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.

Getting Through

The last three years have been a gut-wrenching test of our personal and collective character as a people and nation. Although we failed in many tests of our character, we are still here. The hard truth is only we, acting on inspiration with determination, can make the next three years better than the last. As the maxim suggests: “the only way out is through.” It is time to get through. How we do that begins with visualizing then actualizing change based in what I call moments, or glimpses, or glimmers of inspiration.

We still have an opportunity to set a new course; to learn from our failures and to both restore and revitalize the values that undergird our character. 2023 can be the year we turn the corner—together—to recommit to the truth, to each other, to our planet, and to assert a new spirit of creativity and innovation that defines a new American identity. One that restores the American Dream and reestablishes America as an exemplar of human dignity and grace across the world. What I call the enlightened version of American exceptionalism.

Over the holidays, I spent a great deal of time in fairly intense contemplation and reflection. Cancer will do that to you. Thankfully, my cancer is just below stage 4 at stage 3C. Operable, albeit complicated, and my chance of survival is quite good. The balance of the consequences are just a matter of the mind and body cooperating in creative adaptation, and doing the work to fully rehabilitate. Fortunately, I have had many experiences with difficult physical rehabilitations, so I know I can do that—and win. And, I have the shoulders of friends and family to stand on.

In the face of these uncertainties, I found sanity and solace in imagining moments/glimpses/glimmers of comfort when my world was full of darkness and peril. There have been days when this practice is the only way I made it to the next day. My hope is that we might collectively engage in a similar practice to right the ship of America with our own individual and collective practice of what amounts to visualizing then actualizing the few things we need to do to save our future. We need to learn how to hug hope.

Over the past year, I have (fortuitously as it turns out) developed the skill of dropping into a meditative state where simple breathing settles me into a state of awareness free of my meddling mind. That’s when summoning moments of comfort set my troubled psyche at ease. Moments of comfort like inhaling the aroma of a fresh, French press, dark roast coffee as the sun breaks the horizon. The wafting vanilla-almond scented candle next to a crackling fire of pinion and cedar as nightfall envelops my home. A shimmering rainbow connecting the valley with the mountains in the ritual of a soft summer rain. A perfect piece of music that inspires a joyful sense of awe and inspiration. The brush strokes of an artist that stop you cold leaving you floating between reality and imagination. The prattle of chatter up and down the bar—both inane and profoundly poetic—while sipping a Guinness in Ireland. A poem that leaves room for you to make it your own. And, of course, reading, thinking, writing, reflecting, re-writing, then writing some more; and, finally, sharing as I do here.

As it is with all of us, our personal lives mirror the disposition of the places in which we live. Place has an enormous impact on our lives; more than we are willing to admit. Our personal agency certainly matters as a powerful agent of change, but the context of community allows and disallows many of our preferences. That said, there are a just a few things that all Americans could focus on that transcend the peculiarities of place. Across America today, there are three imperatives as we collectively face the future: a recommitment to truth and the rule of law, the reunification of ourselves by and between each other and nature, and the courage to foster, embrace, and support the application of creative intelligence to address our greatest challenges. In my view, these are the three most pressing objectives that, if realized, will affect many primary, secondary, and tertiary issues. They will deliver us to a future we can be proud to leave to our children and grandchildren.

One need look no further than Donald Trump if you want to find evidence of what one person can do for better, or in his case, for ill. He nearly single-handedly destroyed our commitment to the truth and the rule of law, as well as standards defined by norms. The soon-to-be sworn-in congressman George Santos of New York is the exclamation point of this Trump effect. He is Trump’s bizarre avatar of deceit. A life and identity completely crafted from falsehood. What a mess that man is. A Shakespearean tragedy not even William could have conjured.

But let’s be clear and honest with ourselves as we move forward: every one of us shares culpability in the abdication of our commitment to truth and the rules and norms that make our society a civilized society. Even in our silence we are culpable. We let this happen. It is up to all of us to fix it. No more looking the other way or engaging in performative outrage on social media. None of that excuses us. None of that works. No matter how uncomfortable or even cruel the truth may be, we must face it with courage and resolve. And, yes, consequences for Trump and others are important to levy. Not to affect their future behaviors; I highly doubt people like Trump are capable of rehabilitation. Rather, to restore the rule of law to its rightful perch on the throne of integrity. Visualize truth as our path to restoring the soul of America.

Next, we need to set aside our petty grievances and acknowledge our common challenges and objectives. Separately, we are all trying to do the same thing: make our lives work in the context of our particular fears and ambitions. Collectively, we will all find our success more easily and more quickly if we honor our differences while embracing that which we share. Yes, we look different, speak with different accents, pray to different gods, and find love in different ways. But we are all Americans. In fact, that is what America is and always has been. That is what really makes America great—what made America the greatest nation-state in the modern world. We must close the gap between us. It is dangerous and un-American to engage further in the fear mongering and divisiveness that has become so popular on both ends of our political spectrum. In the last few years, we have become our own worst enemies. How stupid we were. This must stop, immediately. E Pluribus Unum—out of many, one—must, once again, become an actualized vision.

In a new spirit of unity, we must also reimagine ourselves as the animals that we are. To be sure, human, and indeed predominant in this world. But also, highly interdependent by and between all the other species of plants and animals with whom we share the planet. The ecosystem we inhabit is collapsing, and it is because of us. Spare me your fantasies of alternative explanations to the reality of climate change. If you promote these, you are—plainly and frankly—dangerously full of shit. We may be the last victims, but if we remain on our current path of seeing ourselves as separate from and protected from the eventualities of the consumption of fossil fuels, we are no longer homo sapiens, we are homo stupidus. We deserve to perish. My hope is that if we learn to regard ourselves as a part of nature, rather than separate from it, we have a chance—admittedly today a dwindling chance—but nonetheless a chance to save ourselves. Once again, from ourselves. This visualization is simple: we are one with nature.

Beyond truth and unity, we must also reinvigorate the ethos of the America that made it the greatest nation-state in the modern era. We must embrace the geniuses, artists, and crazy entrepreneurs that turned daring enterprise into unimaginable innovation. The impossible is always possible. Often, it just requires looking at issues through a different lens. At others, it requires the imagination to combine seemingly disparate elements into something altogether new. As entrepreneurs know, in every threat lies an opportunity. Between threats and opportunities are also an array of possibilities. Yes, we have faced and continue to face daunting challenges. But we must meet them with a steady commitment to opportunism. And do so with a dash of arrogant optimism. Visualize ingenuity.

Truth, unity, and ingenuity. Cultivate them through moments, glimpses, and glimmers of reinforcing visualization. There is another maxim that applies here quite perfectly: you will travel in the direction your eyes are looking. Vision is a powerful navigation system. Once we set our eyes on a new future, our minds, hearts, and bodies will follow. Before we know it, we will be in a much better place.

One more thought before I return to my moments of comfort. The holidays are always a time of expressing gratitude. This is a good thing. A very good thing. I suggest, however, that we flip this script. In addition to expressing how grateful we are, might we also consider why we deserve gratitude. Have we earned gratitude from others? What have we done to earn it? Should our friends and family be grateful for us? Should the communities in which we live be grateful we are there? How about wildlife, the land, air and waters? If you are looking for a resolution for the new year, maybe this one is relevant: to earn the gratitude of others.

Happy New Year.

By |2023-01-15T14:31:59+00:00January 1st, 2023|General, Recent, The New Realities|0 Comments

Defeating Extremism with Localism

Watching political campaigns solicit support for the upcoming midterms seems like more of a middle school food fight than adults intent on convincing an electorate they are best suited to serve their interests. Today’s campaigns appear more focused on throwing as much mac ‘n cheese at each other as possible before the vice principal arrives than implementing policies to address critical issues facing Americans. Such is the state of our political discourse, which has been floating in the toilet bowl for some time now, while we seem unable to reach for the flush handle, let alone a plumber’s helper. But there is a way out.

Two extremes, it is hypothesized, act to balance and, in effect, cancel each other out. If only that were so. America’s national political reality suggests a different outcome: extremists smother truth in its crib killing any prospect of progress while leaving the majority in the middle in a paralyzed stupor gasping for hope. The search for eyeballs and ratings by the media—both traditional and social—assure us that outrage gets all the attention. Our media has evolved from a source of information to one of entertainment and, now, hackneyed provocation. From intelligence to delusion. Calm, common sense, compromise and consensus—fundamental democratic modalities—are too boring to garner coverage. A candidate for national office who has values, integrity, and competence in leadership has little chance of winning.

As the midterm elections approach, candidates on the right decry the many threats of the radical woke left who are taking your America away! Meanwhile, candidates on the left warn of the extremist right whose secret desires include setting new fires in the public square to burn deviant progressives (like you!) at the stake. Both have learned the lesson of Trump well: stoke fear and anger to procure and maintain power. Trumpism has metastasized across both political parties. Serving the interests of the people has become a quaint passé notion of a bygone era.

The result? The greatest empire in the history of the world—the United States of America—has entered a period of precipitous decline. Both its hard and soft powers—of coercion and persuasion—have lost their relative prowess; mostly from self-inflicted wounds. Regardless of political dysfunction, that was, however, expected to occur. America’s unipolar moment (as international relation’s scholars refer to hegemonic power) are called moments for a reason: they never last. Frankly, the international system, which exists in a state of perpetual anarchy, is much more stable when held up by multiple competing interests than with one superpower, however benevolent a particular superpower may seem. A balance of power—widely distributed—is generally believed to be more effective in supporting the welfare of all.

But what about the rise of authoritarianism across the world? What about Russia, China, Iran, Hungary, et al? Many pundits and scholars are pulling the fire alarm on this development. But this isn’t new. We have seen this movie before. We know how it ends. These regimes, who violate the fundamental purpose of government—to serve the interests of the people—always fail in the long run. Usually due to a concentration of power that serves the few instead of the many. Putin, Xi, Khamenei, Orbán, etc. will enjoy extraordinary power and control for an historical moment or two, but like superpowers, their moment will end too. In the end, power emanates from people, not guns and money—regardless of the colors on the flag flying overhead.

What unnerves Americans is that (since Trump) our democratic republic sounds more authoritarian every day. We fear our democracy will fail. I share the concern, but find comfort in the long history of the world and in the underlying character of apolitical folks—like you—who really determine the direction of America every day in neighborhoods and towns across the country. Common people still have the capacity to find common ground to solve problems in their common interest. Remember, power emanates from the people, not from politicians— regardless of the form of government. Oppressive authoritarianism never prevails when faced with the courage of the masses.

The key, then, is summoning the courage of the masses. Like the Ukrainians, the women of Iran, the mothers of Russian soldiers, and now the workers in China. In America, the key to mobilizing our masses is shifting our focus away from the noise of the national stage and our federal government to building stronghold communities; focusing on local. In short, quit obsessing about the loud shiny distraction that is our federal government. The national scene is a mess; fixing America from the top down is impossible. To put it in more plain terms: our national leaders will not respond to intelligence, let alone goodwill. Our federal government has been destroyed by those who care much more about power than service. The only way to turn around America is from the bottom up: one neighborhood, community, town, city, and state at a time.

If one has an honest conversation with oneself, it becomes quickly evident that a president, senator, or representative has much less impact on our lives than county commissioners, city councils, or school boards. Local is where life is lived. Furthermore, those who peddle lies in an attempt at procuring power are more easily exposed and more deftly isolated at the local level. Locally, the light of truth is hard to hide. Moreover, it is relatively easy to find common ground since the consequences of any particular issue generally affect everyone regardless of political tribe. Whether you are wearing a MAGA hat or a Black Lives Matter T-shirt, you stand in the same line at the Post Office, grocery store, DMV, carpool, or Starbucks. Our cars all hit the same potholes. It is important to reflect on the reality that all of us, in our own way, are just trying to make our lives work.

While local is much less susceptible to the manipulations of nefarious actors, it also allows certain essential problem-solving skills to be realized, celebrated, and passed down from one leader to the next. Among the most critical skills of any local governing organization are the skills of problem definition and performance tracking. Defining the problem accurately (so resources and strategies are capably deployed), and submitting to quantitatively designed accountability, allow problems to be solved and, more importantly, governing capacities to be developed and maintained across leaders and across time. In addition (and this is as important as anything else), at the local level, power is only gained referentially from the people whose lives have been enhanced by the actions of leaders. This is known as the principle of enlightened altruism: if I make your life better, you will grant me the power to serve. Enlightened altruism is difficult to manifest on a national or international level, but much easier locally.

I know, our country is loud and obnoxious these days. It is both disturbing and disheartening. As an Oval Office-centric trained observer of domestic and foreign policy, it is difficult for me to refocus my attention on local. However, it has become a strategic imperative to saving America.

Unfortunately, in America today, the spotlight shines brightest on the most beastly and craven creatures of disrepute. My message is simple: turn them off and turn on your interest in your own communities. Starving bad actors of attention starves them of their power. Our democracy was not established, nor will it be saved, in the halls of Congress. As in 1776, its origins and prospects for longevity reside in the villages of the people, and in their hearts the fire of freedom. That is not to say we won’t face similar miscreants at the local level, or find the same sloganized vitriol we see at the national level spewed on our main streets, but they and it are much easier to kick to the curb on streets we control. Localism can defeat extremism.

Once we turn our attention to our communities, we can simply sit back and treat the national circus for what it is: a bunch of elephants, donkeys, and clowns.

By |2022-11-20T14:51:10+00:00October 27th, 2022|General, Recent, The New Realities|0 Comments

Dissonance, Disequilibria & Power

“What the hell is going on with (fill in the blank)?” is a question I have heard (and myself asked) often in the last few years. There may be a shortage of computer chips, childcare, housing, rental cars, and building materials, but there is no shortage of things that just don’t make sense. When our expectations are met by realities that are wildly discordant, anxiety flourishes and leaders scramble. It is very hard to fix something that can’t be explained. Dissonance becomes a source of cultural malaise. Disequilibria, which economists argue is nearly always a short-term phenomenon, causes wild swings in pricing as markets attempt to settle on an intersection of supply and demand. Collectively, these disturbances to normalcy create gaps and pathways to be exploited by mercenary actors who create all kinds of mischief as they extract wealth and power from instability. The vast majority of us stand by and become innocent victims; too often, collateral damage.

The malaise reported by most Americans today, which contradicts relatively positive economic data on employment, wages, and asset values, is evidence of anxiety that emanates from what we cannot yet tabulate, but know in our hearts: the world we thought we knew is over. Today’s world is one where power politics trumps economics, demographics, science, social norms, the rule of law, and even morality. Where reason is torqued beyond recognition in favor of coercion to subjugate—to bring to heel—adversaries who, in many cases, were previously treated as worthy citizens of a united realm of freedom and protected by established norms and laws.

In the last few years, the Trump worldview has metastasized where power is both a means and an end, and it has spread to both ends of the political spectrum: right and left. Trump’s attempted January 6th coup, followed by Putin’s World War II-ish styled invasion of Ukraine, and Alito’s triumphantly patriarchal draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade are of the same modality: coercive power deployed to destroy norms, laws, lives, and liberties. We might expect such bald-faced hostility from Trump and Putin, but a Supreme Court justice? Alito’s opinion is more like a political rant than considered judicial position. It’s as if he is a candidate trying to fire up a political base. In it you will find anger, arrogance, and even belligerence clearly unbecoming of a justice on the Supreme Court. Power politics ignores all of the guardrails of civil society and it has now permeated every institutional corner of our political system—including the hallowed chambers of the Supreme Court—that traditionally existed to keep nefarious actors at bay.

Getting past this pervasive retrogression to power politics that is underway in America and the world, and which aims to set the clock of humanity back more than half-a-century, will require, among other things, an unflinching determination to assert the will of truth. Marching with clever slogans on signs will not prevail over those drinking shots of power like bro-boys at a bachelor party. Their power-inebriated state will only fuel their belligerence toward those they wish to subjugate. As each of Trump, Putin, and Alito have recently done, they will claim victimhood to provide themselves with a veil (however sheer) of protective moral authority. Yes, claiming “witch hunt,” “Nazi aggression,” and “cancel culture” is a slight-of-hand designed simply to grab a slice of moral legitimacy. Those who live in carefully constructed and maintained information bubbles crafted by these types of actors will stupidly, but fervently, go along. The rest of us need to wake up, organize, and elect those who will recover our institutions of normalcy from the grasp of bad actors.

I know, I hear you, I am tired of this shit too. I am tired of being lied to. I am tired of watching people get away with it. I am tired of watching the progress of generations squandered. I am tired of watching people who are in a position to affect such a recovery of our institutions preening under the lights of cable TV—more concerned with their exposure to potential donors than saving America. I am tired of feeling ashamed every time I think of how I might explain how my generation let this happen in make-believe conversations with my dead ancestors and real time conversations with my kids. My psyche and my conscience spend too much of the day and night beating each other up. On too many days, humanity just wears me out.

For the foreseeable future, calm may have to replace joy as the definition of happiness as it was during my grandparent’s day. Eyes often reveal the disposition of generations. My maternal grandmother, Lunetta Belle Stinehart Goodfellow, had soft brown eyes that seldom were raised high enough to be level with the horizon. Downcast, yet determined; perched above lips that were perpetually pursed, my grandmother’s eyes expressed what was important to her: getting through the challenges of the day with a stern sense of resolve wrapped in the puritanical disposition of a committed Methodist who knew (or at least hoped) the afterlife might bring joy after enduring Word War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. Her self-image was never about herself—it was communal. It was never “this is me,” it was only ever “this is us,” where “us” was family and community.

My father, John Reynolds Steding, a member of the so-called “Greatest Generation” whose eyes were also brown, seldom cast his below the horizon. His disposition was less about getting through than going beyond, which may be why he was an aeronautical engineer and was instrumental in the U.S. space program. Still, his self-image remained embedded in the concept of “us” but was larger. “Us” was indeed family and community, but it was also very much about country. The invention of nuclear weapons raised everyone’s eyes above the horizon. “Incoming” was not a train arriving at the station, it was a nuclear warhead inbound from the Soviet Union. Life was allowed to expand beyond the limits of his parents’ generation, propelled by America’s emergence as a superpower, but it was bounded by the prospect of human annihilation.

My eyes are blue (go figure). My generation—the Boomers—were the first generation to dismiss “this is us” in exchange for “look at what I did.” Not we, I. Boomers blame Millennials for this shift from the collective to the individual, but no, it was us. We were hyper-individualists who waged our battles as entrepreneurs and solo practitioners while often disregarding the wisdom of safety nets. We were loosed upon the world as free-agents who found both guidelines and guardrails as nuisances to be largely ignored. Forget the horizon, our eyes danced up and down, side to side, like a junkie juiced on amphetamines. No one wanted to have an opportunity elude their field of vision. Given our rather manic dispositions we, ironically but necessarily, became wizards of risk management. As pendulums swing, it did when we became parents. Us Boomers—who considered independence as a condition that should be sprinkled with steroids—then turned about and raised the most dependent generations (Millennials and Zs) of all time.

My daughter (a Z) received a double-dose of blue eyes (with huge eyelashes to match) that are frankly, stunning. Millennials and Zs took the Boomer notion of “look at what I did” and amped it up, loudly but simply, to just “look at me!” The eyes of her generation too often stare into that small camera lens fixed on the back of a smartphone that represent the window to a future determined by algorithms. Which is, sadly and most certainly, unsustainable. (See: social media.) But in her eyes, I also see question marks within the reflected candescent halo ring of the Zoom lighting; curiosity mixed with a generation-skipping resolve that Lunetta Belle would easily recognize. Millennials and Zs may feel a sense of whiplash under today’s crisis-level challenges, but their gaze is not fixed, nor are their minds sclerotic. They understand the dynamics of fluidity and, with a nimble sense of determination, believe they can send the world turning in a better direction. In the face of current events, we need them to come into their own, and fast. The rest of us need to get out of their way.

Today, abundance is backsliding to a return to scarcity. Capital markets view the world as much less valuable—trillions less—than it was just four months ago. Bad luck has become an expectation rather than the occasional nuisance. Risk has a new locus that is never far away from imposing its consequences. Truth is under attack in every corner of the world. We must acknowledge the reality of power politics: it has launched a scourge of inhumanity that is submerging the world in a bile of hate. From abusing flight attendants to dropping bombs on children’s hospitals, we must stand together to fight inhumanity rising from dissonance, disequilibria, and chaos that empowers tyrants and zealots. We must summon what energy we have left to support the next generations of leaders—the Millennials and Zs—to save their own futures.

We will likely have to give up the big highs to avoid the depths of existential lows. We must settle for calm as the new joy. Above all else, we have to get back to the “this is us” disposition of older generations. Or, we can don red MAGA caps and learn to goose-step march in May Day parades on the Washington Mall. We do have a choice. For now.

By |2022-05-22T17:11:06+00:00May 10th, 2022|General, The New Realities|0 Comments

Unbelievable! WTF?! Insane!

How many times in the last few years have you asked, “Can it get any crazier than this?” It has become the refrain of the times.

The study of how we know what we know—epistemology—has always fascinated me. In these crazy days, epistemologists must be scratching their heads with a pick axe trying to alleviate the itch of bewilderment. In my doctoral research, I journeyed through the world of epistemology to examine the influence of the religious beliefs of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan on foreign policy that resulted in my monograph, Presidential Faith and Foreign Policy. I was faced with reckoning the squishy world of faith-based beliefs on presidential decision making. The model I developed to assess these impacts is called cognetic profiling. It considers and weighs what we know as a matter of empiricism and experience with what we believe as a matter of faith gained through socialization and indoctrination on our decision making. It allows us to explain, and (with due humility) predict, the behaviors of world leaders. (Putin’s recent decisions were entirely predictable based on his cognetic profile.)

One of the greatest ironies of today is that with all the amazing advances in information technology we have seen in the last two-plus decades, our capacity to make better more rational decisions appears to have plummeted. Rational models in epistemology have, no doubt, been found wholly deficient in explaining why on earth we are making such bizarre decisions. What is missing in my model of cognetic profiling is a research pathway that includes stupidity, which seems to be ascendant in America today. When faced with incontrovertible facts, many Americans decided to embrace what Trump advisor, Kellyanne Conway, infamously titled, “alternative facts”; heretofore known as falsehoods, or lies. Even with our lives on the line during the pandemic, nearly half of Americans chose to ignore empiricism forcing policymakers to offer a combination of incentives and disincentives to coax us to get the jab. Our fantasy world, founded in magical thinking, has apparently become more precious to us than reality.

The twentieth century in America was an era of what I have called “the scientification of everything.” As we applied scientific method to all aspects of our lives, we attempted to assert the rational will of humans in all of our decision making. Mastery of anything and everything was simply considered a matter of data processing. If it could be quantified and fit in an equation, it was considered relevant. There was little room left, in any of our decision models, for narrative, impulse, or faith-based beliefs. And, there was no room for “alternative facts.” In this new century, we have decided to rebel against reality—against facts—and elevate things like meme-based whims over empiricism. The “scientification of everything” certainly had its faults, but today we live in a world that would make Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter blush with envy. Crazy? Yes, it is.

So, why is this happening and what can we do about it?

The first thing I will point to, in a constellation of culprits, is that we are overwhelmed with information sources that arrive at the speed of a click or, more recently, are pushed in our face whether we like it or not, as in “banner notifications.” The promise of information technology has morphed into the nightmare of disinformation technology. We are faced with what the psychologist, Barry Schwartz, has identified as the “paradox of choice.” Like the three-hundred or so choices of cereal in the grocery aisle, we would much prefer ten. Abundance breeds anxiety, which has dramatically increased our error rate when making decisions.

The second culprit is the media—both traditional and online/social. In the twentieth century, media was, for the most part, a reliable source of information. The processes and ethics that journalists subscribed to assured the reader/listener/viewer that what they were consuming was likely true. Deceit bore consequences; today it bears benefits. The problem that arose is that as new sources proliferated—as quantity increased—reliability/quality decreased. Instead of a moderate flow of reliable information that was easy to consider and digest, we got a firehose level of (largely) bullshit that hit us in the face 24/7, producing a disorientation that would make Kanye West appear sane. In the same manner as Eisenhower warned us in his farewell address of the “military industrial complex,” perhaps Obama should have warned us of the disinformation complex. Trump’s advisor, Steve Bannon, codified the strategy of our 45th president when he proclaimed, “The real enemy is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.” The result? Regardless of how many times we scrub and wash, the stain fades but the stench remains as the flow of crap continues at firehose rates.

In response to being overwhelmed by a flow of disinformation, our coping response has been to seek simplification through association with groups, organizations, and political tribes, which naturally provide us with a set of filters in the form of prescriptions and proscriptions—what to believe and think or not to believe and think. In the history of humankind this function was the exclusive domain of religion. Today, every group of any orientation or function seeks to affect our decisions. In other words, we have abdicated both the consideration of information and its use in decision making to those we wish (for whatever reason) to associate with. Every group or organization has its own norms and rules that we are, either implicitly or explicitly, required to follow. Call it the hidden cost of membership. This is the most insidious of all the factors in the constellation of culprits that have degraded our decision making. It is through our choices of associations that we have become lazy and, frankly, stupid. In effect, we have taken a vast complex world made possible from our success and allowed its walls, ceiling, and floor to collapse in on us in order to affect simplicity.

Among other things, this explains the proliferation and acceptance of conspiracy theories in spite of empirical evidence that easily disproves many conspiracist’s claims. At the heart of conspiracies is simplicity, which is why they have become so popular. It is easier to accept a claim from a Facebook group that Ivermectin paste—something used to de-worm horses—might prevent or cure Covid-19, rather than wade through epidemiologist’s reports and seek the advice of medical professionals, let alone endure the public health gauntlet to be vaccinated. And, Ivermectin now comes in mint flavor! (Kidding. I think.) It may seem ironic that opposites—the far right and the far left—were those most resistant to Covid vaccines, but they are also those who are the most ardent subscribers to group-think. Their identities—their personal brand—are closely tied to their associations. They claim to be independent free-thinkers since they live at the margins of the socio-political spectrum, and yet, in reality, they are some of the most zealous close-minded people among us.

As the risk essayist, Nassim Nicholas Taleb (author of The Black Swan and Antifragile) once told me, as the world grows more complex, events compound such that outliers (black swans) become more prevalent. For those of you who are statistics junkies, the effect of this is to flatten the bell-shaped curve of normal distribution; more like a cymbal than a bell. This condition implies higher risk and is naturally disorienting. It requires much greater and more sophisticated capacities for decision making. Reliability of information is paramount. Unfortunately, the disinformation complex has come around to bite us in the ass.

The solution resides in adopting three new practices: slow down, discard and disassociate, and recommit ourselves to a sense of personal responsibility to be accountable for our own unique and discrete decisions. Just because technology moves information faster does not mean we need to make decisions faster. Deliberation is a choice. Just because everyone else belongs to a group and accepts edicts without inquiry, does not mean you have to. Be unique; be independent. Finally, don’t let others tell you what to think or do. The consequences are your own, the decision should be too. Our destiny—individually and collectively—depends on our willingness and capacity to regain control of our lives. No more delegating or abdicating. The biggest culprit in the constellation of the disinformation complex is us.

It is your mind, use it (again). Zombies may be entertaining in movies, but it is no way to live.

By |2022-04-05T14:47:11+00:00March 29th, 2022|General, The New Realities|0 Comments

Of Culture, Civilization & Chaos

The promise of globalism—of open trade and a common currency of exchange—that would obviate the need for borders and establish world peace is slipping back into the theoretical realm. Adjectives like “open” and “common” are being discarded in favor of a quasi-nostalgic preference for cultural handholds that provide a sense of comfort, security and, moreover, a compelling and clear answer to the question: “Who am I?”

This phenomenon—this new reality—explains much of what is going on in America and the world. From the perplexing so-called “great resignation” that attempts to explain why people did not run back to their old pre-pandemic jobs, to Putin’s attempt to put the Soviet band back together again.

It turns out that we do not favor being commoditized and homogenized. The pandemic inflamed this condition. We want our own particular identity founded in a sense of purpose defined not by market forces or dehumanizing algorithms, and especially not by government mandates. Rather, born from cultural subscriptions that represent a personal heritage of values we have decided—on our own—to make our own. We want our agency back.

Culture is a complex set of ideas and beliefs that define who we are and bind us together, or keep us apart. As powerful as our needs for safety, security, love, sex, self-esteem and self-actualization are (the Maslow hierarchy of needs), culture is the superstructure upon which we travel to express our reason for being.

Globalism was supposed to wash that structure away in the belief that rational economic forces and efficiencies would be preferred to the seemingly irrational subscriptions to cultural heritage including aspects of race, ethnicity, religion, gender roles, nationality, and even language. In short, the bet was that we would give up meaning for money.

That bet—once considered a sure thing by scholars of all disciplines—is collapsing before our eyes.

Putin is the current poster boy (however insane and evil) of this phenomenon. He represents the trend recently identified by Ross Douthat in the New York Times, based on the earlier work of the late Samuel Huntington, of “civilizationalism” that holds that people will fight to protect their particular cultural subscriptions over the liberal pull of openness and common interests even when it may not be in their political or economic interest.

Indeed, the model of the economically rational man that had driven so much of our policymaking in the 20th century now appears to be headed for obsolescence. I expect Putin will fail as he realizes that Ukrainians have moved on from the vestiges of Soviet culture. The power of Ukrainian identity—their hearts—will not yield to the power of his missiles—his muscle. He is motivated by a nostalgia for mother Russia, but forgot to check if this feeling still exists in Ukraine (if it ever did).

Trump recognized this trend before any other American politician. Perhaps less from any intellectual basis than his innate sense of human exploitation. Nonetheless, he pulled, tweaked, and occasionally yanked these cultural threads to stoke fear, anger, and above all, allegiance by those who saw their cultural identity in peril to support him even when it was contrary to their personal well-being. He knew that the things that defined who they thought they were—their sense of identity—was more important to them that the idealism of an open and inclusive America with liberty and justice for all.

This also explains why economists and especially our Federal Reserve Board of Governors are so perplexed about the employment decisions Americans are making today. Lo and behold: people are tired of carrots and sticks; they want the rich broth of meaning to guide their lives. The former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, Alan Greenspan, came closest to identifying this false premise of the economically rational man in his attempt to explain the phenomenon of market “bubbles” late in his term. His observations are now coming into full fruition.

Culture trumping economics has some profound and worrisome implications. Conflicts between states and within them will compound as the deck of identity parameters is reshuffled to accommodate a world that desires division over unity; exclusion over inclusion. Nationalist impulses will continue to rise, as will regional and local preferences and dispositions.

Yes, there will be blood. And, not just in Ukraine.

Economics be damned. In an age of abundance, we have the luxury of caring about other things. People want to live their lives in association with those who identify as they do. The commoditization and homogenization of globalism is dead. Huntington’s arguments in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996) are upon us, both at home and abroad.

In spite of rising conflict, there is, however, a silver lining. People are beginning to think for themselves again. They are listening to their hearts instead of their wallets. They are holding out for meaning over marginal economic benefits. They are showing a willingness to do the work of safeguarding their spirit rather than accept the products, services, and ideas as prescribed to them by unseen algorithms. They are reclaiming their humanity on their own terms. They have decided to be true to themselves (however they define that).

It will take years to move back to a model of purpose and meaning from the model of the economically rational man. But that is now underway. For the moment, most of our leaders and policymakers are perplexed and confused; living in their own myopic bubbles. Economic forces will remain, which to a certain degree is as it should be. However, culture is returning as the superstructure we embrace to guide our lives—for both better and worse.

This phenomenon will shake out eventually establishing a new equilibrium—a new understanding of how the world works. In the meantime, a lot of things will get broken.

It is time to hang loose and keep your head down while doing your own deep dive into what your life means to you. Yes, that’s okay again. You be you. But, keep your head on a swivel. The Putins and Trumps of the world will continue to search for angles of exploitation. Chaos is their friend.

By |2022-03-04T13:52:42+00:00February 27th, 2022|The New Realities|0 Comments

The Tragedy of Abundance

Who doesn’t like success? It is a wonderful thing. Especially the stories of those who, against all odds, somehow prevail. Success is worthy of celebration and, as the saying goes, “success breeds success,” even though our road to success is often paved by failures. Perhaps that is why it feels so damn good once we arrive.

The twentieth century, often described as the “American Century,” ended with a largely overlooked but profoundly important development—one that explains a great deal about our current challenges. In the late 1990s, America and much of the world made an historical transition from the prevailing condition of scarcity, that had been with us throughout human history, to the prevailing condition of abundance.

For the first time ever, humans had access to everything they needed to sustain their well-being without fear of running out of either necessities or comforts. An enormous success by any calculation. And while it is true that such abundance was, and remains, unequally and perhaps inequitably distributed, the fact is that—in aggregate—humans have succeeded in achieving something that eluded them for centuries. This is what strategists call a paradigm shift.

As it is with life lived in real time we did not, however, realize our success. There were no fireworks or new holidays taken or proclaimed. We simply indulged ourselves in the comfort of abundance. The prescriptions and proscriptions of life lived in prior generations like straightening and reusing every nail, and abstaining from public preening, were suspended in favor of casual indifference to the constraints of scarcity. When prudence and humility lose favor, decline is a certainty. This is when things started to go off the rails.

Now, nearly twenty-five years later, the tragedy of abundance is revealing itself in all manner of emerging malignancies that have driven our collective character into the dumpster of hubris, narcissism, greed, and sloth. It is no wonder we have entered an era of chaos and destruction that risks our well-being even while we remain awash in the fruits of abundance. Perhaps we should call it the paradox of plenty. However, while we would have benefited from maintaining historical American values, a shift in strategy was, in hindsight, urgently required.

In my last post, “Our Time Has Come,” https://ameritecture.com/our-time-has-come/,  I argued that a subscription to a zero-sum perspective manifested as a win-loss mentality was one of the reasons we were unable to successfully address the Covid-19 crisis. That it was a remnant-disposition of people like me—old white men—who were the product of a different era. That era was the era of scarcity, when zero-sum/win-loss was indeed an appropriate modality. In reality, the only viable way to compete in a world of scarcity.

Once the dynamics of abundance finally arrived, a shift in strategy should have also occurred. Yet, we stubbornly held close to the strategy that had served us well during the age of scarcity since, well, it had worked! Nothing could have been more natural or, as time now reveals, more foolish. As the then solo superpower in the world, America made the same mistake the victors made after World War I: we treated the conquered as losers who owed the winners due compensation and acknowledgment of their greatness, which (as we know from the post-World War I era) nearly assured World War II.

What we should have done in the late 1990s, was shift form the win/lose contemplation of power as a lever of coercion to a win/win contemplation of power as an opportunity to empower others to achieve their objectives as well as those we all share. In an age of abundance, empowering others does not diminish your own power, it actually enhances and sustains it. Call it the principle of enlightened altruism. And this shift would not, as it would have been criticized in the era of scarcity, been an expression of reckless idealism. Rather, it would have properly found residence in the school of realism. That is what paradigm shifts both allow and require.

Unfortunately, this missed strategic opportunity was not just realized in America’s international relations, it permeated all aspects of our society creating the fear, anger, and violence we see now at home every day. Those who stood to gain the most from the age of abundance sought more for themselves without regard for others. Those who were natural beneficiaries—especially the white privileged class—remained in a coercive win/lose posture and became vulnerable to those promoting the fear of inclusion rather than the plus-sum benefits of enlightened altruism.

In the last twenty-five years, had we viewed the world and our own country through the lens of empowerment rather than coercion, I have no doubt we would have responded much differently and more successfully to the attacks of 9/11, the Great Recession, Covid-19, and climate change. Moreover, we would have rejected the fear-based appeals of politicians like Donald Trump and the many condemnations that continue unabated from the woke-left. We would be unified in the spirit of abundance rather than perpetuating inequities that have broken our spirit of unity, liberty, and justice for all.

We could have erased the poverty of dignity that cause people to embrace the life of a terrorist. We could have kept families in their homes during the Great Recession rather than kicking them to the curb. We could have spent the $50 billion it cost to vaccinate the entire world and be its hero rather than seen as a selfish nation of charlatans. And, we would be well on our way to the innovations and policies required to affect saving ourselves and the world from the effects of climate change.

But, most of our leaders still believe that for every winner there must be a loser. (Visualize McConnell, Pelosi, et al, here.) When and until we encourage and support enlightened leadership who understand this paradigm shift afforded by abundance, and its implications for the power dynamics of humankind, we will continue on our current path of destruction. The now multi-power international system will continue to flirt with conflict that could, at any moment, produce World War III. Covid-19 will be the first, not last, of twenty-first century pandemics. Inequities will continue to make us vulnerable to fascists and perpetuate suffering at home. And, temperatures will continue to rise.

Most often, I feel as if I am screaming into a deep dark void. But, hey, at least you read this. Maybe others will too. If you know someone in a position of leadership—at any level of our society—please pass this on to them. Hopefully, the tenet “it’s never too late to do the right thing” will hold.

By |2022-02-27T21:44:18+00:00February 16th, 2022|Leadership, The New Realities|0 Comments

Our Time Has Come

The splitting of the chrysalis is underway; soon enough our wings will wriggle free and demand flight.

We now have permission to ask the question, “Now what?”

It is time to put our drama of trauma away. Set our claims of victimhood aside. Straighten our backs and turn our faces, once again, into the wind. From this point forward, if we are feeling oppressed or depressed it is no one’s fault but our own. The urgency of suffering and pining for “normal” has slipped from fashionable to just boring.

Two years into the pandemic we have learned a great deal about ourselves as Americans. While we can point to failures of political leadership, our scientists and healthcare providers—doctors, nurses, technicians, and public health officials—performed extraordinarily well; arguably the best in the world. Our failure to successfully quash the pandemic resides within ourselves as individuals. We neither trust each other, nor can be trusted to do the right things. Ignorance is no excuse; it is our uniquely American character that failed us—individually and collectively. The responsible independence that launched an empire of freedom, creating the greatest superpower in the history of the world, morphed into a toxic narcissism that directly resulted in extraordinary suffering and thousands of avoidable deaths.

But, at some time, all the analyses and debates—political, epidemiological, and cultural—do little, if anything, to advance our lives in a meaningful manner. That time is now.

Regardless of our age, race, gender, or ethnicity we are now emerging into our new post-pandemic selves. We have all struggled and experienced loss in different ways and to different degrees. In the same manner as “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” pain flows through hearts without a predictable trajectory or outcome. Scar tissue is a certainty, but it is our burden as humans to reconcile these events in our own time and fashion—largely on our own. The best we can do now is to allow space and time and be there for each other when our wings wriggle free.

As many of you know, for me, Nature is god. I never took to the rituals and parables and especially not to the judgments and condemnations of organized religions. While many weep at the sanctity of the divine as sunlight streams through stained glass on the glowing altar of devotion accompanied by the harmony of hymns, my tears are shed with joy in my heart as I rest on a fallen log deep within the forest that shelters its inhabitants under a canopy of life. My sweet peace is found in the eyes of a fox who carefully studies me with the intention of a brother in the realm equanimity. We aren’t just of one world; we are of one heart.

Unlike traditional religions, my Nature-as-god contemplation of spirituality actually has a scientific basis. Quantum Field Theory holds that we are all inescapably linked to one another. As the electromagnetic field and electron field interact, all manner of energy and influence are conveyed by and between all of us, whether animals or plants. Albert Einstein called this “spooky action.” Physicists call it quantum entanglement. I accept it as life. Among other things, it provides the foundation for a concept I first put forward in a graduate school seminar in international relations now more than a dozen years ago: coopetition—competing to cooperate. Win-win rather than win-lose.

Like many of you, I grew up schooled in the ethic of win-lose. It took most of my life to unwind my mind from the needless perniciousness of this paradigm. Unfortunately, the pandemic was addressed principally by old white men like me who can’t let go of this win-lose ethic.  The results speak for themselves. And, until and when we can get past this, we have little, if any, hope of succeeding in addressing the more profoundly existential threat of climate change.

Our failure has been literally baked into our future thanks to everything from religions that espouse their particular God as the only legitimate god, to political parties that spend all their time shaming and condemning the other side. We deserve our fate. In the next era (if we are granted one) perhaps we will realize that “spooky action” holds that hurting one another only hurts ourselves resulting in a spiral of collapse. I acknowledge that Jesus Christ would agree with me, but am perplexed and saddened to observe self-proclaimed committed Christians in America acting otherwise every day.

At this point, finding our way (Now what?) is more important than a destination we may never—likely will never—reach. Sweet peace is not the prize at the end of the rainbow, it is the rainbow. Rest assured, in the fog of deceit, given time, truth will prevail. We must remember that life is full of both success and failure, but our learnings come principally from failure. We must keep our hearts and minds open to revelation; add patience and deliberation and the answers will reveal themselves.

Grasping at easy answers and forcing fruition is a fool’s game. Let life reveal itself in a manner that assures durable enhancements to our lives. Likes, clicks, and memes are trash that clutters the gutters of our souls. To know something “by heart” means more than memorization; it means we have learned from the heart, with our hearts, which provide the great mitigators to calm our frenetic minds. Knowledge emanating from our minds and beliefs from our hearts must be carefully balanced; curated with our eyes set on a distant horizon.

Our time has come to live in silent jubilation for being spared during the worst of the pandemic.  We must accept what we owe ourselves and each other: an acknowledgment of our obligations and dependencies to the spiritual realm of being that does not differentiate humans from other animals, or even other organisms. This is the only path forward. The destination may not be within our control, but our intentions and direction of travel are. As Mary Oliver wrote in her poem, “The Journey”:

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do—

determined to save

the only life you could save.

Welcome back, everyone. Your life is yours again.

Please express it with due humility and care.

By |2022-02-16T21:11:43+00:00February 7th, 2022|General, The New Realities|1 Comment

The Great Reclamation Project

Would you like to have your life back? Your community? How about your country?

It seems as though the United States has entered a death-spiral of self-destruction. The conservative and always mild-mannered New York Times columnist, David Brooks, suggested America is “falling apart at the seams”; that it is “a society that is dissolving from the bottom up as much as from the top down.” What we need is a new vision of what life can be and the leadership to match. But we also need to make a commitment to ourselves and each other to change some fundamental behaviors to realize a new destiny through reclaiming what we know is true and good founded in a deep sense of personal responsibility.

When was the last time you sat on the edge of your bed before laying your head on the pillow and said to yourself, “If only all my tomorrows could be like today”? To then rise in the morning with a heart filled with aspirations. To find joy in each face you meet. To be overwhelmed by gratitude. To know that greatness—for yourself, your community, and country—were not just possible, they were probable. To feel like a winner living in the greatest nation in the world. This was once the shared prospect of every American and it can be again.

The Great Reclamation Project is our pathway to a new destiny. It requires a commitment to reclaiming our agency as individuals, strengthening the institutions—both formal and informal— that serve our collective interests, and caring for each other and the environment we inhabit in the same manner we wish to be cared for. It also requires a willful suspension of the long list of grievances, doubts, and animosities we all have collected in the dark days of deceit and peril we have endured over the last several years. To be reclaimed—to affect a new destiny—we must first unshackle ourselves from the anchors of fear and anger and hate. They are killing us. Bearing those burdens is no longer worthy of our attention; it is self-destructive. They must be vanquished to the currents of history.

The work begins at the first hint of dawn—when the sun breaks the horizon tomorrow. We must reclaim our individual lives, our communities, and our country.

Here is how.

Reclaiming Your Life

Step one is taking back our personal agency; to take responsibility again for our decisions and actions that define who we are. To regain our capacity for critical thinking that begins with knowledge gained from credible sources. To be honest with ourselves and truthful with others. Since the dawn of the digital age in the 1990s, we have, willingly and lazily, sacrificed our essential personhood to algorithms controlled by those who wish to exploit us like Google, Facebook, and Amazon. We are not algorithms, we are humans. Apps we downloaded to speed our access to news, products, and services to empower our lives have proven to be little more than a means of manipulation that have chipped away at our autonomy one click at a time. In extreme cases of immersion, which I witnessed personally with a former family member, they came to completely displace reality with a toxic and paradoxical mix of self-loathing and delusions of grandeur. Let’s be clear, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook (now the Metaverse) could not care less about our welfare. Do not participate in his meta-ambitions. Click delete—forever. Take back your agency as a human being. Discard the fear of missing out (FOMO) in favor of the joy of missing out (JOMO).

As the editor in chief of Tablet, Alana Newhouse, recently argued, Americans are suffering from an ethic of “flatness” that arose through a combination of the progression of capitalist incentives dating to the 1970s, with the application of digital technologies in the 1990s, that have rendered American lives indistinguishable from each other—an epidemic of frictionless sameness. All round pegs and round holes. Our institutions have devolved into “forbidding exploration or deviation—a regime that has ironically left homeless many, if not most, of the country’s best thinkers and creators…strangling voice[s]…before they’ve ever had the chance to really sing.” The solution is to embrace, once again, what makes us human. Express your desires, ambitions, and truths regardless of pressures to conform to what the algorithms and apps command of you. Return to the richness of creativity and diversity that once was a hallmark attribute of Americans. As Newhouse concluded, “our lives should not be marked by ‘comps’ and metrics and filters and proofs of concept and virality but by tight circles and improvisation and adventure and lots and lots of creative waste.”

Next, engage with the world under the assumption that there is more good in each of us as than there is bad. History is loaded with examples of regular folks doing horrible things. But, by and large, humans are wired for goodness. From the beginning of humanity, doing right by each other was the key to survival. Today is no different. The key to unlocking the good is a matter of expectations. Humans love to meet the expectations of those who they wish to emulate—with whom they wish to share an identity. We must flip our lens of expectations from the darkness to the light. Reclaiming ourselves can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. A change in moral perspective from bad to good—from desperation to aspiration—is essential to changing our personal and collective trajectory.

In hand with this commitment to the expectation of goodness is the rejection of personally held feelings of fear, anger, and hate. Yes, there are legitimate reasons to feel all of these emotions. I feel them—and fight them—every day. But here is the reality each of us must face. Negative emotions such as these provide those who wish us ill, or who wish to control us, with doors of weakness to exploit. Our fear, anger, and hate are weapons-against-us that produce self-inflicted wounds; that eventually cause us to lose our freedom and any hope of self-determination. This was, and is, the entire strategy of control and manipulation employed by our 45th (and perhaps 47th) president of the United States. It has been used by countless fascists who preceded him. Why provide the ammunition for our own executions?

Reclaiming our lives begins with reasserting our strength of individuality. Taking back our personal agency to create a human garden of beauty and diversity that once left the French philosopher, Alexis de Tocqueville, both amazed and perplexed as he toured a young America. We must live in the present with an eye on the future while expecting the good in each of us and capturing moments of beauty and success as fodder for gratitude. Know thyself and express thyself while safeguarding beliefs and values such that personal integrity is assured. Flourishing requires character and courage, neither of which emanate from algorithms, nor from apps.

Reclaiming Our Communities

If you have read my essays over the least few years, you know I am a fervent proponent of focusing on the development of what I call stronghold communities. And, specifically and urgently, turning our attention away from the shiny loud object that is our federal government. As David Brooks observed, cited at the head of this essay, our “society is dissolving from the bottom up.” That observation is easy to confirm as each of us have attempted to navigate the conflicts and animosities endemic in the communities we call home. Coupled with the ineptitude of our federal government, which has rendered itself little more than a resource-hoarding sloth, and is populated by those more interested in self-aggrandizement than the welfare of Americans, we face little choice but to fix-our-shit at home and envision a future with stronghold communities as the central actor in curing societal ills and enabling a future denominated in aspirations.

Stronghold communities can come in the form of counties, towns, neighborhoods, or any other organization—open to being defined by those who find themselves in any association to serve a common interest. Just as the reclamation of our individual lives requires rekindling our commitment to personal responsibility, we are similarly required to take responsibility for the communities in which we claim association. The principal focus of stronghold communities is for the production and maintenance of what economists call public goods. Public goods are the things that make our lives work—safely and productively—that we all need individually, but which are only achievable collectively. Schools; utilities; security; transportation, commerce and social infrastructure, are all examples of public goods. In America, we follow schemes of collective capitalism to affect the realization of public goods—a hybrid of socialism and capitalism. Even all types of insurance are schemes of collective capitalism even though they are usually dispensed by private companies. Yes, Mr. Allstate, you are (at least) half socialist!

Stronghold communities must see themselves as significantly more autonomous than they have in the past. They must reimagine themselves as the central actor in securing the welfare of their constituents. The three key skill sets of a stronghold community are: 1) a comprehensive knowledge of the needs and issues of the community; 2) the capacity to persuasively solicit and creatively apply resources to affect the objectives of the community; and, 3) the ability to network by and between other stronghold communities to pursue shared ambitions. Forget the hierarchy that places communities below state and federal institutions. In the future, stronghold communities are the hub of the wheel. We must take sole responsibility for whatever our common interest defines as the public goods of the community. Fortunately, technology is on our side that enables us to both network within the community and to forge alliances between communities to affect the capitalist benefits of division of labor and economies of scale. Traditionally, we have looked to the federal government to perform this networking function, but we must now flip that paradigm on its head.

It starts with fighting—tooth and nail—for the return of our financial resources from the federal government to the state and local level. Keep our tax dollars at home for application to locally controlled public goods. To accomplish this, we must also demand the dramatic reduction in the scope of public goods the federal government is (ostensibly) responsible for. Things like national security, central banking functions, and national transportation infrastructure should remain at the federal level. But things like education, public health, and commerce should be re-delegated to the state and local level. There is no question in my mind that my state, county, and town would have done a better job at protecting our public health during the pandemic than was accomplished by the executive and legislative branches of our federal government, let alone the FDA and the CDC. What a disaster. It is time to scale back the scope of burdens our federal government undertakes and return those obligations and attendant resources to the control of stronghold communities.

Some will argue this pits communities against one another right when we need to come together as a nation. Notwithstanding the fact that our national government cannot effectively produce and distribute many of the public goods we need anyway, competition between communities may produce (as competition often does) better solutions for us all. This scheme harnesses that capitalist ethic of competition that will, no doubt, create differential advantages between communities (and varied attractiveness for people considering relocation), but in the long run will force the unification of communities eager to capture those advantages for themselves through networked coopetition—competing to cooperate. And, unless you haven’t noticed, our well-intentioned national leaders have no chance of unifying the country while the malicious ones have no interest in doing so. As members of our respective stronghold communities, we will all still be Americans, but with a renewed sense of thriving rather than suffering. All, without raising taxes!

Reclaiming Our Country

As argued above, our federal government is irretrievably broken. But, that doesn’t mean we can’t reclaim our country from the bottom, up. The Trumplican Party has completely subsumed what was the GOP. Conservative ideals have been dismissed in favor of a naked power grab designed to protect white Christian nationalists who live in fear of losing their position in the hierarchy of socio-economic-political power. Our nation no longer looks like them and it terrifies them. Ideas are no longer their pathway to power; power expressed as coercion has become an end in itself. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party is completely self-absorbed in intra-party bickering and shaming the opposition, all wrapped in a veneer of elite righteousness. As a result, the Biden agenda has collapsed and the American people have been left to struggle to remember why they ever formed a union. Currently, Biden is not just in danger of being a one-term president, he is looking more like a one-year president. This can certainly change, but the prospects look dim. In addition, while the executive and legislative branches seem like they are engaged in a middle school food fight, our Supreme Court in the judicial branch has become a political cudgel that has forgotten such sacred norms as the value and sanctity of precedent. To extend the metaphor of branches, I am reminded of Immanuel Kant’s warning that “out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.” Perhaps our founders didn’t read Kant.

As I read the many recent essays—some scholarly and others sloppy punditry—about the impending collapse of our democracy and the prospect of civil war, I am reminded of an old maxim in my study of international relations which holds that at the time the question has been asked, the eventuality is most likely underway, if not having already occurred. Today, we are indeed no longer a democracy. A government of the people, by the people, and for the people? We have drifted very far from that ideal. The political scientist, Barbara F. Walters, prefers the term “anocracy” which is somewhere between a struggling democracy and authoritarianism. In limbo, but headed in the wrong direction. The prospect of civil war is also well underway. Unless you have been asleep since 2016, we are engaged in a cold civil war that is becoming hotter (just look at the trends of violence) every day. And, the leaders of both major parties are fomenting further enmity at every opportunity they can find. Divide us to oppress us to keep power and money to feed their own illiberal ambitions.

I have heard the argument that other aspects of society—more specifically business, industry and the financial markets—will not allow our democracy to fail, or our cold civil war to become hot. However, the institution most cherished by these entities is capitalism, not democracy. We know, if we accept the highly persuasive research of the French economist, Thomas Piketty, that the endgame of capitalism is the destruction of democracy owing principally to capitalism’s effectiveness in producing concentrations of wealth (then power) among the very few, which is profoundly anti-democratic. Have you ever heard of the Koch brothers? Do you think they prefer democracy to capitalism? Further, unless the violence of civil war disrupts the processes of profit-driven businesses, do you think those executives will care? Their job is to serve shareholders, not the liberal ideals of Thomas Jefferson, or the unification ambitions of Abraham Lincoln.

There is a way to reclaim the spirit of America and the ideals of our founders—to reclaim our country. Like many of the challenges any human organization faces it comes down to charismatic and inspired leadership that is genuinely interested in serving constituent members. In our current circumstances, this means a completely new—even flipped—perspective by new leadership whose aim is to re-establish the prospect of the American Dream, including all the aspirations of every human being within the states and territories of the nation, as well as re-establishing the integrity of traditional American values and human dignity throughout the world. This is damn hard work, but no more difficult than that faced by prior generations.

It starts with candidates who aspire to not just restore a functioning government, but to empower the least powerful among us such that we may all rise to become our best selves. Not just better, best. Yes, we are absolutely stronger together. That has been proven over and over throughout the history of humankind. We need to be lifted up, to believe in ourselves again. New candidates must embrace the intoxicating power of winning; of the natural and contagious appeal of victory, which is among the most alluring attractors known in the constellation of human persuasion. Against all odds, FDR, Reagan, and Barack Obama prevailed over their rivals with one simple proposition: they made Americans feel good again; they made both citizens of the country and people around the world want to identify as Americans. FDR made “happy days are here again” a national mantra during the depths of the Great Depression. Regan claimed it was “morning in America” again. Obama promised the prospect of “hope and change.” Our next president must do much more than “Build Back Better.” They must convince all Americans, regardless of political affiliation, that our traditions of hard work, honesty, and creative innovation will, once again, provide a land of abundance and opportunity unrivaled anywhere in the world.

Last November, I proposed a way out of our mess when I published “MAFGA”: Make Americans Feel Good Again, https://ameritecture.com/mafga/. I argued that “lifting people up has always proven more powerful than putting them down.” That candidates who embraced this concept could save us from the doom of Trumplican-styled authoritarianism. I received feedback ranging from thumbs up to “you couldn’t be more naïve.” Many readers were hung up on a visceral need to bring justice to those (especially January 6th insurrectionists and Trump) who have done America wrong before any pivot to aspirational aims. To be clear, reclaiming America requires justice to be served. I fully endorse bringing the full weight of the law down upon the heads of those guilty of violating our laws, including sedition and treason.  But, I also believe that is the job of our justice system. Our job, as citizens, is correcting our personal behaviors by reclaiming our personal agency, strengthening our communities, and supporting those who are willing to do the hard work of re-establishing the American Dream. We must focus on what is within our control. Absent these efforts, the shaming, prosecution, and punishment of those who we believe have done us wrong may amount to little more than a Pyrrhic victory.

We must flip our focus and intentions to advocating for aspiration, hope, success, and winning, assured and secured in the hand of sincere responsibility for ourselves and each other. If we remain where we are, addled by fear, anger, and hate—divided in the sinister trap of us vs. them—we will seal a fate none of us desires. We will fail ourselves and every generation that succeeds us.

It is time to shift our eyes toward the light of dawn. To rise again in the embrace of hope. To know that our strength and our future are in our hands. It is time to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and, before we lay our heads on the pillow of our dreams, know that tomorrow is another opportunity to prevail in the game of life and maybe, just maybe, re-establish that beacon of hope—that city on a hill—conceived by John Winthrop at the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630.

By |2022-02-07T21:46:32+00:00January 17th, 2022|General, Leadership, The New Realities|0 Comments
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