Hair on Fire

I see that Kevin Drum is reenforcing the hair-on-fire meme around Richard Clarke’s testimony. He stoops to suggesting Clarke is suffering from “monomania.” Kevin even signs on to the “clinton-bush-same-policy” meme.

How can Bush and Clinton have had the same policy if Al Quida was the #1 or #2 foreign priority of the Clinton administration while the Bush administration didn’t manage to have a meeting about it until September? How can they be the same policy when Rice’s essays on what is and isn’t important leading into up to their take over barely even mention terrorism and when they do it’s only in the context of state sponsors.

The hair-on-fire meme is the most serious accusation, but it’s only one of many so far. So far, the opponents of Mr. Clarke have suggested he’s gay, and that he’s picking on a black woman, that he’s a lier, a opportunist, … we could go on. So possibly we shouldn’t be too concerned if the mud that sticks is that he is a “true believer,” a man with a mission. But I think that terribly misses the point.

I’ve been thinking recently that one aspect of this story is how a liberal organization v.s. a conservative one responds when a guy enters the room and announces there is a huge unrecognized problem. For a liberal organization the response is “Sigh, another constituency. Ok, tell me your story and we will see what we can do.” For a conservative organization the reaction is “Calm down my son. Your problem is covered in our model, which has worked for years and will endure for many more.”

So it’s entirely consistent that Clarke was able to get a hearing and make his case in the Clinton administration. In the Bush administration he was considered just another one of those people with their hair on fire.

When ever any large institution changes course the social network of the people involve will have people out in front of the change and people that lag far behind and cling to the old ways. The folks out in front are always characterized as being over the top. Recall that enthusiasm was, until recently, a sin: to believe yourself full of the breadth of the lord. What distinguishes a healthy organization from a stagnant one is that it manages to filter thru the various enthusiasms and integrate in the ones that it must.

Institutions that fail to adapt act progressively more and more dysfunctional as the world around them changes and they don’t. At first this dysfunction is indistinguishable from all the usual background noise of the real world. In time it becomes sharper as the mismatch becomes more severe. Finally it is fatal.

It is clear that the Clinton administration was adapting and it’s clear that the Bush administration was not. Further it’s clear that as the signals from the real world became stronger the Bush administration retreated into their classic old models of how to address the problem.

There was a failure of the Bush administration to pick up the ball from the Clinton administration. Worse yet when they finally found the ball on fire on their front door they reacted by heading off in entirely the wrong direction. Feeding the supply chain of the terrorist networks with huge pool of outraged young men.

Ok so now we have a guy, Clarke, who was one of the folks on the fore front of trying to get the institution to change. He labors for years to help the ship of state change course. He makes significant progress. He suffers a set back when the new administration arrives. Over the months it becomes clear that he’s not getting thru to these people. They are deeply loyal to their model of the world and he’s not managing to get their attention.

Then the horrible day. No longer is his hair on fire, now the lawn out front’s on fire. What do they do? They go in entirely the wrong direction.

What would you do at that point? He did exactly what any well practices organizational specialist would do. He engaged in “object shift.” He looked for a different venue in which to make the case. This time he shifted the discussion to the public sphere. Is that excessive enthusiasm, monomania? No that’s effective workman like organizational grunt work.

We owe this guy a huge debt. To engage in projection and suggest that he’s suffering from narrow minded religious passions is the worst kind of insult. It paints him with the same brush we might appropriately select to paint religious terrorists, the oklahoma bombers, and possibly even the neo-cons.

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