Chapter 12

Jesse had just finished a review of two projects that were conducted by teams of students in Taiwan and Slovenia. The team in Slovenia had done an excellent job researching the Soviet influence on modern school curricula and what the young generation of politicians were doing to establish a new blend of Slovenian culture and national pride. William Tweedie planned to give them an award for their work. "Every one of these glory stories," he had told Jesse in private, "is another gaping hole in the arguments of those asshats who tried to bug you, and the guys in Poland. We're winning, Jesse. We're winning."

For Jesse's entire life, he had been told that there were winning sides and losing sides. Good and evil. The right way and the wrong way. He had often wondered what it felt like to be on the other side. Weren't the evil guys just fellows who happened to come to a different conclusion; guys who thought that they, in turn, were on the right side and that everyone else was wrong? When he went to college, Jesse learned a great deal about argument, debate, and premises. A premise was an assumption, a leg that you used to prop up the argument that followed. If you bet on the wrong premises, a skilled opponent would crush you. Some folks would perform the most graceful and complicated verbal gymnastics in order to save face. They were wrong, and they sensed it, but they would perry and dodge their way out of the fight. This was a favorite strategy of politicians. They would never admit obvious, well-known truths that would make them vulnerable, and thus they would put forth a flowery stream of words that diverted the conversation from genocide in Africa to the charming notion that their grandmother's coffee shop sold the best cookies on Third Street, and that's why America is the place where every kid should grow up.

The problem with all of this, though, was that smart people could construct a reasonable-sounding argument for any old thing. Unless it was a cut-and-dried subject, or perhaps a problem on which rigorous science could be brought to bear, it was probably too complicated to fully understand. Is it better to follow the Keynesian school of economics, or is the Austrian school the One True Way Forward? Can a mixed economy sustainably deliver the free market that we worship and the services that we've come to enjoy? Politicians wrangle about these ideas endlessly, and each will break down your door to tell you that he's found the One True Way Forward.

The only answer for Jesse was to drop a moral anchor made up of the few things that you really cared about and let the chips fall where they may. Those few things are what makes a person, and it's a miserable man who tries to live in a way that's out of sync with them.

Some people, left to their own devices, have no problem causing injury to other people who they will never meet. The ability to separate ourselves from the suffering in the world is a vital survival tool, but it also gives rise to indifference. When the world of each person was small, interactions with unfamiliar people usually led to violence or avoidance. Even when the world grew larger and more industrious, people dealt locally. They saw the impact of their decisions, and they felt the repercussions of their mistakes. When the world grew large enough that individuals could move freely from one place to another, and to begin a new life in a new place without the knowledge of any previous acquaintance, the conditions were right for organizations of individuals to pride themselves on growing wealthy and powerful on the misfortune of millions. Without the ability to look their victims in the eye, their evolutionary sense of altruism that had developed over tens of millions of years in the forests and open plains was snuffed out, lacking the stimulus that it needed in order to guide them.

Someone had to watch the watchers. To watch the centers of power. Not only was it likely that those in power would be tempted to allow its scope and potency to creep and grow, but history had delivered the unalloyed verdict that it was inevitable. One societal power structure after another had rendered its version of justice and its vision for progress, and one after another had tumbled. We have learned many lessons, and modern power tends to live longer and hide its bad deeds more effectively. As power learned how to act in public, though, its watchers needed to learn to read between the lines. They needed to learn its whims, its ambitions, and the patterns in its expression. By staying one step ahead, the watchers could give the power an immune system. A means of keeping it honest. A means of giving its hand a reason to follow its mouth.

Jesse felt strongly that investigative journalism was the key antidote, or at least one of them, for the world's political struggles. Without a press that was willing to dig in, ask questions that make politicians incredibly uncomfortable, and be willing to rock the boat, there was no check on power.

The same can be said about the day-to-day decisions of everyday citizens. The ordinary person on the street had neither the means nor the motivation to learn whether the merchant who sold him his lunch paid a fair price for the raw ingredients. Or whether the merchant bought from suppliers who he knew to be ethical. Were the men who harvested the beans for his coffee that morning slaves, or were they honest men working for other honest men who made a living for themselves? The separation between people that led to abuses was not the exclusive province of the rich and powerful. It was not only the merchants and the owners of land and resources. Each decision during the day of the average man has consequences. This is the result of the division of labor that enabled society to make vast strides in production, health, and quality of life.

When a man or woman picks up a piece of fruit in a market and savors its flavor, that transaction reinforces the chain of events and exchanges that carried the fruit to that place. There are billions upon billions of such exchanges that happen each day, and the conscientious man demands accountability in the chains that he encounters. His desire for ethical expression, the chance to make the world a more perfect place, gives him pause. It is investigative journalism that meets this demand.