The Fear Response

There are numerous theories about why societies rise and fall, proffered by even more numerous scholars who attempt to connect the dots of evidence and massage them with nuance into coherent narratives.  Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jeremy Black’s Great Powers and the Quest for Hegemony, and Cullen Murphy’s Are We Rome? offer some interesting and varied approaches to the question.  They are each well researched and include reasonable arguments to a complex question.  However, in my seemingly endless search for simplicity—to understand the American condition—I have settled on one question, ignored by most studies, that I believe explains a great deal about how societies “rise and fall.”  The question is: How do they respond to fear?

The fear response is related to Stephen Flynn’s theory about resiliency as a measure of national power: “a society that can match its strength to deliver a punch with the means to take one makes an unattractive target.”[1]  But resiliency has at its core a cognitive component that emanates from societal IBCs (ideas, beliefs, and convictions), which contribute to our collective character.  It is this character, which evolves continuously, that determines how we respond to fear like the attacks on Pearl Harbor in 1941, or the Soviet’s launch of Sputnik in 1957, or the attacks of 9/11.  It is fair to say that fear brings out the best and worst in a society no matter how strong the collective character is at any particular time.

After Pearl Harbor, American society demonstrated both its cohesion and determination in defeating Hirohito and Hitler, but it also interned Japanese Americans.  After Sputnik, Kennedy committed the United States to sending a man to the moon, but he and his successor, Lyndon Johnson, also over-imagined the Soviet and communist menace and nearly started a nuclear war in the Caribbean and did, unfortunately, convince Americans that if we didn’t stop the communists in Vietnam, a contagion would spread that would threaten the lives of every American for generations.  After 9/11, American flags waved from anywhere we could attach them, but our fear produced the worst of us as American Muslim mosques were burned, and our leaders became willing fear mongers engaged in falsifying intelligence, and even color-coding fear for systemic consumption.  And, while the jury is arguably still out on Iraq and Afghanistan, I’ll go out on a limb and suggest if we had a chance to do it over we wouldn’t have troops in either place today. The more interesting question, however, is what tips our fear response from best to worst?

This is admittedly a tricky question, but the worst fear response appears to have an inverse relationship with prosperity, measured by wealth and power; that is, the more prosperous we have become, the more likely a fear event produces the worst of us. In the three events mentioned above, our fear response was best when we were the least prosperous in 1941, and significantly worse in 2001 when America’s power and wealth were at an all-time high.  This seems counter-intuitive; after all, isn’t a wealthy and more powerful nation less fearful and more cohesive?  Apparently not.

Wealth and power provide their own toxic effects.  In 1941, fear inspired patriotism and produced self-sacrifice, discipline, diligence, and enterprise.  In 2001, our patriotism expired even before the flags faded; fear spawned hatred, jingoism, isolation, and hubris.  We have lashed out at the world and stand divided and vengeful at home.  We want to build walls at the border and persecute those who don’t think like we do, worship our God, or even look and speak like us.  And, we wag our fingers at each other and our government demanding our unfair share of what pie remains.  In our relative prosperity we have become poor of character.  FDR was correct in his day to claim, “all we have to fear is fear itself.”  Today, all we have to fear is ourselves.

I would like to argue, as Tom Brokaw has, that the “Greatest Generation”—those who stood tall after Pearl Harbor—were possessed of an intrinsically generous and courageous character, but I see too many of them screaming into the microphone at anger rallies today.  Their well-shined image has suffered with the rest of us, subject to the same toxicity of prosperity.  To add a further irony, our current national security complex is the largest most extensive security system ever developed with “1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies [that] work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.”[2]  Yet, we feel less safe than ever.

Maybe it’s not prosperity’s fault.  Maybe prosperity isn’t about wealth and power.  Maybe its about humility, responsibility, and self-restraint.  Maybe it’s about respect.  One thing becomes clear: if America is to retain its position in the world, we cannot afford our current sense of entitlement and certitude.  Personal responsibility and mutual respect for each other and the precious resources we enjoy deserve our better selves.  We must face fear with resolve, not color-coded fear mongering, lest we allow our worst selves to prevail.  It’s time to turn off the noise and recapture our greatness.  It’s time to stare in the mirror and ask more of ourselves.  The path we’re on will otherwise produce an unwelcome and painful poverty of economy, power and dignity.  It is time to rebuild our collective character.

[1] Stephen Flynn, The Edge of Disaster (New York: Random House, 2007), p. xxi.
[2] Dana Priest and William M. Arkin, “A Hidden World Growing Beyond Control,” The Washington Post, July 19, 2010.
By |2017-05-27T18:36:51+00:00July 29th, 2010|American Identity, General|0 Comments

The New Realities Part V: Sovereignty, Anarchy, and Creative Destruction

If you are someone who enjoys chicanery, volatility, and a world without rules, the needle on your happy meter will remain pegged for the foreseeable future.  The world Daniel Suarez creates in his techno-thriller Daemon and its sequel Freedom seems to be more real than fantasy as unexplained flash crashes and debt-induced contagions threaten to destroy our many efforts to construct durable institutions to suppress endemic anarchy in the international system.  Suarez may prove to be as prescient as his predecessor of Americano angst, Tom Clancy.  Alas, anarchy appears to be gaining the upper hand—as Machiavelli’s adherents would argue it always has.  Our stubborn invocation of sovereignty ensures it.  Our rapacious leaders in both D.C. and Wall Street exploit it.  It is simply antithetical for humans to stick much more than a toe into the Rubicon’s waters of civil transformation before withdrawing; there are few Caesars among us.

However, while we wring our hands over the effects of market mayhem and cringe at the timidity of our political leaders who wilt under kliegs supplied by hyper-partisan (so-called) news bureaus, we can also find solace in the uncertainty and upheaval that allows creative destruction to do its thing: to purge the system of bad ideas and incompetent leaders.  Anarchy amps our turpitude but it also makes room for reinvention—for new ideas and leaders to take the stage. Many (relative) innocents will be hurt, but we must embrace this Darwinian moment and adapt our own behaviors and expectations to new realities.  We must avert our eyes from headlines crafted by Chicken Little hacks and dig deeper into human activity.  When we do, we realize that we are one major ah ha! away from an explosion of innovation.  For example, last week’s announcement of the proof-of-concept of synthetically driven cell production means creative destruction is underway.  Next-gen Edison’s remain busy while entitled malcontents who capture headlines hurl stones in Athens’ public square.

Moreover, predictions based on watersheds, contagions, and dominoes are seldom, if ever, realized.  More often, they are used to perpetrate a political slight of hand, like we must fight in Vietnam to stop the contagion of communism; or, if we establish a democracy in Iraq it will produce liberal domino effects throughout the Mid-east.  Or the latest: if Greece goes under the global financial system will collapse.  The reality is that factors that produce effects in one place at a point in time seldom propagate.  Variability of both factors and outcomes is much more probable.  And, we humans have a distinct advantage.  As Matt Ridley points out in The Rational Optimist, humans have mastered the practice of exchange and specialization allowing wealth and intelligence to metastasize across our global civilization.[1]  This means most of us will be okay—as we always have been—notwithstanding enduring the hue, cry, and anger of fear-mongering politicos, displaced non-adapters, and bigoted extremists.

Social order is changing, forced by crises, real or perceived. Sovereignty will become a personal claim, not just a claim of state.  Anarchy will prevail both inter, and intra state.  Eventually, new structures will emerge based on new norms and narratives.  Myths will be written anew.  Collective action based on intelligent exchange and specialization will prevail.  A new ‘normal’ will be revealed.  This dialectic phase will end and a higher truth will emerge, just as it has throughout the history of humankind.

[1] Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (Harper Collins, 2010).
By |2017-05-27T18:47:34+00:00May 24th, 2010|The New Realities|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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