‘It’s a done deal!’♦
(and other delusions of wishful thinking)
“Why are your contributors still debating the merits of moving the Barnes Foundation to Center City?” several people have asked me lately. “It’s a done deal! Let’s move on!”
I understand this logic. Pennsylvania officials have applied the same reasoning in responding to critics of casino gambling in Philadelphia: Our elected state legislators have settled the issue, so why discuss it further?
Since he invaded Iraq in 2003, George W. Bush has used the same argument to rally support for his war. (That is, “Why debate whether we should be in Iraq? We’re already there. It’s a done deal!”) It was used by Israel when it encouraged hundreds of thousands of Israelis to create “facts on the ground” by settling within the previously Arab West Bank. (“How can we turn the West Bank over to Palestinians when so many Israelis live there? It’s a done deal!”)
The “done deal” argument was used by abortion advocates after Roe v. Wade, by segregation advocates after Plessy v. Ferguson, and by slavery advocates after the Dred Scott decision. In each case it was presumed that a Supreme Court decision would settle the issue once and for all, but the opposite occurred, because ultimately “done deals” don’t cure the queasy feeling that persists in people’s stomachs regardless of what their leaders tell them. On the contrary, “done deal” logic tends to stiffen resistance to the deal at hand, as Pontius Pilate discovered 2,000 years ago. (“Why are you people still worshipping this guy? He’s dead! It’s a done deal!”)
Bring out the steamroller
In my youth, the “done deal” was known more felicitously as a fait accompli, but the concept was the same. In every age it has been used hopefully as a strategic tool by the powerful to steamroll new programs or entrench old ones. And it never works, unless the powerful join the debate and continually justify and re-examine their policies.
In effect its rationale is: “We live in an imperfect world, and no program or policy is perfect. But if we keep harping on the flaws in a policy, we’ll never get anything done. You can’t make an omelet with breaking some eggs. So once we’ve made a decision, let’s stop wasting our energy on debate and move on.”
I remember watching a TV documentary about one such omelet, the Soviet Union, back in the mid-1970s, hosted by the movie actor Roy Scheider. At the end, Scheider gazed soulfully into the camera and intoned, “They’re not going away. We’re not going away. So why don’t we just learn to get along?” Yet barely a decade later, the Soviets did go away. And they went away because people refused to acquiesce in the concept of the done deal.
Clarence Thomas: ‘Get used to it’
Clarence Thomas, having perjured himself at his Supreme Court hearing in 1991, was astonished that he continued to be criticized after his confirmation. “I’m going to be on the Supreme Court a long time,” he advised his critics. “Get used to it.” Nobody ventured to utter the appropriate response, to wit: “You’re going to be on the Supreme Court a long time. Criticism comes with the job. Get used to it.”
If I were Derek Gillman, the president of the Barnes, or Rebecca Rimel, the president of the Pew Foundation, I’d seize every opportunity to appear at public forums and debates to make the case for moving the Barnes Foundation to Center City. Doing so would (to paraphrase Lincoln) destroy enemies by making them my friends. It would clarify my own thinking. I might even learn something in the process.
But for those who don’t hold the levers of power, what’s the best response when you’re confronted with the “done deal” argument? You could do worse than borrow a leaf from National Lampoon’s Animal House— specifically, Bluto’s pep talk to his Delta fraternity brothers after their house was suspended and all its members expelled from Faber College:
“Over? Did you say over? Nothing is over ‘til we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell, no! And it ain’t over now.” Exactly. ◆
To read responses, click here.
To read a reply by Gresham Riley, click here.
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