Monday, July 25, 2011

Ingredients for Fascism

My maternal grandfather may have been crazy. In the early 1930s, for no apparent reason, he jumped out of the window of the second floor apartment where they lived in Berlin, injuring himself. My mother said he knew Hitler was coming. My father said he was off his rocker. My mother tended to rationalize her experience as a youngster and a teen. After her childhood she lived with relatives, apparently for safety reasons. Her parents were killed in Auschwitz. My father never met my maternal grandfather. My father knew my mother's siblings and some other of my mom's relatives. My dad was a reasonably sharp cookie, so I don't discount his insight, though sometimes he was too quick to judgment. On this one, there's no way to really know.

I may be going crazy too. For months I've been saying to myself, watching news on TV or reading pieces online, "this feels like fascism." It's not that the storm is here yet, but there are signs of it coming, increasingly evident to me. When I was younger I didn't give much heed to omens and portents. That was astrology or other superstition. I was for science, reasoning based on evidence applied to a theory of how the world works. Now I'm less sure, much less sure. I've come to trust my intuition, for my writing and for making other judgments. If seemingly disparate ideas appear connected, they become so in my mind and I can weave a narrative that ties them together. I am reminded of that line from A Beautiful Mind when John Nash was asked why he didn't resist the schizophrenia when he felt it coming on, he replied something to the effect, "It came to me the same way as my other ideas, so I didn't resist." So too with me on the dawn of a new fascism, whether this feeling is due to genetic disposition, too much idling time, or because what I'm fearful of is real enough.

I will now try to connect the dots. Let the reader judge whether this is delusion or not.

Ours is a time where the pit bull in human form is on the rise, the behavior spreading and increasingly championed. Consider this piece on Joel Klein from Saturday's Times. Klein was sitting directly behind the Murdochs, père et fils, as they testified last week. Evidently, Klein is a valued confidant of the Murdochs. When I first saw this on TV, I found it incongruous and wondered what was going on. The article explains it this way:
Mr. Klein’s dizzying journey, in under a year, from one of the nation’s foremost education reformers to the corporate consigliere for a media titan whose politics are far to the right of his own, has surprised and unsettled many friends and colleagues, who fear that he will be unable to extricate himself from a scandal that shows no sign of abating or, they say, ending well. “This was nothing he could have ever expected,” said Barbara Walters, a longtime friend of Mr. Klein’s.
But in many ways, interviews suggest, his emergence as a dominant figure within the News Corporation is consistent with a biography that combines high-minded legal and social aims — antitrust law and education — with a driving, sometimes overwhelming competitive fire.
“He has a take-no-prisoners attitude,” said Randi Weingarten, who battled Mr. Klein when she was head of the New York City teachers union. “He is a litigator. He is about winning.”
And these pit bulls are not just there for a fight. They fight for a purpose - radical change. Later in the piece it says:
The government’s victory over Microsoft won Mr. Klein legions of admirers, eventually including the company’s co-founder Bill Gates, who became a major donor to New York City schools.
But his unyielding approach and determination to challenge orthodoxy at times inflamed those around him, especially after Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg named him schools chancellor in 2002.
At what was supposed to be a diplomatic introductory lunch with Ms. Weingarten, the head of the city’s teachers union, he asked her how she believed change should be accomplished within the schools.
“Incremental and sustainable,” she replied.
Mr. Klein scoffed. “We need a revolution,” he demanded.
His eight years as schools chancellor formed the foundation for his unlikely friendship with Mr. Murdoch, who holds his own strong views on education reform, which the two began to discuss over regular lunches and dinners with their wives.
The pit bull in human form believes ends justify means. When radical change is the goal, almost anything can be acceptable means. Among the most important is to become aligned closely with a rich and powerful patron who shares similar views. For Klein this was Gates, Bloomberg, and now Murdoch. Ask yourself whether you know of other pit bulls in human form and whether this describes their modus operandi.

From a Darwinian perspective, I find it unsurprising to see the emergence of the pit bull in human form. Of contentious propositions it is often said that reasonable people can disagree. What is less said but equally true is that in large organizations, inevitably chock full of contentious propositions, the disagreements happen frequently and lead to gridlock, which then becomes the norm. Nobody likes gridlock. Those who can cut through it appear a high order species, one of which I am not a member. After the first Learning Technology Leadership Institute where I was a faculty member, held in Madison Wisconsin for a week in July 2007, I wrote this longish post as both a self critique and review of the session. In it I related the goals of the institute to my own job this way:
I don’t feel I’m much of a leader. Leaders have a certain pace for doing things and get things done in tempo. Mostly, I don’t get things done; instead I supervise gridlock. The gap between aspiration and accomplishment for me is huge, the sense of inertia strong. Supervising gridlock is one, unfortunate approach to management all too common nowadays --- post competence era, remember? But supervising gridlock is not leadership.
The pit bull in human form can cut through the gridlock, mainly by force of will. The persona is therefore valued in organizations. Thus creates a cycle, I dare not call it a virtuous, that reinforces the behavior and encourages others to behave likewise. This is the seed.

Now imagine a bunch of pit bulls in human form who have come together because they see things the same way. Of course, the context matters here, the cause of their convergence. Suppose a big part of that comes from feelings of emasculation, to which the natural response is anger. Then you have the necessary material for The Ox-Bow Incident, which you can find on TV now and then in case you haven't seen it. Need help coming up with sources of emasculation nowadays? They seem all around us.

Add to this soup that the media encourages polarization and the media is omnipresent. The polarization encourages bullying as acceptable behavior. Reasonable people in the face of bullying make concessions, creating another cycle.

There is the further problem that the economy is not rebounding. People have invoked the 1930s a lot recently, on the issue of whether fiscal stimulus can get the economy out of its hole. Need I remind the reader that the 1930s marked the rise of fascism? There is a connection.

Sinclair Lewis wrote a book, It Can't Happen Here. Oh, yes it can! Or so it seems to me.

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