Are we missing the point in Ferguson, Missouri?

Now Famous Ferguson, Missouri

Hands Up, Don't Shoot!

Is this who we want to be?

The first thing to strike me about the dust-up over the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson was the ineptitude of the police reaction. Let’s all agree that the actions and decisions both of the police and the city government left a lot to be desired. But our focus on Ferguson as anything beyond an illustration runs the risk of disguising a broader truth.

Repeated examples of overt racism in the past 18 months make it painfully obvious we haven’t come nearly as far as we’d like to think. African-American distrust of police in particular & government in general is well-earned. And this is true across our land…which goes a long way toward explaining our horrified fascination with events in Ferguson.

Race & Repression

Across America, there are many examples of inherently unfair treatment of minorities in general, but African-Americans in particular. This isn’t news, but if you need a refresher, here you go:

  1. Illustrative are the stop & frisk statistics in New York, 2003 to present. During this period, black men are between 4 & 5  times more likely to be stopped than white men.
  2. Black men are disproportionately incarcerated. (nearly 6 times the rate of white men)
  3. The evidence with respect to the racial component in poverty is equally damning. (The poverty rate for black people is more than double that for white people)
  4. And we continue to hallow these injustices in statutory law. Restrictive voting rights laws were recently been enabled when the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Not six months later, 13 states had either passed or had pending restrictive voter registration legislation.

In the majority opinion, Justice Roberts stated Section 4

Even longer lines for black voters

Restricted voting & persistent racism.

had been stricken because it was based on 40 year old facts having no logical relationship to the current day.”  (Really?) Taken together, the trends aren’t difficult to read. It’s not in the protesters’ imagination in Ferguson or elsewhere that minorities in general & black people in particular continue to be stymied by systemic roadblocks to the American dream.

Repression & Fear

But why? If you’re white, you probably won’t like my conclusion. Throughout history, repressive policies and the measures used to make them stick tend to be grounded in fear. We can argue interminably the sources of that fear but not about the evidence or the outcome. But before we can make durable progress, we must confront our fears at both the personal and institutional level. We all need to look deep, where many of us would rather not. But we might as well cop now, because our black brothers and sisters figured it out a long time ago.

The Ferguson example is illustrative of that fear at work. Does Ferguson have a reputation for violence commensurate with the police reaction? No, it turns out. Crime statistics for Ferguson place it a little below the national median for violent crime and well below that of Missouri as a whole.

Knowledge—The Natural Enemy of Fear

Growing up white in the sheltered mid-west, I absorbed this unreasoning fear without knowing it, never mind recognizing it. It went unrecognized until I stepped in front my platoon as a young lieutenant. More than half of my platoon was Black, Hispanic, Native American or Asian. I had no real understanding, good or bad, of how to relate to “minorities.” I’m sure my Marines sensed my trepidation & took advantage of it in minor ways.

But their behavior also showed a willingness to give me a chance. Did they have fears of their own about my competence? If they didn’t they should have. It took great courage for them to trust me, despite my inexperience, just as I had to reach deep to move past my culturally inherited fears of “difference” to discover our kinship as Marines and humans.

For me, those differences remained. But they became part of what I loved & valued about them. It was awkward and scary at times & I screwed up repeatedly. But I owed it to them as their leader to overcome it. To do less dishonored the chance they gave me.

Justice & Stewardship.

Black & white hands forming a circle of harmony

They are us!

Comparing my experiences as a young Marine officer to our national track record with diversity leads me to conclude we’re still trapped in those same culturally inherited fears. At moments of crisis, it’s so much easier to react viscerally, than to question unreasoning fear.

And that fear isn’t just of black people, though the statistics above show they’re the most visibly & consistently repressed. But it really is any group we don’t know…or worse, groups we think we know by myths we accept as truth.

We can and must be better than this. The first duty of leadership & governance is stewardship…stewardship that takes the form of service to the best interests of all. We cannot continue to allow ourselves to fall short of our highest expression of freedom because we are afraid. We…all of us…must accept our measure of responsibility for Ferguson. Shaking our fingers at flawed leadership in one small city in Missouri masks the uncomfortable truth. A persistent, collective cultural bias against “minorities” remains. It is time to re-energize ourselves to complete the work Dr. King & so many other great American heroes began.

If you are white and reading this, accept that this is not the black man or brown man or the red man’s problem. They are affected by it, but the problem is ours. The political, social and economic system repressing the less fortunate is of our making and we must help fix it. As Congressman Cummings has observed, “inclusion is our promise, not our problem.”

It won’t happen overnight, even if justice is served in Ferguson. The list of Michael Browns, Travon Martins & Eric Garners grows daily. It must end and we all must help. We can start by voting in ways promoting inclusion and equality for all. But it doesn’t end there. Above all, get over your fears, white America. We owe it to them. As importantly, we owe it to ourselves.

 

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West of Tomorrow & Chance Meetings

Chance meetings are woven into the fabric of everyone’s life who ventures out of his/her home. They just happen. Some are trivial, some poignant but fleeting…and a very few prove life-changing. The trivial ones often declare themselves by the absence of substance or attraction. They just feel trivial. But what separates those poignant, but fleeting encounters from the substantive meetings after which nothing is ever the same?

In West of Tomorrow, chapter two contains such a meeting. Clay Conover, the protagonist is on  an pre-dawn Saturday run and stops to enjoy the sunrise.

     Clay slowed to a walk at the Quarterdeck Restaurant, coming to a stop in the vacant lot next door. From it he could see the San Clemente and Oceanside piers, misty arrows of light embedded in the Pacific. The offshores, already stirring, shredded the gossamer mist and whispered of sunrise in the language every surfer knows. As the staccato of his heart slowed, he looked east to the coastal foothills?a smudge of lingering night beneath the lightening sky.

    “BMNT,” Clay murmured. Beginning of morning nautical twilight. His lips twitched in amusement. Old habits, especially in thought die hard. As he watched, clouds airbrushed the sky in a blaze of red and violet as the freshening breeze teased his eyebrows.

    So many sunrises, he thought. Sunrises seasoned with fear?sunrises at sea. Still others gift-wrapped with youthful uncertainty and potential.

    “Life’s essence is defined in wordless moments,” Clay said aloud, to the freshening breeze.

    “I think that’s true,” a feminine voice agreed.

     Clay wheeled toward the voice.

    “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.”

    A woman in her late thirties or early forties?wearing a mauve hoodie and what appeared to be jodhpurs, minus the kneepads. As their eyes met, Clay had his breath stolen for a second time. Enigma looked back at him, a concerto of serenity and sorrow. It was impossible to guess her story. It was impossible not to wonder.

    “I was moved by what you said.” She smiled and tilted her head to the side. “Did you time your run to arrive here at sunrise? Or did that happen by accident?”

    “A little of both. I usually try to get my run in early anyway, but I thought the sunrise today might be special. So I kicked it.”

    She held his gaze without wavering or self-consciousness. Clay almost had to rip his eyes from hers. Hair the color of polished obsidian cascaded past her shoulders. She was sweetly figured, willowy grace counter-balanced by softness and a lovely rather than beautiful face. “Hapa Haole.” He thought of Aoki’s in Haleiwa, for some reason.

    The woman continued to study Clay with apparent curiosity and detachment. The breeze lifted her hair, inviting it to dance.

    “Do you come here often?” Clay asked. He winced as soon as he said it.

    The woman smiled. “That didn’t take long. I’m flattered.”

    “I’m sorry. I didn’t?” Clay began.

    “Yes you did,” she teased. Their eyes met again and they both laughed.

    “Well, since I’ve already stepped in it…would you care to join me for a cup of java at the Marina?”

    “Another time, perhaps? I’m already late. And in answer to your first question…on occasion.”

  Clay nodded. The woman’s smile was so subtle and faded so quickly, Clay wondered if he had imagined it.

    “Namaste’.” She bowed and turned to go.

    “Namaste’,” Clay replied. He returned her wai with correct form. She paused, her expression fusing pain and surprise.

    “I don’t know your name,” Clay said.

   “That’s true.” Her words conveyed both sadness and intention as though she would change it, if she could. She hesitated, then turned and walked back down the street, toward Dana Point.

Clay watched her go. She walked with a feminine sway, sensual, but devoid of vulgarity. Poetry in motion, Clay thought. I have seen one for whom the expression was coined.

 Is this a fateful meeting? Charged with attraction and connection, it could be. Their parting, on the other hand, suggests this may be one of those poetic mirages doomed to be buried by the necessities of life and the passage of time. Will Clay remember her, years later and wish? Or will something drive them together? Read West of Tomorrow to see.

West of Tomorrow is Dirk Sayers’ first contemporary novel and his second book. West of Tomorrow is in final editing and scheduled for release later this year.

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West of Tomorrow—Institutionalized Violence

Some Weeks Are Worse Than Others

It’s hard to view the last couple weeks as “good” if you have a news feed & a shred of empathy. Between ISIS, Gaza, the Ukraine and atypically violent weather, it’s been pretty dismal. In common with many retired Marine officers, I am by habit interested most things international, including international geopolitics and the inevitable conflict inherent in the practice thereof. But as regular readers of this blog also know I have some less than typical viewpoints about both.

Look, I’m not naïve. By nature, genus Homo sapiens is a violent, aggressive organism. For a nation like the United States with global “interests” the need for organized violence (read that military action) is virtually certain.  When it becomes necessary, I will reluctantly support its use. But these days, I am less inclined to default to violence, even when many are inclined to advocate it in the name of “strength.”

Some of my former comrades in arms may find this heretical, but I’m convinced America has lost its way with respect to its role in the world. A lot of ink and air has been spent over the decline of American global leadership, since Mr. Obama has occupied the Oval Office. To those inclined to decry our “weakness,” no crisis abroad is too small for self-appointed strategists to advocate our direct and often violent involvement, castigating the President as feckless and weak.

Are Mr. Obama’s policies flawless? No. But they’re better than many would have us believe. And we would do well to remember he is not the architect of the decline of America’s influence, if in fact it has declined at all. If anything has eroded America’s stock abroad, the real culprit has to be institutionalized violence and our increasing reliance on it.

night image of the bombing of Baghdad

Sometimes if feels like bombs are our diplomatic default.

Organized Vs. Institutionalized Violence

We can all infer what organized violence is from the term itself. When I use the term organized violence, I mean:

“The organized and deliberate use of physical force against a group or community, resulting in or potentially resulting in injury or death.”

Scholars will recognize I have selectively cherry-picked portions of the World Health Organization’s definition of violence. My selective editing of their definition should not be construed as disagreement. It is the result of restricted focus, rather than disagreement.

What raises organized violence to the status of “institutionalized” is its elevation to the default coping mechanism. Institutionalized violence is:

“Organized violence grown so entrenched in psyche of the organization benefiting from it that few if any alternatives are explored by the organization contemplating its response.” (Definition mine.)

Please note that I’ve used the word “organization” in my definition above, rather than state or nation. While the most spectacular, sustained examples of institutionalized violence remain nation-states at war, Al Qaeda, ISIS, Hezbollah, gang violence and organized crime are capable of incalculable harm and equally guilty of institutionalizing violence.

The Problem with Institutionalized Violence

What makes organized violence institutionalized is its habitual nature; and it is the habit which renders it problematic. At the national level, institutionalized violence encourages a large standing military, on the grounds that we never know when we’ll need it. War today is “come as you are,” we tell ourselves. It is difficult to argue with this observation in our tech-heavy age, and the outcome operationally. has been difficult to argue with.

The professional, all-volunteer force, has shortened training time from declaration of emergency to actual hostility and not been fraught with long ramp-ups to effectiveness in battle. But large standing professional militaries are expensive “luxuries,” not simply in direct attribute costs. Large standing militaries siphon off resources from peaceful expenditures such as education, infrastructure and peaceful research and development, to name a few.

Large professional militaries also make war too easy—especially if they are all-volunteer. The populace becomes distanced from the consequences of war because proportionally few fight. Worse yet, decision-makers are less likely to have served in any capacity. They have little real appreciation of the practical, operational and strategic challenges inherent in war. What little they’ve learned, they gleaned watching it all unfold on television, like any other sporting event.

The Organization and Institutionalized Violence

The institutionalization of violence is a largely organizational vice, because it is within the “safety” of organizations and mobs that violence finds both cover its and its justification. More broadly, the performance of any act of which we should be individually ashamed can become normalized and justified in organizations, because no one is personally responsible. Blame is shared.

In my soon to be released novel,  West of Tomorrow, Clay Conover discusses the organizational dynamics by which reason is so often subverted…

     “Organizations are inimical to ethical decision-making. They invariably acquire an agenda of their own…usually benefiting the few who stand most to profit from the organization’s success, ultimately at the expense of the society.” Mastrovik smiled. “The problem isn’t that we don’t understand this. It’s that we allow ourselves to be seduced by organizational loyalties, or our own agenda…or both.”

     “Surely there are organizations that remain true to their best founding principles.” Clay observed.

     “Really? Name one,” Mastrovik challenged. “As organizations grow in power, the ambitious rise up and hijack…thank you for that earlier characterization…hijack the agenda and the objectives.”

     Mastrovik paused, winding up for the kill shot. “The powerful then leverage the organization to satisfy their appetite. If it goes sideways, they distribute the blame across the organization, in precisely the same way they divvy up the work. It is the very essence of cooperative behavior.”

     Mastrovik looked Clay in the eye. “Does any of this sound familiar? And have you not been guilty of it yourself?”

Institutionalized Violence West of Tomorrow

In the snippet above, Clay confronts his own role in the elaborate, life-long deception we’ve all cooperated in perpetrating. He’s in good (and bad) company. We’re all guilty. But when we become aware of this dynamic, are we not morally obliged to do something about it?

Predator RPV Lets Rip with Hellfire Missiles

Predator RPV Lets Rip with Hellfire Missiles

Unpalatable as this truth may be, the United States is addicted to violent solutions to essentially human problems. This tendency reached its cowardly zenith in Iraq, but we must resist the temptation to conclude the Bush Administration did not invent it. Or that Mr. Obama is not equally culpable.

In the 69 years since WWII, the US has been engaged in organized violence somewhere in the world for more than 32 of those years, in 20 separate conflicts—or one every 2.2 years. Can you name a dozen of those conflicts…or what was putatively accomplished? That’s what I thought. Please remember that the next time the saber rattlers advocate involvement “over there.”. As importantly, remember it the next time you vote. War and big business have way too many friends—and the less fortunate way too few—here and around the world.

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Why I Wrote “WEST OF TOMORROW…”

Copyright: kovaleff / 123RF Stock Photo

The Question

Truth Ambushes Me in the Stamp Line.

The other day I found myself in line waiting for stamps. (I know, I know…who the hell still needs stamps these days?) The line and the wait were long, because the technician fixing the postage machine either couldn’t fix it or was just naturally slow.

The man in front of me took the edge of his impatience by striking up a conversation. It didn’t take us long to get around to “what do you do?” He, it turned out, was a start-up entrepreneur. When I confessed to being an author he surprised me by asking what I was working on now, rather than what I’d already published.

I described the story arc of WEST OF TOMORROW—and the flawed but essentially decent Clay Conover confronted with ethical decisions inside an organization in the throes of its own moral dilemmas. I explained the clandestine reorganization of the firm in which Clay worked and the effects of it on the people therein. I explained how the choices that Clay faced mirrored to perfection those faced by the organization he served and the society as a whole.

“Interesting,” he replied, when I finished. “Stories within stories.” He held my eyes, loading up for his next question. “And you think there’s a market for a book like that?”

“Absolutely,” I told him without hesitation.

He studied me like an alien species. “Well…maybe,” he said, finally. He fished a card from his wallet and asked me to email him when the book comes out.

The gentleman’s reaction reawakened my own misgivings about the marketability of WEST OF TOMORROW. It isn’t that I don’t think it’s a good story. It’s just that it’s not in a genre considered to be a brisk seller—maybe it’s not in any genre. It’s not a thriller, though there is suspense, intrigue and excitement. It is not a romance, though there is romance in it.  Maybe not so marketable, I thought. So why did I write this story? The short answer is, “Because I had to.”

WEST OF TOMORROW…The Story

WEST OF TOMORROW follows eight critical months in the life of Clay Conover, retired Marine colonel turned corporate trainer. Clay has been a dependable contributor irrespective of where he has served. But In the next eight months, life will throw a series of professional dilemmas in his path, as well as personal setbacks.

Clay is ultimately discarded by the organization, at the point in his career when our social mythology suggests he should be at the pinnacle of success. The personal and professional betrayal threatens not only financial ruin but unrecoverable self-doubt. Clay is left to reinvent himself or sink into oblivion—and he doesn’t have much time left.

WEST OF TOMORROW’s Themes.

This story is both a wide-eyed field trip through our society and a look in the mirror. As the reader watches Clay confront his personal demons and struggle to reclaim a future…any future at all, it’s clear this is a comeback story that could only happen in our time. The questions Clay confronts are the questions all of us eventually face.

Is there a way back for Clay when everything goes south so late in life? Even if there is, what does that way look like? Will Clay have the flexibility, perceptiveness and resilience to see it…and see it through, should it come? Or will he succumb to the machinations of a society apparently more concerned with winning than fairness? And how much of that success, should he achieve it, depends on things he doesn’t control? The answers lie between the covers of West of Tomorrow.

Why I Wrote WEST OF TOMORROW.

As I confessed earlier, it’s a story I had to write. Those who know my history will be tempted to conclude it’ autobiographical. It is not. While I share many of Clay’s experiences, his story is not mine—it’s ours. Chances are high that you will see yourself or someone you know in this story if not both. The resemblance is not accidental. WEST OF TOMORROW is our story, our world. But as the name suggests, it is more than that. It is our future, whispering to us on a restless but hopeful wind.

WEST OF TOMORROW is a novel set in contemporary America, due out the end of 2014.

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West of Tomorrow – Surviving Failure in Six Easy Steps

Axioms That Aren’t

“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” “Do it right the first time.” “Failure is not an option.” You’ve heard these commonplaces and so have I. You may have used one or more of them yourself. But like so many “self-evident truths,” we tend to reason from them. We must start somewhere, right? Don’t we need a point of departure?  Well yes, we do. But trouble results when we treat the above-quoted commonplaces as axioms, rather than aphorisms. Work with me, here.

Logically, we need axioms. Axioms are useful as “a statements accepted as true as the basis for argument or inference.” If it’s truly an axiom, as outlined in the foregoing definition, then we’re using both the term and the axiom correctly.

But what happens when we take one of the aphorisms with which we began this post and accept them uncritically? Is there potential for disaster? I think there is but you tell me. Using the above examples, consider the following:

It happens to us all...

It happens to us all…

 

  1. Can/does “do it right the first time” ever become an excuse for studying something to death?
  2. Does “failure is not an option” mislead someone into concluding that failure is always bad?
  3. Can/does “you never get a second chance to make a first impression keep us from ever giving ourselves the opportunity to make an impression at all? As a one-time timid dater, I can assure it does.

If we feel obliged to do something right the first time at all costs, it really means we’re afraid to make a mistake. Irrespective of what we imagine the consequences to be, fear of making a mistake is first cousin to “analysis paralysis.” Similarly, if we actually buy into the notion that “failure is not an option,” then what does it mean when we do fail…& we all do, @ some point.

The perceptive (and that’s all of you, right?) have already noticed I’ve used an axiom in making my case against the aphorisms above used  as axioms. If you agree with me, that everyone fails eventually, (or even often, which describes me) then we must conclude we need to learn how to fail & teach our children to do the same. Following is my modest proposal for how to do that.

How to Fail & Survive in Six Easy Steps

  •  Step 1. Start with assumption (the axiom, if you will) that you will fail. We all do & you are no exception. Accept it, own it and embrace it. Failure teaches resilience and humility & flexibility (at least).
  • Step 2. Learn from failure. In one of my previous incarnations in this life, I was a Marine officer. Without exception, the first thing we did after an operation was an after action report. One of the obvious purposes was to record what happened before we forgot (or worse yet, allowed wishful thinking to color our memory of the event), but even more importantly, record what went wrong & how we might fix it.
  • Step 3. Apply what you learn next time. Take the lessons learned and apply them in your next endeavor. You may still fail, but by applying what you learned the first time, you’re unlikely to make the same mistake twice, thereby increasing your likelihood of success.
  • Step 4. Forgive yourself for failure. Failure is not a prosecutable offense. The insidious effects of failure is often an erosion of confidence, no matter what your boss or friends or spouse tell you. If we’re all going to fail, we should get really comfortable with it, learn to get over it and more importantly, to get going, again.
  • Step 5. Plan B. Take the lessons learned & convert them into a new plan for success. Capitalize on what you do well & minimize what you don’t & while you’re at it, work on improving the things you don’t do well.
  • Step 6. Never quit. You knew this, right? If everyone fails but we still feel obliged to hold people accountable for it, does it not follow that the real sin is not failing, but not trying again? I won’t bore you with the trite but true examples of men/women who failed repeatedly before “getting it right,” whatever that turned out to mean. The world is bursting with examples & the reason they have become examples is to remind us that failure is not a life sentence, unless we insist that it is.

Success Half an Hour West of Tomorrow

The second decade of the 21st Century is littered with ways to fail. Complexity and change guarantee more opportunities than ever for failure. To no one is this more obvious than our young people, many of whom become quickly discouraged when their degree fails to secure them a self-sustaining job. We owe it to them to make them both comfortable with an adept at overcoming failure. In the world west of tomorrow, their survival…and ours, depends on their resilience and persistence. No greater gift have we than comfort with failure that comes from having tried.

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