In the life of the village, traditional African folklore regales young children with rabid tales of a host of tricksters; cunning, skillful characters whose schemes involve misdirection, deception, and dangerous temptations. While being entertained, children were told what litany of troubles waited if they let down their guard, acted impulsively or blindly, or tried by nefarious means to gain an undesired advantage. The tales were funny; the lessons were warnings. Collectively, they gave the village its departure point for courage and progress. Having a common legacy meant the village knew the path of its moral actors, its age-old storehouse of wisdom, and how to direct its resources to the common good.
That was stage one. Stage two of African community education taught the young higher skills: to recognize and decipher paradoxes. Translated to America, the most famous African-American folktale of paradox involves the notorious B’rer Rabbit, who tricks his captor and escapes to the impenetrable
thicket of the briar patch.
Important to Africa and Asia, paradoxes were woven into life lessons for good reason. Every situation or organization or life decision has a paradox. It’s a place where what seems to be the sensible decision leads to the weeds. Politics this year has a bumper crop of paradoxes connected to issues and candidates, and American political education offers no real frame for understanding their dynamics. American political life thinks in terms of cannonballs and train wrecks, describing what happens after a wrong decision and saying too little about what went before. But the before is when B’rer Rabbit escapes, or High John survives the slaveholder’s wrath.
Modern America tends to photoshop out paradoxes. They are most often instruments of blame and misdirection. They are wrongly classified as enigmas or mysteries, confused with lies, or labeled as contradictions or hypocrisies.
Their opportunities are overlooked.
What sets a paradox apart is one of its choices — the least intuitive or empirical — leads to truth. A paradox also describes a group action. It develops in the context of different roles. A paradox offers a way forward to a new level, if properly understood. With clarity, reason, and persuasion, it combines evidence and speech to maneuver toward a mission whose outcome is hidden until it materializes: B’rer Rabbit triumphs in the end, Barack wins the Presidency. Let’s look at three paradoxes driving next year’s election.
The Paradox of the True Believer
This unintentional paradox abounds among the GOP. Every penny spent by Democrats is waste, every idea corrupt, every common concern socialist, every goal tainted. Monday, my comment on Paul Krugman’s New York Times column described the outlines of this paradox, and there in the reply thread was a post which cited in reply all the attributes I described! This is really the paradox of blind faith, which has a role in moving forward, but can result in bad faith by the wrong actors (think Herman Cain). The best way to handle the True Believer is to broaden the appeal. An old civil rights joke shows how: “Home owner/wife/employer to her housekeeper: “Are you riding the bus to work?” Housekeeper’s answer: “No, ma’am. There’s so much trouble and turmoil, I’m not riding that bus until the strike is ended.” Nelson Mandela successfully worked through this paradox in South Africa.
The Paradox of the Power of the Small
Barack Obama excels at this paradox, drawn from the I Ching — but Democrats have failed to grasp his mastery of the process. This paradox combines conditions and process, method with goals. It is useful when progress is possible only in minute increments. Massive resistance, unfavorable conditions and unrest in a divided society block the forward way. The skillful master uses this situation not to push against the opposition, or inflame passions, but to set seeds for progress when the time is ready. (It is strongly tied to the I Ching hexagram, “Inner Truth.”)
In Africa, ants weighing five-thousandths of a single gram defend acacia trees from destruction by elephants! The ants swarm up their trunks, to which the massive elephants are defenseless.
Barack’s use of the skillful small maneuver is approached by no other President, accept perhaps his favorite, Lincoln. His most exquisite use of this paradox was his quiet, ruthless, sublime take-down of Donald Trump at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, bookmarked by having gotten Bin Laden.
The Paradox of Fear
In humans, fear itself is a paradox: rather than sharpen the senses, fear dulls the senses. Fear increases a person’s likelihood of being controlled, diminishes the willingness to fight (fear is tied to flight). In the upcoming election, fear is tied mainly to race (I argue even more than the economy), but exacerbated by party politics. Demands for tax cuts. Accusations of socialism, class warfare. The key to navigating this paradox: don’t challenge the fact; defuse the fear. My own stock answer to the fear zombies is to recite Boehner’s claim that Barack give in to 98% of what the GOP wanted. I am trying to blunt the attack, so I appeal to the authority of those who created the fear to show why the panic should be over.
The key to negotiating paradoxes is to remember they are counter-intuitive, require inside and outside actors, and result in a new level gained only at the end. Gingrich, on the Republican side, demonstrates both the danger and success of miscalculating a paradox. Barack has often been criticized for being milquetoast, but if you heard his Kansas speech on Tuesday, you know his touch and instincts are as sharp as Excalibur.