Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Are we courageous enough to face the why?

It’s hard for me to approach this subject. I have no desire to capitalize on the current news cycle frenzy, but each time something of this magnitude happens I find myself thinking along very similar lines, and I feel I would be remiss if I did not call attention to the pattern that I see played out over and over and over...

Despite the continuous coverage dedicated to these events, the incessant repetitive replaying of every possible detail, the why of the tragedy never seems to come fully into focus. Those responsible are quickly categorized as “crazy,” their actions as “senseless,” any acknowledgement of their motivations is carefully sidestepped to avoid the appearance of endorsing their actions. Faced with such horror, people reflexively recoil; it is too frightening to think that there could be a reason for this behavior, that there might be a rationale to it, that it might be a predictable pattern. It is far easier to see it as the random terrible act of a disturbed individual, to see the act and the perpetrator as “evil.” But if we refuse to deal with the specifics of these tragedies in this way, how can we ever hope to address the multitude of factors that give rise to such tragic events?

We live in a society that is perpetually redefining our very concept of reality. Our leaders routinely tell half truths and often outright lie in order to score political points, their agendas validated by a media that willfully reinforces the chosen narratives. They initiate pre-emptive wars based on false intelligence, rationalizing the death of innocents through an ever escalating campaign of fear. While we watch our president shed tears for the Sandy Hook victims, his administration executes a predator drone kill list, resulting in numerous civilian casualties; men, women and children. We have been at war for the longest period in our country’s history, but less than 1% of our population is actively serving in our military. More soldiers are committing suicide than are being killed in action. The best selling video game of all time is a first-person shooter called Call of Duty: Black Ops, selling more than 25 million copies worldwide with more than half of those sold in the US alone.

We have “reality” television where the focus is almost invariably fame and fortune, certainly not the banal day to day details of our daily lives (there’s no ratings potential in that). Similarly, the “news” is so focused on sensational stories, that investigative reporting has become the exception rather than the rule. Important events often go unreported - as if they didn’t actually occur. Blockbuster films are increasingly dark and “gritty,” to infuse them with a sense of “realism.” Of late I have noted a reliance on depictions of pain and suffering to connect with the audience on a more visceral level, to convince them that what they are witnessing on the screen is more than fiction. These type of depictions no longer seem to have a genre (or story) specific character, and show up all over the map. Of course, the more common these depictions become, the less we respond to them, and the more intense they must be to elicit any response at all.

Inundated with images of violence and cruelty, our dominant narrative one of competition and conflict - are we losing our ability to envision alternatives? Politics, entertainment, & marketing have become indistinguishable, their influence on our lives so omnipresent that it is increasingly difficult to recognize their presence. The privatization of education is but another step in this process, another method for restricting our perception of “reality.” Many parents & teachers believe that they are preparing children for “the real world,” sparing them future suffering by forcing them to follow the rules. But the resulting stigmatization of difference, of resistance, of creativity can create a confusing impasse. We encourage them to be the best, to excel, to stand out from the crowd while we simultaneously demand they fit in. How are their young minds to make sense of this contradiction? Are we teaching them to create their own reality or simply accept the ones marketed to them?

Somehow, despite all the mixed messages, we expect people to be able to discern what is real and what is not, to recognize right from wrong, and to do it on their own. Ruling with absolute authority, whether as a politician or a parent, leaves precious little space for dialogue. In our punitive culture, where any deviation from the prescribed plan is met with ridicule, is it any wonder that people suffer in silence rather than seek counsel? Do people stay silent because they fear there will be consequences if they reveal their thoughts? Are we tolerant enough not to penalize those that step forward - tolerant enough to hear perceptions that may not match our own? Are we compassionate enough to deal with the sense of powerlessness that many in our society feel? Are we responsible enough to recognize our role in modeling violence as the solution of choice? Are we creative enough, and sensible enough, to come up with alternatives?

In the wake of the tragedy there are calls for gun control legislation, treatment for mental illness, greater security in our schools; but perhaps we need to move beyond these singular solutions. Are we courageous enough to face the why?

Related - NYT Business, 12/24: Real and Virtual Firearms Nurture a Marketing Link

Monday, December 3, 2012


As to be expected, there is a lot of post election speculation as to how and why the Obama campaign emerged victorious. While the variety of explanations are as numerous as the reports themselves, there is one uniformly consistent thread that was cited before and after the election - voter turnout. On one side of the proverbial aisle are those who forecast another close election with a razor thin margin of victory, on the other are those that point to pre-election polls that seem to have predicted the final results with surprising accuracy. The emphasis on voter turnout comes out of the close election scenario: when the electorate is evenly split, the deciding factor may well be how many people show up versus how many stay home. Voter turnout may seem like a given in terms of deciding an election (any election), but the overemphasis on it in this particular case feels artificial to me, as if it is being used to draw attention away from some other perspective. I recently wrote a post questioning the 50/50 electoral polarization myth that has become such a staple of our political discussions. Voter turnout can be a factor when one party has a clear majority, but even if the minority party turns out every last one of their voters, they may still be in the minority.

The appeal to fear of a changing electorate was overwhelmingly strident throughout this electoral cycle. Republicans’ brazen attacks on African American, Latino, LGBT, and Women’s rights inspired a surge at the polls that could not be stopped even through rampant voter suppression. But the extremity of these attacks simultaneously allowed Democrats to adopt a protective stance, rather than one advocating to expand the rights in question. The fear cuts both ways it seems, insuring that those less enthusiastic about Obama’s record don’t take the risk of voting for someone more in line with their concerns. The Obama Administration is happy to accept your support whether or not you agree with their agenda - just keep it to yourself. But perhaps the changing electorate is more than the Democrats bargained for. What if those so passionately mobilized to vote by the attacks on their rights refuse to back down? What if they move beyond this protective stance to mobilize for the expansion of those rights? What if they shift en masse from a strategy of simply making demands on those in power to one of development and mobilization of their own alternatives, and start using those alternatives to withdraw their consent from the status quo? What if they are no longer satisfied with voting every four (two, four, six) years? What if they choose instead to vote every day?

A freshly re-elected president brought to tears in a moment of connection with the young volunteers so integral to his campaign; it was certainly not something I had seen before, and I found myself surprisingly moved by the spectacle. It appeared intimate, and personal, and the president’s words were remarkably humble. After I watched it I thought about how this address might be different from others that the president has made. Watching him enter and exit the scene I wondered if there would be any opportunity for these “smarter,” “better organized” and “more effective” volunteers to share their hopes and dreams for the country, to participate in an actual dialogue with their president? A little more than a week later I read a short article titled, “Obama campaign asks: What do we do next?” The link in the article delivered me to an Obama for America survey. Was this the medium for dialogue? Perhaps this document could be a starting point for the volunteers to input their ideas beyond the election cycle? As I read through the three pages it was apparent that the reference point for the questions was mostly limited to the campaign and future campaigns. There were a few questions that allowed for short “write in” answers and several at the end requested a sentence or two, but by and large the questions focused more on “how can we campaign better” than “What do we do next?”

One survey question asked “What issues would you be interested in volunteering or organizing around in the future?” Among the 24 options there was only one issue that expressed a specific viewpoint in the way that it was stated: “Avoiding the fiscal cliff.” When the Bush tax cuts were originally supposed to sunset in 2010, the Republicans played their tried and true “tax and spend liberal” card to flip the switch and claim that allowing the tax cuts to expire was in fact Obama raising taxes. A clear majority of the country was not in favor of extending the tax cuts for the wealthy, but Bush & Co. were crafty enough to design the tax cuts as a reduction of rates across the board. The tax cuts for the lower tax brackets were a pittance next to the windfall for the 1%, but tethering the two together allowed Republicans to push the idea that Obama would be “raising taxes” on everyone. The ball was already rolling on the so called “fiscal cliff” prior to the election, setting it up as a showdown, an impending crisis just beyond the horizon. Once again the Republicans are playing that same card, attempting to run the table. My understanding is that even after we go over the “cliff” Congress could pass legislation retroactive to January 1 (extending the cuts for the “middle class”), but the narrative would be significantly different. With the cuts officially expired, the Republicans would have to defend higher taxes on the “middle class.” Sounds like a pretty good move strategically, so why then is Obama for America promoting the “fiscal cliff” narrative?

I’m hearing a lot of talk about the Obama ground game and the effective use of collected information - this tremendous marketing campaign seems to have paid off, but what have we learned? Are we being sold a president the same way we are sold a pair of sneakers or a box of cereal? Are we being invited to participate in our democracy when we answer the polls and surveys? Is this collected information useful in addressing the challenges we face or is it just a mechanism for securing our vote, and through that vote our deference to authority? I read an article that mentioned grassroots movements in conjunction with supporting the administration’s agenda, but this top down approach (the agenda being set by the president) seems contrary to the very nature of grassroots organizing. In yet another post election piece I read this:

Following re-election, the president wasted no time taking advantage of the organization's massive base. Obama spoke to 30,000 supporters on a conference call last Tuesday about the fiscal cliff, rallying the troops as he began negotiations with congressional leaders to find a deficit-reduction package.

"Our work can't stop now," he said, according to audio of the call. "We're going to need you guys to stay active. We need you to stick with us and stay on this and I'm pledging to do a better job even than we did in the first term in making sure you guys stay involved, that you guys know exactly what we're doing, that we're giving you guys clear directions and talking points in terms of how we keep mobilizing across the country."

We don’t need a marketing campaign to keep us engaged, keep us busy, keep us quiet. Can the OFA network, or perhaps another network altogether, be used instead to ask our people how they think we should address the challenges we face? Perhaps as a means to submit proposals, compile ideas, develop solutions to these challenges? Elevation of ideas from the bottom up is what grassroots is all about - the community participates, not as de facto liberal lobbyists and cheerleaders, but in the actual process of policy development and decision making. When it comes to the “fiscal cliff” Obama is asking us to make Republicans concede to his demands, not to make him concede to ours. With few specifics being offered we are expected to support an agenda that we have had no part in creating. I can recall talking to Bush supporters in 2004 about their “$300 tax rebate” when they brought it up as a reason to re-(s)elect Bush, and asking them if their city and state taxes went up to balance the loss of federal revenue. Isn’t bush getting your vote for nothing if the same amount of income is extracted from you one way or the other? How do you feel about getting duped like that? Will our states and cities be made to compensate for Obama’s proposed federal spending cuts? What and how much will we be asked to sacrifice in order to keep “our” tax cut and make the 1% pay their “fair share”? When you get to the end of the survey there’s a button labeled “submit.”

Is this entire campaign an empty distraction? Mobilizing Americans, not to stop federal fracking legislation, not to repeal NDAA indefinite detention, not to press for climate change ACTION in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, but to tell stories to their congressional representative about what they could do with that 2,000 bucks (for a “typical” middle class family of four). I've written before about how electoral politics is used to distract us from pursuing any kind of direct democratic action: as a siphon of limited time and organizing energy, but also as a restraint to keep us in line. Is this new perpetual Obama campaign just another method of instilling a false sense of purpose in the volunteers? On Black Friday I saw a report on the news where a young man interviewed outside the local Walmart talked about the sense of camaraderie he found waiting in line - it was like they all had a common cause...

I recently worked on a video for a David Weinberger talk titled “The Networking of Knowledge and Storytelling.” The producer on the project and I had a discussion at our initial meeting about the formation and evolution of ideas, sketching tiny diagrams to represent the flow of information. Person A says “Apple,” person B says “Orange.” Weinberger presented a model of networked knowledge stemming from linked ideas, ideas often in contention. “We know now in networks, not as individuals.” It reminded me of concepts that I was becoming familiar with through involvement with Occupy Wall Street. I had been learning about consensus and was beginning to understand how an idea that was evolved through a small group, a working group or an affinity group, might avoid the defensive trappings of ideas proposed by individuals. An individual might spark the process in the group, but it seemed to me that most ideas had a kind of life of their own that preceded their initial proposal. It struck me that this process was a method to free “our” ideas from ownership, to let them exist independent of individual ego and belief, to invite and encourage modification of the ideas through alternative perspectives. Of course, the form of horizontal direct democracy that OWS is evolving is quite different than what we see practiced in our government.

When the president tells us that his first job is “to keep the American people safe,” he is fortifying his patriarchal role, inviting us to breathe a collective sigh of relief that we have someone in the White House watching out for us. Certainly there is comfort in trusting that our leaders know what to do and how to do it, but how does the president’s role as decider - protector - leader fit into the community organizing model that he seems to favor? There is comfort in having direction and feeling a sense of purpose, but folks need never define these things for themselves if they are consistently provided for them. Is it ultimately more empowering to take control and lead the way, or to allow people the freedom to choose their own path? And what do we lose when we supplant the collective potential of many people with the perspective of a single individual? The representative democracy practiced in the US need not inhibit community empowerment so long as representatives are selected by the community to represent the ideas of the community, but where there is forceful repression of alternative forms of democracy, there will likely be “leaders” who are no longer representative.

When Obama says “we’re all in this together,” does this togetherness involve us organizing/mobilizing with and for each other or only in support of the president’s agenda? The close election scenario, the polarized electorate, the “fiscal cliff,” whatever it is called - it is a contest, a conflict, a crisis marketed to the masses. Another distraction in a long series of ever more urgent events, signaling our minds to shut down our creative potential and focus on securing our survival. There may be actual consequences if action is not taken immediately (what kind of crisis would it be without dire consequences after all?), but this does not change the fact that it is a fabrication, an abstraction that we have created and that we consent to. We should not limit ourselves solely to the options that are placed before us, Democrat or Republican, taxes and/or spending cuts, jobs or environment, unions or budget shortfalls, energy independence or climate change action... This process is self perpetuating in that the original challenge is replaced by a conflict, requiring us to make a “choice” rather than seek a creative solution (or multiple solutions). Is it even possible within the present construct for the President to ask us for ideas and assistance without compromising his status as a “leader”? Whatever the answer, we must recognize that the limits of the presidency, the Congress, the government do not need to be our limits as well. Thank you for voting. Thank you for exercising your power. It’s yours - you can do it every day.