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. 

Blog Post Image
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.

# MAGA is a Mirage

Sorting Through the BS...

Recently, I ran across a post on Medium a forum I frequent that suggested that our 45th president didn’t have much in the way of redeeming value, but that one thing that he does well (and the most probable reason for his election) was  marketing.

The post went on (it was good post and I read it all the way through) to suggest that his ability to reinvent himself through reality TV was his special and most relevant competence. One which permitted him to succeed when any thoughtful reading of his competence and/or character demonstrated he was unqualified and a likely unmitigated disaster.

She got a lot of comments. (Write a Trump post on any forum & you’re sure to get a lot of responses). She got the usual number of “me too” reactions, as well a number of “Trump no matter what” respondents. But what amused most was the died-in-the-wool progressives who insisted 45 is an aberration who succeeded in selling the U.S. a bill of goods.

Nobody asked me, but I think 45 is a logical result of our times. He did not invent reality TV; he was simply perceptive enough to figure out how to leverage it. What thoughtful people already realize is that we are in the midst of tectonic shifts in the paradigms govern pretty much every aspect of our reality. These paradigm shifts cut across how we relate to each other socially, economically, politically & personally. These shifts are magnifying each other in ways that have no precedent in history. For the record, it isn’t like we weren’t warned. The Tofflers saw this coming in the late ‘60s, which is why they wrote Future Shock, which was published in 1970.

The Way ahead...?

Now, fifty years later, are we not in the no man’s land between yesterday and tomorrow, with (if we’re brutally honest with ourselves) no clue what’s next? The old models simply don’t work as well as they used to (or at all) and the new ones are still in the prototype phase. Which is to say, that the way ahead for the world generally (and liberal western democracies in particular, assuming they survive) isn’t particularly clear. One could say, the  way ahead is actually most like wilderness, with no roadsigns.

Our closest analog for today, the Industrial Revolution, was a jolting experience in it’s time, but is dwarfed by the changes we’re confronting now. None of the leaders we have (or who are offering themselves as future leaders) have a full solution, yet. We’re going to need an eclectic approach to solving the problems confronting us. I’m going to humbly offer that the best answer is likely to lie somewhere between the progressive vision of a bulletproof safety net and unrestrained, exploitive, (and extractive) capitalism. Our global role, similarly, probably lies between an outward looking foreign policy in which we are the single, indispensable nation-state, and an introverted, self-involved nation that can’t find Myanmar on the map.

For the same reason, you can't build a fire with yesterday's ashes, the way ahead is not behind us.

What we must not do, IMO, is pretend that the past is the future. It isn’t. 45 hasn’t had an original thought since the Beatles brayed out “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” Yes, yes, Beatles lovers, many of their later compositions were nothing short of genius. My point is, #MAGA is a socio-political mirage. Or a bit more metaphorically, the ashes with which you can’t build tomorrow’s fire.

We will need the best of all our minds working toward a just, though imperfect society. Facts, truth & imperfect good ideas must have a place in the crucible of free thought, not to mention a modicum of humility that acknowledges none of us have all the answers. I submit that digging in on either the talking points you can hear on Fox News or MSNBC is probably not going to get it done. We need the best of both. Just one broken-down, baggy-eyed old Marine officer’s opinion.

D.B. Sayers is a retired Marine officer, former corporate trainer turned full-time author. He is the author of four critically reviewed works and has three more in various stages of completion. You can follow Dirk’s work and stay up to date on them by joining Dirk’s Tribe on any page of this site.

The Truth Hiding in Plain Sight

Tomorrow is here...

From where I am at this point in my life, I see our time as a blink world of paradigm shifts, all happening at once and often working at cross-purposes with each other and humanity. It is partly the incessant bombardment of things to think about. Not that we weren’t warned. The Tofflers predicted this when they published Future Shock, in 1970. In the nearly fifty years since, most of us who have been paying attention are painfully aware the Tofflers were mostly right.

But you’d never know it, from listening to many of today’s “thought leaders.” Whether it’s anodyne corporate talking points drafted by some nameless HR functionary, or the sage advice of the self-help gurus and life coaches, I can’t help feeling that something’s missing. And don’t even get me started on most of the politicians already stumping for our vote in 2020. There are exceptions in all three of the aforementioned groups. But even the best of them gloss over or dance around the truth hiding in plain sight.

The old order is dying. Representative democracy as we have known it, capitalism and the self-absorbed American way of life are all sinking of their own weight. The political thinking grounded in the time before the Industrial Revolution was never intended to cope with the 21st Century in which instantaneous communications and could disseminate simple, seductive lies faster than the ponderous, nuanced truths of a more complicated world.

The underpinnings of laissez-faire capitalism will never adapt to a world in which unbridled greed, unlimited growth and minimal regulation are now literally the most direct paths to extinction. A society of 330 million people in which average voter turn out hovers between the low 40s in mid-term election cycles and the mid-50s during presidential election cycles does not bode well for sustaining a vibrant democracy. (See chart below excerpted from Pew Research).

The "back-button doesn't work...

As a purely practical matter, the indicators noted above need to change. Extracting a meaningful consensus from America seems unlikely if almost half the eligible voting population doesn’t vote, even in a presidential election. If these metrics continue, understanding how democracy might die without a whimper gets pretty easy. 

If you buy much of the foregoing, it should be obvious that what worked in the past won’t work going forward. For the same reason we can’t build tomorrow’s fire with yesterday’s ashes, we can’t build a sustainable tomorrow from the ruins of yesterday. Change is the natural order of things. The “back button” doesn’t work on history and deep down, most of us know it. We need to stop looking in our rearview mirror for anything like a promising future.

Where the future is...

But in the midst of the angst, denial and motivated cognition, it’s worth remembering we’ve been here before. We’ve survived ice ages, volcanic eruptions, huricanes, earthquakes and fratricidal wars over religion, and the Industrical Revolution. We should also remember that progress is rarely linear. Sometimes it meanders, sometimes it even regresses.

One of the daunting things about our time is the uncertainty that comes with it. In a way, perhaps  the most underappreciated spinoffs of the future shock as outlined in the Tofflers’ book is it’s paralytic effect. There’s no lack of uncertainty confronting us in the second decade of the 21st Century. But looking back at the history of man in general and America in particular, uncertainty has never stopped us before. The future does not belong to the timid or despairing, it belongs to the thoughtful men and women with a fresh vision and a hopeful, innovative spirit that dares. And to the intelligent followers willing to accept the risks while focusing on the pay off.

Tomorrow does not come with unconditional guarantees or even with a promise. It comes with a challenge, a smile and only the faintest whiff of a “maybe.” I can’t tell you what will happen if we smile back. I can only tell you what will happen if we don’t. So maybe smile with me as we together embrace our tomorrow.

Dirk Sayers is the author of West of Tomorrow, a contemporary literary romance and Best Case Scenario, Act I of Nyra’s Journey, the first volume in a new-adult series about one young woman’s search for her most authentic self. Through the Windshield, Drive-by Lives, a collection of Dirk’s short stories, is now also available and Tier Zero, Volume I of the Knolan Cycle a science fiction tale of first contact is due out in November 2019.

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.

A Modest Lesson From My Road…

It’s almost an article of faith, today, that we are a nation divided by conflicting identities and most of the evidence supports that conclusion. It’s hard to find commentary from either side of the political spectrum that does not extoll the virtues of “Our Side” & “Our” particular take on truth at the expense of the opposition.

Factions identified as “The Right” peddle alternative realities and conspiracy theories, rail against the “Deep State” or shadowy “Fifth Column” movements bent on bringing down capitalism self-reliance and rugged individualism. Factions typically identified as “The Left” seek to demonize everyone who doesn’t share their vision of a brave new inclusive world in which everyone loves everyone else, even if they don’t, really. Everybody should love everybody, after all…well, shouldn’t they?

Seriously...think it over.

Tribes and Tribulations

The Brotherhood of Marines is a lesson to us all. The Citadel Hue City, during the Tet Offensive.

People who know me well know my first adult identity was as a Marine. It wasn’t a popular identity in the early years of my service. The military’s reputation was at its low ebb, in America, during Vietnam and for years thereafter. There’s room for debate with respect to how much of that contempt was earned, but most of us felt we were under siege in our own country and no where was this more evident than in California, where I was stationed after my first tour.

As a result, we turned inward. Many of us became Marines not simply first, but exclusively. Our haircut, our posture and an indefinable something others sensed set us apart, even out of uniform. Because we could not hide who we were, we wore our identity with tribal defiance, many of us choosing to opt out of “main stream society,” with whose views and values our own conflicted.

But lazer focus on identity in a society as diverse as ours is simply not sustainable. Like it or not, we own our society…all of it, not just the part we agree with. As the memories of Vietnam and the divisions it evoked receded, so did the animosities. Gradually, all of America came to realize a nation that continued to despise it’s military would eventually have a despicable military that lived down to its reputation, earned or not.

Unconsciously, we all came to realize this, though it took time. At first, Dirk the Marine officer, and “Otter” the surfer/shaper were different identities, inhabiting different orbits in the same geographical space. But over time, those identities merged into one, with neither identity  conflicting with the  other contextual realities that had come to define me. A surfing Marine was no longer out of place in the waves, or on base with surf racks on his/her car.

The zen zone - a world unto itself...

Road Songs...

Over time, my merging identities as Marine and surfer symbolized broader kinship. As permanent changes of duty station and my own incurable restlessness pulled me repeatedly across this great land, the inevitable stops along the way pulled me into conversations with other drivers. On one cross-country drive, I pulled a horse and trailer, stopping to stable my horse overnight and found kinship with other horse people whose take on things didn’t always dovetail with mine.

This divergence of opinion repeated itself with relatives in Texas, one of whom referred to my home as “la-la land.” But mixed in with the sediment of opinion, most of the people I came to know well revealed a generosity of spirit, even a nobility I could not help but admire. It’s a sensing we all would do well to recapture.

This did not change after I retired and traveled not as a Marine, but as a corporate trainer. Repeatedly, I was reminded of what I had learned earlier in my career as a Marine officer. Nobility, honor and generosity are not functions of class, race, origin or ethnicity. They are rooted in attitude. Ironically, I often noticed this nobility and generous-hearted love of country was most evident in immigrants who had come here by choice, rather than accident of birth.

Specialization and Synergy

Toasts and fines can get a little wild...

Many years ago, I attended one of many Marine Corps mess nights which (like some mess nights) got a little wild. In the toasts immediately following dinner, a “toasting war” broke out over which Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) was or should be most valued.

First an infantry officer stood to make his case for the superiority of the infantry…to agreement by other infantrymen and numerous catcalls from everyone else. Then an artillery officer stood and said his piece, followed by a tanker, a fighter pilot an engineer, a communications officer, etc. Finally a quiet, bespectacled officer stood, and was recognized by the president of the Mess. He paused, waiting for silence, then spoke these words:

There is always an empty table for fallen comrades...

“To all the numbers! Together we’re invincible.”

(For those of you who might not know, all MOS’s have numeric designations). Tables were pounded and glasses drained to roars of approval. As every officer knows, he (or she) won’t last very long without the other. The fusion and synergy of joint warfare as practiced by the U.S. military today is legendary for a reason. We rely on each other and know that our brothers and sisters in arms would sooner die than let us down.

E Pluribus Unum...

My wanderings across this country have led me to understand what has made America the great nation it has become isn’t what’s different about us,either internally or externally. It’s how each of our self-images inform our individual actions.

In this age of swirling change and shifting paradigms, we would do well to remember this. I am convinced much of the disunion we see today is a spin-off of change greater even than the paroxysms of the Industrial Revolution. We should be unsurprised by the divisions those changes are tearing in our social fabric. Change by definition destroys nearly as much as it creates. And hidden in this maelstrom of change is unharnessed energy is both hope and rage. It is for us to choose what to do with it.

Just a thought...

I now have way more runway behind me than is left in front of me. I’ve lived a rich life in terms of experiences. I’ve learned to question almost everything I think, because my first thoughts are often wrong…or at least out of balance. But this I know.

When we choose to divide ourselves…or allow others inside or out to do, we place all we value at peril. We should be suspicious of identity politics that seems calculated to divide us, rather than pull us together. We’re a contentious, rambunctious collection of differing opinions. That’s who we are but in that diversity there is great synergy, beauty, wisdom and resilience. And in the end, that’s exactly what we need.