When”google”became a verb-the world changed forever

When ‘Google’ became a verb, and not just a search engine, we knew that we were witnessing a dramatic shift in the way we access information. In the old days, it used to be the encyclopedias that opened the door to true enlightenment. Now, for every inquiry, we google it and it takes us to Wikipedia and we read what the collective wisdom says on any one topic. Its all so easy.

Knowledge used to be what you went to college to acquire, or you bought books to read. Now its at your fingertips. But with that shift comes a deeper dilemma. If we have so democratized access to knowing, are we as citizens any better off, or any the wiser?  The answer is No, because what use is knowledge if we don’t know what it means.

I recall having lunch with a friend who works at the US Treasury some 18 months back and her telling me that the managers were working 18 hour days in a panic because they were getting economic data and indicators that were all over the map. They hadn’t seen the pattern before, or didn’t know if there was a pattern behind the figures.  Were these signs of a recession or just an aberration? They were awash in data and none the wiser. Of course, now we know.

Another telling example is the various 9-11 reports, official and unofficial, that all say the same thing, that we had all the clues to identify who the potential terrorists were, and we even had strong hints as to their murderous intentions, but the data was never shared to be pieced together by the various agencies to work out what was going on. The same story is told about Pearl Harbor.

Our contemporary dilemma is no longer simple ignorance. We can google away a lot of that. What we really desperately need is understanding, or getting a larger sense of what it all means?  Whether its the fate of the economy, or the fate of the planet, the data lends itself to contradictory explanations. Things as complex as that don’t add up to one simple answer. We have to develop a new interpretive mind, and evolve more effective tools for dealing with complexity, chaos and the chain causality we experience in networks. We are rarely dealing with only one thing anymore. What we decide to do in Afghanistan will effect what happens in Pakistan, and what happens in Pakistan will feed in to what Iran does, etc. Foreign policy used to be a game of chess. Now its a game of dominos.

Knowledge is overrated. Sometimes, knowing all the facts that there are to be known only paralyzes us further because we  see too many options. And it is now a tactic of defense.  When some whistle blower alleges corruption, a department or corporation will release a blizzard of documents and emails and say-you want to know, take that, take all of it. Good luck in finding the needle in that haystack.

That is why the narrative question of “What is the story of the Story?”  is so important. It moves us to second level meaning making. We are always using a bigger story to make sense of a smaller story. And its that meta level of meaning making that our  data rich-meaning poor age demands.

What prompted my thinking on this topic was a new book coming out soon from a colleague, Michael Margolis. He is a New York marketing and branding guru.  He encourages us all to assume the mind of Henry the Navigator, and find new maps to find our way. I think he is right. The critical question that used to determine if we got the job, or if we passed the exams was-’What do you know?’ Now the critical question is “What does it mean?’ We don’t need investigators, we need interpreters. Michael is a good one.

May 16 Hello from In The Republic of Stories!

In the Republic of Stories” began as a 6 month experiment to apply a narrative critical mind to the 2008 Presidential election process as it is covered by the mainstream media. What made it distinct from the other political blogs out there is that we played the role of the NARRATIVE ANALYST, not the pundit or someone who has any particular party preference. We are the Center for Narrative Studies based in Washington DC and our mission for the past 16 years has been to “shape the stories that shape us.” Go do www.storywise.com for more information.

What has prompted reviving this by-line from the old CNS NARRATIVE MATTERS Newsletter is the frequent use of the word “narrative” by our TV pundits and experts. For instance, they speak of  “Obama’s narrative” challenging Clinton’s,” or “McCain’s narrative” not exactly fitting the conservative agenda. If the so called experts are now using “narrative” in their prime time lexicon, we feel its time that narrative practitioners enter the fray to demonstrate that a narrative approach is more than just throwing that word around as a new cliche. We want to demonstrate that “story” is both a tale told and a method of meaning-making. We want to show of and demystify “story” as the dominant strategy driving the election and an increasingly popular metaphor to describe it.

We set ourselves some specific goals. This analysis must prove that

  • It is relevant,
  • It is not just a rip-off or a recycling of the chatter from the commentariat.
  • It must add light and not just heat to the dialog.
  • It must also carry its own explanatory power to help us understand the drama that is unfolding.
  • It must demonstrate not only explanatory value but predictive power.That is not to say that we can predict the winner or the loser but we can predict how certain stories will unfold. Stories give us reliable maps.
  • Lastly, with millions of other blogs out there, we want to test to see if we can attract an audience and draw collaborators who will take off the political lens, or the media masks and get as curious as we are in the Presidential election as an epic unfolding in real time.

Democracy is a story in which the hero is the people, not just the winning candidate. When the people vote, they are making their voices heard. In French, the word for vote is the same as voice. In the Republic of Stories, we want to champion a view of democracy in which every voice counts, and every story has a right to be told, not just the Stories that come blaring out at us from CNN and FOX.

The Republic of Stories is what makes our democracy vibrant and our election process exciting. But some stories are dangerous, some stories drown out or disqualify other stories, and some stories deliberately feed our fears. The “story of power” can too easily boil down to “the power of story,” where millions are being spent by the electoral spin-meisters targeting us as their uncritical story consumers. This column offers a form of consumer protection from those stories that threaten to turn the Republic of Stories into a Tyranny of the Deaf and the Dumb!


The project that is described above was completed, not as a continual blog as intended but as a published book called The Presidential Plot- the Story, the Map and the Conspiracy to elect a President. It is now available at http://www.lulu.com/content/3972295. Here is the opening page.


We are all suckers for a good story; it’s not just that people lie to us. We lie to ourselves. We are the willing confabulators of our fictions and if you don’t believe me, let’s remind ourselves of a few recent stories.

Remember Iraq? There were no Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD’s) but most of us wanted to find them because we knew Saddam was a baddie! He should have had them. It so fit the story. Now we are blaming the Government, so we don’t have to blame ourselves, but even 65% of Democratic voters originally bought the horror movie of “Smoking gun to mushroom clouds.”

Remember how Enron was re-inventing the energy business? All the Harvard business gurus were lauding it for setting new standards of excellence and profitability. We didn’t want to know about any bottom line finagling until they ran out of money. But big business, who are paid to know, and government, who are paid to regulate, bought it big time. Ken Lay was a White House VIP, a member of the Board of Harvard Business School no less.

And lest we forget Katrina-FEMA was a great agency. They knew how to handle hurricanes and were doing one “heckuva of a job,” because our President told us so. Then we saw the bodies floating and the people abandoned on housetops. The images didn’t fit the story, though ‘heck,’ as a euphemism for “hell” was at least accurate!

Katrina-Enron-WMD’s, I am sure you can name even more-the Boston Archdiocese, Pat Tillman, Jessica Lynch, AIG, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac. Corporations now produce stories as an industry, and whether they be the military, the White House or Wall Street,they wield enormous power over us, until sometimes, reality has its revenge and firms go bust, wars go bad, and levees break. But by then, it’s too late. And we are left to wonder: Why were we suckers for the story in the first place?

Feb 17 Obama after a year-The Need for Courage before compromise

Oh the stories we shared on Inauguration Day a little over a year ago, the feelings we had of the beginning of a brave new world, the sense of common purpose among the huddled masses on that cold, cold day-where did they all go? Why did the dream die so soon?

Today, we have a stalled Presidency and a stuck Congress leading a stalled economy of a stuck nation. We are waiting for respite from the recession more eagerly than we are waiting for our recent snow to melt. We are waiting for someone to tell us that this will get better, that there is way out of this mess and that we are indeed traveling in the right direction because frankly, more and more of us think we aren’t. What we are waiting for ultimately, is leadership and vision, the very things we thought we were expectantly celebrating on that freezing January day last year.

Promises have become excuses, mixed with Tea Party angst,  a weird Palin-McCain redux, and people abandoning ship.  Powerful Congressmen are  resigning in frustration, citing a worn out election cliche “the system’s broken.” But this time, they mean it. The only response from the White House seems to be a Presidential make-over. If ever there was an ominous signal that they don’t get it, rehiring David Plouffe showed they saw the rumblings less in terms of the future of the country, and more in terms of the future of this Presidency.  Plouffe is employed to stage a less ‘out of touch’ Obama, reaching out to the masses, at least one photo op a week. The Cinderella cycle that I wrote about in my book The Presidential Plot starts all over again. Government by fairytale does not work.

The system may be broken but the founders broke it, giving us a government of three independent parts. They designed a broken system in the first place.  A king would have been much easier. Any Government divided over major issues is healthy. That is the way it was meant to operate, because the Constitution was created by thinkers who feared tyranny  more than factionalism. If the President wanted one thing and the Congress another, and the Court decided that both were unconstitutional, the founders did not see that as broken so much as how the will of the majority finally got worked out in compromise. What they did not envisage was that government would become so contradictory as to be unintelligible, that it would make no sense, or that it would veer off into a dangerous lunacy.

Steve Pearlstein captured the contradictions in his insightful column today.  (Washington Post Feb 17th 2010 A-8) “They want Wall Street to be reined in….but they are against regulation.” Affordable health care but no government role, more jobs but less spending to create them, a balanced budget but no spending cuts. It is insane, and that is what Obama as the leader has to stop complaining about and start confronting, to bring America back to some sanity.  When Congressmen sponsor a bill only to cynically kill it, or when they dramatically oppose a stimulus package in Washington and then, shamelessly claim the credit in their electorate for federal projects, you realize that politics has taken the art of hypocrisy to a whole new level. Throw in a Supreme Court that flouts election reform in one huge precedent shattering decision, and you have it all.

Governments come and go. Some we like. Some we abhor. But the bottom line for goverment to work is that it makes sense. Some people thought Ronald Reagan was an heroic President, some that he was a disaster, but we knew what he stood for, we knew his vision for reviving Pax Americana. The vision that he was able to communicate so persuasively galvanized a nation into  both support and opposition. Voters knew what they were supporting or rejecting. Candidate Obama like Reagan, used every rhetorical flourish he could to rally the voters to a vision that”Washington was indeed broken” and that ‘partisan bickering was eating away the people’s trust.’ He told us all of that, and we agreed, and many of us voted him in as Sheriff to clean up Dodge. But a year later, the headlines scream, “Washington is broken” and ‘partisan bickering is undermining trust, ‘ and it is President Obama himself who is telling us this in his first State of the Union address.  At least Obama gets to reprise some of his best stump speeches. But he has had a year to start making it better, and it would appear to be getting worse.

Obama is not succeeding in precisely the area of reform he promised to come to Washington to achieve. His story as President is shifting beyond his control, fragmenting into disconnected and drawn out campaigns on energy and finance and health care and defense. There is no Big picture, no Big Story, no integrating  vision of how this all fits, and where we are now in relation to the goal we need to reach. All we have is lots of little stories, competing and contradicting each other, and Obama acting as a White House drone plane, hovering over the halls of Congress, hoping to pick off votes and not get shot down, but never prepared to take courage, to get on the ground, to wrestle hand to hand with the obstructionists and the opportunists that seem to have infected the business of government.

President Obama let Congress lead where he should have led. He stirred up a vision of a brave new world in getting elected, and then choked on it, deciding that pragmatism is the safer bet.  Audacity is only for selling books, it seems. The President needs to find his courage. He needs to re-read some of his best electioneering speeches and craft from them a more compelling vision. If we are going to Renew America’s Promise, as he says, what does that mean, other than a piece of puffy politicking. How come a President Kennedy could send Americans to the moon, and this administration can’t even replace the space shuttle and we will have to hitch a ride with the Russians? How come we are only planning some high speed rail corridors when Europe and Japan have over 40? What ever happened to Greater America, the land of dreams and opportunity? We are lacking meaningful government because we are lacking meaningful leadership.  It is all playing out as predicted when, In my book written almost 18 months back, I wrote

The government can only work if the story works. If the story doesn’t work, then that signals a fundamental breakdown in meaning making, that things don’t make sense anymore because they are not going anywhere, and no matter what individual initiatives work, there is no center to the whole, and things fall apart, as Yeats predicted. We need the coherent story. We need the big story that inhabits and enlivens the little stories. As a manager friend from Lockheed Martin loves to quote to me, Leadership is meaning making in a community of practice. If the breakdown is at the level of meaning, then is it any wonder that we as citizens feel powerless and stuck. (The Presidential Plot P.255)

Aug 31 Is Obama in trouble?-What happened to the story?

I have just watched the Obama Oval Office speech, the second of his time as President.

I know the talking heads have already made a big deal about the stilted, professorial style, the lecture tone, the folded hands in front, the total formality. It was certainly no fireside chat. But something else was missing, and it is dire-more than a lack of policy, or a boring lecture on war and deficits.

What was missing?  A Story. This is a President who just visited the wounded at Walter Reed and the troops in Texas to express the appreciation of a gratelful nation, and what did he bring back????Nothing but talking points.   This is the president… speaking in the Oval office, THE OVAL OFFICE,  with the ghosts of FDR after Pearl Harbor, LBJ after Vietnam. The place screams of stories, but that hallowed place did not speak tonight.  This president who once snuck out to Dover to greet the remains of warriors on their last journey home,  is determined to keep his feelings private. All we are good for tonight is  Cliches and Pabulum.  Not a story in sight-No witness, no personal sense of the weight of war and how it weighs on any Commander in Chief.  Stunning performance, Mr President.

Iraq has cost us almost 5000 young lives and one trillion dolars, and the Commander in Chief can barely mention two names, Petraeus and Bush. What about Private Guiterrez, the first American soldier killed in Iraq, who was an immigrant from the streets of  Guatamela City, whose only dream was to come to America and join the marines, or Specialist Morganne McBeth, a 19 year old African American from Virginia, one of the last to die before the US pull out. Are they worth a shout out along with Petraeus and Bush?

This President might want to ignore a Glenn Beck March on Washington for Votes and Ratings, but at least Beck can cry on camera, he can connect his feelings to the great stories that surrounded him on the weekend, the monuments to Lincoln and Washington and King. Whatever you might think of Beck’s views, he tells a story.  I  used to remember a Candidate who could quote Lincoln and King in almost every speech he made. Where did he go?

President Obama seems to have fallen prey to the  grey bureaucrats who write safe,boring speeches, who warn him elections are close, and that he will be punished for any courage or honesty.  So he decides its better to be boring. And he has no story to tell.

For the candidate who got elected on his story and his ability to tell it- to not be telling the nation a story about where we are, and how  he connects to the visceral pain of a country at war, a country that feels more and more lost, is to choose to become irrelevant. If he doesn’t seem to care, why should we?

Memo to President Obama, and can anyone please, please forward this to him-his chief earnings come not from Executive Office but from “Dreams from my Father” when he told us his story. What has happened to convince him that in an address to the nation on war and peace, on what really, really matters,  not a story in sight.  Now that is a story.

Oct 19 The Obama Plot Unravels -As Predicted!

“Obama the Snob” writes  former Bush Speechwriter, Michael Gerson in today’s Washington Post.

“What does he do now? writes Peter Baker in the New York Times Magazine suggesting Obama might have to change ‘ his approach.’

The Tea Party are piling on with loads of  anonymous election money to echo Sarah Palin’s  mocking queston -”How’s that hopey-changey thing working out for ya?” Even  Obama’s answer is-It’s not!

The extraordinary Obama profile by Peter Baker in the New York Times presents us with a character more aggrieved and frustrated than a strong national leader vigorously pursuing his reform agenda. “They talk about me like a dog,” he pleads, inviting the crowd to feel his pain, and not the other way round.  It sounds awfully close to whining. What happened to his “Yes we can.”

The Fairy Tale that got Obama elected ended January 20th 2009.  The media gave the celebrity a longer honeymoon than most presidents get, but the shine has gone off  “Brand “Obama,” and it was inevitable.

In October 2008, with the election in free fall from the economic crash, storywise published The Presidential Plot,  a book that claimed it could read the future, because stories work as predictably as train lines. The Presidential Plot that the book explains  almost demands that the Messianic leader gets crucified in the end-or in the mid terms, and the real challenge is-does he rise again? Otherwise, there is no story to tell.  The character is a function of the plot.

Lets take a peek back at the final chapter of The Presidential Plot-as it moves the story from inauguration day. Remember, this was even before Obama won the job.

…He will have to deal with a fractious Congress no matter what party wins the majority. He will meet regularly with the ego-maniacal media ever eager to become the story makers, not the story tellers. He will have a Supreme Court aging and split as if there was a San Andreas Fault line hidden at the heart of the Constitution. For a hundred days, at least, the honeymoon will cushion the new President from the dull thud of reality but then, it all changes.

All those stories, that Washington is broken, that politics is too rancorous and partisan, that legislation is nothing but compromise and pork and gridlock; these were all the stories of the Presidential Plot that helped get him elected because he promised to change all of that.

But in 2009 and 2010, our hero will come crashing down to earth, because great heroes are made for great tragedies. And it is part of the President’s hidden contract with the story, the part it demands he play. All those election clichés will have been forgotten long enough ago for them to reappear as new. Washington is broken, but now, our hero broke it, or was broken by it, and once again, our leaders have failed the country. Another election cycle will loom, and it will be time to dust off the “How to get re-elected” story kit. It will be time for campaign managers to revive the story cycle, rise and fall, rise and fall, and the re-enchantment of America starts all over again…(Page 286, The Presidential Plot)

Someone with narrative intelligence rather than a political brain needs to take the President aside, as they should have done on January 21st 2008, to both reassure him and tell him straight- its downhill from here, that the expectations he helped create were always unreal even for an Emperor, and therefore dangerous.  He should totally eschew the cult of celebrity, and play the statesman.  Even then, he should expect his ratings to fall to even below 30% because the ” Fall  From Grace” will be almost as big as the “Rise to Power” story. One is the flip side of the other. The media love to destroy what they feel they created. Its not malice, its ratings. If you play that game to win, you get played to lose.

But here is where the story gets interesting. Finally, we will get to see the real Obama. Does he cave in and take it all too personally,  start talking about malaise and about his  bitter disappointments? Or does he seize the opportunity and reveal a  character of deeper and more enduring courage.

The story isn’t over by a long shot, but it has come to its pivot point.  The President has time to realize that people are willing to give him two more years- and that the defeat his party is expecting on November 2nd is his call to arms, not to become timid and defensive.  We remember the old saying, its not how big the dog is in the fight, but how big the fight is in the dog.

Obama knows the story he needs to be in come November 2012 if he wants to stay in the job. And its not the character he is presenting now.  Have some courage, Mr. President. The nation voted for change and change is what they crave-if you can’t change us forward, then people will naturally want to change back. But as the poet Rilke said so eloquently, “Staying still is nowhere.”

Jun 18 How to turn bad news into not so bad news

I remember my sister coming home from exams and telling all the family that she had failed dismally. When the results came out, she passed, of course, and we were all so relieved. She was exhilarated and I remember asking her, “Why did you tell us you failed?” and she said, “I wanted to be surprised.”

It’s a funny mental game we play with ourselves, and sometimes, it makes sense. We watch our house burn down, and we say,”At least we are still alive.”:We cheer ourselves up by imagining the very worst and then, console ourselves when it ain’t so bad.  But when the media and the government are doing it, however, we had better beware.

The unemployment figures came out a few weeks back. We hit double digits, but “not as bad as expected,” we were reassured.  How bad is 10% ? The worst in 20 years!!!Then, this week, more figures and the headline is “The latest figures are not as bad as first thought.” That was the first line.

It works. We feel better already. But then, when you think about it, you see the con. Titianic sinks but only 1523 lives lost, not 2200. Or, 9-11 kills 3000 but could have taken 50,000. Swine flu pandemic only kills 12.  HItler only wants the Sudetenland, not Poland and the rest. Whew!!! What a let off! We are going to be OK!!!

Are you feeling better? The danger is we are kidding ourselves. Hiding the bad news in the threat of worse news is a con man’s delight.  Its a narrative technique of creating optimistic catastrophes.  Make us feel better by saving us from feeling worse.

The ability to look reality hard in the face and not blink is the way most leaders lead us out of the morass.  Lincoln doesn’t tell us that 650,000 deaths is a small price to pay for ending slavery. Churchill doesn’t suggest that seeing London destroyed is good medicine.

When your doctor tells you he has good news and better news, and that the good news is you have cancer and the better news is that you don’t have lukemia, you know you are with a spin doctor. The medicine the economy needs most is some reality therapy. Tell us the truth. Don’t fudge it-That’s what got us into this mess. But then, it could have been a lot worse. An asteroid could have hit us and the martians could have invaded.

Oct18 A departed friend returns to the sea he loved

He once owned a boat called “Nautilus” and lets just say that it was not the most seaworthy craft, and he was not the most seaworthy sailor.

But if you ever wanted Bob Slowey to dive deep into his rich treasury of stories, you only had to ask him about that boat, how it leaked, almost sank, how he  polished its teak railings with a toothbrush, and how  his earliest close to death experiences happened below deck while his boys Chris and Bob Jnr were batting down the hatches up top, to survive the hurricane.

How appropriate then, On Sunday last, on a balmy afternoon on Chesapeake Bay, that Joan and the family  took Bob’s ashes after they had been cast in concrete to be placed in the deep as part of the artificial reef made from the remains of  Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium.

As the concrete was lowered, Grandson Liam cried out, “Goodbye Granpa.” Liam regretted not tying a quarter to it, because when he was four years old, Granpa dazzled him with the magic of the disappearing quarter. Daughter Mary Jo told the story of thinking as a kid that her Dad was a spy, because every phone call from work, he would sign off to wife  Joan, “1, 2, 3.” Mary Jo only discovered later that it was their secret code for “I love you.” As she looked out at the roses the family had cast on the sea, she  whispered ” 1,2,3, Dad.”

These and so many other stories were told and retold as the boat took us out to the Bay.  The  experience, meant to be the closing act of a great life, was also the opening act of a whole new set of memories for  us, and assuredly for his grand-kids.  And maybe  it was the promise of new practices of how we do funerals in this  energy and environment-conscious world.

Funerals are traditionally about black clothes and coffins and days of mourning and condolence-honoring the real sense of loss.  But Bob’s  family and friends did not mourn that way-The funeral mass was held in a Delaware Bar-and the liturgy transitioned from sacrament to saloon even before the final prayers. Death’s sadness was not ignored, but it was taken to be a part of  how life inevitably  unfolds.  Why imitate death in a ritual of silence and sadness when we the living are still responsible for being life givers and  life preservers.  Nature does not waste death-so why should we? Life is always the bigger story.

Just as we all drank to Bob at his funeral, we commended his remains back into the circle of life, knowing that even now, the whole marine ecosystem is renting out space for fish and crabs and all diversity of sea life. And Mary Jo even  gave us the co-ordinates, N 39 12.430′ W 076 18 400′.  It made us jealous because Bob gets a head start on the rest of us at the Second Coming. Jesus won’t need the GPS.

Bob’s funeral was as unique and memorable as his long life.  He always told Joan he wanted to be where he could see the three bridges of the Bay, and that is where we placed him, to await the parousia. And in doing that, with the sun gleaming on the waters, we all felt on this glorious day, that perhaps there was a fourth bridge too, and we were on it- Bob had passed over, but we were surely waving our goodbyes from the other end.  He was not gone, as the old preachers used to say, but simply gone on ahead.

What has happened to Obama’s narrative intelligence?

I was an avid follower of the 2008 elections because I was writing a book on the campaigns, using them as a case study in narrative critical method. If the contest was really a battle of stories, how could one elucidate the process and predict the result without reference to polls or focus groups? Maybe it was not so hard, but we predicted that as a story, Obama had to win. and even if he lost, he was the bigger story. He was the narrative heavy weight.In my final chapter, I predicted that the glow of the Inauguration would last about a day. and I was not far wrong. The Republicans have convinced themselves that the best defense is attack and the President, taking the advice of his Chief of Staff, is impelled into action,not to waste this economic crisis.We have huge stimulus bills to save the banks; we have energy bills to save the planet; we have plans to save the health care system, and we have a new deal in education. Any one of the above could be a lofty and honorable goal, but all four at once! It defies narrative logic.Imagine writing a drama and having all the action in Act One. If you walk on water in Act One, what do you do for an encore, and more to the point, if your first Act bombs, what can you do to salvage it. You have gambled too big too early, before the cards are even shuffled. The adrenalin rush that new power brings is addictive but sometimes, one needs to go take a cold shower and patiently build energy through anticipation to ensure your most dramatic moves create the most drama. An administration needs to evolve and unfold like a great tale being told. You don’t rush the beginning. You build it up slowly, patiently, giving us time to imagine-what might happen next? “Once upon a time….” The most powerful weapon a President has is his power to command the nation’s attention and he can only sustain that by the way he lays out the story.The Presidential Plot-my book- predicted that a young, fresh, Prince would steal the kingdom back from the cruel old King. That is how Disney and most traditional folk tales tell the story. But our young Prince needs to be wary of believing his own publicity, and committing that juiciest of sins in ancient drama, hubris. Oh what would tragedy be without good ole hubris. How the Greeks loved it. Just when you think you have conquered all, your own pride trips you up and you overreach. We as audience want to yell at the hero, “Don’t do it.Don’t do it” because we know that we have all done it.When you have won so overwhelmingly and you have an approval rating off the charts, you could be forgiven for thinking this is all so easy. The world is my oyster, I can rebuild the kingdom and refurnish the palace at the same time, as well as drain the moat and repel the barbarians at the gate, and then, after lunch, I will slay the dragon and shoot a few hoops and cook a three course meal, and then, hold a G-20 summit after supper. And why waste a crisis? Let’s reform everything at once.A story, as Obama the Candidate knew so well, has a beginning, a middle and an end. The ending he wants and needs most as President is Economic Recovery and he needs that no later than June 2012. Otherwise, he will not get a second term. So he has time, and the priority of the nation now is RECOVERY. Nothing else. That’s the story we are locked in.That is the story in which he as hero must play the unambiguous lead.The nation has had a heart attack. We need shock treatment to get back on our feet. That is what everyone I know is obsessing about. They are not talking about the finer points of health care or charter schools, or wind and solar power. President Obama feels empowered but impatient-there is so much to be done, but his inexperience has trapped him into an urgency that threatens to dilute his focus. What makes political sense to him and his team does not make much sense to the nation. We only have the attention span to follow one BIG story at a time. FDR wanted us to defeat Hitler. Everything else was secondary to that and today, in a worried and confused nation, we need the ONE BIG story to unify the nation’s efforts.Obama needs to get back to his ONE BIG story-economic recovery. That’s what his bully pulpit should be bullying us about, how he will lead the nation back. Only when that is securely underway should he introduce Act Two-REFORM, which is an even BIGGER story. Give us enough time and give that story enough space and we will get that too. Reform surely deserves its own full season of debate but don’t schedule it before February 2009.When the patient is almost dead, you restart the heart. You don’t decide to throw in a face lift, a kidney transplant and a brain makeover. Why use up all the narrative fuel you need to keep your government dramatically compelling by spending it all at once and losing the impact that any one of these reforms could create on its own. The nation is not paying attention because the President’s solution sounds as messy and confusing as the problem.Obama and his team are standing on their own best stories. He knew how to manage it in the campaign, but the object was clear. He wanted to win. Now, there are too many storylines, and people are not paying attention to anything but the economy. President Obama has had barely 8 weeks in the Oval Office but I fear he is being sucked into too much too soon, and into over promising what he cannot possibly be sure he can deliver. Why risk your credibility so soon?So here is a memo to the narrative genius behind the President, David Axelrod. You took four years to prepare the Obama candidacy and get it focused and your Candidate was an amazing example of ONE disciplined storyline. He got it. Now that you have won power, the same lesson applies. What is the one BIG story you want the nation to absorb and act out of? We can only handle one BIG story at a time. Recovery AND reform is too much, and it is inherently contradictory. What you do to revive a patient is not what you do to get him back to fitness.President Obama doesn’t have to keep making giant gestures. Just getting elected was enough inspiration to last us 6 months, and then a concerted effort at recovery. That makes sense. That’s a story that works. That will take at least 12-18 months. Recovery first, then reform. But if the overcrowded storyline of four BIG stories all at once doesn’t work, then nothing else will work and the President will have blown all his dramatic capital in one stunning opening act. It’s a tragedian’s dream. Like Rush Limbaugh, the Greeks wish failure on all their heroes because it is what makes a compelling story. But it should not be Obama’s story. We did not elect him for tragedy. Right now, the Obama team are perilously close to becoming narratively unintelligible. They won, but now they’re losing us and we can’t follow this presidential plot.

Mar 12 The stories we tell about tragedy

Belfast City Hall

36 murders get reported in one night’s news this week. 36 life stories have ended. But what other stories get attached to them? We heard news of 15 killings at a school in Germany, followed by another 14 dead  in the Southern USA. Then  add the daily casualty count from Iraq and Afghanistan as listed on the nightly NewsHour-4  soldiers killed-and then comes reports of mass protests on the streets of Belfast and Derry over the deaths of  three people, two British soldiers and one PSNI policeman. Thirty six deaths from around the world in one bulletin. But the differences in the stories they tell are dramatic.

If the appropriate reaction was to be gauged by sheer weight of numbers, then  there should be thousands on the streets of Berlin and Washington protesting the senseless deaths of innocent students and family members because someone with a grudge got a gun.  Grudges are easy to obtain, but they become lethal when those who nurture them get an armory as easy as walking into a MacDonalds for a burger.

Yet Berlin is quiet and Washington is silent. The mass protests happen only  where the death toll is the least, Northern Ireland, because these deaths  threaten to resurrect that old story of bloody conflict, a story that Northern Ireland has decided most determinedly belongs to the past. Those who want to re-ignite the secular hatreds are yesterday’s men.  The public rise up as one to condemn the criminal acts and console the families who have to relive the story that no longer makes any sense, if it ever did.

‘Senseless killing’ is a term broadly applied, and it describes all these headlines of murder and mayhem, but the isolated acts of lone madmen in Germany or the USA do not tap into any larger narrative. They are in the service of one small, isolated story of enmity and insanity. The deaths will transmit a chain of family stories that will echo down the generations, telling of loss and despair, but ultimately they belong to the human story, that sometimes, people lose it and when any society makes guns as accessible as toys, tragedy is almost inevitable. We don’t let kids play with guns. Why do we let psychopaths?

But in Northern Ireland, the murders threaten to add a new chapter to a viral story of unparalleled viciousness, blood feuds, tribal enmities that have been put away at last for the sake of the future. Like a bush fire in the heat of an Australian summer, these old tales are more easily ignited than extinguished.

Northern Ireland, I believe, needs to brand these acts as criminal and deranged and deny them any status as political acts of resistance. They belong to the same story of human insanity that the murders in Germany and the USA reflect. They do not belong to any larger story, they do not have any larger significance unless we decide to interpret them that way. And if their perpetrators insist  that they killed in order to free, as the Continuity IRA will claim, we need to treat them as insane too, people locked inside a story of their own deranged anger.

The story that we weave around trauma dictates how we will act in response. If 9-11 had been storied as the brazen act of crazy zealots like the  NY attacks of 1993 or the Oklahoma City bombings, then we would not have fueled the big story that the terrorists wanted us to tell of them. They were virulently anti-USA, and we took them at their word and embarked on a war that looked to the Muslim world as Anti-Islam. We got sucked into the exact same story that these sick terrorists acted out of. We gave them significance, a larger meaning, made them heroes of Islamic fundamentalism rather than exposing them as fools captive to unholy delusions. President Bush elevated them to martyrdom status in asking “Why do they hate us.?” but that is not a question you ask a paranoid. Paranoids are out to get everyone. Don’t take it personally.

The most dangerous kind of attention we can pay to these crazies is to treat their stories as sensible. The deaths in Germany and the USA were senseless, tragic and random, and they do not deserve any more sense than that. So too in Belfast, these acts were committed to revive that old story, but that story makes no sense anymore, and so their acts do not even deserve the status of terrorism. These people are mad, crazy, criminally insane. That does not make the pain any less, but it makes our response more powerful in totally disqualifying the story that gave these criminals their inner sense of justification. To tell them that their act was meaningless is the ultimate rejection. These were senseless killings and that kind of random insanity should pose no greater threat to a civil and sane society than a horrible air crash or a hurricane.  It happens,  and we deal with it.

Humans cannot live long or act effectively without meaning. To even for a minute attach significance where there is none is to feed the very story that sparked the killings. It is not the story the killers tell that matters. What matters is the story we tell about them.


May 15 Stop torturing morality

What is torture? When if ever is it legal? Does it ever work?

What has got me intrigued in listening to these Senate hearings this week on fundamental moral issues is how they appear to converse  without having to display any hint of understanding first principles.

Not that they have to agree with these principles- no. But at least their competence as leaders demands they know what they are talking about, particularly if they are advocating radical changes as to how we traditionally determine right from wrong. For instance, if water boarding got some captured Japanese Generals executed in the wake of World War Two, what has changed to make it legal for us? Not I presume because we are not Japanese, or that we didn’t lose a war.

Why no mention of the time tested idea of “the end never justifies the means” which is a core ethical teaching, one with a thousand years of commentary to justify why it is such a core principle. If they want to reverse it, fine-but at least do the hard thinking as to why. Engage in solid  moral reasoning and not sound so political and mercenary. Even argue as former VP Cheney does on the basis of pure pragmatics. It worked, so shut up!  But then, outline why in this case pragmatism serves as one’s moral compass, and if so, show how a society might function on pure pragmatics, where what works determines what’s right. Then intention or motive don’t matter-which if we accepted, we would have to rewrite the entire common law but hey, this is America-results rule. I attempted to murder X but failed so, if there was no consequence, there is no guilt, no crime. Does that work? If it works its fine. It it doesn’t, its a crime.

In law school, you used to learn on day one that extreme cases make for bad law, and again, you can disagree, but at least acknowledge you are reversing the hallowed tradition. Show at least you know  the maxim exists and why it is taught, rather than resort to this tiresome ticking time bomb argument which is trotted out by these supposed great minds.  I would ask my 17 year olds in a high school civics class to demolish this trite example of how to hype the hypothetical. Exceptions normally prove the need for the law rather than overthrow it.  In national emergencies, you suspend the law, but you don’t get the Office of Legal Counsel  to make what is illegal legal. You have the courage to say, ‘Guys, this is normally illegal but urgency demands it. OK? “Lincoln did it. It was eventually declared unconstitutional, but Lincoln knew that and the country understood they were in crisis.

The lack of competency in moral reasoning of some of our elected and formerly elected officials, or their seeming intellectual disdain for this deep field of expertise is alarming. One would think to listen to them that  our torture dilemma is totally new, but the Romans and Greeks and the Turks and  the British all had to deal with it. Britain tortured the Irish and provoked an uprising. The Church tortured heretics and is still making up for it. The glorious history of Torture has yet to be written, though a certain Vice President might be inspired to write it.

These paper thin arguments that parade as moral reasoning collapse when exposed to any critical review. They will eventually be exposed as being not right or wrong but just plain dumb, or even worse, to be parroting the  same arguments that Stalin and Hitler used, to save the Proleteriat from the greedy Kulaks, or the Germans from some mythical Jewish conspiracy. We have been here before but you’d never think so to hear these latter day Plato’s postulating in their own caves on Capital Hill.

When elected officials and members of the administration have to make the hard moral choices, often between two evils, or even between two conflicting goods, they are obligated to make a reasonable case, to follow some traceable path that it recognizable as moral reasoning, knowing that they will have to give an account that stands up to the scrutiny of history. Moral discourse unfortunately cannot be easily disguised in political rhetoric, because we know when someone is stacking the odds, or bluffing.  The reason why we know is that we all make moral decisions. We all know how hard it is at times, so our leaders need to honor us as thinking citizens, and appeal to our brains, not our fears. Torture may be right and torture may be wrong, but to torture the well established field of moral reasoning with such a lame conceptual grasp of the basics is to invent a new form of moral hazard. The jury might in the end find the Office of Legal Counsel to be not right or wrong, but even worse, to be just plain dumb. Whatever about water tortures, these guys seem out of their depth.