A New Hope?

The thing about charisma is that it is infectious.

The main reason for the success of the Obama campaign is no secret. Barack Obama has been saying things that genuinely resonate with what many people are feeling these days. By the same token, Joe Biden's own popularity has had much to do with the Senator's own unique kind of unpackaged honesty that has been striking a favorable chord (on either side of the political divide) with many people, in this age of media saturation with standardized poll-tested responses and think-tank generated laundry lists of talking points.

As this election year is getting to a close, the cautionary tale of "The Man, the Boy, and the Donkey" comes with a most timely admonition: "Please all, and you will please none."

The Man, the Boy, and the Donkey

A Man and his son were once going with their Donkey to market. As they were walking along by its side a countryman passed them and said: "You fools, what is a Donkey for but to ride upon?"

So the Man put the Boy on the Donkey and they went on their way. But soon they passed a group of men, one of whom said: "See that lazy youngster, he lets his father walk while he rides."

So the Man ordered his Boy to get off, and got on himself. But they hadn't gone far when they passed two women, one of whom said to the other: "Shame on that lazy lout to let his poor little son trudge along."

Well, the Man didn't know what to do, but at last he took his Boy up before him on the Donkey. By this time they had come to the town, and the passers-by began to jeer and point at them. The Man stopped and asked what they were scoffing at. The men said: "Aren't you ashamed of yourself for overloading that poor donkey of yours and your hulking son?"

The Man and Boy got off and tried to think what to do. They thought and they thought, till at last they cut down a pole, tied the donkey's feet to it, and raised the pole and the donkey to their shoulders. They went along amid the laughter of all who met them till they came to Market Bridge, when the Donkey, getting one of his feet loose, kicked out and caused the Boy to drop his end of the pole. In the struggle the Donkey fell over the bridge, and his fore-feet being tied together he was drowned.

That will teach you," said an old man who had followed them:

"Please all, and you will please none."

Most political campaigns nowadays are poll-driven, but genuine and courageous leadership is not about shifting one's public image so as to convince (or "deceive," depending on one's sincerity) specific targeted groups into believing that one shares their views, or that one is just "one of them" (whomever "them" is). Genuine and courageous leadership is about bringing one's VISION convincingly to the people.

Ronald Heifetz (Heifetz 1994) pointed out that people fail to adapt to new and unsettling situations through six avoidance mechanisms:

1. blaming others
2. finding scapegoats (to the extent that this differs from blaming)
3. externalizing the enemy
4. denying that a problem exists
5. jumping to conclusions

6. finding a distracting issue

In a prescriptive view, the leader would squarely face the problem and avoid the six surface-level solutions of the non-leader. A true leader would help a community FACE REALITY AND DEAL WITH THE ISSUES: finding solutions where none previously existed.

Many of the people who have pro-actively helped float the candidacy of Obama, whose campaign was powered overwhelmingly by small grass-root online donations, believe that the times they are a-changin'.

They genuinely believe it.

The thing about charisma is that it is infectious.

This can be a good thing, or not, depending on whether it springs from the "light side of the force" or from darker emotions such as anger and fear.

First mentioned in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, the reference to the light side and dark side of the "force" has achieved cult status and is emblematic of the Star Wars legacy. Rightly so, George Lucas's saga has been described as a modern American fairy tale, and like all fairy tales there is something about it that finds its roots in mankind's collective psyche and speaks to us of the values that exist within humans and the world in which they live. And like all fairy tales it is bearer of an intrinsic truth: The Light side and the Dark side of the force are very real, indeed. But no parable perhaps says it better than the old Cherokee tale about the two wolves:

Two Wolves

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. "A fight is going on inside me," he said to the boy.

"It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil - he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego." He continued, "The other is good - he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you - and inside every other person, too."

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, "Which wolf will win?"

The old Cherokee simply replied, "The one you feed."


Nausicaa said...

Excellent synthesis of the Press and the blogosphere here on jazzolog (as usual). I particularly like the following statement (the one quoted from Vanity Fair):
"This election has told us a lot about who we are and who we will become. We used to be a nation of citizens."

Here is hoping this election is the harbinger of a new era of Synthectic Intelligence (the ability to draw on ideas from across disciplines and fields of inquiry to reach a deeper understanding of the world and one's place in it).

G. W. Bush, for all his talk of being a "unifier," has essentially presided over what turned out to be a presidency built upon the foundations of a Karl Rovian culture of divide and conquer (into which his Presidency eventually crumbled, as has the McCain-Palin's failed presidential campaign).

To say that the temperaments and global thinking of Bush and Obama are different, doesn’t even begin to cover it; they couldn't be further apart:

Robert Sternberg, a psychologist whose main research include, among other things, "leadership," and “styles of thinking," submitted that there are 12 characteristics that can be found in successfully synthetic thinkers. The first characteristic is that successfully creative people often actively seek out, and then later become, role models. They also question assumptions and encourage others to do so as well. Successfully intelligent people take sensible risks and encourage others to do the same. They seek out tasks that allow creativity for themselves and for others. Successfully intelligent people actively define and redefine problems and help others do the same. They allow themselves and others time to think creatively. Successfully intelligent people tolerate ambiguity and encourage tolerance and ambiguity in others; they understand the obstacles that creative people must face and overcome. They are willing to grow. Successfully intelligent people recognize the importance of person-environment fit.

Needless to say that for such a personality type to make it to a high political office of any significance is a rare occurrence (for a variety or reasons, the chief one being that politics usually turns such people off), let alone the Presidency.

I also found the first comment related to Charley Reese on that same thread particularly relevant.

“Beware of people whose limited brains see everyone as either an ally or an enemy.”
---Charley Reese

Reese is a fascinating character, and would probably fit the bill of what a true maverick is about. Although some Libertarians have tried to claim him as one of their own, Charley Reese made it abundantly clear what he actually thought of Libertarianism (Why I am not a Libertarian), i.e. the sophomoric simplicistic reductionist kind of Libertarianism (which unfortunately is the most common sort) as opposed to the more enlightened kind---Politics in general and Libertarianism in particular, are in that regard not too dissimilar to religion).

A lot has been written about collective intelligence, and emergence and grassroots democracy. The success of Barack Obama grassroots’ campaign is a landmark in that regard: The 2008 election was the first where the Internet did play a central role to such a degree as it did this time around, not only in terms of how the campaigns used technology, but also in how voter-generated content affected its course.

TechPresident, a group blog dedicated to the coverage of that phenomenon (their team of bloggers is made of veterans of the 2004 and 2006 elections, ranging across the political spectrum) are pondering what’s next (the next logical question):

As we transition from the presidential campaign to an Obama administration, the looming question is, "What will become of all those people networked via My.BarackObama.com (MyBO) and Obama's massive email list?" Is there a place in government for the swarming grassroots masses? And can we capitalize on its collective intelligence in order to make its contribution meaningful?
One approach to raising the quality of the public voice is to integrate collaboration tools into the social network platform. Rather than letting individuals each offer their selection, which would create an email overload that dwarfs what Congress faces, the network can be organized into affinity groups and given tools that allow them to build collaborative documents that are supported by more consensus or the approximation of consensus. These affinity groups may be geographically based, issue based, demographically based, or based on any meaningful group of people with a shared interest. Each group can work together, if provided the right tools, to create a coherent policy recommendation to pass up the line.

More here.

Food4thought said...

In the latest issue of the New York Review of Books, philanthropist, currency trader and international financial expert George Soros offers his own view of the world financial meltdown:

The salient feature of the current financial crisis is that it was not caused by some external shock like OPEC raising the price of oil or a particular country or financial institution defaulting. The crisis was generated by the financial system itself. This fact—that the defect was inherent in the system —contradicts the prevailing theory, which holds that financial markets tend toward equilibrium and that deviations from the equilibrium either occur in a random manner or are caused by some sudden external event to which markets have difficulty adjusting. The severity and amplitude of the crisis provides convincing evidence that there is something fundamentally wrong with this prevailing theory and with the approach to market regulation that has gone with it.

Nice overview from David Brin, here:

"Later in his rumination, Mr. Soros gets to an important point that is routinely, even fetishistically, ignored by those who recite incantations of Faith In Blind Markets.

This remarkable sequence of events can be understood only if we abandon the prevailing theory of market behavior. As a way of explaining financial markets, I propose an alternative paradigm that differs from the current one in two respects. First, financial markets do not reflect prevailing conditions accurately; they provide a picture that is always biased or distorted in one way or another. Second, the distorted views held by market participants and expressed in market prices can, under certain circumstances, affect the so-called fundamentals that market prices are supposed to reflect. This two-way circular connection between market prices and the underlying reality I call reflexivity.

Soros is quite right to focus on human nature -- and our propensity for delusion, in particular -- as a root of the problem. In fact, while markets are wonderful wealth generating machines, that harness competition between individuals and groups in positive-sum ways that benefit us all, they are not mystically simple or perfect. Nor do they arise (as the sun does) out of immutable physical law.

Indeed, if you scan human history, you will find very few examples of market-based systems that escaped meddling and ruination at the hands of the very same elites who stood at the top of the social order -- the owners of nearly all capital, who insisted that they knew what's best, and nearly always squelched competition, rather than let it flow and thrive. In the vast majority of cultures, it was top owners who shut down what we would call open market behavior. A threat far more prevalent than peasant revolts or socialism.

Market Fundamentalists tell themselves a dogma that Adam Smith himself never believed, that markets are rooted in - and organically emerge from - human nature. This is fundamentally wrong. Our natures developed in a Darwinian-tribal context that predated civilization and markets. In order to understand this, simply study the power and economic arrangements in most tribal or pastoral societies. And even later. Try calculating what fraction of the population in most ancient nations must have been descended from the harems of kings. (Recent data show that 8% of the Chinese population, today, is directly descended from Ghengiz Khan.)

While it is true that some deeply human imperatives do work well with markets - e.g. our ability to both cooperate and compete, our embedded notion of fairness and quid-pro-quo, other human drives do not. For example, the propensity to cheat and deceive. And our remarkable tendency to tell ourselves satisfyingly delusional stories that aren't well-based in fact. This latter trait makes us wonderful artists, but also great believers in simplistic dogmas."

Food4thought said...

The conclusion of David Brin's overview that, "We all need to ponder new ways of looking at old problems," is not only a sound one, but also an urgent one.

The post has drawn the attention of some 60 commenters, so far.

One of them, Dave Rickey says...
Fundamental irrationality, and the "Heinlein Mind" (Man is not a rational creature, but a rationalizing one), is something I've been wrestling with lately as well. Neuropsych is turning up a lot of hard evidence to the effect that none of us is as rational as we think we are, and most of us don't even do a very good job of pretending.

Reminds me of a few networks out there, mostly on the web, but it is also true of various organizations outside of cyberspace, which typically begin with good energy and high hope concentrated around some values, visions, ideas, or some well-meaning notion of one kind or another, only to fall short of their stated expectations or original mission statement. While there is really not just one clear cause to such failings, two of the most common factors usually are the rise of dogmatic sectarianism, and, quite frequently, no small amount of short-sighted wishful thinking and/or neglect on the part of the network administrators.

Sometimes magic happens spontaneously.

And sometimes it doesn't.

Sometimes, it takes some work.

More often, it takes a lot of work.

And it looks like Obama has a lot of work ahead of him.

Daisy Godwin (Times Online) said it well:

It is important... that...Mr Obama is not remembered just for being the first black president. That is hugely significant, of course, but it is not the reason for electing him. He promises a new start. If he fails to deliver, the sense of disillusion will be enormous. He deserves the chance and he has earned it. Mr Obama has the opportunity to bring change. Let us hope he can seize it.