Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley

This one has a lot going for it. I stumbled across a reference to it while reading Battle for the Mind by William Sargant. The subject matter seemed to be of particular interest to me—a historical narrative of supposed demonic possession, religious fanaticism, sexual repression, and mass hysteria which occurred in the 17th century in a small French town called Loudun.

But before I get to all of that, take a look at the book’s opening two pages:

It was in 1605 that Joseph Hall, the satirist and future bishop, made his first visit to Flanders. “Along our way how many churches saw we demolished, nothing left but rude heaps to tell the passenger, there hath been both devotion and hostility. Oh, the miserable footsteps of war! . . . But (which I wondered at) churches fall, and Jesuits’ colleges rise everywhere. There is no city where these are not rearing or built. Whence cometh this? Is it for that devotion is not so necessary as policy? These men (as we say of the fox) fare best when they are most cursed. None so much spited of their own; none so hated of all; none so opposed of by ours; and yet these ill weeds grow.”

They grew for a very simple and sufficient reason: the public wanted them. For the Jesuits themselves, ‘policy,’ as Hall and his whole generation knew very well, was the first consideration. The schools had been called into existence for the purpose of strengthening the Roman Church against its enemies, the ‘libertines’ and the Protestants. The good fathers hoped, by their teaching, to create a class of educated laymen totally devoted to the interests of the Church. In the words of Cerutti—words which drove the indignant Michelet almost to frenzy—“as we swathe the limbs of an infant in the cradle to give them a right proportion, so it is necessary from his earliest youth to swathe, so to speak, his will, that it may preserve through his life a happy and salutary suppleness.” The spirit of domination was willing enough, but the flesh of propagandist method was weak. In spite of the swaddling of their wills, some of the Jesuits’ best pupils left school to become free thinkers or even, like Jean Labadie, Protestants. So far as ‘policy’ was concerned, the system was never as efficient as its creators had hoped. But the public was not interested in policy; the public was interested in good schools, where their boys could learn all that a gentleman ought to know. Better than most other purveyors of education, the Jesuits supplied the demand. “What did I observe during the seven years I passed under the Jesuits’ roof? A life full of moderation, diligence and order. They devoted every hour of the day to our education, or to the strict fulfillment of their vows. As evidence of this, I appeal to the testimony of the thousands who, like myself, were educated by them.” So wrote Voltaire. His words bear witness to the excellence of the Jesuits’ teaching methods. At the same time, and yet more emphatically, his entire career bears witness to the failure of the ‘policy,’ which the teaching methods were intended to serve.

When Voltaire went to school, the Jesuit colleges were familiar features of the educational scene. A century earlier their merits had seemed positively revolutionary. In an age when most pedagogues were amateurs in everything except the handling of the birch, their disciplinary methods were relatively humane and their professors carefully chosen and systematically trained. They taught a peculiarly elegant Latin and the very latest in optics, geography and mathematics, together with ‘dramatics’ (their end-of-term theatricals were famous), good manners, respect for the Church and (in France, at least, and after Henri IV’s conversion) obedience to the royal authority. For all these reasons the Jesuit colleges recommended themselves to every member of the typical upper-class family—to the tender-hearted mother, who could not bear to think of her darling undergoing the tortures of an old-fashioned education; to the learned ecclesiastical uncle, with his concern for sound doctrine and a Ciceronian style; and finally to the father who, as a patriotic official, approved of monarchical principles and, as a prudent bourgeois, counted on the Company’s backstairs influence to help their pupil to a job, a place at court, an ecclesiastical sinecure.

Okay. Two things.

First, Huxley does a lot of things like this during The Devils of Loudun—he branches off on an interesting side line to give the reader more context about the times and the people he is writing about. Let’s call them pontifical commentaries. More on them in a moment.

But second, for those you familiar with the devotion some modern alumni have for their Jesuit college alma maters, have you ever read a better description of their theocratic purpose and the source of this sometimes fanatical allegiance?

A big part of Huxley’s main story revolves around a priest named Urban Grandier, who is eventually convicted by church officials for causing the demonic possession of a whole convent of Ursuline nuns, and then tortured and burned alive as a result. Huxley makes the clear case that at least part of the reason Grandier is vilified is because he has made some powerful enemies in Loudun by acting in a chronically un-priest-like fashion with some of their wives and daughters. As Huxley explains:

Grandier lived in the grey dawn of what may be called the Era of Respectability. Throughout the Middle Ages and during the earlier part of the Modern period the gulf between official Catholic theory and the actual practice of individual ecclesiastics had been enormous, unbridged and seemingly unbridgeable. It is difficult to find any medieval or Renaissance writer who does not take it for granted that, from highest prelate to humblest friar, the majority of clergymen are thoroughly disreputable. Ecclesiastical corruption begot the Reformation, and in its turn the Reformation produced the Counter-Reformation. After the Council of Trent scandalous Popes became less and less common, until finally, by the middle of the seventeenth century, the breed dies out completely.

And here’s another of those interesting pontifical commentaries Huxley makes, referencing the oratorical power Grandier had been blessed with, and which he used to weave his spells over the minds of his parishioners and conquests.

When an orator, by the mere magic of words and a golden voice, persuades his audience of the rightness of a bad cause, we are very properly shocked. We ought to feel the same dismay whenever we find the same irrelevant tricks being used to persuade people of the rightness of a good cause. The belief engendered may be desirable, but the grounds for it are intrinsically wrong, and those who use the devices of oratory for instilling even right beliefs are guilty of pandering to the least creditable elements in human nature. By exercising their disastrous gift of the gab, they deepen the quasi-hypnotic trance in which most human beings live and from which it is the aim and purpose of all true philosophy, all genuinely spiritual religion to deliver them. Moreover, there cannot be effective oratory without distorting the facts. Even when he is doing his best to tell the truth, the successful orator is ipso facto a liar. And most successful orators, it is hardly necessary to add, are not even trying to tell the truth; they are trying to evoke sympathy for their friends and antipathy for their opponents.

One of the things that makes this book so enjoyable is that Huxley is especially skilled at getting into the heads of his subjects, of seeing the world through their eyes, and explaining their motivations and drives in terms the modern reader can understand. And in doing so, he also usually manages to uncover the dark underbelly of Catholic doctrine—the fundamental belief system that can so easily be twisted into mass hysteria and abuse. Here he comments on the doctrine of Original Sin, and how it effectively removes all innocence from the world.

The purity of the dew-dabbled lily, the innocence of lambs and little children. Yes, the friars would be green with envy. But, except in sermons and in heaven, all lilies fester sooner or later into rottenness; the ewe-lamb is predestined first to the indefatigably lustful ram, then to the butcher; and in hell the damned walk on a living pavement, tessellated with the tiny carcasses of unbaptized babies. Since the Fall, total innocence has been identical, for all practical purposes, with total depravity. Every young girl is potentially the most knowing of widows and, thanks to Original Sin, every potential impurity is already, even in the most innocent, more than half actualized.

And it is this half-actualized depravity that is taken to its most diabolical and, in a strange turnabout, holy extreme, as the nuns accuse Grandier of being the cause of their demonic possession. Their confessions are laced with reports of the sexual escapades that the power of Grandier’s sorcery has compelled them to commit, and as they do so, they realize that the baser and more deviant they can claim those acts were, the more power the doctrines of confession, exorcism, and absolution will seem to have. It’s a tight little package that manages to spiral in on itself and create its own abyss. As Huxley writes:

What a cozy squalor, what surgical intimacies! The dirt is moral as well as material; the physiological miseries are matched by the spiritual and the intellectual. And over everything, like a richly smelly fog, hangs an oppressive sexuality, thick enough to be cut with a knife and ubiquitous, inescapable.

But with his long view of human nature, Huxley is careful not to condemn these actions as artifacts of the past, not even as artifacts of the religiously-minded.

But looking back and up, from our vantage point on the descending road of modern history, we now see that all the evils of religion can flourish without any belief in the supernatural, that convinced materialists are ready to worship their own jerry-built creations as though they were the Absolute, and that self-styled humanists will persecute their adversaries with all the zeal of Inquisitors exterminating the devotees of a personal and transcendent Satan. Such behavior-patterns antedate and outlive the beliefs which, at any given moment, seem to motivate them. Few people now believe in the devil; but very many enjoy behaving as their ancestors behaved when the Fiend was a reality as unquestionable as his Opposite Number. In order to justify their behavior, they turn their theories into dogmas, their by-laws into First Principles, their political bosses into Gods and all those who disagree with them into incarnate devils. This idolatrous transformation of the relative into the Absolute and the all too human into Divine, makes it possible for them to indulge their ugliest passions with a clear conscience and in the certainty that they are working for the Highest Good. And when the current beliefs come, in their turn, to look silly, a new set will be invented, so that the immemorial madness may continue to wear its customary mask of legality, idealism and true religion.

I bolded one sentence above because it really drives home the point that I came to appreciate while reading The End of Faith by Sam Harris—that it’s not religion that creates atrocities, it is dogma; religious, secular, or otherwise—it is blind allegiance to unproven beliefs that creates such havoc in our world and in our human relations.

Huxley’s ability to get inside the heads of his subjects is truly impressive and, in doing so, he helps illuminate one extremely important point.

In the paragraphs which I follow I shall describe very briefly the frame of reference within which the men of the early seventeenth century did their thinking about human nature. This frame of reference was so ancient and so intimately associated with traditional Christian doctrine that it was universally regarded as a structure of self-evident truths. Today, though still most lamentably ignorant, we know enough to feel quite certain that, in many respects, the older thought-pattern was inadequate to the given facts of experience.

Huxley is not a sloppy writer, nor one that chooses words cavalierly. His reference to “self-evident truths,” as in “we hold these truths to be self-evident,” did not go unnoticed by this reader. He is reminding us that what we now hold as self-evident truths are but reflections of the thought patterns that dominate our time. Will ours someday seem just as antiquated as those of seventeenth-century Catholicism?

And it is those antiquated ideas of seventeenth-century Catholicism, as much as modern thinkers would want to ridicule them, that truly dominated and drove the narrative that Huxley describes. The belief that God and the Devil were real, and that their minion angels and demons did battle on earth for the souls of men, was so entrenched in everyone’s understanding of reality that it became one of their culture’s self-evident truths. Every event, no matter how ordinary, could only be seen through that lens. Witness the following from Grandier’s eventual execution—burned at the stake like the demon he was believed to be.

The fire burned on, the good fathers continued to sprinkle and intone. Suddenly a flock of pigeons came swooping down from the church and started to wheel around the roaring column of flame and smoke. The crowd shouted, the archers waved their halberds at the birds, Lactance and Tranquille splashed them on the wing with holy water. In vain. The pigeons were not to be driven away. Round and round they flew, driving through the smoke, singeing their feathers in the flames. Both parties claimed a miracle. For the parson’s enemies the birds, quite obviously, were a troop of devils, come to fetch away his soul. For his friends, they were emblems of the Holy Ghost and living proof of his innocence. It never seems to have occurred to anyone that they were just pigeons, obeying the laws of their own, their blessedly other-than-human nature.

It is a foreign story, told from a perspective we have to struggle to understand, and yet there is something compelling to us about it, about all stories from the past, even though their characters lived in different circumstances and did things different from anything we would contemplate doing. This alluring aspect of history is no mystery to Huxley.

The charm of history and its enigmatic lesson consist in the fact that, from age to age, nothing changes and yet everything is completely different. In the personages of other times and alien creatures we recognize our all too human selves and yet are aware, as we do so, that the frame of reference within which we do our living has changed, since their day, out of all recognition, that propositions which seemed axiomatic then are now untenable and that what we regard as the most self-evident postulates could not, at an earlier period, find entrance into even the most boldly speculative mind. But however great, however important for thought and technology, for social organization and behavior, the differences between then and now are always peripheral. At the centre remains a fundamental identity. In so far as they are incarnated minds, subject to physical decay and death, capable of pain and pleasure, driven by craving and abhorrence and oscillating between the desire for self-assertion and the desire for self-transcendence, human beings are faced, at every time and place, with the same problems, are confronted by the same temptations and are permitted by the Order of Things to make the same choice between unregeneracy and enlightenment. The context changes, but the gist and the meaning are invariable.

Heed this. Inside all that flowery prose, Huxley has hit the nail precisely on the head. He’s talking about history, but the same parallels can be drawn for fiction. They charm us because they illuminate the fundamental truth of our existence.

For it is this desire for self-transcendence that is truly universal in the human species, and the root cause of all our fidelities to the spiritual and religious. This is such a crucial point for Huxley, and so central to his analysis of the events driving The Devils of Loudun, he includes a thoughtful and discursive appendix on the subject. It opens:

Without an understanding of man’s deep-seated urge to self-transcendence, of his very natural reluctance to take the hard, ascending way, and his search for some bogus liberation either below or to one side of his personality, we cannot hope to make sense of our own particular period of history or indeed of history in general, of life as it was lived in the past and as it is lived today. For this reason I propose to discuss some of the more common Grace-substitutes, into which and by means of which men and women have tried to escape from the tormenting consciousness of being merely themselves.

He goes on to describe three primary “Grace substitutes”—intoxication (“beer does more than Milton can to justify God’s ways to man”), sexuality (as was very much the case in Loudun), and herd-intoxication (from which section Sargant quoted in Battle for the Mind). The objective of all three is to transcend the limitations of the individual—the first two typically self-sought, and the last typically imposed by the will of an Other. But whichever road is taken, self-transcendence of these stripes is almost always a trap from which there is no safe return.

This is a descending road and most of those who take it will come to a state of degradation, where periods of subhuman ecstasy alternate with periods of conscious selfhood so wretched that any escape, even if it be into the slow suicide of drug addiction, will seem preferable to being a person.

If you’ve ever seen and were confused by the television show Intervention—this analysis is all you really need to understand an addict’s motivations.

Huxley goes just about everywhere at one time or another during the course of his narrative, including the pagan origins of Christianity. But his take is interesting, as it seems to illuminate that Christianity didn’t just steal from pagan religions and make its rituals its own. Because of its missionary agenda, Christianity in fact blended with a variety of different pagan religions—a different one in every place where it tried to gain supremacy. And this missionary zeal was never entirely successful.

In that year of grace, sixteen hundred and thirty-two, more than a thousand years had gone by since Western Europe was ‘converted to Christianity’; and yet the ancient fertility religion, considerably corrupted by the fact of being chronically ‘agin the government,’ was still alive, still boasted its confessors and heroic martyrs, still had an ecclesiastical organization—identical, according to Cotton Mather, to that of his own Congregational Church. The fact of the old faith’s survival seems somewhat less astonishing, when we remember that, after four centuries of missionary effort, the Indians of Guatemala are not perceptibly more Catholic than they were in the first generation after the coming of Alvarado. In another seven or eight hundred years the religious situation in Central America may have come, perhaps, to resemble that which prevailed in seventeenth-century Europe, where a majority of Christians bitterly persecuted a minority attached to the older faith.

So much of what we think of as Christianity is not pure Christianity at all—but a hybrid of Christianity and the local religion that the missionaries tried to replace. In fact, there is no pure Christianity at all—just one kind of hybrid after another. When the worshippers of the old fertility religion were persecuted by the Church for their beliefs, they weren’t accused of worshipping another god, they were accused of worshipping the devil. But they didn’t worship the devil, any more than the Guatemala Indians did before the missionaries arrived. The Church called it the devil, but it wasn’t really. Just another god who reigned for thousands of years before Yahweh and Jesus.

He also spends a fair amount of time analyzing the philosophical perspective of the time and comparing it to other schools of thought. In doing so, Huxley reveals a kind of penchant for Zen Buddhism, quoting such aphorisms as:

“If you wish to see It before your eyes,” writes the Third Patriarch of Zen, “have no fixed notions either for or against It.”

Which strikes me as inimitably practical advice.

But in the end, in tune with his theses about the ubiquity of human experience, he sees Zen Buddhism and Christianity as exhibiting only differences of degree and not of kind.

But it is only through the datum of nature that we can hope to receive the donum of Grace. It is only by accepting the given, as it is given, that we may qualify for the Gift. It is only through the facts that we can come to the primordial Fact. “Do not hunt after the truth,” advises one of the Zen masters, “only cease to cherish opinions.” And the Christian mystics say substantially the same thing—with this difference, however, that they have to make an exception in favor of the opinions known as dogmas, articles of faith, pious traditions and the like. But at best these are but signposts; and if we “take the pointing finger for the Moon,” we shall certainly go astray. The Fact must be approached through the facts; it cannot be known by means of words, or by means of phantasies inspired by words. The heavenly kingdom can be made to come on earth; it cannot be made to come in our imagination or in our discursive reasonings. And it cannot come even on earth, so long as we persist in living, not on the earth as it is actually given, but as it appears to an ego obsessed by the idea of separateness, by cravings and abhorrences, by compensatory phantasies and by ready-made propositions about the nature of things. Our kingdom must go before God’s can come. There must be a mortification, not of nature, but of our fatal tendency to set up something of our own contriving in the place of nature. We have to get rid of our catalogue of likes and dislikes, of the verbal patterns to which we expect reality to confirm, of the fancies into which we retire, when the facts do not come up to our expectation. This is the “holy indifference” of St. Francois de Sales; this is de Caussade’s “abandonment,” the conscious willing, moment by moment, of what actually happens; this is that “refusal to prefer” which, in Zen phraseology, is the mark of the Perfect Way.

And finally, in another one of his pontifical commentaries, Huxley combines all the analysis of the permanence of the human condition throughout history to provide a startlingly lucid dissertation of post-modern philosophy and the politics that can arise from it. He starts by talking about Grandier’s judge and executioners, people who still worked as they understood things to save Grandier’s soul.

Since Lauberdemont’s time, evil has made some progress. Under Communist dictators, those who come to trial before a People’s Court invariably confess the crimes of which they have been accused—confess them even when they are imaginary. In the past, confession was by no means invariable. Even under torture, even at the stake, Grandier protested his innocence. And Grandier’s case was by no means unique. Many persons, women no less than men, went through similar experiences with the same indomitable constancy. Our ancestors invented the rack and the iron maiden, the boot and the water torture; but in the subtler arts of breaking the will and reducing the human being to subhumanity they still had much to learn. In a sense, it may be, they did not even wish to learn these things. They had been brought up in a religion which taught that the will is free, the soul immortal; and they acted upon these beliefs even in relation to their enemies. Yes, even the traitor, even the convicted devil-worshipper had a soul which might yet be saved; and the most ferocious judges never refused him the consolations of a religion which went on offering salvation to the very end. Before and during execution, a priest was always at hand, doing his best to reconcile the departing criminal with his Creator. By a kind of blessed inconsistency, our fathers respected the personality even of those whom they were tormenting with red-hot pincers or breaking on the wheel.

For the totalitarians of our more enlightened century there is no soul and no Creator; there is merely a lump of physiological raw material moulded by conditioned reflexes and social pressures into what, by courtesy, is still called a human being. This product of the man-made environment is without intrinsic significance and possesses no rights of self-determination. It exists for Society and must conform to the Collective Will. In practice, of course, Society is nothing but the national State, and as a matter of brute fact, the Collective Will is merely the dictator’s will-to-power, sometimes mitigated, sometimes distorted to the verge of lunacy, by some pseudo-scientific theory of what, in the gorgeous future, will be good for an actuarial abstraction labeled ‘Humanity.’ Individuals are defined as the products and the instruments of Society. From this it follows that the political bosses, who claim to represent Society, are justified in committing any conceivable atrocity against such persons as they may choose to call Society’s enemies. Physical extermination by shooting (or, more profitably, by overwork in a slave labour camp) is not enough. It is a matter of observable fact that men and women are not the mere creatures of Society. But official theory proclaims that they are. Therefore it becomes necessary to depersonalize the ‘enemies of Society’ in order to transform the official lie into truth. For those who know the trick, this reduction of the human to the subhuman, of the free individual to the obedient automaton, is a relatively simple matter. The personality of man is far less monolithic than the theologians were compelled by their dogmas to assume. The soul is not the same as the Spirit, but is merely associated with it. In itself, and until it consciously chooses to make way for the Spirit, it is no more than a rather loosely tied bundle of not very stable psychological elements. This composite entity can quite easily be disintegrated by anyone ruthless enough to wish to try and skillful enough to do the job in the right way.

It’s all there for you to see. The next time you’re trying to understand the gossamer divide between the political Right and the political Left, come back and read this section. They’re running different plays, but they’re both using the same playbook.

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Two more bits. Short paragraphs on other miscellaneous topics that are just too good to pass up without notice. First, on the universality of Shakespeare:

In practically any comedy or tragedy of Shakespeare one cannot read twenty lines without being made aware that, behind the clowns, the criminals, the heroes, behind the flirts and the weeping queens, beyond all that is agonizingly or farcically human, and yet symbiotic with man, immanent in his consciousness and consubstantial with his being, there lie the everlasting data, the given facts of planetary and cosmic existence on every level, animate and inanimate, mindless and purposely conscious.

And second, on great men:

By those who serve him, a great man must be treated as a mixture between a god, a naughty child and a wild beast. The god must be worshipped, the child amused and bamboozled and the wild beast placated and, when aroused, avoided. The courtier who, by an unwelcome suggestion, annoys this insane trinity of superhuman pretension, subhuman ferocity and infantile silliness, is merely asking for trouble.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Importance of Sharing Survey Results

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Like a lot of associations, mine is in the habit of surveying our members. We do a fair number of small, ad hoc surveys, but we also put a lot of time and energy into a biennial satisfaction survey. It gives us a wealth of information about what responders think about our strategic direction and our programs and services.

One of the things I insist on is sharing the results of this satisfaction survey with our membership. I do this for a few reasons.

1. They deserve it. They took time out of their busy day to complete the survey instrument we sent them. If they're engaged enough to do that, they're almost certainly engaged enough to be interested in the results.

2. It helps increase future response rates. How many times have you filled out a survey for one of the associations you belong to, and the results of that survey or what the association plans to do with them remains forever a mystery? How motivated are you to fill out the next survey? Why would your members be any different?

3. It provides cover for ending programs. This may be one of the best benefits of data sharing there is. If you're asking how important your programs are to your membership, programs with low importance scores should seriously be considered for sunsetting. And by sharing those scores publicly, it creates an environment where debate and dissent based on individual preference has less sway.

What other good reasons are there for sharing your survey data with your members?

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, October 6, 2014

I'm Not Building a Navy SEAL Team

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Quick rant this week.

I attend a lot of conferences where the focus is leadership and how to build and lead effective teams. One common type of speaker I see at these conferences is someone retired from the military (an ex-Navy SEAL Team member was the latest example), talking about their own experiences with team-building and team leadership. The talks are always interesting and inspiring. The people giving them always deserve our thanks and applause for the risks they have taken and for their service to our country.

But you know what? I'm not building or leading a Navy SEAL team. I'm running a 10-staff person trade association headquartered in Milwaukee with a $3 million budget. And I'm really not sure what one has to do with the other.

Do I need people who are willing to go the extra mile? Who are willing to do things they are not sure they can accomplish? Sure I do.

But am I going to tear people down the way intense military training does so that I can build them back up in that image? I'm I going to keep people up for seven days straight and dunk them in freezing cold water and make them run back-to-back marathons wearing combat gear?

Or better yet, do I have thousands of recruits to draw from, putting them all through these rigors and building my team out of the dozen or so with the physical and mental stamina to survive?

No, of course I don't. And neither do you. If you're anything like me, your challenges are nothing like those that face SEAL team members or Army Rangers or Green Berets. And, from my perspective, it's a little strange to think otherwise. There are, of course, universal lessons of leadership that apply in nearly every situation, but aren't those lessons better conveyed through a context that is more similar to the world I actually live in?

I think so.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Stop Stealing Dreams by Seth Godin

This is a collection of blog posts that Godin wrote on a single theme--school, and what’s wrong with it. The underlying message--that our current model of industrialized schooling, created for the 19th and early 20th centuries, is failing us in the early 21st century--speaks strongly to me. Here’s an example:

43. How not to teach someone to be a baseball fan

Teach the history of baseball, beginning with Abner Doubleday and the impact of cricket and imperialism. Have a test.

Starting with the Negro leagues and the early barnstorming teams, assign students to memorize facts and figures about each player. Have a test.

Rank the class on who did well on the first two tests, and allow these students to memorize even more statistics about baseball players. Make sure to give equal time to players in Japan and the Dominican Republic. Send the students who didn’t do as well to spend time with a lesser teacher, but assign them similar work, just over a longer time frame. Have a test.

Sometime in the future, do a field trip and go to a baseball game. Make sure no one has a good time.

If there’s time, let kids throw a baseball around during recess.

Obviously, there are plenty of kids (and adults) who know far more about baseball than anyone could imagine knowing. And none of them learned it this way.

The industrialized, scalable, testable solution is almost never the best way to generate exceptional learning.

And another:

80. American anti-intellectualism

Getting called an egghead is no prize. My bully can beat up your nerd. Real men don’t read literature.

We live in a culture where a politician who says “it’s simple” will almost always defeat one who says “it’s complicated,” even if it is. It’s a place where middle school football coaches have their players do push-ups until they faint, but math teachers are scolded for giving too much homework.

Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were legendary intellectuals. Bill Gates and Michael Dell are nerds. But still, the prevailing winds of pop culture reward the follower, the jock, and the get-along guy almost every time.

Which is fine when you nation’s economy depends on obeisance to the foreman, on heavy lifting, and on sucking it up for the long haul.

Now, though, our future lies with the artist and the dreamer and yes, the person who took the time and energy to be passionate about math.

Most of the manuscript is like this. Bracing. Like a bucket of cold water thrown in the face. But as much as his points hit home, there is one thing that this manifesto is lacking.

A prescription for what to do about it.

This is about as close as he gets:

84. The two pillars of a future-proof education:

Teach kids how to lead.

Help them learn how to solve interesting problems.

Leadership is the most important trait for players in the connected revolution. Leadership involves initiative, and in the connected world, nothing happens until you step up and begin, until you start driving without a clear map.

And as the world changes ever faster, we don’t reward people who can slavishly follow yesterday’s instructions. All of the value to the individual (and to the society she belongs to) goes to the individual who can draw a new map, who can solve a problem that didn’t even exist yesterday.

Hence the question I ask to every teacher who reads from her notes, to every teacher who demands rote memorization, and to every teacher who comes at schooling from a posture of power: Are you delivering these two precious gifts to our children? Will the next generation know more facts than we do, or will it be equipped to connect with data, and to turn that data into information and leadership and progress?

Here, here. I’ve long said that entrepreneurship is the one thing schools should be teaching that they’re currently not. I’ve even said that every high school freshman should start a business and run it during the next four years--perhaps selling it for college money upon graduation. Learning to understand what a market needs, and finding ways to source and deliver it is one of the skills I wish I had been taught in high school.

But be it leadership, problem solving, or entrepreneurship--how do we change the system so that these subjects can be taught? Godin’s text is pretty nearly silent on that point, probably because he recognizes that education is local, and that any success on these scales will have to come from the bottom-up and not the top-down.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, September 29, 2014

Six Rules of Living Your Values: Conclusion

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Over the last six weeks, I have tackled the six rules of living your values, as defined by Francois Nader, CEO of NPS Pharmaceuticals in this HBR blog post. Those rules, and my posts about them, are:

1. Define the values in simple, sixth-grade language.
2. Don’t post plaques on the wall declaring the values.
3. Teach people what the values mean.
4. Recruit people who naturally are inclined to live your values.
5. Make values a primary filter for performance evaluations.
6. Your values must be non-negotiable.

I have reflected on what my own association has or hasn't done with each, and have speculated, when appropriate, on what we might do differently.

So what, if anything, have I learned? Do I intend to do anything different as a result of this analysis, or was it was just was way to pass some time?


I was really struck by the importance of phrasing your values in the simplest language possible. As I described in that post, I think my organization's values already do a good job at passing that test, but that some of the behaviors we have defined to better describe how we intended each value to manifest in our actions could use some work. That's something I'm going to take a crack at, but I need to do something more than just circulate a new list of bullet points to everyone.

As I've reflected on where my organization has been and where it is going with its values, I have realized that the best use of the short-hand behaviors will not be as a checklist for everyone to modulate their actions by. That won't hurt, I suppose, but the best use of the short and pithy behavior statements will more likely be to help me intensify my own focus on our values.

I must, you see, do more to teach the people in my organization what the values really mean. I must publicly call out when people are and are not acting in accordance with them, and I must be ready for the discussions that come with each circumstance, knowing that both positive and negative examples will be educational.

And having sound bites instead of compound sentences is going to help me do this. When observing the actions of others, will it be easier to focus on instances of people "challenging prevailing assumptions, suggesting better approaches, and creating new ideas that prove useful," (the old language) or "trying new things and keeping what works" (the new language)? Clearly, the latter.

And what about governing my own behavior and that of my leadership team? The simpler language will prove more memorable, allowing us to act with greater intention and to more deliberately bake our values into the management decisions we must make--not only with regard to recruiting and evaluating our employees, but also in how we choose to lead the organization.

This exercise has been very helpful for me. It has given me not just a new perspective on how to help my organization live its values, but a renewed energy for doing so.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, September 22, 2014

Your Values Must Be Non-Negotiable

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This post is part of a series in which I'm analyzing the efforts of my organization to define and embrace core values through the six rules for doing so defined by Francois Nader, CEO of NPS Pharmaceuticals. For the series introduction, go here. For my comments on the first rule, go here. For my comments on the second rule, go here. For my comments on the third rule, go here. For my comments on the fourth rule, go here. For my comments on the fifth rule, go here.

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Here's Nader's sixth rule, along with what he says about it in his HBR blog post:

Your values must be non-negotiable. Over and over again, I have seen managers tolerate unacceptable behaviors because they believed the individuals’ technical expertise was vital. This shortsightedness is a recipe for disaster. One person’s expertise is not a good trade for negativity, loss of credibility, and the metastases of other unacceptable behaviors throughout the organization. The moment you make one exception, you’re doomed.

Another piece of excellent advice, although I fear the last line about doom following inevitably from one exception is a bit melodramatic. The real world may be a more nuanced than that line would let on. If someone is toxic to the organization, by all means, the organization is better off without that person, regardless of the technical expertise that they possess. But toxicity and behavior contrary to stated values are not necessarily the same thing--especially when the the organization is still working to figure out what behavior in alignment with its stated values can and should mean.

In one of the posts in this series, I wrote about the challenges associated with bringing new people into an organization--new people who were hired because they align well with the organization's stated values--but who find themselves inside an organization still trying to actualize itself according to those terms. New employees wonder if they've made the right decision, and feel like they are swimming upstream. And existing staff question the fit of the new employees, rejecting rather than embracing the different ways of thinking and doing they represent.

Well, something similar can happen just among existing employees who are genuinely trying to understand and adapt to the environment defined by the new values. No one will live up to them all--at least not initially--and behaviors that are contrary to the values should be expected and discussed, not rejected as unacceptable. Within a proper context, exceptions can and should always be made, especially if they can be used to demonstrate counter examples about the values and their associated behaviors to the rest of the organization.

Continued and intentional actions against the values would, of course, be cause for greater alarm, but an immediate and zero-tolerance policy towards behaviors contrary to the values--one infraction and you're gone--may be counterproductive. Not only would you risk dramatically decreasing the size of your workforce, but you could leave those who remain with serious questions about the intentions and wisdom of their leader. You are, after all, getting rid of good people with talents others need to rely on, and you're doing it for reasons that not everyone has fully bought into yet.

Values should be non-negotiable. But the path that employees take toward bringing their actions into alignment with those values should be heavily negotiated. If the only tool you can wield in that process is an ax, you'll wind up doing damage you may not be able to repair.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Citizen Tom Paine by Howard Fast

I picked this one up only because I read and enjoyed another of Fast’s works--Spartacus. It’s safe to say I did not enjoy this one nearly as much.

Tom Paine has always been a shadowy figure in the stage light of my historical understanding. Other than the facts that he wrote Common Sense and The Age of Reason, I knew next to nothing about him. And, if I am to believe the blurb on the back cover, a lot of other people were in the same boat with me before Fast published this work in 1943.

Among Howard Fast’s historical fiction, this book--one of America’s all-time bestsellers--occupies a very special place, for it restored to a whole generation of readers the vision of Paine’s revolutionary passion as the authentic roots of our national beginnings.

So what did I learn about him? Well, for one, that his was a mind that seemed out of place in its time. Fast makes this wonderfully clear in the dramatization of Paine’s relationship with Mary, his first wife, whom he met and courted while still living in England, and who died while pregnant with their child.

He thought afterward that if certain things had not been, if certain things had gone otherwise, it might have been different. What she was, she couldn’t help, and knowing that only made it worse for him. Long after, he would think of how he had tried to teach her to read and write, and how after ten or fifteen minutes of struggling with an idea, she would turn on him with childish fury. Sometimes he was sure she hated him, and sometimes, holding her in his arms, he would have a brief moment in which he knew she loved him. She was what she was, beaten into shape by her tiny world, a tribal creature laid over and over with a thousand taboos, Sometimes, probing as gently as he could, uncovering layer after layer, he would be at the point of finding her frightened little soul, and she would burst out at him, “Coo! High and mighty and fine you are, making fun of me again, you with your fine airs!”

This is exactly how the public reacted to Paine during his lifetime and, evidently, how history has treated him ever since. Many of his contemporaries and many of their descendants reacted to his “high and mighty” ideas exactly as Mary did, occasionally intoxicated by them, but much more often frightened and confused.

In fact, the essential portrait that Fast creates is not that of the hero, but of the reclusive writer, scribbling words capable of swaying the passions of man in solitary darkness, but forever incapable of connecting with his audience in person or on any other level. Paine is the quintessential misanthrope, whose written words speak to the hidden misanthrope that lives within us all and that nurtures our delusions of self importance, but over whom we and the society that frames us keeps tight control. Except Paine has no such control. He is all misanthrope. And while we can thrill to the words he places privately in our minds, when we meet him in person and see him for the monster he is.

And in describing this writer--for those of us who also write--we see glimmers of what it means to be a writer, what it takes to do what so few of us can or are willing to do.

He had a little room, a bed, a bolster, chest, coat-rack, and table, two fairly good suits of clothes, ink and paper. That was enough, a man should want no more. He needed a few pennies for candles, something for food, something for drink. During this time he no longer allowed himself to be drunk, yet he saw no reason to do without liquor. Rum helped him; caring little for himself or for what became of him, he was ready to use anything that might make his pen move more easily on the paper. He was writing stuff out of thought and making something out of nothing, and after he had worked steadily for five, six, or seven hours, the little room closed in on him. Rum helped; as he drank, his movements would become slow and painful, but the quill would continue to scratch, which was all that mattered. He had no delusions; what he wrote might never be read by more than a dozen persons, but it was all he could do and what he had to do. Men don’t make new worlds in an afternoon; brick has to be placed on brick, and the process is long and incredibly painful.

This, then, subsumes his role in our nation’s history. As he himself muses late in the narrative:

He sat in the dark and turned over and over in his hands the key that had unlocked the Bastille. Lafayette had given it to him to give to Washington; Washington stood in the clouds, and Lafayette was a leader of France, and he, Paine, in between, was nothing. But in between was the moving impulse of revolution, a force summed up in himself, a passionate preaching that gained neither glory nor distinction, but by the power of the written word moved worlds.

The reference to the Bastille is important, for after the American Revolution, Paine goes back to Europe to see what role he can play in the French one. But he discovers that what worked in America does not work in France. And he gets an initial glimpse of this when he first visits his hometown in England.

Then Thetford, and it shocked him that the old place had not changed, not at all, not a stone moved, the furrows plowed in the tracks of a thousand years of furrows, a crow perched on top a fence where he thought he remembered it perching so long ago. After America, this was entirely out of the world, for America lived by change, tear down the house and build a better one, tear down the barn and build a better one, pave the streets, sewers? Why not? The Romans did it. A higher church and a higher steeple, a bigger town hall.

Indeed, America was unique. In a telling conversation with Benjamin Rush, the physician explicitly describes the circumstance that made America possible, that allowed, for the first time, strength and violence to be used for the cause of the oppressed rather than the oppressors.

“It is true that we have here a nation of armed men who know how to use their arms; we have a Protestant tradition of discussion as opposed to autocracy; we have some notion of the dignity of man; and above all we have land, land enough for everyone.”

It is fascinating to think about how the American Revolution would have gone--or if it would have happened at all--if any one of those circumstances hadn’t been present.

But back to Paine. He has gone back to Europe to help foment the French Revolution, to try and be the people’s muse once again, but he winds up not on their shoulders but in the Bastille, where he finds himself debating the philosophical essence of his work with the other would-be revolutionaries imprisoned there. By way of example, no less than Anacharsis Clootz takes exception to some of the thoughts he expressed in The Age of Reason.

“What is this nonsense you write, Paine, about the creation being the Bible of God?”

“A simple fact which I believe.”

“Which you believe!” Clootz snorted, stopping the march and turning on Paine, arms akimbo. “You repudiate organized religion and substitute mystical rationalization! My friend, Paine, you shock me. With you I spend some of my last precious hours. On every hand people in the streets turn to stare at us and whisper to each other, There are Paine and Clootz on their way to the guillotine. These good soldiers, these two agents of what calls itself the Republic of France, will go home to their soup and their wives with the news that they marched the last march with the two greatest minds of the eighteenth century. And you rationalize about the creation being the Bible of God. What creation?”

“Of course, it happened!” Paine snapped. “Atheism, the great creed of chance! Like a game of cards, everything just fell together until it fitted nicely!”

“And why not? Where is reason, but in our minds? Where is godliness, but in the people? Where is mercy, but in the masses? A thing becomes reasonable because we make it reasonable, and we are not reaching toward God, but toward goodness, a formulation of the people, a concept of small, suffering men--”

M. Merson interrupted, “Please, please, citizens, we are on our way to the Luxembourg jail. I pray you not to argue, for it is unseemly in men going our way.” And they continued on their way, Clootz roaring his theories at the top of his lungs.

Clootz may be an extreme example, but he still reveals something of the fundamental disconnect that Paine experiences throughout his life--which continues after he survives the Bastille, by the way. Revolutions, large and small, are the children of Paine’s words, but their grandparents, the ideas in Paine's head that give birth to his words, don't seem like relatives at all. The words work because they speak directly to a broad cross-section of man, and most can find long-sought-after sustenance within them.

But when Paine tries to explain the wellspring that gives birth to his words, it is a wellspring that only he and few others care to share. Paine does not believe in the Christian God, but he does believe in a God that endows His creation with “certain inalienable rights.” Clootz does not believe in God at all, thinking that reason springs solely from the mind of man, and so when Paine walks his conception of liberty back to a non-Christian God, he alienates both the Christians and the atheists. His views, when expressed as close to their essential essence as possible, are almost entirely his and his alone.

At one point in the narrative, Fast has Paine describe someone as being like Christ--he knew not the evil from the good, but only the weak from the strong. From where I sit, that is perhaps the best description of Paine himself, and why he is almost always misunderstood.

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Something else happened to me when I read this book. It became apparent when I stumbled across passages like this:

It was there, hot and terrible; they were rebels. This idea that they had conceived, that they should be free men with the right to live their lives in their own way, this tenuous, dream-like idea of liberty that men of good will had played with for thousands of years had suddenly come to it brutish head on a village green in Lexington. The farmers growled and didn’t lay down their arms; instead one of them fired, and in the moment of stillness after the roar of the big musket had echoed and re-echoed, a redcoat clutched at his tunic, knelt, and then rolled over on the ground.

There was a time when such a passage would have moved me. When my heart would have swelled at the idea, so pleasantly phrased, of man fighting for his liberty against oppression.

But no longer. Now, when I find a writer who is trying to stir me in this way, my mind quickly goes to the ugly and inevitable truth, which, in this case, Fast is complex enough to present in the very next paragraph.

After that, there was no order, no memory even. The redcoat files fired a volley; the farmers fired their guns singly, by twos and threes. The women screamed and came running from their houses. Children began to cry and dogs barked madly. Then the firing died away and there was no sound except the moans of the wounded and the shrill pleading of the women.

Fighting against oppression is important, but shouldn’t we weigh the consequences of such fights outside the passion of the moment and the stirrings that demagogues (or novelists) may wish to inspire within us?

What, in the end, is the most important? Liberty? Or dignity? Fast shows us what Paine may have thought in this fictionalized dialogue with Thomas Jefferson.

“Poverty is a degree of things,” Jefferson said. “I have seen people here in America whose poverty was complete and absolute, yet they retained--”

“Dignity,” Paine said.


“Then that’s all we live for,” Paine reflected. “If there’s any meaning in human life, then it’s there, in the dignity of a human being.”

“I think so.”

“I never realized that before; I began to feel it here, but I didn’t know until I spoke of it tonight. It’s true enough; all through ten thousand years men have been corrupted by having their dignity taken from them. When my wife died and the neighbors poured in to look at her poor, tired body, the little, evil thrill of it the only excitement in their lives, each bringing a scrap of food for admission, I could think, God help me, only how comical it was. If we were made in the image of God, how rotten that image has become!”

My evolving perspective tends to agree. Perfect liberty is a bit of a pipe dream, anyway. Give me a good deal of liberty, yes, but more pressingly, give me the dignity I need to be and become what I wish to be. Preserving that, I suppose, requires a little bit of government among men, and therefore, a little bit of the ideal of liberty that is supposed to make my heart swell must be sacrificed.

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But why didn’t I like this as much as I liked Spartacus? If you’ve read this far, I’ve probably left you with the impression that I got a good deal out of Citizen Tom Paine. And I guess I have, but a lot more turned me off.

I think Fast would have been better served to have focused on only a portion of Paine’s life and not try to tell the whole story from beginning to end. Like most real people, the life of Thomas Paine is not a compelling story. There are some compelling episodes, but there are also long stretches of tedium and boredom, which Fast has to move into biography in order to make them serve as the glue between the fictionalized episodes. When doing so, the prose seems rushed and the relevance forced.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at