Leaping to Conclusions

Edwin H. Friedman says a number of good and helpful things in his book on leadership A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. Too easily, he says, we allow our emotional engagement in a system to lead to a sort of gridlock that kills imagination and shuts leaders off from exciting possibilities. He’s right. But like many good books on leadership Friedman overstates his case, bases it upon what appear to be wild generalizations, and takes too long to say it. I’m clearly not a fan of books on leadership (except this one!).

As an example of innovation freed from such constraints, Friedman points to the courage and innovation of Christopher Columbus to whom he credits the restoration of European greatness. In so doing, Friedman paints a picture of European malaise drawn from a 1493 publication called the “Nuremberg Chronicle”. We ought always to be suspicious of points made by reference to single ancient texts. And preachers, no less than leadership gurus, are guilty of this.

Imagine in the wake of a nuclear holocaust or zombie apocalypse, the only historical record of our age several hundred years into the future are several fragmentary speeches of Donald Trump.
We would not want generalizations made about life now based upon such sketchy evidence. Rodney Stark, a Baylor sociologist, speaking of the late Roman Empire as an “experienced pollster” has reminded us that we ought not to characterize

“…the ‘feelings and thoughts of fifty-million people’ on the basis of a few fragmentary literay quotations.” (The Rise of Christianity, page 200)

This reminds me of the caution that writer Barbara Tuchman developed in her own presentation of medieval history A Distant Mirror. The negative will always be over-reported.

“A…hazard, built into the very nature of recorded history, is overload of the negative: the disproportionate survival of the bad side—of evil, misery, contention, and harm. In history this is exactly the same as in the daily newspaper. The moral does not make news. History is made by the documents that survive, and these lean heavily on crisis and calamity, crime and misbehavior, because such things are the subject matter of the documentary process—of lawsuits, treaties, moralists’ denunciations, literary satire, Papal Bulls. No Pope ever issued a Bull to approve of something….
“Disaster is rarely as pervasive as it seems from recorded accounts. The fact of being on the record makes it appear continuous and ubiquitous whereas it is more likely to have been sporadic both in time and place.” (pages xviii-xvix)

Writing this in 1978 Tuchman had never heard of the internet, or imagined how it could magnify this tendency.

I say all this to urge caution in the generalizations that we accept as true. I say it as well as a caution that we not be those, especially we who are preachers, who further mistaken conclusions by making them or repeating them.


Politicians Lie

Refreshingly, someone told me the other day that they did not care whether I was Republican or Democrat or Independent. I told them that I was simply disgusted, but I don’t think that is an organized party.

As I thought about it, it occurred to me that what I want in a political candidate of whatever level or stripe is someone who

1. speaks what he believes,
2. believes what I believe, and
3. tells the truth.

I might settle for anyone who simply could be counted on to tell the truth. Those are rare.

When I saw a bumper sticker on the truck of a sadly bitter driver (his whole tailgate was covered with similar sentiments) that said “Obama lied – deal with it”, my first flush of frustration at such polarizing sentiments was then matched with sadness. There is truth to the joke that you can tell when a politician is lying because his lips are moving. I don’t want this to be the case. I want there to be heroes, and I want my heroes to tell the truth.

The idea that politicians lie is such a part of our popular psyche that it becomes easy money for cartoonists and comedians.

Lawyers Liars

I suppose that Abraham Lincoln adopted the name ‘Honest Abe’ to differentiate himself from the political pack. I wonder if he was successful. George Washington confessed his wrong in The Incident of the Cherry Tree, but even that may have been a story made up to overcome the aged presumption that politicians, of which he was one, lie.

I want my heroes to be men of character who tell the truth, and there seems to be something about the political domain that dashes such idealism to the ground.

One of the striking things about Erik Larson’s superb book Dead Wake about the sinking of the British cruise liner Lusitania is the bulk of intelligence that warned of a disaster and the inaction of the British government to intervene in any way. In the end, the blame fell on the Lusitania’s captain William Turner, a blame he bore heavily but unjustly.

The government’s official line in its later investigations was that the ship was hit by two torpedoes and not one. That thoroughly untrue claim was designed to imply the inevitability of the disaster and to divert attention from the absence of British preventative measures.

Winston Churchill, by all measures a political hero, was at the time eager to get United States involvement in WWI, and so he turned a blind eye to the fact that the Lusitania was sailing into a trap. He would forever claim, against the contrary evidence, that the attack was unexpected and the government was unaware. Both were fictions. Larson comments:

“The final humiliation for Turner came later, with publication of Winston Churchill’s book, in which Churchill persisted in blaming Turner for the disaster and, despite possessing clear knowledge to the contrary, reasserted that the ship had been hit by two torpedoes.” (page 347)

Lies are hard to prove, and I generally want to give people, even political people, the benefit of the doubt. But when politicians’ lips move, history suggests they are at best, ‘redistributing the facts’.