Thursday, April 23, 2009

Integral Politics - San Francisco for Obama

After watching the democrat debate last Thursday, I was sitting in my hot tub thinking about it.  I was reflecting on one question in particular.  About half way through the debate it became clear to the moderator Brian Williams that they were running out of time.  Even the short one minute answers must have been too long because he started asking questions to be answered by a show of hands.  Not the greatest moment in political debates in my opinion, but it was interesting in that it required the candidates to reduce their thoughts to a binary yes or no answer.  One of the questions asked in this format was “Raise your hand if you believe there is such a thing as a global war on terror”.  As I sat there in the comfort of my hot tub, I wondered how I would have answered that question. 

            In general, I have been vary wary to call the challenge of terrorism a war.  There are several very important reasons why the metaphor of war not only doesn’t accurately frame the challenge we face, but actually compounds the problem of terrorism.  Here are the reasons I see the “war” metaphor as being inappropriate. 

  1. As some have pointed out – terrorism is a tactic.  It is not an ideology, it is not an end - it is a means. You cannot wage a war against a tactic.
  2. Wars have defined goals, defined leadership, and defined friends and enemies.  Terrorism has none of these things because it is not a “thing” itself.  Instead, terrorism is used by various groups and individuals who often do have defined goals, leadership, allies and enemies.  If we were going to be more accurate, and we were intent on going to war, we should call it what it is: A war on radical Islamic groups using terrorism to accomplish their ends.
  3. A war should be able to be won, or alternatively, lost.  It would be difficult to define, let alone accomplish, victory over terrorism.  Terrorism has always existed, and will continue to exist as long as it is an effective means of advancing a cause.

 The only reason I can think of to define the struggle against terrorism as a war is that the word “war” indicates a level of commitment, willingness to sacrifice, and force that most other metaphors do not.  In creating Outward Bound, Kurt Hahn was trying to create an educational and character building experience that approached “the moral equivalent of war”.  I think that this is the sense in which some people use the term “war on terror”.  Getting our national and global society to a place where small groups are no longer able to advance their radical agendas through terrorism, killing innocents, spreading fear, and disrupting infrastructures, will require a great commitment on the part of free societies.  We will need to mobilize a great deal of resources to address this, and I am sure that using the metaphor of war is one of the best ways of getting citizens to bear the burden of sacrifice required of such an endeavor.

 Nonetheless, for the reasons I have expressed, the term “War on Terror” is no longer viable as a metaphor.  What then, is a more appropriate metaphor?  What is a metaphor that better defines not only the challenge, but also the solution?  As long as we look at this struggle as a war, we will be unable to clearly see the way to succeed.  A war has enemies, but what if it isn’t that simple?  What if our war is turning more and more disenfranchised young men into enemies?  Might there be a better way of looking at this situation that better defines those young men than as our enemies?  The metaphor I came up with does all of this. 

 Terrorism is like fire

 Consider the following parallels:

  • While destructive, and something able to be “fought”, fire is not a thing so much as it is a process.  As such, you cannot wage a war against fire (the process), but you can battle a fire, and this is an important distinction which I will go into later.
  • Like terrorism, fire is destructive, but it is more destructive in certain environments.  Places with lots of fuel build up make it much more likely that a spark of fire can do massive damage.
  • Both fire and terrorism can be resisted on three different fronts, which Barack Obama describes as “Prevent, Protect, and Prevail”.  Both fires and terrorism can be effectively Prevented by reducing both the “fuel” and the opportunities for a “spark” or “hotspot” to initiate fire.  We can also Protect ourselves from both fire and terrorism.  Protecting ourselves means doing those things possible to minimize the destructive impact of them on our lives.  And, in the case of a specific fire or terrorist group, we canPrevail.  In defined circumstances we can actually “battle” and “beat” both fire and terrorists when they threaten us and our interests.
  • Like terrorism, fire is indiscriminately destructive.  It destroys everything, including in many cases, its host.  When something is indiscriminately destructive, it cannot be bargained with, deterred, consoled, reasoned with, or threatened.  Unlike other entities we have gone to “war” with, neither terrorism nor fire has an address, a discreet membership, a border, or an ideology, and is thus resistant to many of the forces we would normally use to effect its behavior.

 Using this metaphor, we are much better able to describe current world events in the “war on terrorism” and perhaps even create policy to deal with them.  If terrorism is a fire, then Iraq is an out of control inferno.  When the Bush Administration invaded Iraq with the hopes of removing Sadam Husein from power, he did so with good intentions, but with a critically flawed understanding of terrorism.  Many foreign policy experts knew that Iraq, like many places in the middle east, had an incredible buildup of “fuel” just waiting for a fire.  The fire of terrorism indeed has a hard time spreading in the low fuel environment of a participatory democracy with a stable health care system, education system, infrastructure, legal system, and economy - but turning Iraq into a stable democracy that would be our ally in the struggle against terrorism was a great, but completely naive goal.  Our poor execution and our lack of understanding of the threat inadvertently brought the spark of fire into one of the world’s hottest hotspots.  What we have now is a fire that is absolutely out of control.  Adding 20,000 troops to the situation is like pouring water from a helicopter onto a raging forest fire. At a certain point, like firefighters, we have to realize that we are not going to “prevail” against this particular fire.  We can remove fuel; we can make fire breaks; we can enlist the help of those under threat but not yet touched by the fire; but the more we fight this fire, the harder it will rage.


Here is a brief (and vastly oversimplified) description of an integral approach to politics.  I believe that Barack Obama intuitively understands this approach and is one of the only politicians I have encountered who embodies this kind of political thinking.

Integral Politics balances the dichotomous philosophical camps of the two primary political orientations: conservative and liberal/progressive.  Ken Wilber has pointed out that two very different (and often opposing) philosophical assumptions about the nature of the world underlie the two major American political orientations.  He argues that the fundamental assumption of conservatives is that the world and human nature are inherently “bad” and thus, must be controlled externally and internally through a process of limitation and discipline.  Conservatives argue that the ability to limit and control the bad is fundamental to creating the good.  Liberals, Wilber argues, have the opposite fundamental assumption.  Liberals and progressives assume that the world and human nature are inherently “good” and thus what is “bad” is placing any limitations and constraints on that “good”.  Liberals argue that the ability to enhance and support the good free of constraint and limits is the way to create the good.  So, to recap:

For conservatives:  Good = the constraint of the Bad

For liberals: Bad = constraint of the Good


            In the Challenge/Support dichotomy:

            Conservatives emphasize Challenge

             Liberals emphasize Support


            In the Rights/Responsibilities dichotomy:

             Conservatives emphasize Responsibilities

 Liberals emphasize Rights

This is a very oversimplified generalization, but if one looks carefully at the underlying philosophies behind the typical conservative and liberal takes on the issues of the day, it becomes clear that there is a great deal of truth in this generalization.  Take the following issues:



Conservatives believe that the best way to end terrorism is to constrain and control those who engage in it.

Liberals believe that the best way to end terrorism is to support and remove the constraints of poverty and oppression that cause people to resort to terrorism in the first place.



Conservatives believe that the problem with the education system is that we live in an time of “anything goes” and that we are not teaching students how to constrain their impulses and behaviors.  Furthermore, conservatives believe that the best way to fix education is to turn it into a market that does not allow (read: limits) bad schools and teachers from continuing to perpetuate failure.

Liberals believe that education is about exposing youth to different forms of education that meet them where they are at, rather than requiring them to think or behave in a particular way.  Furthermore, they believe that making education more like a market will constrain teachers even further and not provide them with the support they need to succeed.

            Integral Politics seeks to balance and synthesize these two approaches into solutions that incorporate both perspectives.  It believes that the Good will almost always come about by both constraining the bad and supporting the good.  It believes that a blend of both challenge and support contribute to growth, and that one without the other leads to greater problems.  Likewise, IP posits that with every right comes responsibility and visa-versa.  You cannot have one without the other. 

Maybe fighting terrorism should include both military campaigns designed to eliminate current terrorists and terrorism threats, but should also involve supporting poor, oppressed nations develop their health, education, law, and economic systems to diminish the poverty and lack of access that makes terrorism appealing to the powerless in the first place. 

Maybe building a great educational institution means not only identifying and dealing with teachers and schools that are not succeeding, but dealing with them by supporting those schools with the leadership, training, and resources needed to turn things around rather than let them fall by the wayside of the market.


For those of you familiar with the work of Ken Wilber and Integral Studies, I have posted a response to a review of Obama's "The Audacity of Hope" in the integral newsletter "HOLONS".  You can read the review and my response here:


It is time to get rolling.  Every day, it seems, our political process becomes more rediculous, more diluted by the small minded arguments of small minded people.  At the same time, I become more and more convinced with every paragraph of Barak Obama's book "The Audacity of Hope", that it is time for a change.  Not just any change, but real change, directed by real inteligence, and inspired by real heart.  Barack Obama represents the kind of change we need, and I am going to use this Blog as my way of contributing to what I see as a slow sea change happening in Politics and Government.  I had hoped to convey my thoughts on Obama and Integral Politics in one grand manifesto, but life being what it is, I realize it might be more realistic and effective to share my political thoughts in more digestable blog postings.  Each of my posts will cover a small piece of my vision for Integral Politics, and demonstrate how Obama best represents this movement and way of thinking.  Stay Tuned.  

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