This Week: 25th Birthday Edition Vol. 3 : 2004-2008

2004: Thinking “Systems” (Part 1 in the who-knows-how-many part “How Not To Get Depressed” Series)

The first essay in Volume 3 of the Nygaard Notes 25-year retrospective attempts to explain the radical idea of “thinking systems.” This concept is central to the entire Nygaard Notes project, so much so that I encourage you (if Part 1 intrigues you), to go online and read all 4 parts of this series. I can’t begin to explain how central to my approach this way of thinking—maybe I should say “way of being”—has come to be.

Back in 2004, as the nation prepared to elect George W. Bush to a second term, many readers communicated to me, in one way or another, that they were depressed by the rise of the right and the endless and pointless “War Against Terror”, which I began to refer to as “The WAT?!”.

It was in that context that I published the “How Not To Get Depressed” Series, Parts 1 & 2 of which I reprint here.

Thinking “Systems” (Part 1 in the who-knows-how-many part “How Not To Get Depressed” Series) From Nygaard Notes #266, August 27, 2004

For centuries many people in the West sought to explain events – including human behavior – in terms of cause and effect. In their 1988 book, “Family Systems and Beyond,” Jason Montgomery and Willard Fewer put it like this:

“In the beginning there was ‘cause,” and explanations of human behavior sought this cause. Some thought that original sin was the cause, others believed in instincts. The ‘will to power’ had its true believers as did the profit motive, race, and gender. Each of these causes was thought to be the basis of human behavior.”

However, people came to see that this cause-based thinking doesn’t explain things very well. For example, social scientists can show that crime increases when unemployment increases. But everyone who is unemployed does not commit crimes. See the problem? So people came up with ideas like “multicausation,” and “mutual causation,” both of which basically said that human behavior might have more than one cause. These theories were somewhat better, as they acknowledged that the reasons people do what they do might be rather complex. But they still weren’t good enough; too much behavior remained inexplicable, even weird. Eventually people came up with the idea of Systems Theory.

A Different Way of Thinking

I came into contact with Systems Theory many years ago in my training as a family therapist, where we focused on the work of people like Murray Bowen, Gregory Bateson, Salvador Minuchin, and others. While the focus was on family therapy, it seemed clear to me that there was a way of thinking involved in this worldview that seemed to explain behavior far better than the way I had assumed. Up to that point I – like ‘most everyone I knew – thought in terms of causation: What is it that makes people do what they do? I’ve stopped looking for that answer. I’ve adopted a different way of thinking.

And it’s really different. Once you learn to think this way, in other words, you can’t switch back. As family therapist Michael Kerr says in his 1981 essay Family Systems Theory and Therapy: “Individual and systems thinking are two distinctly different ways of conceptualizing human behavior, and attempts to mix them reflect a failure to appreciate their difference.” And this doesn’t just apply to human behavior, I might add. It also applies to social structures and institutions, since they are, of course, created by humans.

So, why is “thinking systems” so different from “thinking individually?” First and foremost, as Montgomery and Fewer put it, “Consider the ‘cause’ of behavior. In systems theory, there is no cause, since behavior is interactional and processual and has no discernible beginning.” They add that “The importance of context, the mutuality of interaction, the interpenetration of one system with another are elements of individual and group behavior that cannot be addressed in a cause-based analysis.” Forgive the big words; these guys are academics, I guess.

Here’s what they mean: They mean that a systems approach rejects simple answers, since it accepts that people live in the world and thus have all sorts of influences on them, including their families, their schools, their societies, their biology, their social class, their neighborhood, and on and on. And not only do all of these things help to determine what we do, but everything we do has an effect on these systems. So, the context affects our behavior, and our behavior affects the context. Everybody’s context. All the time.

My mother used to say to me, “Jeff, why do you make things so complicated?” She would be saying that right now, if she were reading this. If you are saying that right now, my response is that I don’t make things complicated. Rather, I am willing to accept that they are complicated. Is it so complicated that there is no point to even trying to change anything? No, it’s not that complicated, as I will show in coming weeks.

This is not just a theoretical point I’m making here. Things will change for you – in your actual day-to-day life – when you stop thinking in terms of “cause,” and start to see human behavior as stemming from a complex mix of what’s inside of us and what is outside of us.

First and foremost, you will stop struggling with the debate about whether people’s behaviors are dictated by the environment in which they live or by their innate biological nature, sometimes called the “Nature vs. Nurture” debate. It’s both, and we’ll never know how much of each one makes you who you are. In fact, if you want to look at it in an even deeper way, you may begin to see that the “inside” and the “outside” are the same thing. Now I’m getting into what some might call the spiritual realm, so I’ll leave it at that. Let’s just say that you can dispense of the “Nature vs. Nurture” debate when you start “thinking systems.”

Some Other Changes You Can Expect

1. You will stop blaming other people for your problems. You’ll also stop taking the blame for the problems of others. Since someone else’s behavior can’t “cause” you to feel or act a certain way, it doesn’t make any sense to blame them, and vice versa. A little slogan from my counseling days says it well: “When you’re praising or blaming, you’re not thinking systems.” This doesn’t mean you will become an insensitive, self-centered jerk. You will of course remember that your behavior contributes to the context in which we all live – including YOU.

2. It will be much harder for you to judge other people. Once you understand that everyone’s behavior grows out of a complex web of experience, genetics, opportunity, and who-knows-what, it becomes nearly impossible to think of people in terms of “good” and “evil.” (Including yourself!) Actions, policies, and behaviors can be judged in relation to personal or social values, to be sure. So I can condemn, for example, domestic violence, since it goes against my values. And I can condemn the behavior of certain institutions, for the same reason. Judge behavior, yes. Judge individual people, no. It doesn’t make sense if you’re thinking systems.

3. You will take increased responsibility for your actions. Once you stop believing that someone else can “make” you do something, you also have to let go of the idea that you need someone else to change in order for you to be the type of person you want to be. At the same time, a systems approach says that context and interactions have a large influence on behavior. Systems thinking is not some “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” type of thinking.

4. The slogan “Don’t believe everything you think” will become meaningful. That is, once you understand that everyone’s view of the world – including your own – is influenced by all sorts of things out of the individual’s control, it is a very humbling experience. My own youthful view of what determines success or failure in life, for example, was heavily influenced by the circumstances of my upbringing. And by my race. And by my gender. And by my status as an able-bodied person. And by my genetic endowment. And so forth.

If you really start “thinking systems,” it can have a positive impact on your mental health, on your relationships, and on your stress levels. In the coming weeks, I’ll talk about some other approaches to these ideas and their implications for how – and why – we act in the larger world, and how we make change happen. You’ll probably figure it out on your own, but at the end I’ll tell you in my own words how I think this can help you live in the world and not get depressed (no matter who wins the next election).

2004: Thinking Dialectically

A couple of weeks after I published “Thinking Systems” I published the essay below, which really should probably not have been separated from the Systems piece at all. Don’t know what I was thinking. (Well, it was 19 years ago!)

Anyhow, here’s Part 2 in what turned out to be a four-part “How Not To Get Depressed” Series, which first appeared in Nygaard Notes Number 268, September 10, 2004:

Thinking Dialectically

Two weeks ago, in Part 1 of this series, I talked about how I think in terms of systems, and how nothing really “causes” anything else because everything is connected. I talked about the importance of context, and how we simultaneously affect the world we live in and are affected by the world we live in. I think of “systems” as basically what the world is. The question is, how do you think about such a complex and interrelated set of systems? The answer, I think, is the idea of dialectics. In other words, systems is the “what.” Dialectics is the “how.”

What is Dialectics?

Dialectics is a lot of things to a lot of people. If you look it up, it can be pretty intimidating, since you pretty quickly run into such heavyweights as Socrates and Engels and Lao Tzu, whom most of us haven’t read. There’s Karl Marx, of course, with his dialectical materialism. And how about Charles Darwin – you’ll want to think about dialectical biology, won’t you? Well, maybe not. Instead of doing all that reading, here’s the brief Nygaard Notes summary of the key points of the dialectical method:

1. THE WORLD IS DYNAMIC. Everything is always changing, is always in movement and flux. In a sense, this is a part of the definition of dialectics: it’s a way of thinking about how things change. Conventional thinking is based largely on description: Where is it? How big is it? What color is it? Et cetera. In “The ABC of Materialist Dialectics,” Leon Trotsky pointed out that this type of thinking is inadequate in explaining the world, by saying that “it wishes to content itself with motionless imprints of a reality which consists of eternal motion.” Or (and Trotsky refers here to conventional thinking as “vulgar;” whatever…): “Dialectical thinking is related to vulgar in the same way that a motion picture is related to a still photograph. The motion picture does not outlaw the still photograph but combines a series of them according to the laws of motion.”

2. UNITY OF OPPOSING FORCES. Every thing (every object and every process) is made up of opposing forces/opposing sides. On some levels this is obvious. Every political party has an opposition, for example. And every person has a “good” side and a “bad” side. Fire can burn down your house or it can cook your food. Even in the physical world, objects are filled with tensions. Atoms are always trying to split apart, but electromagnetism tries to hold them together. And so on. The thing that’s hard for a lot of people to accept is that something can be what it is and – at the same time – be what it is not. If you can’t accept this idea, then you are far more likely to accept things “as they are,” because, well, that’s how they are.

Some Marxist types like to talk about “opposites” and “contradictions.” I don’t like to talk that way, but I see what they are saying. The point here is that a person, or a social system, is composed of parts, not all of which are happy with things as they are. In this sense, everything contains within it the seeds of change.

3. TRANSFORMATION. Things change little by little, until they change so much that they suddenly become something else. That is, they are transformed. Water is heated, and undergoes a gradual, and quantitative, change: it gets hot and just keeps getting hotter. Then, suddenly, it gets too hot and undergoes a qualitative change, and becomes steam. As Jack Lucero Fleck puts it on the excellent website Dialectics for Kids: “What happens is that the two opposing forces in a process of change push against each other. As long as one side is stronger than the other side, change is gradual. But when the other side becomes stronger, there is a turning point – an avalanche, a birth, a collapse, a discovery…”

4. UNFOLDING. When one thing combines with another thing, something new comes into being. Then that new thing combines with something else, and another new thing is born. Some dialectics people express this by saying that “change moves in spirals, not circles.” Frederick Engels talked about the “negation of the negation.” I don’t agree with Engels on this – or at least I don’t agree with his phrasing. When two things combine, it’s not as simple as “negation.” Maybe it’s a new sort of “affirmation.” Or maybe the result is so different it has little relationship to the original components. The point is that we have to keep looking at all these new and constantly unfolding things and figure them out. And to remember that those things, too, will combine with other things and keep changing.

5. INCLUDE EVERYTHING. Everything relevant, that is. The more you are able to consider all aspects of a problem, or an issue, the more likely you are to figure it out. Doesn’t this sound obvious? It may be, but it’s not easy to do. For all sorts of reasons, really smart people often fall short in their analysis of a problem – and their proposed solution then fails – because there are things that they won’t, or can’t, see. We all have our blind spots, due to our identities and upbringings, among other things. These blind spots make it difficult or impossible for us to really understand what is going on. That’s why any real solutions, especially to political or social problems, need to be worked on by the largest and most diverse group of people possible: one person’s blind spot is another person’s area of expertise. (This is yet another argument for democracy, you might notice.)

In summary, then, here are the tools to use when trying to think dialectically. Just remember that:
* Everything is always changing;
* The changes come from the conflict between opposing forces;
* Things change both quantitatively and qualitatively;
* The future will unfold in ways we can’t yet know, and;
* Your thinking should take into account as much of this as possible.

That’s a lot, but if you practice thinking this way, I think you’ll see that it works pretty darned good (as some of us in Minnesota like to say).

Well, all this theory is fine, but what does it have to do with not being depressed? The fact is that how you think affects how you act. So, if you really come to understand the universe as composed of systems, and if you think dialectically, then you are bound to act differently than you did before. But, how? And why should you care? That’s what I plan to talk about in future parts of this series.


And I did publish a couple more parts in that series, which you can find on the web if you like.  Just click on these links:

Part 3: The Power of Action
Part 4: A Radical Faith
And that website, Dialectics for Kids, really is great!


2006: The Investment Theory of Ideology in the Media

Back in the year 2000 I spelled out a simple and elegant theory that explains how money corrupts politics. In this reprint, from Nygaard Notes # 347 of October 4, 2006, I use the same theory to look at media. It’s a great example of how to use systems thinking to understand how the world works. Here’s what I said 17 years ago:

The Investment Theory of Ideology in the Media

Back in January of the year 2000, in these very pages, I wrote an article called “So… How About That Campaign?” In that article I described what I call the Investment Theory of Money in Politics. It’s not an original idea; it’s based on the ideas of Thomas Ferguson. (I recommend his 1995 book “Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems.”) I’ll summarize the theory briefly here.

Just a couple of weeks ago the Miami Herald fired three journalists when they found out that they were secretly being paid by the U.S. government to produce anti-Castro propaganda. Journalism ethics people call this “a fundamental conflict of interest” and the publisher of the Herald called such behavior a “violation of a sacred trust between journalists and the public.” Many people would call this simple corruption, and would say that this is a great example of how it works: Journalists get “bought off” by accepting money to write certain things. While I agree that money has seriously corrupted our corporate media, I don’t think this is how it usually works. I think it usually works more like the stock market works.

Years ago I was listening to Minnesota Public Radio, and they had on the leader of a Political Action Committee who was responding to an accusation that money from groups like his has… well… corrupted our political system. Here’s what he said in his defense: “We don’t ever try to buy politicians in Minnesota because, frankly, I don’t think they are ‘buyable.’ What we do is, we study their records and their statements. If we like what they are doing, we say to them, ‘Hey, we know campaigns are expensive, and we want to help you get your ideas out to the public.’ That’s how we make our decisions on whose campaign to contribute to.”

He was explaining—in unusually frank terms—how people with money “invest” in politicians who they believe are likely to do what they want. I do the same thing, actually. But the difference is that I donate, maybe, $25, while the monied classes donate thousands, or millions.

In a money-driven system like ours, the politicians who get those thousands and millions are then the politicians who will succeed. Anyone who follows politics has seen candidates drop out of a campaign before any vote is cast because a lack of money has made their campaign “non-viable.” But it’s not that the remaining candidates have been “bought off.” It’s simply that the monied classes “like what they are doing.” So they invest in them.

That’s how politicians are “selected” in the political arena. And you can see the problem that comes from relying on financial “investment” to elevate or dismiss certain politicians (or ideas): In an unequal society like ours, where some people have massive amounts of wealth to “invest” and others have little or none, the “have-mores” not only have more money, but have more power than the “have-nothings,” which is not how democracy is supposed to work. This, by the way, is the root of the problem in the larger scheme of things in what we call a “market-oriented” economy: Power in the “market” is related to money, and not everyone has money. So not everyone has power.

As With Politicians, So With Ideas

Now consider that, in our market-driven media system, it is a similar kind of “investment” that elevates certain sets of ideas, or ways of thinking, to prominence and relegates other ones to the margins. Remember that a “set of ideas” or a “way of thinking” is what is known as “ideology.”

Have you ever noticed that a lot of newspapers have “Motoring” sections, and “Style” sections, and “Travel” sections? And they all have “Business” sections! Have you noticed, also, that it’s a rare daily newspaper indeed that has an “Environment” section, or a “Labor” section, or a “Community Organizing” section? That’s no accident. A few years back I was at a meeting with the editor of our local daily newspaper, and I heard him say, “We wouldn’t have a ‘Motoring’ section if we didn’t have lots of advertisers who want to advertise in it.” What he didn’t say was that “We don’t have an ‘Environment” section, or a “Labor” section, or a “Community Organizing” section, because advertisers don’t want to advertise in it.” But he could have said that, because it’s true.

The lack of in-depth reporting on the environment, or labor, or grassroots activism is not the result of a conspiracy. It’s just a bunch of corporations, all seeking an audience for their advertisements, and calculating what types of newspapers are likely to behave in such a way as to attract the “right” kind of readers to those advertisements. Over time, they will tend to place their ads in “Business” sections, or in “Motoring” sections, which tend to attract people with money, or people who are “in the market” to buy something. If there were an “Environment” section—especially a “political” one, one that allowed a diverse collection of voices to call into question our national patterns of waste and overconsumption—who do you imagine would advertise in it? By the same token, which corporations do you imagine would advertise in a “Labor” section, where the power of corporations themselves would be likely to be challenged on a daily basis? And ad for an SUV next to a hard-hitting article about global warming? I don’t think so.

This pattern of elevating certain sets of ideas, or ideologies, to prominence, even as benign neglect relegates other sets of ideas to the margins, cannot be explained by looking at the conscious intentions of any single individual, or even any group, who might “conspire” to do so. It’s really just how “the system” works. And “the system” is based on money, which is allocated, over time, according to the needs of those individuals and corporations that have it.

And that, in very brief summary, is the Investment Theory of Ideology in the Media.

2008: “Putting Ideology Aside”

I’m interested in the U.S. intellectual system in general, how ideas are promoted or suppressed, how people think about our world and what kind of world it is. The mass media is a great source of information in this quest. The following article was published in Nygaard Notes #403 in March of 2008 and is one of my favorite examples of how a thought system is maintained. I never heard the phrase “thought system” until several years later but, looking back, that’s what I was talking about in the essay below. I plan to return to thought systems in a future edition in this 25th Birthday retrospective.

Achieving (Which?) Goals by “Putting Ideology Aside”

On February 27th a very lengthy article appeared on the front page of the New York Times with the headline, “Hints at Change, but Cuba Remains Wary.” The first two paragraphs came complete with a bit of mythology that is very widely-held in the United States. So widely-held, in fact, that I doubt most people reading it even noticed it. Here are the two paragraphs; see if you can notice the very bizarre myth that is assumed by the writer to be true:

“In his first state reception as Cuba’s president, Raul Castro met Tuesday not with leftist Latin American leaders like Hugo Chavez and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, nor with Chinese officials, but with the secretary of state of the Vatican, a traditional enemy of Communism and a critic of Cuba’s record on human rights.

“Mr. Castro’s decision to begin his tenure by meeting the Vatican’s top diplomat, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, a possible go-between with the United States and Europe, reflects his practical, no-nonsense style as well as his greater willingness to put ideology aside to achieve his goals than his brother often showed.”

The mythology to which I refer is that last point, the one about “putting ideology aside to achieve his goals.”

To see why this is a myth, first we have to understand the word “ideology.” What is “ideology”? There are varying definitions, but I have referred to it as a “set of ideas” or a “way of thinking.” A dictionary like the Oxford English Dictionary says that the word “ideology” means “A systematic scheme of ideas, usually relating to politics or society, or to the conduct of a class or group, and regarded as justifying actions…”

The Powerful Myth

The mythology that is apparently believed by the Times—or at least that is passed on by the Times, whether they believe it or not—is the idea that political “goals” can exist apart from “ideology.” How bizarre! What would such a “goal” look like? And how would one set a “goal” without a “systematic scheme of ideas” to help prioritize and organize one’s complex choices about goodness, worthiness, importance, needs, and values? Such organizing ideas are the essence of “ideology.” A goal, after all, is itself an idea, connected to other ideas like these.

Such bizarre thinking is not new at the Times. Early in the last presidential campaign, in 2003, the Times covered a debate among the Democratic candidates. Their headline was: “Pragmatism Meets Ideology: Democrats Draw Battle Lines.” The “pragmatic” candidates were the ones who “stressed positions that are decidedly more moderate than those of many Democratic primary voters.” The “ideological” candidates, in contrast, were “trying to tap into [a] deep anger” that was “stoked by the conservative policies Mr. Bush has embraced.”

Get it? It’s “pragmatic” to be “moderate” and it’s “ideological” to be upset.

The word “pragmatic,” according to Oxford, means “aiming at what is achievable rather than ideal.” Another word for this is “practical.” The Times considers this to be in opposition to “ideological,” which simply means “having to do with ideas.”

It’s entirely possible that writers for the Times don’t know what these words mean. While that’s a serious problem for a writer, for our purposes let’s assume that they do know the meaning of the words they are using. The Times is saying here—and it’s simply assumed, not up for debate—that “moderate” positions in politics are “achievable” and stronger positions, ones having to do with ideas, are not.

From a propaganda point of view, the most important thing to notice here is the implied notion that “moderate” positions do not have to do with ideas. They are simply “pragmatic.”

A propaganda system is successful when the people within the system accept existing conditions—including the prevailing ideology—so totally that they cannot imagine things being any other way. I’m reminded, once again, of my ill-fated attempt at getting a college education. (I lasted only one quarter.) I took a class at a major university called “Principles of Macroeconomics.” It soon became clear that the class would only discuss capitalist economics, yet I appeared to be the only student who noticed not only that capitalism is but one particular ideology with particular “principles,” but that something—anything—was missing from this introductory course. An “honors” course, no less! That’s evidence of a successful propaganda system working where it matters most, in the minds of the educated classes.

It was once famously said in a Star Trek episode that “Resistance Is Futile.” If a propaganda system can get people to believe that, then few people will bother to resist. But it is even better, in propaganda terms, if people can’t even imagine any real alternatives to the existing system. Then resistance goes from being futile to being unthinkable.

The Myth Is Conservative

The myth that we can have goals without having ideas is not simply weird. It’s also fundamentally conservative, which Webster’s defines as “disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions.”

In order to change things, one must be able to imagine things being a different way. That is, one must have a “set of ideas” about what a different world might look like. To maintain things as they are, in contrast, requires no particular “ideology.” Passivity will do.

The mythology at the Times—and in the U.S. as a whole, to some extent—is that conservative or moderate positions are not “ideological,” since they do little or nothing to change what already exists. Such a decision to leave things as they are can seem like “no decision,” but in fact it is highly ideological, since it amounts to a choice to support the existing order, which is not neutral.

Small tinkering with things is widely seen as “achievable” in the U.S. political context. Politicians can thus talk about such things as more or less regulation, slightly higher or lower taxes, or how to require people to get insurance from existing corporations. Since many voters believe, according to the polls, that a successful politician must be able to “get things done,” it is often seen as a good thing for a candidate to be “pragmatic” by limiting his or her proposals to such tinkering. Longer-term, visionary proposals, ones that seek to change how power and wealth are distributed in society, or how resources are controlled, are “ideological,” so poll-conscious leaders learn quickly not to talk about this kind of Big Idea. Acceptable Big Ideas must be sufficiently big as to be meaningless. “Change!” “Experience!” and so forth.

When the Times, and other powerful institutions directly and indirectly reinforce the bizarre myth that the only way to “achieve goals” or to be “pragmatic” is to “put ideology aside,” they are, knowingly or unknowingly, limiting our ability to imagine a different world. That is powerful propaganda.

2004: Poem: The Boy and The Man

People seemed to enjoy the poem I published in the previous volume of this retrospective. So here’s another one (probably the last one). The issue in which it appeared had to do with the war in Iraq, healthcare organizing in Minnesota, and the proposed federal budget just released by the Bush administration. Then I threw in this poem! I don’t recall what inspired it! It appeared in Nygaard Notes Number 247, on March 12, 2004:


The Boy and The Man

He spent his first two decades ashen-white
Drained of compassion, a fighter forged
From endless bleeding at the mouth and eyes.
He turned himself inside out
In order to avoid infection, then he
Surfaced, gasping, crying, possessed of a revolutionary fervor
Tempered with an unmistakable gentleness.

His friends, while close, can’t see behind his eyes
And strain to understand the place
He gives to both contentment and despair
A permanent and honored spot
On the mantelpiece of his wounded heart.
Now he winks, smiling, possessed of a revolutionary fervor
Tempered with an unmistakable gentleness.

Starting alone, and ending who-knows-how,
Along the way he learned how to be
A man. Somehow stanched the endless bleeding,
Held his cauterizing rage
Until he could touch without burning
And live, laughing, possessed of a revolutionary fervor
Tempered with an unmistakable gentleness.

Now loss and hope, and every blessed thing
He loves, burst out and mark the pages.
Aches and screams and memories he records,
Imperfect, maybe, even futile.
Knowing all about the windmills, still he
Emerges whole, alive, possessed of a revolutionary fervor
Tempered with an unmistakable gentleness.