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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West of Tomorrow & Civility

Civility & Customer Service in the 21st Century

A few mornings ago, I took a friend’s vehicle in to a car-dealer service department for a safety recall service. It was a software update, quickly applied. (Thank you Toyota.) When I picked it up, I asked the service technician if they had an extra car mat or two they could give us. (My friend likes to keep her car clean, especially on the inside.)

Anger customer

Civility’s Absence…a testament to what?

The tech told me “sure” and returned in less than a minute with half a dozen mats and a smile. I thanked him, to which he replied he was “glad to help,” then complimented me for not having cursed at him or been nasty. I assured him I tried not to do that, as a rule, and he left reiterating his appreciation for my being a courteous customer.

The conversation struck me as odd and the more thought I about it, the odder it seemed. I’m not naïve about life in retail/customer service. I’ve trained Showroom Managers, Sales Consultants and Customer Service Representatives and I’ve been a District Manager responsible for customer service. So I’ve been on the business end of enough customers to know how nasty they can be.

That said, in all my years as an observant consumer, I can’t recall being critiqued by a service provider on the courtesy I extended him/her. Was I gratified to be categorized as “one of the nice ones?” Sure. But driving home, I couldn’t help wondering what the man’s comment said about our society as a whole. I was all over the road on this one. My kinder/gentler side concluded the tech’s remark was a terrible commentary on the state of social courtesy, just as the skeptic in me came to my rescue to assure me I was reading too much into the experience.

Courtesy & 21st Century Social Karma

But after a little more thought, I realized we couldn’t get off that easily. The man’s attitude…and his need to comment on mine…came from somewhere. I concluded his attitude had be rooted in experiences at once unfavorable & frequent enough to:

  1.  Metastasize into a negative view of customers in general, and;
  2. Move him to comment when someone behaved better than expected.

I’m an optimistic/idealistic kind of guy. One who has spent 20+ years as a Marine officer probably has to be. So it bothers me when evidence pops up suggesting our collective behavior falls woefully short of what “should be.” For both practical and philosophical reasons, we have to do better. As Clay Conover, the protagonist of my contemporary novel “West of Tomorrow” observes:

“Our habitual treatment of people who have no choice but to put up with our worst behavior speaks volumes about us.”

Clay’s observation in this passage refers to individual behavior, but is no less applicable to  society as a whole or an era in that society’s history. I suspect the generalized nastiness of our time is (at least in part) a spin-off of multiple contextual realities with which we all contend. Among them are:

  1. A hyper-stimulated, frenetic pace of life. It frays & flays the nerves even when we’re  not aware of it. It results in chronic impatience, borne of the ceaseless pressure to perform.
  2. Less and less “down-time.” Everyone needs down-time, but the continued pressure noted above obliges us to convince ourselves we’re the exception(s). This phenomenon further “shorten’s our fuse” while encouraging us to see the worst in ourselves when we fail to live up to our own unrealistic expectations of ourselves.
  3. Exponential growth in the rate of change & complexity leading to confusion, disorientation & alienation plays a part. This leads us either to lose perspective & conclude we are indeed less competent than everyone else or to push ourselves harder toward success by each “failure.”

But on reflection, these look to me like symptoms to me, rather than causes. They help explain behavior but not what brought us here. Which leads to the question, “so okay…what did bring us here?”

 West of Tomorrow & Our Social Identity

 Much is made today, of how America isn’t what it used to be. Egalitarian progressives, Libertarian and Neo-Conservatives often observe this, though each point to different causative factors. As a young man, I lived through the self-conscious, tortured activism of the late 60s & 70s. By the time Ronald Reagan ushered in the conservative backlash on a recipe of vague generalities & repartee, I was a field grade officer with strong interests in both domestic and international geopolitics. I watched as the economic and legal scales tilted inexorably toward the already advantaged & kept waiting for the inevitable swing backward toward the center.

 I’m still waiting. Somewhere along the way, we seem to have lionized the wealthy, not for their virtue, but for their wealth alone. Meanwhile, increasingly less thought is given to the working and middle classes. They are increasingly treated as drones doing the work no one else will…society’s interchangeable parts to be discarded at corporate America’s convenience, in the name of fractional increases in marginal profits.

A comment by one of my CEO’s during my last years as a Corporate Trainer is illustrative of the contempt in which labor is held. The CEO and I were reviewing the secret shopping reports from one of our districts. After a particularly bad one, he observed:

“Ten dollars an hour doesn’t get you much on the labor market these days.”

Interested in keeping my job, I refrained from observing the obvious, to wit: ten dollars doesn’t get them much, either. But his words, I realize now, were indicative of an attitude at the root of the discourtesy of our time.

Business management is now comfortable despising the efforts of its workers while taking little to no ownership for rectifying their hypothetical shortcomings. It’s cheaper to cut them loose. Conservative politicians feel they can (or perhaps must) characterize almost half the country as being “dependent on government” & “unwilling to take personal responsibility and care for their lives;”

Meanwhile the Supreme Court cloaks corporations with the status of people, while government’s regulatory arm is willing to absolve them of egregious, often criminal excess because they’re “too big t o fail.” Mustn’t upset the moneyed interests who will finance the next campaign…

 Stewardship…Somewhere West of Tomorrow

Our sustainable tomorrow faces challenges highly resistant to simple, monolithic solutions. In the second decade of the 21st Century, we need a social model reaffirming Stewardship at all levels. This Stewardship recognizes the fact most military leaders have long known, to wit: all organizations ride to victory or defeat on the efforts of intelligent, committed subordinates…subordinates valued intrinsically, as well as for the outcome of their efforts.

This is a Stewardship reaffirming the stabilizing influence of government, legitimized by its responsiveness to the interests of all its citizens…not simply those who can afford a megaphone loud enough to be heard. This is a model resulting not only in good government, but the lifting up of individuals. This in turn promotes civility borne of genuine regard.

There is no separating the current gracelessness of our age from the exploitative nature of our society. When civility and courtesy become habits, respect follows. When civility and courtesy are optional, respect evaporates in angry, mutual recrimination. Look at our political discourse & disagree with me if you can. Until we come to grips as a society with this truth, the discourtesy epidemic in modern society will remain an eloquent testimony to an order seriously out of touch with itself.

More importantly, tolerance of uncivil behavior will continue to poison constructive attempts to “fix” problems and help the society evolve. We all have a part to play in this. I remember vividly the treatment of returning veterans, post Vietnam. Strident rhetoric and disrespectful treatment of returning veterans distracted from the fundamental truths the war protesters were trying to make. This allowed proponents of war to dilute the credibility of their opponents by focusing on protester excess, rather than the issues.

Civility & Personal Stewardship

Our frustrations must not be allowed to drive our behavior, tempting as passionate venting may be. This allows our opponents to focus on witty observations about the worst of our behavior, rather than the best of our thoughts. On the personal level, this applies to our daily interactions, even the “trivial ones. We are the Stewards of our behavior and how that behavior affects others. We must behave accordingly.

Civility & Public Stewardship

At the level of society, civil discourse is the necessary accomplice wise decisions. When (for example) Darryl Issa is permitted to cut off an honored and honorable colleague in a committee hearing because he doesn’t like what he’s saying, we the citizens of this nation are enabling the abdication of wisdom in favor of wit and one upsmanship.

We cannot allow men or women who behave this way to remain in office. All of us need to pay attention to what our elected officials are doing and reward for wisdom and balanced civil leadership…or punish them by removing them when they consistently demonstrate their office is more important to them than the effects of their policies.

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West of Tomorrow – A Romance of Shifting Truths

Sunrise in the Coastal Range

Half an Hour West of Tomorrow

Recently, someone asked me about West of Tomorrow, my first novel. I did what most writers have been told to do, which was to trot out my thirty second elevator pitch. About midway through, he stopped me with the question he really wanted answered, specifically: “will I like it and if so, why?”

It’s the dreaded question every author must face, at some point. Okay, maybe you’ve written a book. A fair response these days is: “so who hasn’t?” There were almost half a million titles released in English, last year. It may even be a good book. But can’t thousands of authors who published last year make the same claim?  To be fair, I think the answer is yes. So. Why should you read West of Tomorrow? I thought you’d never ask…

West of Tomorrow is an intelligent, thought-provoking romance set in our time. It follows nine pivotal months in the life of Clay Conover as he deals with the search for love on the back side of middle age. In the wake of the near-simultaneous disintegration of his love life and career, Clay is confronted with a dwindling set of options and limited time in which to implement them. As happens so often in times of shifting paradigms and great change, he finds himself in position where he must reinvent himself, personally and professionally. On the professional level, he is in no position to retire.

While Clay has savings enough (he hopes) to get through a prolonged unemployment as he searches for a position commensurate with his skills and experience, it’s not inexhaustible. More importantly, he has past he must confront-and come to terms with-before he can move on to the future he would like to create. Along the way, Clay makes deals with some of the disquieting realities of the new millennium and the elusive questions of fulfillment  and how much control we have over outcomes.

Above all, West of Tomorrow it is about finding of the phoenix in all of us when (as happens to most of us) we find ourselves standing on the edge of cliff, half an hour west of a future at once exciting and uncertain.

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