Sometime in the late 1980s, one of my favorite and most conservative students stopped by my office at Colby College. Matt took a floppy disc out of his pocket, inserted it into my Macintosh, installed software that replaced the Mac’s default cursor with a spinning globe, and said it was a thank you gift for the most naively optimistic person in the world.
His gift made sense. At that point in my life, I was active in the Beyond War movement, which meant I had images of the world as viewed from space all over my life from my lapel pin to my office walls to the bumper of my car.
When Matt’s visit popped up in my memory when I was beginning to think about writing this book, it wasn’t the then nifty but now useless piece of software that keeps reminding me of what happened that day.
It was his at least half facetious but also at least half serious comment about my outlook on life.
He thought I was naïve because he thought my notion of creating a world beyond war was not very realistic on two levels. He doubted that the end of the Cold War which was unfolding at the time would lead to the end of war. But what really convinced him of my naïveté was my sense that we could produce a paradigm shift in the way we dealt with conflict in general and live in a world that solved its problems through cooperation rather than coercion.
He was prepared to agree that I may have been right about the Cold War which was in its death throes at the time. It was everything else that left him skeptical.
That skepticism was certainly warranted. At most, I could point to a few places where I saw glimmers of hope in the business world or in the use of mediation as a conflict resolution tool. Some even involved ways of building bridges across ideological lines which may well have been one of the reasons he kept taking classes from me.
But, that’s all they were. Glimmers of hope
And when I was honest with myself at the time, I had to admit that there was no plausible way that the new ways of thinking and acting on divisive issues I taught about could be taken to scale at the time—or in the foreseeable future.
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Now, fast forward to 2021 when I decided that the time had come to write a book that showed that Matt just might have been wrong.
Not in 1988. But now.
Far more than was the case thirty-some years ago, we could and should be optimistic.
But not naively so.
That’s a bold statement to make because there have been plenty of times in the last decade when I would describe myself as politically clinically depressed. And remember, I’m an optimist.
If anything, today’s crises dwarf all of those we faced in those days with the possible exception of the threat of an all-out nuclear war which brought Matt to my classroom. In the meantime, old issues have reappeared in new form, most notably racial (in)justice as a leit motif in American history. New issues that were not on our radar screen like climate change have become existential threats.
You don’t need me to point out that it would indeed be naïve to claim that democracy remains strong in the United States or just about anyplace else. Trust in institutions is plummeting around the world for a very good reason—our governing institutions just aren’t working very well—however you define working well.
I’ve changed, too. In the thirty years since I left full-time teaching, my focus as a scholar and academic has turned increasingly toward the problems we face here in the United States. As a comparative political scientist, I always taught and wrote about the United States, which was not true of all of my colleagues. Similarly, unlike many of my early colleagues at the Alliance for Peacebuilding (AfP), I always knew that we could legitimately claim that we could help people solve problems in (say) Burundi if we couldn’t do so ourselves in (say) Baltimore.
In short, I now work almost exclusively on the problems we face here in the United States. I still use what I’ve learned as comparative politics analyst and a global peacebuilder, but I bring it all bear on the problems we face here at home.
I no longer spend much time in a classroom, but I still find myself mentoring young people some of whom still turn me on to new software. More importantly for our purposes here, they have convinced me that we could and should be optimistic.
If we can connect the dots.
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As you will see in the pages that follow, they are showing that me that the first glimmers of hope that I saw thirty years ago have become what Chip and Dan Heath call bright spots that can be taken to scale. What’s more, they can be found in and cut across all of the arenas of social, political, and economic life that are now on my radar screen.
Some of them more work on the assumption that we live in a complex world in which we can’t tackle problems one issue at a time the way I did in the 1980s. Some of them could even be taken to scale and lead to the kind of paradigm shift I’ve been ranting about since I first read Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions when I was a college sophomore.
I used the word could in the previous sentence because the odds are still stacked against me. Among other things, we’ll have to connect a lot of “dots” so that the people I’ve met and worked with on the many issues facing our communities, our country, and our planet today can produce lasting change. Those dots will have to include more than just the activists who have been in the news since the pandemic hit in 2020. It will also have to include people like Matt who is now in his fifties, a partner in a venture capital firm and a community volunteer.
You will get to see how and why that is the case in the rest of this book in which I weave together research I have done and projects I have personally worked on in four areas. The first three of them have been on or another of the business cards I’ve handed out to new acquaintances over the years. The final one has never formally been part of my job description, though in fact it is what I spend most of my time doing. It also gave this book its title and gave me an overarching goal for the last stage(s) of my professional and political career. It will also let you (and Matt) decide if you think I’m still the most naively optimistic person in the world.
Peacebuilding. I came of age during the 1960s and describe myself as having majored in ending the war in Vietnam at Oberlin. Shortly after I graduated, I was granted conscientious objector status by my local draft board. I took time out from peace work during the 1970s. But, like many in my generation who had grown up with the threat of nuclear war hanging over our heads, the renewed arms race of the 1980s rekindled my activism. This time, though, I was fortunate to meet the folks from Beyond War who were already combining the old goal of peace with new insights about conflict and its resolution. As a result, I was there (admittedly on the fringes) when the modern peacebuilding and conflict resolution were born. Over time, it took me out of academia into the so-called real world in ways I would never have imagined when Matt was hanging out in my office.
Democracy. Colby hired me to teach comparative politics with an emphasis on Western Europe and the United States. In other worlds, I have long had an interest in what makes democracy work—or collapse as the case may be. That day when Matt came to my office, I was probably working on the first edition of a textbook in comparative politics that had two huge impacts on my life. First, it allowed me the financial freedom to not need a “day job” ever again. Second and more importantly here, it led me to think. about the forces that promote and/or undermine democracy in more general terms than I had when I only taught about western Europe. Still, I never expected that I would enter old age worrying about the threats facing democracy in countries like France, Great Britain, and my own United States. While I began worrying about the dangers facing the industrialized democracies long before 2016, I do have to admit that events like the Brexit referendum in the UK and Donald Trump’s election here in the US set off their share of alarm bells…..
Innovation. Innovation was added to my job description fairly late in the game when the Alliance for Peacebuilding reorganized in the early 2010s. When I look back on my professional life. I now realize that I’ve always been an innovator—as a camp counselor then as a college professor and now as a peacebuilder and political scientist. Early in the 2010s, I discovered that John Seely Brown and John Hagel created what they called edge labs. I realized that I had always played the kind of role they were urging on their corporate clients. I have always “sat” at the edge of my own field, cast my “eyes” outward for innovative ideas, and helped my colleagues adapt them in both political science or peacebuilding. For example, though he didn’t take it, I introduced an interdisciplinary, team-taught freshman seminar on paradigm shifts when Matt was at Colby. Today, I spend a lot of time reading about neuroscience, management theory, information technology, and more while mentoring young colleagues who are trying to build careers using those ideas in peacebuilding.
Connecting the dots. For the purposes of this book, my fourth area of expertise is by far the most important even though it has never featured in my job description let alone on my business card.
In fact, I spend a lot of my time connecting dots in two main ways.
Although I never thought in these terms until recently, I have spent my career synthesizing seemingly dissimilar material—a skill that has led publishers to ask me to write single-author textbooks in both comparative politics and peace and conflict studies.
But it’s more than intellectual. I increasingly find myself trying to connect human dots by introducing the people I work with in those other three areas to each other so that they can combine their efforts and, by working together, create what the John D and Catherine T McArthur Foundations calls in its tag line—a more just, verdant, and peaceful world.
We will need both if we are going to turn those glimmers of hope into lasting change. As I will show more fully in the next chapter, we have a lot of dots to connect intellectually now that we live a world characterized by interdependence or what my young friends call intersectionality. That said, it’s not just an intellectual challenge. The mostly young people you will meet in this book have to combine their efforts more effectively than they have so far. Indeed, I didn’t just write this book to make that happen, I’ve been working on doing so every day when my fingers weren’t glued to my keyboard (or my voice to the dictation software I began using at about the same time I started writing).
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Theirs is the story I will be telling in the next two hundred pages or so. I’ll connect the dots by identifying some of the most promising bright spots and other innovations that can sustain democracy and build peace during these troubled times.
You will see people around the United States who are building bridges across racial lines in a whole host of ways. You will also see teachers and students rethinking what our young people learn and how the learn it concerning race, the environment, gender, the economy, and more. You will meet a new generation of leaders who are beginning to leave a mark on government, the private sector, and higher education. You will meet entrepreneurs who are using new information technology platforms to address everything from war and peace around the world to climate change to the red/blue divide here in the United States. Finally, you will meet people who started out as yoga instructors but realized that the self-awareness and wellness movements of which they are part can help produce far broader social change.
Whatever the specific issues they focus on, the activists and others you will meet are tackling what I call wicked problems. They understand we all have to navigate a world of accelerating change and increasing interdependence in which every issue has to be addressed simultaneously.
They are also doing it in a way that sets them apart from the activists who deservedly got the lion’s share of the press coverage in 2020. The are all navigating unusual political waters in which they seek profound change but do so largely from inside the system.
None of them are household names which means that it is hard to talk about them and the idea of taking them to scale in the same breath. Nonetheless, each of them has at least begun charting pathways out of what Amanda Ripley calls high conflict in ways that could take us toward a more democratic, just, and sustainable future.
That said, all I can claim is that these are works in progress.
We have made some progress in the corporate world and all of the other fronts I’ll be talking about in the rest of this book. Still, we are a long way from either taking any one of them to scale let alone connecting the dots among them enough for us to be able to change either American cultural norms or our government’s public policies in anything that approaches paradigm-shift-like terms.
As you’ll see frequently in the next chapter as well, Matt’s gift was but one of many things that happened in those days that set me on the personal, professional, and political odyssey that culminated in this book and its (I hope) less than naïve but decided optimistic message. There are plenty of reasons why Matt—and you—should still be skeptical. The world has evolved and not always in what any of us would think of as good ways. Still, we have evolved in more hopeful ways, too.
Also, as should already be clear, I did not write this book to simply dazzle you with some really cool examples. I also want you to see ways in which you can connect the dots in your life. Otherwise, I’ll probably remain the most naively optimistic person in the world.
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While I’ve done my best to focus on the stories themselves, I have much of my professional life as an academic which means I want to be more than just a storyteller. Indeed, before I get to the stories, I have to take a detour and discuss both the realities we confront and how I ended up on the journey I’ve been on since Matt showed up in my office that day. So, the next chapter will put the heart of this book in a context that will help you decide if what I’m saying makes sense or not.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members.