Reading Tom Friedman's column in The New York Times ("The Chant Not Heard", November 30th, 2003), I felt myself nodding vigorously to his points, and then canceling those out with an emphatic shaking of my head from side to side. No wonder my neck hurts!
I agree that the " left needs to get beyond its opposition to the war and start pitching in with its own ideas and moral support" which is exactly the point I was making in the New Frames blog below, but I disagree that the aim is "to try to make lemons into lemonade in Baghdad". I also disagree that the Iraq war, and military intervention more globally, is the most noble thing the Americans have done since the Marshall Plan. (That very statement would be cause enough for violent reactions in many quarters.) One of the great lost opportunities in the last 50 years was for America to rethink its role in the world after September 11th with some of the ideals and long term investments characteristic of the Marshall Plan, but that window slammed shut right after Bush's famous "axes of evil" speech and then, of course, the war. This opportunity probably never existed with the current administration's ideological position and worldview – that is, the world is a nasty dangerous, survival-of-the-fittest place requiring a might-makes-right strategy – but theoretically speaking, there was that option, and it was a scenario we (when I was doing the post Sept 11th work for GBN) seriously considered in the weeks and months after the attack.
Friedman is also forgetting that the means of achieving this war have made this fantasy impossible because the American intervention is perceived to be illegitimate, not just by the French but by many, many groups. Legitimacy is a slippery and illusive thing just like trust: once it's violated, it's very hard to build back. And America will not be able to build this legitimacy back using old might-is-right tactics. We're in a different era now where the sources of legitimacy are more complex and transnational. (This is another aspect to the importance of "soft power".) I won't unpack the issue of legitimacy here – because I'm still working out the details and it will require much longer treatment – but I will point you to an important, multidisciplinary book, Philip Bobbitt's, The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History. This is 900+ page intellectual odyessy and thus hard to penetrate for most time-starved folks, but fortunately GBN's co-founder Jay Ogilvy wrote some useful condensed notes on the book. Any serious student of the future evolution of the global system of governance must read this!
Getting back to Friedman's Sunday dish, I sympathize with his dismay at the black-and-white approaches to opposing this war. I, too, find the rhetoric and ideological blinkers of these protesters a bit annoying and simple-minded. Their tactics also undermine their legitimacy in the eye's of current power brokers (important people to influence) but I'm at a loss to imagine alternatives to protesting this situation. We still need attention-getting activities like the protests in London during Bush's visit to raise awareness and debate. A dilemma, this is. So the most interesting and insightful thing I took away from Friedman's article was his parting quote:
"In general," says Robert Wright, author of "Nonzero," "too few who opposed the war understand the gravity of the terrorism problem, and too few who favored it understand the subtlety of the problem." [Btw, Non-Zero was also GBN bookclub selection.]
"Publication is a self-invasion of privacy." – Marshall McLuhan
I think the web and increasing connectivity will only amplify this state of affairs, and may accelerate the evolution of what we mean by privacy in the contemporary sense. McLuhan did predict that there would be no place to hide. I'm torn by both the positive and negative implications of this. Increasing transparency means it's harder to tell a lie, harder to do bad things. The feedback loops of accountability are tighter and shorter. But at what cost? What happens when transparency goes bad? What then?
History comforts me a little on this front. The concept of privacy is relatively new and culturally relative. The word first started appearing in the English language in the early 1700s. So it basically co-evolved with the shifting social structures around the Industrial Revolution. So perhaps we're seeing another phase where the boundaries between what we consider private and public information, what we consider private and public space, are blurring and morphing into something else that's hard define and see at present. Which begs the question: what new language will we invent to describe more accurately these new concepts and social configurations around privacy, and more generally, the relationships between our public and private spaces?
Those Saucy Satirists
Why are comedians and satirists dominating the truth-telling function in America these days? I'm speaking of people like Bill Maher host of "Politically Incorrect" (who nearly lost his job for being truthful), the comedian Al Franken, and the economist Paul Krugman who seems to be upsetting the journalistic status quo with his New York Times column. The mischief-making Franken, however, is whom I want to talk about here. In case you've missed the entertainment, Franken is a former Saturday Night Live character, and now the boisterous bête noir of the Right. Full of moxy, wit and grit, Franken is a potent contrast to many mealy-mouthed politicians on the Left. Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right is his recent bestseller. (See the NYT's book review ) The hyperbolic title speaks volumes about his methods, but don't be fooled into thinking there is no substance. (Thanks to a fellowship, his research team was from Harvard.) In his books, Franken usually singles out one particularly naughty character within the conservative conclave (e.g. see his previous book Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations) and this time is no different. He focuses his disgust on Bill O'Reilly and his popular show ironically tag-lined "The No Spin Zone".
To our spectator's delight, the Fox network – which created the O'Reilly Factor sensation – made the bone-headed decision to sue Franken for using the term "Fair and Balanced" as his subtitle claiming it was a copyright infringement of their tagline. Fox was literally – and I hear literally – laughed out of court, and of course the publicity did wonders for book sales. Franken couldn't resist the cheeky act of thanking O'Reilly publicly for the windfall his litigiousness triggered. (I know I couldn't). I guess O'Reilly/Fox wasn't as astute nor disciplined enough to figure out how to fight these media wars. Limbaugh certainly wasn't that stupid when it was his turn which is something that Franken grudgingly respects him for.
Performance art aside, Franken does talk about some important things in his books. For instance, he debunks the – myth of the liberal media' using non-partisan studies and analysis. He brings to the surface how conservatives use the Orwellian play-book and manipulate language to distort meanings and create associations (like using the words Al-Queda and Iraq in the same sentence, over and over, until people assume these two things are connected.) In an interesting Fresh Air interview, Franken also explains the obvious: ring-wing media and radio shows across America – numbering in the thousands – are so popular because "demagoguery is interesting...Bullying and blustering people is entertaining." Speaking of bullies, Bill O'Reilly is taken to task over lies about past accomplishments (he never received a Peabody media awards) and how he mislead everyone about his impoverished background when in fact he lived an upper middle class life with many advantages (which his Mom was proud to corroborate, god bless her). Fresh Air also interviewed Bill O'Reilly after the Franken interview. If you don't know what this man's character is like I suggest listening to Terry Gross's aliant attempt in having a civilized conversation with him. To put it bluntly, he was a total ass.
I enjoy this dirt and Franken's pugnacious, underdog spirit as much as the next person. And my Canadian disposition relates to the use of comedy to speak unspeakables. The searing satirical genius of South African playwrights, pre-Apartheid, also comes to mind. But Franken may be doing less than he thinks in countering conservative forces. As Franken himself points out "liberals want information" whereas "conservatives want ammunition." Franken may be providing new information, but he is doing so using right-wing methods and tactics. This is fine and good, and half of me applauds the fact that someone is doing this, but I then recall Gandhi's observation that "means are ends in the making." Upon closer analysis, there is a much deeper war going on between worldviews, and this war needs to be won with different tools of discourse and entirely new frames of reference.
Finding New Frames
A "frame" is mental structure that we use in thinking. These frames are made up of metaphors, and most of our thinking is unconsciously influenced and structured by these. (Try not to think of metaphors as the literary embellishment that we're taught in English class, but rather as the essential building blocks compromising language and thought. As cognitive linguists are proving, almost all thought is metaphorical. More on this another time.)
We take these frames for granted, but metaphors are incredibly important levers in politics. While we've always known that, research within the cognitive sciences can now give us more precise insight into how this works. George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist at UC Berkeley, is our best guide in understanding how certain metaphors affect political discourse. His work in Morality Politics (together with Mark Johnson) surfaced two different worldviews cleaving the conservatives from progressives. These worldviews are based on opposing models of an ideal family. The conservatives' political framework is based on a strict father family, whereas the progressives see the world through a nurturant parent family metaphor. Each family model has distinct moral systems, and Lakoff is the best person to explain what these are and how they work. An example of a well-chosen metaphor and frame in action from Lakoff's must-read article:
"On the day that George W. Bush took office, the words "tax relief" started appearing in White House communiqués. Think for a minute about the word relief. In order for there to be relief, there has to be a blameless, afflicted person with whom we identify and whose affliction has been imposed by some external cause. Relief is the taking away of the pain or harm, thanks to some reliever... The relief frame is an instance of a more general rescue scenario in which there is a hero (the reliever), a victim (the afflicted), a crime (the affliction), a villain (the cause of affliction) and a rescue (the relief). The hero is inherently good, the villain is evil and the victim after the rescue owes gratitude to the hero...The term tax relief evokes all of this and more. It presupposes a conceptual metaphor: Taxes are an affliction, proponents of taxes are the causes of affliction (the villains), the taxpayer is the afflicted (the victim) and the proponents of tax relief are the heroes who deserve the taxpayers' gratitude. Those who oppose tax relief are bad guys who want to keep relief from the victim of the affliction, the taxpayer."
So you can see the kind of heavy lifting a good frame can achieve in politics, but it requires a long term investment which the Republicans have done. "Conservatives have spent decades defining their ideas, carefully choosing the language with which to present them, and building an infrastructure to communicate them" says Lakoff in another article by Bonnie Azab Powell . "Conservatives understand what unites them, and they understand how to talk about it, and they are constantly updating their research on how best to express their ideas." Meanwhile, the progressives just don't get it or fully understand the tremendous structural disadvantage poor framing gives them. You can also see now why I questioned Franken's tactically defensive approach using Republican queues. As Lakoff puts it, "If you have been framed, the only response is to reframe. But you can't do it in a sound bite unless an appropriate progressive language has been built up in advance."
Intervening, though, at the metaphorical level can be incredibly high leverage for accomplishing political goals and engendering systemic change. Sophisticated long-term thinkers know this intuitively. One of the big surprises of the 1990s was the increasing power and clout of NGOs (non-government organizations). They were successful because they spoke to people's emotion in language people resonated with, and they skillfully tapped into powerful symbols. Going back to an earlier blog, the NGOs knew how to use the tools of soft power, and the introduction of new metaphors is a prime example of what's in this toolbox. NGOS and much of global civil society are still ahead of governments and the private sector on this front.
Not surprisingly, Lakoff is also entering the framing game. He and some colleagues have started the Rockridge Institute to readdress this gap within the progressive camp. "It's one thing to analyze language and thought, it's another thing to create it. That's what we're about" says Lakoff. This idea, however, extends well beyond what's needed in America to global issues as well. For instance, this struck a chord with me: "Defeating radical conservatism gives us a negative impetus, but we will not succeed without a positive vision and cooperation... Movements, on the other hand, are based on shared values, values that define who we are. They have a better chance of being broad-based and lasting. In short, progressives need to be thinking in terms of a broad-based progressive-values movement, not in terms of issue coalitions." Time to think about movements again. Time to identify the movements I'm already in. Time to get in the framing game myself, and find ways to invest in this kind of hard thinking and activism. If I'm in the business of helping people create better futures, this is an important part of the system to focus on.
The New Newspeak
All of this reminded me of another chap whose centenary the world just celebrated. "Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it... Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes." This is the beginning paragraph to Orwell's short 1946 essay, "Politics and the English Language." It's amazingly current – a curious mixture of donnish rant on the dismal state of published writing with a few intellectual gems scattered through it. For instance, "in our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties." Substitute British Rule with Iraq war or countless other contemporary developments and we see not much has changed. I might qualify that by saying what has changed is the scale and pervasiveness of newspeak. Check out wikipedia's entry for newspeak to see what I mean, and try to be aware of the daily diet of unhealthy euphemisms and double-speak we receive through media channels.
"If thought corrupts language", said Orwell, "language can also corrupt thought." While Orwell may have been pleasantly surprised with the fall of Communism and the failure of a totalitarian Big Brother to emerge, he would have been horrified at the level of corruption of both thought and language. But I think Orwell would have encouraged us not to be defeatist about improving the situation, which is why he'd be very interested in what Lakoff is trying to do. "I said earlier that the decadence of our language is probably curable... not through any evolutionary process but owing to the conscious action of a minority." But the best thing we could do, as individuals, is to be careful in how we communicate because "to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration."
Oh, one last thing... Do George Lakoff a huge favour and stop saying tax "relief" even if this is just a conscious action of a minority.
What's the number one killer amongst living creatures? Man-eating sharks, tigers, grizzly bears, snakes, or sharp-toothed wild boars barreling through the jungle? No... no... no! All wrong. The most deadly creatures are, in fact, quite small. They are insects of course! The bees, wasps, spiders, mosquitoes, flies, ants, cockroaches, and millions of other varieties buzzing around the biosphere. This shouldn't be that surprising. There are more insects on the planet than any other species. So from a pure numbers game, the stats are in their favour. Thanks to many rounds of evolutionary roulette, insects are ingeniously equipped to do nasty damage. They can sting, poison, bite, transmit disease, and, if swarming, even eat a large mammal, like a human or cow, right clean through to the bone. (Does any one remember the killer ant B-movies in the 70s? I sure do!) Of course, their life span isn't very long, and they can be easily squashed, which is perhaps one of the evolutionary trade-offs the species made. Tant pis.
The point is that sheer size can be a misleading predictor of enduring strength and power. This may seem obvious, especially after September 11th, where a relatively small band of terrorists took on the most powerful country in the world, inflicting serious economic damage not to mention an irrevocable blow to its national psyche. What Al-Queda did so successfully was take asymmetric advantage of a much larger entity. In the case of America, its' cultural and economic power, its large geographical size, and its institutions favoring openness were also the same things that made it so vulnerable to attacks like these.
Yet the idea that "bigger is better" – together with its sister saying "might makes right" – is a stubborn one, mainly because it seems so basic and so intuitively obvious on the surface things. My boyfriend, who is a large man, looming almost two meters off the ground (6"4), gets a kick out of the subtle (and not so subtle) effect he can achieve just using his size. I must admit the primal part of me also enjoys this. (The downsides: I noticed that other men stopped checking me out shortly after I starting going out with him.) But guess what industry he's in? He's in software. He's a knowledge worker: he uses his brain, not his brawn, for survival in today's world. Some assumptions about size are definitely shifting, especially the relationship between size and power.
Fast Company's Keith Hammonds makes a similar case in his article "Size is not strategy" – which is well worth a read if you work in this space. He argues that large companies are broken because they are based on a business model that's over a hundred years old. It's not hard to find evidence of this. Look at all of the sick global industries around us: airlines, automobiles, healthcare, telecommunications, even consumer goods are hitting a wall. In term of empirical (as opposed to anecdotal) evidence, check out the classic work of Robert Gibrat's, Inegalities Economiques which shows that the relationships between size and expected growth rates is spurious at best. Size may help you survive, but bigger companies grow the slowest, which is why the merger-mania during the 1990s turned out to be so bad (mostly) for shareholders. Just one data point: the 50 biggest corporate acquirers during that time had their share prices fall 3 times as much as the Dow Jones average. Other reasons why bigger is not necessarily better: corporations find it increasingly difficult to innovate once a particular value creation model is locked in. These organizations are geared for optimization and production, not innovation, which may be their ultimate downfall because most of the significant high-margin wealth today is now being created through new ideas, concepts, and technologies. The best talent is going to organizations – and networks – where they can be creative and be "whole people".
But size remains firmly on our societal pedestal. It remains a focus because it's still riding on the backs of some deeper assumptions regarding power and control over the sources of wealth creation. While large sectors of society are moving into a knowledge-intensive economy (see Peter Drucker for the most compelling treatise on this), many of the assumptions underpinning the Industrial Age are still lingering – and these assumptions privilege size over other variables. (I'm resisting the temptation to mention the impact of a male worldview on all of this, so I'll let the reader extrapolate if inclined to do so.) Economies of scale and mass production models made sense for the time, and were the key to success. Today, the name of the game is still about having enough resources and leverage to control key parts of the value chain, whether it be retail channels, suppliers or distribution networks. So I'm not saying that these things won't matter in the hurly burly of competition. Scale will always be essential for a functioning global economy. What I'm questioning is whether you need size to still achieve the benefits of scale. New organizational models based on networks and "value webs" might be able to achieve the same thing, just in a different and more adaptive way.
Like Keith Hammonds, what I'm questioning is the "fitness" of organizational model of the multinational corporation (MNC) given how the world is changing. Through the lens of the Long View, the MNC model seems very brittle to me. This may seem ludicrous to some, but as powerful as MNCs are, they too suffer certain asymmetric weaknesses, just like the United States. Indeed any large system – especially "closed" highly hierarchical ones – can be very fragile and vulnerable to outside disruptions. This is perhaps why we are seeing some corporations experimenting (and the public sector will soon follow) with new organizational models that better reflect the internal logic of a "complex adaptive system"; that is, something that's designed to be both decentralized, and self-organizing; an organization that works from the bottom-up with some top-down direction. Many ecosystems work this way, as does Wall Street.
Beyond the world of business, other scholars and thinkers are developing a more complete picture about the relationship between power and size. In terms of power studies, which have been dominated for too long by black-and-white political scientists using narrow "realist" frameworks, we are slowing seeing more nuanced understanding about the role of "soft power." Joseph Nye has long been the standard bearer here, and his recent editorials have been helpful. The postmodernists have weighed in on this as well; their ideas just trickling through. And I'm sure there are some incredible non-western feminist views on this as well, but alas, I don't have these at my finger tips. I suppose Camile Paglia comes to mind, but she is white. Suffice it is to recall watching a Brazilian businesswoman work a room of her superiors. She was disadvantaged in all convention power measures, but she got what she wanted and more, without them even being aware of it.
My past work at GBN, especially working in the national security arena, also put me in touch with leading soft power thinkers like David Arquilla and Ronfeldt. Their work at Rand was an early application of social network theory, which is a key area if we are to understand these issues better. I recommend Networks and Netwar and the more idosyncratic but deep, The Emergence of the Noopolitik which adapts some of the ideas of Talhard de Chardin. This has been very influential... a little too much so, as it has now made its way to "the enemy." (At least in the eyes of American military leaders). In particular, these ideas were taken up by two senior Chinese colonels and developed in a 1999 book, Unrestricted Warfare . Parts of this are now translated in English, and are well worth a read. They make a chilling case for how China should use unconventional, asymmetric, soft power approaches to winning the war against America for global dominance. Things like infiltrating the educational system, poisoning ideological debates, or manipulating media channels.
Popular culture today hums with the famous cliché that the flapping of a mosquito's wings in China can cause a cyclone in Texas. This may be overstating things, but the point is that seemingly small and insignificant things can cascade throughout the entire system. And we do live in an increasingly interdependent system, so we can count on further tensions and interactions between the large and small. For instance, thanks to modern global media, can a single "super empowered angry" individual can challenge mighty corporations overnight as we saw in recent years with Coke and Nike. So that's what's "new": the scale and interdependency of world. But this idea about size is also something very old and firmly rooted within our cultural and anthropological stories. Every one knows about David and Goliath. Everyone knows why dinosaurs went extinct. In both cases, their size proved to be their undoing, a maladaptive response to external environmental shifts. The insects, however, survived just fine. So think like a mosquito... but with the consciousness of a biome – that is, a view that encompasses both small and large, local and global perspectives. These are better metaphors for an adaptive future.