Sunday, April 12, 2009

Conflict of Commitments

In today's Slate, Emily Bazelon makes mention of the fact that the Obamas' new Portuguese Water Dog, is not, in fact, a shelter rescue. One of the lessons she takes away from this is:

Moving to Washington means that powerfully persuasive people take you on little jaunts away from your modest and principled intentions--jaunts that seem harmless, but exert a symbolic power of their own.

The fact that the Obamas did not get a dog from a shelter highlights the basic squeeze that they put themselves in throughout this process - committing both to a particular breed and to getting the dog from a shelter. This raised a simple question - what would they do if the breed they wanted wasn't available in a shelter? Much of the commentary on the Obamas' choice of canine pointed out the fact that the breeds they were looking at weren't likely to be found in shelters, but the issue was never really brought front and center. Which was appropriate - we, and the first family, have bigger problems to worry about.

But now, rather than worrying about the lessons this teaches or getting caught up in trivial criticisms (which are likely coming, and likely quite loudly), perhaps commentators would do us all the favor of pointing out that it's really very easy to make two pledges that will be really hard to abide by at once, and using this as a non-problematic way of pointing out some of the other areas in which we commit to things that wind up in conflict with each other.

An example (apropos of nothing) - commitments to both, say, working with international bodies and maintaining national sovereignty. There will be times when these ideas are in harmony, but since nothing links them, there will be times in which they are in conflict, and so priorities are going to have to be set, necessarily angering boosters of the lower priority.

Or, as another more personal example, committing to both invest in energy-saving technology, and to put more money in one's savings account.

There's nothing wrong with making such commitments, but it's also to be up front about which one takes a back seat, if push comes to shove. Otherwise you run the risk of reality making you appear to be a hypocrite. Or making you teach lessons you hadn't intended.

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