Staring at a Single Data Point: If You Want to Solve Problems At Home, Look at Your Neighbors’ Problems

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Over the last thirteen years, I’ve tutored A LOT of kids and one of the most important things that it has taught me is that you can’t make sense of the world by staring at a single data point. And yet, that is exactly what most parents do because that’s how this culture has taught them to behave. Your kids are your responsibility and anybody else’s kids are none of your business. The result is that most parents have no clue what is really going on with other kids. I do. I get to see lots and lots of students academic failures. To me, academic failure is a pattern. It was because Katie O’Brien and I saw the same patterns so many times that we decided to write a book. We saw the signal. Parents were just seeing noise.

The patterns are so colossally obvious to me not because I’m so smart. They’re obvious because I see the same pattern again and again. I’ve just learned to connect the dots. Parents don’t see lots of dots. They see their kids. That’s it. And they are so emotionally invested in their kids that they literally can’t look away. For a lot of parents, raising kids can feel like a slow motion train wreck where all your loved ones are onboard. Disaster is happening and you can’t figure out why or what you can do about it.

This is the experience of many people when it comes to what is happening to countries around the world. You stare at your home country and everything seems to be going to shit. The kids aren’t doing well in school. There are a lot of worries about money. And there are old, simmering resentments about who did what to who and when. It’s easy to understand why so many people stare only at their home country. After all, it’s your country. It sucks if people half a world away are having problems, but you’ve got your own problems at home. You don’t have time for other people’s problems. And yet, understanding other people’s problems is the key to solving your own.

Take the problem of extremism/fundamentalism. It is a global phenomenon. It comes in many forms. And yet, earlier this year, when I tried to connect the dots between the many forms of extremism/fundamentalism, I was confronted by a lot of people who stared at me with blank incomprehension. How could Islamic Fundamentalism, the Alt-Right, SJWs, the New Atheists and Anarcho-Capitalism have anything in common? The ideologies were so incredibly different.

Of course, my students are incredibly different. Some are boys. Some are girls. Some are Jewish. Some are from Mississippi. Some are from the UK. Some are part of the richest 0.1% of the world. Some are kids in the L.A. foster care system. And some are in the poorest part of Libya’s capital city, Tripoli. And yet, in spite of all these differences, there are a lot of similarities in why some kids succeed academically and some kids don’t. It’s by understanding that why that you can then turn that into a how.

In looking at extremism/fundamentalism, I now realize how unusual of a data set I’ve had. I’ve had the opportunity to see many forms side by side and to be able to spot patterns along the way. Between the ages of 6 and 8, my family and I were the targets of a terrorist organization called November 17 in Greece. Between the ages of 8 and 18, I watched the IRA and the UVF/UFF bomb innocent civilians over the fate of Northern Ireland. And then, I was in the US during 9/11 and the War on Terror. During that time, my parents lived in the Middle East and I was exposed to many of the leading Arab thinkers on Islamic Terrorism. Meanwhile, I got to interview John Nagl who literally wrote the book on counterinsurgency for the US military. That experience is very different from my fellow American citizens who have simply watched Islamic terrorism unfold on TV.

To them, the problem is obvious: Islam. That’s where all the terrorism they’ve ever seen has come from.

To me, the problem is obvious: storytelling that spurs division. November 17 was so convinced that American influence needed to be removed from Greece at any price that they felt justified in targeting my father, a Dutch banker, for assassination. I was just in Greece this summer and finally got some clarity on what happened on November 17. Why? Because I finally looked it up online.

Cliff Notes Summary: The military regime supported by the Americans killed a bunch of University students protesting at Athens Polytechnic.

You don’t have to look very hard to find that most anti-American ideologies are based on America supporting a whole string of regimes that served America’s interests at the expense of the locals. This perfectly understandable resentment doesn’t get significant news coverage when discussing Islamic terrorism even though it is one of the cornerstones of the Islamic extremist narrative. It is far more convenient to pretend the problem is Islam. By defining the problem as being about others religion, Americans do not have to look at what we have done to contribute to the growth of anti-American sentiment the world over. Humans (whether American, Greek, Islamic or Northern Irish Protestants or Catholics) spin stories that serve their interests and they use whatever raw material they can to pull this off.

Living in the US, my newsfeed for the last year has had a tremendous amount of news about how the Russian use of fake news to shift the information space and tip people’s election decisions in favor of Trump. And only today, I realized that I’ve been looking at this problem the same way that most parents look at their kids. I love America’s democracy warts and all but the Founding Fathers did not build America’s democracy by staring at a single data point. They looked across many societies and drew lessons from cross-cultural comparison. So, in order to preserve and improve democracy, we must do the same.

A few months ago, Mandi Ainslie, a Mixed Mental Artist from South Africa, told me about how Bell Pottinger, a UK-based PR firm, had deliberately incited racially divisive narratives to distract from corruption and collusion between media tycoons, the Guptas, and South African President, Jacob Zuma. This Zuma/Gupta collusion is conveniently referred to as the Zuptas. At the time, I didn’t understand its importance. After a deeper dive into what has been happening there, I now realize that it may be the best example of fake news on the planet. Like November 17, Bell Pottinger and the Guptas didn’t build a narrative on nothing. They specifically crafted according to a leaked email a “narrative that grabs the attention of the grassroots population who must identify with it, connect with it and feel united by it…”

So, how did they unite the black population and get them to blindly ally with a corrupt Jacob Zuma? They drove the narrative that apartheid still exists. It’s just that now it’s along economic lines. They called it “White Monopoly Capital” or “White Economic Capital.” A number of bots and fake twitter accounts were used to deliberately deploy this messaging.

Take a look at this meme.

They used the narrative of the media distracting people from the real issue to distract people from the real issue of media moguls looting the country. This is a level of narrative sophistication that most of humanity is just not prepared to handle. We’re all going to have to get a lot more savvy. Americans are mostly too emotionally invested one way or another in the use of fake news in the 2016 election. South Africa provides some distance and provides an excellent basis for comparison.

Mandi sent me these two links:

White Economic Capital

An analysis of the pattern of bots and fake twitter accounts

I’d also recommend this one about Bell Pottinger’s now fired Managing Director, Victoria Geoghegan.

Nine months ago, I bundled together a group of extremists to try and help people connect the dots. One of the biggest things I’ve learned is that you have to have the data to do that. Parents see other people’s kids but they don’t really know what’s going on with them. I’ve had the privilege of getting to know a lot of kids one on one a full hour at a time. I now realize that lesson applies more broadly.

If You Want to Solve Problems At Home, Look at Your Neighbors’ Problems.


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Right after being born in Saudi Arabia, I was taken to the Callen house. Since then, Bryan and I have travelled the world with our Citibank fathers and somehow ended up in LA together. There we’d run into each other at family gatherings and do something that no one else in LA seemed to be doing: we talked about books. Since Bryan was kind of a big deal, Hunter and Bryan hatched a scheme to use his podcast to get on their favorite authors and professors. Out of that evolved Mixed Mental Arts and this tribe. For me, the marriage of entertainment and education is a return to how things used to be before our culture split story into two separate things. It’s exciting to be able to build on the work Katie O’Brien and I did for The Straight-A Conspiracy and expand it out to every area of life. While I play a series of roles in the Mixed Mental Arts community (including Shitty Dutch Uncle and Bryan’s #1 fan) my favorite role is as Toto who pulls back the curtain and let’s the world see that there are no wizards…only men and women who try and puff themselves up to seem important.

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