America’s Secret Sauce: Self-determination

The last five years have produced what forbearing historians, muttering their observations from the comfort of overstuffed club chairs, might call a generational setback, even while it may feel more like a catastrophic collapse in the moment. Between the Covid-19 pandemic and the rise of violent authoritarianism, the health and the general welfare of our civilization have suffered tremendous blows. Recovery will be slow and arduous. Globalization, which had been underway for thirty years, has come to an abrupt halt. Its principal benefits—economic growth and peaceful coexistence—were interrupted by the pandemic, then dismembered by Putin’s war. Meanwhile, addressing climate change, which can only be mitigated by a combination of cooperation, sacrifice, and extraordinary investment in energy innovation and infrastructure, now appears headed for a fully realized nightmare. Once differential population and economic growth rates collide with mandatory climate migration affecting not millions, but hundreds of millions of people, an apocalyptic ending to civilization is highly plausible. This is all enough to make even the strongest among us throw up our hands and walk off the nearest cliff.

But we haven’t and we won’t.

The thing about periods of both dramatic growth and sudden decline is they end in whiplash. We surge, we collapse, we purge, and we rise again. In one sentence, this is the pulse of humanity that has repeated for thousands of years. The purge, which includes casting aside old ways for new ones and is essential to renewal, is underway. History suggests that the invincibility of the human spirit will shine through the darkness to light a new path. The vast majority of us have suffered loss. The range of loss is wide, from lives to opportunities forgone. What we are now beginning to experience, however, is the extraordinary resilience of the human spirit. The sun still rises and sets, and between these events we forge new paths to pursue our dreams, from the grandiose to the sublime to those as simple as sweet peace. As bleak as our prospects appear today, we are learning and purging to reinvent our future. We have been awakened and humbled by our losses. We are beginning to appreciate what we had taken for granted and we are now deploying the knowledge we gained during the whiplash of collapse to prevent future tragedies.

New knowledge gained during the pandemic is being applied to all manner of public health issues that will not only serve us well when the next super-virus unloads its wrath upon the world, but will also mitigate a number of endemic diseases that have ravaged humankind for decades, even centuries. In addition, authoritarianism, whose first victim is human liberty, has peaked. In a foolish fit of overreach (which always signals the end of authoritarian regimes), Putin is now showing the world, and especially his own people and other wannabe fascists, what happens when you attempt to crush human liberties. Will he gain land in the end? Yes. But the cost of the acquisition far outweighs the benefits of his gain. The bleak days of Stalin are coming back. Putin the Great is a fading fantasy. In time, the Russian people will suffer as much or more as the people of Ukraine and Putin will succumb to the darkness of his delusions. In Xi’s case, China is also now experiencing what happens when you crush human liberties in his authoritarian attempt to assert his zero-Covid policy. Ineffective and insufficient vaccinations are no match for Mother Nature. She can humble even the largest iron fist. Lockdowns have also prevented native immunity from taking hold. Burying your head in the sand is a highly ineffective strategy for dealing with crises. Today, the people of China are suffering the dark side of authoritarianism after years of believing they had cracked the code of blending open markets with closed politics.

As Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times,

In short, both Moscow and Beijing find themselves suddenly contending with much more powerful and relentless forces and systems than they ever anticipated. And the battles are exposing—to the whole world and to their own people—the weaknesses of their own systems. So much so that the world now has to worry about instability in both countries.

Historically in America, we have watched these regimes come and go while standing proudly on our own commitment to democracy and human rights. But this time is different. We have work to do, too. We have allowed quasi-authoritarianism to poison our own government and society. The executive branch under Trump did everything in its power to destroy democratic norms and crush human liberty, and the legal branch—principally the Supreme Court—is set up to continue pursuing this theme of limited rights and concentration of power. Standing in their way will be, as in Russia and China, the will of the people.

The good news is while we haven’t suffered the same losses coming to the people of Russia and China, I hope we have been sufficiently aroused by our own loss of liberty to rein in those who masquerade as patriots while offending the fundamental spirit of Americans who believe their future should be—now and forever—in their own hands. At its most basic level, our founders went to great lengths to assure skeptical colonists—most of whom arrived here to escape tyranny in their homelands—that its government would limit the assertion of power at both the federal and state level. Alexis de Tocqueville scratched his head over what he called “self-interest rightly understood,” concluding that American’s enlightened self-determination served both the individual and government. Chiseled into the chest of the American soul is the inalienable right to be who we want to be—on our own terms. Self-determination is the basis of our founding documents and it underpins our conception of the American Dream. It is the reason we will, eventually, restore our democratic principles.

In a post-pandemic and post-Trump world, I expect the right to self-determination will be aggressively asserted; perhaps even more so than at the founding. It is kryptonite to authoritarianism and it is in full bloom in the United States today. We saw it manifested in the battles over mask and vaccine mandates, and we have also seen it in movements to protect women’s rights, gender and sexual preference rights, and to defeat racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination. Self-determination is the common thread to movements on both the left and the right; it permeates the entire American political spectrum. Those seeking common ground take note: self-determination is America’s binding epoxy of unity. It is the essence of libertarianism, which has driven Americans for nearly two-hundred fifty years. Of course, its assertion is often quickly compromised by hypocrisy when rights are asserted in an attempt to control others—to rob them of their own self-determination—but, on the whole, it prevails. Moreover, it is essential to the American experiment. My on-going beef with Republicans is their twisted desire to tell others what they can and cannot do with their bodies. Meanwhile, I often cringe when Democrats attempt to assert similar controls over people’s wealth and property. Both parties need an occasional smack upside the head. What we must realize today is that our liberties are the source of our attraction and power. And, they are the principal pathway to move from purge to renewal—to rising again.

So, what does this mean for each of us, as individuals?

In 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt advocated four freedoms: the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear. I grew up in an era when the freedom froms were largely mitigated, which left my generation to concentrate on the freedom ofs. We were the first generation to extend freedom ofs beyond speech and worship. We enjoyed the freedom of the American Dream: to become whatever we wanted to be. The results were nothing short of astonishing: the greatest expansion of human welfare in the history of humankind. Our needs were met; we had the luxury of pursuing our wants. What we lost sight of was the danger of escalating wants which, in the last few years, has cost us many of our freedoms. Our success compromised our liberty.

Eastern traditions of spirituality explain this conundrum best. The ultimate key to liberation (and power) is the suppression—not the escalation—of our wants. Every time we look at the world before us and decide we want something that isn’t there, we render ourselves vulnerable to manipulation and suffering. In addition, we foster complex regimes that increase risk when simple regimes are often more than sufficient to assure our well-being. Among other things, escalating wants and the economic growth necessary to realize them produced enormous increases in the consumption of fossil fuels, which is the fundamental cause of climate change. Instead of moving seamlessly up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from safety and security to actualization and, ultimately, transcendence, we got stuck on a treadmill of chasing extravagant lifestyles under the false hope of finding peace and tranquility. Instead, we left ourselves highly vulnerable to those intent on manipulating us for their own benefit; to trading our liberties for the empty promises of people like Trump, Putin, and Xi. Escalating wants has left us physically, emotionally, and mentally ill. Literally, ill.

Rising again requires we learn, purge, and return to regard America’s secret sauce: self-determination, as both a humble and essential human right. Further, we must respect each of our particular interpretations of what that means on our own terms. Finally, we must realize that escalating wants is killing both our individual prospects for tranquility and the very future of humanity. Enough must indeed be, enough. The maxim, “Less is more” must, once again, become fashionable. As Thomas Paine suggested at the time of our declaration of independence, “We have it within our power to begin the world over again.” It is the responsibility of each and every one of us to both grasp the gravity of our current circumstances and to summon the will to make what difference we can to, individually and collectively, rise again. Feel free to look over the edge of the cliff, but only to realize why you should step back and try, try, again.

By |2022-05-10T19:44:06+00:00April 29th, 2022|General, Recent|0 Comments

Out of Crisis, Salvation

Nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of imminent death.  Throw in a global economic collapse and we might just achieve the kind of clarity and inspiration to, in Thomas Paine’s words, “make the world over again.”  As one who fits the definition of “at high risk due to underlying health conditions,” I do not take the COVID-19 global pandemic and associated economic effects lightly.  Yet, as an historian I know the rhythm of history and expect this collective calamity—an unforeseen development—may be just what we need to wake-the-fuck up and realize that we are all culpable for the path we have taken and the leaders we have chosen.  The unforeseen has always driven world events more than the foreseen.  As Michelle Obama suggested, power does not change people, it reveals who they really are.  And, times of crisis quickly reveal who among our leaders are authentic and capable and who are incompetent frauds.  Unfortunately, for this moment in history, we do not have a Washington, or Lincoln, or Roosevelt, who led America out of the peril of our three prior American crises; rather, we have a president whose sole concern—even with crisis raging—is, as it always has been, himself.  How I wish Michelle was wrong.

Most (but not all) of us will get through this.  Markets will recover once supply chains and demand are restored; washing hands and “social distancing” are welcome improvements on past practices.  However, we should and must take this opportunity, afforded by crisis, to change our leadership and restore America’s Probity Values that have been squandered since the end of the Cold War.  Responsible individualism must displace the narcissism that denominates too many of our behaviors.  Exemplar exceptionalism—setting the example for others to follow—must subvert the arrogant imperial impulse that seeks to remake the world in the image of America.  Perfectibility—leaving things better than we found them—must, once again, prevail over our sense of entitlement.  Moreover, we must realize we are stronger together—united in common purpose—than we are pursuing power and wealth at the expense of our neighbors.  We are capable of better behavior.  Crises make transformations easier; in the chaos of creative destruction we must seize the moment.

The time is now to set a new course.  Our differences and disagreements—stoked by those who benefit from divisiveness—must be set aside in favor of building stronghold communities.  A stronghold community is a shared place that is largely self-sustaining and foundationally resilient; which looks no further than its common interests to guide its application of power and resources; and which seeks to achieve a sense of virtuous humanity where every member holds both the responsibility and opportunity of participation in advancing the objectives of the community.  Our communities may be small, but we are strong.  We must quit staring at the clown show that is our federal government and demand the return of both authority and tax dollars to our state and local communities.  If we believe in ourselves and each other, we can create a better community, country, and world.  The work begins now.

By |2020-03-18T22:07:55+00:00March 11th, 2020|Donald Trump, Leadership|0 Comments

Hope at Home: Shifting Our Focus to Developing Stronghold Communities

One of Ronald Reagan’s favorite go-to one-liners was to suggest that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”[1]  Following the Viet Nam War and Nixon’s Watergate scandal that led to his resignation, Jimmy Carter tried to heal the nation with the disposition of a Baptist minister who sought redemption for his flock through his jeremiads built on the theological triad of sin, repentance, and salvation.  Reagan had a much simpler and more appealing approach, which made his defeat of Carter in 1980 a relative slam dunk.  Reagan offered Americans absolution by a theological slight-of-hand when he relocated the entire Calvinist concept of original sin away from the individual to the institution: Americans were not the problem, government was.[2]  In his words of absolution, Reagan began a movement to view the federal government as the enemy of the people that has slid from constructive criticism during his presidency to outright demonization in the current Age of Deceit that began with Bush 43.  The New Deal institutions and attendant bureaucracies that proved critical in America’s recovery from the Great Depression and World War II had become, in Reagan’s view, lead weights wrapped around the ankles of enterprising Americans.

The Republican Party under Reagan became as libertarian as it was conservative, which eventually manifested as the Tea Party movement at the onset of Crisis IV in the early aughts that mixed a rather schizophrenic blend of libertarianism with social conservatism.  This progression of anti-government sentiment made way, finally, for Trump’s faux-populist ethno-nationalism to destroy the federal government’s institutions whenever and wherever possible to give cover to, and create space for, the exploitation of government by Trump and his co-conspirators both inside and outside government.  Trump’s “Drain the swamp!” mantra, which is a common anti-government trope has, of course, only resulted in the expansion of the swamp into a small ocean with small craft advisories posted daily, punctuated by the occasional orange-hued hurricane.

This progression—from Reagan’s focus on individualism over institutionalism where government was the problem to Trump’s claim that only he can fix it (while in reality being, himself, the existential threat)—has ridden a wave of growing anti-government vitriol resulting in most American’s view of the federal government as a very expensive travesty of trust.  In fact, since 2007, American’s trust in the federal government—”to do what is right always or most of the time”—is the lowest in more than fifty years.  78% of Americans report either being frustrated with, or angry with, the federal government.[3]  Congressional approval ratings, which is probably the best proxy for American sentiment toward their federal government, have languished in the mid-to-upper teens for most of the recent decade, ironically only breaching 20% once the impeachment of Trump began.[4]  In this Age of Deceit, marked by extraordinary partisan divisions, the silver lining here is that most of us—a clear majority—actually agree on this: the federal government does not serve our interests.  Even though a sad commentary on the federal government, this consensus is also our common ground from which to begin the restoration of America in the Age of Deceit by shifting our focus, our energy, our resources and power away from the federal government and toward our state and local governments.

Notwithstanding the many social, political, and economic issues that divide us, America is, as Yoni Appelbaum, ideas editor at The Atlantic pointed out, “a land of continual change and a nation of strong continuities.”[5]  Things must change; that much is clear, but the remaining continuity—the common ground—that all of us must embrace is that the hope of restoring America begins at home—away from the klieg lights of congressional investigations, narcissistic Twitter feeds, and the shrill cable TV pundit-criers—where it is far more likely to reach agreement due to the communal necessities of compromise, performance, and accountability.  It is one thing to sling insults at your opponent through national and social media, it is much more difficult to sustain such behavior when you have to stand next to that person in the grocery store checkout line, or passing the “peace’ in a church pew on Sunday morning.  We tend to find common ground more easily when the ground beneath our feet is where we must stand every day.

These structural realities are fortunately also met with a higher general trust of local government, which has been rising, rather than falling, during the Trump presidency. In fact, approval ratings for local government at 72% are the near-inverse of those for Congress and the federal government.  Even state governments garner a 63% approval rating.[6]  Potholes cannot tell the difference between Republican and Democrat tires.  That’s not to say ideology and partisanship remain clear of local politics, but the simple reality is that problems just out your front door are less tolerable and, therefore, more likely to be solved through creative compromise.  The immediacy of issues creates an intrinsic sense of urgency all on its own.

There is another structural trend that supports turning our attention away from the national level toward the state and local level, and that is the waning influence of the nation-state.  Globalism, decried by Trump and other faux-populist wannabe dictators around the world, is affecting the decline of influence and relevancy of the nation-state.  In their attempt to debase the very idea of globalism, Trump and several white nationalists have even tried to restore  globalism as an un-patriotic anti-Semitic slur.[7]  However, the fact is that centralized state authority is being slowly but surely diluted by the distributed information systems that affect all aspects of our lives enabled by digital technologies.  All forms of communication and commerce may now occur without the participation of the nation-state, unless impeded with even stronger technologies to interrupt the channel, as China does with its peoples.

Hierarchies of all kinds are being challenged and usurped by horizontally aligned, web-styled networks.  Regardless of attempts to keep the world dumb—as in disconnected—the benefits and efficacy of connection—of a smart world—are simply too attractive and too durable to be suppressed in the long run.  The collision of imagination and critical thinking that drives creative solutions does not require nation-state intermediation in a smart world.[8]  It is highly likely that what we are seeing today, both in America and across the world, represents the last agonizing dyspeptic reflux of centralized authority as people realize more and more every day that America’s Trump, Russia’s Putin, Turkey’s Erdogan, Hungary’s Orbán, Philippines’ Dutertes, Iran’s Khamenei, China’s Xi, and North Korea’s Kim have little interest and even less capacity to meet the needs of their peoples.[9]  Borders are, after all, a manmade artifact of the nation-state era that become meaningless when transcended by technology and the will of people.  We may as well turn our attention away from the crazies at the national level and connect our communities directly, without the intermediation of the nation-state.  As Lincoln showed in his address at Gettysburg a “government of the people, by the people [and] for the people” draws its legitimacy and power from one source: the people.  Both because of, and in spite of, our national leaders, the time is now to move “the people’s” attention to the local development of stronghold communities.

“Stronghold” is actually a term borrowed from Tucker Malarkey, author of a book of the same name that recounts the valiant efforts of Guido Rahr to create stronghold habitats for wild salmon across the Pacific Rim.[10]  Stronghold in the case of human communities means a shared place that is largely self-sustaining and foundationally resilient; which looks no further than its common interests to guide its application of power and resources; and which seeks to achieve a sense of virtuous humanity where every member holds both the responsibility and opportunity of participation in advancing the objectives of the community (in spite of the interests of outside forces like the federal government).

Regardless of how the impeachment proceedings or the 2020 presidential election turns out, we, as in We the People, have it within our power (paraphrasing Thomas Paine) to begin America over again.  Restoring America is unlikely to occur at the national level.  In 2020, we should begin a movement for the development of stronghold communities by demanding a slow but certain inversion of power and resources back to the local and state level.  Rather than continue to stare at the circus in Washington, D.C. we need to elect people who embrace the stronghold ethic and affect the restoration of the American Dream from the ground up.  Yes, we may end up being the Affiliated States of America, rather than the United States, but I am afraid that we really have no choice.  And, those communities that achieve stronghold status will, very likely, become the most attractive and successful in America while others, stuck in the deceit of “Making America Great Again” will, no doubt, languish; that is, until the truth comes home to roost.

 

[1] Ronald Reagan, Presidential News Conference, August 12, 1986, Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, https://www.reaganfoundation.org/ronald-reagan/reagan-quotes-speeches/news-conference-1/.

[2] See William Steding, Presidential Faith and Foreign Policy: Jimmy Carter the Disciple and Ronald Reagan the Alchemist (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), pp. 100-101.

[3] Samantha Smith, “6 Key Takeaways About How Americans View Their Government,” Fact Tank News in the Numbers, Pew research Center, November 23, 2015, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/11/23/6-key-takeaways-about-how-americans-view-their-government/.

[4] “Congress and the Public,” GALLUP, https://news.gallup.com/poll/1600/congress-public.aspx.

[5] Yoni Appelbaum, “How America Ends,” The Atlantic, December 2019, p. 51.

[6] Justin McCarthy, “Americans Still More Trusting of Local than State Government,” Gallup, October 8, 2018, https://news.gallup.com/poll/243563/americans-trusting-local-state-government.aspx.

[7] See Ben Zimmer, “The Origins of the ‘Globalist’ Slur,” The Atlantic, March 14, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/03/the-origins-of-the-globalist-slur/555479/.

[8] See Richard Ogle, Smart World: Breakthrough Creativity and the Science of Ideas (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2007).

[9] See David Brooks, “The Revolt Against Populism,” The New York Times, November 21, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/21/opinion/populism-protests.html?searchResultPosition=3.

[10] Tucker Malarkey, Stronghold: One Man’s Quest to Save the World’s Wild Salmon (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2019).

By |2020-03-11T19:12:12+00:00December 11th, 2019|General|1 Comment

The Arc of Transcendence: From Fear and Loathing to Renewed Prosperity

As world order teeters between financial stress, the prospect of widespread war in the Middle East, and an acute sense of betrayal between voters and their elected representatives, we must—individually and collectively—look past the prevailing and perversely popular noise and move forward to secure our future.  This is not the time to sit idly by hoping that the actors and conventional thinking that combined to produce the current crises will somehow also magically produce their melioration.  Ironically (and thankfully however), the macro factors that are causing crises and disorder also reveal new modalities that promise pathways to higher levels of well-being—to renewed prosperity. But we must learn to make them work for us instead of against us.

In a recent jeremiad by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, wherein he calls for a miracle rebirth of personal responsibility, he also identifies contributing factors of emerging disorder while—perhaps unwittingly—illuminating promising avenues of success. He wrote,

Since the end of the cold war and the rise of the Internet, we’ve lost the walls and the superpowers that together kept the world’s problems more contained. Today, smaller and smaller units can wreak larger and larger havoc—and whatever havoc is wreaked now gets spread faster and farther than ever before.[1]

All true, but small units behaving virally is also how we will produce the innovations and form the necessary relationships to create a new future. Small units that wreak havoc can also organize intelligence, resources, and authority in new paradigms that might far exceed the values and wealth we fear are slipping into the abyss of current crises.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: creative intelligence is everything.  The same technology that enables the Internet and fosters the organization of small units in a seemingly organic fashion also enables the geometric rise of intelligence.  As Richard Ogle illustrates in Smart World, idea-spaces, formerly limited to what was in our heads and constrained by proximate resources, are now unbounded thanks to technology.  This allows our imaginations to “leap out ahead of knowledge and the path of analytical reason” toward new, seemingly unfathomable, realities.[2]  The great news is we have it within our existing capabilities and resources to create new paradigms, identities, and networks to not only survive our current crises, but to achieve a higher state of well being.  We must, however, become very aggressive in asserting our will.

First, the naysayers, merchants of venom, and those who are unable or unwilling to think or operate beyond conventional paradigms must be isolated.  They only make the bad worse.  This requires more than simply ignoring them; this requires exposing them, confronting them, and silencing them.  The time for tolerance is over.  At every opportunity, they must be told to “Shut up and get out of the way!”  Second, while we must acknowledge our current circumstances for what they are—to get past the denial trap—we must just as swiftly set them aside to avoid being addled by their grave narrative.  Third, we must re-imagine the world, unbounded by convention, to establish a new vision of who we are, what we want the world to look like, and most importantly, why?  As Richard Ogle argues, “to think intelligently is to create webs of meaning about how the world might be, and this is the work of imagination.”[3]  Fourth, we must attract and connect spheres of intelligence to produce new missions and mandates.  Finally, we must pursue our new vision with every ounce of energy and persuasion we can muster.  We must allow our creative intelligence its full expression.

Let’s prove Thomas Paine right again by showing we do “have it in our power to begin the world over again.”  Let’s start by unshackling ourselves from old ideas and those who wallow in self-interest, find power in fear, or promote disrespect.  If they win, we lose.  The arc of transcendence requires us to re-imagine our future, and align new spheres of intelligence, resources, and authority, to realize new levels of well being. This is not only possible, it is imperative.

[1] Thomas L. Friedman, “This Time is Different,” The New York Times, June 11, 2010
[2] Richard Ogle, Smart World: Breakthrough Creativity and the New Science of Ideas (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2007), p. 51.
[3] Ibid., p. 72.
By |2017-05-27T18:45:20+00:00June 14th, 2010|General|0 Comments
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