Current Issue - See Below Archived Issues - Click Here PDF Version
The Global Systems Review Issue 21 January 2011
The Global Systems Review is a periodic e-newsletter that explores critical world issues through the lens of whole systems thinking.
In this Issue:
Shooting in Arizona: The Bigger Picture – How political rhetoric feeds our collective consciousness
Systems Change at the State Department – Reflections on the recent QDDR
Shooting in Arizona: The Bigger Picture
By Louise Diamond
Talk about synchronicity. When I heard about the assassination attempt on Rep. Giffords, I was deeply immersed in a book called The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson. This riveting book describes how from 1915 to 1970 millions of African-Americans fled the brutality of Jim Crow laws and customs in the South for freedom and a chance for a better life in northern and western cities.
Unfortunately, when they arrived they found a perhaps less legal but no less virulent wall of bigotry, hatred, and repression. Though they left behind the lynch mob and the Klan, they encountered hatred and severe restrictions in housing, jobs, and education that ultimately produced the conditions of inner city ghettos – entrenched poverty, crime, drugs, and unemployment – that haunt us still.
What’s the connection between this chapter in American life and the shooting in Arizona? I suggest that the shooting, and the ensuing debate over to what extent the violent language and imagery in our political rhetoric, and/or the laxness of gun control laws may have contributed to it, can and must be seen in the context of a bigger picture.
That bigger picture contains three deeply interwoven elements of American culture or our collective consciousness: violence, bigotry, and an ‘us-against-them’ mentality – all of which are starkly exposed in (but not confined to) the Great Migration and the history of race relations in this country as well as in the events surrounding the Arizona shooting. Let’s look at each of these:
- A culture of violence permeates our society. We see this in our popular culture (video games, music, movies, television); our love affair with guns; the horrors of slavery; the genocide of Native Americans; the 20 wars or military actions we’ve fought since the Declaration of Independence; and our supersized military-industrial complex. The violent imagery in our current political discourse is simply another expression of this thread in American life.
- A culture of bigotry permeates our society. We see this in our historical prejudice against and mistreatment of African-Americans, Native Americans, Poles, Jews, Italians, Catholics, Chinese, Mexican, women, gays, illegal immigrants, and those deemed ‘other’ by our dominant sub-culture of white men. The hatred of liberals or those considered ‘not real Americans’ touted by the extreme right-wing media is a modern-day expression of this element in American life.
- A culture of ‘us against them’ permeates our society. We see this in our judicial system, our political system, our sports, our view of America’s dominant and competitive place in the world, our red/blue fragmentation, and our polarized media. The pitting of ‘the good guys’ against ‘the bad guys’ is a central and continuous theme in American life.
This third piece, the ‘us against them’ mentality, actually promotes the other two, because when you believe life is a zero-sum battle between different groups, you:
- De-humanize the ‘other;’
- Claim superiority over the ‘other;’
- Seek power over the ‘other;’
- Feel justified in harming the ‘other;’
Thus engendering hatred, ignorance, and aggression.
These dynamics, highly visible in our current political landscape, are of course not limited to the United States. They can be found most expressly in places of violent conflict, and also anywhere that oppressive ‘isms’ hold sway. Yet our unique American version of them seems to be accelerating, and therein lies the importance of the shooting of Rep. Giffords and the innocent bystanders around her.
When political leaders or media commentators – mostly on the far right wing of our political divide – use military or violent language or imagery in reference to their political opponents, it’s not that they ‘caused’ Jared Lee Loughner to pull the trigger. It’s that they validated and strengthened the culture of violence, bigotry, and ‘us against them’ thinking that permeates our airwaves, our lives, and our field of consciousness, and it is in that context that unstable people like Loughner, easily able to procure weapons, can see a clear path to destroying their perceived enemy.
Now here’s the rub. We’re living at a unique and rough edge of American evolution. President Obama’s campaign slogan was ‘We’re all in this together.’ His approach to both domestic and global affairs since taking office has been aligned with this belief, which itself is aligned with the realities of an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world and requires collaboration, partnership, and respectful dialogue. This is a radical shift in the defining paradigm in our society – it directly contradicts our embracing of the bigotry and violence that arise from an ‘us against them’ way of viewing the world.
The thing is, human beings don’t seem to like change very much. We resist it – especially changes that threaten all we hold dear in terms of both values and material well-being. President Obama represents that change – and on top of that he’s Black – the ultimate ‘other.’ No wonder the political landscape has become ever angrier, mean-spirited, and divisive. No wonder the Loughner’s of the world – and those who break windows, make threats, or write blogs that vilify the ‘other’ – feel justified in going after politicians they associate with Obama’s initiatives.
This is the bigger picture within which we must view the events in Arizona. And this is the bigger picture within which we must hold accountable the political leaders, the media figures, and the cultural icons who rouse up the people and give them permission to act out the tendency toward intolerance and violence against those ‘not like us.’
To claim that Jared Loughner was a lone nutcase, separate from these societal dynamics is either ignorant or disingenuous or both. Loughner was acting out the voice in the system that sustains our culture of violence, bigotry, and adversarial bitterness. And there will inevitably be more Loughners doing the same or worse unless those with the loudest voices recognize how they are contributing to the escalation of these three streams in our national life and decide to stop agitating and start healing.
That Gabrielle Gifford, Christina Greene, Judge John Roll, Dorothy Murray, Dorwin Stoddard, Phyllis Sheck, Gabriel Zimmerman, and the other 13 wounded in the Tucson attack had to pay the price for this to come to our attention is profoundly sad – for them, for their families, and for all of us.
Let us pray that this moment is sufficient to wake us up to our collective addiction to and collusion with violence, bigotry, and ‘us against them’ thinking in all their manifestations and choose a different path. In some perversely sad way, that would make the Arizona massacre a stepping stone to renewing and re-defining America’s true greatness.
On Monday January 17 we celebrate Rev. Martin Luther King and his courageous leadership for justice and equality in the face of one of the most violent, bigoted, and divisive institutions of modern times. Let us also remember the millions who sought ‘the warmth of other suns’ in their flight from oppression. Let them be a reminder to us that the journey to the Beloved Community writ large, the ideals of America made manifest, though well begun, is not over, and that the next steps are unfolding before each of us – leaders and citizens alike. Which path we choose will define our lives and those of our children and neighbors for generations.
Systems Change at the State Department
By Louise Diamond
In mid-December the State Department released its first Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR): Leading through Civilian Power, detailing the results of its extensive systems change initiative. After more than a year of consultations and working groups among staff, field personnel around the world, and outside stakeholders, the review lays out a strategic roadmap toward strengthening diplomacy and development, ‘elevating civilian power alongside military strength as equal pillars of US foreign policy.’
Here are seven things I especially like about the QDDR:
- It is a good example of a systems change process led both from the top down and the bottom up;
- It is driven by the question, ‘How can we do better?’ – an expression of humility in an environment not especially known for such openness to learning;
- It understands the interconnected trends and challenges of our times and chooses to respond robustly to the opportunities they present;
- It is both visionary and practical, dealing with facts and figures but also with values and ideals; it is creative and bold – willing to push boundaries – yet at the same time realistic about how much change the system can tolerate;
- It institutionalizes dealing with conflict and crisis as part of the core mission of the Department;
- It integrates gender issues throughout, insisting on the role and voice of women in all Department activities;
- It breaks set and custom by requiring and rewarding collaborative leadership, managing across boundaries, and reaching out to people, not just governments.
Bureaucracies prefer stasis and abhor change. The institutions of government – national and international – were created in different times, and are not organized to deal with the world of today – a world of networks rather than hierarchies; of challenges that transcend nation-state boundaries; of rapidly changing conditions; of interwoven and complex failing systems. To take on and accomplish a change process to better align the capabilities of the State Department to operate in such a world is a brave and noteworthy endeavor.
While many (including myself) could find something to nitpick or take issue with in the QDDR, I personally congratulate Secretary Clinton and her team. They have guided a large-scale systems change process with solid and encouraging – and in some cases transformative – results.
On January 5, 2011, Anne-Marie Slaughter, the Director of Policy Planning at the State Department and a key leader of the QDDR process, spoke at Global Systems Initiatives on the QDDR through the lens of systems principles. A video of that session is available at www.globalsystemsinitiatives.net. The executive summary and full text of the QDDR can be seen at: http://www.state.gov/s/dmr/qddr/. I encourage all to read it and take heart – our State Department has opened fresh new pathways for the US to step both boldly and humbly into the world of the 21st century. And now comes the implementation…