Sunday, November 26, 2017

Failure in leadership learning - the Trump Team

One of the more significant perplexities to the dysfunction in U.S. politics today is how the people who have become the disruptors of the Trump Team got where they are. Knowing Trump’s proclivity to family and other forms of loyalty, it is no surprise that most of those close to Trump have demonstrated fierce dedication to spinning the President’s story and to denying various things that Trump has done in full view of the public. The question that has haunted me as an educator is, “How could so many presumably well educated people have so little conscience, ethical standard, or regard for the common good?”

Although many things contribute to who we are, including everything from family to various forms of socialization, educators often claim that their institutions are significant in shaping intellectual acuity, critical thinking, values, and leadership. The Trump Team, both former and continuing, attended a select few elite private universities that are commonly assumed to produce the highest caliber of employees or public servants:
    ·      Donald Trump – University of Pennsylvania
    ·      Donald Trump, Jr. – University of Pennsylvania
    ·      Ivanka Trump – University of Pennsylvania
    ·      Eric Trump – Georgetown University
    ·      Steve Bannon (now gone) – Harvard University
    ·      Anthony Scaramucci (now gone) – Harvard University
    ·      Jared Kushner – Harvard University
    ·      Steven Mnuchin – Yale University
    ·      Stephen Miller – Duke University
Two other spokespeople from whom we hear a lot (Kellyanne Conway and Sarah Huckabee Sanders) or previously served Trump (Sean Spicer) attended less prestigious private institutions. The institutions attended by the first nine of the Trump Team are commonly regarded as representing the gold standard of higher education yet one has to ponder how graduates of these institutions could do what they are now doing – supporting “fake news” claims, denying occurrences that the public has seen with their own eyes, and deconstructing the institutions of democracy on which we count to keep U.S. and other citizens of the world safe, healthy, sheltered/fed, and productive.

A defense of these elite institutions of learning could be that 100% quality control and desired impact can never be guaranteed. However, how could five elite institutions collectively graduate nine individuals who are so profoundly aligned with an agenda that undermines the common good? Granted, these great institutions are open to various political perspectives and they do not attempt to inculcate a specific ideology or belief system. However, in the particular case of the Trump Team, not only do we observe a specific niched political ideology, we see a team that regularly contradicts the espoused broad aims of higher education itself; they lack critical thinking, self-understanding, awareness and appreciation of the rights and needs of others, and they denigrate those who oppose or embrace alternative views.

Higher education in general, and especially the elite examples of Penn, Harvard, Yale, Duke, and Georgetown, has failed the Trump Team and the citizens of the U.S. What are we to do as citizens who count on these institutions and perhaps more importantly, what are we to do as educators to learn from these failures?

As a career higher education administrator and someone who sought to contribute to the private benefit and public good by teaching about and writing on leadership, I take the failure that we observe very personally. Scholars such as Jean Lipman-Blumen and Barbara Kellerman cautioned about bad leadership, Kellerman also warned of the failures of the leadership education industry, and Ronald Heifetz offered evidence that the restoration of trust in leadership is the most compelling challenge we face today. Building on their work and reflecting on what we could contribute to education that might make a difference now, four questions come to mind that higher education and leadership educators must explore:

  • How are students’ and graduates’ views of leadership and the privileges/responsibilities that it carries being influenced by the educational experiences we offer?
  • How could those enabled by privileged education be more deeply confronted and challenged in their learning experiences so that it would be impossible for them to deny truth and implement policies that harm others?
  • How could the cumulative and interconnected knowledge of academic disciplines be leveraged to resolve complex world problems that will improve the human condition?  
  • Have graduates acquired an understanding of their responsibility as critical followers/constituents and are they encouraged to see their own deeper potential in leadership?
There are certainly more questions that could be asked at this important nexus of our public lives but these would be a good place to start. We face in the Trump Team a very real and profound failure of higher education in general and elite education more specifically. It’s time that higher education renew the commitment to deliver on its claims to transform individuals and contribute to the betterment of society. These nine Trump Team examples are too prominent to ignore and they cannot be dismissed as unfortunate ‘slippage’ in the critical process of higher learning and leadership cultivation.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Loss and return

Two of the greatest challenges of human existence are loss and return. I hadn’t thought about these bookends to the human experience until I attended a recent piano recital of Raffi Besalyan and was introduced through his selections to the angst of loss and return. The recital combined pieces composed by Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and Babajanian, among others. I was so taken by the intimate performance that I purchased a CD entitled The Return as we were leaving the hall.

The Return includes only Rachmaninoff (Russian) and Babajanian’s (Armenian) compositions. The connection between the two composers and The Return is that both were pianists/composers who were exiled from their home countries. Rachmaninoff was a renowned performer and late Russian Romantic composer who left his native land in 1917 as the Bolskevik Revolution unfolded; he spent the rest of his life in Europe and the U.S. Babajanian left Armenia to study piano in Moscow in 1938 where he cultivated an affinity for the late Romantic sounds of the great 19th and early 20th century Russians; Babajanian’s style thus incorporates the plaintiff melodies that characterize eastern European and Middle Eastern music but in a Romantic spirit.

The Return is a beautiful album, superbly recorded and produced. The selections draw one to reflect on places lost and the desire to return. The work after which the CD is named is Rachmaninoff’s Prelude, Op. 32,No. 10, in “B Minor.” Although Rachmaninoff generally avoided explicit reference in his compositions to other art forms or programmatic ideas, Rachmaninoff confided to Benno Moiseiwitsch (a fellow pianist who often performed Rachmaninoff’s works) that the painting by Arnold Bocklin (1887) pictured here, was the inspiration for the Prelude. Both The Return CD and The Homecoming capture the angst of losing one’s country and knowing that one may never be able to return.

Babajanian’s “Melody” reflects the same loss and yearning that is heard in Rachmaninoff’s Prelude. One cannot help but hear the sadness of the Armenian Genocide of 1915-17 when 1.5 million Armenians were murdered and many more displaced. Many Armenians fled to Lebanon, a place of diaspora not only for Armenians but also for Palestinians, and now Syrians. Palestinian activist and legendary Oud musician, MarcelKhalife, captures the loss of all these groups who seem always to be in search of a new home. Khalife was a neighbor when I lived in Qatar and I saw him numerous times in concert; the outpouring of the displaced and the solidarity of those who supported their cause was always overwhelming.

Loss and yearning to return are part of human existence. National or cultural diaspora may be caused by religious or political persecution; at other times it is the result of desperation in providing for one’s family. The tide of diaspora has not retreated in the 21st century with Syrian and Rohingya refugees of Myanmar being the most visible at the moment. The tragedy is that those who seek asylum for whatever reason often face continued marginalization in their new surroundings. Dislocation isn’t the only origin of loss; it may also result from making life choices that are different than others in our families or communities. The point is that most human beings have experienced loss at least to some degree; this shared experience should encourage us to seek to understand other’s life experience and history before we form a judgment about who they/we are.

If you haven’t already, go back and take the links to the music in this post. It will take a few minutes but take the time now to experience this great music as it helps you get in touch with loss and return. Cultivate compassion for yourself and for others who endure far more than you/we do.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Jones - Beyond the Messy Truth

I’ve seen Van Jones on CNN many times so the announcement that he had published his thoughts about the political juggernaut in the U.S. immediately caught my attention. I read Beyond the Messy Truth (2017) in less than a week and commend it to anyone who wants to find hope in the challenging times in which we live.

Jones does not pretend to be anything other than what he is – a progressive Democrat who seeks to work toward equity, inclusion, and justice for all people. But he claims this space while also saying that both Democrats and Republicans are failing the public and that the only way toward a more sane society is to recognize that “common pain should lead to common purpose. And common purpose should lead to common projects and solutions” (Introduction). His critique of the Trump presidency is sharp and reflects deep concern about the ignorance, divisiveness, and exploitation that characterized Trump’s campaign style and now his approach to governance. Trump’s election should have been anticipated because the political elite failed for so many years, resulting in a backlash (or “whitelash” due to the nature of those who voted for him) against dysfunctional government that ignored the needs of many Americans who suffered from the dynamics of globalism, a changing economy, and the decline of old industry.

Two chapters of Beyond the Messy Truth are letters to Democrats and then Republicans. In each he critiques the failures of the party and proposes ways for party leaders to get back on track, maintaining their distinct approaches to governing but proposing ways that the party can connect more effectively with the numerous non-partisan citizens who only want effective policy, programs, and Constitution-based governance. One of the contested groups in the middle of the two parties is people of faith. Democrats are advised to recognize that those inspired by faith have been the backbone of many progressive initiatives, often willing to sacrifice personal gain to support the common good and welfare of others.  Republicans are advised that, while independence and personal responsibility are important to conservatives, demonizing those with concerns for the welfare of others in the name of freedom of religion and the right to bear arms is a serious violation of the very foundations of almost all forms of faith. The addiction of both liberals and progressives to bickering and blaming must end if the ideals of democracy on which the U.S.A. is based are to be fulfilled.

Jones not only offers critique to the two major parties, he offers a potentially unifying agenda based on common pain as the basis of common purpose and action. The cross-partisan issues Jones proposed are: fixing the justice system; ending the addiction crisis; and creating and educating for 21st century jobs, particularly those in high and clean technology. Each of these is described in detail, building a case that there is common ground and providing examples where liberal and conservative coalitions have had some success. Some of Jones’ most compelling text is in chapter five, “Prince, Newt, and the way forward.” This chapter gets to the core of how conservative/progressive coalitions can be built, using his own experiences as a compassionate progressive who cultivated many friends and respected colleagues with much more conservative views. Jones quotes former Speaker of the House Gingrich as saying “Your ‘ninety percent enemy’ can still be your ‘ten percent friend’ – on every point where you agree.”

The legacy of ugliness and abuse in the American experiment has left many deep and divisive scars. However, Jones advocates the idea of American exceptionalism where, “At our best, our mission is simple… close the gap between the ugliness of our founding reality and the beauty of our founding dream… we will never have a perfect union. But we can always have a more perfect union.”

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Kruglanski - The Psychology of Closed-Mindedness

Much of my reading over the last couple of years has been in search of understanding regarding the dysfunctional and destructive politics of the U.S. and the rise in white supremacy, homophobia, and other forms of prejudice and discrimination. Kruglanski’s The Psychology of Closed Mindedness (2004) helped me understand why and how people are, or become, closed-minded, an intellectual characteristic that his research indicates contributes to hardened conservatism.

Kruglanski starts with an assertion that to be closed-minded is necessary and actually desirable. If it were not for our ability to come to a conclusion on any number of issues, we would be in perpetual indecisive limbo. As an academic book with citations for numerous research studies of his own and others, Kruglanski described the phenomenon of closed-mindedness and proposed ways to relate to those with this inclination. Kruglanski explored closed-mindedness in groups as well. He proposed that closed-mindedness in groups results in greater cohesion that fosters shared social reality, resulting in comfort and support for those within the group while separating from others where there is less in common. Individual and group closed-mindedness contributes to an increase in prejudice, more communication problems, struggles in establishing empathy and achieving successful negotiation, and it can result in the persecution of other out-groups.

The foundation of The Psychology of Closed Mindedness is its “Typology of Epistimic Motivation” (p. 4), which follows:

Closure Approach/Avoidance


Need for a Nonspecific closure

Need to avoid a Nonspecific closure

Need for a Specific closure
Need to Avoid a Specific closure

The premise is that individuals vary in both their need to achieve a specific or a nonspecific outcome and they vary in regard to their desire for closure or avoidance of closure.  Starting in the upper left, striving for nonspecific closure is characteristic of those who seek the comfort of direction and clarity but who aren’t particular about what that direction will be. The lower left, need for specific closure, is characteristic of decisive people and is often associated with what others view as an influential or leader type. The upper right, avoiding nonspecific closure, reflects when we simply don’t have enough information to be comfortable taking any direction. The bottom right, avoiding specific closure, is when someone does not like a specific conclusion that appears before them and thus they seek to keep their deliberations open, seeking to identify other options or outcomes.

Kruglanski focused much of his analysis on the motivations of those who seek closure in nonspecific terms (the upper left box of the quadrant). People who seek closure in this way are susceptible to authoritarianism and they may blindly follow someone who gives them an answer, or a conclusion, to a question or problem that nags them. Why they follow may be based on insecurity about themselves, lack of life direction, and perceived denial of opportunity, all of which makes them vulnerable to manipulation by someone who labels another group (through prejudicial stereotypes) as the cause of problems for the individual and the group to which s/he is affiliated.

Closed-minded individuals tend to seize and freeze on a particular idea. The desire for closure, regardless of what it is, then crystallizes and hardens, reducing the possibility of considering new information related to the question at hand. Especially when a significant other influencer, whether individual or group, advocates a particular view, the closed minded person holds fast to an idea even when they may not know the rationale or ultimate objective behind it. Worse yet, the closed-minded person may discredit contrasting perspectives in order to avoid having to fit this competing information into the whole of their perception. While Kruglanski’s analysis preceded the current claims of ‘fake news,’ this is precisely what is happening – anything that competes with the view the closed-minded person holds is evaluated as irrelevant or ‘fake.’

There are several variables that further complicate the tendency toward closed-mindedness. These variables include; unwillingness to consider alternatives, adopting the first thing that comes to mind, and being guided by prejudice and stereotypes based on perceptions of past experiences. The combination of these is likely to result in the closed-minded person being less empathic toward those dissimilar to themselves and being less capable in communicating with them as well. Two specific circumstances, time pressure and the bias inherent in the identity one embraces, can result in quick and prejudicial decisions. The issue of bias in favor of one’s own identity is exacerbated by the fact that those with a high need for closure tend to prefer abstract descriptions/generalizations rather then delving more deeply into concrete, specific, and situational variables involved in forming an opinion. These and other variables result in quick and hardened perspectives that are often aligned with “right wing authoritarianism” (p. 41) that includes authoritarian submission, authoritarian aggression, and conventionalism.

Kruglanski’s research and theorization around the psychology of closed-mindedness is critical to our finding a way through our difficult political times, thus allowing humanity to move forward in ways that embrace connectedness across cultures and countries rather than erecting walls to separate us. As he says, “the frantic pace of modernism may have evoked in numerous individuals a heightened need for closure, fostering the embracement of clear-cut social realities (contained in ethnic or religious identities), the increased attraction to in-groups whose members share in the same realities, and a rejection of out-groups whose discrepant realities threaten one’s own sense of the world” (p. 127). In the face of this potentially divisive and conflicted world, promising options that are available to those who will lead are: to help individuals and groups find optimism, self-worth, and self-assurance in positive and connected ways; to encourage more concrete and person-grounded understanding; to avoid making important decisions under time pressure, excessive cognitive load, and fatigue; and to strive for rational discourse that consistently considers multiple perspectives in deliberation.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Zakaria - The Post-American World

Originally published in 2008 and then updated in the 2012 issue I read, Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World was prophetic in predicting the dynamics we now experience in the United States. An astute author and observant analyst of political and social trends, Zakaria described a world where America is not diminished in its prominence and importance but is simply joined by the rise of the rest.

Although some may fear the rise of the rest, there is much good news, including the fact that “the share of people living on a dollar a day or less plummeted from 40 percent in 1981 to 18 percent in 2004, and is estimated to fall to 12 percent by 2015” (p. 3). The improvement of conditions for people around the world is accompanied by a leveling or flattening that results in America no longer dominating all others in industrial, financial, educational, social, and cultural expertise. One of the greatest benefits of the improved conditions around the world is that war is much less prevalent and nations are now learning to negotiate and agree to conditions that are mutually beneficial rather than unilateral imposed. As Zakaria puts it, we are finding that “the best counterterrorism policy is resilience” (p. 17) and the improvement of living conditions for all.

A major problems faced by all countries is that even as cultures grow more globalized, formal political systems (i.e. nation-states) have become far less able to solve questions of sustainability, growth, and equity. When they are successful, they take pride in their accomplishments and this results in less interest in the West and the way it conducts itself. This move is a type of indifference that results in a post-American (versus anti-American) worldview.

One of the most important statements that Zakaria makes is that in the new world of many powers, influential nations will maintain their competitiveness through pushing education, technology and innovation. The American higher education sector is the most esteemed throughout the world and, despite the vulnerabilities of broad access it affords, is the unequivocal leader in quality and is likely to remain in this position. He also says that, “the path to power is through markets, not empires” (p. 120). Zakaria extended the British empire analogy as a warning to America. Once a great, dominating force, Great Britain had to accept its relative decline as countries like the U.S. rose. Because it did so gracefully, it maintained much of its influence in the world. However, Zakaria warns that, “Great powers are like divas: they enter and exit the international stage with great tumult” (p. 117). America’s great opportunity, and Zakaria would suggest hope, is that it can maintain its prominence while understanding its greatness among many rather than domination over all.

The greatest challenge Zakaria warns is that, while the American approaches to education, innovation, and creating public good is one of the most distinguished in human history, its political system fails miserably. He says, “The American political system has lost the ability for large-scale compromise, and it has lost the ability to accept some pain now for much gain later on” resulting in a ‘can do’ country now being “saddled with a ‘do-nothing’ political process” (p. 234). Zakaria’s book was written before Donald J. Trump was elected as U.S. President but what is depressingly clear is that the conflict and drag of our political system is now having a profoundly negative impact on America’s credibility and role around the world. In order to overcome this drag, Zakaria recommends that America learn to discipline itself by making better choices about where it will get involved, build broad rules instead of narrow interests, establish better relations with many countries instead of a narrow few, relate to the world in an organic way utilizing a variety of structures and strategies, think creatively and asymmetrically, and strive for legitimacy to substantiate its power.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Schulman - Waking the Spirit

Providing first-hand evidence for Dr. Oliver Sacks’  (one of the founders of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function) assertion that, “Nothing activates the brain so extensively as music,” Andrew Schulman tells his near-death story and how he was rescued by music. Waking the Spirit: A Musician’s Journey of Healing, Body, Mind and Soul (A. Schulman, 2016) provides both the personal story and the research behind how music has been used to assist in pain management, aid the healing process, create calm that lifts patient’s spirits, and reach patients so ill that no one expected to ever reach them again.

Music has been understood as a way to aid physicians and patients all the way back to early Egyptian, Babylonian, Indian, and Chinese cultures. When Schulman was declared “code blue,” his wife turned in desperation to music; the “lights were out” metaphorically when she realized that Andrew’s ipod was in the room with his favorite music ready for intervention. It was ultimately Bach’s Saint Mathew Passion that renewed Andrew’s consciousness and began the long process of recovery. This experience was so powerful that he began playing music for the critically ill as soon as he had recovered enough to play guitar again – in his words, “an act of collateral kindness” that would transform him and the many lives he would contribute to saving.

The early days of Schulman’s recovery presented challenges. He wasn’t sure if the impact of surgery and trauma left his brain functioning at levels to allow him to perform the intricate, artful music that he loved. The beauty of the brain and the way it functions is that the ability to perform music can come back when cognitive and motor areas reconnect. But the best music therapy is very personal. Experimentation with different styles and moods of music with patients revealed that music familiar to each was best and that, in general, soothing music is most effective in healing. More specifically, soothing music in a major key, with a steady medium tempo, sonorous harmony, and musical lines that play in and around each other are best.

One of the reasons that music is essential in patient care is that hearing is the last sense to go when we die. Thus, it is very important to realize that a critically ill patient may hear and comprehend even though there is no other evidence of life. As Schulman advises, “Always assume someone is home. And the power of music to get through to the patient can be the key that opens the door.” Particularly with music that has brought great pleasure to the patient, reflected in the chills experienced in beautiful passages, dopamine is released into the body naturally which has great power to awaken the spirit. Even with patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, music can get through because musical memories are stored in procedural memory, the same place routine and repetitive activities are stored. Even when memory of contemporary experiences are lost, the music stored in procedural memory can be accessed.

Dr. Richard Kogan, clinical professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical Center and artistic director of the Weill Cornell Music and Medicine Program, once lectured on the psychological state of famed composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff. He noted that after the failure of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 1, he fell into a deep and unproductive depression that, once broken through therapy, inspired one of the most moving and popular pieces of classical music ever composed – Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2. The point made by Kogan was that “artists who used their music to alleviate their own suffering composed some of the greatest music ever written, which in turn has the effect of ameliorating the suffering of others.”

The power of music in medical therapy is enough in itself but its effectiveness also sheds light on how musicians perform. Those who wish to minister to others must back away from their role as performers in order for patients (and all listeners) to experience music at their own emotional and cognitive level. Losing oneself in the music reduces the chance of a performer ‘losing it’ in performance. This losing oneself in the art overrides the distraction of an audience, unleashing a musician’s internal sensations and ability to deeply engage as an artist. Schulman also learned that the act of playing music for others was self-healing; it was a perfect rehab regimen of repetition, concentration, intensity, and focus on healing others.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Klink - The Deans' Bible

A dear Maryland friend, Marylu McEwen, sent me a book a number of months ago, Angie Klink’s The Deans’ Bible (2014). I started it once, got distracted, and then returned recently to finish it. I anticipated reading about the wonderful legacy of the five Deans of Women and eventually women Deans of Students at Purdue University from 1933 to the 1995. These women, whose names we should never let slip into obscurity – Dorothy Stratton, Helen Schleman, Beverley Stone, Barbara Cook, and Betty Nelson – were not only unique because of the legacy they shared as student affairs work grew at Purdue but they are also important for the courageous leadership they offered in so many other ways. These are women of conviction who sacrificed much in their struggle to provide equality of educational opportunity for women, students of color, and students with disabilities.

Klink’s combined professional biography of these five women is liberally spiced with entertaining anecdotes about their lives. The anecdotes track all the way from the years when Amelia Earhart was brought to live in Purdue’s women’s residence halls to offer role modeling for career women to the turbulent 1970s when Deans were expected to keep campuses under control and make sure that students didn’t get into trouble. The foundation that allowed the five Deans to excel in their work and serve students to the greatest degree possible was their shared commitment to compassion for their students and advocacy for their welfare. A symbol of the origin of that compassion was a Bible, owned by the first Dean of Women, Carolyn Schoemaker, signed by Dorothy Stratton when she passed the Bible to her successor, Helen Schleman, and on down the line. Each successive Dean signed the Bible and noted her favorite scripture as she passed it on to the colleague who would follow in her footsteps.

The early role of Dean of Women was filled on a part-time basis by Carolyn Shoemaker who would serve from 1913-1933. Carolyn pursued the role with a passion for making Purdue, a male-dominated and challenging institution, a place that would also welcome women and would support them as they increasingly sought careers in conjunction with or instead of family. An early admonition to women was to never be caught in life without a back-up plan, an insurance policy when male support was unavailable. The commitment to making Purdue a place that nurtured women as well as men came with a commitment to holistic education. This vision of holistic education emerged from early and deep philosophical inquiry and it was also heavily influenced by Dorothy Stratton and Bev Stone’s attendance at Teacher’s College of Columbia University’s student personnel program. Bev’s lifelong connection with Esther Lloyd-Jones, her major professor at Columbia, would be particularly influential in Bev’s thinking and work. In a note from Bev to Esther, she wrote, “I suspect you have no notion of the extent of your influence you have had form the time I had the first course with you in 1937… Many students I may have reached may not be aware that a part of you has influenced my reaching out to them.”

The Deans’ Bible is about a very special legacy of women advocating for other women. It is also about educators who were able to transform an institution in ways that made it fundamentally better for both women and men. I saw these five Deans once at the 1986 meeting of the National Association of Women’s Deans and Counselors. It was in Denver, close to my hometown of Boulder, Colorado, so I attended the convention and took my mother to see one of the sessions I thought she would most enjoy. It was the five Purdue Deans and it was the first time I ever saw Esther Lloyd-Jones who attended the session to see her dear friends and protégés.

David Brooks - Poisoning the World

A blog with the intent of pursuing leadership questions has no choice but to acknowledge and comment on David Brooks' recent op-ed piece, "Donald Trump Poisons the World," in the New York Times. There have been many difficult leadership issues raised throughout the last year of political life in the U.S. but Brooks raises one of the most fundamental - Are Donald Trump and his advisors purpose-driven or simply woefully unprepared intellectually and ethically for the challenges of the U.S. Presidency?

The proposition that Brooks poses is that it is the world view of Trump that is at the root of the problem. H.R. McMaster and Gary Kohn wrote in a Wall Street Journal piece that Trump had gone to the Middle East with a cleareyed view of the world, on that assumed the "world is not a 'global community' but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage." This view is familiar to many and is at the core of Paul Ryan and his type's philosophical favorite, Ayn Rand, the reactionary conservative out of Russia who wrote Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, and other books about Darwinian processes of survival of the fittest. I read these books as well as a 20-something, naive and self-centered enough to believe that cut-throat competition and denigration of one's enemies sounded reasonable as a way of every person becoming her/his best self. The thing of it is, I grew out of it and realized that the world isn't a playing field that is fair and that our moral striving for goodness includes being aware of, concerned about, and willing to sacrifice some of what I might want for the benefit of others. Trump, Ryan, and the people who are pushing forward in their conservative agenda appear not to have grown out of their captivating and self-centered youth and the rest of us are suffering for it.

The journey of humanity has always encountered bumps, detours, and sometimes chasms that appeared impossible to bridge. The period in which we now live is one of those times, likely not the worst of them when we think about McCarthyism, Nazism, or even the Golden Age of American industrialism. However, it's important that we pay attention and it is fortunate that there are many journalists who are warning us - pay attention and think about what is happening. We do not live in normal times and we do not have a normal President. We have a President who is willing to lie on a regular basis because of a philosophy he carries deep in his soul - he is trying to survive and his survival is directly related to making sure someone else is defeated.

The world David Brooks describes and I believe Donald Trump embraces is not the world in which I want to live. I hope this era is an awakening for many citizens around the world who can see the bottom line and are committed to work to defeat it.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017


Our recent trip to Luxembourg to participate in the Transatlantic Dialogue offered the opportunity to explore my life-long interest in music as well as to explore other European cities with which we’ve had little or no exposure. The atelier that I offered at the Transatlantic Dialogue was a stretch for me but ultimately reinforced the importance of music in my life and demonstrated that music is a very effective metaphor for learning about culture.

The inspiration for the Transatlantic Dialogue came from a Luxembourg colleague, Francois Carbon. Francois is an artist himself and works to enhance students’ experiences at the Univesite du Luxembourg through cultural activities. I attended the first Transatlantic Dialogue in 2008 and was honored to be invited to contribute an atelier (artistic experience where I would perform on piano) for the 2017 meeting. I have not played serious piano in public since college so even thinking about performing wrought significant anxiety. However, I worked on two pieces for many months (among other pieces I’m mastering) to demonstrate the similarity between discovering art and learning/mastering culture. To my great satisfaction, I didn’t freak out as a result of focusing on performing as simply being the conduit for great music. It worked, and worked so well that the participants gave me the most positive feedback I’ve ever had on a conference presentation. Who would have thought that, after all these years of speaking at conferences, playing piano and using the music to learn about culture would have such an impact? I thank Francois for his leadership and Judy Rogers (former Miami colleague) for twisting my arm to explore a different part of myself in such a supportive place. Someone asked at the conclusion of the atelier, “Well, did you like what you found?” I responded, “No question!”

After Luxembourg we rode a train to Basel, Switzerland, spending a day there before boarding a river cruise for 8 days on the Rhine River through France and Germany and ending in the lowlands of the Netherlands. Three weeks in central Europe renewed our passion for travel and allowed us to meet so many wonderful people and see many interesting places. My favorites were Strasbourg, France, Rudesheim, Germany, and Leiden, Netherlands. Each of these towns has a fascinating history shaped by dynamic cultures over time. Strasbourg has been traded back and forth between France and Germany several times in the last 100 years, resulting in a unique blend of both as well as the emergence of a unique Alsatian culture, cuisine, and perspective. Rudesheim lies at the mouth of the Rhine River gorge, an area lined with many old castles and fortresses; it is also a village that boasts German pride through an amazing sculpture standing atop its vineyards and defiantly confronting France across the river. Leiden, birthplace of Rembrandt and home to the church that the early American pilgrims left in order to seek religious and personal freedom, possessed all the cultural and artistic diversity of Amsterdam but with an understated charm.

Transatlantic Dialogue, the opportunity to perform music again, and exposure to diverse histories and cultures was profoundly renewing. Regardless of the challenges countries face today, I was reminded of the goodness of most human beings, the struggles faced in human striving, and the strength that comes from colliding cultures.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Hamid - Islamic Exceptionalism

Most of those who read about international affairs, politics, and economics are used to the idea of “exceptionalism.” The term is most often used in relation to the U.S.A. and generally asserts that the U.S.A. is unique (exceptional) in relation to its presence and destiny in the world. Kaplan’s Earning the Rockies (2017), which I recently reviewed, describes America’s emergence from WWII as an economic, political, and military giant. Kaplan makes the case that its prominence and preeminence for many years justify the idea of there being something that is exceptional about it.

Not until Shadi Hamid’s Islamic Exceptionalism (2016) had I seen an attempt to define Islam, Islamism, or any Islamic governmental state as exceptional in any way. His careful analysis of the conditions following the end of the Ottoman Empire, the geographic boundaries imposed after it, and the strife of the last 50+ years in the Middle East and North Africa make a strong case for Islam being unique in both religious and political perspective. Islamic “exceptionalism” is, in fact, defined as a fusion of religion and politics that stands in contrast to the generally accepted notion that governments must be secular in order to be modern and democratic.

Hamid’s analysis of the origins of exceptionalism include the following sequence of events and ideas:
  • 1924 – the end of the last Caliphate (Ottoman Empire)
  • Arbitrary partitioning of nation states by European governments
  • 1960s – rise of Abdul Nasser in Egypt and the heyday of Arab nationalism
  • Arab nationalism ultimately failed to create unity and economic benefit among Arab/Islamic-majority countries
  • The resulting gap between the previous prominence of Muslim people (and Islamic countries) and how they are now perceived brought humiliation, resentment, and anger
  • Islamic systems were disrupted (largely through the imposition of colonialism) and Muslims struggled to regain prominence
  • The Muslim Brotherhood (founded in 1928) became the most influential political Islamic movement as a reaction to the rise of secularism, colonization and authoritarianism
  • “Islam is the solution” became the rallying point for those who believed that drifting from Islam had created the downfall which Muslims endured
  • Reestablishing the Islamic Caliphate became preeminent, and potentially obligatory, for Muslims
  • 2011 and following – the Arab Spring failed to produce a legitimate, stable political order
  • The existence of evil (the oppression of Muslims) and the brutality of war perceived by Muslims as part of a cosmic struggle worth fighting and dying for
Islamist movements are composed of those who believe Islam and Islamic law are central to law and order. This fusion is derived from the fact that Islamic law is assumed to be integrated into a Muslim’s life; failure to live one’s beliefs represents unwillingness to submit to God, one of the five pillars of Islam (faith, prayer, charity, fasting, and pilgrimage to Mecca). Hamid asserts that Islam “may very well be the most ‘modern’ of the monotheistic religions…” because it includes “a number of ideas and precedents that lend themselves to modern notions of social justice, rule of law, and democratic politics.”

While many Westerners view the “Muslim Brotherhood” with trepidation, it is the mother of all Islamist movements and has primarily occupied a centrist ideology and a gradualist commitment to change. Following Nasser’s persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood and Anwar el-Sadat’s release of Brotherhood prisoners after Nasser’s death, numerous Egyptians who previously fled Egypt to go to Arab Gulf states returned wealthier and more conservative (having been influenced by Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi sect) and ready to take up the cause of political Islam anew. Regardless of the rising conservativism of the Wahhabis, the Brotherhood remained very centrist in its aims.  This perfectly positioned one of its members, Mohamed Morsi, to be elected as President of Egypt in 2012 after Mubarak’s ouster. Persecution of the Brotherhood returned when Al-Sissi took the Presidency in a military coup, placed Morsi behind bars, and sentenced 683 Brotherhood members to death in 2014. Interestingly enough, many of the Muslim Brotherhood members returned to the Gulf (specifically Qatar) at this new time of persecution. In many ways, Al-Sissi represents a return to the authoritarian days of Mubarak but avoids being seen this way through populist and popular appeal.

The reassertion of the Caliphate has emerged in the radicalized version of political Islam which we now call the Islamic state. The Islamic state is a threat to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates but some sub-groups within it have been supported by Turkey and Qatar. The Islamic state is by no means a unified movement but it seeks to draw Muslims through provision of many of the benefits that a government state would commonly offer – community, food and services. The common bond among Muslims, Brotherhood and Islamic state members, and others is freedom. The belief is that once political and economic freedoms are achieved, the Islamic state will inevitably follow.

Hamid’s analyses included the three cases of Egypt, Turkey, and Tunisia. These cases are distinct in terms of the types of changes sought, who was involved, and the process of change. Much can be learned from these examples; I felt the rising tensions and sensed the sincerity and yearning of common citizens in all three cases when I visited prior to their respective revolutions. The bottom line is that, in the face of rising Islamic fervor, where a number of political actors are present, and where the state is strong enough to be worth capturing, there is no question that ideological and religious polarization will follow. This polarization and reformation will take many years to work out and both those who endure the strife of the Middle East as well as observe and struggle with it from afar, will be better served to understand the history behind the various Islamist movements and how that impacts the alliances that form and dissolve as the process works toward an eventual solution.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Kaplan - Earning the Rockies

Earning the Rockies (Kaplan, 2017) is a deceiving title. I thought it was going to be about environmentalism but, as it turns out, “earning the Rockies” was only a metaphor derived from the author’s childhood and from reading a story about American travel in Reader’s Digest. The story was of a family who stopped in Nebraska, on the Great Plains, for breakfast. With children complaining of the interminable ‘flatscape’ of the prairies, the father remarked that they should be patient with their journey because this was their way of eventually “earning the Rockies.” Having grown up in Colorado and experienced with travel by car back and forth to Illinois (my parents’ homeland) on several occasions in the 1950s and 1960s, I can remember all too well the long stretches of nothingness and then suddenly seeing the Rockies rise out of the prairie in majestic reward.

But Earning the Rockies isn’t really about the excitement of travel or the beauty of places like Colorado; it is about American exceptionalism and how U.S. citizens have been placed at the epicenter of the globe in the 21st century first by geography and then by economic and political prominence. This great and inherent advantage resulted from the fortuitous placement of the U.S.A. across an entire continent rich with frontiers to conquer and resources to acquire. Now that we are in the 21st century, Kaplan suggests that American citizens need to rediscover what is vital yet forgotten about U.S.A. history so that these rediscoveries might help us understand our place in the broader world.

I just read and reviewed Hamilton (Chernow, 2004), which established the perfect context for Earning the Rockies. The early days of the colonies were difficult, contested, and required unusual vision and courage. Kaplan picks up the story after the colonial days, with the formation of a Constitution and creation of checks and balances in government, to describe the settlement of the midwestern prairies. The prairie, with paltry resources compared to those of the East Coast, “ground up the differences of the various immigrant groups into one national culture and so provided the ballast for the leap that would be required in exploring and finally overcoming the geographical disruption of the Great American Desert and Rocky Mountains.”

Kaplan’s childhood travel across the U.S.A. was influential but his later travel as a journalist in the 1990s revealed a more diverse country struggling with economic, political, and environmental problems. The frontier ethos that emerges from these struggles is less contemplative or philosophical than just practical. As an example, he cites the separation of church and state in America not as some great idea but more as “a practical response to the fact that the rugged pioneer spirit of optimism and free thought begot different Protestant sects,” all of which had to be accommodated in order to keep the country together.

Besides the massive east to west landscape and temperate climate that blesses the U.S.A., other conditions have deepened its advantage. One of these is the availability of everything from small colleges to major universities all across the land, a critical resource in building vibrant civilization and a “deep bench” of human capacity. The infrastructure developed in the 20th century and America’s “warrior ethos” added to its preeminence throughout the world. Advantage is also found in the combination of crowded and competitive coastal cities and smaller Midwestern states, places requiring “heightened concentration on the people around you, rather than on yourself.”

Looking at the role the U.S.A. can play today, Kaplan recounted the benefits of an isolated intact continent with many resources but also natural barriers and obstacles that required ingenuity and persistence to tame. Turning to politics, Kaplan suggested that Trump was perceived as an apolitical answer to the dysfunctional political elite who presently seldom connect with their own people. Division between the red and blue states is not a surprise but, instead, an extension of Civil War era differences between the southern economic system based on plantations, vast staple crops, and slave labor versus the northern system of “small farms, free labor, and rising industrialism.” But America truly became exceptional when it survived WWII without the decimation experienced by both Europe and Asia and it roared forward as the unscathed victor of enhanced industrial might.

Kaplan portrays the foundation of America’s promise as its cartography, frontier spirit, and citizens who believe in working hard to achieve a better life for themselves and their families. By comparison to Europe, Russia, China, or India, the U.S.A. is blessed with many more human, natural, and moral resources, all of which add up to the stark reality that it is “fated to lead.” Because of this, “Neither unremitting humanitarianism nor neo-isolationism can be the basis of any responsible foreign policy.” Imperialistic perspectives and approaches should be avoided; in Kaplan’s view, the U.S.A. “must henceforth deploy the resources of a continent in order to negotiate a global situation of comparative anarchy.” One of the battlegrounds he suggested was most important is the Intermarium, the countries between the Baltic and Black Seas, which he believes will be contested between Russia and the West. In order to engage these contests, Kaplan urges a ‘particularism’ that “accepts the world as it is, with all of its cultural and ideological differences” and embraces multilateralism that keeps the U.S.A. from becoming endangered by “the illusions of its own leaders and elites.”