Rage Against the Dying of the Light

Given we live in scoundrel times, or as the Chinese curse puts it: “may you live in interesting times”, I have always struggled personally on the conflict between the Edmund Burke’s (1729-1797) saying: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” and the Roman Stoic Philosopher Seneca (4 BCE to 65 CE), whom I think said: “In scoundrel times good men cultivate their gardens.” In this context, I recently wrote a very personal piece on this conundrum, this conflict, that I hope resonates with some of my readers, especially my older readers.

We went to the sea yesterday and looked at the wide flat horizons of the North Norfolk coast. Afterwards, my wife told me that I sometimes fill the room with my ranting about the state of the world. About its cruel, unsustainable incompetence; the incompetence of its leaders and organizations. And it is becoming increasingly intolerably painful for her to hear me, because it is all too evident to her too. She would like me to shut up about the state of the world; just for a few years…. :)

Here in the watches of the night at 3am after that day by the sea, it came to me that as we age we do, like my Dad, increasingly rant about the state of the world. On the surface, it is indeed often an accurate commentary on the said cruel, unsustainable incompetence of the world, its leaders and organizations. But underneath it becomes something more like a King Lear rant about our growing powerlessness to effect any impact on the state of the world. Our loss of access to the levers of power and the fact that no one is listening to our rants. And that those with access to the levers of power do nothing of much consequence with them. Nothing to really divert the world onto healthier paths. That our rants have therefore no effect in an attention deficit, uncaring world. Which is perfectly set to continue on its path for systemic reasons over which no one, least of all we ranters, has any control.

And maybe in reality our rants are more about our own situation. We rant, we rage against our own mortality. The fact that life, which we thought a garden of branching paths, with decisions that impact our lives and the world, which is perhaps a necessary fiction for us to do anything at all with our lives; this life is actually, from the start, more like one single path: a labyrinth from birth to death with no branches that make much difference to our  essential mortality.

As the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas said, we come to realize this, and as a result start to  “rage against the dying of the light”. When perhaps what we should do, is what we did yesterday which is simply to sit for a few hours in different places and look at the sand dunes, the muddy river and especially the flat horizon of the sea. Here there is no gap between how the sea should be and how it is. It just is. And we enjoyed it. We simply felt the inner joy that came from contemplating it. Maybe that is all there is to life and the raging against the dying of the light, against the cruel unsustainable incompetence of the world, a waste of our breath, a waste of the limited time we have left when we should simply pay attention to fleeting moments of joy?

Or do we combine this, with existential gestures that try to defy the situation. Always engaged as a friend of mind says. “Toujours engagé”. We should judiciously choose points for modest non-narcissistic interventions, probably on a small one-to-one scale to act as Herman Hesse’s character Siddhartha in the novel of that name ends his life doing. Working as a ferry boat man, simply ferrying travelers from one side of the river to another. A limited, but worthy service, without grandiosity or pretense to have major impact, beyond helping travelers cross the river, pilgrims on their way in life, on their own labyrinths. I guess I should look for a river some people need to cross and buy a ferry boat?

Here is Dylan Thomas; the poem I read at my Dad’s funeral five years ago:

Dylan Thomas, 1914 – 1953

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

 Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

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Barry Goldwater (1909-1998) Top Ten Conflict Tips

I have always appreciated (while not necessarily agreeing with) the thoughts of the principled conservative former US Presidential Candidate Senator Barry Goldwater  and thought he would make a good source for one of our Top Ten Conflict Tips:

  1. (President) Nixon was the most dishonest individual I have ever met in my life. He lied to his wife, his family, his friends, his colleagues in the Congress, lifetime members of his own political party, the American people and the world.
  2. Where is the politician who has not promised to fight to the death for lower taxes- and who has not proceeded to vote for the very spending projects that make tax cuts impossible?
  3. You don’t need to be straight to fight and die for your country. You just need to shoot straight
  4. Equality, rightly understood as our founding fathers understood it, leads to liberty and to the emancipation of creative differences; wrongly understood, as it has been so tragically in our time, it leads first to conformity and then to despotism
  5. Those who seek absolute power, even though they seek it to do what they regard as good, are simply demanding the right to enforce their own version of heaven on earth. And let me remind you, they are the very ones who always create the most hellish tyrannies. Absolute power does corrupt, and those who seek it must be suspect and must be opposed
  6. My faith in the future rests squarely on the belief that man, if he doesn’t first destroy himself, will find new answers in the universe, new technologies, new disciplines, which will contribute to a vastly different and better world in the twenty-first century.
  7. Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them.”
  8. Vietnam is about halfway around the world from Washington. It’s as large as the major European nations, with nearly 130,000 square miles… Its ancient recorded history goes back to 111 B.C… We entered (that country) with considerable ignorance
  9. When you say “radical right” today, I think of these moneymaking ventures by fellows like Pat Robertson and others who are trying to take the Republican Party away from the Republican Party, and make a religious organization out of it. If that ever happens, kiss politics goodbye.
  10. Surely the first obligation of a political thinker is to understand the nature of man. The Conservative does not claim special powers of perception on this point, but he does claim a familiarity with the accumulated wisdom and experience of history, and he is not too proud to learn from the great minds of the past

Barry, boy could we use you now to talk some sense into the Republican Party:

 

Posted in Conflict Processes, Religious Conflict, Top Ten Conflict Tips from Great Thinkers, Uncategorized, US Political Conflict | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Creative Climate by David Brooks

In the current issue of The Atlantic, Joshua Wolf Shenk has a fascinating description of how Paul McCartney and John Lennon created music together. McCartney was meticulous while Lennon was chaotic. McCartney emerged out of a sunny pop tradition. Lennon emerged out of an angst-ridden rebel tradition.

Lennon wrote the song “Help” while in the throes of depression. The song originally had a slow, moaning sound. McCartney suggested a lighthearted counter melody that, as Shenk writes, fundamentally changed and improved the nature of the piece.

Lennon and McCartney came from different traditions, but they had similar tastes. They brought different tendencies to the creative process but usually agreed when the mixture was right. This created the special tension in their relationship. They had a tendency to rip at each other, but each knew ultimately that he needed the other. Even just before his death, Lennon was apparently thinking of teaming up with McCartney once again.

Shenk uses the story to illustrate the myth of the lone genius, to show that many acts of genius are the products of teams or pairs, engaged in collaboration and “co-opetition.” And we have all known fertile opposites who completed each other — when they weren’t trying to destroy each other.

But the Lennon-McCartney story also illustrates the key feature of creativity; it is the joining of the unlike to create harmony. Creativity rarely flows out of an act of complete originality. It is rarely a virgin birth. It is usually the clash of two value systems or traditions, which, in collision, create a transcendent third thing.

Shakespeare combined the Greek honor code (thou shalt avenge the murder of thy father) with the Christian mercy code (thou shalt not kill) to create the torn figure of Hamlet. Picasso combined the traditions of European art with the traditions of African masks. Saul Bellow combined the strictness of the Jewish conscience with the free-floating go-getter-ness of the American drive for success.

Sometimes creativity happens in pairs, duos like Lennon and McCartney who bring clashing worldviews but similar tastes. But sometimes it happens in one person, in someone who contains contradictions and who works furiously to resolve the tensions within.

When you see creative people like that, you see that they don’t flee from the contradictions; they embrace dialectics and dualism. They cultivate what Roger Martin called the opposable mind — the ability to hold two opposing ideas at the same time.

If they are religious, they seek to live among the secular. If they are intellectual, they go off into the hurly-burly of business and politics. Creative people often want to be strangers in a strange land. They want to live in dissimilar environments to maximize the creative tensions between different parts of themselves. Today we live in a distinct sort of creative environment. People don’t so much live in the contradiction between competing worldviews. We live in a period of disillusion and distrust of institutions.

This has created two reactions. Some monads withdraw back into the purity of their own subcultures. But others push themselves into the rotting institutions they want to reinvent. If you are looking for people who are going to be creative in the current climate, I’d look for people who are disillusioned with politics even as they go into it; who are disenchanted with contemporary worship, even as they join the church; who are disgusted by finance even as they work in finance. These people believe in the goals of their systems but detest how they function. They contain the anxious contradictions between disillusionment and hope.

This creative process is furthest along, I’d say, in the world of B corporations. There are many people today who are disillusioned both with the world of traditional charity and traditional capitalism. Many charities have been warmheartedly but wastefully throwing money at problems, without good management or market discipline. Capitalists have been obsessed with the short-term maximization of shareholder return without much concern for long-term prosperity or other stakeholders.

B corporations are a way to transcend the contradictions between the ineffective parts of the social sector and myopic capitalism. Kyle Westawaya lawyer in this field and the author of the forthcoming “Profit & Purpose,” notes that benefit corporation legal structures have been established in 22 states over the last four years. The 300 or so companies that have registered in this way, like Patagonia or Method, can’t be sued if they fail to maximize profits in order to focus on other concerns. They are seeking to reinvent both capitalism and do-gooder-ism, and living in the contradiction between these traditions.

This suggests a final truth about creativity: that, in every dialectic, there is a search for creative synthesis. Or, as Albert Einstein put it, “You can never solve a problem on the level on which it was created.

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Corporations in Contrast to Small Businesses

As long ago as 1937 Ronald Coase in his book “The Nature of the Firm” pointed out that market forces, like pricing, competitive bidding do not operate within a corporation of any size. One department typically does not bid for business from another. Instead internal pricing of products and services is done by administrative decision making. He assumed this reflected the large transaction costs that would arise if corporations or firms were to create internal markets and use internal competition to drive efficiency. And given almost no corporations use this internal market structure it must presumably be inefficient or uncompetitive to use it or competition in the external market would drive its use. I think Coase’s insight has major political implications.

Much conservative commentary on the free market seems to assume that large corporations operate in some sort of free market context. Now of course, many conservatives recognize that many large corporations are monopolies or partial monopolies aka oligopolies with significant market power which reflects the limits to free competition. This may reflect control of key patents, the advantage of an early leader in a new sector, the barriers to entry to a market including high cost of capital equipment and so on. But very little conservative commentary recognizes the reality that market forces are not used much within the boundaries of large corporations. Clearly there are constraints on the latter as they cannot simply make up prices. But it is interesting to see how closely large corporations resembly government bureaucracies. Having worked for one of the world’s largest corporations, and with the US Department of Defense there is much less difference than you might expect between these two forms of organization. Certainly far less than conservative ideology suggests. And they are both radically different from small businesses operating in competitive markets.

So I suggest that conservatives maybe consider how far from reality their characterization of large corporations as operating in competitive somewhat free markets is. And recognize just how driven they are to create monopolies and to use government to shore up their manipulative market power. And don’t expect this to change any time soon. Wal-Mart is not some inflated Mom and Pop store; it is a different beast entirely and commentary on the role of government, of large corporations and of small businesses should be grounded in reality. Interestingly, almost all the small business owners round here (and I probably know a biased sample) are liberal Democrats with no time for the Republican Party or the Democratic Party embrace of either Wall Street or large corporations. The main thing that makes these small business owners Democrats is their appreciation of science and the importance of technology and these days Republicans are seen as deeply anti-scientific, but that is a whole other story….They are also strongly environmentally focused, another field where the GOP doesn’t even compete.

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The Difference Between Sociopathic Corporations and Good Ones

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Reflections on a Time of Change: Edmund Burke and Beyond

I am reading Jesse Norman’s fine book on the conservative politician and originator of modern conservative thinking Edmund Burke (1729-1797).

I increasingly feel like a Burke-influenced liberal. I greatly fear climate change, economic instability, and growing economic inequality because all three seem to me to be possible major causes of either revolution or societal collapse, and I tend to share Burke’s views on the undesirability of massive rapid change. In this sense I am a conserve-ative and certainly I like the idea of stewardship of the environment, of the economy and of the structure of society. And we live in a civilization that in many ways is under threat.

To think about change or loss, I tend to use a variation of William Bridges work on change in organizations adapted from Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s work on personal loss and mourning. The model I use suggests that there are five main stages to the change or loss process: denial that there is change or loss, anger or rage at the change or loss, acceptance that change or loss has happened, mourning/feeling the sadness about the change or loss, and adaptation/moving on.

I tend to see conservatives in the US spending a lot of time these days in the denial phase for many societal, economic and environmental changes. I can relate to that but being stuck in it is ultimately not healthy and tends towards data denial and delusion if taken too far. Also shooting the liberal messenger who points out the environmental or whatever disaster. And when they are not in denial they are in anger, rage at the changes.

I don’t see many conservatives yet in acceptance which is where many liberals are, though some are also angry and also mourning loss of habitat etc. None of us seem to be very effectively into adaptation, and it is vital that conservatives move through to that stage after working the other stages (it is hard to jump them) because the solutions we need for all our problems require maximum cognitive diversity from across the political and skill set spectrum. Here’s hoping that we can form some different alliances to get more issues addressed.

See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edmund_Burke

Edmund Burke:

Posted in Economic Conflict, Environmental Conflict, PERSONAL CONFLICT RESOLUTION: CREATIVE STRATEGIES, Philosophy of Conflict, US Political Conflict, Ways to handle conflict | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Guns and the Crisis of Masculinity in the US

In a recent online debate about gun control, I sensed the way the gun advocates were actually “hostile” in a very specific sense. Hostility in the sense I think usefully defined in George Kelly’s Personal Construct Theory as what results when someone’s theory of how the world works is serially invalidated. When it no longer works as a predictive method.

The rather fragile self view of many men based on unquestioned dominance over women is now being indeed serially invalidated, as women overtake men in educational attainment in many countries. Take on more senior roles in work. And expect to be equal emotional partners in marriage, or live their own lives, and certainly have control over reproductive matters, and not just be emotional props to fragile male egos. 

If creating an equal playing field has had this effect, it maybe suggests we need to reconsider how we raise boys to help them be less scardy pants about themselves, the world and their place in it, so needing to be less hostile in Kelly’s sense. Less oppressive. 

It has certainly occurred to me that 10,000 years of societal structures to oppress women (and for that matter minorities) are driven by feelings of personal inadequacy by their largely male architects. Why create oppressive structures if you aren’t scared? And in the case of the violence against women (and minorities) type of men, yep they do seem indeed to be inadequate. Mistaking power for love. Hence the need for guns. Better to remove the need for guns than threaten them with taking them away while they are still scared.

And I don’t propose crop dusting men with unjustified self-esteem either, as the education system seems to. Self-esteem to be valuable has to be earned and based on realism and not encouraging narcissistic grandiosity. Teach boys (and girls for that matter) how to achieve realistic, earned self-esteem and compassion for self and others maybe? Men need a men’s movement of some sort to support this. It is not up to women to do this, though in helping men raise boys differently they can help. But men need to be different role models showing compassion for self and others. Hunt if you must, but spare us the gun as crutch for your mental fears.

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