Friday, March 17, 2006

The future of blogs in organizations

On the Learning Circuits blog Jay Cross raised the question of the use of blogs for organizational puposes, in particular bottom-up knowledge management. This has sparked a debate about how useful blogs are within organizations and what is required to turn them into tools of productivity. It occurred to me that there are two issues that need to be clarified before this straegy can become successful. One is technical (the evolving range of functionality of blogs) and the other -- far more important -- is cultural. The following expands on a comment I left in the Learning Circuits blog.

One of what I would call the "cultural" problems with blogs is that, although manifestly public, the implicit model of a blog is the personal diary. This apparent contradiction may help to explain some of the frustration we feel with certain blogs. It conditions how we write in a blog as well as how we read it. It also conditions our expectations as to what we might get out of a blog in terms of information, enlightenment or even a "sense of community".

When considering how the blog can usefully and naturally fulfil an organizational role, I expect that we will have to let the concept (and the blogging tools) evolve towards something that is more team-oriented and less linear in structure. The reliability of information offered by individuals qua individuals will always be suspect and the principle of growth by simple accretion (creating amorphous “heaps” of information mixed with opinion) may not be the best way of clarifying or even exploring important issues. If blogs were truly redesigned for team rather than individual expression, the teams could find, define and redefine objectives and then measure their performance against those objectives. They might thereby achieve the kind of focus that would make it easier for those consulting the blog to understand and use.

Blogs are currently purely vertical structures. Perhaps they need to become horizontal as well and to move away from the model of private individual expression “shared” with the public. This would be a cultural shift that would have an impact on how we contribute to blogs. The question then arises, "which comes first, the new architecture of the blog or the cultural shift?". The only possible answer, as with chickens and eggs and all other evolutionary questions, is "both". But this will only happen if our dominantly individualistic IT culture and global capitalist economy can themselves integrate concepts that are more specifically collectivist. I tend to believe there are powerful economic and political (and therefore cultural) forces that will seek to prevent this from happening in any significant way. The consumer society depends on the atomization of society, ensuring that people cannot easily and spontaneously organize into effective teams that may generate their own values at odds with the dominant ones. Effective teams born of bottom-up initiatives may be suspected of challenging existing power structures as well as disrupting planning based entirely on predictable (and/or controlable) trends.

Which, of course, shouldn't prevent us bottom-uppers from trying!

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Race and the imperial elite

To help situate the debate on power, powerlessness and race, it’s worth having a look at an article by Ron Suskind in the New York Times Magazine published just a few weeks before the 2004 presidential election in the U.S.
The journalist explains:

“In the summer of 2002…I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush” who was unhappy about something Suskind had published. Here is the journalist’s account of that interview:

The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''


We thus discover that the problem I recently described as one of racism is not uniquely founded on race. It appears that there’s a specific ideology of superiority even within the dominant race: the idea that there is, on the one hand, a breed of leaders (hovering above reality and controlling politics and the economy) and a breed of followers (rooted helplessly in reality). Bush’s senior adviser understood that this was a consequence of empire as well as an inevitable historical evolution (perhaps in the Hegelian sense). In short, he’s describing a three-tiered system: dominant leaders who dominate the dominant nation and region (identified with a racially determined culture: white northern Europe/U.S.) which in turn dominates the struggling masses spread out over the rest of the globe. One is left wondering what the Bush administration means when it claims to encourage “democracy” (is it a special kind of democracy, fuelled by economic influence, that can be counted on to consistently plebiscite an neo-aristocratic elite?).

It’s rare that elite poker players or politicians show their hand before raking in the chips. So such an instance of frank testimony on the part of a “senior adviser” is precious. And what he describes appears to be true, especially to those who find themselves at the end of the line, i.e., the dominated masses in the rest of the world. Might this feeling of belonging to the third tier on the periphery of an empire be part, not only of the reaction to the Danish cartoons, but to the malaise in India and Pakistan at Bush’s lightning visit to define single-handedly the world’s nuclear policy and to a growing anti-U.S. sentiment detectable all across the globe?

This painting by Thomas Cole in 1836 represents the imaginary creation of an empire in the U.S. Click here to see the painting in detail (with an option full screen) and to learn about it.


The question of race comes up again in the article in the context of a luncheon for supporters of his campaign:

In response to a question, he talked about diversity, saying that ''hands down,'' he has the most diverse senior staff in terms of both gender and race. He recalled a meeting with Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of Germany. ''You know, I'm sitting there with Schröder one day with Colin and Condi. And I'm thinking: What's Schröder thinking?! He's sitting here with two blacks and one's a woman.''

Colin Powell and Condolezza Rice provide the answer to diversity. Their presence is designed to make it impossible to suspect the system of being racist because it visibly and ostentatiously accepts people from any race, provided, of course, that they fully identify with the system. The important thing isn’t diversity in society, but diversity within the imperial ruling class. The status of being a member of the ruling class (which isn’t the same thing as ruling) requires two things: personal choice, effort and ambition (i.e. a form of devotion on the part of the racially heterogeneous) and selection by the leaders of the elite. It is not achieved through democratic representation nor does it reflect the idea of representation of the their community. The effect is primarily one of image, which is what so delighted Bush in the presence of Schroeder. It turns out that politics is the third and potentially most glorious avenue of success for any young black, after the entertainment industry and professional sports. It’s also the most difficult because it requires being selected, or rather co-opted by the powerful to join their club. It cannot be achieved through talent and perseverance alone (the virtue of assertive self-reliance).

Will these trends continue or are they ephemeral accidents of history? Was the senior adviser describing the ethos of Bush’s private governing club, in power for twice four years, or that of an imperial elite that is broader in scope and longer in duration, and includes Democratic administrations as well? Did Clinton see the world, and act in it, in pretty much the same way? How much are the Blairs, Berlusconis, Schroeders, Merkels and Chiracs also part of it, as regional prefects?

If we had the answers to these questions perhaps we could develop a plan for training the racially diverse in the intercultural skills they need to migrate from their peripheral communities to the heart of the empire. But somehow I think the imperial elite has already created its training curriculum and don’t really need outsiders from the “reality-based community” such as ourselves.

Perhaps it’s time for those of us who hail from the reality-based community to create the RBC party to oppose the principles and pretensions of the RC (Reality Creation) Party. Then when we take over the reins of imperial government we can create our own reality and justify the trust the RB community has placed in us. We will finally have overcome our pernicious enslavement to the judicious study of discernible reality”.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Levels of racism

Some people have attempted to argue that racism can be seen as a kind of zero-sum game. If the Danish cartoons reflect a certain form of racism, the disproportionate reaction to them in so many different places can be seen as a competing form of racism. The implication is that one cancels out the other and, after all, human nature isn't perfect. But neither, I would submit, is the symmetry we're expected to recognize in this putative face-off of complementary racisms.

The drift of this reasoning often goes one step further by suggesting that complaints about racism on "our side" (white western civilization) are attempts to excuse or mask the racism on the other side, thereby denying the reality of the zero-sum game. One interpretation of my previous posting suggests this idea. In that message, however, I specifically mentioned and condemned the extremist Muslim minority responsible for the more violent and well organized reactions. There is no question of excusing excessive behaviour, though I feel as interculturalists part of our job is to try to understand where it comes from and how it is structured. I should add that, however reprehensible this sometimes programmed and manipulated violence may be, I don't think it should be called racism. Rather it's a form of direct resistance and refusal of the dominant and dominating influence of another culture, an act of open and aggressive public defiance, a phenomenon not unknown even in our own enlightened history (the standard stuff of insurrections leading to wars of independence, Boston Tea Party style). Such organised or impovised resistance may be fully or partially justified, or not justified at all; but it isn't quite the same thing as racism.

I have to admit that I am increasingly appalled by our complacency with a state of general insensitivity to the fate of people who are 1) living in "less advanced" countries and 2) have darker skin than the Europeans who created modern democracy and its sidekick, global capitalism. The best we can do is hope they will become more like us and possibly help them to do so! I recently tried an online "psychological test" designed to determine whether the person taking it is racist and the result for myself said that I was positive. I discovered that I am unconsciously racist. The only comforting factor for me - because I pride myself in not being racist -- is that 50% of American blacks apparently also test out as white racists! This may be an indication of the deep success of a culture that is built on some invisible but fundamentally powerful racist values (in total contradiction, of course, with other visible and explicit values, such as democracy and equality).

My point is that I am neither attempting to blame one party nor excuse another. I'm not even trying to define parties. Rather than looking for a culprit (or group of culprits), I'm trying to recognize a problem and discover where the roots are and how deep they penetrate into our cultural soil. The cartoons, by the way, are only one factor in my outburst. And that fact highlights what is perhaps the most important point in my previous posting. We're wrong to think of it as a problem of the "clash of civilizations" between the post-Christian west and the Muslim world. It's something more fundamental residing in our deep-seated belief that western whites have reached a higher stage of cultural (if not biological) evolution than the rest of humanity. The result is pity and/or contempt of the rest of the world (or mere indifference).

Another contributing factor to my current rage, and this is strictly a matter of chance, is a television documentary I happened to see last week on the history channel (Histoire) here in France. It was a BBC documentary about the end of WWII and the two spectacular A-bombs dropped on Hiroshima & Nagasaki. Hundreds of thousands of people were sacrificed for no other reason than geo-political strategy (to wit, showing Stalin how "advanced" we were and preventing the Russians from invading Japan). Japan had already offered to surrender but insisted on maintaining the Emperor, considered to be a god. It was all they required to save face, but Truman insisted on "unconditional surrender". After the horrendous, wanton destruction of two cities, Truman got his unconditional surrender, thought this was primarily because in the meantime Russia declared war on Japan. And of course once they had surrendered, Truman generously "offered" the Japanese the very condition they insisted on: maintaining Hirohito as emperor. Although I was already aware of most of the facts, I felt literally sick watching it. Can politics be so inhuman? ... apart from intercultural questions such as the importance of face in Eastern Asia and respect of the symbols of other people's religious, whether one finds them absurd or not.

The documentary consisted almost entirely of interviews. There was very little pure narration. Some of the people interviewed pointed out how the war propaganda developed the idea that the Japanese weren't human beings (a racist sentiment echoed publicly by French prime minister, Edith Cresson, just over ten years ago!). If we had considered them to be our equals, could we have envisaged and accepted massacring entire civilian populations? Not only were the Japanese guilty of Pearl Harbor, but they weren't really human beings anyway.

Because Truman considered it irrational to think of a hereditary monarch as a god, he allowed himself to murder hundreds of thousands of people. That's a cultural problem similar in some ways - but with far worse consequences -- to the insensitivity of the Danish magazine. But provoking death or engaging in torture is only possible, however inexcusable, 1) if you are directly threatened 2) you are not threatened but you consider the other as less than human. Pinochet's torturers and murderers were professionals: they were paid for a specific task; they didn't need to think about why they were killing and torturing. The "enthusiasm" of Abu Ghraib, on the other hand, which we claim was not a matter of policy, can only be explained by ambient if not actively encouraged racism.

Another telling symptom: Samuel Huntington wants to re-establish and protect the WASP tradition in the U.S. from multiculturalism. He has a point, but the point - when you work out the details - is fundamentally racist, though the racism is implicit rather than explicit or possibly unconscious rather than conscious. It certainly isn't a paean to the Ku Klux Klan.

My point is that we tend to do a lot of things "innocently" and "normally" with good intentions, but with an effect that is clearly racist. One of the contributing factors is the belief that everything that's "most advanced" comes from the West (which seems so obvious when you compare measurable "standards of living"), though such a belief is not necessarily founded on the idea that it's advanced because it is Western (which would be simple cultural bigotry). The concept is rather that we - as a people (sometimes a nation, sometimes a race) must be more advanced to have created so many advanced things. Therefore we are implicitly endowed with a "civilizing mission", which we nevertheless seek generously to share with the not yet civilized others (for a small price, of course, since getting people to pay the price is what made us so advanced in the first place).

Those who profit from the advance of our civilization tend to agree; the others simply seethe with frustration until some incident comes along that makes them explode. The reaction of of the Indian population to Bush's visit to India is a demonstration of this divide. There is a class that can negotiate, partner and profit from the adoption of Western economic institutions and styles of consumption. There is another class -- much larger -- that is condemned to follow and occasionally protest. This method of divide and conquer can also be seen in the strategy for integration, particularly of blacks inside the U.S. in the wake of the civil rights movement of the 60s. The strategy consists of building a class of privileged "leaders" who profit from the extension of white civilization into their communities. You can then count on them to "govern" or at least guide their populations, less through political control than through the diversion of glamour. Sports heroes, movie stars and media figures constitute the "proof" of successful integration that rarely extends to the majority of a population still subjected to economic apartheid. A significant and sufficient number of the victims allow their identification with celebrities of their own race to shape their personal ambition, confirming their acceptance of the values of the dominant culture, one of which is individualism over collectivism (the ever threatening solidarity of the oppressed). The classic example of this is the ambition of black youngsters to play basketball in the NBA, where they can wear real diamonds in their ears (i.e. demonstrate and represent glamourous black culture). This phenonomen concerns hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of youngsters and has a powerful effect on the community's acceptance of persistent inequality, partly because it creates a feeling of racial pride (blacks are better basketball players or at least have a cultural style that is better adapted to the principles of the sport), but more significantly because it encourages individualism, self-reliance and capitalistic ambition in a community where none of these correspond to the structure and successful workings of the real economy and society confined as they are to the perimeter of white post-industrial civilization.

To some extent this malady of racism infects our own community of intercultural professionals. After all, much of what we do follows in the wake of globalisation and our job is as often as not one of supporting the trend, helping civilization advance. Can this be done ethically? Can we avoid racism? Should we counter it? Or is it better - or at least easier - simply to remain blithely unaware? These are questions we might want to ask ourselves (after taking an online psychological test), independently of what our employers or clients expect of us.

We could of course complicate the debate by citing the many examples of ethnic rivalry where race isn't the critical factor but the forms of behaviour are similar. But if race isn't the critical factor let's not call it racism. And especially let's not use the sins of others to excuse ourselves from thinking about our own contradictions.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Curious assumptions

One of the things I find extraordinary in the continuing saga of the Danish cartoons is how easy it has become to polarize and demonise other groups, races and religions in the name of cultural (rather than racial or religious) superiority. To some extent it's a concession to PC. We're no longer allowed to frame issues publicly in terms of race or religion, so let's do it with culture (in particular political culture, culture's most superficial veneer).

In the controversy about the Danish cartoons, a bewildering myriad of variations on hate have emerged. The extremist Muslims have had their part in it, of course, but the violence of this tiny minority, who illegitimately echo the authentically wounded pride of the peaceful majority, is also being transformed by numerous intellectuals into an implicit "proof" of what should be recognized as fundamentally racist theses. The atmosphere appears to be one of backlash, i.e. growing intolerance and persistent misunderstanding. The breakdown isn't the west vs. Islam, but white civilization vs. the ambient disorder, Prospero vs. Caliban. I'm sorry to say this after the orgy of "awareness" spawned by the civil rights movement, but I have the impression that everywhere in the western world it has produced a small stream of selective integration and a flowing river of politically correct discourse.

The trend can be pernicious. I notice Francis Fukayama's at it again: . Having predicted the end of history 15 years ago - an "end" attributable to the globalizing triumph of the value system of the U.S. - he's now offering us (both Europeans and US Americans) the "truth" about Europe's identity crisis, which of course, in his comprehensive view, turns around the inability of European countries to integrate the Muslim minorities (it may just be his way of conceding victory to Samuel Huntington in the rivalry between two simplistic versions of the post-Cold War world, a rivalry in which Huntington scored the winning run on September 11, 2001).

What struck me while reading Fukayama's article is,

1) that he assumes last November's riots in France were an expression of Muslim identity and fails to realize that there's a long colonial and post-colonial history to what is essentially a racist status quo.

2) that he sees the model of U.S. immigration as the key to the salvation of Europe and practically gives straight A's to the U.S., whose colonial history is far different and no less inglorious, especially if one builds into one's account - as Fukayama fails to do - the fate of blacks, Native Americans and most Latinos (Fukayama seems to be thinking about voluntary "civilized" immigrants who arrive as individuals, not the groups sucked into the economy or pushed towards its periphery for the convenience of the masters and the "integrity" of the dominant culture*).

In other words, it seems to me glaringly obvious that the debates about clashes of values and civilizations have become a hypocritical means of denying the heritage and persistence of racism. Whether conscious or unconscious, it's clearly visible everywhere unless we refuse to see it (which seems to be the cosmetic role of PC). We continue to view the world in missionary-conquistador terms ("the good, advanced culture" of economic liberalism and its attendant values will inevitably triumph). Thus whenever friction arises between two cultures - as in the case of the cartoons -- we see it as an opportunity to analyse, as "objectively" as possible, which of the cultures is more advanced and draw conclusions from that rather than try
to understand how cultures (and not individuals) react to assaults on their values and the principles of their identity. This is the kind of reasoning that enables us to export "democracy" in the form of war and to condemn whole populations for reacting inappropriately (according to our values) to manifest insults. We don't despise the people whose affairs we have volunteered to manage; on the contrary, we are acting in their best interest by bringing them universal values (ours). The fact that they happen to have darker skin than ours is immaterial. The fact that they both have darker skin and maintain retrograde collectivist instincts (tribalism!) instead of embracing enlightened individualism makes them both suspect and easy to identify and eventually quarantine. This, I would submit, is racism.

Am I being paranoid (odd, because I'm definitely white)? Am I just imaging all this? Can anyone speak up and show me that racism is definitely not a part of what's going on? I'd be relieved to know it since that would make it much easier to begin to grapple with the monumental problems that are facing us (e.g. the fate of the planet, the stupidities of nation-states, large and
small, the corruption that appears to be built into our economies, liberal or constrained, etc.).

* Raising the question of the dominant culture has long been taboo in the U.S., thanks to the melting-pot theory, though left-wing intellectuals have, at least since the 50s, pointed to the historical domination of WASPS and the emergence of WASPism as a feature of the new extreme right wing (McCarthyism, John Birch Society, etc.). Huntington's latest contribution "Who are we?" very directly expresses his worry that white Protestant culture may be submerged by multiculturalism in general and Latino culture in particular. This isn't racism of course; it's "academic sociology" with a bit of cultural patriotism thrown in!