Transdisciplinary Reflections: It’s the End of the World as We Know It

Column / March 2013

Obama, Clinton, Pelosi, and the Creative (R)evolution.

Alfonso Montuori

When the Going Gets Weird…

Alfonso Montuori

Alfonso Montuori

When historians look back on the beginning of the 21st century, and around 2008, I believe they will view it as a time of great historical significance. We are in a “postnormal age,” according to the British futurist Zia Sardar, a time when everything is changing, uncertain, ambiguous, complex. Zygmunt Bauman, the Polish sociologist, calls ours Liquid Modernity. We’ve moved from the solid world to a liquid one, where everything we took as solid and reliable has melted and liquefied before us. The gold watch has become a Dali watch.

This postnormal age, with so much that appears chaotic and upside down and confusing, has driven us to polarizations that often verge on, and regular fall into, the ridiculous. Outrageous name-calling and a priori rejection of anything associated with the vile opposition (whether Democrat or Republican) has become the norm.

Look at the Grand Old Party, grand no more: After calling Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi “the most hated woman in America” for a while, for no particular reason except that she was the Speaker of the House, Republicans embarked on an invasion of the female uterus, this time presumably knowing that it would not be greeted with the kind of rejoicing Donald Rumsfeld was expecting in Iraq. And while this all out effort to colonize the female body was going on, President Obama suddenly became a socialist of the worst kind. Whole Foods CEO John Mackey referred to “Obamacare” first as “socialist,” and then, upping the ante, as “fascist.”

In March of 2013 Americans are being asked to brace for sequester shock. In the meantime, Arizona’s immigration law, which essentially makes it possible for anybody who doesn’t look positively Scandinavian to hear the phrase “show me your papers,” is going ahead. It can’t be enforced because there are not enough resources, and there is no real interest in deporting people who are not a threat because there’s plenty of serious stuff going on to keep law enforcement busy. But it’s the thought that counts, and it’s an indication of the bizarre scapegoating climate.

Geoffrey Stone, Professor of Law at the University of Chicago, lists some of the more ridiculous remarks about Obama from right-wing commentators: Obama has thrown Israel under a bus full of suicide bombers, according to Sean Hannity; he has a deep-seated hatred for white people, says Gordon Beck; and according to the Great Oracle of Vicodin, Rush Limbaugh, Obama has nothing but contempt for this country.

Of course, Stone goes on to point out that vitriol is not uncommon in US politics. Abraham Lincoln was called a “despot,” “liar,” “monster,” perjurer,” “tyrant,” and more. He also shows that when Democrats, Independents, and Republicans assessed candidates for the 2012 election on a scale from 1 (most liberal) to 5 (most conservative), there was surprisingly little difference in their assessment. Until we get to Obama, and then there’s a big difference between Republicans (1.5) and the Democrats and Independents (2.75, 2.5).  Why this difference?

Perhaps the most fascinating critics of Obama are the birthers. Obama was not born in the US, they say, but in Kenya, or Indonesia. His papers aren’t in order (“Show me your papers!”). Obama is illegal, an illegal president, he can’t be president, and most fundamentally, he’s not one of us. If we’re going to talk about invading aliens, surely Donald Trump’s eldritch hair deserves La Migra’s attention, but that’s a story for a different day.

Is this simply an attempt to hound the President and make his life a misery, like Whitewater and the Vince Foster suicide were used to hound the Clintons? For some people, this whole birther thing is just bizarre, perhaps an attempt to foster a paranoid conspiracy mentality about Obama and get the crazies out of the woodwork. I believe the vitriol and mind-boggling exaggeration is symptomatic of a larger issue. Most people might shrug at the Obama re-election, at the powerful role of Clinton and Pelosi, even since the latter is not Speaker of the House any more, and at the historical significance of it all, particularly since for much of the left this rabidly socialist President has swung over perilously close to the corporate right.

What the Historians Will See…

Having said al that, we should consider the following:

Historians looking back at the beginning of the 21st century will note that for the first time in recorded history, the most powerful nation in the world was headed by a black man and two white women.

It’s quite fascinating that this event of considerable historical significance has largely been ignored. I would argue that the reason it’s been downplayed (at best) is because in many ways it is so huge. We don’t quite know what to do with it, and with the dramatic crises we’re experiencing right now, it’s become harder to focus on the big picture because we’re so focused on resolving our immediate “bread and butter” problems.

The reason for all the ridiculous, disproportionate vitriol is in large part the symbolism: the trio of Obama, Clinton, and Pelosi was a sign that the era of white male dominance is over, or at least deeply threatened. No matter what their actual policies are (and good policies are clearly the big losers in this political mess), no matter that most big corporations are still run by white men and that white men are still disproportionally represented in executive positions, in terms of high income jobs, etc., this is the first breach. The first hugely symbolic event in a larger shift. The biggest job in the country has not gone to a white male. Twice in a row.

I believe the symbolism is painfully obvious to most white American men, even if they’re not entirely conscious of it—or even conscious of it at all. People who hate Obama hate him for the same reason mountain climbers climb mountains. Because he’s there. In the White House. Obama is “the worst President in US history,” a man interviewed in the San Francisco Chronicle opined recently. He happened to be a relative of Franklin Pierce, generally seen as one of the worst Presidents in US history, so he should know.

What the whole birther issue points to is the more deep-seated feeling that Obama doesn’t belong. Not there, anyway, not in the White House. Community organizing is one thing, and that was fine. Questioning his citizenship is simply a way of saying he’s not one of the Americans we expect in the role of President, “leader of the free world,” head of the Armed Forces. Telling us what to do. It’s true that Clinton was also hounded, and again, a visceral dislike of presidents is nothing new. George W. Bush certainly didn’t “feel the love from the left.” But the stakes here are even bigger. It’s not just that Obama is black, and Clinton and Pelosi are women. Put them all together, and, symbolically, this is the unimaginable end of an era.

For some whites therefore the Obama election is more than just the election of an African-American and two women to three of the top positions in the country. It’s a symbol of a much larger change, one they feel is well underway. It is creating tremendous anxiety that their time is over. The country is irrevocably moving away from them, with white majorities becoming minorities, driven by the power of demographics, sheer numbers. This underlying anxiety is further fueled by manipulative statements by right-wing pundits and the birthers, intended to increase fear, in a desperate effort to mobilize against this new and seemingly unnatural order.

Zero-sum Games

Let’s look at one reason the Obama presidency is terribly upsetting to some. In the U.S. whites now see prejudice against whites as a bigger social problem than prejudice against blacks (Norton & Sommers, 2011). Significantly, the research surfaced the zero-sum assumption underlying this view: To the extent that prejudice against blacks decreases, whites assume that it must go up for them. Whites now see anti-white prejudice as a bigger societal problem than anti-black-bias. That means also that when a black president is in office, prejudice against whites must be going up and their values undermined, because as Gordon Beck reminds us, Obama has a deep seated hatred of white people, and he has nothing but contempt for this country, according to Rush Limbaugh. In a zero-sum game mentality, that’s exactly what you’d expect.

Let me recapitulate here, in a slightly more serious vein. The Obama administration is perhaps the most visible symbol that the country is changing, at a very deep level, and that the ruling elite has been, if not yet overturned, infiltrated. The old guard isn’t completely in charge any more, and the trickle down effect is that for many, an order that had been established since time immemorial has been disturbed and is about to be overturned. As the research findings suggests, the implications are perceived as being dire. Now whites are allegedly at the receiving end of prejudice, more prejudice than blacks, and things are only going to get worse. It’s a domination-switch. One hears the same sort of bizarre things in discussions of gender. If men have historically been “superior” to women, dominated women, then the alternative is that women will dominate men. I remember once asking for Riane Eisler’s (1987) The Chalice and the Blade in a bookstore, only to hear the owner respond with “Ah! Women good, men bad!” The “partnership” that is central to Eisler’s book is clearly not a conceivable option. Zero-sum thinking is pervasive, particularly when it comes to race and gender.

The double whammy of an African-American and two women is particularly significant. We shouldn’t forget that the first thing on the agenda in any authoritarian fundamentalist system is putting women clearly in their place. That doesn’t mean in charge of foreign policy or being speaker of the house. Authoritarian systems, based on the fear of a perceived external threat, of which we had plenty during the Bush administration and which the state of the economy isn’t helping to assuage, are rigidly hierarchical, and involve polarized gender roles, with women on the bottom. Race and gender are still massive triggers.

During times of great change, threat, and anxiety, during postnormal times, when nothing appears normal, it is relatively easy to push generalized panic buttons that create what we might call the Authoritarian Response. This means clear hierarchies, and either/or, reductionist thinking—isolating the enemy, and either you win or I win (Montuori, 2005). There’s no alternative. Only a zero-sum game is possible .

If this really is a zero-sum game, as some people believe, then they will inevitably be made to suffer: prejudice against them will increase as prejudice against others diminishes, and they will end up rejected and disrespected and on the bottom of the food chain. Obama, Clinton, and Pelosi are harbingers of chaos and confusion. Obama the “socialist” hates America and will take this country down the road to serfdom.

If this sounds depressing, there’s a positive side, and it really is much more positive than we give it (and ourselves) credit for. Obama won. The American people rejected the sad hole the Republicans dug for themselves, and voted for the African-American man and the two women. Without much fanfare. People around the world are still amazed. We might be a little bit more amazed ourselves, come to think of it. And some Republicans are fortunately beginning to question their party’s misguided 2012 platform and wondering how they can begin to make sense again.

There is enormous pressure to fix the many problems we’re dealing with, from the environment to the economy to education, just to stick with the e’s. But there is very little if any awareness that this is a turning point in American, if not global, history. A turning point at the beginning of a new era. And unless we embrace this as a turning point, an opportunity, a time to set asides band-aids, and hope, the fixes will be just that—band-aids.

Hope for the Future and the Future of Hope

Remember that President Obama was elected on the promise of hope. The audacity of hope, even. Clearly besides Bush-fatigue, a majority of the American people saw in Obama a beacon of change and hope. But hope for what? That question hasn’t been answered yet.

Things have changed a lot in the last 30 years. When I went to graduate school studying International Relations, the world was split into two: the U.S. and the Soviet Union. We were the good guys, they were the bad guys. The U.S. president was the “leader of the free world, “ engaged in a struggle to the death with the purveyors of gulags and propaganda and rationing and collectivism and Marxist-Leninist indoctrination. We were the richest country in the world, and everybody wanted to be like us, come over to the US, the land of hope. Hope and possibility. While there are still possibilities in this country, many Americans are now realizing that those possibilities are not available to everybody. China and India are “eating our lunch,” economically. And anybody who has been to China or Brazil or any emerging powerhouse these days knows that we look like we’re in an existential crisis compared to the level of vigor and hope one sees there. We’re not the military super power any more. Yes, in a conventional war we can beat anybody. But where are those wars? It’s all asymmetrical now. Keeping the peace in Iraq and elsewhere is not what our armed forces are trained for, or should be doing.

The bi-polar era is over, and the world is much more complex now. I believe it is time to do some serious soul searching because we are clearly in a transitional moment globally and nationally. Discussions of American decline are rampant, and we are now in the position to explore not just how to avoid further decline, but what we’d like to be and do when we’re not declining. What can we move towards? What does better look like? Hoping we don’t do ourselves in isn’t enough. For a country like America, it’s certainly not audacious. And let’s face it, Americans like to and want to dream. They dream of greatness. They want to be great. What greatness do we have to dream for now? What does it even mean to be a great nation, or a great person? What would a great future look like for America? What would a great future look like for individual Americans? For the planet as a whole?

It’s not just white males who are scared and concerned about the future right now. Almost all the young people I speak to these days can barely even think about the future. And when they do, it’s often in apocalyptic tones. Forget for a moment that they’re going to deal with massive debts if they go to college. Put aside, just for a moment, as hard as it is, these crushing and immediate practicalities like work and debt and fear of environmental collapse. Sure, they’re all there, these very real fears.

But when I speak to young people who can barely think of the future, let alone a better future, and when parents I speak to confirm this is the their kids’s experience without batting an eyelid, there’s something terribly wrong. It’s one thing to have sizable bills. It’s another to wonder whether the planet is going to go to hell and still get stuck with the bills.

If young people are feeling this, surely we should keep in mind the plight of older men and women who have worked hard all their lives, looking forward to retirement in the fairly homogeneous communities they grew up in, where they knew their neighbors, and so on. I see little effort on the left to understand the condition of the allegedly gun-toting redneck fundamentalists (the left’s version of the old commie pinkos). Little effort to understand what they’re experiencing, empathize with them, and attempt to reach out, and even consider that they may not be utter lunatics and that they are attempting to address some real issues.  There’s little effort to dialogue in a generative way, in a way that is based on the premise that we are, in the end, all in the same boat.

So where is the hope going to come from? To make matters even more complex, the era of heroic leadership is over. The visionary hope is not going to come from President Obama, or at least, not Obama alone. But he can increase awareness of the need for people to begin generating visions, and provide some guidelines for our collective dreaming.

What young people are lacking, what the white men are lacking, and what just about everybody is lacking at this point, is some idea of what desirable futures might look like. What will this “new” America look like, if there is going to be one? Will we become a Blade Runner country, a Philip K. Dick nightmarish, dystopian scenario? Is it all over? Are we experiencing the revolution of lowered expectations? Did we peak, and are we now on the big slide down? Or are we facing a great transition towards a better, if by no means perfect, world?

The trio of Obama, Clinton, and Pelosi, presaged a different America, but right now there is no real vision of what that America might look like. No wonder people young and old are scared. We see change and we hear ominous talk of decline. Young people have lowered expectations; they are part of post-progress generations that will not automatically make more money and live better and healthier lives than their parents.

The talk is of getting the economy going and of “sustainability.” Sustainability is a wonderful concept, to be sure, but it’s not enough. Neither is universal health care, as important as it is. Where’s our motivation? Avoiding catastrophe, whether environmental or medical, is not enough to get us motivated.

Psychologists distinguish between avoidance and approach motivation (Elliot & Covington, 2001). Avoidance motivation involves doing things in order to avoid pain. We’re motivated to go to the dentist, but we don’t run through the streets cheering our dentist, making plans to visit more often than we really need to. Many if not all of the motivators we have now are avoidance motivations, making sure we don’t crash and burn. We have to “fix” education, the environment, government, health care… but “fixing” is not very motivating.

It’s time to mobilize the grassroots imagination and get Americans to dream again, to dream together, as Americans, not as Democrats or Republicans, and even more, as planetary citizens. Envisioning better futures, envisioning what inclusive futures can be like, futures that give kids and those who feel marginalized—of all colors, shapes, and sizes—something to hope for and work towards.

What would a generative, environmentally conscious, thriving, win-win America look like? An America that draws on its most precious talent, its creativity, to create America the beautiful? We can ask and explore this question in many different ways, without wanting to impose one overriding story. We can create contexts where individuals and groups can create many different stories, many different visions of better futures in our personal lives, our families, our communities, and begin to enact them. It’s time to mobilize America’s creativity, and particularly its social creativity, dreaming and working together to envision and enact new worlds. It’s time to explore and dialogue about our deepest values and assumptions, time to be both practical and philosophical, to engage the underlying differences that threaten to tear us apart. It’s time to engage young people in this adventure, This quest has always been at the heart of America’s identity, and at the heart of its youthful spirit. Cosmetic surgery will not recapture this youth. We can create a win-win game, if we use our creativity, and skip reductionist scapegoating and either/or thinking in favor of complexity, creativity, and the recognition of how interconnected we are.

We don’t need massive new inventions and technology or even ridiculous amounts of money to get this going. The emerging creativity is grassroots, as I have pointed out elsewhere, no longer dependent on the lone genius, the great man. My suggestion is to develop opportunities for Creative Inquiry, to get people to dream individually and collectively about what a better—not perfect, but better—future might look like, explore our deepest assumptions about who we think we are, what matters in life, what a better world would look like, where we want to go, and begin to dialogue both face to face and through social media to represent what these futures might look (and sound and feel) like…I believe artistic representations, through short stories, skits, videos, flash mobs, anything that can get us talking and dreaming together are one particularly way to foster this creativity at a grass-roots level.

Readers of this journal possess many of the skills needed to elicit creativity, foster dialogue, collaborative work, the exploration of values and assumptions, envisioning possible and desirable futures, as well as utilizing the arts to do so. The efforts don’t need to be huge initially. With the power of social media we can create networks of possibilities, learning from each other, dialoguing, exchanging information, solutions, and visions. Some efforts are already underway, using search conferences, appreciative inquiry, scenario planning, non-violent communication, and many of the other approaches our readers are familiar with. Integral theories and approaches offer particularly rich sets of possibilities and remind of us the need to think in ways that are comprehensive rather than fragmented, address Shadow issues, and general bring some of the best and most creative ways to bear on how we can envision possible futures.

This proposal to foster grass-roots futures creativity obviously makes no pretense to be a solution to all that’s ailing us, and I’m barely scratching the surface of my suggestions for reasons of space (in greater depth in Montuori, 2011a,b, in press). On one level, I am proposing an approach to the future that can be fun, artistic, creative, and convivial, as well as drawing on some of the best thinking available. What I am proposing can begin very simply, as a grassroots, educational, creative project, started anywhere by anyone. At the same time, the very process of engaging the future, and going beyond our present impasse,  can be used as an education in a new way of thinking, and a new way of being in the world, with its focus on the collaboration, complexity, and creativity necessary to generate futures that are win/win, that recognize the uncertainty and ambiguity of our condition, where we begin to shift away from entrenched power dynamics and move towards desirable collective goals that truly reflect the human potential.

Underlying the creative process of envisioning futures there is also an attempt to promote postformal, complex, networked thinking that goes beyond the tired dichotomizing between individual and society, individualism and collectivism, and beyond the impasse of power-based zero-sum thinking to introduce win-win approaches. It involves fostering an attitude of ongoing learning and self-re-creation I have called Creative Inquiry (Montuori, 2011c, 2012; Montuori & Donnelly, 2013). Creativity is mostly thought of in the context of the arts and sciences. But we’re increasingly seeing it applied to social issues. After all, the creative process involves bringing together ideas and perspectives that are usually not “thought” together. Opposed viewpoints become new syntheses. An impasse that is created by two intransigent perspectives that define themselves in opposition to each other—I am me because I am not you, I’m a boy because I don’t do “girly” things (I act like a boy is supposed to), and I’m a girl, because I don’t do boyish things (I act like a boy is supposed to), I am a Democrat because I reject Republican initiatives, etc.)– can be addressed by creative, collaborative work that is framed beyond the particular interests of  the opposing sides, but for the benefit of both individuals and the larger system. Oppositional identities can make way for identities informed by relational creativity. At the same time, there’s an attempt to move away from homogenizing views of unity to unity in diversity, so that pluralistic communities with at times very different perspectives can not only co-exist, but become generative precisely because of these differences.

Too idealistic? Not realistic enough? Well, I’m not quite sure how realistic the present course is, frankly. And to paraphrase Edgar Morin, what could be more idealistic than claims of realism?

Is it possible to move beyond the tired stalemate of butting heads and overheated rhetoric? Can we take some time to put some of our assumptions aside, whether about “rednecks with guns” or “socialists” and creatively, empathically, explore new worlds? To work together towards goals that are meaningful and inspiring? If we create generative spaces and contexts where people are willing to explore and take risks, find out what they really care about, and allow their creativity to flourish, we can begin to make a step in the right direction.

I conclude with these words from the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman (2008, p. 20) who writes that,

Our lives, whether we know it or not and whether we relish the news or bewail it, are works of art. To live our lives as the art of life demands, we must, just like the artists of any art, set ourselves challenges which are (at the moment of their setting, at any rate) difficult to confront point-blank. We must choose targets that are (at the moment of their choosing, at any rate) well beyond our reach, and standards of excellence that vexingly seem to stay stubbornly far above our ability (as already achieved, at any rate) to match whatever we do or may be doing. We need to attempt the impossible.


Bauman, Z. (2008). The art of life. London: Polity Press.

Eisler, R. (1987). The chalice and the blade. San Francisco: Harper Collins.

Elliot, A. J., & Covington, M. V. (2001). Approach and avoidance motivation. Educational Psychology Review, 13(2), 73-91.

Montuori, A. (In Press). Creativity and the Arab Spring. East West Affair.

Montuori, A., & Donnelly, G. (2013). Creative Inquiry and scholarship: Applications and implications in a doctoral degree. World Futures, 69(11), 1-19.

Montuori, A. (2011a). Beyond postnormal times: The future of creativity and the creativity of the future. Futures: The Journal of Policy, Planning and Future Studies, 43(2), 221-227.

Montuori, A. (2011b). Complexity, epistemology, and the challenge of the future. In S. O. Johannessen & L. Kuhn (Eds.), Complexity in Organization Studies. Volume 2: Theorizing about complexity in organization studies. Los Angeles: Sage

Montuori, A. (2011c). Creative inquiry. In N. M. Seel (Ed.), The encyclopedia of the science of learning. Heidelberg: Springer.

Montuori, A. (2005). How to make enemies and influence people. Anatomy of totalitarian thinking. Futures, 37, 18-38.

Norton, M.I. & Sommers, S.R. (2011). Whites see racism as a zero-sum game that they are now losing. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 6, 3, 215-218.

About the Author

Alfonso Montuori, PhD, is Professor at California Institute of Integral Studies, where he designed and teaches in the Transformative Leadership M.A. and the Transformative Studies Ph.D. He was Distinguished Professor in the School of Fine Arts at Miami University, in Oxford Ohio and in 1985-1986 he taught at the Central South University in Hunan, China. An active musician and producer, in a former life Alfonso worked in London England as a professional musician. He is the author of several books and numerous articles on creativity and innovation, the future, complexity theory, and leadership. Alfonso is also a consultant in the areas of creativity, innovation and leadership development whose clients have included NetApp, Training Vision (Singapore), Omintel-Olivetti (Italy) and Procter and Gamble.