Category: Of Cabbages and Kings

The herding instinct

October 4th, 2013 — 10:55am

The herding instinct in chronically anxious America has the . . . effect of furthering adaptation to the least mature, to those who are most unwilling to take responsibility for their own emotional being and destiny. Its influence on leaders is several-fold. It discourages them from expressing “politically incorrect” opinions and encourages them to play it safe generally; it undermines excellence by encouraging society to organize around its most dysfunctional elements; it forces leaders to engage in countless arguments that are dilatory; and it makes it more difficult for leaders to be clear, much less decisive. Leaders in chronically anxious America today – whether they are black or white, Jewish or Christian, liberal or conservative, young or old, male or female – tend to support or adapt to the most incessantly demanding members of their following.

The effects show up in language usage, in the administration of justice, in education and welfare policy, in divorce settlements, in the emphasis those who specialize in conflict resolution put on compromise, in the conduct of public meetings, and even in the world of sports. And in some institutions the togetherness forces put such a premium on inclusivity that those who do not agree with making it the overriding principle of the organization are isolated or rejected, thus creating Orwellian “Animal Farms” in which diversity is eliminated in the name of diversity.

(Friedman, Failure of Nerve, p. 70)

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Changing the question

October 3rd, 2013 — 10:20am

A revolutionary concept for church leaders:

The understanding that one can get more change in a family or organization by working with the motivated members (the strengths) in the system than by focusing on the symptomatic or recalcitrant members totally obliterates the search for answers to the question of how to motivate the unmotivated. . . . Perpetually seeking new answers to established questions rather than reframing the basic question itself not only betrays lack of distance on the part of the searcher; it also prevents obtaining the distance necessary for being able even to think, much less go, in new directions. Seeking answers can be its own treadmill. Changing the question enables one to step off. (Friedman, Failure of Nerve, p. 38)

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The problem at the very top

October 1st, 2013 — 4:06pm

In any type of institution whatsoever, when a self-directed, imaginative, energetic, or creative member is being consistently frustrated and sabotaged rather than encouraged and supported, what will turn out to be true one hundred percent of the time, regardless of whether the disrupters are supervisors, subordinates, or peers, is that the person at the very top of that institution is a peace-monger. By that I mean a highly anxious risk-avoider, someone who is more concerned with good feelings than with progress, someone whose life revolves around the axis of consensus, a “middler,” someone who is so incapable of taking well-defined stands that his “disability” seems to be genetic, someone who functions as if she had been filleted of her backbone, someone who treats conflict or anxiety like mustard gas – one whiff, on goes the emotional gas mask, and he flits. Such leaders are often “nice,” if not charming.

This principle of organizational life is so universal it may be rooted in protoplasm itself. It will operate to the same extent regardless of the sociological or psychological profiles of the individuals involved, and it is equally applicable to a family or a nation – that is, to a parent or a president.

(Edwin H. Friedman, Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, pp. 13–14)

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The civil law a wilderness

June 11th, 2013 — 4:21pm

The civil law, too, good God! what a wilderness it is become! It is, indeed, much better, more skilful, and more honest than the canon law, of which nothing is good but the name. Still there is far too much of it. Surely good governors, in addition to the Holy Scriptures, would be law enough; as St. Paul says, “Is it so that there is not a wise man among you, no, not one that shall be able to judge between his brethren?” (I Cor. vi. 5). I think also that the common law and the usage of the country should be preferred to the law of the empire and that the law of the empire should only be used in cases of necessity. And would to God, that, as each land has its own peculiar character and nature, they could all be governed by their own simple laws, just as they were governed before the law of the empire was devised, and as many are governed even now! Elaborate and far-fetched laws are only burdensome to the people, and a hindrance rather than a help to business. But I hope that others have thought of this, and considered it to more purpose than I could. (Martin Luther, Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Respecting the Reformation of the Christian Estate)

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More on liberalism

June 5th, 2013 — 10:19am

Back in January, I posted a synopsis of responses to Patrick Deneen’s 2012 article, “Unsustainable Liberalism.” The discussion has continued apace, but the recent contribution by J. L. Liedl is one of the best. Thanks to the fellows over at The Calvinist International for bringing it to my attention.

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The art of politics

March 13th, 2013 — 4:33pm

Politics is the art of associating (consociandi) men for the purpose of establishing, cultivating, and conserving social life among them. Whence it is called “symbiotics.” The subject matter of politics is therefore association (consociatio), in which 
the symbiotes  pledge themselves each to the other, by explicit or tacit agreement, to mutual communication of whatever is useful and necessary for the harmonious exercise of social life. (Johannes Althusius, Politica Methodice Digesta, §§1–2)

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How oars leveled a society

February 6th, 2013 — 10:20am

In his gripping account of the battles of Thermopylae and Salamis in the summer of 480 BC, John R. Hale observes this about the contribution of the Athenians:

Athens alone had mobilized its entire citizen body for the naval effort. . . . The hoplites of Athens had traded their shields and spears for rowing pads and oars. As for the thousands of common citizens, the naval expedition had given them for the first time a feeling of true equality with horsemen and hoplites. Oars were great levelers. Rowing demanded perfect unison of action, and the discipline inevitably generated a powerful unity of spirit. Rich and poor shared the same callused palms, blistered buttocks, and stiff muscles, as well as the same hopes and fears for the future. A new unified Athens was being forged on the decks and rowing thwarts of the fleet. (Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy, p. 47)

In Hale’s estimation, it was deployment of the entire Athenian citizenry in naval engagement (at the bold prompting of Themistocles) that laid the foundation of Athenian democracy: because citizens steered the ships of war together, they were eventually prepared to steer the ship of state together.

It’s a fascinating study of how a mutually shared “liturgy” paved the way for a radical reconception of public life and civilization.

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Interrogating liberalism

January 25th, 2013 — 5:44pm

I’m following with considerable interest the discussions stemming from Patrick Deneen’s “Unsustainable Liberalism” article in First Things this past summer. We’re starting to hear a lot (e.g., here and here) that the raw polarity of Right and Left in the United States (grimly illustrated in the last election season and beyond) is completely unfruitful, that the stock “conservative” and “liberal” options have gone stale, and that “third ways” are the need of the hour. I think Deneen offers some profound insights as to why this might be the case and how we got here, though his critics aren’t persuaded that he’s right in condemning the American liberal experiment to its foundations. Vincent Phillip Muñoz, for example, wants to distinguish the temptations to which modern liberalism has succumbed from the liberalism asserted in the Declaration of Independence (Deneen responds here). Nathan Schlueter argues that we need to recover, more specifically, the “natural law liberalism” of our founding, which is quite different from its competitors – “social contract liberalism” and “classical liberalism” (Deneen responds here). Most recently, Peter Augustine Lawler has weighed in, and I’m reliably informed that more critical interactions are forthcoming. It’s an exciting and timely conversation.

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Another post-election footnote

November 13th, 2012 — 11:42am

Last week, Brad Littlejohn and I exchanged briefly on the subject of voting for a pro-abortion candidate (see the comments following his post-election essay). Today he posted a much fuller response to my question. My thanks to him for considering it so extensively, and for his efforts to promote greater understanding among Christians who are seeking to be faithful in their political engagements.

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Post-election reading

November 9th, 2012 — 2:57pm

The antiphony of gloating and wailing since Tuesday’s presidential election has been almost as wearisome as the months of inane clamor that led up to it. I have, however, been grateful for a few pieces of truly profound and enriching analysis. Here are four that I commend to you:

1. From Toby Sumpter

2. From Brad Littlejohn

3. From Peter Leithart

4. From Alastair Roberts

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