The Lesser of Two Evils

On a forum I frequent, someone recently posted a question I’ve heard before, in various forms, especially the last three years, that question being:

“Why is it that presidential elections always feel like choosing between the ‘lesser of two evils’ and not ‘the better of two good candidates’?”

The sole respondent at the time wrote back had replied:

“The failure of the two-party system because of polarization and tribalism reinforced by closed primaries.”

True,  I thought, as far as it goes. But I can’t help wondering if attributing our meager choices to a moribund two-party system, tribalism and closed primaries doesn’t completely miss the underpinning problem. 

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Each choice is a direction, conscious or unconscious

As social critters, our propensity for concerted action (read that cooperation) may be our most critical success factor. I think the often uninspiring choices we have for president (and Congress, for that matter) may actually be grounded in that phenomenon, demonstrating that almost every success can wind up being a double-edged sword. Work with me, here.

Structure and Purpose...

Successful actions, (including successful cooperation) tend to be repeated, precisely because they are successful. Group cooperation multiplies our individual success by leveraging the power of numbers. It’s why we join organizations in the first place. To leverage the power of others as a means of advancing our own. The resulting organic structure…or organization…is greater than the sum of its parts. This is true of all organizations. 

Over time, organizational success leads to stable structure and the appearance of permanence. Humans, after all, love the notion of predictability in an uncertain universe. To the extent that organizations with a semi-fixed set of goals represent the promise of success and predictability, they also acquire a degree of legitimacy in our eyes. As a result, we tend to stick with them, out of habit, laziness or motivated cognition.

Insofar as political parties are organizations, these same dynamics apply to them. And as with any other organization, this includes the emergence of a distinct culture,  and the ideological schisms accompanying them , to which the questioner on the forum I began this post with alluded. These days, that divide has multiple components.

No longer simply a matter of the policies  relating to domestic governance and foreign and military affairs,  politics increasingly embraces a range of social issues and identity politics. Matters we used to think of purely as personal preferences and tangential to if not  inappropriate to  the business of running (what used to be) the most powerful nation on Earth. 

Sadly, the political shorthand of “right and “left” as political positions have taken on deeper tribal meanings and personal significance than at any time since (at least) the Great Depression.

There are probably multiple causative factors that have giving rise to the vituperation characterizing our political dysfunction. Surely the accelerating rate of change first popularized in the Tofflers’ Future Shock is part of it, exacerbated by both political party’s willingness to consistently distort facts to fit their own narratives. (One much more cynically and flagrantly than the other. You know who you are). But whether we’re talking about corporate America, political parties or the various arms of governance, sooner or later, a phenomenon called the Organizational Paradox sets in.

Structure and the Organizational Paradox

As alluded earlier, organizational success is the reason the structure achieves the mirage of permanence. Enamored of the notion of predictability in an uncertain universe, humans are more or less spring-loaded to buy into that mirage. To the extent organizations with a semi-fixed set of goals promise of success and predictability, a sense of legitimacy is one of the natural spin-offs. So long as we perceive our interests coincide, we tend to view them favorably, overlooking their imperfections as instruments of our collective will.

There are, however, some downsides to organized behavior in any form, whether it’s a government, a political party, a tribe, or a corporation. Over time, a successful organization acquires a life of its own. Due to the scientific concept of emergence, the relatively simple goals and structure grow increasingly convoluted. Over time, the organization’s goals wind up defaulting to those of the leaders who stand most to gain by the policies they pursue.

In essence, someone in power (or wanting more of it) co-opts the organization’s original intent and substitutes their own objectives. This is usually done subtly and in stages. Like allegorical frog in water brought to a slow boil, we often don’t notice until it’s too late.

It also begs another question. How do we avoid the Promethean tendency to become the victim of our own cleverness to our collective ruin? This is not simply a question of nuclear war, or climate change, it is the emerging perils of how robotics and genetic manipulation (to mention just a couple) might end our interesting if imperfect run of hegemony.

The Outline of an Imperfect Solution...

There is but one answer, in my opinion, and an imperfect one at that. In order to avoid the tendency of organizations (and the leaders thereof) to sub-optimize organizational goals in favor of their own, we must become our organization’s conscience. Not some of us or even most of us. All of us. We must all become thoughtful, foresighted stewards of the public good, personally responsible for the outcomes of the governments/organizations purporting to represent us.

We are responsible for the outcomes of all! (Photo courtesy of Unsplash & Austin Kehmeier)

I’m painfully aware that we have rarely been able to do this…individually or collectively, for very long. Our inability to sustain a profound sense of stewardship does not bode well for our survival as a species. But in common with most willing to sign up to risk their life in defense of our nation, I retain a measure of cautious optimism.

For all the self-appointed and/or de facto Bernie Bro’s out there, I suspect this is what he and all the other self-appointed missionaries of “revolution” really mean when they advocate revolution. But as Bernie and almost everyone I talk to seems to miss is this revolution isn’t a switch from capitalism to socialism or any other “ism.” Rather it is the deep-seated, unshakable realization that we are one, all of us and that ultimately, none of us are safe if one of us isn’t. Until we can not simply embrace but celebrate the responsibility and freedom that coexist in that simple truth, we will continue to flirt with oblivion.

D.B. Sayers is a retired Marine officer, former corporate trainer and the author of four books currently in print with two more on the way. You can join his tribe on this page, in the upper right. 

For a more detailed examination of the Organizational Paradox, see West of Tomorrow, pp 246-256.

“Thank you for your service…”

The invisible cost of service

Hell is for Heroes

I remember the first war-themed motion picture that “stuck.” By stuck I mean stuck as in I remembered the whole plotline and the ending. It was the 1962 film, entitled Hell is for Heroes. It would be years before I really understood the underpinning nuances of the story fully, and even more years before personal experience taught me of the draconian choices military service often forces on the men and women who go in harm’s way.

When “Hell is for Heroes” was released, PTSD wasn’t a thing. It would be nearly 20 years before the term was coined, finally finding its way into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-III) in 1980. And as anyone who’s had a close call with death knows, the experience sticks and reliving it tends to fire all the nerves and emotions it evoked when it happened.

“Thank you for your service” is (at least) an acknowledgement of what the men and women who venture out on the pointy end of the spear go through. I’m always just a little “at a loss” for what to say in response when someone offers me that thanks, however. I finally came up with an anodyne “It was my honor and I’d do it all again.” It’s true, by the way. I would.

 

Courtesy Patrol: Oceanside, 1972

Anyone who has ever lived around a town that hosts a major deployable military force knows what to expect. Whether it’s during extended, multi-year conflicts in which combatants rotate home after a combat tour, or (especially) when the war winds down and troops start come rotate back to their home installations. Fresh from the roller coaster ride of moments off the charts fear and unspeakable drudgery and boredom, many perhaps most come up with coping strategies, some constructive and effective, some not.

In Courtesy Patrol, one of the short stories in the Through the Windshield, anthology, a young lieutenant back from a combat tour in Southeast Asia is Courtesy Patrol in Oceanside, on a payday weekend. Patrolling the girlie bars and grills, he is gets his first glimpse of just how violent the effects of PTSD can be.

The experience sticks with him and it’s still on his mind the next day. The events of the night before stick to his thoughts, not surprisingly and lead to a greater appreciation of how for most of us who serve, that service changes us, in ways we don’t fully appreciate, sometimes for years. In Courtesy Patrol, this is his moment of epiphany and nothing will ever be quite the same, again.

Through the Windshield, Drive-by Lives is a great way to sample D.B. Sayers’ writings and to acquaint yourself with the themes that weave their way through his writings. It’s available on Amazon in Paperback and Kindle formats. Or you can subscribe to Dirk’s Tribes at the top right of this page and get a PDF copy absolutely free.

A Symphony of Complexity

The Reductive Mirage of Simplicity

Maybe it’s an occupational hazard of being an author or maybe it’s advancing age, but for some reason, I find myself more and more preoccupied with matters philosophical. This would probably happen, even if I could avoid the news. I can’t and you probably can’t, either. We’re pretty much immersed in it. Can’t even get away from it on social media. (he observes as he adds a link to his latest blog post…). And I can think of nothing more catalytic of reflection than trying to puzzle out how the hell we got where we are.

The events of the last three years have led me to conclude that a significant number of Americans (U.S. Citizens to be absolutely precise) seem to have fallen for the notion that simple solutions to complex problems are generally our best answer. It’s not hard to figure out why. Virtually all of our political discourse, these days, is reductive. Whether it’s macroeconomics, international security treaties or negotiations, here in the U.S., we’ll bite on simple, despite of (or perhaps because of) the complexity of our world.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m sensitive to the undeniable elegance of simplicity. Reducing anything to a few simple concepts is a very seductive notion. And who hasn’t heard of the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid)? Maybe you’ve even used it yourself. I know I have. And nowhere is the siren call of simplicity more seductive than in political campaigns. Simple concepts are easy to understand. They lend themselves to clever slogans and effective if meaningless rallying cries.

With all that going for it conceptually, what’s wrong with trying to simplify things? I thought you’d never ask. Work with me a minute, here.

Complexity is baked in...

Let’s start with the observation that our world is home to a dazzling range diversity. It always has been. Never mind all of creation…just wrapping your head around one classification: Avians, let’s say. Ask any Ornithologist and they’re sure to tell you it’s a life study. Whether it’s something we think about or not, life writ large strenuously resists our attempts to simplify it.

Life thrives on diversity, in part because it allows for experimentation and adaptation, a bedrock of evolution. What adapts successfully survives, barring catastrophic events like asteroid strikes. Collectively, the dinosaurs were remarkably successful (and diverse) adaptations to their environment. Absent the hypothesized asteroid strike resulting in the climatic catastrophe that cut them short, might they eventually have developed intelligence we would recognize? We’ll never know.

In the same way that nature experiments through subtle and incremental genetic adaptation, humans (ourselves a genetic experiment) fiddle with ideas. Successful ideas adaptive to the environment giving rise to them tend to survive as long as the environment remains relatively stable. Please note, here, that I used successful rather than good.

It’s a distinction worth making. Successful ideas aren’t necessarily good ones, from an ethical perspective. It “works” in the context which gave birth to it, hence it thrives. A couple pretty obvious examples of bad ideas no longer generally accepted include the divine right of kings or the sun orbits the earth. But old ideas gave way to new ones.

Humanity and Context

But it’s worth remembering where those new ideas come from. Generally, they emerge from a new contextual reality. They are outgrows of a dynamic situation. The old wheeze “shit happens” is a pungent reminder that change is the lei motif not simply of our age but every age.

But there’s a pivotal difference between this age and all the ages that preceded it. Humans have always been change agents. But considering how much we contribute to shaping our environment today, it’s getting increasingly difficult to escape the conclusion we are now the apex change agents on the planet. 

We are shaping our future and not always for the best. And like it or not, some of the pivotal change agents are not copping to their role either in that change, or for that matter that it’s even happening. For the record, it is. Consider the graph following.

The foregoing graph, even supported by evidence is unlikely to move the stubborn atavisms prone to cling to obsolesence. I’m reminded of the old AA wheeze, “Drop the rock, you’ll swim better!” To which the obstinate alcoholic shouts back, “But it’s my rock!” We all get it. Few things are more difficult than abandoning (or even significantly modifying) a paradigm that has served us well for so long.

As with the bio-genetic adaptation referred to earlier, our adaptation to an emerging reality, even before it’s entirely clear what that reality is pivotal. What is unique to our adaptation is that we are re-engineering ourselves on the fly, whether we’re aware of it or not. And the evolution is much faster. Estimates vary with respect to how quickly the rate of knowledge acquisition is occurring. But if Buckminster Fuller’s knowledge-doubling curve is even close, what we “know” collectively as a species.

A couple of important caveats are in order. For starters, the knowledge-doubling curve above is a highly speculative approximation of what the knowledge growth curve might look like if the continued expansion of what we know continues. As a forecast, it is unlikely to be dead-on accurate, nor is it likely to be even. We should also recognize that the distribution of knowledge across the 7 billion human inhabitants of this planet, will not be very uneven, nor will all of it be accessible or readily applicable in it’s immediate, raw form.

Half an hour West of Tomorrow

Those observations made, the prevailing trend isn’t particularly difficult to puzzle out. When we fold Toffler’s concept of Future Shock, it is no longer remarkable that we have a huge disconnect in attitude between those closer to the leading edges of knowledge acquisition and those who are either unaware or even resistant to it. It is also painfully clear that at some point, those who resist assimilating knowledge as it is gained run the risk of becoming irrelevant in short order.

So, does the desire for simplicity in our lives have a place? I think it does, at least on a personal level. It may even be an indispensible component of our personal sanity. But extending that yearning for simplicity to our exogenous life in general strikes me as an unerring path to frustration and rage. I suspect that we left simplicity behind when we settled down to plant crops and domesticate animals for food.

The more ubiquitous and powerful humans become, the more complex our interaction with the contextual reality we call life becomes. Making America, Great Again is not function of “returning to our roots,” or how they did things, “back then.” We can honor our antecedents best by recognizing what it was that made them great.

Irrespective of the political, social, religious or spiritual framework to which they adhered, our Founders and the ones who followed and made us greater still, successfully balanced  honor for our traditions with foresighted innovative spirits. It is not that “simple” solutions, even to complex problems that we must resist. Sometimes simple solutions are the best ones.

Rather it is the reductive, simplistic thinking to exclusion of the evidence that we need to eschew.The future and the keys to it lie in our ability balance our yearning for a time when life was simpler with the recognition that, increasingly, simplistic answers are at best an illusive mirage. 

It is okay…even essential…to recognize when we don’t know. Not knowing is the human condition. What must change is how we deal with it. We must collectively recognize the global community as a community. A global community in which each human has a vested and legitimate interest in the impact of others’ individual and collective behaviors. In the same way change is unavoidable, so is the global impact of that change. Disparaging globalists or deifying nationalists completely ignores the truth. We are the world.  It may be a while before we fully grasp the implications of this new reality. But we can’t wait too long. The lives of our children and the quality thereof literally depend on it.

Fear or Hatred?

Aphorisms, Truth Vs. Fact

I must confess I have a weakness for aphorisms. There’s something about the taut simplicity and economy of words that feels like enlightenment. And of course, that’s the point. A well-worded aphorism should feel that way. For refresher’s sake, an aphorism is:

    “a concise statement of a truth, principle or sentiment.” (Merriam-Webster’s dictionary)

In the interests of short-circuiting philosophical debates about what is epistemically knowable, I’m going to focus on the principle or sentiment aspect, rather than “fact.” Facts drag a lot of intellectual baggage around with it, especially today. I prefer to view aphorisms like  Zen Koans. Aphorisms are not neither wisdom nor truth. They are signposts along the way. Work with me, here.

Fear or Hatred?

The last couple years there’s been a lot of angst richocheting around our country over our “direction,” the polarized divisiveness, intolerance, etc. And it has been argued that #MAGA and the “success” 45 is in part rooted in that angst. And it has been further hypothesized that the angst in which that success is grounded had its origins in the financial collapse of 2008 and/or the Obama presidency. As if racism, divisiveness or political hyperbole is new. But this is the United States, after all and historical perspective often gets lost in our quest for simple answers to complex questions, not to mention solutions implemented today and enjoyed tomorrow.

What do you think? Fear or Hatred?

You will likely recall Mohandus Gandhi as the renowned, non-violent activist and the father of India’s independence from Britain, in the late 1940s. Gandhi based his opposition to British hegemony on non-violence and religious pluralism. Given India’s religious and cultural diversity, it isn’t difficult to understand why. The aphorism above is attributed to him.

It would be hard to miss its apparent relevance today. But if you’re also a student of history, you’re also painfully aware of how it turned out for Gandhi personally, and for what subsequently happened in India…not to mention how radically times have changed since.

All that aside, it still feels true, at some level. Does not intolerance, suspicion and uncertainty have some grounding in our fears? If so, does it follow then, that fear is the enemy or is there something else going on? At the risk of disagreeing with someone  whose teachings, life and moral courage I admire, I think it’s a little more complicated.

Are we what we fear?

For the record, I am not contemptuous of fear, or people who feel it. As a retired Marine officer, big wave surfer and snow skier, I’ve learned a little about it and understand how debilitating it can be. Fear is often rational and justified. But while  fear may be rational, it does not follow that our response to it will be. 

My experiences suggest that fear,  (Mr. Gandhi’s thoughts notwithstanding), is not the enemy. Misdirected fear, or harnessed to the wrong purpose,  is. This distinction matters because it focuses on the response, rather than an emotion. Fear is as old as the caves, and natural as breathing. It’s often useful as well, insofar as it often galvanizes us to action. The problem arises when we allow it to replace reason. 

Okay, so what and why now, particularly? Fair question. These are fearful times. Uncertainty can do that to us, if we let it. And we seem to be letting it do that a lot, of late. It tracks along behind us in our personal finances, unless you happen to be one of the exceptionally fortunate. It shrieks at us in the howling winds of hurricanes and typhoons and leers at us in the flames consuming hundreds of thousands of acres in a matter of days. It’s operant in our sense of bewilderment at an age riddled with change so sweeping it defies our ability to make sense of it or see a way  through it. Small wonder nostalgia looks more attractive than trailblazing.

Through the shadowed forest.

Courage and Hope.

But as fearful as the times may seem and as trite as hope sounds as a remedy, in the jaded 2nd decade of the 21st Century, we must nevertheless hope. Individually and collectively we are larger than what we fear and greater than our challenges. All that stands in the way of our success is are clear eyes, open minds and the conviction that we can craft a future in which the fulfillment of all is not merely possible, but in the best interests of us all. 

Courageous men and women do not give in to their fears and they certainly don’t allow the fears to morph into hatred or tribalism. Both inevitably consume. Individually and collectively, courageous women and men connect and find inspiring beauty and wisdom in diversity and difference.  We are one by choice. Not by color or by philosophy but by conscious choice and a devotion to the best in all of us. Today, look a brother or sister you don’t know in the eye…and see yourself.

Dirk is the author of West of Tomorrow and Best Case Scenario, both available in paperback and Kindle from Amazon.