As I watched Sam Harris' TED talk I was reminded of something I wrote just prior to the Presidential Election of 2004 (below). It makes a point of understanding why some of these traditional, rigid political and religious systems exist to begin with. But, it goes a step further to understanding how we can break out of these patterns. As much as I enjoyed Sam Harris' talk as an important step in the right direction, it also seemed like a judgement of certain political and theocratic institutions and societies without compassion for (not for some of their inhumane acts, which are hard to justify) but for how they got and remain there (out of fear). To fix the problem, we have to understand why it exists.
From an essay written just prior to the Presidential Election of 2004
Bridging the Gap: A Complex Adaptive Solution to the Great Political Divide
by Lee Chazen
Historians of science often observe that asking the right question is more important than producing the right answer. The right answer to a trivial question is also trivial, but the right question, even when insoluble in exact form, is a guide to major discovery.
_ Edward O. Wilson (1998)
Sometimes throwing a question into the air and hoping for an answer at a later time works. A few years after I graduated from college, I got the chance to manage a state assembly campaign in California. Going a little deeper in thought than what was typically expected of a campaign manager, I began to wonder what the real difference was between Republicans and Democrats. I wasn’t thinking merely of the philosophical differences, or those that could be listed as basic platform talking points. What I had in mind was the underlying psychological or even physiological differences. Why did Republicans and Democrats seem like such entirely different people? What caused these otherwise similar people in size and shape to be so very different from each other? Was there something genetically, or environmentally different in their upbringing that caused such differences? I threw the question out there, thinking that an answer might reveal an idea which would send us on to victory in the election.
Many years passed before my answer came. Just recently, I was walking randomly through a community college library when I noticed out of the corner of my eye a book with a picture of Theodore Roosevelt on the front. It was called The Progressive Mind, 1890-1917 by David Noble and was written in 1980. Opening up to the section on Roosevelt, I began reading about an immensely popular book of the early 1900’s called The Virginian.
The cowboy mystique in American culture
The central figure in the story was described as, “the totally free man, free to dominate everyone because he gains his boundless strength from nature and expresses natural law. Responsible only to natural law, he is free to judge whether man made law is to be obeyed or broken. He is aware of the way in which evil men often manipulate the laws of civilization for their own wicked ends.” Already, a theory was beginning to develop in my mind as to why this type of man and philosophy appeals so much, but it became eerily evident that this phenomenon was taking place now, before our eyes.
Continuing on, Noble said, “Faced with the presence of evil men and evil conditions, the Virginian challenged evil directly on the field of battle in the classic confrontation of virtue and vice. Unaided, alone, the man of nature wills his victory over the enemy at a personal Armageddon and kills the symbol of the serpent which has slithered into the American garden.” You see, in the battle of good against evil, one must not question the crusader. Larger forces are at work, and there is no time for complexity. Perhaps, using the character Miss Molly as a metaphor for the American public, Noble wrote, “Miss Molly must accept the holy nature of the crusade, she must accept the fact that the end justifies the means, even though it shatters her sense of propriety and law when the Virginian leaves her side on their wedding day to seek the final solution of a duel to the death outside the courts of law. She must capitulate completely to this man of nature and put complete trust in his ability to distinguish between good natural law and bad social law. As if the answer to my original question was unfolding right before my eyes, I wondered if, in fact, this was the case in current American politics. Could we have come to a place and time again when instead of thinking and joining together in collective action, thinking of a broad range of possible solutions, we would bow our heads, and turn to the “Virginian” for guidance?
But in 1980, when Noble wrote the piece, he recognized the fairy tale nature of such a figure, saying, “these are the frightening implications of this fantasy that became so popular for the American middle class public which demanded endless repetitions of this cowboy story by other novelists and by the infant movie industry between 1902 and 1917.” Then, as is the case now, Noble said, “clearly there was tremendous demand for a salvation figure who could cut the Gordian knot of complexity and corruption and restore the community to absolute purity and stability.”
It’s not hard to see why such mythology is popular. The reason we enjoy such a dominant figure who cuts through all the complexities to keep order and save the day, is the same reason teachers often opt for students in rows, working quietly, why employers enjoy seeing employees working alone and productively in cubicles, why police enjoy seeing normal, un-congested traffic patterns, and why we enjoy movies like Spiderman, or Dirty Harry, or the Terminator or Robo-Cop. It is comforting in a chaotic world to see that order and safety win the day. Yet, by adopting easy answers, are we really making the best decisions and adopting useful and productive policies, or are we avoiding human and social progress?
The problem with linear thinking
The problem with the “Virginian” view of the world is that it’s a human invention that disregards certain laws of nature. It’s simple and seems clear, but it ignores certain truths - mainly the working order of all organisms in the known universe (which I will describe later). Look a couple of levels beneath the sound bites and headlines and one can see clear examples of how such a linear, black and white view of the world is prone to the laws of entropy.
To start with, something very bizarre has now happened in American politics. With the black and white, with us or against us view of the world, people have been forced to take sides. Because Democrats and Republicans are sticking resolutely to their talking points, the middle has all but disappeared.
One of the first to break ranks was Treasury Secretary, and former Alcoa CEO Paul O’Neil. In Ron Suskind’s book about the Secretary, The Price of Loyalty, he points out that the middle ground began to disappear almost immediately upon entering office. As Dick Cheney said on CBS’ Face the Nation, "the suggestion that somehow, because this was a close election, we should fundamentally change our beliefs I just think is silly."
More to the point of this administration’s management style, O’Neil suggested that a diversity of opinions in meetings was not really welcomed. "O'Neil told Rove that if they really wanted to discuss what was right or wrong with the economy - and build a genuine consensus behind some of Bush's proposals - they were going about this all wrong. You should get a group that represents a diversity of opinions, including labor and various schools of economic thinking, and then have a real discussion.” The first economic summit, instead, was a gathering of CEO’s, mostly from the ranks of those who supported the Bush 2000 campaign.
Politically, it may have been advantageous to have a front man who seemed sure of himself, confident and fixed on an idea. Behind the scenes, as this administration moved forward, however, a different picture began to unravel, one that showed the flaws of such a linear and hierarchal system. O’Neil, offered Americans one of their first glimpses into the management style of this White House. He reported a President who was disengaged, closed-off, not willing to discuss reports and incoming data. O’Neil spoke of a President who disregarded the long reports of hard working cabinet secretaries.
Richard Florida PhD of Carnegie Mellon University, writing in the article Creative World (January/February 2004 Washington Monthly), described the problem differently. He reported the problem as being largely one of tone – that instead of being a climate of openness, one that would promote creativity and progress, it was, as Florida’s friend described, “like trying to research and do business in the 21st century in a culture that wants to live in the 19th century... empires, bibles and all.”
According to Dr. Florida, as security tightened and immigration was discouraged the “talent-laden, immigrant rich, creative centers [which] propelled economic growth” were beginning to dissolve. The creative types – particularly ones living in “blue” states – began leaving for places more favorable and encouraging to their styles of work. Places such as Sweden, Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto and New Zealand became popular destinations.
Again, I think of the teacher, who rather than encourage creative growth, curiosity and imagination from their students, gives them bookwork, seats them in rows, and places order over academic achievement. Not too far from this depiction, achievement on standardized tests, not problem solving and critical thinking, became the order of the day over these last four years. In terms of a creative economy, though, Richard Florida showed where America is ranked 10th. Never underestimate the power of the President to set a national tone.
More serious than a creative economy, we have a government that remains closed to strategic information vital to national security. Hardly a thing has been said since September 11, 2001 about the Commission on National Security, more commonly referred to as the Hart-Rudman Commission. Established by the Clinton Administration in 1998, this bi-partisan commission was to study terrorism and prepare a report on our state of preparedness. Warning of potential terrorist strikes and advocating major systemic changes, the report was delivered to the desks of every member of Congress. According to the April 2004 edition of Salon Magazine, Gary Hart, himself, met with Condoleeza Rice on September 6, 2001, warning that the Commission’s findings indicated imminent danger. According to Hart, after warning, that “the terrorists are coming” the information was then sent on to the Vice President’s office. As Richard Clarke, head of counterterrorism has pointed out, there was never a meeting of the principals regarding said information. No action.
As Clarke said “if the administration doesn’t believe its national coordinator for counterterrorism when he says there’s an urgent problem, and if it’s unprepared to act as though there’s an urgent problem, then probably I should get another job.”
The tone following the 2000 election should have been one of uniting a then, torn and deeply polarized society. It seemed that a humble President, who offered himself as a “uniter” and not a “divider” could have found a comfortable place for himself in the middle, working with both sides to move the country forward in a post-cold-war era, where budget surpluses existed. In the tail end of a technological boom, where great successes took place in innovation, creativity and business, a forward thinking President might have encouraged job retraining and lowered tuition costs or reduced interest rates on student loans to get some of those laid off by “dot coms” to school for retraining. A more imaginative President might have encouraged lagging businesses and industries to modernize and bring some of these energetic and creative types into their businesses as a way to spur growth and competition. Instead, Blue and Red never mixed, as the country became more tribal, separate and stubbornly alone. A more moderate, nuanced, complex president might have seen a way for Red and Blue America to meet to achieve the larger goals of moving our country forward in business, technology, education, transportation, etc. Certainly, we could have been asked to do something more than to just be afraid.
When the 9/11 Commission wrote that "we believe the 9/11 attacks revealed four kinds of failures: in imagination, policy, capabilities, and management," they were attempting to raise the standard by which our country deals with complex issues. The suggestion is that we learn to understand complexity and how to be adaptive to the world around us. The lesson should be that we cannot remain rigid, when the world around us is changing.
Understanding the nature of complexity
Using a more open, complex, and yes “nuanced” way of approaching government, one can look to other areas for answers to the problems vexing government. We should turn our attention to what we know about chaos and complexity theories.
In a boxed-in linear world, no one thinks to look beyond theories of government to answer questions about government. It is convenient to look to philosophy, history and essays on democracy and capitalism to find answers to current social problems. Yet, there are answers to organizational and systemic problems that exist all around us – if we would only take a closer look.
One example of how to take advantage of complexity lies in the very structure of an organization. A study by Basadur and Head and published in The Journal of Creative Behavior in 2001, revealed that heterogeneous groups (or different types of thinkers in the same group) produce the most creative results. Specifically, the experiment examined different configurations of groups, dividing MBA students into 49 teams of four members each. In the study, four types of thinking were represented. Some teams had all of one type of thinker. Other teams had four of each, etc. After assessing the groups’ behavior, the study concluded that the group of mixed thinkers may not have enjoyed working together as much, but they did perform better. Maybe friction does make the pearl.
Taking this a step further, imaginary lines have existed over the centuries, making sure to keep scientists, artists, writers, mathematicians, physicists, educators, etc. in separate departments. Like spokes emanating from a hub, they go in their separate directions. As they go further down the spoke, their ideas, rather than coming together, get farther and farther apart. So, what if we were to bring people back to the “hub” at least momentarily in order to solve some serious problems. To do this, we ought to at least have a better understanding of chaos and complexity theories.
In a nutshell, chaos theory tells us that everything in the universe has an emerging nature, from the evolution of organisms, to volcanic eruptions, to weather patterns, to the growth of civilizations. Secondly, the greatest creativity, evolvability and progress appear to take place at the “edge of chaos.” In chaos theory, random forces can converge to form a higher order. Research in the field has gone from the study of planets to the study of the weather to micro-organisms, to the growth of companies to organizational and group behavior. What one learns from a study of complexity is that random forces converge to form a higher order behavior. Keep your eye on the larger picture as we delve into the details.
Steven Johnson, in a book called Emergence: the Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software (2001) wrote about studies of slime mold in the 1960’s by Mitch Resnick. The studies revealed that micro-organisms displayed collective intelligence. Instead of one large organism moving across a floor in search of food, it was revealed that the “slime” was actually hundreds of single celled organisms coming together for a larger purpose.
In fact, evidence of self-organization is everywhere. Prigogine and Stengers in their much-cited compendium Order out of Chaos (1984) said that the biosphere as a whole and all its components existed in a state far from equilibrium. Based on this, they said life, as part of the natural order, was the “supreme expression” of a self-organizing process. Simplified, this means that the air, land and sea are all part of a complex system that tends towards equilibrium. It does so because it is adaptive. If it doesn’t – if it were rigid – it would cease to exist, and we would cease to exist.
According to Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind, the mathematician John Nash proved on page six of his thesis that every non-cooperative game with any number of players had at least one equilibrium point. The trouble, as I see it, is that if you narrow the spectrum to the middle of one political party, you lose hundreds if not thousands of options. Collective action and intelligence only exist so far as there’s a collective.
With the earth’s population at over six billion and communication existing at all levels unlike any time before, the possibility for thoughtful, productive interaction could inspire great, imaginative progress. One does not need to live in a coastal city to experience contact with other peoples and ideas any longer. The Internet, e-mail, text messaging and other wireless communications have made possible a world of interaction from any place at any time of the day or night.
Perhaps, without any direct awareness of these principals, the previous administration may have known about this. Richard Florida wrote that "Clinton, especially in the early years of his administration, had the loose, unstructured management style of an academic department or a dot-com, manic work hours, meetings that went on forever, lots of diffuse power centers, young people running around in casual clothing, and a constant re-appraising of plans and strategies." Leaving out the part about the casual clothing, (though it may have contributed to the tone) it is arguable that this type of interaction and activity led to much of the progress in the 1990’s.
The idea is not to necessarily seek out chaos and hope for the best. Rather, organizations ought to look for what Stuart Kauffmann described as the “edge of chaos.” Kauffman, a researcher at the Santa Fe Institute has done extensive research on complexity and self-organization. One of the many experiments he conducted consisted of a Boolean network of light bulbs on a lattice like grid. The bulbs were connected and tested using various mathematically driven combinations. Many of the results have a significant relationship to life in organizations: (a) sparsely connected networks showed internal order; (b) densely connected networks go into chaos; (c) networks with a single connection tend towards a frozen, dull kind of behavior, and finally; (d) a chaotic system is very sensitive to small changes. Going back to what was said during the 9/11 Commission Hearings regarding the need for systemic changes, is it possible that we experienced the kind of “frozen” and “dull” behavior that Kauffman discovered in his experiments? Kauffmann, himself, said that the “edge of chaos” may even provide a deep new understanding of the logic of democracy. This area, he discovered, was best able to coordinate complex activities, best able to evolve. The best compromises appeared at the phase transition between order and chaos.
Prigogine and Stengers, in 1984, concluded that living systems were open systems in constant interaction with their environment. In other words, nothing operated in isolation or without interaction. They discovered that these systems were self-organizing, operating according to their own principles, patterns and structures. According to Irene E. Karpiak, writing in 2000 in the Journal Studies in Continuing Education, the behavior of living systems is determined by responsiveness, creativity and dialogue with its environment. To grow and change, therefore, a living system has to communicate and respond in a continuous feedback loop. “A” gives information to “B.” “B” performs a certain way and “A” takes note of this. After “A” sees the behavior, he gives more acutely tuned information to “B” and so forth. The organism progresses forward, always learning and evolving as it goes.
Stephen Johnson wrote about ideas dying in “rural isolation” with no activity, and Karpiak wrote that open systems dialogue with the environment, and therefore, grow and change. From micro-organisms, to cities, to the Internet to video games, emergence and complexity lead to higher order thinking, growth and productivity. Conversely, in a rigid hierarchy, one voice or idea, or a memo on someone’s desk alerting them to potential terrorist attacks, can easily go unnoticed. People have talked a great deal in this campaign about the candidates, their personalities and whether or not they traveled heroically down the Mekong Delta in a swift boat, but have we really looked at the design flaws in administration?
The universe is governed by certain rules. Violate these, and one might end up dead. Ask the pilot about the Bernoulli Principle, the engineer about stress, and the NASA astronaut about gravitational pull or centrifugal force. Scientists, teachers, astronauts, chemists, physicists, engineers have all made great effort over the thousands of years that we’ve been on the planet to learn and understand how nature behaves. Yet, we somehow do not think these same principles are at work in the behavior of living organisms and systems on the planet and in our civilization.
Visualizing a complex adaptive government
The United States can either continue down the path towards further polarization and isolation, breaking into smaller and smaller units, or we can come together and move as a single organism. Black and white, all or nothing thinking led this administration, as Paul O’Neil pointed out, to discard a peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians in favor of an Iraq agenda. It led, as James Fallows wrote in the October Atlantic Monthly, to Presidential Decision Directive (PDD) 56 being dismantled under the Bush administration. The Clinton Administration initiated PDD 56 in order to deal with “complex contingency situations.” It was an interagency network put together in order to respond to a crisis. Fallows suggested that by dissolving this directive our response to September 11 was delayed.
Black and white thinking led to us not knowing, three years after 9/11, the real reasons behind the September 11 attacks. Most of the American public is still in the dark when it comes to understanding who the “terrorists” are and to what philosophy they subscribe. “Hating our freedoms,” does not seem to be a reasonable explanation. Moreover, in terms of our response, “step in line and subordinate yourself to the doctrine of pre-emption,” may not be the best way to build alliances. Yet, the “with us or against us,” framework of our foreign policy was probably not liked or understood by a world that, perhaps, doesn’t fantasize about mythical cowboy figures.
Perhaps, this is why on p. 377 of the 9/11 Commission Report, they recommend that “the United States should rebuild the scholarship, exchange, and library programs that reach out to young people and offer them knowledge and hope. Where such assistance is provided, it should be identified as coming from the citizens of the United States.”
The lesson from the commission is listen, learn, predict and adapt. Apply this for a moment to the attack at Columbine high school. Though, it was important to tightly regulate weapons and potentially dangerous students walking into a high school, it’s also important to listen to the “rumblings” and rumors at a school. Anger and frustration, allowed to escalate, without intervention or a means to ventilate is what took place at Columbine High School. Reaction is a matter of being at the right place at the right time. Prevention eliminates root causes. Which would you choose?
The chance exists now to have a system that engages and challenges the American public to do better. A President who is aware of the nature of how organisms behave can make the system work to everyone’s favor, not just one or the other political party. Much like the teacher who introduces a new unit plan, the President can set a tone for what we are about to learn and experience. He can challenge, respond and engage the public like students in a classroom. Given a buy-in to making something out of America, people may respond differently, by getting off their couches and taking action. If all we are asked to do is watch the terror level, watch out for suspicious people and continue shopping, do we really have a buy in to the American agenda?
Thinking experimentally for the moment, why not bring the public up to speed on how the economy, government and military operate, encouraging them to learn and participate. Broad national challenges could include regional competitions for solutions to national problems, public forums where leaders of various think tanks present ideas. A President who embraces, rather than fears complexity, could encourage old world lines and divisions to fall so that academics, leaders of business and community representatives could meet. Knowing that “rural isolation,” equates to slow progress, inspire red state citizens to form coops on various issues. Remembering how allowing German scientists into the country before and during WWII led to major advancements that eventually helped us win the war, re-open the gates to academics, scientists, entrepreneurs and artists who would like to help in forming a new America.
Make the press conference a great, interactive environment once again for the Presidency. Televise national student competitions in math, science or social studies. Require that a certain amount of television time be used for summit meetings, and while we’re at it, why not create a reality TV show based on “Joe Citizen” running for public office or that follows politicians or lobbyists around. Imagine for a moment if C-Span had a popular show. What?
Who ever said the Congress had to be the only place where ideas are put into action? Construct a national “feedback loop” by bringing more people into the decision-making arena. Do this by advocating for more national conferences of mayors, or national representatives meeting with local politicians. Form diverse groups so that a farmer can meet with a truck driver, a physicist, an artist and entrepreneur, a CEO and union leader. The brainpower, imagination of potential for productivity in such a group could be tremendous. But, at the top, we need a President who inspires such collective action.
A complex adaptive system of government and a President aware of such a phenomenon could prove to be more of a working organism, producing adaptable, self-motivated citizens who are capable of great progress.