I want to invite you to bite down hard and read this article by Rich Lowry, the editor of the National Review: Baltimore, a Great Society Failure:
President Barack Obama responded to the Baltimore riots with a heartfelt bout of self-righteous hectoring.
Supposedly, we all know what’s wrong with Baltimore and how to fix it, but don’t care enough. The president seems to believe that if only we all had the wisdom and the compassion of Barack Obama, Baltimore would already be on the mend. Not only is this attitude high-handed and insulting, it rests on a flagrantly erroneous premise.
Obama doesn’t have the slightest idea how to fix Baltimore. While parts of his diagnosis are sound — communities like West Baltimore obviously lack for fathers and business investment — his solutions fall back on liberal bromides going back 50 years.
This is probably not atypical of many articles written on the subject, especially by people who are far removed from the actual events on the ground. People we call “pundits.” People whose opinions, ironically, are given more weight and status than those who are actually on the ground.
One of my favourite lines from the Cynefin training I took in December was this: “in complex environments expertise clashes because there is enough evidence to prove something works, but not enough evidence to disprove…” This article by Lowry is a perfect example.
Lowry uses the events in Baltimore as a cipher to project his ideological view of the world on to the situation. You can tell what he thinks about things: the fact that government is always fundamentally the problem. And the fact that he holds this position so tightly means he is incapable of offering any true perspective on what is going on there. He sees what he wants, and participates in turning the narrative away from the people who are living with the situation on the ground, and instead shaping it towards policy solutions that he would prefer regardless of whether or not six police officers committed an act for which they were charged with homicide. If you agree with him, you will see what he sees. If you don’t, you will see different things.
And there is another problem with Lowry’s analysis here too. He engages in classic retrospective coherence, in which he traces the causes of the present situation back to a set of actions. There is nothing wrong with this, and again, he is not wrong in some of this analysis, probably. But he projects that limited root cause analysis into the future in such a way that he is claims to be able to judge the efficacy of responses to the crises. And in so doing, he does not use this look back at the situation to illuminate his own biases, which would actually be valuable. This is a fatal error in dealing with complex situations. The desire to “fix” Baltimore is fundamentally psychotic. You cannot “fix” a situation like this without eliminating the people that in the middle of it. Lowry does that. Not a single voice quoted in his article is a person living in the middle of this.
And you cannot evaluate the efficacy of responses based on past performance. We are dealing with a complex system. A transformative moment in Baltimore is just as likely to happen as a result of all those neighbours who cleaned the place up as it is but creating a fundamental policy shift or slapping your kid on video or rejigging the tax system to allow more Republicans to be registered.
The problem with that of course, is that in order to deal with situations like this you need to engage the people in middle of it to both make sense of what is going, make meaning of actions, initiate and lead multiple responses at all kinds of scales to what is going on. Having pundits at a distance pronouncing on the efficacy of efforts based on a pre-ordained ideological frame is not helpful because it entrains decision makers to look for data that supports their conclusions.
Unfortunately this is exactly what passes for public discourse and policy making these days. The best thing to do is be quiet and listen to what the people on the ground are saying and doing. They’re stories are the only ones that matter, and their leadership is the only leadership that will make a difference. they may require support from higher levels of government or broader contexts, but they are not helped by all of us pronouncing on their efforts. We have absolutely no benchmarks with which to gauge success or failure. No one has the “answer” for Baltimore. Instead it’s about shared work, shared meaning making, shared leadership and grounded sense-making. It’s about thinking and acting differently.