living in the truth, Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

September 11 Anniversary & Challenges Facing the First “Post-9/11” Generation

Artists are known to like blank canvases. They don’t fear a blank sheet of paper. They summon creativity, courage, and insights in ways that they themselves often don’t understand. The best of them tend to be open to new ideas and influences from anywhere. Their most successful outputs tend to be surprising, breaking the mold. In my thoughts about 9/11 this morning, I realized that these challenging times call for the natural strengths, if not the natural predispositions (since many eschew “politics”), of artists. I indulged myself in thinking this through while enjoying my morning coffee today, on the 18th anniversary of 9/ll. I have a niece who turns 18 in a few weeks, and I’m thinking about what her generation faces. In many ways, though, the issues raised here are similar to those we considered in depth in an interdisciplinary seminar I co-taught in recent years on Climate Change and National and Global Security. The similarity is due to the fact that the issues are the same, only getting bigger and more challenging especially in the absence, or near-absence, of suitable public policy (the area of my professional education).

(08:05 am First cup of coffee musings…)  It’s the morning of September 11th, the 18th anniversary of “9/11,” and everything is far from normal in America and our world.  (True enough, it’s never been “normal’ but I refer to a pervasive unease about the dis-ordering of basic assumptions that have informed most of international relations since the end of World War II.) An entire global generation is reaching adulthood this year without ever having lived in a non- “post-9/11” world. Other countries around the world had their own “9-11” tragedies subsequent to ours–Madrid, Bali, Mumbai, etc.–but the point is that the world itself was transfigured by the aftershocks of 9-11. Perhaps 9/11 has become normalized to the point of not needing acknowledgement. But it’s not normal for me, so maybe readers not expecting this fare here will tolerate a diversion today.

Based on a quick review, there is no mention of 9/11 in The Washington Post today, a major national newspaper, only the usual unusual sub-header, to which we’ve become accustomed in these times: “Democracy Dies In Darkness.”  The front page focus is on the firing/resignation of John Bolton, the U.S. National Security Advisor, who is known as a war hawk and who “helped” the US get into war with Iraq–which had nothing to do with 9/11–as America’s military response to the terrorist attack. (Let’s not forget:  He still supports that action, which was based on false premises, also known as lies.)  Bolton is out reportedly due to many “policy” differences with the administration, only a few days–surely not coincidentally–after the President tweeted out that a secret meeting at Camp David between the administration and Taliban leaders from Afghanistan was cancelled.  The policy contradictions of this administration are a towering mountain range by now, with regular avalanches of all kinds of cognitive dissonance-causing boulders. But it’s year three, and the daily contradictions barely deserve a footnote. Indeed, it appears that they are a feature, not a bug, as the saying goes: mind-crushing absurdities can also be spirit-crushing.  An aside, however, is warranted and that is:   absurdities that are simultaneously ridiculous, deadly and deeply disturbing  are part of the genre of this type of rule (which is not really governance, at least not the type called for in the U.S. Constitution).

Today, the paper reports, the President’s focus is on raiding another population of helpless people, a tactic favored by shady landlords.  This time it’s homeless people. This doesn’t mean that the administration is done with terrorizing terminally ill children who are here in the U.S. on special visas so that they can receive the life-saving medical treatment they need.If you haven’t been paying attention to this story, it basically involves sick or dying children from other countries who are receiving critically necessary medical care in the U.S., some of them invited here by medical researchers due to their rare illnesses that need further study. The U.S. administration wants to send them home where they will die.  The latest twist is that the administration backed off when the story became public but is now requiring the children to apply for new visas entering the same prolonged process now well known to readers paying attention to what is happening along the southern U.S. border.

Eighteen years have passed since the horrific attacks of 9-11, the first time America was attacked by foreign adversaries, even if nonstate ones, on the soil of the continental United States.  Americans rallied together against a common if ill-defined and elusive enemy, and NATO invoked Article 5 for the first time ever, which directs NATO member countries to aid an allied NATO member under attack.  The point of the attacks seems to have been to target symbols of American power–Wall Street, the Pentagon and possibly the U.S. Capitol.   Most of us know what happened thereafter:  a massive counter-terrorism movement, and new wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have changed the geopolitics of the Middle East and South Asia and neighboring regions but not to anything noticeably better.  An entire national security industry was immediately directed to combat terrorism, and ballooned in size as if on steroids, which it was in the form of defense contracts.

In 18 years, a little-remarked upon impact has been the privatization of so much that was once considered the realm of government, or public sector, work.  This includes the job of making sense of what has happened, is happening, and may happen in the future. At least the terrorist attack on what were seen as the pillars of American society–the economy, the financial sector, and the defense sector–seemed to have failed, if judged by their size and wealth today.  But what other factors underlie American strength and prosperity?  This is the key unexamined question on this 18th anniversary of 9/11, and it must be asked in the context of a starkly altered environment both on a national level and a planetary level. And yet, these questions are barely asked today. Why aren’t they? Is it because there is no money in it?

In 2019, America is facing unprecedented challenges on all fronts which already are converging into that dreaded “perfect storm.” These are inexorable developments that will happen no matter what, so they can be said to be “beyond politics.” Into this wide category of “beyond politics” happening-no-matter-what are greater migrations of people, harsher climate crisis realities, and accelerating technological advances, to name a few. But, given today’s realities, is this what success looks like after so many people have died in battle in Iraq and Afghanistan? Are we more “secure?”

Almost two decades focused on counter-terrorism have left this country so weakened that most Americans are not even sure that a long-time foreign adversary – Russia (and perhaps others, even) – is not calling the shots in the White House.  Could it be that the singleminded resolve of our nation’s top security institutions to defend this country against a repeat of a 9/11–successful so far–left the United States dangerously exposed to and unprepared for equally deadly challenges?  What are those deadly challenges?  Who is even mapping them? The problems are bigger than anyone’s in-box, bigger than an institution’s capability to handle, even bigger than the United Nations…

In a way, the US Administration’s response this week to desperate Bahamians fleeing their island homes now laid waste by Hurricane Dorian encapsulates in a microcosm the United States’ complete lack of readiness for the world in which we already live.  People are migrating in larger numbers all over the world not because they really want to abandon their homes but because for many of them it’s not optional. It’s life or death.  The perils come in different guises, often overlapping and aggravated by wars and ethnic conflict.  These include ‘unnaturally’ enhanced ‘natural disasters,’ drought, terrorism, government brutality, malnutrition, gang violence, drug cartels, and extortion–but the result is the same:  when people’s lives are in danger, their children cannot be children and their very survival is at stake. Can a nation founded on the principles that “all men are created equal” with “men” now signifying humanity (men, women, and children) remain secure and turn its back on most of humanity? And what is a human without humanity?

A common refrain is that America is not responsible for the world; i.e., we are not the “world’s policeman” and should mind our own business, and thus (it’s implied) be more successful, without draining our resources and putting our soldiers’ lives at risk in others’ wars and calamities.  We are not responsible for failed or failing states, goes the argument. This is a long-standing American debate that needs to go on, with new public policy formulation democratically achieved as the goal.  Every day, and especially in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, we see the need for this.

(Second cup of coffee musings…)  With no warning earlier this week, the U.S. turned back a ferry carrying desperate people from the Bahamas, their children in their arms, who were seeking refuge from their destroyed island nation, where there is no shelter, food, water, or medical assistance.  The reason: they lacked a visa–a visa that had not before been required, until this very minute, for Bahamians with a passport and no criminal record.  Suddenly, people with only the shirts on their backs had to go to the Embassy to apply for a visa.  A father is shown on video, with a toddler in his arms, explaining that he must now go back to his devastated land where he cannot, obviously and through no fault of his own, take care of his children. (This current story has some obvious echoes with the more famous and tragic one of a German ship, the St. Louis, filled with German Jewish refugees refused asylum in 1939 at the port of Miami and forced to return to Europe where reportedly a quarter of them died in the Holocaust.)

There are threads running through the vignettes of post-9/11 America today that make a sufficiently awake (caffeinated, if necessary!) person wonder where we went wrong, and whether we can recover lost time, credibility, and foresight rapidly enough to regain our national footing in this radically altered world.  Young people turning 18 in 2019 represent the first fully post-9/11 generation who have known nothing else but a national security ‘industry’ focused on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan somehow tied to the counterterrorism battle.  What do they conclude when they consider their own opportunities in a county that is so divided at home that their compatriots cannot even agree on what is worth fighting for?

What values will America need to embody in a world transformed by tens of millions of people on the move, not out of choice but out of desperation?  How can we think bigger, better, and with more nations’ people–together–to come up with some appropriate policy responses to these new challenges?  If our undeniably bloated defense industries and overly bureaucratized academic systems do not help us to rapidly make these needed changes, what can we, Americans, do about this?  Why are defense industries making $750+ per day, per person held, incarcerating refugees and asylum seekers?  Is this the needed policy response and agreed upon by U.S. taxpayers who are footing the bill? Why are children in these detention centers? Why is the U.S. detaining people coming here for help and, according to numerous credible reports, treating them in a way no one would treat their dogs? Why can we not provide them with even a flu shot, sufficient diapers, or feminine hygiene products at a rate $750/day per detained person? Why are we incarcerating human beings who have asked for asylum?  Who gains and who loses? What is the point? This is what I am asking in the post-9/11 era but I am not an American post-9/11 teenager, and I wonder what they think.

(Sip of now tepidly warm coffee…)  Winston Churchill is thought to have said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”  He allegedly was referring to the conditions after World War II that were ripe for the formation of the United Nations.  What type of response(s) are necessary in the world today?  Is the first post 9/11 generation equipped to craft them?  Where is the epicenter of needed new thinking about how to deal with the “perfect storm” already here?  Won’t the future of our youth be affected very consequentially by our choices and even by the things we’re not paying attention to today? After all, the people now trying to flee the Bahamas were not refugees as recently as a week or so ago? Who among us can be sure today that he or she will not be a refugee in the future?

 Is it not actually a form of “security”–even if not debated and vetted by public opinion–to choose and prioritize what matters in these turbulent times? Whose needs would such a prioritization focus upon: the needs of the post-9/11 generation, for instance, or their children not yet born? Should not the public be very much more involved in choosing public policy responses to these issues? Do you as a citizen want to be left out of these consequential policy decisions even if they will put your children on a course that may be soul- and opportunity-shrinking? Who is questioning how our priorities are set, and will we do it in time, time that is so clearly running out?  How will we deal with inter-generational and international inequities that are becoming starker by the day, aggravated by the inevitable weather disasters made more dangerously intense by climate change?  What is “security” in a climate change-disrupted world and who should define it; those who are already incarcerating vulnerable people or people who are questioning that approach and its hidden threats to our nation’s viability and stature in the world?

These are the very questions we considered in an international graduate-level seminar I co-taught from 2014-2018, and all of us in class learned a lot. We were all students because, aside from basic facts such as we gain from science, there are no facts to teach about how we will surmount these challenges. It was an entrepreneurial approach to learning in a world that is no longer familiar. Education itself must change under these circumstances. It’s an exciting time for the intellectually curious and anyone who wants the best for his or her country and future generations including the first post-9/11 generation coming into adulthood this year.

In conclusion, it seems to me that we need to reach out not only for the best ways to ask new questions and think new thoughts, but also identify those who are doing needed work in this area. I’ll mention that yesterday I heard an inspiring talk given by Dr. Michael Crowe, President of Arizona State University, at a thought-provoking conference I attended on 21st century challenges involving “deep space” and “deep fakes.” Crowe’s focus on was rethinking education in our altered world and it was and is very much on point with the types of questions and concerns I am raising in this post. (If he shares his slides, I will attach them through a link to this post.) We need to emphasize what is going right and where this is being done and how, in order to get to new ways of thinking and dealing with the challenges of our world in time. For those who like challenges, and even big blank canvases without so much as an outline as a guide–like most artists around the world!–one message of this long post is the world needs you more than ever. Unfortunately the processes of the artistic mind (literally, beyond analysis) are not well woven into most academic training or, certainly, analytic (or sense-making) processes, so this is yet another frontier to explore in this exciting and consequential new era.

(09:30 a.m., Author’s note:  I am working on a book about the above issues but I’ll be back to sketches and watercolors very soon, including of some incredibly beautiful places–(hint: famous ports and beaches)  not covered previously on this blog! )

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Surprise, ucertainty, Uncategorized

Lessons Not Learned in a Pile of Books

There’s no art work in this blog post.  That’s partly because it’s that time of year for one last push to clear the house of extra things that might be useful for someone else–and thus could be donated to charity–and I inevitably get side-tracked in the process of sorting.  This year it’s a whole lot of books on my bookshelves dating back from, well, not so long ago that are distracting me.  One by one they fall into my hands, like this one called Superpower:  Three Choices for America’s Role in the World by Ian Bremmer (Penguin Random House, 2015), and I can’t help but take a look at the first page.  It reads:

“America will remain the world’s only superpower for the foreseeable future.”

Reading this in the context of the photos simultaneously coming in from the G-20 meeting this past weekend (December 1-2)  in Argentina made for some cognitive dissonance. I thought: when we did begin to see things differently?  Less than two years after the publication of this book, it seems to me.

Right next to it on the shelf was this book by the former Prime Minister of the UK, Gordon Brown, called Beyond the Crash:  Overcoming the First Crisis of Globalization (Free Press, Simon & Schuster, 2010).  Ignoring the cardboard boxes of boots and old frames precariously stacked beside me, I opened this one too.  Here again we have someone –a former British Prime Minister–reflecting on the tattered concept of “efficient markets” in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.  He writes:

And now in the first decade of the twenty-first century we have come to realize again that markets too can be shaped by vested interests, that economic players are not always rational, that markets are not self-correcting, that employment does not automatically recover, and that a wholly deregulated, passive model of capitalism and of absentee government cannot cope with extreme fluctuations and the shocks of the sort we saw in the banking crisis.”

This book could just as easily have been tossed into the box with raggedy old sweaters that have seen better days but instead, for some reason, it is the book out of the many on the shelf that I chose to consult more closely later that day on a train trip into town.  What were the lessons that Gordon Brown derived from the Financial Crisis and how do these lessons read in the light of today’s very different era?, I wondered.

Here was another one, for heaven’s sakes:  The Breaking of Nations:  Order and Chaos in the Twenty-First Century, by Robert Cooper (Atlantic Books, 2003).  Going down memory lane now, I decided to sit down and look at this one.  “To understand the present we must first understand the past,” Cooper writes in the first chapter.  Later he foreshadows trouble for the European Union, writing:

“It is striking that monetary integration has been achieved precisely by removing monetary policy from the hands of politicians and handing it over to the technocrats.  This may be no bad thing but, in the deeply democratic culture of Europe, the development of the European Union as a continuation of diplomacy by other means rather than the continuation of politics by other means may in the end exact a price.” He explains:  “International institutions need the loyalty of citizens just as state institutions do; and that can be achieved only by giving the citizen some more direct involvement in their management.”

And, finally, this one from 2014:

“Climate change has never received the crisis treatment from our leaders, despite the fact that it carries the risk of destroying lives on a vastly greater scale than collapsed banks or collapsed buildings.  The cuts to our greenhouse gas emissions that scientists tell us are necessary in order to greatly reduce the risk of catastrophe are treated as nothing more than gentle suggestions, actions that can be put off pretty much indefinitely.  Clearly, what gets declared a crisis is an expression of power and priorities as much as hard facts.  But we need not be spectators in all this:  politicians aren’t the only ones with the power to declare a crisis. Mass movements of regular people can declare one too.”  This excerpt is from This Changes Everything:  Capitalism vs The Climate by Naomi Klein (Simon & Schuster paperbacks, 2014).

Within the last few hours, my pile of charitable donations has been picked up outside my house, but I could not discard these and other books from the last decade or more.  It seems to me that there are some lessons we haven’t quite absorbed from the past that they cover, periods of crisis in the years since the end of the Cold War.  I’m thinking, as I put these books back on the shelf, that finding our way collectively to a better future might involve some real shifts–perhaps to more inclusive concepts of economic wellbeing or security (even “national” security!!).  At the very least, there might be some clues in this pile of books to how we got to now, which our social media-fueled Twitter-verse is usually poor at explaining.  (Without disrespecting the fine minds truly evident out on social media, there surely will be serious consequences if we do not tear ourselves away from Twitter now and then to dig deeper into questions regarding mankind’s current plight today.)

I am going through these books now with our present in mind.  It occurs to me that I cannot imagine a single book coming from the hand of any of our current US policymakers (at least at the cabinet-level) to explain and reflect on the policymaking being carried out in the name of the US since 2017.  It takes a policymaker or someone who cares about policy and its public impacts probably to even want to write a book.  So, therefore, I’ll look at what previous policymakers said, and thoughtful observers said at the time, and perhaps craft some lessons I hope will prove useful in guiding future policymakers –ones who care about the publics they’ve been elected to serve–at the end of this personal project of mine.  The results of my efforts may, meanwhile, be jotted down on a different blog (as this one has become more an art journal in recent years). If so, I’ll be sure to share the new blog’s name and address as soon as it is active.  I hope some of you will want to follow me over there, even as I continue to share impressions of my art journey here!  In the meantime, all the best for a wonderful Christmas and holiday season everywhere!

 

 

 

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living in truth, Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Uncertainty, Watercolor Painting

Goodbye 2017

blue hippo

Illustration: “Blue Hippo” in watercolor and gouache by Black Elephant Blog author (2017)

It’s been a hard year for many people. May the new year 2018 remind us of the potential we all represent to address our world’s serious problems and thereby contribute to helping future generations.  To do this, we’ll need to appreciate what each of us brings to the table–we need to appreciate our differences.  So I’ll end the year on this blog with some hippo watercolor studies I’ve been playing around with for a side project on appreciating our differences. Happy Hippo New Year!

Hippo 2

Illustration: “Mother Hippo”, watercolor and pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

 

Hippos on rock

Illustration: “Hippos sunning” in watercolor, gouache, and pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author (2017)

Hippo with baby

Illustration: “Mother and child” in watercolor and pen-and-ink by Black Elephant Blog author (2017)

 

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Innovation, Uncategorized, Uncertainty

Goodbye to a Tumultuous Year

boating-and-fishing

Illustration: Watercolor by Black Elephant Blog author (December 2016)

As 2016 winds down, it’s fitting in the quiet week before a New Year to consider the meaning of Black Elephants, Black Swans and the other metaphorical creatures of surprise, such as the boiling frog,  who opened up this blog two years ago this month.  There’s been a lot more attention given to them since then in other venues.  It’s surprising but true.  It’s equally surprising but true that the journey of many artists has, it seems to me, much to offer the rapidly changing world in which we find ourselves today–if we were to want to face up to these creatures of surprise.  This is because artists often try to see beyond the surface impressions to get at the truth of things–that’s what gives art its special meaning to many of us.

One could even say that we live in Black Elephant times if, by that, what we mean is what Thomas Friedman referred to in his op-ed of two years ago, called “Stampeding Black Elephants.”  In that article, he defined the metaphor “Black Elephant” as follows:

 “a cross between “a black swan” (an unlikely, unexpected event with enormous ramifications) and the “elephant in the room” (a problem that is visible to everyone, yet no one still wants to address it) even though we know that one day it will have vast, black-swan-like consequences.”

As I understand it, the phrase (which Friedman picked up from an environmentalist he’d recently met) “Black Elephants” refers to the concept of the uncomfortable, unthinkably unpalatable “elephant in the room” that we would rather not discuss or acknowledge, and therefore–too often–fail to address in time.  (This is also known as the “boiling frog syndrome,” or the “ostrich with its head in the sand,” or the “deer in the headlights” syndrome, etc.)

boiling frog image

Image: Watercolor, gouache, and ink by Black Elephant Blog author (2014)

This concept covers the increasingly (but extraordinarily dangerous) popular tendency to avoid what the accumulated history of knowledge and scientific progress tells us to be true. And so, perhaps it is another “Black Elephant” to observe that these “elephants” may be multiplying right now (paradoxically and quite sadly as their real-life versions dwindle in number due to poaching and encroachment on their natural habitat.)  Facing up to these “elephants” is something that calls for well-honed critical and creative thinking skills–whereby people of all backgrounds including, of course, artists–join forces in shedding new light and creating new possibilities for dealing with the challenges of today in a fact-based way.  This is in fact how mankind has conquered so many diseases that previously killed so many in childhood.  Understanding how innovative breakthroughs occur,and accelerating our society’s capacities for innovation in so many sectors, are right now key to survival on a collective level.

Fortunately there is more awareness of these challenges, as well as our own inherently human desire to ignore them–aided by the fact of more frequent “black elephant” and “black swan” events in the last two years alone.  It turns out this awareness extends well into the suites of CEOS around the world.  I refer in particular to a recent paper, Thinking the Unthinkable: A New Imperative for Leadership in a Digital Age, which I’ll turn to soon.  Last month I had an opportunity to hear the authors brief an audience on their research findings, and found their conclusions compelling enough to include in a revised syllabus for the coming semester of classes.  Interestingly, they too distinguish in their report between “Black Swans” and “Black Elephants”; the creatures of surprise are everywhere!

Black Elephants 1

Illustration: Watercolor, gouache, ink, pencil, gesso, and coffee grounds by Black Elephant Blog author (2014)

But for now with another spring-like day of temperatures in the 60s Fahrenheit, it’s time to be out enjoying the warm December weather, and re-charging our own personal energy reserves for what promises to be a challenging 2017!   Best wishes to all for a joyous New Year!

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Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Uncertainty, urban sketching

The Path Ahead

Unseasonably warm weather and bright light this weekend added to the joys of walking through the fall colors wherever we were.  People strolled in the streets everywhere including in this neighborhood of Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, where the scene (below) in the private garden attached to a historic mansion demanded to be painted.

old-town-alexandria

Illustration: Watercolor and gouache, “The Path Ahead,” on Fluid Cold Press 4″ x 6″ watercolor paper by the Black Elephant Blog author

At every turn in this colonial-era town not far from Washington, D.C., it was impossible to ignore the symbols of our rich history as a still great, if troubled, nation. And it was impossible to forget that this very week,  we will be facing a most consequential election .

And yet, when literally everything is on the ballot, the path ahead  couldn’t be more clear.  As one young voter wrote in an opinion piece today, this moment “can be a moment of all those who  hope for a better future, who believe in American leadership and who know that our best days are still ahead.”  Clearly, current and future generations here and abroad depend on us to engage constructively, and not cynically, with this moment, and thereafter to engage similarly with the process of governing.  There is no other path ahead.

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Uncategorized

Tragedy on the Promenade des Anglais

Tonight terror struck again in a favorite spot of locals, tourists, and artists alike–the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France.  May the families of those killed and injured find comfort somehow in the days ahead.  In memory of those who lost their lives, may we find the ways to (re)make a world in which our promenades, and our cities and towns, are again evocative instead of joyous and beautiful scenes, as artist Raoul Dufy, for instance, depicted…and welcoming and safe for all people to enjoy.

Promenade de Anglais by Raoul Dufy

Illustration: Painting by French painter, Raoul Dufy, “Promenade des Anglais.” (Source: http://www.raoul-dufy.com/pages/actu01.html)

 

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Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Uncertainty

Bridge Over Colored Water

Spring is finally here. This sketch made just yesterday in a bright and glorious sun is of a bridge with its destination obscured.

Bridge Over Colored Water

Illustration: Watercolor by Black Elephant Blog author

In other developments, experimenting now with Strathmore Aquarius II paper, converted into an accordian sketchbook, per instructions generously provided by urban sketcher Marc Taro Holmes on his blog, Citizen Sketcher; the sketchbook is for an upcoming trip out West later this week and will be featured here in the future.

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