Why we live the lives we do.

“Being human is attempting to live a life that is not pre-determined by your genes,” said Daniel Dennett. If Dennett is right, then being human is also the search for a life unchained by narratives that, like our genes, drive our lives subtly, powerfully, and without our choosing. If such a life is achievable to any extent at all, the path to it is surely worth exploring. This blog asks readers to consider the question: How did I come to think what I think, and whose interest does it serve that I think it? It tries to show how mostly unseen narratives organize society and drive our behavior by determining how we view the world, what we believe, who we love, who we hate, and who we think we are. We can never be free of the narratives that direct our behavior. But an understanding of how they do their work on us might lead us to greater independence of thought. It could guide us toward empathy for adherents of narratives that are not our own. These ideas might suggest the thoughtfulness needed before declaring allegiance to a group or ideology. They might help us become more ourselves.

War Games

2015 March 25

The rigors of any military boot camp are designed not only to give soldiers the physical conditioning needed for war, but to develop in them the capacities of mind and soul required for killing when it becomes necessary. As individuals they need not hate the enemy, yet they must develop the talent for hating when the moment calls for it.

To create a man or woman capable of killing, you must first create a killing narrative. As a government hands a soldier a gun, it must also provide a reason for using it. That reason could be a reminder of Pearl Harbor / the Alamo / the Maine, an alarm about an ideological menace, or a perceived wrong committed centuries ago. A war narrative, whether or not it is targeted at a single enemy, permeates any large society focused on self-preservation. And, with regard to the individual members of that society, conditioning generally starts young.

Among the very young, toy soldiers have now given way to action figures capable of creating over-the-top death and mayhem. A few years on in life, war movies advance the narrative with killing technologies that exceed those available to any government. The quintessence of narrative killing arrives in animated, graphically rich video games operated by a hand console. The irony is that these games externalize the violent chaos of the adolescent imagination so successfully that their advertisements are generally rated “M for mature.”

Now the inevitable has occurred: We have arrived at the convergence of entertainment and war. Real war. There is no longer a gap between game-killing and killing-killing.

DRONE, a film by Norwegian Director Tonje Hessen Schei, and yet to be released in America, charts the dramatic emergence of drones in the American military’s remote operations. One of its striking revelations involves the recruitment of young male video gamers, whose dwelling places have typically been the arcade and the living room couch, to operate killer drones in CIA / Air Force operations centers. It’s rational if you think about it. “We don’t need top gun pilots anymore,” says one recruiter. “We need revenge of the nerds.” Find the young people most talented at killing on the video screen, give them another screen, and pay them. The new screen, however, links to a camera on an airborne drone over Pakistan. On the young gamer’s control set is a trigger that will launch its missile at a target. Same young man, almost the same game, but this time someone’s on the other end. Or maybe it’s a family. Or a wedding party with a suspicious guest.

Distance from the action enables the operator to maintain the narrative of entertainment while engaging as a principal in warfare. Few new skills are needed. The military has, in fact, developed its own video games as recruitment tools.

Here’s what the absence of a relevant narrative will do to you. A drone operator who has since left the job says, “I didn’t understand what it meant to kill at first. It was horrible.”  And: “We were getting orders to take these people’s lives. It was just—point and click.” Another: “It was like it was easy. It was too easy. You never know who you’re killing because you never actually see a face.”

So, the gamers, by taking what many of them consider a dream job, acquire personal histories as killers without ever having made much of a conscious decision to go to war. An operator who was not yet 20 when he entered the program describes the dawning realization: “I thought it was the coolest damned thing in the world. Play a video game all day. And then the reality hits you that you may have to kill somebody.” They may never have fired a real gun, taken fire, or been at risk in any way. Yet each will forever be the person who did this—though the film makes clear that few have yet thought it through. Those who object are reminded of the oaths they have sworn.

The film’s concluding scene shows Pakistani villagers placing large photos of still-living local children on rooftops, there to be captured in the lenses of overflying drones and transmitted back to their operators in Nevada control rooms. The message: This is who you’re killing.

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It’s not about you, China

2015 March 9

For the first half of the 20th Century, Japan ravaged Asia and the Pacific in pursuit of empire. Then, in the wake of World War II, a shocked and exhausted nation withdrew into pacifism, never again to pursue an aggressive war. The Constitution of 1946, drafted and implemented under the Allied occupation, prohibited Japan from developing a military capable of offensive action. The country renounced war as a means of resolving international disputes.

Though the pacifist narrative became dominant in Japanese society, it never fully displaced the ancient instinct for war. Narratives, like genes and viruses, go into remission for periods of time. One narrative can cede its position to a competing narrative in the mind of an individual,  a group, or a nation,. But the disappearance is likely to be temporary.

So, while war disappeared as a matter of public policy, it did not abandon the underlying Japanese ethos entirely. Apologies to wartime victims were withheld for decades, notably from the Korean “comfort women” subjected to sex slavery in service to Japanese troops. Current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, himself, denied in 2007 that Korean women had been coerced into sex slavery. Japanese school textbooks have continued to refer to the 1937 slaughter of 300,000 people in Nanking, known everywhere as the “Rape of Nanking,” as the “Nanking Incident,” leaving open the question of responsibility for the atrocities committed there. Senior Japanese officials have continued to pay very public, ceremonial visits to shrines memorializing wartime figures considered elsewhere to have been war criminals.

Yet, that post-war Constitution, whose Article 9 forbids Japan from developing any military capability other than a defensive one, has remained intact and untouched. Until now.

Now Abe, in his second term as Prime Minister, has begun calling for constitutional change that would allow development of a military capable of action abroad. What prompted this historic reversal? Continuous nibbling at Japan’s outer islands by China’s Navy and Air Force has not been enough to do it. At least not overtly. What pushed Abe to call for a military capable of making war was the Islamic State’s execution of two Japanese nationals—one a respected journalist, and one generally referred to in news reports as an “adventurer.” Although ISIS poses no threat to the Japanese homeland, the killing of two individuals who made the choice to travel to the war zone provoked the Prime Minister’s promise to “make the terrorists pay the price.” Japan’s announced enemy is not China, but ISIS.

No matter what narrative Abe uses to frame his desire for an army, the Chinese aren’t interested in his reasons. They don’t need an intelligence apparatus to conclude that the Japanese have been looking to arm against China all along, but have had to await a pretext that features a third-party protagonist as the enemy. ISIS fills the role just fine.

The Chinese government’s early reaction has been to announce plans for a massive People’s Liberation Army parade to take place in September on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. The government plans an additional three such parades, all exhibiting the latest Chinese weaponry. So far, it’s just parades – as complements to the continuous probes on sea and in the air.

As Japanese society begins to argue the restoration of offense-capable armed forces, it is impossible to say how strong the war narrative will have to get, how long it will have to prevail, and how much destruction it will have to cause before giving way to Japan’s pacifist narrative once again. Last time it led to a cataclysm whose final exclamation mark—15 kilotons of energy released over Hiroshima—sent the Japanese war narrative into reverse. Its orbit has now reached its maximum distance from the center and is clearly starting its return. A new cycle begins.

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Narrative Arc – Europe, Israel & the Holocaust

2014 November 10

Angela Merkel recently told a crowd gathered before Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate: “It’s our national and civic duty to fight anti-Semitism.”

Striking as it is that she found it necessary to do this, anti-Semitism is on the rise again. Jewish sites have been the targets of attack across Europe. Calls for the murder of Jews are out in the open in France, Germany, and elsewhere. In May, four people were shot dead at a Jewish museum in Brussels. Someone with a keen sense of history threw Molotov cocktails at a synagogue in Wuppertal, Germany, that had been destroyed once before, on Kristallnacht in 1938. Also with a mind for the past, more than 1% of French Jews have emigrated in the last year—echoing the steps taken by far too few German Jews as the Nazis strengthened their hold in the 1930s. A number of commentators have observed that anti-Semitic remarks have lost their stigma even among “cultured” European society. It is once again safe to make negative comments about Jews in high places. Seventy years after the end of World War II, the narrative that anti-Semitism will never again be allowed to rise in Europe (as in the meme, “Never Again”),  has given way to a much older narrative about Jews. Public, widely-approved anti-Semitism is back.

The anti-Semitic narrative in Europe has traced a broad arc since US and Soviet troops discovered the concentration camps in 1944 / 45. Any narrative may go into remission for a while, and the popular disparagement of Jews did so after the Holocaust fully expressed and exhausted it. In remission, a narrative may be eclipsed by other narratives that become dominant for a time. So, the “Never again” narrative replaced anti-Semitism. It expressed the pan-European conviction that grand crimes against humanity would be snuffed out by collective action. For more than half a century, the “Never again” consensus suppressed the anti-Semitic narrative in Europe. But narratives don’t go away any more than viruses do. People don’t really change, so a compelling narrative will eventually reassert itself.

As anti-Semitism resurfaces in Europe, a movie and a book have drawn attention back to Hannah Arendt, the German-American Jewish political theorist who rocked the post-holocaust Jewish world with her reporting on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in the early 1960s.

Eichmann was the Nazi officer who organized the transfer of Eastern European Jews to the death camps. He is reported to have declared his assembly and deportation of 400,000 Hungarian Jews as the greatest logistics triumph in history. After the war he was among the considerable number Nazis who evaded capture and scattered across the world. He reached Argentina and established a new identity. There is convincing evidence that the West German government knew his whereabouts throughout the post-war period, but left him alone out of fear of what he might reveal about former Nazis working in the new Bonn government. In 1960, Israeli agents captured Eichmann and transferred him to Israel to be tried for war crimes.

His defense mimicked those of the Nuremburg defendants who, facing Allied judges just after the war, claimed the atrocities they’d committed amounted to nothing more than the execution of orders that had been legal at the time they were issued. That post-war court rejected this defense, establishing the “Nuremburg Principles,” which stated that individuals who commit crimes against humanity are responsible for their actions regardless of whether or not a superior officer ordered them. Eichmann testified that he had been nothing but a bureaucrat performing a job. Still the court convicted him, and the Israeli state executed him.

In her book, “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” Arendt famously characterized massive crimes against humanity as a “banality of evil.” By this she meant that crimes committed by modern states took place on so grand a scale, and required such elaborate bureaucracies and logistics networks, that it had become difficult to assign responsibility for such crimes to any person. Political and administrative systems that appeared to function normally could, without much disruption, be re-directed to bring about the murders of millions. “Banality of evil” emerged as a powerful narrative to describe the nature of modern state-directed atrocities. It was an idea that seemed fresh and original. And it contained the most potent asset any narrative can have: It was simple.

Arendt recognized Eichmann’s guilt and agreed with the decision to execute him. But she also accepted his argument that he was nothing but a bureaucrat intensely focused on his task. She wrote that Eichmann was not an anti-Semite but simply a highly effective apparatchik so immersed in his job that he had lost his ability to think. In the modern hyper-industrialized, and therefore dehumanized world, evil could be done with responsibility for it so diffuse that it left mid-level cogs in the machine like Eichmann unaccountable. The phrase “banality of evil” took hold as one of the dominant references for writers, commentators, and academics dealing with state-sponsored atrocities for the next 50 years.

Margarethe von Trotta’s 2013 film, “Hannah Arendt,” dramatizes the explosive reaction the “banality of evil” theme drew from Jews—particularly death camps survivors. Many accused Arendt of abandoning her people and trivializing the most inhuman deed ever committed.

They believed Arendt was dissipating the narrative of crimes against the 6 million into a diffuse doctrine of institutional evil. She seemed to position both the Nazis and the Jews as balancing components of a single argument. The ostracism Arendt suffered from colleagues, friends, and much of the world Jewish community lasted until the end of her life. But the idea endured as a fundamental piece of the post-war colloquy.

A 2011 a book by Bettina Stagneth, “Eichmann before Jerusalem,” whose English version appeared in 2014, responds to Arendt, even referring directly to her book (“Eichmann in Jerusalem”) in its title. With access to great stores of documents that became available after Arendt’s death in 1975, Stagneth has shown that there could no longer be any question of Eichmann’s fanatical, personal anti-Semitism—quite apart from his bureaucratic role in the state apparatus. The views of that time continue to coalesce through such commentaries as Joshua Jonah Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners—Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust,” which documents the collaboration of ordinary citizens, well outside the Nazi Party, in efforts to exterminate the Jews.

Today, as the pendulum swings back toward what seem to be bedrock attitudes toward Jews, Hungary leads all European countries in the intensity of its anti-Semitism. A 2014 Anti-Defamation League survey shows 41% of Hungarians harbor anti-Semitic views. Yet, the post-war European redemption narrative persists in official Hungary. The famous memorial of bronzed shoes marks the spot on the Danube riverbank where government-sanctioned Nazi Arrow Cross militiamen executed Jews toward the end of the war. Judaism stands among Hungary’s four state-recognized religions, and public funds support Budapest’s glorious Dohany Street Synagogue, which was spared wartime bombing—by the Allies because they tried to avoid synagogues, and by the Germans because, in its women’s balcony, Eichmann made his office. He considered it the ideal spot from which to muster Jews from the surrounding ghetto for rail transfer to Auschwitz and similar places.

While the current Hungarian government invests in these gestures, it has demonstrated little willingness to temper the emergent far-right, virulently anti-Semitic Jobbik Party. As is often the case, any narrative that rejects anti-Semitism finds its counterweight in anti-Semitism’s eternal political usefulness. The government of Prime Minster Viktor Orbán seems to contain both narratives within itself—apparently without great difficulty.


The sustainability of any narrative varies with its value to the individuals and groups who harbor it. If it is in the interest of Jews “never again” to face extermination, then it remains crucial to keep the narrative of the Holocaust alive. The worldwide agitation of Holocaust deniers provides a robust and visible counter narrative. For them, the way to suppress empathy for Jews it is to say the Holocaust didn’t happen.

Much of the energy and justification for the State of Israel derived from the “never again” narrative. Since Israel’s founding six-and-a-half decades ago, Jewishness and the right of Israel to exist have been deeply intertwined. But those two narrative strands are becoming less tightly wound as many Diaspora Jews recoil from the security policies of the current Israeli government. A parallel disenchantment has occurred broadly in the outlook on Israel held by many governments that have been supportive since its founding in 1948.

If the military measures Israel has taken in Gaza—albeit in response to clear and horrendous provocations—are in excess of what is needed, then it is worth considering what they contribute to the ultimate well-being of the country in light of the fraying they are causing to he primal Israeli narrative that has supported the state since its beginning.

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Capital Markets and the Cocktail Party

2014 January 8

I often talk to investors and analysts in support of a client who is preparing for an Investor Conference or Analyst Day.

When artfully applied, intelligence on what investors and analysts want to get out of such a meeting can contribute greatly to the company’s effectiveness in communicating.

If management plans far enough ahead, an advisor can carry out structured conversations with the market that reveal what investors want to derive from each presentation segment—strategy, product areas, markets, finance, etc.

It is always the case that the information investors want to hear and that which the company wants to give differ from each other.

No matter what its situation, management always feels it has a favorable story to tell. Investors, however, want to hear more about how things actually work than the company is willing to tell them.

Their interest is generally intense in any case, and investors will fly across the country, or an ocean, to attend the company presentation. They will do this for two reasons:

One reason, of course, is to assess the shape of the business and the direction in which each part of it is heading. They get this concrete information from management presentations. And, to assess confidence, they listen to tone of voice and observe body language when the CEO is giving guidance on expected future results.

The second, and equally important, reason they come is for the cocktail party.

Booze, of course, is more efficiently accessible by other means. But, as you’ve guessed, it’s not about that.

The importance of the cocktail party is that it gives people the opportunity to, as some of them like to put it, “kick the company’s tires.”

What they mean by this is that the cocktail party, which takes place the evening before the presentation or directly afterwards, creates unique access to the operations executives who run the business—in other words, to people the investors and analysts would never encounter otherwise.

Each of the two dozen or so free-flowing cocktail conversations can take its own course. And it is exactly this lack of control that can shorten the life of any Investor Relations Officer. Or at least bring out the Prilosec.

That’s because, as any IR Officer knows, the external capital markets conversation and internal operations conversation take place in two entirely different languages.

The operations conversation is a straightforward, hyper-rational dialogue about how to achieve efficient execution and innovation. Operations people present at the investor event have achieved success in large part because of their ability to navigate such conversations.

But the investment conversation asks only one question: “What is the value of the sum total of everything operations people do?”

Operations people are intensely interested in the work they do and the pride it brings them. But they are generally untrained in the market communications practice of speaking volubly while saying as little as possible.

CEOs and IR Officers usually attribute their own reluctance to give detailed descriptions of the business to their need to withhold that info from the competition. That’s a valid reason, but valid considerably less often than used.

Operations people, however, don’t have that unnatural reluctance to talk. Ask them a question, they’ll give you an answer.

And that is the source of the IR Officer’s agita.

A pre-event training program gives the IR Officer an opportunity to re-orient operations people for the investment conversation in advance of an Investor Conference or Analyst Day.

It is incumbent on the Investor Relations Officer to explain to operations executives that, although investors look like normal people, they are a truly different species.

Using third-party investor intelligence work, the IR officer is well advised to brief the operating personnel on what, in each of their particular areas, investors truly care about.  The IR Officer can then translate that information into clear guidance on the kinds of specific information that, from management’s perspective, are sayable to investors, and those that are not.

In the Investor Relations world, this is basic risk management.

Classical Investor Relations pedagogy offers nothing, however, about how to temper the effect on the conversation of the liquids being served.

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To change the narrative, move the bodies around.

2013 December 20

President Vladimir Putin’s release of oil tycoon and political challenger Mikhail Khodorkovsky from a 10-year stay in Russian prisons comes just ahead of Russia’s hosting of the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Khodorkovsky’s original detention came on vague financial offenses, and Russian prosecutors, nominally through the courts, have continually extended his term. The real reason behind the campaign against Khodorkovsky, of course, lies in his opposition to Russia’s closed political system. And, as Russian civil life has continued to constrict, it has seemed he might remain a prisoner for the rest of his life. Now, suddenly, he’s free.

Putin’s purpose in granting this release is to change the external narrative about Russia during the period of intense scrutiny the Olympics will bring. But this is a corporate management blog, so what’s Russia got to do with it? The timing of Putin’s action highlights one of the fundamental characteristics of command-driven structures, whether governments or corporations: They never respond to calls for greater openness unless forced to do so by external events.

When investors call on a corporation to offer greater transparency, management’s underlying message is generally: “Trust us, we know what we’re doing.”

The world’s view of a closed political regime, and investors’ view of a closed company management, are both characterized by mistrust. Only when the costs of mistrust become clear does the political leader or corporate manager react. But experience shows that it’s virtually impossible to change the narrative. That’s because the reasons underlying any change have to be sincere.

Putin, in fact, will never relax his tight-fisted control, which he would surely claim works in the best interests of unruly Russia. Most corporations will continue to withhold information from investors on the pretext that releasing it would aid competitors. Yet they know that greater credibility with investors will bring a higher stock value.

So, how do you change the external narrative without changing anything inherent to the country / company? The answer is that you move the bodies around.

By letting Khodorkovsky out of jail, Putin changes the external story about the country for just enough time to enhance the Olympics’ appearance of success. A company exercises the body-moving method of narrative change when the board pushes out the current management and brings in fresh faces—fresh to the company, anyway. The year or two it takes investors to develop an opinion of the new management diverts them from the transparency issue and relieves some of the pressure on the board for a meaningful period of time.

And there it is: The body-moving method of changing the public conversation—without changing very much at all.

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