The Chosen Ones

The following is Steding’s keynote address at the Third Congressional District (D3) Summit in Ridgway, Colorado on July 21, 2017.

Recently, I watched an interview of Elon Musk, the great inventor, entrepreneur, and American immigrant from the 2017 TED conference.  He discussed the many seemingly outrageously optimistic objectives he has for everything from building a new tunnel system for commuters under Los Angeles to his new line of Tesla cars.  If you haven’t seen him interviewed before, he is a very kinetic individual.  His eyes, which flutter and dart from one idea to the next, reveal the intensity of his ambition and the size of his intellect.  Toward the end of the interview when asked why he pursues so many objectives with such confidence and abandon, Musk’s eyes settled, and he did something we rarely see him do, he paused. He paused, took a deep breath, and simply answered: “I’m not trying to be anyone’s savior … I’m just trying to think about the future and not be sad.”  That simple and heartfelt response really resonated with me when I think about the future of America, and I suspect many of you here today share Musk’s sentiment: when we think about the future of America, we just don’t want to be sad—for ourselves, friends, family, neighbors, town, state, county, country and world.

Today we should also remind ourselves that there are many reasons the United States is the envy of the world. We actually do things right most of the time. As Winston Churchill once suggested, we get things right after trying everything else first.  Americans are imaginative, optimistic, hopeful, caring, hard working and always have an unshakable desire to do better in the future.  And yes, American’s are also precocious, arrogant, and even grotesque, a perplexing combination often creating confusion around the world.

We believe we can make ourselves into whatever we want, unencumbered by where we were born or whom our daddy is. Our ancestors do not define our stake in the world. Our self-image is largely prospective. This uniquely American condition requires, at its very core, that we be individually capable of exercising free choice and willing to accept the consequences of those choices, including electing folks who will represent us in a fair and respectful manner.  In short, we must exert our political will.  Otherwise, we end up with elected officials who want to “take America back again,” which is foolhardy to suggest and frankly impossible to accomplish because, as Roger Cohen, columnist for The New York Times and new resident to Ridgway wrote recently, America is always “ceaselessly becoming.”  Those who peddle fear, anger, and intolerance only act to reveal their own shortcomings and their own misunderstanding of what truly makes America great.  Those who embrace hope, summon courage, and engage with empathy for their fellow citizens must unite to stem the tide of vitriol and secure the future of an America that preserves the prospect of the American dream for future generations.

·      I believe that the values of the vast majority of Americans will prevail over those who espouse win/lose, zero-sum thinking, wrapped in deceit and fear.

·      I believe we will return as exemplars of self-restraint and moderation, rather than zealous missionaries of consumptive duplicity.

·      I believe we will renew our commitment to diversity and find a way to keep the gates of America open.

·      I believe we will educate our children to know more than we do—that we will succeed in enabling their dreams.

·      I believe we can and will rein in the effects of climate change and eliminate the use of fossil fuels altogether, perhaps even in my lifetime.

·      I believe we can engineer a system that protects and rewards merit balanced by empathy and mitigate the pernicious effects of concentrated wealth and its natural progeny plutocracy.

·      I believe we can be good stewards of a globalizing world and that we will continue to be welcomed in the capitols of the world as those who enable and lift the lives of others—who compete to cooperate.

·      I believe we will honor our American heritage and come together to relight the city upon the hill, rather than strut down the path to irrelevance.

But it all depends on the will of the people, of the will of folks like you, the self-chosen ones who have accepted the responsibility to rescue our imperiled union and the values of liberty and justice for all from those who wish to turn back the progress made by now seven generations of great Americans.

It is our collective political will that will successfully navigate this period of crisis and transform our identity from superpower to global stewards; that the nation of Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, and Hamilton will not become an isolated, self-centered, and decaying archetype of liberty.  And while there is never a clear roadmap toward a certain future, history suggests that Americans will do what they have always done: combine seemingly disconnected and disparate ideas and materials into new inventions and innovations to create previously unimaginable solutions to our greatest challenges.

Your future and the future of this country are in your hands.  And, although the challenge seems daunting at times, you and your family, neighbors and friends have the power.  I want to turn now to something you’ll need on this journey—to exercise your political will—and that is what I call transcendent courage.

There are five elements of transcendent courage:

1.     The first is the capacity to see things as they are, which comprise what I call your truth.  The truth in transcendent courage is based in the simple reality that we know what the right thing is to do.  The difficulty comes in listening to and honoring our sense of truth (allowing its transcendence) against the pressures of competing influences. Those who possess transcendent courage are the most innocently (or unapologetically) honest among us.  They live in their truth all day, every day.

2.     The second element of transcendent courage is the capacity to subordinate consequence to the necessity of action; consequences are inconsequential.  Fears are faced down.  The prospect of immeasurable burden is accepted with grace and dignity. Risk, ridicule, and loss are accepted as the inevitable partners of a courageous life, one which, above all, honors (its truth.

3.     The third element of transcendent courage is selflessness.  Many people define their lives by their service to others.  They measure their self-worth by the extent to which they make others smarter, healthier, happier, and safer.  Teachers, doctors, clergy, police, firefighters, paramedics, military, and community volunteers come readily to mind.  By their very nature or life choice, people who spend their time serving others have a significantly greater propensity to possess transcendent courage.  Service to others teaches us the intrinsic value of selflessness.  It isolates the influence of adoration and compensation from consideration.  It gives us the opportunity to embrace our humanity and feel connected to community while enhancing our self-esteem.  Selflessness produces that warm feeling many call peace.  Selflessness is the liberation of the soul from the oppression of our desires.

4.     The fourth element of transcendent courage is self-acceptance.  Are you comfortable in your own skin?  Do you like you?  Have you resolved with yourself who you are?  People who have access to transcendent courage accept who they are and live lives bounded by dignity and imbued with grace. They are at peace with themselves, in the present.

5.     The fifth element of transcendent courage is the transmission of strength.  I’d like to tell you about Sara.  I met Sara at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas at the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders where she was being treated for an aggressive form of leukemia and where I was a volunteer.  Sara was five when she started her treatment and like most five-year old girls Sara liked everything as long as it was pink, purple or somehow related to Barbie. Sara had pale, crystal-blue eyes and strawberry-blonde hair, always gathered with a satin, clip-on bow. She loved to have her nails painted and preferred patent leather shoes. Soft and shiny was her style, which meant that both silk and fleece could be mixed in the same outfit without offending her aesthetic sensibilities. Sometimes she looked like a kid who had dressed herself while standing in her closet, blindfolded. Everyone who spent just five minutes with Sara loved her, including me. Sara is the most courageous person I have ever known.  During Sara’s three years of horror battling leukemia I never saw her cry out, whine or complain.  I will never forget the last few days before Sara’s death. Sara was the first one to accept what was coming. She helped everyone else through the painful anticipation of losing her. She smiled every moment she was awake. She never expressed concern for herself. She only wanted to make sure her mother, father, and little brother would be okay.  Sara’s legacy is the strength she transmitted to those around her.  Her courageous behavior made anyone who was in contact with her a better and stronger person. This is the fifth and final element of transcendent courage. Those who act courageously enhance the lives and behaviors of everyone around them.

Those of you who marched on January 21st of this year are really no different than those who tossed tea into Boston Harbor launching the American Revolution for independence, or the abolitionists who fought to redeem America from its original sin of slavery, or who fought fascism in the 1930s and 40s, or those who rallied to the side of civil rights and against the Viet Nam War in the 1960s. You are the true patriots, the chosen ones to protect and assure our future.

At D3 we have adopted an ethic—a manifesto—of “six words to write on the wall” to guide our efforts.

1.     Authentic.  Keep it real, and keep it true. In periods of crisis there is not enough slack in the system to reward work that is almost right.  Only the real stuff wins. The question is, what is the fundamental value you wish to express in its simplest form?  Seek to promote values that are pervasive and durable throughout the system, product, policy, or personal regimen.  Once identified, set them like cornerstones to support everything you do.  The best example of authenticity I can offer you is Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. who launched a civil rights revolution with fewer resources than any of us has today.  He had no money, no weapons, no statutory power, and no technology—no Internet, social media, cellphones, or even fax.  But, he had authentic beliefs and convictions that resonated with millions of people, expressed as his “Dream.”

2.     Resilience.  Here is a not-so-newsy flash: you, your family, your company, your community, your city, and your country will suffer a blow or blows as we unwind from the current crisis in the chaotic and messy climb toward a new more settled state.  Crises, like forest fires, are indiscriminate.  Even if you avoid catastrophic damage, collateral damage is a certainty.  Many herald schemes of sustainability and independence, but they are just part of this larger objective of resilience.  To survive we must have the ability to bounce back.  In our personal lives, this means we have to be mentally and physically fit, and have access to sufficient financial and human resources. Have go-to folks that can bolster your efforts in those areas where they are stronger than you.  Take personal responsibility for your lot, however you define it.  When the blow comes take the hit, dust yourself off, and get ready to hit back.  Make yourself a hard target.

3.     Gonzo.  Honor the ethic given us by the late Hunter S. Thompson.  In shorthand, gonzo means that you should write all the rules down so you know what not to do.  Channel your inner Gonzo.  The vast majority of rules, policies, and structures were adopted to protect those in power, not to protect or serve you. In the ascent from crisis, those who set aside tradition and define their world in their own terms will be profoundly successful and yes, much happier.  When you face the inevitable admonishment “you can’t do that” or “that isn’t allowed,” simply respond: watch me.

4.     Transcendent.  Rise above the rabble.  Don’t be drawn into the muck of ignorance that is so-often the marker of organizations and factions whose survival depends on the condemnation of opposing perspectives. Be wary of ideologies and theologies that practice judgment and condemnation.  They are debilitating.  Retain your free will.  Read often and deeply; look for character, structure, and meaning.  Pursue knowledge beyond your comfort zone.  What does the artist know or do that might benefit the scientist?  This is the best way to nurture the power of an opposable mind.  An opposable mind is always open to new ideas that create solutions no one else has thought of—that transcend the moment.

5.     Stealth. High profiles are dangerous in periods of crisis.  Humility and self-restraint are clearly preferable to hubris.  There are many people who enjoy health, wealth, and happiness who never stick their head in front of the camera. Be like them.

6.     Grace.  There are many definitions and interpretations of grace, so let me start by suggesting the grace I speak of is when the proper balance of virtues are combined with other elements and resources to produce something beautiful.  A state of grace then is the modality that produces beauty, whether it is an object, product, service, idea, or writing.  Pierre-Auguste Renoir often argued that the most durable things in the world are those that are beautiful.  Grace is the capacity to bring everything together in such a way that people say wow that is beautiful, or amazing, or just plain cool.  I am suggesting that grace is when you bring authenticity, resilience, gonzo, transcendence, and stealth together in just the right way to assure your destiny—which is indeed a truly beautiful thing.  Then, you are in a state of grace.

In my final comments today, I’d like to share a poem by William Ernest Henley, written in 1875 and subsequently published under the title, Invictus.  I use it as a source of strength and inspiration when the world seems daunting.

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the Pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.


In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.


Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.


It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll.

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

“We the People,” is arguably the most powerful phrase ever written in the history of humankind.  But remember this: no one person has the authority to decide who “the people” are, yet each one of us bears the responsibility of making the “we” happen.

Go forth to engage and unite with a calm sense of resilience to establish a new America whose influence is gained not coercively, but referentially by empowering people throughout both America and the world.  This is not a fearful America, nor is it bounded by bigger walls and bigger guns.  It is an America that believes in itself and its traditions of inclusion and empathy, and of its passion for education, innovation, and leadership.  This America views dynamism and creative destruction as prerequisites to continued greatness, rather than a “great” that can only be found in a romanticized Rockwellian past.

Our future will be determined by the decisions and actions of individual Americans every day.  Like water carving a new gorge in a mountain of stone, it will be the collective will of the people, expressed in their nearly imperceptible movements that will set the course of the future.  I believe that the loudest, most angry, and most fearful among us will not prevail; it will be the actions—not rhetoric—of the vast majority of us who decide how to behave as Americans that will lead America into a bright and prosperous future.

Thank you very much.


By |2017-08-15T19:55:20+00:00July 22nd, 2017|American Identity, General|0 Comments

Natural Law and Destiny

Natural law—those rules and conditions that are validated by nature and resistant to human manipulation—suggests that the destiny of any civilization is determined within an impervious web of complex variables, which interact in a rhythm beyond the sensory capacity of man.  Among other things, they suggest we control much less than we believe we do.  But, there are some natural laws that include us as actors and offer guidance (if not inspiration) as to how we might succeed.  Ironically (and also naturally), they are ignored under the weight of egotism during times of prosperity, only re-emerging during crisis.  This group of Homo-natural laws (H.naturals) includes a navigational set that offer clues as to how we might better set a course toward success. They include maxims like “You are what you eat,” Your bike, car, motorcycle, plane, (etc.) will travel in the direction you are looking,” and “You will become what you talk/think about.”  They are the fiber in our concept of will.

As the current political, economic, and social crisis unfolds, those who understand the H.naturals will do well.  Those trapped in the egotism of yesterday will fail.  What we consume, where we set our sights, and our prevailing narrative will define an identity that will ride H.naturals to a new destiny.  As orator and perennial Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan claimed, “Destiny is not a matter of chance; it is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for; it is a thing to be achieved.” Notwithstanding its inherent Homo-centrism, Bryan’s claim recognizes the role man plays within the reality of H.naturals.  He offered these words in the late 19th century when America emerged as a player on the world stage—after another crisis: Civil War and Reconstruction.  Like then, H.naturals will prevail today; and they apply to all of us, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or national allegiance.  In other words, H.naturals don’t play favorites; the myth of American exceptionalism provides no surety of success.  Those societies who understand this will be the next great powers.  Those that don’t won’t.

It is critical then that we Americans consider carefully those matters that define us—that will conflate with H.naturals to set our course.  Here are some suggestions to consider as we re-design our future—our ameritecture.

  1. In the future, national power will be gained referentially; attraction will prevail over coercion.  The United States has the sole capacity via its military might to destroy any and every adversary.  This is a good thing, as long as we don’t use it—as long as we protect the myth behind the curtain of Oz.  Given this perception-cum-reality, it should not be surprising that our adversaries will choose alternative modalities to compete.  As we have seen, some will continue to choose violent means, albeit asymmetrically, through terrorist networks using improvised explosive devices and suicide bombers.  Others will buy our debt and subvert quasi-American institutions by offering more attractive alternatives to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Still others will look to exploit the weakness of our critical infrastructures through cyber-warfare to compromise our communication, power, and water systems. Boots on the ground, bombs in the air, and nation building, will not defeat these efforts.  Ironically, through our predominance, we have rendered them obsolete.  Today’s threats must be met by new means of power.  We can succeed if most of the world sees America as its advocate—as a critical factor in its success.  What Harvard’s Joseph Nye calls “soft power” must be applied through what I have termed enlightened altruism to defeat our adversaries. The people, from Xinjiang, to Naypyidaw, to Peshawar, to Abuja, to Caracas must all believe their future is better assured by having a positive relationship with the United States.  They must have a basis of attraction to grant power to America referentially. They must be our new advocates—they must have a vested interest in our security.  Every time we destroy another village, temple, or city our effective power declines and our national security is compromised.  This is not peacenik talk. This is the new global realism.
  2. Government is not the answer, people are.  Reagan had it half right: “government is not the answer,” but neither is it the problem, unless we allow it to be.  We make it the problem by the abdication of personal responsibility.  We ask it to do for us what we should be doing for ourselves.  Government’s role should be re-cast—limited—to providing basic public goods like security and the rule of law; to protect us from external threats and internal mischief.  While some government programs are arguably public goods, they diminish and at times subvert people and their communities.  And, they collapse under the corruption of government operatives.  Moreover, too many laws protect civil predators like health insurance companies and Wall Street grifters.  We must reject the constellation of false choices partisanship promotes. For example, healthcare is neither a right nor a privilege; it is a public good. We are all better off when our neighbors are healthy too.  But, it is a public good that is fiscally unsustainable under the legacy structure imposed by our government.  It is a prime example of a failed distribution system—one that can be fixed only if our leaders muster the political will to breakup the cartel that is strangling families and communities and return the power of choice to the people.
  3. Openness and inclusion is the soul of American liberty; fear is the tool of tyrants. America is the most open society in the world.  Both our beauty and warts are on display for all to see.  Notwithstanding frequent embarrassments, this allows a fluidity of ideas and opportunities unmatched in the global system.  We must fight to maintain this virtue in the face of those who seek to curtail it for their personal political, economic, or social benefit. Today, many extremists from many venues are attempting to close our society invoking fears of security, religious subversion, and racial or ethnic conflict.  As with all bullies, fear is their weapon, currently amplified in an environment of crisis.  They use glittering generalities and moronic simplicities while twisting historical fact to gain influence and serve themselves.  They claim they are patriots, but like the wolf in a sheep’s headdress, they are the enemy within.  They must be identified and exposed for what they are; they are America’s biggest threat.  Common targets for their ire are immigrants, although race and religion may be their true concerns.  While all historical data suggests immigrants are the lifeblood of the American system, these extremists would like to slit America’s throat with their jingoistic, ethno-centric, fear-based, vitriol.  Each of us must stand up to sit them down.
  4. If we do nothing else well, we will succeed if we do education well. In a global system intelligence trumps geography, demography, and natural resources.  Intelligence is everything. But, we must acknowledge there are different types of intelligence, each making their particular contribution to civil success.  Currently, there is significant and justified hand wringing over test scores in math and science as well as painful cuts in resources due to our financial crisis.  But if we compromise our capacity to generate future intelligence—comprised of both critical and creative skills—we will lose our competitive advantage and fail.  Budget cuts today are reflexively aimed at non-quantitative, non-analytical courses as if math and science is enough to face future competition in a global economy.  This is a potentially tragic mistake, especially considering our legacy-advantage of invention and innovation.  Many nations perform better at math and science, but none exceeds the United States in the creative application of intelligence.  We don’t need to be like everyone else.  We need to be like us.  We need to continue to invest in the engineer and the artist.  It is through both these skill-sets—the analytical and creative—that America will continue to lead the world.  We must apply both competition and cooperation—‘coopetition’—to leverage our intelligence and assure our future success.

We can’t control H.naturals, but we can make wise decisions on crafting our identity to maximize the likelihood of civil success.  We can summon our heritage of liberty and diligently protect our capacity to out-innovate the world if we take care to suppress those who have succumbed to fear and oppression.  We must understand that the world changes every day and that our old methods—particularly in the projection of power—may not serve our future interests.  Above all, we must take personal responsibility, possessed of both courage and humility, to make our world (however large or small) better every day. Our destiny depends on it.

By |2017-05-25T22:11:46+00:00March 21st, 2010|American Identity, General|0 Comments
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