When the World Comes Unglued

I last posted a blog on Memorial Day and promptly went on summer hiatus to enjoy some family time and catch up on other work related activities. That Memorial Day post recalled all the significant struggles and conflicts my parents’ generation survived. Indeed, during their lifetimes, the world was not a peaceful or easy place with World War II, the atomic age, the cold war, racial violence, assassinations of presidents and community leaders, and two economic disasters that bookended their lives.

We again live in turbulent times. For many people and in many countries, the recession of 2008 continues. The middle east is engulfed in a war that has so many sides and angles Pythagoras himself would not be able to describe it. And the cruelty and evil displayed is difficult to comprehend.  Terrorism has moved from an organized, centralized activity to one that is franchised out to individuals who are randomly radicalized across the world. No place seems safe…the ISIS bogeyman is everywhere.

At home, racism, police brutality, retaliations, gun violence, nationalistic paranoia, and religious bigotry are now regular parts of the daily news. America is on the verge of a Presidential election where “neither” could win the race, and the EU is Brexiting at the seams.

While I reject the grim and lawless picture painted by Donald Trump during his Republican Convention speech, we cannot deny that we face some important challenges.  As I watch what we consider a “more civilized world” crumble around us, I ask myself what we learned in the last century from the “greatest generation” and how it can define our response to the current challenges we face.

Some Fights Need to be Fought

I wonder what it was like to wake up to the news that the Nazi’s had invaded Poland or pushed the French and British armies literally into the English Channel at Dunkirk? How did Franklin Roosevelt feel when he heard the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor? History tells us there is evil in the world and there are times when we have to respond with the force required to put it down. ISIS and its minions and supplicants are evil, and we cannot shy away from the fight.

Clearly, we are not doing enough – not enough military engagement, not enough intelligence gathering, and not enough civil protection. While this is not a typical, conventional war, we need to stop acting like we can nibble away at the problem. The Pentagon plus the CIA, NSA, and FBI have to do a better job – and if they need more powers to do it, we should make the sacrifices necessary to enable that. One way or another, we will have to fight – better to do it on our own terms.

Intolerance, Ignorance and Fear

Are we proud as a nation that we incarcerated thousands of Japanese Americans when war broke out with Japan? The logic was that anyone of Japanese descent could be a spy or sympathizer so they needed to be locked up. Does that sound familiar? Have we forgotten the Ku Klux Klan and the bigotry that gripped our nation for a hundred years after the war to end slavery? When national leaders call for the demonization of an entire religious and cultural group and individual police officers continually abuse their power, we’ve sacrificed our basic principles at the temple of intolerance.

The challenge of being American is having the courage to fight when necessary – but to also have the strength of character to respect the basic rights of citizens.

If we are to be a great nation, we must be able to protect ourselves from “enemies foreign and domestic” AND maintain civil liberties at the same time. We have to support our police and ensure that they protect all of us equally.  Anything less is just ignorance and fear – two attributes that have never led to good outcomes.

Money Is the Root of All Evil (and Good)

The Nazis came to power with the promise of rescuing a nation whose economy had been crippled by the treaty that ended World War I and the global depression of the 1930s. Wars, violence, and unrest begin for all kinds of reasons, but in most cases, money (or lack of it) plays a central role.

Racial and cultural issues are real in both the US and Europe today, but the deep-seated anger revolves around poverty, lack of community resources, and a belief that the system is rigged against certain groups. Disenfranchisement, especially through poverty, is lethal to a functioning democracy. If we don’t change the inequities that are separating Americans – in education, health care, wages, housing, justice – we have little hope of uniting around the common causes that are real threats to our future. Fortunately, the reverse is true – a rising, equitable economic tide can heal many fractures – so we must take concrete steps to make money and opportunity a positive force in our country.

The Nationalist Mirage

Try to imagine listening to an Adolph Hitler speech in the 1930s and feeling the pride of “Aryan’s” determined to “Make Germany Great Again.” Of course I’m translating and paraphrasing, but history is repeating itself. The easiest and oldest parlor trick in the book of influence is to find someone else to blame for people’s problems, put a label on them (Jew, Muslim, Hispanic, Immigrant, White), and challenge everyone’s patriotism.

Inciting nationalistic fervor may have been useful in the building of nation-states in the 17th and 18th century, but the world is just too small a place for that now. You can’t build a wall (or raise a tariff or deport entire classes of people) and expect things to get better because you’ve made them more “pure”. Instead you end up closing your world to the benefits of new ideas, cheaper products, and inspired human resources.

It is true that the movement of goods, services, and people around the world hurts some and benefits others. But it is also demonstrably true that it improves the collective good dramatically. So, we must deal with the economic displacement it can create (see Money and Evil) but that is no reason to starve a country from the collective benefits. And it is certainly no justification for branding specific groups as the cause of our problems.

Inspiration Anyone?

Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Dwight Eisenhower, George Marshall, Harry Truman, the list goes on. A group of exceptional leaders (complete with human flaws) who re-built the world, literally and figuratively in the shadow of nuclear destruction. At the heart of our problems today is a lack of leadership. None of the existing leaders in Washington, DC have much credibility when it comes to providing concrete, constructive direction for the country. Despite his oratorical skills, President Obama is a clear lame duck who has tip toed around the edges of all of these topics offering platitudes and condemnations but no results.

Leaders in Congress are worse – their primary accomplishment in the last eight years has been creating a gridlock that has crushed efforts to produce anything productive.

Donald Trump generates an emotional response from people – but rarely in constructive ways. And Hillary Clinton has not offered any innovative ideas nor is she capable of exciting followers. Neither is trusted by large segments of Americans.

When the world is coming unglued, when each new piece of news seems to knock us down in the dirt, we have two options. We can panic, point the finger at others, and become reactionaries that try to turn back the clock. Or we can pick ourselves up from the ground, dust off our pants, and get to work. We can fight evil and still respect individual rights. We can promote economic advancement while creating equal opportunity. We can have a strong government that provides direction while still protecting individual freedoms. We can find and support the leaders we need to rebuild. To do all of this, we must stop acting like a reality TV audience, forget blind and extreme party orthodoxy, and support serious people committed to serving for the right reasons.

In spite of all of these issues, I believe in our country and am hopeful for our future.  I have great faith in our ability to innovate, our tenacity to find answers, and our capacity for forgiveness and reconciliation.  For me, perseverance and grit are the key attributes and attitudes that can change the course of our country. There is no room for whining, blaming, or wishing it were not so. Instead we have to do what must be done:

  1. Fight the right war – and do it decisively 
  2. Protect the rights of ALL Americans
  3. Fix the economics
  4. Stay engaged with the world
  5. Lead with ideas not blame

We can be strong and good. That is the American way – at least the way I was taught by the example of my parents and their peers. They certainly were a greater generation.