Taking Stock of the Stones We Carry

Yes, we are living the Chinese curse of “interesting times” in real time.

From the pandemic and our continuing recovery including all of its collateral damage, to wars in Europe and the Middle East and not-so-veiled threats from China and North Korea, to extraordinary political dysfunction and social strife at home, there are many heavy stones to carry. And yet, upon each new dawn we rise up and stride forward, again.

For all this darkness let us please stop for a moment and, as this year draws to a close, take stock of our resilience and perseverance that, with each new stone, seems to increase rather than wane. Bowed though our backs may be, unbroken we stand.

In the midst of our challenges, I see our goodness rising rather than falling. I see our character being chiseled into new forms of lean fortitude. Our virtues that, like fenceposts, stubbornly steady the integrity of our character as the wind-driven snows of infamy attempt to topple the fence altogether. We are, slowly but surely, shedding our excess pounds of dishonor gathered during a period of narcissism, entitlement, and hubris—now more than two decades running—to regain our most fundamental American values: 1) Individualism, or the notion that Americans are possessed of free will and take responsibility for its expression thereof (which was displaced by narcissism); 2) Perfectibility, or the idea that Americans always strive to make things better than the way they were found (which was exchanged for an adolescent sense of entitlement) and finally; 3) Exceptionalism—the exemplar kind—where Americans attempt to set the example for others to follow (which was compromised by hubris).

Are we all the way back? Hell no, but I feel an awakening beginning to glimmer in the eyes of many among us of all ages and of every other American distinction—different races, religions, ethnicities, political loyalties, sexual preferences and gender identities.  Not yet among our leaders who remain deluded by a warped sense of grandeur; rather, among those of us who rise every day, hoist the bag of stones on our back, and attempt to make this day better than the last. Just folks.

The values I identify above—Individualism, Perfectibility, and Exceptionalism—are as old as our founding documents. Observers, like Alexis de Tocqueville in the early 19th century, were enthralled by this American character. Subsequently, countless adversaries have been both fooled and foiled by the strength these dispositional values can muster. The fundamental operating system that both activates and actualizes these values is our commitment to self-determination: to foster a world that meets our interests as we define them—on our own terms.

While it is true that many American politicians and even our own Supreme Court appear determined to restrict and even undermine our right of self-determination, that glimmer I see in people’s eyes suggest they will fail; that “We the People” will not cower, nor be put asunder. We know what freedom is and, as every despot in the history of the world also knows (often learning the hard way), once people taste freedom their appetite never diminishes. Indeed, as many prior American generations demonstrated, we believe it is worth dying for. The Samuel Alitos among us would be wise to take note.

We do, however, need to get smarter about the stones we carry.

Our current load of stones has frazzled our minds and inflamed and bruised our hearts. Anger and depression have reached epidemic levels among Americans today. As a result, our behaviors, both individually and collectively have, at times, been far less than exemplary. Like a kid on a hike in the mountains we have picked up too many stones to carry home. As adults, however, we know from the Pareto Principle that 80% of results come from 20% of causes—the vital few as they are called—suggest we should carry far fewer stones. Understanding these stones and learning which to carry is the most effective means to enhance our well-being and maintain that sturdy chiseled character.

There are three types of stones. Touchstones that guide and inspire, Duty Stones that represent those things we are responsible for, and Burden Stones that represent those things we cannot directly manage or affect. We need to curate our list of those that should be in our bag and discard the rest to achieve a new sense of balance—of equanimity.

Touchstones (TS) emanate from a constellation of knowledge and beliefs that comprise our cognetic profile (a methodology I developed in my doctoral research to predict the behavior of presidents and other world leaders). Each of us has our own unique cognetic profile—as unique as our highly-differentiated fingerprints or the strands of genes that form our DNA. Our TS come from our knowledge and beliefs. Knowledge is acquired rationally through two channels: empirical learnings and experience. Beliefs are acquired through faith via the channels of socialization and indoctrination. These TS collectively guide us and inspire us; they are critical elements of what make up our dispositional orientation, or personality.

Some people have cognetic profiles that favor one or the other, knowledge or beliefs. Understanding this balance and the most influential components of each are powerful predictors of our likely decisions and actions. As for wisdom, consider it the bed upon which these TS lie—the soul beneath your knowledge and beliefs (what the Greeks called sophia, or transcendental wisdom). These profiles are also not fixed. They shift and evolve over time as we encounter our world; they are dynamic. There are also lively discussions over what elements are acquired and which might be inherited, and how our souls (believed by many to be our reservoir of eternal wisdom) plays, but these issues are too deep of a dive for this post.

Duty Stones (DS) are just as you might expect. They include those stones we accept through our many obligations to ourselves, our families, our communities, country and world. As a general rule, we arrive in the world with zero DS then accept more and more as we age until a point around sixty years of age when—if we have done our job well—the list begins to decline. The problem for many, however, is that our self-image, protected by our powerful egos, often clings to these DS which, as I have discussed in prior posts, sets us on a path of decline and suffering rather than transcendence and sweet peace.

In effect, there is a fork in the road of life many miss and blindly continue without shedding their DS. The result is that at the time of our final liberation—our death—we are in an unsettled state of mind. In some, if not many cases, we have actually met the underlying obligation but cling to the DS to maintain a self-image from our earlier life. Like the parent who won’t acknowledge that their child is now an adult. This is when DS can become Burden Stones (BS). But that is not the only or largest source of BS.

I have to say I like that the abbreviation of Burden Stones (BS) is shared with bullshit. I think that is appropriate. BS are the stones we should never have in our bag, but which for many can comprise the majority of stones in their bag. By definition, BS are stones we have no direct ability to affect. They become the primary contributor to what I collectively call gut-fry: frustration, anxiety, anger, fear, and depression.

Some people accept BS out of a sense of shame or guilt, or often times out of a sense of overwrought duty. Sometimes even out of a sense of master-of-the-universe ego-maniacal self-perception as in, “What do you mean I can’t solve all the world’s problems?” (I am guilty of this one.) We cannot directly affect the plight of Israelis attacked on October 7th, Palestinians in Gaza or the West Bank, Ukrainians, Rohingya in Myanmar, Uyghurs in China, or any other victims of distant atrocities. What we can do is vote, protest, contribute to the cause, etc., but we must not carry them as DS.

Another common form of BS is the heritage or legacy stone. These come from events of the past which, by their very nature as in the past cannot be affected. Placing any of these BS in your bag is unfair to you and to those who are the subjects of your DS, like your family and community. As a further note to late-life readers: do not fall into the trap of replacing DS with BS to bolster your self-image and sate your ego. (I have seen a lot of this.) Do not compromise your path to transcendence and sweet peace.

So, in your bag: TS and selective DS, but no BS.

I expect 2024 will be another year of “interesting times.” A year from now, we may come to appreciate how important it was to lighten our load of stones. As Jennifer Senior wrote recently in The Atlantic as she was contemplating the effects of a potential return of the Orange One to the Oval, regardless of the presidential election, in 2024 “we are once again facing a news cycle that will shove our attention—as well as our output, our nerves, our sanity—through a Cuisinart.” I encourage everyone to have a private conversation with themselves. The year’s turning is a convenient time of reckoning. Look in your bag and lighten your load.

If you do, 2024 may indeed be a Happy New Year.

By |2023-12-31T13:37:19+00:00December 10th, 2023|American Identity, General, Recent, Spiritual|0 Comments

Imagination Nation

America has always been a nation driven by the unbridled imagination of its citizenry. In our first two centuries when we saw something we could improve, we acted to do so often without asking permission. The declarative mindset was, “We the people” can do better. Of course, there is a fine line between ambition and hubris but, for the most part, our unique and enduring concoction of courage and optimism—expressed through our imaginations—has served us well. This particular elixir of positivity—that all things imagined are indeed possible—has contributed mightily to a special brand of exceptionalism that produced the greatest empire of the modern era that has led the cause of freedom in the world for seven decades.

In the last twenty years, there has been a slow degradation of this national disposition that made America the imagination nation. It began with the ill-fated War on Terror in 2003; a fear-based reflex to 9/11 fueled by hubris and justified by lies or, as those inside the Beltway might prefer: “politicized intelligence.” Then that skinny black guy with the funny name—Barack Hussein Obama—tried to lift us back up to the pinnacle of hope and imagination only to be sidelined by fearful old pudgy white guys with common names who felt they were losing control of the America where they pulled all the levers and turned all the dials across politics, economics, and society. Fear of dispossession is indeed a powerful thing.

Then, as if on cue, arrived a reality TV show host with fabricated hair, tan, and wealth to convince us, as he claimed in his inaugural address, that the America that had led the world as a beacon of freedom since World War II was in a state of “carnage.” And, as he would remind us over and over, only he could fix it as he lined his pockets and those of his family members and closest allies with ill-gotten financial gains. His Republican predecessor president, George W. Bush, tried to warn us as he left the inauguration that January day from the east side of the Capitol when he suggested, “Well, that was some weird shit.”

The carnage that Trump envisaged did indeed arrive during his presidency. He promised it and he delivered. No democratic institution escaped his wrath culminating in an attempted coup d’état in January 2021. Of course, during this time America and the world also endured one of the greatest existential threats in a century: the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic was indeed a crisis but, as with all crises, it also represented an opportunity for America to exercise its courage and optimism to lead the world to contain the virus and heal its victims. But, thanks to Trump and those who had found new power based in fear and anger and division, America took the low road abdicating its position of leadership in the world and propelling the American empire into a tailspin. Meanwhile, adversaries like Vladimir Putin saw an opportunity in America’s meltdown to attempt to reestablish of the long-ago Russian empire. Unfortunately, we all—including both political parties—have largely embraced this simplistic, binary, and highly toxic disposition of us versus them, zero-sum thinking, which is completely contrary to what truly made America great during its first two centuries.

So, here we are. What now?

In the last six years, the American character has collapsed in on itself; it has imploded. Rather than rising up to face our many challenges we have allowed the spirit that made America great to be driven into a ditch by selfishness, deceit, and hubris.

We cry, “Why me?” when we should be exclaiming, “Why not?”

We accept the status quo when we should be forcing our so-called leaders to follow us to a better tomorrow. Very few Americans want either Trump or Biden as their next president but, as of today, most of us shrug our shoulders as if there is nothing we can do. We express outrage as Putin annihilates Ukrainian innocents then watch with a stunning sense of hypocrisy as an ally, Netanyahu of Israel, does the same to innocent Palestinians with American weaponry. We watch as drug companies extort profits while causing the premature opioid-deaths of thousands of Americans and we blame the dead. We have the most expensive and least effective healthcare system in the developed world and we sit in the waiting rooms of medical facilities across the country and just take it. We allow our children to be slaughtered by assault rifles and instead of addressing the obvious problem of way too many guns in America, we express our concern for the protection of an archaic and poorly worded amendment to our Constitution. All while Nature is screaming in our faces that she will rid the earth of us as soon as she can if we don’t act to curb our addiction to fossil fuels, and to the growth we have wrongly convinced ourselves is essential to our continued well-being.

The time has come to dust ourselves off and get out of the ditch. To accept nothing less than what our imaginations can conjure. To reject outright those who spew fear and anger and division. To hold each other and ourselves to the standards of the America that looked slavery in the eye in the mid-nineteenth century, and fascism in the eye in the mid-twentieth century, and fought with undaunting determination to claim the higher ground of freedom—not only for ourselves but for all of humanity. Yes, we can do hard things.

Today, I would like to declare a National Look-in-the-Mirror Day. Now is the time for every American to look in the mirror and ask themselves, “Why not?”

By |2023-11-26T14:30:41+00:00November 19th, 2023|American Identity, General, Recent|0 Comments

Altered States: My Road Trip West

When I last road-trip reported in May from my first extensive windshield-time since the onset of the pandemic (“Healing the Heart in the Heartland,” May 21), I had cruised through nine states in the Midwest—the American Heartland. For those who missed it, or have forgotten its message in the ether of a glorious summer, I observed that “What I found was a paradox of prosperity and fear; both inspiring and heartbreaking.” I also found “lovely people” who “treated me as nicely and respectfully over eleven days of travel in a very long time—perhaps ever.” I also noted they had “suffered what is the biggest con in the modern era: Trumpism” that had left them in a state of perpetual fear, principally of communism and transsexuals. Their hearts were wide open while their minds had been slammed shut.

I recently completed another trip, this time to the West where I was born and spent my formative years. From my home in Colorado through Utah, Nevada, Northern California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and back; seven states in eleven days. Given my history of living more than a third of my life there (albeit several years ago), I expected a similar if not higher level of comfort that I experienced in the Heartland during this autumnal excursion. That is not at all what I experienced. If the Midwest is a monolith of homogeneity, the West has become a perplexing and unsettling compote of heterogeneity. Translation: diverse and disparate bordering on unhinged. And, passionless for most things other than the self.

The beauty and intrigue are mostly still there, but the spirit of opportunism and reinvention—that had attracted fortune seekers to the Gold Rush of the mid-19th century, to the glamorous icons of the film and television industry of the mid-20th century, to the digital entrepreneurs of the late-20th and early-21st centuries—has been largely crushed under the weight of too many people, water rights fights, and a complete lack of cohesion around a values-based sense of common purpose. The great heritage of the West—that anything and everything was possible there—was nowhere in evidence, while its great cities are a depressing hollowed out version of their former selves. One young woman from Napa, California advised me to “stay out of our cities” on my road trip. I remember growing up in Seattle years ago thinking cities like Detroit, Philadelphia, and New York City were dangerous places to avoid; now Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco are cast in the same grim light. The mid-sized western towns and communities I visited retain their charm and a modicum-sense of community, but rural and urban areas left me bewildered—at times crestfallen.

I was expecting to be not only reconnected, but reinvigorated with the hope that the West could bail out America from its current malaise. Rather, I found a place profoundly different than the Heartland, but no more ready or willing to contribute to the renewal of the American spirit. Will America’s next leaders come from the West? Maybe, but my guess is probably not.

More specifically, the West remains younger and much more diverse racially, ethnically, politically, and religiously than any other part of America. It also embraces open-mindedness and tolerance unmatched throughout the rest of America. However, I observed an odd and discomfiting twist to these characteristics that defined an underlying paradox: while westerners value open-mindedness and tolerance, they practice it at a distance. They keep to themselves. Warmth and intimacy seemed to be considered inappropriate, perhaps even dangerous. The great irony is that the same warmth and intimacy that people in the Midwest and, even more so, the American South practice as foundational to their particular culture are accompanied there by close-mindedness and intolerance. It’s a head-scratcher. One would expect higher open-mindedness and tolerance would lead to higher civil intimacy, and lower to less intimacy, but the inverse appears to be so.

Perhaps it is the West’s historical subscription to its myth of rugged individualism and libertarian values—based in a sense of introverted humility—that requires a less friendly, more standoffish set of social practices, but I didn’t sense their reservation was born from humility. Not like the puritan Yankee New England reserved nature that has its roots in priggish humility; rather, a guarded sense that everyone and everything may be a threat at any time that suggests keeping one’s distance as a best practice. Unfortunately, this condition of detachment introduces a slippery-slope slide into what I call pinball syndrome: an unsettled state of fatalism—a passive resignation to gloom. Like the pinball that has no sense of agency, one just careens from one bumper to the next while fooling themselves that they are simply going with the flow when they are, in reality, sliding past the flailing flippers into a trough of forlorn indifference.

This syndrome is further supported by my next observation: when westerners talk about their concerns there are few common threads like in the Midwest where communism and transsexuals were nearly universally seen as the most imminent threats (thanks largely to Trump and FOX News). Instead, the world before the westerner is considered only in very personal terms—not in terms of community. Their fears mostly fall under the categories of political and security, but expressed as personal rights and personal security. They see themselves as living in the places they live, but not of the places they live. Again, I suspect this gives them a false sense of detached agency like a pinball that has convinced itself it is in control, or engaging willingly in the flow when, in fact, it is bouncing out of control. I observed this being further complicated by an odd and unhealthy mix of high entitlement and victimhood that is exploited very creatively and cynically by politicians like the congressperson from Washington, Pramila Jayapal. She deploys the same game as Trump—manipulation through fear—just at the other end of the political spectrum.

Like many Americans, westerners have grown wary of government and institutions. And their nature is to be less rooted and more restless; consistent with a population that has a high composition of immigrants from both out-of-country and from across the country. Westerners view the rest of America as disconnected from reality and woefully unenlightened—especially the federal government which routinely sends their eyeballs rolling up into the back of their heads—seen as both incompetent and irrelevant. I must also point out, however, that this shallow-rooted restlessness makes the West much more willing to accept change, which may be why it can be credibly characterized as the land of radical geniuses. Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Steven Spielberg and many others all either started there or wound up there due to the West’s culture of creativity and acceptance of pursuing technology-enabled altered states of being, establishing new multidimensional platforms of human activity from commerce to social media to artificial intelligence. Unfortunately, more recent radical geniuses include the biotech con-artist Elizabeth Holmes and crypto-conman Sam Bankman-Fried. Hopefully, they don’t become the new trendsetters of the West.

This condition of creative destruction and reconstruction excludes, however, the volcanic Trumpy intellectual potholes of Eastern Oregon and most all of Idaho (ex-Boise). Volcanic as in antediluvian, volatile, and toxic. At times, driving through these regions reminded me of the Appalachian Highway in West Virginia that while beautiful, also had a vibe of “keep driving.” It is no surprise Eastern Oregon is seeking to secede its state to join Idaho. Regressive isolated dullards exist in the West too. There were places in Northern California that also had that “keep driving” vibe, where people still promote a separate “State of Jefferson” to exit California.

To be both clear and fair, notwithstanding the Eastern Oregon/Idaho exception, the West has a significantly higher consciousness of the environment and the effects of climate change than the rest of the country. Nature also offers greater appeal in the West than most of our country to affect human engagement. Yet, westerners are still struggling to transition from climate-aware to actively committed. The “covenant of reciprocity” to reconnect humans and Nature advocated by botanist and author Robin Wall Kimmerer (Braiding Sweetgrass) remains an ambition. Most practice a performative mode of activism, which is to say for appearances rather than effect. They are advocating but not activating. Social media posts seem sufficient for many—especially millennials. But I registered a much greater sense of urgency among younger Gen Z folks. This may not generalize to the rest of the country, but I suspect millennials may fall into the same relatively irrelevant generational category of the Silent Generation that came between the Greatest Generation and Baby Boomers. The next great generation may well be Gen Z. Millennials take note: you now outnumber Boomers.  Being in the long shadow of Boomers is no longer a valid excuse to sit on your hands, although Gen Z may seize political control soon anyway. Your choice!

A final note on a condition that seems to be plaguing the West more than other regions of the country and that is the tourist-ification of nearly everywhere, which has gone into hyperdrive since the pandemic. State and national parks have been hammered by humanity. Tourists are both a blessing and a curse. I will argue here that the tourist-ification of the West is similar in terms of consequence to the industrialization of the East in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some western towns are so dominated by tourism and/or in the case of ski towns, a ski resort company, that they are beginning to take on the characteristics of the Andrew Carnegie steel towns of the late 19th century. Integrated dependencies within local economies do create strength, but such dependencies can also turn into vulnerabilities if the dominant industry or a large company falters. The reality is that tourism, like the years-ago production of steel, is a dirty business. It has a high carbon footprint (fossil fuel-driven travel), imposes surge impacts on community infrastructure, provides mostly low-wage seasonal jobs, creates seemingly unsolvable housing issues, exacerbates income inequality issues, and subjects fulltime residents to the tourist persona of surly entitlement. In short, tourism is inherently unsustainable. I expect a backlash coming soon. The stress between fulltime locals, second homeowners, and tourists is at an all-time high. Policymakers from national to local need to start working on economic development alternatives to tourism sooner rather than later.

Western states are, like much of America, at a crossroads. The dream of the West has become nightmarish for many. I expect western states will either burst forward in a fit of genius innovation, or spiral entropically into collapse. A moderate midway regression to the mean seems improbable and profoundly out of character. As with the rest of the country, the next fifty years are full of uncertainty for the West. It may be my birthplace prejudice, but I bet—I hope—the West will find its footing soon and regain its prowess as a venue of innovation, opportunity, and inspiration.

Now, it’s time to start a fire in my wood stove. Winter has arrived in the Rockies with snow on my doorstep.

By |2023-11-19T13:52:18+00:00October 29th, 2023|American Identity, General, Recent|0 Comments

Excavating Happiness

The great promise of meditative mindfulness is that peace and tranquility already exist; that they are within you right now and in every prior and future now. At first, I met this claim with curious skepticism. If they are already here, why can’t I feel them? If I am so full of goodness and beauty, why do I often feel like crap? After hundreds of hours of contemplation, the answer appears to reside in a simple yet powerful truth: we are living in an artificial world under the illusion of connection in violation of natural truth resulting in chronic moral suffering. We know what is right, but we are living wrong. The good news is we are in complete control and, therefore, can change all of it. We can move from what the writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit calls moral injury to moral beauty.

First, we must recognize the problem. As many, like Harvard’s Steven Pinker argues, the data suggests things have never been better. Measurements of wealth and welfare nearly all support the argument that because of our rapidly expanding capabilities over the last few hundred years, the lives we lead are longer, healthier, and more productive than any lived by our ancestors. Common sense suggests we should, therefore, be happier. But, by many other measures we aren’t nearly as content as those in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries whose daily lives were much more difficult. In the Happiness Index that ranks countries around the world, none of the wealthiest countries ranks in the top ten. Number 1? Finland. The fundamental problem is that our pursuit of success—measured in traditional terms—has limited positive impact on our happiness and, in many respects, may even be detrimental.

As Solnit observes,

Look closely, and you can see that by measures other than goods and money, we are impoverished. Even the affluent live in a world where confidence in the future, and in the society and institutions around us, is fading—and where a sense of security, social connectedness, mental and physical health, and other measures of well-being are often dismal.

To address the problem, we must first realize that we have created this world. The incentives we have structured in our marketplace of success and the feel-good receptors we have allowed to define our egos are born from the same psychic infrastructure that favors exploitation over altruism, isolation over connection, and conflict over cooperation. Of course, inasmuch as we created this world, we can un-create it, too. In other words, as I often remind my children, the second rule of life applies: it is up to us. (The first rule is: shit happens.)

Exploitation rose naturally from the reality of scarcity. Survival meant realizing that there were only so many pieces of pie to go around. Under the condition of scarcity, us vs. them, and zero-sum game theory were prevalent and legitimate constructs. But things changed in the late 20th century. This is where we must heed Pinker’s argument of greater welfare. The fundamental shift that occurred was from scarcity to abundance. The culmination of the productivity of the industrial era and the transition from an analog world to a digital world meant that win-lose could become win-win.

This is when we should have shifted our thinking from exploitation to altruism, but we didn’t. We should have transitioned from coercive power to referential power where we accumulate power by the extent to which we serve the interests of others. If we had, we would all be better off and be able to meet the challenges of the day, like poverty, the pandemic, and climate change. Instead, we stayed the course allowing both power and wealth to intensify in their concentration within a small percentage of the population. The shame belongs not on the heads of the have-nots (as many politicians would assert), it belongs on the heads of the haves. And, please note: the exploitation I speak of is not confined (as some may quickly judge) to capitalism. There is just as much if not more exploitation in socialist and authoritarian regimes. If anything, capitalist democracies hurdled scarcity first making way for the benefits of abundance. Regardless, none of us were wise enough to fully understand the implications of this shift. In that moment, we missed an enormous opportunity to reshape our world.

We have also become hostage to our preference for isolation. America is a country that has always celebrated independence. After all, it is called the Declaration of Independence and the Fourth of July is known as Independence Day for good reason. Our most fundamental birthright is the right to self-determination. Unity has always been subverted by our preference for independence—for separation from each other—for isolation. In fact, it is only under dire circumstances that we ever come together, usually when attacked by a foreign actor, as in 9/11. Most recently, even a deadly pandemic that put everyone’s life at risk regardless of social, political, or economic standing, became a divisive event that produced profound disunity. We Americans much prefer, “you be you and I’ll be me” and, moreover, leave me the hell alone. This is the quintessential American.

Our penchant for independence and individualism served us well until it didn’t. A curious and unfortunate coincidence occurred at the time of our shift from scarcity to abundance. As I argued in Saving America in the Age of Deceit, in the late twentieth century, in particular after the collapse of the Soviet Union, “individualism, or the notion that Americans were possessed of free will and took responsibility for its expression thereof, was replaced by narcissism.” Our hyper-individualism turned us into churlish prigs. So full of triumphalism, we even stopped taking pictures of others and landscapes in favor of our own headshots to celebrate our self-perceived magnificence. Selfies became exhibit number one of our many narcissisms. This is where socialist democracies did indeed have an advantage over capitalist democracies (see quasi-socialist #1 Finland, above).

However, our isolationist tendencies expressed as hyper-individualism has proven most damaging in our separation from the natural world. As I have argued before, perceiving ourselves as separate from nature may prove to be the proximate cause of the collapse of Homo Sapiens. One of the by-products of the industrial age is that through the -ification and -ization of everything, humans have placed systems of subjugation between themselves and nature in a perverted master-slave relationship. Make no mistake, this relationship, if pursued to its ends will result in the end of humanity. It is, as many prophets, gurus, sages, and gods have claimed over the millennia, a noble truth that nature rewards harmony and punishes dissonance. If humans remain dissonant, we will (to use Charles Darwin’s phrase) be “selected against.”

Another teaching of meditative mindfulness is the toxicity of conflict. Virtually all spiritual teachers, regardless of tradition or heritage agree that things like desire and attendant conflict are the root of all suffering. Humanity has been burdened by conflict since inception. This, too, is partially a product of scarcity, yet the greatest civilizations would have never become great without the implementation of cooperation. From the hunter-gatherers to the industrial age, specialization and the division of labor has proven far superior to going it alone. Of this, both Adam Smith and Karl Marx agree. Among other things, this practice resides at the core of the strength of capitalism which, notwithstanding its propensity to concentrate power and wealth, is undoubtedly the most efficient system to organize and deploy capital and labor for the production of wealth. Capitalism excels at production. Where it falls short is distribution, which threatens other important principles including the basic norms of democracies.

Again, somewhat ironically, our shift from scarcity to abundance was accompanied not just by the ascendence of narcissism, but also by the rise of hubris. We doubled down on conflict and competition right when we should have shifted to higher modes of cooperation. And, not just by and between nations, but by and between races, political parties, religious traditions, and even gender. Our preference for exploitation, isolation, and conflict is tearing us apart both internally and externally; it is why we often feel like crap. Moral suffering has become an endemic condition in America and much of the world even while we live in the first era of abundance in the history of humankind. How stupid is that?

To move from the condition of suffering to happiness—from Solnit’s contemplation of moral injury to moral beauty—is, therefore, within our grasp. Win-win and plus-sum game theory must become prominent modalities. Coercion must give way to altruism. We must choose harmony over dissonance between ourselves and with nature. Only then can we achieve both internal and external consonance. Only then will we switch to right from wrong. Only then can the peace and tranquility that has been buried beneath our egos be excavated to assure both our happiness and our survival.

The first rule of life still applies: shit happens. But the second rule also holds: the rest of everything else is up to us.

Our Imagination Blindspot

Americans enjoy a robust and durable heritage of ambitious optimism; of believing in ourselves as leaders in invention, innovation, and moral virtue. From John Winthrop’s declaration to his pilgrims in the early seventeenth century at the Massachusetts Bay Colony that “we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us” to Barack Obama’s campaign mantra, “Yes, we can!”, Americans believe they have both the responsibility and the capacity to change the world. We are the chosen people in the chosen land. A designation supported by the many iterations of American Christian sects that rose to prominence throughout the nineteenth century. In 1835, the Congregationalist minister Lyman Beecher, in his sermon A Plea for the West was unabashed in his view of American magnificence when he said,

There is not a nation upon this earth which, in fifty years, can by all possible reformation place itself in circumstances so favorable as our own for the free, unembarrassed applications of physical effort and pecuniary and moral power to evangelize the world.

His forecast proved mostly true. By the late nineteenth century, after America survived its own Civil War, it was well positioned to emerge as a power on the world stage; helped mightily, I might add, by an enormous influx of immigrants who brought both strength and diversity to a melting pot of humanity.

However, the phrase that probably best captures this notion of American exceptionalism, which was a new imagining of American identity at the time was put forward in 1845 by the writer John O’Sullivan. He gave us the identifier “manifest destiny” to describe and to justify the annexation of Texas and subsequently America’s claim to Oregon over similar claims by the British as “our manifest destiny to overspread the whole of the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” In his statement, he suggests a divinely bestowed entitlement to proliferate and thereby spread our blessed specialness. This is when American exceptionalism first turned away from its exemplar character as setting the example for others to follow (as in Winthrop’s “the eyes of all are upon us”) to the missionary version of American exceptionalism that reached its pinnacle during the administration of George W. Bush and the neoconservatives who sought to remake the world in the image of the United States.

For the most part, this ambitious optimism and high self-regard has served America well. At the foundation of this fundamental American character lies our penchant for unbridled imagination. There are mountains of evidence to argue America is the most inventive and innovative culture in the last several hundred years. We are upside addicts. Our glass remains stubbornly half-full. After all, would humans be flying without us? Travelling through space? Able to effectively vaccinate millions against horrible pandemics? Put ten thousand-plus songs in your pocket? Successfully classify rap as music? Where would we be without Levi’s jeans? Our culture—now heritage—is to turn the impossible into the possible. It is no accident that our greatest rival, China, that has more than three times our population of human beings can do little more than steal our inventions and innovations rather than tapping into their obviously repressed imaginations. Freedom of the mind has its benefits.

Our great imaginary vision has, however, a huge blindspot. We routinely and systematically underestimate downside risk. Our rose-colored glasses make us vulnerable to evil, cruelty, and catastrophic outcomes. We only see white swans while black ones haunt us. In the last two decades this has cost us dearly. We only saw upside in the digitization of everything. Higher productivity; curing the once incurable; an expansion of wealth that would certainly eradicate poverty once and for all. And, while elements of each of these promises did indeed come to pass, we were also left with bigger—not smaller—gaps in equality and justice. A healthcare system more inaccessible and tragically inefficient than ever in the contemporary era. Thousands of deaths of despair as depression has become an entrenched epidemic. Social media that shames, blames, and disparages us rather than its stated intention to connect us and inspire us. Our psyche has flipped in two decades from victors to victims.

Today, unprecedented, unbelievable, and unimaginable have become dominant adjectives in our discourse. Believing the office of the presidency would modify Trump’s character and behaviors is one obvious example of our failure of imagination. His actions to affect a coup after the election in 2020 amplified these failures further. We knew—scientifically—that Covid-19 would be the disaster it became. But we ignored the science. Surely, Putin wouldn’t be stupid enough to invade Ukraine and take on the entire western alliance of democracies! And, most recently, there is no way China’s Xi can broker rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but he did. (Among other things, is now the time to ignore Israel’s Netanyahu currying favor with Putin?)

And now, on our doorstep, is the exponential acceleration of artificial intelligence (AI) that, like the digitization of everything, promises to revolutionize our world for the better. Maybe it will. It most certainly will improve some things. We arguably controlled the digitization of everything that is, today at best, a mixed bag of blessings and curses. We will have much less control over AI. We must immediately begin the necessary thought experiments and imaginings of downside risk to protect ourselves from our ambitious optimism. It served us very well in our first two hundred twenty-five years of history. We don’t need to throw it away, but we had better turn the lens around to imagine what else lurks beyond the borders of our divinely bestowed specialness.

The English poet, John Keats, wrote, “I am certain of the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of imagination.” As we consider the future of AI, we would be well served to heed all the truths of imagination for better, or worse. The future of not just America, but of humanity itself may well be at stake.

The Fourth Founding of America: a Plea to Gen Z

Biden’s State of the Union address this year was like watching a bad adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s play, CATS. Yes, Joe did an exceptional job of playing cat-herder-in-chief in the pit of feral felines who seemed confused throughout the performance as to whether they should fawn, preen, or claw in response to his many entreaties. Marjorie Taylor Greene purred in her white Persian kittycat costume, but cuddly she was not. She hissed and pounced and clawed at every opportunity. As a cast, the mostly old tired politicians—both toms and queens—appeared either bloated by catnip or suffering from frequent regurgitation of hairballs, or both. Yes, as most pundits concur, Biden won, even while I struggle to understand exactly what he won. Savior of democracy (and Democrats) or modern-day Saint Sebastian, only time will tell. The entire litter box last Tuesday evening constituted exhibit #1 in making the case for what America needs most.

America needs a reboot.

Unsettled is an understated term to describe the way most Americans feel after years of Trumpian dystopic vandalism and a global pandemic that compromised any and every anchor of continuity and security we have enjoyed since we emerged from the Great Depression and World War II. So much damage has been done, the toll of which we may not know for years. After the Great Depression and World War II, we declared victory and moved on swaddled in the presumption of prowess; the confidence of the victorious. I am unsure we even know what victory looks like, today.

Americans are just plain worn out. We are tired of being afraid and angry. We are tired of being lied to. We are tired of being treated as if we are stupid. We are tired of watching the slow but certain normalization of inequity and injustice. We are tired of enduring the abuse of our environment sanctioned by people who know better, but whose craven desire for power and money remains unbridled. Perhaps most of all, we are tired of having the promise of America established at our first founding—the right of self-determination—be trampled on by all three branches of our federal government, but especially and most egregiously by the Supreme Court of the United States.

The first thing we must accept is that the cast of characters we call our national leaders—the pit of feral felines we were forced to watch this week—will never affect the reboot we need. The truth is both Republicans and Democrats have it half right. The Republicans want to tear our government down, while the Democrats want to make it work—bigger and better. The solution lies in the middle: a government repurposed and reimagined to serve Americans again and regain our footing on the world stage. But neither side can find a way to do business with the other. Sadly, many were elected with the mandate to assure nothing gets done. At best, they may be forced into compliance if we are successful at asserting our will as the American people, which is exactly what we must do.

Fortunately, the change that is required does not include a dramatic upheaval that will create more chaos and disruption in our lives. What is required is a thoughtful and deliberate dismantling and reconstruction of our norms and institutions instigated from the ground up. We must begin by recognizing we have, to echo the words of Thomas Paine, the power to begin America again. To gracefully and conscientiously affect a fourth founding of America.

Yes, we have re-founded America before. We do so after every period of crisis. The first founding that we all acknowledge followed the American Revolutionary War. The second founding followed the Civil War, and the third founding followed the Great Depression and World War II. In each of these periods we re-booted America. We stripped the house of America back down to its foundation and structural bones, and we re-designed then rebuilt it to meet the needs of the next several decades. In fact, we do this about every eighty years. Like the second and third founding, the fourth founding will not be nearly as dramatic as the first, nor will it become the fodder for fable and folklore. And, it will most definitely not be led by people of my age or older. The people who should lead this fourth founding are known as Gen Z, and perhaps the few millennials who remain unaffected by entitled dispositions and who retain a healthy sense of agency and responsibility.

The process is fairly simple: assume nothing and question everything. Most importantly, come forward with constructive recommendations for the America you want to design, build, and pass on to your own children. Start locally with town councils and school boards, and move up the ladder from there. Ignore for the moment the noise from Washington D.C. They are well on their way to establishing their own irrelevance. Tame that monster by starving it of attention. They barely have more substance than the air inside a Chinese spy balloon. At any and every opportunity, act to affect the return of authority and financial resources to the local level. To be fair, over the last seventy-five years we have pushed way too much authority and responsibility up to our federal government, it is time to pull much of it back down to the state and local level. We should also carefully consider what public goods should return to the realm of private enterprise. Remember, the power resides in the people from which financial resources also emanate.

Let me be clear to our young adults: you are those people; you have the power!

This is a once-every-eighty-years opportunity. Pursue it with a sense of calm determination. There is no reason to yell or scream like a backbench congresskitty. You don’t even need to march, or be tear-gassed, or be locked up. And, no, TikTok performative activism doesn’t count. You must show up, sign up, and step up. You must act. At neighborhood and town or county meetings. Later, state caucuses. Eventually, as congresspersons, senators, judges, justices, and presidents. Your future is in your hands, which is an unusual and huge opportunity. Few generations get this opportunity. Don’t squander it. Assert yourself. Seize the day. Take control of your destiny.

America’s fourth founding is up to you.

By |2023-02-22T16:35:00+00:00February 12th, 2023|American Identity, General, Recent|0 Comments

Hope’s Betrayal ~ Place Your Bets

In his 1732 “An Essay on Man,” the poet, Alexander Pope, wrote “Hope springs eternal in the human breast,” which has been adopted over the years as its shorter version: “Hope springs eternal.” As our own hopes were dashed that 2021 would be a year of rebirth and renewal—as 2021 became a groundhog year to 2020—it is very difficult to breathe hope into our breast yet again. It feels as though hope betrayed us.

We all look to Covid data to gauge when we can lift our gaze from the ground to the sky, but those who study deeper socio-economic and political issues know, Covid (more particularly our response to it) is just the manifestation of much more significant issues now embedded in the American character.

There is a rule that has served me well throughout my life—in all aspects of my life. Does the opportunity, company, organization, person, or other relevant entity respond to intelligence? If it does, proceed with engagement. If it does not, abort. Unfortunately, too many people who call themselves Americans do not—will not—respond to intelligence. The very concept of learning—of taking in new facts about the realities we face and applying this knowledge to guide our decisions and behaviors—has, like masks, become politicized.

Many Americans have chosen ignorance over enlightenment as their stubborn modality to defy progress in the twisted hope of protecting their position in whatever they perceive to be the social, economic, and political hierarchy they prefer. And, of course, there are plenty of political charlatans who promote such politicization to serve their aim of gaining or preserving power. This profound deficiency—the rejection of knowledge—is at the root of our pernicious American character.

Before you read the balance of this post, I feel the need to share my perspective on my commitment to myself as a writer and to you as a reader. Occasionally, I am asked, what is the key to writing well, moreover, to keep writing day after day? The answer is to be selfish; to write for yourself first and always. The writer receives few, if any, accolades or positive feedback, and certainly little or no financial remuneration. If you write for any form of positive feedback, you won’t write for very long.  I write to process the world I see before me; to make sense of it and maybe make a small contribution to the improvement of our collective welfare by sharing what I write.

As for you, the reader, I cannot begin to tell you how much I appreciate you. Although I do not expect feedback of any kind, you provide what every writer needs: an audience to aim at when making all the little decisions a writer must make. Every writer needs a muse. You are mine. You are the backboard against which I hurl my thoughts to observe the imaginary rebound: hit or miss? You are my necessary and highly useful mirage. At times, however, my truth must trump what I perceive as your preferences to honor my sense of reality; to meet my commitment to see things as they are. This post is one of those times.

I know you want hope in a New Year’s message. I, too, want hope. I want someone to come grab my hand and guide me from the state of languishing that swirls around me toward the sunshine of flourishing that has defined the American condition for decades. And, to be clear, I can point to many things that could break in our favor, but there are harder realities we must address in order for any of those lucky outcomes to produce durable benefits to American society—to change our course in a meaningful manner.

What follows now is a message of realism (combined of prose and verse) rather than puffery. Regardless of what luck may come, character issues continue to beset our path to renewal.


Place Your Bets

As the carousel of threats continues to turn, will we be spared?

In the crush of uncertainty, narcissism has overrun unity as the principal distinguishing factor of American identity. Narcissism’s first victim is love; when combined with the perplexing popularity of ignorance and alternative facts, its endgame may be the destruction of humanity. Can it be stopped? Who will save us?


 E Pluribus Unum, rest in peace.

Our myths crumble, jarring and disorienting.

We face tomorrow before we understand what happened today.

Staring into a kaleidoscope of fractal unknowns.


Nature and our planet will be fine once we are gone.


The planet doesn’t care.

We’ve had our chance to prove our virtue.

Creatures, both great and small have no more tears.

Earth turns toward the next epoch, slowly cleansing.


We hold on tight to our sense of entitlement—a comfortable delusion.


We believe we are so special.

Then tumble down like pinballs striking out.

Surely, we will be recognized as deserving and great.

While empathy is hung from an oak tree at noon.


We beg for grace as we double-down on our sins.


The glory of God come forth!

Sacrifice (by others) to assure our redemption.

The light grows longer now to reveal what we have wrought.

The ringing from the belfry clangs discordant.


We lean on the warm shoulder of optimism to deceive our desperation.


Falsely saved to celebrate ourselves.

We sing our songs of self-exaltation.

Our tribal subscriptions weaken under the weight of hypocrisy.

The flag of humanity bleached of its brilliance.


The path forward grows narrow now as we slouch toward Bethlehem.

(We are the beast.)


Alas, the bell of reckoning tolls for thee.

Hands reaching to grasp the emptiness.

Striding past crumbling statues and rusting magnitudes.

The road, the road, the road.


Deliverance or desolation, is the choice still ours?


Who will carry the fire?

Place your bets, or turn in your chips.

The House doesn’t care.

Is it you? Is it me? Is it us?


The wheel of a new year churns.


Note: With a tip of the hat to John Donne, W.B. Yeats, and Cormac McCarthy who each knew we would get here.
By |2022-01-17T20:08:56+00:00December 30th, 2021|American Identity, General, The New Realities|0 Comments

America’s Fourth Turning: Rebirth or Collapse?

The decisions we make in the next two years—individually and collectively—will largely set the trajectory of America for the next seventy to eighty years. We are in that magical moment as we emerge from a period of crisis—the fourth in American history—where we re-answer the question, “What does it mean to be an American?” Moreover, how do we organize ourselves for our mutual benefit? The good news is that crises make room to question old rules and conventions as long as we don’t ignore or squander the opportunity.

If history rhymes, 2022 will be like 1790, 1875, and 1945; the dawn of the “objectivism” phase in the cycles of American history which follows the four-phase rhythm on objectivism-liberalism-idealism-crisis that have defined the previous three seventy-five (plus or minus) year cycles. It is a critical time; a proverbial tipping point in our transition to our next future. (For a full illustration of this cyclical thesis see Saving America in the Age of Deceit, chapters 1-3.)

At the end of the first crisis—the American Revolutionary War—our identity emerged as the “Land of the Free.” At the end of the second crisis—the Civil War and Reconstruction—we emerged as the “Land of Opportunity.” At the end of the third crisis—the Great Depression and World War II—we emerged as “Superpower.” At the end of each of these cycles, at a macro-level, the United States became a better and more powerful nation across almost every measure of human welfare. However, a positive outcome following periods of crisis is far from certain. These tipping points can go either way.

Periods of objectivism that follow crises have historically been periods of relative calm denominated in realism, rationalism, and humanism that prevail over the tumult of crisis where all dimensions of our prior identity (most recently “superpower”) are twisted, damaged, or destroyed. In our fourth crisis, which I identified as the Age of Deceit beginning in 2003, it is easy to point to all the damage that has been done. The spirit of America today, which was alive and well after the first three crises (excepting the South after Crisis II), today feels more like a dungeon of depression.

Disunity, anger, isolation, withdrawal, anxiety, and fear are at extraordinary levels right when we need unity, empathy, aspiration, and calm to prevail in our decision making. The American cultural disposition today is both hollow and fragile. We are not heading toward anything as dramatic as an explosion because that requires a significant level of internal (albeit unstable) energy. The Age of Deceit, punctuated by the pandemic, has ravaged our collective spirit. Rather, an implosion seems more likely where our façade of red, white and blue grandeur crumbles like fragile porcelain into a pile of rubble.

At the end of this fourth crisis, an image of collapse is much easier to conjure than one of ascendent rebirth. Rather than emerging into another period of objectivism, we may spiral into a deeper crisis; one that may be denominated by the construct of predation—like a chapter out of Lord of the Flies or, if you prefer a more current reference, Netflix’ Squid Game.

Today, the closest parallel in American history is the South after Crisis II—the Civil War and Reconstruction. Defeated and nearly destroyed, the South fell into a period of depression and regression from which it has never completely recovered. Reflexive Jim Crow laws and the emergence of its stubborn pride of ignorance, or anti-intellectualism, have remained like heavy anvils wrapped vaingloriously around the necks of southern states prohibiting any notion of rebirth or renewal.  Had the South not remained in the union and been integrated into its economic orbit, it would have surely been conquered or subsumed by another nation-state in the late 19th century.

In addition to our current dispositional distress, we have some significant structural issues that contribute mightily to our fragility. Within both the political and social realms, we have allowed structural incentives to promulgate the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of the few. This condition assures the continual festering of political, social, and economic conflict that if left to proceed unabated has, as its natural outcome, violent conflict. The relative distribution of power and means into a state of extreme inequality has a long history of producing devastating conflicts throughout the world. Yes, we could be different, but that notion may be supported by little more than our own hubristic naïveté. (Failed empires have always thought they would be the first exception—until they weren’t.)

Frankly, the only structural dimension that is functioning properly (for now) in our country and world are the financial markets. They have been proven extraordinarily resilient in serving their principal function: the creation of wealth based on the efficient allocation of resources. People rail and whine about their contribution to inequality, but financial markets are not (and have never been) designed to foster equality. They are designed on the principle of equity, which is a proportional concept that holds that wealth (the output) be distributed based on the proportional contribution of capital, labor, and intelligence (the inputs). This is the capitalist concept of equity, which has proven to be the most effective economic construct for the creation of wealth in human history. A different distribution, or redistribution, of the output of wealth based on the now-popular concept of equity proportional to need (rather than contribution) is the socialist concept of equity. To realize this concept of equity, distributive practices must be addressed away from financial markets by political and social policy, which as of today in the United States has proven impossible to affect.

As painful as the above rendering of our current dispositional and structural issues may be to read, believe me when I say, it has been even more painful for me to write. I am an optimist by nature and have always subscribed to the patriotic notion that we, as Americans, can accomplish anything. It resides deeply in my Celtic DNA that, to quote William Ernst Henley’s poem, Invictus, “In the fell clutch of circumstance / I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeonings of chance / My head is bloody, but unbowed.” However, regardless of the vast majority of evidence that suggests we may slip into a deeper crisis, there is still a pathway to survive and prosper—to enter a new phase of objectivism.

First, let me assert two realities and one essential trend that I believe we must acknowledge and accept if we are to embrace the axiom of realism—seeing things as they are rather than how we might wish them to be.

  1. Our federal government is irretrievably broken and no longer has the capacity to serve our interests beyond (perhaps) national security.
  2. Our nation is also irretrievably divided such that while we may possess common interests, we are unable to agree on common facts that are a prerequisite to establishing a shared reality upon which to make and execute decisions aimed at serving those interests.
  3. We are, slowly but surely, migrating into like-minded communities that provide a natural basis for future collective action. Our choice of domain—where we wish to live—has shifted dramatically to primarily reflect our political and cultural dispositions.

If we accept these three assertions, we should begin the process of dramatically reducing the role of our federal government and increasing the role of state and local government. Coincidentally, much more in line with the Founders initial concept of the distribution of resources and power between the federal government and the states.

In effect, we must shift our attention and our resources away from the model of the nation-state that has been with the modern world since 1648, and toward the development of stronger states and communities that regard themselves as independent sovereign actors that seek benefit and welfare not through the nation-state, but through what I call state- and locally-directed shared-reality, mutually-beneficial, networked alliances designed to produce the public goods formerly organized and provided by the nation-state. In effect, the United States of America becomes the Affiliated States and Communities of America.

This new design of political, social, and economic organization allows like-minded communities to affect the production of public goods in an expedient and efficient manner—something our national government can no longer accomplish. Enabled by new technologies, there are few barriers to creating networked solutions that transcend prior notions of politically imposed boundaries and artificial prohibitions against free association. For example, if like-minded states, counties, or communities can come together to provide healthcare for their constituents, why should the federal government stand in the way?

This concept of governance accepts the reality of disunity and conflict at the national level by essentially draining the beast of the federal government of its capacity to wreak havoc in our lives—by either action or inaction. Further, it recognizes and subverts the negative impacts of the prospect of the entropic implosion of the United States and subsequent splintering of a failed empire. Finally, it puts us back in control of our destiny. It preserves the spirit of Henley’s final lines in his poem, Invictus: “I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul.”

This effort will take many years, extraordinary political will, and highly enlightened and inspired leadership to come to fruition. However, we absolutely do possess the human capital to succeed. America remains a land rich in extraordinary human resources. Alternatively, we can stand by and watch the demise of our American society unfold as the slow-motion disaster that is already underway. We have the power to transition to a period of objectivism and avoid a slide into further crisis if we pursue a new model of governance. The good news is that at this moment in time the choice is still ours. But, by definition, moments don’t last forever.

By |2021-12-01T16:23:46+00:00October 22nd, 2021|American Identity, General|0 Comments

2001-2021: From Crisis to Unity to Hope to Cruelty

September 11, 2001 was a pristine day across North America. Cool, crisp, and above all, crystal clear. The kind of blue sky no color palette can replicate. Conditions pilots yearn for.

I awoke just before dawn in the “Holidome” Holiday Inn in Salina, Kansas, in one of those 1970s-style hotels where each room faces a cavernous atrium for easy access to everything from shuffleboard to an indoor pool that permeates every molecule of air in the hotel with the stench of chlorine. I had landed the night before at the Salina Municipal Airport in a Bell Helicopter 206L with my co-pilot, Dennis Lang, after attending a family funeral in South Dakota. We were en route back to Dallas, Texas when the world, or at least America’s view of the world and its role in it, changed in the span of a little more than an hour. What I didn’t know at the time was that this date would also come to mark the beginning of the end of the American empire. America’s “unipolar moment” of unmatched power (as international relations scholars have called it) would subsequently be squandered in fits of accelerating hubris, deceit, and within two decades, cruelty.

After a barely edible breakfast served by a surly waitress in the atrium of the inn, Dennis and I took a shuttle to the airport arriving just as American flight 11 hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York. The flight from Boston to Los Angeles cleaved the tower leaving a near-perfect image of the fuselage and its wingspan. Weeks later I learned that of the three people I knew who lost their lives that day, two were on that plane and the other was killed as a result of it turning the floors above its impact into an unsurvivable inferno. Years later I wept, standing before their names carved into the smooth black granite of the 9/11 memorial. Like every non-terrorist who perished that day, they were among the innocents; young men with families and full lives ahead of them. All I suffered was a scarred soul; twenty years later the pain lingers. We managed to receive a clearance for takeoff just as United Airlines flight 175 crashed into the South Tower. I pulled all the power that helicopter had and headed into those pristine skies with only one thought in mind: get home.

To stay informed in the cockpit, we listened to Peter Jennings on ABC radio as we calculated our course, airspeed, and fuel levels in a long shot attempt to make it to Dallas in one hop. Jennings, who had given up smoking some years before, relapsed under the stress of 9/11 and started smoking again. He died of lung cancer four years later. Shortly after we cleared Salina to the south, the feared but expected order came from Kansas City Center Control: “all aircraft land immediately nearest airport.” As clear as that instruction was, we considered it as any helicopter pilot might, with equal parts of indignation and arrogance. Surely, we thought, that order is only meant for airplanes. We decided to keep going; low, fast, and outside of controlled airspace to see how close we could get to Dallas. As we came abeam Wichita, Kansas, Dennis said, “Uh oh, take a look to the east at ten o’clock.” Two stealth bombers were departing McConnell Air Force Base accompanied by four fighter jets. As they swept into the sky, they looked like two giant stingrays stalked by small dark pilot fish. It was time to talk to the tower in Wichita.

Given its geographic position in the center of the United States, and distance from any other airport of significant size, Wichita was being slammed by requests to land by aircraft from all over the world that were flying across the continent to faraway destinations. The woman in the tower who responded to my call was impressively calm and efficient during what had to be the busiest day in her career and in the history of the airport. She ordered, “November one-alpha-hotel, turn left heading zero-niner-zero and make approach to taxiway following Super-80 on final and in front of the Airbus turning final.” Following a rather acrobatic landing, necessary to avoid the wake turbulence produced by larger aircraft, I scrambled to get a rental car and hotel room while Dennis secured the helicopter. The last planes that landed that morning in Wichita were parked at the ends of the runway. Every square foot of pavement—including tarmacs and taxiways—was covered with aircraft.

Dennis and I checked into the Red Roof Inn adjacent to the airport along with other stunned travelers and flight crews who all had the same two questions on their minds: what in the hell just happened and, most especially, when can we get back out of here? Despite all the uncertainty and fear that were descending like a cloud bank on an otherwise beautiful day, the hotel remained eerily quiet save the drone of CNN emanating from every TV day and night. But, that first night of our unintended sequestration, the paper-thin walls proved no match for the sounds that still haunt my memory: the mournful sobs of flight attendants who realized how brutally those who served their final flights that morning had died—throats slashed with boxcutters by terrorists looking forward to the seventy-two virgins they had been promised in their twisted jihadist version of heaven. It took a couple of days, but Dennis—a cunning gnome of the skies—finagled the first clearance to depart Wichita after the events of September 11th. I am not sure what he said to air traffic control, but I hope most of it was true. We made it as far as Ardmore, Oklahoma, when we were ordered to land again. There was no way air traffic control was going to allow us to penetrate the airspace of Dallas-Fort Worth. To get home, we rented the only vehicle we could find, a van with two seats in front and none in back. It smelled like its prior usage had been for human trafficking, but it got us home.

For those of you who remember the days that followed, the most pervasive emotion was fear. The fear of where will they strike next? As I came to understand after interviewing several Bush administration officials years later, that fear nearly paralyzed the administration; they were determined to circumvent any further attacks on America and Americans throughout the world. To their credit, they largely succeeded.  I remember thinking twice about attending a high school football game at Aubrey High School in North Texas for fear a bomb would be detonated by al-Qaeda below the grandstands. (That’s what a few days locked down in Wichita will do to your mind.) That was the first time self-isolation seemed like the best strategy; something we all have learned to practice during the pandemic.

Fear became a powerful unifier, which seems somewhat quaint today as we have subsequently seen fear used as a powerful divider. But, united we stood. Never before or since have so many American flags been purchased and flown from virtually anywhere one could find to hoist the stars and stripes. Not the modified American flags people display today that represent their political tribe, just the red-white-and blue Old Glory. Recruiting centers for our military were swamped with new applicants who wanted to exact their own measure of revenge on Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. With the exception of a few ignorant bigots who attacked mosques in America, most simply rallied around the flag; but, eventually, fear-driven patriotism waned and anger kicked in. Then, hubris. We were, after all, the world’s lone superpower and the Bush-Cheney administration wanted to display that power in the most devastating manner possible. Consideration of the national interest and the attendant discipline to pursue well-defined objectives—the hallmark of George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy—were thrown out the window in favor of reckless revenge promoted mostly by men who had never seen a battlefield in uniform.

Lest we forget, Operation Desert Storm conducted by Bush 41 that removed Saddam Hussein from Kuwait was executed after Hussein had ignored sanctions of the United Nations, and after an international coalition had been formed and the operation had been authorized by Congress. Combat lasted just six weeks and American casualties numbered 148. Saddam Hussein retreated to his palace in Baghdad and Kuwait was freed. Compare that to the thousands of lives lost and trillions of dollars spent over the last twenty years in Iraq and Afghanistan only to finally leave—just days ago—with little to nothing to claim as our winnings. Biden is getting the blame and the Bush-Cheney folks are mostly mute. But these days, the truth is buried under a mountain of deceits. We have become extraordinarily skilled at collective self-deception. Perhaps because the truth is just too embarrassing and painful to bear.

As the Bush 43 administration drew to a close in 2008, and the economy was being crushed by many ill-considered deregulations in our financial markets, a tall, skinny, lanky young man from Illinois—who cast himself as the next Lincoln from the same state—raised his hand to become the 44th president of the United States. Barack Hussein Obama, born of a white mother and black father, had the cojones to believe that Americans would put a black man with a funny name in the White House while a white woman named Hillary—of the Clinton Democratic Party dynasty—claimed it was her turn. What on earth could he have been thinking, or smoking? However, one of the things a person of Obama’s rather challenging profile learn is that to succeed in life, you must lead with fists clenched knowing you are going to get knocked down—over and over—but that if you keep getting back up, eventually those with more advantaged backgrounds will move out of the way as they succumb to a weakness of resolve born from their many entitlements.

To be clear, Obama didn’t exactly come from nowhere. He had killed it with his address four years prior at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Delegates and political kingmakers were awestruck at the state senator from Illinois. In his speech, he began by connecting with audiences in the arena and at home by presenting himself as evidence that in America anything is possible—that he would not be speaking as the convention’s keynote speaker if America was not a place where dreams could come true. In so doing, he gave us access to our own dreams and possibilities and, moreover, he personified hope. He called this “the true genius of America—a faith in simple dreams, an insistence on small miracles.” After years of fear and anger following 9/11, hope was ascendent once again, purveyed by a curious and unlikely messenger.

In March 2008, in one of his best speeches among many great speeches, Obama addressed the proverbial elephant in American politics and culture: the color of his skin. It was prompted by criticism of his association with Reverend Jeremiah Wright of Chicago who had given many fiery sermons on race relations in America that later caused John McCain’s running mate from Wasilla, Alaska, Sarah Palin, to accuse Obama of “palling around with terrorists.” Obama confronted “black anger” and “white resentment” so effectively that it reminded me of when John F. Kennedy confronted criticism of his Catholicism in an address in Houston to protestant ministers in 1960. Once again, Obama’s hope-based rhetoric and intentional linkage of himself to Abraham Lincoln turned a political sinkhole for his campaign into a springboard.

In his remarks titled, “A More Perfect Union,” he reminded us that our Constitution—while failing to directly correct the stain of “this nation’s original sin of slavery” at the time of its adoption—allowed room for “Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part … to narrow the gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.” This was classic Obama, weaving both realism and idealism together to bring a calm clarity to his message while never slipping into the blame and shame game so prevalent—then and today— among those who intend to advance a progressive agenda. He never allowed his anger to subvert his higher aim: hope. His hope endured, but the change he promised to accompany it—the prospect of being a transformative president—would run into a juggernaut of thinly veiled racism that could not stomach a black man in the White House led by Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky who made clear he would do everything in his power to assure Obama was “a one-term president.”

At the time of Obama’s election, I was living in Texas where, with the exception a couple of years spent in Washington D.C., I had resided since 1982. In my years there prior to his election, I had rarely witnessed overt racism. I expected it having been warned of southern dispositions prior to moving there from Seattle, but besides the institutional racism that was endemic throughout the United States, I rarely saw anything approaching racial conflict between whites and blacks. That changed once Obama became president. The “N” word, which was never used by anyone in my presence prior to his election, started to creep into otherwise normal conversations, used by folks I had known for years.

As Obama neared the end of his first term, racist bumper stickers started to appear on several cars in the Dallas area and stars and bars flags (aka Confederate flags) were hung in the rear windows of many pickup trucks and semi tractors. In the carpool line at my daughter’s private Episcopal school, a mother in a Cadillac Escalade had a bumper sticker with a black stick figure sodomizing a white stick figure with the phrase “Are we really going to take it this way for four more years?” printed below the illustration. Another popular bumper sticker signaled the melding of evangelicalism with racism in its citation of Psalms 109:8, “May his days be few; may another take his place of leadership” as a signal to Christians to rid the country of the scourge of Obama. By the newly antagonized white Christian nationalists this became known as “the Obama prayer.” Change did come, but it wasn’t the kind of change Obama had in mind. It was a shift from hope to cruelty, ushered in most aggressively by a self-proclaimed tycoon from New York City: Donald J. Trump.

Trump had learned his racism at the knee of his father and at the counsel of his father’s attorney, Roy Cohn (former aid to the infamous Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin). As real estate developers in New York, their racism was economically based. They equated people of color—any color—to be bad for business. But “the Donald,” as he liked to be called, saw a new path for his racism: to promote himself as a political great white hope. His angle: call to question the authenticity of Obama’s citizenship—so called birtherism. Trump’s incessant attempts to disqualify Obama’s presidency in this manner also gave rise to his favorite technique to discredit others and project deceits throughout his own presidency. The “Well, you know, many people are saying … ” this or that in an attempt to affect uncertainty and cast aspersions. It is a cheap middle-school grade rhetorical trick, but also proved to be very effective as he conveyed 30,573 false or misleading claims during his presidency—roughly 80% of everything that left his (public) mouth from 2017-2021.

The Cruelty is the Point, a recent book by Adam Serwer, chronicles the legacy of the Donald J. Trump presidency as it illustrates through this lens of cruelty the innumerable inhumane acts by Trump and his acolytes like Stephen Miller, Steve Bannon, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Ron DeSantis, Matt Gaetz, Greg Abbott, Josh Hawley, Kevin McCarthy, Jim Jordan, and so forth. Immigration, healthcare, climate change, education, abortion, human and civil rights—regardless of the issue, the Trump modality always includes some form of cruelty. As Serwer argues, cruelty not only satisfies the male adolescent desire to dominate others, it is a powerful binding agent between like-minded people. As a community, Trump supporters rejoice “in the anguish of those they see as unlike them, who have found in their shared cruelty an answer to the loneliness and atomization of modern life.” A man whose claims—from his education to his wealth—that are routinely recognized as fraud once the facts are known, finds comfort and validation in his capacity to hurt others. This is the Trump legacy, but it does not have to be ours.

As Americans, our day of reckoning is upon us. It is not coming; it is here.

Osama bin Laden presented us with a crisis on 9/11. Every crisis is a test. How we respond to the crisis is the real test. In the face of the 9/11 attacks we—at first—united due to our collective fear. But then, fear gave way to anger and ultimately hubris. An unchecked power, as the United States was in the early 2000s, is a danger to everyone, but most especially to itself. Empires are seldom defeated by a greater power; they almost always defeat themselves. We were offered a reprieve by the presidency of Barack Obama—a chance to return to the high road of virtue and integrity. To revisit the ideals of our founders who saw America as a beacon of hope formed in spite of our sins and transgressions; the greatest of which was slavery. But we allowed the racism that made that sin possible to be reborn and worse: we allowed its basis in cruelty to metastasize throughout our culture.

Today, the world looks upon America as a pathetic shell of its former greatness. They do so with a mix of scorn and fear as they look at the option of a world dominated by China. No, not Russia, China. An opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal recently characterized the state of our union as the “Golden Age of Stupidity.” I observe what I have written about elsewhere—what I have called “a pride of ignorance”—spreading from its origins in the South like the delta variant from coast to coast and from border to border. Frankly, it frightens me beyond words. I keep thinking—hoping—that a bright political star will rise again, or a technological innovation will vanquish the threat of climate change, or some other providential stroke of luck will save us.  However, such good fortune rarely visits unworthy people.

If you read these posts regularly, you know that I try to nudge, cajole, and even beg people to summon their better selves. Unfortunately, nearly everywhere I look today, I see cruelty, stupidity, greed, sloth, and systemic failures. These are not the behaviors of a superpower. They are evidence of an empire slipping into a slow-burn descent into irrelevance. Most Americans are in denial, or turning an apathetic blind eye or, like the proverbial frog in the pot of soon-to-be boiling water, think how lovely it is that the water is warming. Too few of us are behaving like we deserve to call ourselves Americans in the manner of those who founded, developed, and were responsible stewards of American power. Our fate may simply be to stand by and watch the pot boil; to let the providence of Nature decide who survives.

By |2021-09-18T14:55:34+00:00September 5th, 2021|American Identity, General|0 Comments

Killing America

On Saturday, January 11, 1964, LBJ was in the Oval Office, The Kingsmen sang Louie Louie to the top of the R&B charts, and Brigitte Bardot was a transatlantic bombshell. It was also the day that Luther Terry, the Surgeon General of the United States, declared that cigarettes had dangerous effects including lung cancer and heart disease. A product that had been advertised as assuring good health had finally been realized for what it was: an American killer. Decades later, we look back on those days of the Marlboro Man and wonder how could those Americans have been so stupid?

Late last week, a pivotal moment in American history also occurred. It was the day that our current Surgeon General of the United States, Vivek Murthy, declared that misinformation and lies being spread across social media about Covid-19 vaccines was a public health hazard. Our president, Joe Biden, was more blunt. He told reporters that Facebook was “killing people.” Of course, Facebook feigned outrage and FOX News mocked the president as an alarmist that was trying to take control of our lives. Coordinated by American tobacco manufacturers, a similar campaign of deceit followed Luther Terry’s declaration about tobacco in the 1960s—one of the best funded campaigns of deceit in American history—and millions more died.

One day, perhaps in the not-too-distant future, I expect we will look back at social media and the largely deleterious effects it has had on our lives and view it as we now view cigarettes: how could we have been so stupid? Facebook has done to us what Phillip Morris, et al, did to us sixty years ago: they got us hooked, then lied to us to keep us hooked. Are Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg less dangerous than the tobacco titans of yesteryear? Is Rupert Murdock’s FOX News really serving the public interest when they fill the heads of their viewers with lies that could cost them their lives?

There is a much larger problem, however, than the simple deceits promulgated by Facebook and FOX News regarding Covid-19 vaccines. Throughout our history, Americans have been bound together by the stories we embrace about what it means to be an American. These stories were the social glue that enabled unity, regardless of our particular political persuasions, ethnicities, religious affiliations, race, gender, sexual preferences, or national origin, we could all subscribe. In the last twenty years, due to a fundamental degradation of American values, and the culture of deceit fomented, nurtured, and sustained by politicians and social media companies, we have lost those stories. They have become dead letters.

The first story is called the American Dream. It holds that anyone can become anything they want in America. That their destiny is in their own hands. That it does not matter from whence they came, or whom their daddy is, or what god they pray to (if any), or what color their skin is, or even whom they choose to love; they can become whomever they want to in America. This story is fundamental to our heritage. Like all stories, it does not stand up under the lens of empiricism. It is easy to discredit its validity as many, including the authors of the 1619 Project, have done. Yet, it has prevailed since John Winthrop landed the first settlers from Europe in modern-day Massachusetts in the early seventeenth century. It endured, less so because of its certainty than because of its allure.  We wanted to believe it. Why? Because it was aspirational.

The second story is only about seventy years old—a relative baby. It is the story of America as a superpower—as a font of exceptionalism. To be clear, it has its roots that also date back to John Winthrop when he claimed to his parishioner/colonists that “we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” (That’s right, the 1980 Reagan borrowed it from the 1630 Winthrop.) But it was far from credible until after World War II when, as the United States benefited greatly as being the last intact nation-state in the civilized world and the only one that had the industrial capacity to rebuild the world, gained tremendous wealth and stature in the free world. The United States became one of two superpowers, then the only superpower after the collapse of the Soviet Union. We became exemplars of freedom and democracy and the world’s champion of those who sought the same. Again, does the story hold up under the microscope of empiricism? No. But, also again, it endured due to its aspirational nature.

If you ask an American under forty years of age today if either of these stories ring true to them—if they believe in them (as my generation does)—they will likely look at you with either pity, or scorn, or a weird mix of both. For they have largely, or mostly, lived their lives during the Age of Deceit where lies and shame and guilt have been shoved in their faces to the point that there is no longer any American story. All too often today, they are being taught that they are not individuals who can become anything they want to be; rather, they are simply members of tribal groups with grievances that excuse them from any sense of patriotism whatsoever. They should be allegiant to their group—however narrowly defined—and must subscribe to groupthink. And, moreover, that their principal right is to blame-and-shame anyone who stands between them and their desires.

This blame-and-shame trap is an ugly one and it is present on all sides of the political spectrum. The religious right expresses it as condemnation; the liberal left as cancellation. It is toxic and it will defeat one of the greatest empires in the history of the world. The key thing to acknowledge and correct (if it is not too late) is that blame-and-shame never succeeds in building a stronger more resilient culture or nation. It may feel good in the moment, but it festers and rots and destroys. Blame-and-shame movements have occurred throughout American history, but none succeeded (absent bloody conflict) to make America great. Abolition, Prohibition, and Pro-life are examples of blame-and-shame movements. Today, Occupy Wall Street, Me Too, Black Lives Matter, and Defund the Police are blame-and-shame movements.  All were, or are, destined to fail in reaching their objectives. Why? They are not aspirational.

In contrast, go back and study the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Granted, many of its successes are currently being undone by the Trumplicans, but it succeeded in many important ways. Why? Because it was aspirational. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., never, and I mean never, sought to blame-and-shame anyone. Rather, he gave everyone—regardless of race—a reason to belong to the movement. To become better human beings; to become something greater than they were under the old Jim Crow laws. He practically defined the word aspirational. In some of his last, and perhaps most famous words, he implored us: “I have seen the promised land! I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land. So, I am happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.”

My American stories are dead letters. It breaks my patriotic heart, but I accept that there must be new stories for a new America. But please people, I beg of you, drop the blame-and-shame game. Choose aspiration over shame. Summon the spirit of King, and F.D.R., and Lincoln. They may be long gone, but they understood what young leaders today do not: if you want to succeed unity is critical, and there can be no unity without giving people hope through aspiration.

By |2021-08-02T15:36:47+00:00July 19th, 2021|American Identity, General|0 Comments
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