Monday, August 16, 2021

History Repeats


Much has been said and written in the last 48 hours about the sudden collapse of the government of Afghanistan in the face of the Taliban offensive. A great deal more will be said in the coming days and weeks, much of it predictable. Republicans will blame the Biden Administration, never minding the previous President's negotiated deal to do exactly what has been done. Democrats will try to deflect blame, and wring their hands, and talk about how there were no good options. And everyone will out-do each other praising our brave men and women in uniform for their tremendous work, even though it didn't turn out very well in the end. 

That last part - the bipartisan agreement that our armed forces are to be praised no matter what - is the direct result of the last time we saw this movie play out. In the mid-1970s, Vietnam veterans returning home were widely vilified in the face of reporting on the war (the My Lai massacre in particular) and the general sense that America has "lost" the war. In retrospect, we regretted taking out our anger on our troops. Ever since, we've gone rather in the other direction.

Regardless of that difference, this is very much the same story rebooted. The United States attempted through force of arms to create a political situation in an underdeveloped country far away over the course of decades and through several Presidential administrations, both Democratic and Republican. Eventually the effort collapsed in failure. 

There will be much discussion in the coming weeks and months about how this happened, in an effort to learn our lessons anew. We had much the same discussion after Vietnam. History suggests we won't do much better this time around.

One idea from our last go-round deserves to be heard again. In the early 1970s, as it became clear where the Vietnam war was headed, Daniel Ellsberg wrote a piece he titled "The Quagmire Myth and the Stalemate Machine". In it, he laid out a fairly straightforward argument. What we were told about that war (and, by and large, what many Americans came to believe) was that Vietnam was a "quagmire" - a bog that looked like solid ground until you actually got into it. And once you stepped in, every additional step sucked you in a little deeper, until eventually we became stuck. The idea was appealing, because that suggested that the war wasn't really anybody's fault - everyone was doing their best based on what they knew at the time.

Ellsberg argued that this was patently false. As an insider in the Pentagon during the war, he knew that the civilian and military leadership knew from very early on what the likely consequences of each step were. They knew there was no "victory" around the corner, even as they continued to say that there would be. This was no quagmire.

Why, then, did American leaders lead us knowingly into a disaster? Here Ellsberg constructed a surprising answer. It wasn't the mendacity of our leaders (as much as he criticized them). It was our fault - the fault of the American public. The "stalemate machine" he referred to was the engine of American politics and public opinion, in which elected politicians were hemmed in by two forces: Americans would punish any politician who allowed us to lose a war, and they would punish any politician who cost us too much in lives and money. These are, of course, contradictory forces, and eventually reality on the ground produced the ending that was destined from the beginning. What administrations from Eisenhower to Kennedy to Johnson to Nixon had done was simply kick the can down the road, doing just enough to not lose while not costing too much.

The same logic has been operating for the past 20 years in Afghanistan. We managed to keep the number of casualties far lower, but spent about the same amount of money (as of 2021). 

As we've learned in many ways, Americans don't like being told that there are things we can't do. Part of our cultural DNA is that nothing is impossible. Unfortunately, using military force (alongside some development work, to be sure) to remake an underdeveloped country halfway around the world in our image IS impossible. 

In the coming weeks and months, Republicans will blame Democrats and Democrats will blame Republicans. We will argue, fruitlessly, about whose fault all of this is. We are unlikely to arrive at the right answer, the answer Walt Kelly (in a very different context) gave us shortly after the Vietnam War ended: We have met the enemy, and he is us.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

We Are One

Like a lot of us, I am struggling to process the events of Wednesday, Jan. 6. The rally on the Ellipse south of the White House, the storming of the Capitol building, and the unprecedented votes cast (unsuccessfully) to throw out duly-certified electors in a Presidential election – all of this is without precedent. Though many of us saw this coming, these are still uncharted waters.

Much of what needs to be said is being said. There must be consequences for those who committed crimes – as many clearly did. Incitement to riot is a crime. If Alex Jones – unprotected by any government position – hasn’t yet been arrested, I can’t imagine why. 


Then there’s the issue of the President himself. Far fewer would argue today that he’s fit to hold the office he still holds for two more weeks. Take a vote on impeachment, he’s likely to be impeached. Vote in the Senate, he’s likely to be convicted. Perhaps that will happen. 


A lot of what happens now matters for the future, more than it matters for today. Despite this amateurish and ridiculous coup attempt, Joe Biden will still be President starting Jan. 20. The House and Senate will be controlled by the Democratic Party. Further attempts at violence in and around the Capitol and elsewhere in DC will likely be met swiftly and decisively. In that sense, the immediate danger is minimal.


But because we are in uncharted waters, what we do now will have an outsized impact on what happens in the future. Will a refusal to concede become a lasting pattern in American politics? Will troops be called to defend the Capitol every time there’s an event of even symbolic significance? Can we expect a replay of this in two years, or four? 


This is a defining moment. What we do now will impact the trajectory of the country for a generation or more.


How do we navigate in such a time? Lost in an unfamiliar sea, winds blowing in many directions, how do we find a way forward? Like mariners have always done, we must set course in relation to a fixed point – steering by what is True.


It seems fitting that now is a good time to return to the notion of Truth. So much of what has driven us to this point has been the opposite of truth – lies, falsehoods, conspiracy theories run rampant. Untruth is what has hurled is into this storm. Truth will be what gets us out.


Here I mean more than simply a return to fact-based reality, although that’s an important first step. The phrase “alternative facts” must be buried along with the mound of lies and falsehoods, untethered to evidence, that have been piled high all around us. If we can’t start with basic facts, we won’t go anywhere.


I also mean more than a return to a respect for what truth is and isn’t. There are some things that we know definitively, and there are some things we’re pretty sure of, and there are some things that we don’t know yet. We know for certain that the COVID-19 virus kills many people. We used to think that contact with infected surfaces was a major transmission vector – now we think it’s probably a thing, but not a serious as airborne infection. We don’t yet know everything we want to about immunity, either from a vaccine or from recovery from the disease. We need to understand that truth is not always Yes or No – though sometimes it very much is.


What I mean to say here is that as important as these things are – as important as facts and science and expertise are in getting us out of the storm we are in – there is a Truth even deeper. It is the truth that undergirds all politics, all societies, all communities everywhere. It is the Truth necessary for any kind of life, much less civilization, to survive.


It is simply this: We are one.


Across all differences of race and color, we are one.


Across all genders and gender identities, we are one.


Across all forms of belief and non-belief, theists and atheists, religions and spiritualities, we are one.


Across all political parties and ideologies, we are one.


Across all languages, all cultural barriers, all artificial borders drawn and redrawn and redrawn again, we are one.


In the United States this Truth is emblazoned on the coins that pass through our hands and the Seal of the Office of the Presidency: E Pluribus Unum. Out of Many, One.


It rings through the words of the Constitution, is embedded in the Pledge of Allegiance that schoolchildren recite every day.


We KNOW this to be true. It is in our bones and our deepest selves, even when we try to reject it from our minds.


The storm we are seeing now – the rallies, the tweets, the assault on the Capitol building yesterday – is all one giant attempt to escape this truth. To try to impose the falsehood that we are not all one, that we are many and divided. That My Group and My People can win and Yours can lose and I don’t have to deal with You ever again. 


We’ve seen this before. In Rwanda. In Belfast. In Jerusalem. In Sarajevo. In Bergen-Belsen. In the holds of slave ships and the platforms of slave markets. In Charleston. In Charlottesville. In Minneapolis. In Louisville. In Cleveland. In Beavercreek.


The choice has never been clearer. Either we find a way to work together, to embrace a politics that celebrates differences and builds a common life together, or we consume one another – and everything around us – in fire and suffering. What is set before us is life and death, blessings and curses. We can choose life, or we can choose death. 


Those who stormed the Capitol yesterday, and those who egged them on and encouraged them with lies and deceit, chose death. They may not have understood it as such. But the Truth doesn’t care whether you understand it or not. The Truth is.


So what do we do? How do steer ourselves out of this storm?


We choose life. We accept the Truth that we are one. And we move forward together.


One of the great benefits of the humanities – of fiction and story and drama and art – is that they often give us ways to express the Truth more eloquently than we otherwise can. I close with a speech written as part of a science fiction TV series, Babylon 5, aired over 20 years ago. Imagine a speech like this on the lips of one of our leaders today. And imagine a community that actually believed this to be true.




Sunday, October 11, 2020

Things I Believe Are True

We are living through an election year. Election years always feel like divisive times in American society – each one, it seems, a little more so than the last. Even given that trend, this year feels different.

In a time like this, how do we have conversations about the future of our communities? We can’t have the kinds of conversations we used to, in which we discussed and argued about policies and ideas. Once upon a time, debating health care meant talking about the pros and cons of market-based systems and single-payer plans, about the appropriate role of government. Those debates are long gone.


Public discourse, such as it is, has largely been reduced to name-calling, vitriol, anger, and threats – not just in campaigning but in governing. Some of those threats take the form of action. Protests turn violent. People show up at protests armed, expecting and planning for violence. The original sin of racism has become too blatant for anyone to ignore. People have lost their lives because we can’t talk to each other. 


In this chaos, most reasonable people – and despite appearances, that’s most people in our society – have taken to one of two options. They either talk about politics and the public life only with those who share their views (a task made easier by social media). Or they talk about it not at all.


Both choices are doing us no good. 


This post is an attempt to find another path. I have no idea if it will have any impact or not. But trying seems better than not trying.


I don’t want to talk about the election, because I don’t think the election itself is the most important thing. Yes, it matters who wins and who loses. But other things matter more. If the “right” person wins (whoever you think that person is) and the country continues to descend into vitriol and anger, to draw farther and farther apart by race and wealth and ability and privilege and all the divisions we have created, then who is in the White House will matter much less than who we are (or are not) as a community. Who’s in government is irrelevant if we are ungovernable.


Rather than making arguments about policies, or even facts, I want to try to identify truths – things that I believe are fundamentally true, and which matter a great deal. Perhaps that’s a different kind of ground on which to have a conversation.


Things I Believe To Be True


I believe that Thomas Merton was right when he said that “In all things visible there is … a hidden wholeness.” That beneath all distinctions and divisions there lies a wisdom that everything is connected. That we, and everything and everyone around us, are all part of the whole.


I believe that the best term we have come up with for this hidden wholeness is love.


I believe that the most important thing about public life – about our life together as a community – is not the policies we adopt, as important as those are. The most important thing is who we are to each other. We have a choice, individually and collectively, to live together and be love to each other or to live divided and fear each other. Policies flow from that choice.


I believe that the divisions we see in our society – race, gender, class, wealth, privilege, disability, and so many others – are creations of our own making. Which means we have the power to un-make them.


I believe that when we espouse, in various languages and traditions and frames, that all are created in the image and likeness of God, that actually means something. Everything, and every person, is capable of love. And everything and everyone can be loved.


I believe that division among people – not difference, but division – harms everybody. It is not only blacks or Latinx or other people of color in the United States who are harmed by racism; whites are too. It is not only the poor who are damaged by classism; so are the wealthy and privileged. 


Difference does not have to mean division. Communities can foster and celebrate difference and use it as a strength. 


I believe that conflict, based on division, is likewise our creation. It is not pre-ordained or inherent in the universe. The universe is fundamentally connected. Cooperation and coordination are far more “natural” than the conflicts we generate.


I believe that conflict is ultimately created out of fear – our fears of others, which are usually just projections of our own fears of ourselves and of the suffering and loss which is a necessary component of all life. 


I also believe that one does not have to have fear to suffer from it. Plenty of us suffer because of the fears of others.


I believe that any vision of the public life of the community which requires conformity – of thought, of race, of creed, of culture – is doomed to failure. Seeking “purity” of any kind is a fool’s errand which only causes more suffering. Difference exists – we can either deny that and increase our and others’ suffering, or we can accept it and build together from there.


I believe that justice is not justice unless it is available to “the least of these”, to the hungry and the poor and the marginalized. This is not merely a Christian notion, though it is obviously that. It is echoed in every great religious and humanist tradition of human civilization. 


Finally, I believe that if we don’t learn to talk to each other – past the divisions we have created and the anger we wear like armor and the fear that we hide from ourselves – then, in the words of the great philosopher Theodor Seuss Geisel, “Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

Saturday, March 28, 2020

The Coxswain as Leader

In my line of work I think a lot about leadership. What makes a good leader? What makes for effective leadership? How can I be a better leader, and a better follower, where I am right now?

On a seemingly separate note I have been participating in a virtual Lenten series this year that has drawn material from a book, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown. In the series we have read snippets of the book and have talked about rowing as a metaphor for life as a whole.

In the kind of eight-oar shell discussed in the book, there are nine people: eight rowers (each with a distinctive role to play) and a coxswain, or cox. The cox rides in the back of the boat, calls the pace for the rowers to follow, and steers the shell. In that sense, the cox looks very much like a leader.

But being a good cox is not about barking orders (though that's what it looks like on the surface). I think there are a number of lessons that leaders can learn by looking at what it takes to be a good cox:

• Coxes are always the smallest person in the boat. This is to reduce weight and drag, to make the boat lighter and therefore faster. Good leadership is often about not being a drag on your organization and not letting your weight get in the way.

• Coxes don't actually move the boat forward. A cox, sitting alone in a shell and calling time, accomplishes nothing. It is the oarswomen or oarsmen who actually make the boat move. Leaders must recognize that the success of their organizations relies on the efforts of others far more than on their own.

• The cox steers the boat with a small rudder mechanism. This mechanism can be easily overmatched by what the rowers are doing. If the rowers are pushing the boat one way and the cox trying to steer another, the rowers win (and sometimes the rudder breaks). A leader's ability to steer an organization is only as good as her or his ability to get the people doing things in the organization to agree on where things should go.

• The speed of a shell is ultimately a function of swing - a state in which each of the rowers is performing her task to the best of her ability and also in perfect synchrony with the others. Each is an individual and each has her own strengths and distinctive characteristics, yet all are harmonized together. It is the job of the cox to create and sustain this state. Leadership is not about being "in charge". It is about getting groups to work together with each other in ways that not only maximize their own individual potential and ability, but harmonize with each other.

It takes a long time, a lot of practice, and a lot of work for a crew to develop swing. Many never do. In the absence of this state, coxes can yell louder or faster, but the result is generally not a faster shell. Worse, faster and louder yelling by the cox can cause the entire boat to capsize and the rowers to get hurt.

In this time of crisis, our organizations are discovering the truth about ourselves. Our leaders are yelling louder and faster, and steering our boats in suddenly new directions. The organizations that have done the long, slow, laborious work of developing themselves, of tuning their capacity for swing, will do OK in a crisis. Those that have not will flounder still more.

There's one last observation about leadership-as-coxswain. It's not about the individual leader. The best cox in the world could step into a shell with eight rowers she doesn't know and produce terrible results. Coxes only succeed based on the relationships they have built with their rowers and the relationships they have fostered among the rowers themselves. Hiring a great cox won't make the boat faster. Hiring one with the right skills and mindset, and letting that leader do the work over the long haul, will.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Competence Matters

It's been over a year since I've written anything on this blog. Why this is so is a matter for another time. And I don't know how often I will continue writing, if at all.

I'm returning to writing today to state the obvious, in the hopes that if enough of us say this it will have some impact. I hope lots of other people will say it too. It's not an original thought to me - I'm just one voice in the chorus.

The lesson we are facing, as we all go into lockdown to try to slow the spread of a pandemic that may overwhelm our hospitals and kill hundreds of thousands of Americans and millions around the world, is simple: when it comes to government, competence matters.

In the American context, competence matters more than party. It matters more than whether we identify with the Red tribe or the Blue tribe. It matters more than any of the hundred "hot-button" issues we like to argue so passionately about. All of those issues, and all of those divides, will still be there tomorrow.

In short, everything we have been focused on in our politics for the last several years is irrelevant. And if we keep conducting our politics on that basis, they too will become irrelevant.

This is important, because one faction within one political party - the Republican Party - has been trying to argue that competence doesn't matter. This is not a partisan dig, nor a new discovery. It's simply an observation. Some Republicans, from Newt Gingrich (at times) to Grover Norquist to a host of others, have been selling their supporters on the notion that Government is Always Bad. That the best thing to do with government is to shrink it down small enough to be drowned in a bathtub (to borrow Norquist's colorful phrase).

We now see the consequences of that view. Beyond their wildest hopes and dreams, this view has helped elect an administration, and create a host of believers, who eschew science, who replace expertise and knowledge with loyalty, and who view facts as either weapons or conspiracies of the enemy.

Because of that, this pandemic will be worse in the United States than it needed to be. Because of that, thousands of people will die who didn't need to die.

Governments exist in large part as insurance against exactly this kind of event. Pandemics are natural disasters on the grandest scale. They demand a collective response. Collective action requires a coordination point and enforcement. Only effective government can provide effective collective action.

This will not be the last pandemic. There will be more, just as there will be other events that demand a collective response.

Later this year we will hold elections. There are people in both parties who believe in competence. New York's Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, is one. Ohio's Mike DeWine, a Republican, is another. Find these people and elect them. Elect more like them. Vote out anyone who has shown indifference, even hostility, to competence - to facts and science and what is real.

Lives are depending on it.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

"Free Speech in Higher Education": Not about Higher Education, and Not About Free Speech

Those of us in higher education got an earful about one particular bit of President Trump's CPAC speech, regarding his pledge to create an executive order restricting federal research funds to campuses that don't "protect free speech". Here's one story among many from the higher ed press:
Legal Scholars Don’t Know the Details of Trump’s Order on Campus Speech. But They Think It’s a Mistake.
This issue has been buzzing around the political sphere for while now, usually in discussions on the conservative or Republican side. Accusations have been flying about how there is a "crisis" in free speech in higher education.

Here's my take: there is no crisis. This isn't about higher education. And it isn't about free speech.

The poster child for this "crisis" of late has been Hayden Williams, an activist with an organization called Turning Point USA, a conservative group that recruits on college campuses. Williams was at an event on the UC-Berkeley campus last year when he was punched by another individual. The event was captured on camera and broadcast across the internet, where it quickly became fodder among conservative commentators as evidence of the "crisis of free speech" on campuses. The President brought Williams up on stage during his CPAC speech to illustrate the "crisis" he's trying to address.

I think the Williams case is actually the perfect example of the broader issue. Williams is not a student at UC-Berkeley - indeed, he has no affiliation with the university at all. He is a private citizen who came onto the campus from outside to use it as a platform for the message he wanted to promulgate.

The man who punched Williams was also not a student, nor affiliated with UC-Berkeley in any way. He was another private citizen who had come onto campus from outside, presumably to oppose or object to Williams' views. Or maybe he was just passing by.

So this isn't about higher education at all. This encounter could just as well have occurred in a public park, or on a street corner, or in the local post office. If it had, I doubt we would be talking about a "crisis in free speech in our public parks".

Moreover, Berkeley did exactly what any institution committed to free speech would do. It openly permitted Mr. Williams to come onto campus and speak and made no attempt to curtail or constrain that speech. Its police promptly arrested the man who threw the punch. Allowing that UC-Berkeley is a government entity, and that the right of free speech is a right to be free from government interference in speech, there was nothing about this incident that involved what we would consider constraints on free speech. The problem here was about civility, not government (or university) constraints on speech.

Finally, this is nowhere near the definition of a "crisis". There are between 3000 and 4000 institutions of higher education in this country. Every day, in every one of them, there are robust conversations about all sorts of things. If you were to add up all of the public incidents about "free speech" on college campuses over the past year, they wouldn't amount to more than a dozen or two, most involving small groups of students (if they involve students at all). Out of three million+ college students, a couple dozen is a rounding error, not a crisis.

Polls of the broader population show that large percentages of Republican-identifying adults believe that college professors are out to indoctrinate students with liberal ideas and suppress conservatives. These polls are meaningless, because they are asking these questions of a population that isn't actually in college and has no direct knowledge of what's going on on campuses. Moreover, well over 50% of that population has never been to college, so they don't even have their own past experiences to draw on. All these polls show is the power of media persuasion to get people to believe something in the absence of any direct evidence or experience.

So any executive order (if there is one, and if it is crafted to actually be implementable) will be a solution in search of a problem, a symbolic act designed for purposes that have nothing to do with what it's supposedly about. Which is a perfect statement about our politics today: angry, tribal symbolism disconnected from reality - at best, a distraction; at worst, an obstacle to us trying to build the society we really want to live in.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Not Every Victory is a Victory

The title of this piece was quoted to me by a friend. We were discussing a situation that seems common these days: a public negotiation that has become a game of Chicken.

For those not familiar with the game-theory construct of Chicken, it's a two-player game in which each side tries to get the other to concede first. The typical narrative is two cars racing towards each other head-on. The loser is the one that swerves out of the way first to avoid a collision. One "wins" at Chicken by convincing the other side that your side is willing to risk total destruction if you don't get your way. In game theory matrix terms, Chicken looks like this:

If one player swerves (gives in) and the other doesn't, there's a clear winner and a clear loser. If both swerve, there's a tie but neither wins anything. Both continuing straight ends in disaster.

The recent budget negotiation between Congress (in particular, Congressional Democrats) and the White House could be modeled this way. Indeed, many did characterize the period of the shutdown as just this kind of test of wills - who would "swerve" first? And it seems that both sides saw themselves as engaged in Chicken, as both engaged in various commitment behaviors to try to convince the other side of their willingness to risk a Crash.

In this narrative, the Democrats "won" and the President "lost", because he was seen as swerving first (by agreeing to reopen the government without border wall funding). This game may get replayed again in three weeks - we'll see what happens in the next round, if there is one.

On the local level, I've been watching a similar Chicken game at my former employer. Tenure-track faculty (represented by an AAUP chapter) have gone on strike against what they regard as an unfair, imposed contract (18 months of negotiations failed to produce an agreement). Both sides have dug in, although the last couple of days have seen negotiations that may bear fruit.

The problem with applying the Chicken game framework to real-world situations isn't that it doesn't capture the dynamics of the two sides. The artificial model misses out on important parts of reality. Two real-world dynamics, in particular, are missing from the matrix. And when we forget about these things, then what we might think of as a victory really isn't.

First, as with most game-theory constructs the Chicken payoff matrix is set up as a single-play game. The "racing cars" metaphor is a one-time event - players play, there's an outcome, you're done. But life is not a single-play game - life is an iterated game. In most cases, you will interact with the same people tomorrow that you interact with today. Regardless of the outcome of a particular game, the choice of game itself and the strategies in it impact the relationship.

This is where Chicken is particularly problematic, because Chicken destroys relationships. In order to be willing to play Chicken at all, you have to take the position that you would rather die (or suffer horrifically bad consequences) than let the other side win. Once you make that statement, the other side will likely never trust you again. Playing this game at all - regardless of the outcome - largely closes off future opportunities for cooperation, because who would cooperate with someone with that value structure?

The second problem with Chicken in the real world is that, unlike in the game metaphor, the consequences of the game aren't borne by the players. Playing Chicken in a public environment doesn't mean being willing to absorb punishment oneself so much as being willing to inflict harm on bystanders that aren't in the game at all.

The Federal government shutdown was a classic example of this. 800,000 federal workers, and perhaps more than 1,000,000 contractors, went without paychecks for a month. The latter group will never recoup that lost money. Regardless of who "won", those people all lost. And that's not counting the ripple effects throughout the economy, as spending dropped and families became anxious. Standard & Poor's estimated that the shutdown evaporated about $6 billion from the US economy.

A faculty strike has the same dynamics. Yes, faculty who strike do suffer (unless the union has built up a Strike Fund, they go without pay for some period of time), as does the administration (which must scramble to figure out how to cover or substitute classes). But the real losers are the students. If you take seriously that what faculty do in the classroom matters, then some number of students are being robbed of the educational opportunity for which they have paid and arranged their lives. The longer the strike goes on (it's now into its second week as of this writing), the greater that cost is. A "crash" scenario means that some could lose the entire semester, setting their lives back by six months at least.

This is why even the "winners" in Chicken aren't really winners. There are no heroes in this game, only tragic victims and fools. As the movie War Games put it so many year ago: