Richard Thieme's Islands in the Clickstream
This is about the apparent inability of people to learn from the past.
Maybe it begins with our inability even to remember the past.
I was born a few months before D-Day, so some of what I call history is what I lived and some is what was discussed a lot when I grew up. The previous decades – the boom times of the twenties, the Depression of the thirties, events leading up to and including World War 2 – formed a vivid skein of shared images which is what memories are, after all. The causal chain of events from World War 1 forward became part of my framework for understanding the world.
Sounding like your parents is disconcerting, but here it is .... recent discussions with some young people suggest that there are huge memory holes, an absence of shared ideas and images that makes it feel as if we do not inhabit the same landscape. Our historical points of reference are completely different. Many seem not to have forgotten so much as never to have known recent history.
Here’s a case in point.
In a conversation after dinner at a security conference with smart technocrats in their thirties, I referred to the way America was torn in the sixties and seventies by social revolutions, the Viet Nam War, Watergate, the assassinations....
“What assassinations?” one younger guy asked.
I thought he was kidding.
I looked at him. He wasn’t.
Well, I said, Kennedy, for one. And Kennedy. And King.
I described being in Chicago when Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered. From a high rise apartment, throughout the long weekend, we watched the city burn. Sirens heard faintly through the thick glass complemented terrified phone calls from a friend who rode in a radio car up and down Roosevelt Road, locating sniper fire for the National Guard. I told him about riots in cities all over America.
Maybe that was just your perspective, the guy said. Maybe nobody else noticed.
The mind boggles. Where does one begin? It felt like the Invasion of the Body Snatchers when the familiar person you are talking to suddenly opens his mouth in an alien wail.
I had intended to recall what Lyndon Johnson said, that a lot of people misunderstood the nature of the pressure he was under during the Viet Nam War. There were liberals and hippies and disenchanted veterans, sure, but they could be handled. The real pressure came from the Right. The pressure he found hard to resist called for escalation, more killing, more war.
That was then. That, too, is now.
So the despair to which I refer and the rage that burns white hot at the core of despair when it is not ameliorated by hope or options for meaningful action seems to be felt by more and more people.
The accumulating evidence of groupthink and its consequences on a national or global level are frightening.
In the Wall Street Journal, for example, Greg Jaffe wrote on December 8, 2004, “Shortly after the U.S. deposed Saddam Hussein's regime in April 2003, the Army kicked off its annual war game, a mock battle in which U.S. forces set out to topple another Middle Eastern regime. ... the game featured a force built around a light, fast, armored vehicle that the Army planned to start producing in 2010. The Army attacked from seven dizzying directions and, when the game ended, appeared on the verge of shattering the enemy force. ‘We walked out and patted ourselves on the back and said marvelous job, ‘ says retired Lt. Gen. William Carter, who commanded U.S. forces in the game. "We didn't understand that what we were seeing in those games wasn't victory.’ Again, the mind boggles.
What were they thinking? How could people who spend so much time analyzing scenarios be so obtuse as not to understand how the world had changed?
And how can they still?
One obvious reason is that everything in military culture militates against challenging groupthink. Promotions are directly related to a willingness to change nothing. By the time one reaches the top a commitment to the status quo and a deep collusion with the system that enabled one to move up have fused.
Groupthink refers to the explicit dynamics which enables a lot of smart people who on their own and in another context would see the truth clearly and be willing tell the truth to become quietly acquiescent and go along with plans despite serious misgivings.
Changing policies without changing the cultures that create policies changes little. The content may be a little different but the context that generates the content remains the same.
During this war, a time of erosion of civil liberties and human rights in the name of fighting a nameless threat that changes its identifying characteristics by the month, the consequences of groupthink are showing up. Articles arrived on my desktop this week about homeless veterans rushed out of service in Iraq into a haze of confusion and depression back home; about an intelligence apparatus so vast, complex, and out of effective control that it is only a matter of time until some whistleblower, his or her conscience grieved beyond consolation, tells the truth about what we are doing; and that article cited above about the inability of military leaders to comprehend realities – to perceive, see, feel or speak them – that contradict groupthink and the voice of authority with which it speaks.
In other words, the manipulation of the herd by the substitution of symbols and images largely irrelevant to matters at hand, used so efficiently in the recent election, makes persons of clarity and conscience feel impotent and ineffective.
Remember Lyndon Johnson: During Viet Nam, at the height of the anti-war movement, the greater pressure came from the Right, not the Left. The Right was the relentless, deeply embedded machinery of our society and culture, and that was when there WAS a Left that still existed as a potent force. Voices of clarity and conscience are effectively controlled and spun into irrelevance rather than silenced. Marginalization is more effective than assassination – it leaves no dead heroes as leaders, after all – and there’s no blood. Think of how Christianity would look if Jesus had simply been ignored while behind the scenes a variety of other religious rebels, most in the covert pay of the Romans, had been moved forward. What would Mel Gibson have depicted, a sullen Jesus, unable to get his hands on anything real, watching the action from the sidelines?
But how can we talk about all this if the history of this country through the twentieth century is largely not known by many of its citizens? Literacy levels are dropping, more and more books are being published but fewer and fewer are being read. The Net, the preoccupation of many, seldom provides the depth and detail needed to understand complex ambiguous realities. Only books do that, and God help us, we have a leader at the moment who publicly states how little use he has for reading books.
We silverbacks have seen it before, we have heard it before. When former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara is shown in The Fog of War saying, “We were wrong. They saw it as a civil war. We saw it as a battle against Communism. We were wrong,” we remembered that at the time, the ones who said we were wrong were dismissed as the radical fringe.
In public life, people generally acknowledge they are wrong only after consequences for doing so are long past.
President Bush was unable to say there was anything about which he had been wrong for four years. But the blood flecks the windshield and we know that it is not raining red paint. America went for a Sunday ride and we hit somebody and we kept going. The body count rises, larger percentages of maimed and legless veterans are celebrated as medical progress, torture is used around the world with our support, and stories of whistleblowers like Greg Ford - http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2004/12/08/coverup/print.html - are indicators of the growth of feelings of impotence, rage and despair.
The right revelations will come at the right time and that rage will ripen and burst. We have seen it before. We will see it again. The sadness and the pity is that, even when we remember our history, we seem destined or doomed to repeat it.
Richard Thieme is an author, professional speaker, and consultant focused on the issues that matter most: creativity, change, the consequences of technology, the search for a meaningful life and the deeper truth about “what really works.”
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