She kept herself and her own feelings out of it almost entirely, turning what might have been a maudlin, self-pitying occasion into a soul-strengthening one. She used language flawlessly -- there were no cliches, no bromides, no evasions. She did not use the favorite saying of the evaders, "I take full responsibility." She did not need to say it. Instead, she showed that she had already assumed responsibility, by describing the decisive actions she has taken and by outlining the further measures she intends to take. It was an altogether sterling performance and should be watched by anyone who wants to know what genuinely remedial action looks like.