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Some events are better than others. At a reception preceding a presentation by Janet Napolitano (Secretary of Homeland Security) yesterday evening, I enjoyed a series of chats with Frederico Peña (former Denver mayor), Su Ryden (current Colorado state representative), Pilar Ingargiola (apparently a co-founder of the small policy LLC for which I currently do frequent short term research contracts), a bunch of guys from Iowa, and Aaron Harber (Denver talk show host).

Then the speeches began (for the smaller crowd invited to the reception; there would be another round for the full audience gathered upstairs in the auditorium where Secretary Napolitano was to speak). Larry Mizel of the CELL (Counterterrorism Education Learning Lab) introduced Michael Bennet (Junior U.S. Senator from Colorado), who had two endearingly spontaneous human moments during his speech: 1) He paused at one point during his introduction of John Hickenlooper (Denver Mayor and Colorado gubernatorial candidate) to say “God, I’m tired,” and 2) after saying that neither John Hickenlooper nor Larry Mizel would take credit for the CELL, nor would either of them give full credit to the other, Hick gestured from the side that he would give full credit to Larry, to which Michael said, “Well, John will give full credit, because he’s…,” quickly checking himself before saying “a candidate” or “running for office.” The audience filled in the blank and chuckled appreciatively.

After the speeches, we went up a back staircase to the auditorium, where the first few rows were reserved for us. Larry and John gave two more short speeches, and then Secretary Napolitano took the stage. Her presentation struck several chords with me, the underlying theme resonating with themes that I have been developing on this blog, and, in fact, with themes that are woven through my novel.

Secretary Napolitano referred to “the threat landscape,” a phrase that parallels my frequently used phrase “the social institutional landscape.” They are, indeed, two aspects of the same landscape, one a destabilizing, chaos-producing aspect, and one the ordering and re-ordering aspect. This was a major theme in my novel (An epic mythology): The interplay of chaos and order, and the ways in which the disorganizing influences (personified in my novel by mischievous imps, the Loci, who I considered to be, in effect, magical terrorists), lead to more subtle and complex, increasingly organic, re-orderings.

Indeed, that was precisely what Secretary Napolitano was describing.  Homeland Security recognizes that the best counterterrorism network would be an all-inclusive one, informing and mobilizing up and down through social institutional layers from the Department of Homeland Security to individual citizens, and creating channels for individual citizens (and others up and down the hierarchy) to inform those more charged with acting on that information.

The “see something, say something” campaign is one aspect of this attempt to mobilize and organize the populace in a decentralized system of cooperative vigilance, utilizing diffuse observation and information to create a counterterrorism network comprised of everyone, with eyes everywhere, far more comprehensive than anything that could be accomplished in any other way. Indeed, it is another example of activating “the genius of the many,” a theme I have discussed in my series of essays on the evolutionary ecology of our own social institutions and technologies (The Politics of Consciousness , Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, The Evolutionary Ecology of Audio-Visual Entertainment (& the nested & overlapping subsystems of Gaia), The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix), as well as my post on “wikinomics” (Wikinomics: The Genius of the Many Unleashed) and “crowdfunding” (Tuesday Briefs: The Anti-Empathy Movement & “Crowdfunding”).

The system is far more involved than just recommending that people report suspicious behavior. It involves a network of  “fusion centers,” basically information way stations and processing centers, through which information is channeled upward and downward. In other words, Homeland Security is consciously trying to create a centralized system of upward and downward flows of information, of utilization and implementation of decentralized effort and in-put. This is the increasingly organic  model of human social organization that I have long been discussing as our inevitable path of development.

To be sure, one model of such decentralization, with, in many respects, little need for a centralizing agent, is the market economy itself. But the market economy, while able to exist almost independently of governments, does so only in a crude, inefficient, and failure-laden form. Refining that organic system into the robust market economy of today required the development of government backed currency and clearly defined and enforced property rights. It has since benefited from the development of a complex regulatory structure that ensures that market actors aren’t able to exploit information asymmetries to their own advantage and at the public expense. And it will benefit in the future from increasingly sophisticated Political Market Instruments (see Deforestation: Losing an Area the Size of England Every Year) which both internalize externalities, and bring a variety of public goods and public bads under the umbrella of market dynamics.

But markets are just one social institutional material among several (A Framework for Political Analysis). Our development of a more organic, robust, sustainable, and fair social institutional and technological landscape does not benefit from monomania, but rather from a commitment to develop all of the social institutional materials we have in productive, integrated, and decentralized but coherent ways.

Despite the decentralization of the counterterrorism regime that Secretary Napolitano was describing, it was a return to a sense of communal effort, and away from our growing extreme individualism. It is a “neighborhood watch” writ large, a community of people watching one another’s back, addressing a collective need, nationwide. One of its benefits is that it helps move us back in the direction of recognizing that we are inherently in a collective enterprise, whether we are satisfying collective needs through markets, or hierarchies, or normative rules of conduct, or values and beliefs which motivate us to do so. We are not just a collection of disconnected individuals, neither in the production of wealth, in the production of human welfare, in the coping with life’s challenges, or in the vigilance against the violence of others. We are inherently interdependent, and need to cultivate the cultural and social institutional acknowledgement that we are, so that we are not constantly fighting to disregard the demand to meet the needs posed by that interdependence.

In terms of counterterrorism, there are other subtleties to incorporate besides the upward and downward flow of information, and the upward and downward flow of its utilization and implementation. There are also privacy concerns, which Secretary Napolitano addresses by having experts in privacy law at her headquarters, involved in the design of our counterterrorism architecture from beginning to end. There is the challenge to create an informed and activated society without creating a more fearful one (something accomplished by the sense of empowerment that participating, and knowing that most others are participating, in our shared vigilance against terrorism). And there is the emphasis on suspicious behaviors rather than suspicious ethnic membership, discouraging the ethnic profiling that is so corrosive to our coexistence in a diverse society, though completely avoiding the noise of prejudice in a decentralized system will undoubtedly prove to be impossible.

Nor will our ability to prevent all terrorist attacks. But the rise of this decentralized and very dangerous form of warfare, benefiting from modern communications and information technologies much as other decentralized enterprises do, increases the demand for intentional and coordinated development of decentralized and organic systems of response. Even terrorists contribute to the evolution of the human ecosystem, albeit at too high a price.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

The title quote, uttered by President Obama to describe the choice we have in the 2010 elections, captures the essence of the on-going struggle between humanity’s inner-angels and inner-demons, a struggle which produces the realization of both our dreams and our nightmares, depending on which prevails in any given moment of history.

The refrain “we want our country back” is the refrain of those who fear progress, who cling to a mythologically sanitized past rather than forge a path into the inevitable future. It attracts, along with those who are making some vaguer, narrower reference, those who want to take the country back from, among others, women, African Americans, Hispanics, non-Christians, and Gays, groups which have succeeded in diminishing the opportunity gap between themselves and the white, male, Christian minority that has historically maintained that gap to their own advantage and in accord with their own bigotries. And while we have progressed in diminishing the gap, the legacy of history remains with us today, and demands our forward-looking rather than backward-looking attention.

Those who have the courage to hope, to aspire to do better, don’t ever want their country “back.” We always want it “forward.” Our history has been the story of a people moving forward, conceived in a Declaration of Independence which continued and contributed to a transformation of the world already underway, accelerating our reach for future possibilities, and our removal of the shackles of past institutional deficiencies. It was a nation of Progressives, of people who knew that you don’t just accept the institutions handed down, but always seek to refine and improve them. It was a nation that drafted a document by which to govern itself, one which proved insufficient (The Articles of Confederation, drafted and adopted in 1777, though not actually ratified until 1781), and then got its representatives together to try again, ten years later, and get it right (producing the U.S. Constitution, which was a document drafted to strengthen, not weaken, the federal government).

The drafting and ratification of our brilliant Constitution marked a beginning, not an end, a point of departure through which to express and fully realize our collective genius, not an impediment to the use of our reason and will to address the challenges yet to come. It was drafted by people wise enough and humble enough not to imbue it with the quasi-religious hold it (or an insulting caricature of it) now has over some contracted imaginations. It was meant to be a source of guidance rather than a source of idolatry. It provided the nation with a robust legal framework through which to address future challenges, some of which were already visible at the time, and some of which were not, but which the framers knew would ceaselessly present themselves (and which many thought would promptly make the Constitution itself obsolete. The fact that that hasn’t come to pass is a tribute to our ability to make from the document they created in a given historical context one which adapts itself to changing historical circumstances).

Ahead of the country remained the abolition of slavery, the protection of individual civil rights from state as well as federal power, a far-too-late end to the slaughter and displacement of the indigenous population (too late because they had already been nearly exterminated, and removed to tiny, infertile plots of land), the institution of free universal public education, the extension of suffrage to unpropertied males and women, the passage of anti-trust laws to preserve a competitive market, the establishment and necessary growth of an administrative infrastructure which immediately preceded and facilitated the most robust acceleration of economic growth in the history of the world, the desegregation of our schools, the passage of The Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the beginnings of absolutely crucial efforts to address the long-term detrimental health and economic consequences of environmental contamination.

There never was a moment in the course of this story when there weren’t challenges yet to be identified and addressed, many of which could only be successfully addressed by means of government, and, often, only by means of the federal government (e.g., the abolition of slavery, which ended up requiring the federal government to prosecute a civil war; the enforcement of Civil Rights protections; and environmental protections covering interstate pollutants). Our Founding Fathers understood that. Thomas Jefferson himself said that every generation needed to refine its institutions to adapt to changing circumstances and meet the challenges of their own day. Such people never wanted their country “back.” They always wanted it “forward.” And they dreamed of establishing a country that would renew rather than renounce that commitment with every new generation.

Though there are many today who don’t get this, most don’t get it by means of blurry vision and historical inconsistency, rather than a retroactive commitment to what they claim currently to be an immutable truth. It is a tiny minority today, utterly detached from reality, who want to completely abolish Social Security or Medicare, though there are many who vehemently oppose health care reform and improved financial sector regulation. The difference between those past acts of our federal government that we have come to take for granted and whose value we almost universally recognize, and those present acts of our federal government that so many (so absurdly) call a “socialist” threat to our “liberty,” isn’t in the nature of the policies themselves (they are actually very similar in nature), but rather in the difference of perspective granted by elapsed time and an improved quality of life.

The impassioned, angry, vehement opposition to today’s progressive reforms, almost down to the precise words and phrases (including cries of “socialism”), is virtually identical to that which confronted the passage of Social Security and Medicare in their day. It is the perennial resurgence of the same faction, the same force at work today as in those previous generations: The voice of fear, the clinging to past failures and deficiencies for lack of courage, the perception of progress as a threat rather than a promise, though those same cowering souls could hardly imagine living without the promises of progress fulfilled before their birth and in their youth. They take gladly from those progressives who came before and fought to establish the world they now take for granted, but fight passionately against those progressives of today striving to provide similar gifts of social improvement to future generations.

In Colorado, these two sides, these two opposing forces of Hope and Fear, are embodied in our U.S. Senate and Gubernatorial races. In both races, it is the urbane, highly informed, business savvy, pragmatic Progressive pitted against the retrograde, chauvinistic, insular and regressionary Conservative. Michael Bennet, as I have written before at some length (Why Michael Bennet Truly Impresses Me), is a model of reason, civility, humility, and subtle systemic understanding, all focused on how to leave our children with more rather than less opportunity than we ourselves have enjoyed. Ken Buck, his opponent, is a sexist troglodyte who accused a rape victim of “buyer’s remorse”  (though the accused rapist admitted in a taped phone call from the police station that he had in fact raped her!), a candidate who opposes access to abortions even by victims of rape and incest (condemning some pre-teen girls to a premature motherhood that will, in some cases, utterly destroy them). With the same indifference to reality, Buck is committed to the pseudo-economic certainties of his ideological camp, certainties which defy the lessons of history and the prevailing economic models of those who actually study the subject.

In our gubernatorial race, we have a very similar match-up, with Democratic candidate John Hickenlooper (currently the very popular mayor of Denver) as a model of the rational, urbane entrepreneur (who, after being laid off as a geologist in his youth, opened a very successful brewpub in a downtown Denver area –LoDo– which, through his enterprise and hard work, he helped to turn into a very robust restaurant and bar district), opposed by Tom Tancredo, the U.S. Congressman (from my district, CD 6) who became nationally and internationally infamous for his outspoken xenophobia and belligerent anti-immigrant demagoguery. Again, it is a race of hope against fear, a repeat of similar struggles we have seen around the world throughout human history, with prosperity and human welfare flourishing where hope has prevailed, and a contraction of wealth and opportunity taking hold where fear prevails (sometimes accompanied by nightmares of violence directed against the scapegoats who have been identified as personified targets of that fear).

Economically,  Hope counsels that we employ the best economic models to forge the best fiscal and economic policies possible to ensure the robustness, sustainability, and equity of our economic system, while Fear counsels that we base our economic policies on information-stripped platitudes, contracting rather than expanding, insulating rather than competing, cowering rather than aspiring. A hopeful people invests in its future; a fearful people stuffs its money in a mattress. A hopeful people works to create a higher quality of life, while a fearful people works toward enshrining past achievements and, by doing so, obstructing future ones. A hopeful people seeks to expand opportunity; a fearful people seeks to protect what’s theirs from incursions by others. A hopeful people reaches out, looks past the horizon, and works toward positive goals. A fearful people builds walls, huddles together, and obstructs the dreams and aspirations of others.

But this year, in this election, it is not just any other incarnation of the struggle between Hope and Fear. It is the most dangerous form of that struggle, the form it takes when we are on the brink of inflicting on ourselves enormous suffering. Because the struggle this year is characterized by a terrifying discrepancy in passion: The angry, fearful mob is ascendant, while cooler heads are too cool, too uninspired, to face that mob down and disperse it.

It is under just such circumstances when, historically, Fear prevails over Hope. It is under these circumstances, circumstances that the hopeful among us are allowing to take hold, when countries get sucked into the nightmare that fear produces. This is what responsible, reasonable people of goodwill cannot, must not, allow to happen.

Vote. Make sure everyone you know votes. Confront the angry, frightened and frightening mob and insist that we are better than that. Don’t let them put this state, this country, and this world back into Reverse again, as it was from 2001-2009, when America became a nation defined by fear, with a government defined by the belligerent ignorance which is Fear’s most loyal servant. Let’s keep this nation in Drive, and move hopefully into the future. In 2008, many of us were excited by that prospect, and in 2010, we should remain warriors of reason and goodwill in the face of the Grendel of small-mindendness awoken by the small, fledgling steps forward we have taken as a people. We need to defend, preserve, and advance what we accomplished in 2008. We need to move forward, not backward.

Don’t sit this one out. Don’t let the brutal tyranny of Fear and Ignorance rule us.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Senator Bennet constantly impresses me with his understanding of nuances, with his awareness of social systemic complexity, and with his reluctance to reduce things to simplicities that they are not. In one speech in a small venue, for instance, I was struck by the simple phrase “…create a context in which it is more probable rather than less probable….” Rather than typical political bluster, feeding the audience whatever it wants to hear, he went to the trouble of capturing some of the complexity and nuance of governing. Rather than speak in absolutes, he spoke in deference to reality, and did so in a way which clearly engaged his audience.

Many (including me) were bewildered by Governor Ritter’s appointment of Michael, then DPS Superintendent, with a very thin political resume, to the Senate seat that was vacated when Ken Salazar was appointed by President Obama to be Secretary of the Interior. There is speculation, possibly accurate, that there were negotiations involving the president himself, who wanted to make sure that an effective and politically durable replacement for Salazar was chosen before making the Salazar appointment, and took an active hand in choosing Michael. That would only be a further recommendation of Michael’s talents, if President Obama had had any hand in his selection. But Governor Ritter tells a different story, which struck me as certainly at least somewhat accurate: That he (Gov. Ritter) had asked sitting senators, and others in positions to know, what qualities made for a successful U.S. Senator, and then compared the profile thus constructed with the list of people he was considering, concluding that Michael Bennet most closely matched the description.

But it hasn’t been an easy journey for Michael, despite having been appointed. He was wrongly cast by opponents, to the extent that opponents were able to make it stick, as someone in the pocket of big money interests. His votes in the senate, taken as a whole, don’t support that allegation, and most of the evidence used to support it is disingenuous. His rate-swap investment deal as DPS superintendent, for instance, which some use as fodder, was, according to the best informed accounts I’ve read, actually a good financial move, and preserved DPS’s long-term financial health better than any alternative would have.

In the Democratic primary, Andrew Romanoff (whom I also like and respect) made a (political) virtue out of necessity, and emphasized his refusal to take PAC money. To many, that was, and is, an admirable position to take. To me, it is based on a classic kind of logical fallacy, called a “levels of analysis error”. What is desirable on one level is not necessarily facilitated, and can in fact be undermined, by pursuing it on another, pretending that the world is simply the sum of such actions.

Most of us probably agree, for instance, that world peace is a laudable goal, that carefully implemented multilateral disarmament could certainly contribute to that end, and that we should support candidates who demonstrate an effective commitment to these understandings (as Michael does of campaign finance reform). But most of us probably also agree that an American policy of unilateral disarmament would neither serve these laudable ends, nor lead to a happy outcome for the American people.

Similarly, most of us probably agree that the role of money in politics is horrible, that campaign finance reform is a highly desired end, and that we should support candidates who demonstrate an effective commitment to these understandings. But we should also realize that unilateral campaign-finance disarmament in the domestic political competition between two broad visions for our country (conservative and liberal) suffers from the same defects as unilateral military disarmament does in the geopolitical and military strife among nations. It does not serve the desired end, and does not bode well for the camp that attempts it.

I use this example not to fight an old fight, but to illustrate what I consider the necessary combination of integrity and intelligence, a commitment to serve the public good, even when it means not yielding to the demand to make empty and counterproductive political gestures that undermine one’s ability to do so. Michael stayed on message during the primary, and stayed focused on the necessity of balancing political reality with idealistic goals. That’s not easy to do.

I’ve listened to Michael many times, and he never panders to his audience, never says what he thinks they want to hear at the expense of truths he knows they don’t want to hear. Sure, he couches hard truths in the most palatable way possible; that’s part of the skill set his job requires. But he isn’t willing to compromise the truth to win support. That takes integrity. It is abundantly clear to me that Michael isn’t running for office for personal glory; he’s running because he’s a very bright and talented guy who wants to do what he can to improve the world we live in and the quality of our lives.

But what separates Senator Bennet from the many other very intelligent and capable people who would like to be a U.S. Senator (none of whom are in the race against him) is a talent that the very best and most successful elected officials have, usually as a natural trait (though it doesn’t matter whether it is learned or inherent, as long as it is authentic), that many others, even with immense charisma and public speaking skills often lack: His ability to put anyone he is talking with at ease, to make them feel that they are in the company of someone who is just a humble, reasonable, well-intentioned person trying to work together with all others to get the job done. Bill Clinton was famous for that skill. President Obama is well known for having that skill. And Michael Bennet has that skill.

Not all politicians do. And it’s value isn’t just (or primarily) that you win over the electorate that way; it’s value is that you win over other politicians and captains of industry and agency heads and leaders of non-profits and activists and all and sundry others at the nexus of political decision making that way. It’s value is that that is the trait that makes someone effective in the inner-political arena, where decision-making occurs. It’s value is that those who have that quality are the ones who can get the job done.

In our few brief one-on-one interactions, I have always been impressed with Michael’s personal aura of humble, good-natured affability. Some might say, “sure, all politicians play that role,” but most of those who are playing it rather than are it, deeply and sincerely, with more concern for the welfare of others than for their own self-glorification, betray their actual priorities in various small ways. Some of them are wonderful people, with a very real commitment to the public interest, but if their ego is bigger than that commitment, you can usually tell, especially in one-on-one conversations. There are a few, and they are the best and most successful, whose special talent is to make each person they are talking to feel like the sole focus of their attention. Michael has that talent, and it is a talent that makes him the right person for the job.

I supported Michael in the Democratic primary against a very charismatic, very popular, very talented, and very deeply loved leader of the Colorado Democratic Party, the former Speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives, and someone, to his immense credit, who had generated deep and passionate loyalty among those who had worked with him and knew him. I didn’t make that choice because I thought Michael’s opponent was deficient, or would support an agenda that I opposed (I thought neither), but rather because, as impressive as his opponent was, Michael was more so.

As you might imagine, I support Michael with an incalculably greater sense of urgency against his Republican opponent, Ken Buck, a torch-bearer of Tea Party fanaticism, a person who is rapidly making a name for himself as a political chamelion of convenience by trying to back-pedal from the extreme (and clearly sincerely held) positions that won him the primary (in a contest of extremism with Jane Norton, who could not hope to keep up).

For the positive reasons of Michael Bennet’s formidable talents and qualities, and the negative reasons of who he is running against, we need to get out there, talk to our friends and neighbors, and ensure that Michael Bennet continues in his role as our junior U.S. Senator from Colorado.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards