What Have We Learned Since 9-11?
by John Renesch
Nature shows us that dissonance is a means of restoring stability to natural systems. The caterpillar’s residue gives rise to the butterfly. Natural forest fires clear the way for life of many varieties to regenerate. Systems seek stability and they may create what we humans call conflict or chaos in order to do so.
If you look at the past year’s headlining events like the corporate scandals, terrorists attacks or the Middle East crisis through the lenses of a “systems thinker” you might see beyond the politics, religious fanaticism, greed, and perverse nationalism; you might see these events from a wider perspective – an “eagle’s view.”
Terrorism is certainly dissonance – whether the acts of suicidal religious extremists, legally constructed armies, or Wall Street financial manipulators.
Looking at the American brand of capitalism from an eagle’s point of view, one might see a global system attempting to make adjustments which it sees as necessary for its own survival. Any system will try to make “corrections” when its stability is being undermined. These adjustments will tend to get more and more severe, until stability or the system’s sense of harmony begins to return.
What clearer signal might have been given that the American version of consumption-based capitalism needs to change than to have the very “heart” of the world’s economic system – the World Trade Center – totally destroyed?
If a person has a heart attack, it is a pretty clear sign that they should change their lifestyle. The “heart attack” on global capitalism was quite severe. For years the system has been giving us signs that something needs to change but those seemingly “in charge” – particularly we Americans and other industrialized folks who think like we do – have ignored these signals and remained oblivious to these systemic attempts to self-correct. With total arrogance, these signals have been dismissed as aberrations in an otherwise “okay” system. And most of us who don’t “seem” to be in charge go along with this dismissive attitude, condoning it by our silence.
Most Americans look at the events of 9-11 from the personal or national levels, rationalizing that the terrorists were motivated by perverse religious beliefs and fanaticism, coupled with economic suppression that is so rampant in the third world that people take it for granted. On the level of all humanity, however, it was a wake up call for us to change our ways.
The corporate scandals we are now facing aren’t being carried out by Islamic extremists but are nonetheless another form of terrorism. Innocent “civilians” were the victims here too. Initially, pundits were referring to the news as “capitalism gone amuck” and other characterizations that are chillingly accurate assessments. To be sure, the conflicts in the Middle East, the corporate scandals, and the War on Terrorism are all intertwined. But the pundits won’t allow themselves to see the accuracy of their initial comments, for that would be traitorous or disloyal to “the system” that we all empower. So now we talk about “a few bad apples” – be they radical Islamics or unscrupulous executives.
It is easy for us Americans to ignore the impact we are having in the world. We rarely hear much about it from our corporate-owned media and very few of us take the time to see ourselves as other countries do. Some of us may have been shocked to learn that we are resented by so many other cultures who’ve been victimized and exploited by the “American Way.” But that naïveté was popped on September 11 as millions of Americans started to realize that we weren’t as well-liked as we may have thought.
Face it. The American Way is hated by the rest of the world, although many countries are more diplomatic about expressing themselves than others. There is little awareness here at home that the American Way has become a curse for much of the world which is seeing cultures ruined, traditions abandoned, people exploited, environments scavenged and local values ignored. As my colleague at Stanford Business School, Professor Emeritus Michael Ray says, “The American Dream has become the world’s worst nightmare.” And what’s our response to those who are critical of our bullying tactics? “Screw ’em” is the essential response. No wonder we are hated!
As a middle-aged man, I can still recall when the women’s movement pointed out male chauvinism. At first, I refused to give the idea any credibility. Why? Because it was “just the way things were,” I reasoned. Gradually, however, I started to see my complicity in the suppression of women and realized how it felt to be a male chauvinist, despite my not wanting to be labeled as such.
Now, I have similar feelings. But it isn’t about my “maleness.” It’s about my “American-ness.” American chauvinism is being confronted right now. Our swagger and arrogance is out of control. People in other parts of the world, even Americans living abroad, have seen this coming for years.
The system has tried to correct from both the outside and the inside, from foreign shores and from the boardrooms of Corporate America. The system is smarter than we are right now. It will continue to “whack us ‘up side’ the head” until we either get it and start changing or we destroy everything and everyone, including ourselves, in the process.
The most positive change we Americans can make is to stop thinking so chauvinistically – as chief exporters of the American Way and as the best damn consumers in the world. As U.S. Senator John McCain wrote recently, “We are an unfinished nation.” We still have lots to learn, despite our great strengths and achievements. We are a very young country, barely pubescent compared to most other cultures. But like the talented teenager who has yet to taste defeat, our adolescent arrogance can be our biggest blind spot and our ultimate undoing – our Achilles Heel.
As a species, we have much farther to go in our evolution. We are hardly a “fully-evolved” humanity. But will we be around to enjoy our transcendence or end up a mere notation on God’s log for “Spaceship Earth” as an experiment that failed to live up to its potential?
We need to think not only as Americans who are proud of our country and the incredible strides we have made in creating one of the first and most powerful democracies in history but as responsible global citizens. Responsibility goes with power and responsibility for the whole goes with responsible leadership.
Whether or not we are aware of it, we all give legitimacy to this system that is “running amuck.” If we do nothing to withdraw our endorsement of the status quo, we continue to empower it. Complaining about the system that we have had a hand in creating is like crying over the pain caused by keeping your fingers pinched in the door jam. We are the cause; we are the ones giving power to this system that appears to have control over us. Instead of pretending that someone else is in charge of things, let’s own up to the fact that we who are in control of this system. The only ones who can change it are the ones feeding it power. And that’s you and me.
The most important thing we all can do is to change our minds, which doesn’t happen by “doing” things or rushing into automatic reactions. American chauvinism has been ingrained in our thinking and that is where the change needs to take place.
One way for us to initiate our own course corrections is to start talking with one another. Americans would learn much by engaging in dialogue with other peoples in the world. We could learn what it is like to live outside of the U.S. and see some of the more shadowy sides of the American Way. We can talk with people who value different things than we do – people who do not subscribe to consumerism, eroticized music videos, Christianity, violent movies and television. We can listen to them as if their point-of-view matters. We can pick people to engage in dialogue who are different – VERY different from us – and really listen to them.
We can demand that our media provide a balanced point-of-view in reporting the news, or subscribe to non U.S.-controlled periodicals. We can look around the world for models that we might learn from.
The ridiculously protracted conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians is a microcosmic projection of how we Americans are dealing with people who don’t like us. The system is giving us a great mirror for how NOT to reconcile differences, and we can learn from it. Why can’t we learn from South Africa, which invoked their truth and reconciliation project so the previously warring factions could get on with living together in harmony through forgiveness and honoring their shared humanity? Are Americans too arrogant to learn lessons from other nations?
Public indifference, cynicism, resignation and apathy are the real villains here. They allow the U.S. arrogance to perpetuate. They are the enemy of achieving a sane and sustainable world that our grandkids can enjoy. This reminds me of the “parable of the boiled frog” – where people slowly and gradually become accustomed to the ever-growing insanity, adapting to it by raising their thresholds of tolerance. This is how many people cope with things they don’t like or don’t want to know about. They numb themselves out through various means so they can endure what’s going on. These passive responses to the craziness are what allow it to continue escalating. Having chosen to anesthetize themselves, huge numbers of people have taken themselves out of the equation (the new “silent majority”).
This is a time for true soul-searching. As we look into our souls, we get to see the interconnectedness that resides in the depths of our humanity. The collective human soul is incredibly fragmented right now and those of us who see this huge disconnect are the ones who can bring about integration, reconciliation and reunion. If we don’t make some really big changes……well, you get the idea.
John Renesch is a San Francisco-based business futurist, author and social commentator. His latest book is Getting to the Better Future: A Matter of Conscious Choosing.