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Of “Nostalgic Spasms”

May 21, 2014 Leave a comment

In Taming Lust, a brief study of the prosecution of bestiality in early America, Doron S. Ben-Atar uses the phrase “nostalgic spasm” to refer to a sudden shift in social norms that looks back in light of changes. Such “spasms” come in times of social change, he suggests, and demonstrates with his book how in moments of social change an older generation can grasp its power in a last-ditch attempt to stop oncoming change. It is a process we see repeated throughout history: moments of social shift occurring but only after actions of incredible bigotry and cruelty. With each change in social perspective an old view is tossed away.

Critical to these shifts are the individuals involved in making new ideas reality. Too often we look only at the actors involved with the winning side. History is, they say, written by the victors and such limited consideration is evidence of its truth. Who creates the change? Both the actors whose new ideas become enacted and the losers whose old, out-dated ideas are discarded.

In changing our social norms we look away from old ideas. In transitioning to new ideas we discard old views and shift power from those who held these views to those with new ideas. Abstraction may lead us to only view these changes from the perspective of the idea: the women’s right to vote became enacted or civil rights were extended to African-Americans. Changes, yes, but abstract ideas that only become reality when people work (and often die) to make them reality. Human beings move ideas from abstract ideas to actual policy.

Often people claim an “evolution” of thought with new ideas. The right for same-sex couples to marry is a contemporary issue where people often cite an “evolution of perspective” in explaining their delay in drawing conclusions. President Obama is one individual who has cited such evolutions. Herein is the older generation gradually coming to terms with new ideas. For some this evolution is difficult, but for others its simply too much. For those whose perspectives cannot accommodate a change in norms the “nostalgic spasm” might seem critical. Rapid action to block a social change often occur in areas where values are deeply embedded in the community. Severe punishments for crimes typically treated less severely or the creation of new, more strict rules and punishments reveal the spasm in action. Moral panic might explain their actions, but in their works we see both reaction and change. Though their fight to keep things the same hurts many, time cannot control the change. Unfortunately our greatest social changes come with painful baggage. Before we have great change we have the panic of the powerful whose last grasp for power provides them with the ability to instill a brief, painful period of suffering. Such actions are dual symbols: the older power fading and the dawning of the new ideas to come.

 

 

Learning Leaders Learning

November 25, 2013 Leave a comment

At its very least, effective leadership is a clarity of communication. Great leaders simply express their ideas clearly. It’s a matter of presenting distinct possibilities when they exist. Rare are the situations that possess such distinct choices; though, and it is also the role of the leader to both perceive and take advantage of them. Take, for example, the statement often linked to Benjamin Franklin: “Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.” Whether he actually said this or was capable of such poor use of grammatical parallelism is debatable, but my issue here is this application of distinct choice. Though the situation was complicated, Franklin curated the moment to possess these two choices. “It’s either privacy or security, people. So which one do you want?”

One such moment now arrives in contemporary society. Recent revelations of privacy violations by government agencies has led many to question whether “too much” spying is taking place. What was once thought (and claimed) as an action focused on terrorists and criminals has now been revealed to include trusted allies, celebrities and even the Pope. John Q. Public’s records have also been revealed as material worth saving, but with this collection further excuses regarding the anonymity of supposed metadata work to quash some concerns.

Would you rather trade your personal security for your right to privacy? Are you more comfortable facing the possibility of a terrorist attack than having the data of your private life collected and saved? Ultimately this is the question of our time. As shocking as it may seem, some people would rather have their data kept private and take the risk of being killed in a terrorist attack. We’ve reached this point in a post 9/11 world where our initial actions were inspired in part by our emotional reaction to the attacks. We’re older now, more removed from the initial shock, and capable of re-assessing just how much protection we want.

A great leader will recognize this critical question and pose it to the public. Though posed, we’ll also need extensive time to consider a response. Great leadership plays a role here as well: facilitating communication and creating a community of thinkers will be essential in reaching a response. Perhaps our sense of “great leadership” has changed in our contemporary society. Has technology altered what we need from leaders? Tech has certainly changed our day-to-day existence so why might its effects also extend to those we choose to lead? Perhaps our future is one where our leadership is less a figurehead and more a conduit of thinking. Maybe leadership is less the “out in front” and more the “learning side by side”.

Self-Referential Reverie

August 13, 2013 Leave a comment

In this New York Times article, Edward Snowden refers to himself using the word “spy”. Such self-reference comes after others have worked to label him with their own loaded terms. These terms run the gamut of hero to villain: sometimes “Whistle blower” sometimes “traitor”, the actions of Snowden inspire a very mixed public reaction.

President Obama referred to Snowden with a reference to his age, remarking that he wouldn’t respond to a “twenty-nine year old hacker.” Whether Snowden’s age has anything to do with his actions (is he symbolic of some generational perspective on patriotism?) remains unclear. What we do know is that Snowden sees himself as a spy and in referring to himself we gain a sense of what it is he hopes to accomplish.

What can we make of this term “spy”? The article also includes comments from Snowden demeaning popular American media in the aftermath of the attacks of 9/11 and casts himself as public advocate. Based on his comments, he seems to feel he is the “white hat” spy in this game of cat and mouse. He seems to view himself as the hero in this escapade and the general public his victims to be saved. Oddly this remains a fantasy of Snowden- while nervous from what his “leaks” have revealed, the general public has responded with a very mixed reaction. Some see him as a hero while others see him as traitor and while we cannot know what will come from what he has revealed, we can learn a great deal from how he refers to himself and what it is he feels he’s doing in doing what he’s done.

Commonly Exceptional: Today’s Political Conundrum

August 7, 2012 Leave a comment

The public expects its leaders to be both exceptional leaders and “average Joe’s” cut from the common cloth of society. We expect big ideas, but normal ways-of-life. Hobbies should be typical, boring and non-threatening, but deep within that noggin must burrow solutions to our most complicated of problems. Are politicians held to an impossible mode of evaluation? If we expect our leaders to solve the problems of our society and pave a golden road forward are they capable of coming from a common background? Do great leaders come from uncommon backgrounds and, if so, how do we explain their status as leaders? Must great individuals come from backgrounds that propel him/her to greatness? One wonders whether its possible for great leaders to come from common backgrounds. After all, if great leaders can come from the common cloth why are we not leaders? One might sense a lack of personal value and a stinging ding to one’s pride if the leaders can come from our common cloth.

Leaders choose their roles as leaders. Individuals who pursue positions of power do so with a foundational belief that his or her skills warrant power. “I am born to lead” may never be spoken, but deep within a leader’s mindset this perceived status is at the core of his or her sense of self. Beyond this personal belief, individuals who eventually reach positions where just the potential of leadership roles is possible only achieve consideration after accomplishment. No one simply grants leadership to random people: value is perceived and opportunities are provided.

As a means to plan where we head as a society, we have much to consider when deciding what template of leadership we desire. Do we want an individual with a common background whose life experience and ideas connect closely to our own? Or, do we want someone abnormal in experience and (perhaps) ideas. Innovative solutions come from brains that are not common and many of the problems challenging society require innovative ideas. We may need these innovative ideas to solve these problems. Yet again great danger hides in innovation and a figure unlike the common cloth may prove a hazard. It is a difficult decision to make, but when considering what type of leader we both want and need we must consider the mold from which these figures stem. Do we want the Apple known by all or something rather random.

Visions and Positions: Executive Power in 2012

June 28, 2012 Leave a comment

Regardless of one’s opinion of the Affordable Care Act otherwise known as “Obamacare,” 2012 has been the year of “Presidential Vision.” Policy in the United States is less about democratic consensus and more about democratic response: the power figure sets policy while the others react, the President works to establish his sense of an ideal society and the rest react and reverse. Politics in America function on the basis of reaction: planning is a private matter and occurs as a means of response to the actions of another.

We still exist in a democracy, but the format by which we work to consensus is very inefficient. Instead of a dialogue in which we plan where we want to go, we move back and forth as actions and reactions work to find consensus. This seems like progress: things are done but static rules the day. When reality is never really set, when policy is always in limbo there is no way to understand where things really are.

Presidential Power is critical to this state. Sense of “Presidential Legacy” evaluations of Presidents as individual actors creates a system where Presidents utilize power. Democracy suffers when individuals assert their opinions. While the system of democracy works towards consensus, powerful figures possess and are allowed to use this granted power, but true leadership is about hearing all involved. A system that creates celebrities out of Presidents creates a system of inefficient democracy as Presidents disregard the sense of others in order to create policy to establish legacy.

In 2012 we witness Barack Obama’s work to establish legacy. Secret activities and phililosophical based legislation is less about what’s best for all and more about crafting the identity of Barack Obama as President. No matter what one feels about the ACA, we exist in a time when the individual President acts in ways that are separate from the rest of society.

In order to remedy our system of inefficient democracy, or, at the very least improve it, we should move away from viewing the President in terms of celebrity. The President is a single actor in our democratic system. Yes, it is to follow and entertaining to focus on one figure, but our government is far more complex. We need to recognize our system’s complexity, work towards a more cohesive system and encourage those who both highlight and work to improve these dynamics. The United States of America uses a complicated machine for its system of government. While more entertaining to view just the headlights, a better system sees the machine more broadly and works to improve all parts and pieces. In the end we’ll only have a better car and more efficient vehicle for the road ahead.

Tipping Hats to Evolving Thoughts

January 8, 2012 Leave a comment

The accusation of “flip-flopping” has become common fare for politicians and pundits. These contradictions with previous statements are framed as cracks in confidence or a gaming of the public wherein popular notions are adopted and cast off as popularity wavers. At what point did changing one’s mind become a fault? How does an evolution in thinking suggest poor leadership or an inability to lead? Is not an ideal leader one who continues to expand his or her perspective as material is presented? The greatest hazard to American leadership is an expectation that a leader’s perspective be locked in and unchanging.

“Flip-flopping” may not have been invented by the media, but its continued presence in political debate is certainly connected with media’s use of it. Accusing a politician of being a “flip-flopper” provides pundits with a humorous opportunity to consult the treasure trove of video archive. Today’s media environment is one of endless archival footage. One person’s every comment and appearance is not only archived and readily available, but also indexed for easy access and utilization. Today’s political candidate must bear witness to a collection of flubs and statements.

Expecting an individual to have unwavering opinions is dangerous. One’s flip-flop demonstrates an evolution in thinking and is a testament to learning. We are best served by an expectation that opinions will expand in complexity as more information is gathered and digested. The best leader is one who responds to the crisis in the moment. Existing “in the now” is all that we can ask of our leaders. Be aware and develop as material comes in. Be wary of old opinions and always be open to new ideas. These are not unreasonable expectations; instead they are reasonable measures of the human being and complicated tasks of leaderships.

Perils of Communication Vacuums: The Need to Explain

September 21, 2011 Leave a comment

In an age of interconnected communication, nothing is more important than clarity of communication. Failure to deliver a concise message that everyone can understand is asking for disaster. One is better left to silence if he or she cannot accurately convey one’s inner notions. No matter how complicated, the expression of ideas depends solely on the clarity of their delivery.

With this at play, a speaker’s ability to communicate clearly is the single point of evaluation for a leader. If he or she can’t make sense its a lost cause. If one wants to lead one must communicate effectively. Forms of failure come in varied forms: lack of clarity, poor examples or simply muddled explanation give way to the ultimate cause of failed communication: reinterpretation by another.

Chief victim to these other voices is President Obama. His failure to deliver clarified messages has become his defining characteristic and tasked with a cadre of critical moments, his presidency (and the country) has suffered significantly from these failed communications. His continual failure to explain has created communication vacuums easily filled by anyone with an audience. At play are not only his political enemies but also his allies, his pundits and the electorate whose own notions and conceptions of reality carve new sense out of Obama’s hunk of muddled text.

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