Monday, December 25, 2017

A Holiday Break: American Pastoral by Philip Roth

Books are always the best holiday gift for me. The only thing I like better than the anticipation of reading a long sought after title is the fondness that comes with remembering the discovery of an unexpected treasure.

As I look back on all the books I've profiled here in 2017, the one I'd most like to revisit is American Pastoral by Philip Roth. I blogged about it back in July, and found it to be a novel of astonishing depth and complexity.

It is a novel of two people representing two generations. First, there is Seymour "the Swede" Levov, the child of Jewish immigrants, representing a generation of people embracing the American dream and all of its totems and rituals. And then there is his daughter Merry, the radical, representing a generation of people disillusioned with the very totems and rituals that define the generation that came before.

And although the novel delivers powerfully when the reader views Seymour and Merry as individuals in conflict with each other, the transcendent depth of the novel emerges when they are viewed as the generations they represent, wrestling with each other for the soul of America. The Swede, in blaming himself, embodies the mindset of an aspirational generation, while Merry, in rejecting all that her father has arranged and decoded for her, embodies the mindset of a nihilistic one -- the American pastoral versus the American berserk.

As you enjoy your holiday break, I hope you find some time to curl up with a good book. I know I will.

+ + +

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, December 23, 2017

The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man by Robert M. Price

I first learned of Robert M. Price by stumbling upon his Bible Geek podcast some years ago. As I confessed in my write-up of his The Reason Driven Life, listening to him answer questions about the origins, contradictions, and hidden meanings in the Bible is one of my favorite things to do.

Well, The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man is very much like one long, sustained, and better organized episode of the Bible Geek podcast. The format of the podcast often makes it difficult for Price to cover all the background information that a newcomer would need in order to understand the context and often just the terms he uses in his answers. In book form, however, Price has all the space he needs. And here, there is really only one question to answer. It doesn’t come from Price’s “rain barrel” of listener questions. Price asks it himself in his subtitle. How Reliable is the Gospel Tradition?

In 355 pages, Price gives his answer, and all the supporting context and defined terms that he needs to justify it. It’s not. That’s the essential takeaway. The Gospel Tradition is not reliable.

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s first just capture a few of the things I feel I learned while reading this book.

The Pauline Epistles Pre-Date the Gospels

I frankly don’t know how this one escaped me for so long. I’ll blame myself rather than my Sunday School teachers, but I guess I always just assumed that Paul was writing in the time after the Gospels were written, as the early Christian Church was expanding out of its Jewish core and recruiting in the Gentiles. Isn’t that what the cities referenced in the Epistle titles denote? Corinth (in Greece), Philippi (in Macedonia), and Rome (in Italy)?

Well, it turns out this is right -- it’s just my assumption about Paul having the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as reference material that is wrong. Paul, assuming he even wrote the epistles, was writing in a time before these canonical Gospels existed, even though he was writing to Gentiles who had established Christian churches far outside of Israel or Judea.

And this reality will figure significantly in Price’s calculation of the reliability of the Gospel tradition. For if the events described in the Gospels actually happened to the God/man named Jesus Christ, why does Paul never mention them?

There Are At Least Four Different Jesuses in the Gospels

This one I was already keyed into, but Price helped me tease out four clear examples of the “multiple Jesus” phenomenon. The dividing lines in question are based on when Jesus actually became the Christ -- that is, the Son of God and redeemer of mankind: upon his resurrection, upon his baptism, upon his birth, or from the beginning of time. Each tradition had their sects and advocates while the Gospels were being penned and transcribed, and each tried to influence the texts to better favor their interpretation of Jesus’s relationship with God.

If only each tradition had its own Gospel, and each consistently stuck to their conflicting story throughout. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. What we have instead are four books where within each all four traditions have been piled on top of each other through a historical progression of redactions, with not a one having a reliably original source by which such edits could be consistently identified.

And all of that is complicated by the order that the Gospels are presented to modern readers.

The average reader of the New Testament reads Matthew before Mark and then goes on to Luke and John. Matthew gives him the impression that Jesus was born God’s Son in a miraculous fashion. Mark begins only with the baptism, but the reader will think little of this: perhaps Mark begins in medias res. With Luke we are back to a miraculous nativity for one born the Son of God. In John the reader learns that Jesus had already been God’s Son from all eternity. But suppose one read Mark by itself, as its first readers did. What impression would one receive? Surely in a book where the main character shows up as an adult and, right off the bat, experiences a vision of divine calling in which he and no one else is told he is God’s Son, the natural inference would be that the baptism was the beginning of an honorific Sonship. If he were already God’s son, wouldn’t he have known it? And then why should God tell him what he already knew? It seems that Mark might believe what others in the early church did, namely, in Jesus’ adoptive Sonship.

But as difficult as it may be to tease apart these traditions, the fact that they are there in the soup has amazing explanatory power. I’ll let Price make one of his extremely helpful analogies from today’s popular culture mythology.

When Siegel and Schuster first told tales of the Man of Steel, he was said to have developed his powers only once he reached maturity. But Superman’s adventures proved so phenomenally popular that the publisher suggested moving the origin of his powers, and hence his superhero career, back one stage to his adolescence. So the adventures of Superboy premiered and continued for decades. Why not go a step further? The legend was revised again, so that the infant Superbaby was already helping out with farm chores using his superstrength, for example, lifting the tractor single-handedly. Even so, when Jesus’ divine sonship was thought to have stemmed from his Spirit-baptism at the Jordan, his adult activities formed the content of the gospel. But once his sonship was believed to have started at his physical birth, his miraculous “adventures” had to be extended backward to fill the gap.

Price is talking there about the numerous infancy Gospels -- texts, while not canonical, comically describe the child Jesus doing things like cursing people, healing others, and fashioning living sparrows out of clay. While few today take them seriously, they offer a certain logical consistency with the premise only partially addressed in the canonical Gospels -- that Jesus may have been God from birth.

Anachronisms Hide Behind Every Corner

These are some of my favorites -- all of which pretty much prove that large portions of the Gospels were written at a time far distant from the events they purport to describe.

Here’s a simple one.

We will return to the enigmatic figure of Judas later, but in the meantime, let us observe that his epithet “Iscariot” might mean, with about equal plausibility, three very different things. First, and traditionally, it has been taken to denote “Judas of Kerioth.” Kerioth was the name of a number of villages in Judea, which would make him the only non-Galilean in the group, if not even an Edomite (like Herod!), which is why he is given red hair in Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ (book and film), the Edomites being notorious redheads. John’s gospel must have understood Iscariot this way, since John refers to Judas as the son of Simon Iscariot (13:26). Second, many understand Iscariot as meaning “the Sicarius,” making Judas a member of the assassin squad of the revolutionary Zealots. They carried the sicarius, or short sword, hidden in their robes from whence they would pluck it to stab their intended victim and then mix in with the shouting crowd. This would place Judas alongside Simon the Zealot and Simon Barjona as militant nationalists. I prefer the third option, the surmise of Bertil Gärtner and others, whereby Iscariot represents the Hebrew Ishqarya, “man of falsehood, betrayer.” This means, obviously, that Judas would have been called “Judas Iscariot” during his lifetime no more than Jesus would have been called “Jesus Christ.” This does not mean, however, that sufficient water has not passed under the bridge by the time of the Gospels that Iscariot could be mistaken for a surname. See Mark 3:19, “Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.” Mark no longer recognized it as a redundancy.

In other words, by the time “Mark” started writing his Gospel, the meaning of Iscariot had already been lost in the dimly remembered past, assuming that the name and the character are based on an actual person. It reminds me a lot of the confusion over Jesus being called “the Nazarene.” Price dissects this one pretty well when examining the record to see if the Gospels can reliably tell us of Jesus’s birthplace.

Despite the rendering of many English Bible translations, Jesus is very seldom called “Jesus from Nazareth” in the Gospels. Mark calls him “Jesus the Nazarene,” as does Luke twice … while Matthew, John, and Acts always call him “Jesus the Nazorean” … with Luke using this epithet once. … Some critics have questioned whether the village of Nazareth even existed in the time of Jesus, since it receives no mention outside the Gospels until the third century. Whether that is important or not, the difference between “Nazarene” and “Nazorean” does give us reason to suspect that the familiar epithet does not after all denote Jesus’ hailing from a village called Nazareth. “The Nazarene” would imply that, but not “the Nazorean.” That seems to be a sect name, equivalent to “the Essene” or “the Hasid.” Epiphanius, an early Christian cataloguer of “heresies,” mentions a pre-Christian sect called “the Nazoreans,” their name meaning “the Keepers” of the Torah, or possibly of the secrets. … These Nazoreans were the heirs, supposedly, of the neoprimitivist sect of the Rechabites descending from the time of Jeremiah. … They were rather like Gypsies, itinerant carpenters. “Nazorean” occurs once unambiguously in the New Testament itself as a sect designation, in Acts 24:5: “a ring leader of the sect of the Nazoreans.” Robert Eisler, Hugh J. Schonfield, and others have plausibly suggested that Jesus (and early Christians generally) were members of this Jewish pious sect.

Again, in other words, any reference to Jesus being from a town called Nazareth based on his being called the Nazarene or the Nazorean in the Gospels in a faulty attempt to square a circle. No such town existed in the time of Jesus’s reported birth, and when the connection is made, it only shows that the Gospel writers didn’t know that.

But when it comes to anachronisms, there’s one I stumbled across that really takes the cake. It’s a little more complicated than misunderstood words, so bear with me.

Jesus is depicted in the Gospels in several contradictory ways when it comes to the matter of legal observance. Matthew’s gospel presents Jesus not merely as a new Moses but virtually as a new Torah. As “Moses” and “Torah” had become practically synonymous, so would “Jesus” and “Gospel” become interchangeable, and for Matthew, Jesus is the new Torah. Matthew organizes the teachings he attributes to Jesus into five major blocs: The Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7), the Mission Charge (10), the Parables (13), the Manual of Discipline/Community Rule (18), and the Diatribe against the Pharisees/Olivet Discourse (23-25). The fact that he has squeezed these last two, rather different, topics together only underlines his urgency to get all the material into five sections, each of which ends with a similar statement: “And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching” (7:28). “And when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in their cities” (11:1). “And when Jesus had finished these parables, he went away from there” (13:53). “Now when Jesus had finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee…” (19:1). “When Jesus had finished these all these sayings, he said to his disciples…” (26:1).

So, these are all interpreted as new and somewhat radical teachings. The lessons in the Sermon on the Mount “astonishing” those who heard them.

And yet this new Torah is in no way intended to replace the traditional one. It belongs to a curious genre of contemporary documents that provide a sort of “new edition” of the old Torah. Other examples are the Book of Jubilees and the Qumran Manual of Discipline. Thus, Matthew can have Jesus speak as if nothing at all has changed: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Scriptures; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For amen: I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not a yodh, not a vowel point will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. So whoever relaxes one of the least [important] of these commandments and teaches others [to do] so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:17-19). Of all this, only the [blue type] is from Q, paralleled by Luke 16:17, “But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become [null and] void.”

Q is what Bible scholars call a set a supposed source materials that they believe several of the Gospel writers were working from. But don’t let that distract you. The larger point here is that Matthew is evidently trying to have Jesus both change and not change Jewish law. So what? Well, remember who he is supposedly preaching to: Jews in and around Galilee.

The Q saying thus isolated is already strange if we take it as a saying of Jesus, for it is a polemical proposition against someone who posits the Torah is obsolete. Who would Jesus have been talking to? Reform Jews? But the saying fits perfectly into the context of the Gentile Mission and the Pauline debate over the Torah, and that is where we have to leave the saying.

In other words, this can’t possibly be the verbatim report of what a Galilean carpenter preached near the start of the first millennium. It is, again, a reflection of competing traditions vying for dominance with one another through a historical progression of redactions and embellishments. The very fact that Jesus is counseling Jews to accept a new Torah shows that none of these lessons can be historically accurate. They are anachronisms that belong in the time of Christian expansion to the Gentiles.

The Inevitable End of Shrinking

There are, in fact, so many anachronisms, so many sayings of Jesus and so many reports of Jesus’s activities that can’t possibly be historically consistent with the time he supposedly lived, that Price eventually comes to the conclusion alluded to in his book’s title.

According to such an understanding, there can have been no Galilean adventures of an itinerant teacher and healer named Jesus. Rather, these stories must necessarily have arisen only at a subsequent stage of belief when the savior’s glorification, along with his honorific name Jesus, had been retrojected back before his death. I would suggest that only such a scenario of early Christological development can account for, first, the utter absence of the gospel-story tradition from most of the New Testament epistles, and second, the fictive, nonhistorical character of story after story in the Gospels.

A critical analysis, in Price’s opinion, leads to a historical Jesus that has shrunk essentially to the vanishing point.

+ + +

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, December 18, 2017

Letting the Future Guide the Present

I had a good discussion with my Board chair this week. We're looking ahead to our next Board meeting and it's time to start framing an agenda for the discussions that will take place there. At the end of our discussion we had settled on something that should not only keep our Board focused on the future, but create a structure within which we can take action today.

First, a little background. At our last Board meeting in October, it was observed that almost five years had passed since the Board engaged in a structured visioning exercise. Then, in 2013, we themed that exercise around the "future of our industry," and the future that we envisioned was five years forward -- 2018.

Then, we used the scenario planning methodology that I've described in a previous post to both identify and describe four different possible futures for our industry, each based on the juxtaposition of two uncertain outcomes of two vexing megatrends. Looking at those four futures with the benefit of hindsight, one of them now appears much more plausible that the other three, but that perspective ignores the very premise of the scenario planning methodology. The future is uncertain -- by definition. If you're going to position your association effectively for the future, you have to prepare for not one but several different possible futures, and adjust only when it becomes clear which possible future is coming true.

And that was the piece of the 2013 exercise that we realized we hadn't carried through on. Five years ago, our Board has described four different possible futures and developed strategic positioning plans for each of them. And although we had certainly reacted to the actual evolving future over the last five years, we didn't return regularly to the 2013 exercise and the predictions and plans it contained to help guide those decisions. Like so many other strategic planning exercises, I'm ashamed to admit, our 2013 future of the industry exercise had, once completed, basically sat on a shelf.

So one decision my Board chair and I made was not to let that happen again. Here we were, almost five years away from that 2013 discussion, almost in the 2018 that was imagined then. It was clearly time to not just dust off the 2013 report, but to use its methodology to look forward again, five more years, to 2023. Not only would we engage the Board in another visioning exercise, this time we would find a way to use that exercise to actively guide the decisions of the Board moving forward.

I'll describe more about how we intend to do that in future posts.

+ + +

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Image Source

Monday, December 11, 2017

Working Committees Have Plenty To Do

We're looking ahead to another calendar year in our association, and as part of that look forward we are setting a year-long course for some of our working committees.

Working Committee is the term my association uses for what others might call Program Committees. They are not committees of the Board, helping the Board fulfill its governance function. They are committees comprised of the rank and file members of the association, and their purpose is to help the organization execute its programs.

A few of these working committees have stagnated over the past year, and we felt it was time to re-invigorate them. To help them do that, for each committee we drafted a one-page document that outlined several important elements of the committee's successful function. In addition to the committee's purpose statement, its conference call schedule, and its guidelines for selecting members and chairs, the document also included three things essential to understanding the role and function of working committee's in our association's structure.

1. The long-term strategic goal to which the association has committed itself. This is presented to the committee with a period, not a question mark. It's not up for discussion. The strategic goals of the association have been developed by the staff and approved and resourced by the Board. It is not the job of the working committee to try and steer the ship in a different direction.

2. The current status of the strategic goal. Long-term means long-term. The association has been working on the goal for a while and will continue working on it for a while more. Here's a quick summary of the progress made so far.

3. The supporting agenda items the committee will focus its attention on in the year ahead. And, as we look at the year ahead of us, here are the specific things that the committee can help us do to keep the strategic goal advancing forward. If you review them, you'll see these items are not busywork exercises that staff could do, but necessary and practical decisions that require the knowledge sets and perspectives of our committee members.

I'm pretty pleased with the documents. They are a kind of contract with our committee members. They inform on our strategic direction, but they also make it clear that we can't effectively execute the necessary programs without their input and direction.

But the big epiphany for me was the realization of how much we needed the committees to actually do. When I talk with other association professionals about my approach to working committees -- that they help the organization execute programs, not direct strategy -- I am sometimes met with skepticism. Oh that would never work in my association, they often say, either not wanting members meddling in program execution or not believing the members would be satisfied in doing just that. There wouldn't be enough for them to do.

But I find it to be just the opposite. There is plenty to do in that space between strategy determination and tactical implementation. Programs must be designed before they can be executed, and their design has to be informed by the needs of the members themselves. That's the ideal space for our working committees to operate in.

+ + +

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Image Source

Saturday, December 9, 2017

American Epics edited by Austen Barron Bailly

This is the book of a traveling art exhibition I saw at the Milwaukee Art Museum -- Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood.

A thoroughly American artist and a consummate storyteller, Thomas Hart Benton is an epic subject in his own right, but even Benton fans may be surprised to learn of his connections to the film industry. American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood turns a spotlight on Benton’s early work in silent film production in New Jersey and his later expeditions to Hollywood, illuminating the impact of these experiences on his art and career. This stunning volume traces Benton’s relationships with film and Hollywood through more than eighty reproductions of his art and twelve informative essays by experts on Benton and American art and culture.

I didn’t know much about Thomas Hart Benton before going to the exhibition, but that entry paragraph on the front overleaf pretty well sums it up. Benton, I came to discover was a popular mural painter, receiving numerous commissions throughout his career for murals in conspicuous public spaces.

And murals, of course, are stories. And the best of that bunch, in my opinion, is his American Historical Epic.

But earlier in his career, in his first attempt at public art, Benton tried to combine the West’s myths with its realities. Seeking to participate in public debates about who and what was authentically American, Benton created his American Historical Epic, a critical history of the United States. Without a commission to pay for it or a building to house it, Benton independently produced a cinematic series of fourteen mural panels -- each five to six feet high by four to six feet wide. Installed side by side, the panels … amount to more than sixty feet in length. The titles and imagery unflinchingly revised traditional and idealized versions of American history to emphasize scenes of violence and exploitation.

I’ve reproduced above the first five of these paintings: Discovery, The Palisades, Aggression, Prayer, and Retribution; what Benton called Chapter 1 of the epic. Two other chapters follow, but today, even in the age of Google, these images are hard to find. At the exhibition, all were on display, but only nine were the original paintings. The other five were careful reproductions, placed, obviously, to give the viewer the full effect that Benton intended. And it was quite an effect. The figures are near life size, and the span of shapes and colors fill your entire field of vision. Their relative compositions are frequently doubled and interrelated with one another -- in Chapter 1, for example, Native American figures bookend the series, one facing right towards the approaching Europeans and the other facing left, poised to deliver a fatal blow to a helpless pilgrim, with a third Indian figure in the very center of the grouping, suspended in an act of violence being perpetrated on him. And throughout, despite the simplicity of the figures, a surprising number of details reveal themselves to the careful observer.

I can see why they were (and perhaps still are) unpopular. They shatter a set of prevailing myths of early American history, myths that Benton had spent several years servicing and enforcing as a set and promotional artist in the early days of the American film industry. Even before the rise of the talkies, the Western was well established as a distinct genre of popular entertainment, with many of the tropes and constructs we still recognize today.

How strange it then seemed, at least to me, to see Benton’s work during the Second World War, where, like many a patriotic American artist, he used his considerable talents not to shatter but to reinforce the myths and the stereotypes of that conflict.

The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor provided an instantaneous casus belli, mobilizing public and private support for American engagement in total war. Benton’s own pent-up anxieties about the security of the nation were unleashed by the attack, and he began to work immediately, and furiously, on an ambitious project called Year of Peril (YOP), a series of eight propagandistic paintings he finished in about four months. Benton dedicated the project to “those new Americans who, born again through appreciation of their country’s great need, find themselves with new shares of patriotism and intelligence, and new wills to see what is what and to come to grips with it, in this Year of Peril.”

Whether it is the depiction of savagery upon civilians in Invasion...


...or the caricaturistic allegories bleeding across the canvas in Exterminate!...


...or the monsters flying Axis flags seen crucifying Christ in Again...


...I personally find plenty of patriotism, but not much intelligence; the social commentary of his American Historical Epic entirely supplanted by the unnerving jingoism of the times.

I far prefer Benton’s more simple and more transcendent works. Pieces like Romance, painted in 1932, with allegory and meaning so deep and purposeful, I was entranced by the thoughtful essay written about it by Richard Powell.


An impossibly elongated couple, walking hand in hand, commands center stage in Romance, a painting by the renowned American artist Thomas Hart Benton. A woman, wearing a red dress and a cloche, and her partner, a barefoot man with his shirtsleeves and pant legs rolled up, are enveloped by an idealized southern United States landscape -- a rickety wagon, a moss-covered tree, a cabin with a stone chimney, a worn-out barrel -- and an anthropomorphic sky, with a cloud-shuttered moon resembling the heavy-lidded all-seeing eye of a gigantic deity.

Depicted with downcast heads and austere, serious expressions, the pair appears to be moving with an intended objective in mind, their long, gangly limbs are caught mid-stride, almost as if they are dancing but without the frivolity or theatricality of a pas de deux. Their mirrored movements and near-identical poses underscore their assumed status as a couple and suggest a common purpose within the painting’s implicit narrative, in which they are ostensibly walking away from the rustic scene behind them and toward an open, shadowy land ahead, at the lower-left corner of the painting.

I didn’t see all of that upon first look, but it is all there. But what’s more remarkable, and what the essay goes into much greater depth on, is Benton’s intended meaning behind that dangling pair of shoes.

Benton’s autobiography An Artist in America offers clues to what he might have intended with this visual passage. In the chapter titled “The South,” Benton inserted the following, somewhat cryptic, anecdote from his travels in the late 1920s below the Mason-Dixon Line:

“Two Negro boys were walking along a dusty north Georgia road. They were barefoot. Their new pants were rolled up in fat cuffs below their knees. Both had shiny patent leather shoes hanging from their shoulders. One carried a bulging black paper suitcase, the straps of which were reinforced with strands of rope. It was a heavy load. They were sad-eyed and their lips drooped.

“‘Mistah,’ said one to me, ‘is it fuh frum hyeah to Noo Yauk?’”

As suggested in this story (and possibly in Benton’s Romance), the triumvirate of bare feet, unworn shoes, and African American travelers collectively conjures not just an image of a leisurely stroll or an obligatory walk by country folk but also visions or escape and migration. Beyond this particular recollection, there are other references in Benton’s autobiography to black subjugation and white brutality in the South that function as subliminal spurs for these boys: the psychological cuts and actual blows that prompted them to take up a “heavy load” and seek refuge in “Noo Yauk.” Their journey -- a symbolic, barefoot pilgrimage to freedom -- and their shoes -- emblems of prestige and modernity -- resonate with Benton’s Romance through these same components, the couple’s sober, ambulatory undertaking and the scene’s overarching serious-mindedness and moon-lit singularity. Indeed, the descriptive breakdown and itemized recounting of bare feet, rolled-up cuffs, and hanging shoes operated in both Benton’s text and his painting as surrealistic fragments: focal, discernable elements that triggered subconscious figments of corporeality, orderliness, and flight, respectively.

What a wonderful description of the things that all great art contains -- surrealistic fragments; focal, discernable elements that trigger our subconscious. And on that front, these shoes, it seems, have even more to trigger in us.

And one doesn’t want to exclude from a discussion of Benton’s fixations on bare feet and isolated shoes his lifelong admiration for fellow Missourian, the author and humorist Mark Twain, and Twain’s well-documented deployment of these same emancipatory icons in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Observing an African American shoeshine boy cleaning a pair of riding boots on the back stoop of a southern hotel, Benton became captivated by the boy’s work song, which he repeated over and over again, Benton noted in his autobiography, with “a funereal solemnity”:

Dem ole duhty shoes
Dem ole duhty shoes
Who se-e-ehd dem shoes --

Like Vincent van Gogh’s paintings of abandoned, seemingly forsaken shoes, the spare refrain of Benton’s shoeshine boy paints an evocative still life with words: a sound-painting fraught with privation, melancholy, and the ghostly specter of feet that once resided in an empty pair of brogans. In another Benton painting, Butterfly Catcher (1942), the artist consigned a derelict, shabby shoe to a landscape of forest undergrowth, rotted tree trunks, and debris, relying on the viewer’s ability to conceptually link the true butterfly chaser (in the far distance), the butterfly’s literary associations with departed souls, and the cadaverous shoe in the immediate foreground. Vacant, unfilled shoes, and other marked absences in Western art and visual culture, often signify death, and, in the context of Benton’s Romance, the barefoot man’s dangling oxfords unavoidably evoke, along with Mark Twain’s two defiantly shoeless protagonists, the lynched bodies of black men, suspended from gnarled tree branches and strained ropes.

Pilgrimages to freedom and the swinging bodies of lynched men. That’s a lot to pack into a pair of dangling shoes, but it is, I think, an example of what makes great art so compelling and worth understanding.

+ + +

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, December 4, 2017

I Don't Know How To Do That

I was talking to a friend last night about one of the newest education programs in my association. He's a friend, but he's not in the association business, and I often find his viewpoint as an outsider to my world refreshing.

The new program has a lot of potential, but it's not living up to expectations. Those who attend it, love it, but the number of members attending it falls far short of the demographic that it's geared for. We promote it through all our traditional channels, but it always draws about the same number of members, with the largest percentage comprised of repeat participants.

First I described the goals of the program and my friend, even from outside the association business, saw its value. He compared it to something in his business that he was familiar with and he was spot on with the comparison. Then I described the challenge we were facing, the disappointing lack of participation.

Livestream it, he said.

Now, I don't want to go into the details of why I should or should not consider livestreaming this series of programs. Some associations, in my experience, have an aversion to distributing content from their live education sessions to anyone who isn't in the session room. If people can get it online, the thinking goes, they'll stop coming to the live event. Maybe they will and maybe they won't, but that's not what I'm here to debate. I'd rather focus on the first thought that popped in my head when my friend made this suggestion.

I don't know how to do that.

So what? Even I recognized how meaningless this objection was -- so much so that I successfully kept myself from uttering it out loud. There are a dozen other people I could rely on, and some of them may know how to do it, and if they couldn't we could certainly hire a vendor with the right equipment and expertise to do it for us. I am, after all, the same blogger who posted last week on the importance of putting your resources where your strategic objectives were.

So where did this impulse come from? It was, I realized with some reflection, a fear of something I didn't fully understand, and it came from the same place that all such fears do. The place of uncertainty that keeps us from trying something new, to rely again and again on the things that feel comfortable but which ultimately don't bring us success.

The challenge, you see, has nothing to do with live streaming. It rather has everything to do with banishing the fear of experimentation.

+ + +

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Image Source

Monday, November 27, 2017

It Takes Resources

Another lesson for me this week that demonstrates how a strategy without the resources to support it is a recipe for failure.

We sometimes deceive ourselves in the association business. We know our strategies are compelling and our volunteers are dedicated, and we think that if we simply bring the two in alignment with each other the execution will take care of itself. Often, unfortunately, it doesn't. Even the most compelling strategy coupled to the most dedicated volunteers will falter in its execution if the association doesn't also bring its resources to the table.

What resources are those? Dollars, certainly. In the specific situation the confronted me this week, we needed to start spending money on something we hadn't spent money on in years. But the need for resources almost always extends beyond just dollars. It almost always also includes staff time. An association staff person has to make space on an already crowded plate to organize and coordinate a new effort.

In my experience, one of the toughest challenges associations face when it comes to resource allocation is opening up staff time for the strategic projects that matter most to the association. Adding project after project ultimately serves neither the staff person nor the association. The reason the strategic project is not getting the attention it needs is almost always associated with staff plates already being full. In these situations, if you're going to pursue something new, you have to take something else off the plate.

And that leads me to the biggest resource need that I find myself identifying, again and again, when a strategic project has stalled. Yes, it needs dollars and yes, it needs staff time, but more than anything else it needs leadership. The willingness and ability of someone in a leadership position to step in, shepherd it, and make it happen through the force of his or her will.

That person can be the association staff executive, but it doesn't have to be. I work hard in my association to consistently communicate the message that the most valuable trait any staff person can exhibit is leadership -- specifically, the kind of leadership I'm taking about in this post. The strategy is compelling, the volunteers are dedicated, but neither is truly the catalyst for true success. For that, we need a staff person to step up and make something happen.

+ + +

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Image Source

Saturday, November 25, 2017

The March of Folly by Barbara W. Tuchman

This is a marvelous book, full of deep historical and sociological insight. Its subject is not just one historical episode or period of time, but a universal sociological phenomenon, manifesting itself again and again throughout the storied history of human culture.

Why, to begin at the beginning, did the Trojan rulers drag that suspicious-looking wooden horse inside their walls despite every reason to suspect a Greek trick? Why did successive ministries of George III insist on coercing rather than conciliating the American colonies though repeatedly advised by many counselors that the harm done must be greater than any possible gain? Why did Charles XII and Napoleon and successively Hitler invade Russia despite the disasters incurred by each predecessor? Why did Montezuma, master of fierce and eager armies and a city of 300,000, succumb passively to a party of several hundred alien invaders even after they had shown themselves all too obviously human beings, not gods? Why did Chiang Kai-shek refuse to heed any voice of reform or alarm until he woke up to find his country had slid from under him? Why do the oil-importing nations engage in rivalry for the available supply when a firm united front vis-a-vis the exporters would gain them control of the situation? Why in recent times have British trade unions in a lunatic spectacle seemed periodically bent on dragging their country toward paralysis, apparently under the impression that they are separate from the whole? Why does American business insist on “growth” when it is demonstrably using up the three basics of life on our planet -- land, water and unpolluted air?

It is all folly, defined by Tuchman as the pursuit of policies contrary to the interests of those pursuing them. In the three primary examples that she examines -- the Renaissance popes provoking the Protestant secession, the British losing America, and America betraying herself in Vietnam -- she not only expertly describes the sequences of historical events, but also shines a light on the human and organizational frailties that are common to all three.

Walking Into Water Over Their Heads

[Folly] often does not spring from great design, and its consequences are frequently a surprise. The folly lies in persisting thereafter. [The] point is reinforced … in a perceptive comment by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who cautioned, “In analyzing history do not be too profound, for often the causes are quite superficial.” This is a factor usually overlooked by political scientists who, in discussing the nature of power, already treat it, even when negatively, with immense respect. They fail to see it as sometimes a matter of ordinary men walking into water over their heads, acting unwisely or foolishly or perversely as people in ordinary circumstances frequently do. The trappings and impact of power deceive us, endowing the possessors with a quality larger than life.

This, I think, is one of the most important insights in the book, and hopefully will color my reading of history from this point forward. One of the most striking examples from Tuchman’s analysis is the following quote attributed to President John Kennedy. Remember for this purpose that prior to America’s involvement in Vietnam, the French had fought there for years, and had eventually lost to local forces.

The American failure to find any significance in the defeat of the French professional army, including the Foreign Legion, by small, thin-boned, out-of-uniform Asian guerrillas is one of the great puzzles of the time. When David Schoenbrun, correspondent for CBS, who had covered the French war in Vietnam, tried to persuade the President of the realities of that war and of the loss of French officers equivalent each year to a class at St. Cyr, Kennedy answered, “Well, Mr. Schoenbrun, that was the French. They were fighting for a colony, for an ignoble cause. We’re fighting for freedom, to free them from the Communists, from China, for their independence.”

Wow. Talk about a man walking into water over his head. Evidently, the only thing that mattered in Kennedy’s estimation was the motivation of the occupying force. The sympathies and preferences of the occupied mattered for not, a point Tuchman summarizes well in her concluding sentence.

Because Americans believed they were “different” they forgot that they too were white.

Or, here at greater length.

The reason why the French with superior manpower and American resources were doing so poorly was not beyond all conjecture. The people of Indochina, of whom more than 200,000 were in the colonial army together with some 80,000 French, 48,000 North Africans and 20,000 Foreign Legionnaires, simply had no reason to fight for France. Americans were always talking about freedom from Communism, whereas the freedom that the mass of Vietnamese wanted was freedom from their exploiters, both French and indigenous. The assumption that humanity at large shared the democratic Western idea of freedom was an American delusion. “The freedom we cherish and defend in Europe,” stated President Eisenhower on taking office, “is no different than the freedom that is imperiled in Asia.” He was mistaken. Humanity may have common ground, but needs and aspirations vary according to circumstances.

Persistent Aspects of Folly

But not seeing the situation from an opponent’s point of view is a persistent aspect of folly. And, as that is Tuchman’s primary purpose, her text is full of other commentary on these persistent aspects of folly. Here’s the diagnosis that comes at the end of her section on the Renaissance popes.

Their three outstanding attitudes -- obliviousness to the growing disaffection of constituents, primacy of self-aggrandizement, illusion of invulnerable status -- are persistent aspects of folly. While in the case of the Renaissance popes, these were bred in and exaggerated by the surrounding culture, all are independent of time and recurrent in governorship.

Indeed. The one that was especially noteworthy for me was the obliviousness to the growing disaffection of constituents. Whether we’re talking about the Renaissance popes and their attitudes towards their common congregants, the British royalty and government and their attitudes towards the American colonists, or the American government and their attitudes towards their allies and enemies in Vietnam, the common perspective of the identified constituents was hardly ever taken into account. And it’s not because those in power were necessarily unwilling. As this revealing passage in regards to the Britain’s repeal of the Stamp Act shows, it was primarily because the governments in question did not have the apparatus to capture and consider other ideas.

After a mistake so absolute as to require repeal, British policy-makers might well have stopped to reconsider the relationship with the colonies, and ask themselves what course they might follow to induce a beneficial allegiance on the one hand and ensure a secure sovereignty on the other. Many Englishmen outside government did consider this problem, and Pitt and Shelburne, who were shortly to come to power, entered office intending to calm the suspicions and restore the equanimity of the colonies. Fate, as we shall see, interfered.

Policy was not reconsidered because the governing group had no habit of purposeful consultation, had the King over their heads and were at odds with one another. It did not occur to them that it might be wise to avoid provocative measures for long enough to reassure the colonies of Britain’s respect for their rights while leaving their agitators no excuse. The riotous reaction to the Stamp Act only confirmed the British in their belief that the colonies, led by “wicked and designing men” (as stated in a House of Lords resolution), were bent on rebellion. Confronted by menace, or what was perceived as menace, governments will usually attempt to smash it, rarely to examine it, understand it, define it.

Despite this judgment, Tuchman often goes out of her way to stress the existence of another of her pre-existing conditions before diagnosing anything as folly -- and that is that there were plenty of people, at the time of each government’s actions, who could see and who vocally advocated for another course of action.

In Britain’s loss of America, there were members of Parliament, and even members of the Cabinet, who saw the folly and spoke against it.

Meanwhile within the Ministry, if not the inner Cabinet, Viscount Barrington, the long-serving Secretary at War, entered a dissent. Although formerly in favor of a hard line toward America, he was one of the few in any group who allowed facts and developments to penetrate and influence their thinking. By 1774 he had come to believe that to coerce the colonies to the point of armed resistance would be disastrous. He had not turned pro-American or changed his political loyalties in any way; he had simply come to the professional conclusion, as he explained to Dartmouth in two letters of November and December 1774, that a land war in America would be useless, costly and impossible to win. Useless because it was plain that Britain could never successfully impose internal taxation; costly and impossible to win because conquered areas must be held by large armies and fortresses, “the expense of which would be ruinous and endless,” besides producing “the horrors and bloodshed of civil war.” Britain’s only war aim was proving supremacy without being able to use it; “I repeat, our contest is merely a point of honor” and “will cost us more than we can ever gain by success.”

Same story with America betraying herself in Vietnam. When America first got involved, it was in an attempt to help the French maintain their colonial rule there as a bulwark against Communism. But that didn’t have to be her policy, and there were plenty at the time who said so.

The alternative was present and available: to gain for America an enviable primacy among Western nations and confirm the foundation of goodwill in Asia by aligning ourselves with, even supporting, the independence movements. If this seemed indicated to some, particularly at the Far East desk, it was less persuasive to others for whom self-government by Asians was not something to base a policy on and insignificant in comparison to the security of Europe. In Indochina choice of the alternative would have required imagination, which is never a long suit with governments, and willingness to take the risk of supporting a Communist when Communism was still seen as a solid bloc. [Marshal Josip Broz] Tito [of Yugoslavia] was then its only splinter, and the possibility of another deviation was not envisaged. Moreover, it would be divisive of the Allies. Support of Humpty-Dumpty was chosen instead, and once a policy had been adopted and implemented, all subsequent activity becomes an effort to justify it.

Whether it is the British in the 1770s or the Americans in the 1950s, the machinery of their governments prevented them from considering options contrary to their firmly held beliefs. The American colonies are wholly subservient to the British crown. Communism is a threat that must be contained, and will be conquered by the freedom-loving instincts of humanity. Perhaps most telling of all is this quote from Lyndon Johnson.

Asked once how long the war might last, [Johnson] answered, “Who knows how long, how much? The important thing is, are we right or wrong?”

Funny. I think America is still debating that one.

Executive War

And speaking of Lyndon Johnson, one of the other things Tuchman’s book helped me wrap my brain around was the, to borrow a phrase, folly of Executive War.

War is a procedure from which there can be no turning back without acknowledging defeat. This was the self-laid trap into which America had walked. Only with the greatest difficulty and rarest success, as belligerents mired in futility have often discovered, can combat be terminated in favor of compromise. Because it is a final resort to destruction and death, war has traditionally been accompanied by the solemn statement of justification, in medieval times a statement of “just war,” in modern times a Declaration of War … However false and specious the justification may be, and usually is, a legalism of this kind serves to state the case and automatically endows the government with enlarged powers.

The first half of this paragraph explains why nations should not go to war. The second half explains why no nation going to war should do so solely on the authority of its Executive. But, of course, neither of these explanations were heeded in the case of America’s war in Vietnam.

Johnson decided to do without a Declaration, partly because neither cause nor aims were clear enough in terms of national defense to sustain one, partly because he feared a Declaration might provoke Russia or China to a response in kind, mainly because he feared it would divert attention and resources from the domestic programs which he hoped would make his reputation in history.

And we know how history has judged that decision.

It would have been wiser to face the test and require Congress to assume its constitutional responsibility for going to war. The President should likewise have asked for an increase in taxes to balance war costs and inflationary pressures. He avoided this in his hope of not arousing protest. As a result his war in Vietnam was never legitimized. By forgoing a Declaration he opened a wider door to dissent and made the error, fatal to his presidency, of assuring the ground of public support.

Of course, today America has figured another way around Johnson’s problem. Still no formal Declarations of War from Congress, but now an Executive with his ear ever on public sentiment for the bombs he decides to drop around the world.

But Tuchman isn’t done diagnosing this problem. She’s writing in 1984, about events taking place in 1965, but how familiar to today’s situation the following excerpt is. It’s regarding the hearings held by Senator J. William Fulbright, investigating the causes and authorities associated with taking America to war.

Acquiescence in Executive war, [Fulbright] wrote, comes from the belief that the government possess secret information that gives it special insight in determining policy. Not only was this questionable, but major policy decisions turn “not upon available facts but upon judgment,” with which policy-makers are no better endowed than the intelligent citizen. Congress and citizens can judge “whether the massive deployment and destruction of their men and wealth seem to serve their overall interests as a nation.”

This is a view that is all too frequently absent from our major policy decisions today -- that the nation, and not solely its president, are capable (and empowered by the Constitutional separation of powers) of making them -- and especially those associated with the commitment of U.S. troops to aggressive military action. And, evidently, it was also a minority view in 1965.

The belief that government knows best was voiced just at this time by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who said on resumption of the bombing, “We ought to support the President. He is the man who has all the information and knowledge of what we are up against.” This is a comforting assumption that relieves people from taking a stand. It is usually invalid, especially in foreign affairs. “Foreign policy decisions,” concluded Gunnar Myrdal after two decades of study, “are in general much more influenced by irrational motives” than are domestic ones.

As is so often in history, what is past is prologue. Imagine what Lyndon Johnson would think of the executive war-making powers afforded our modern presidents. And is Myrdal’s diagnosis about irrational motives any less true?

+ + +

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, November 20, 2017

80% Is Good Enough

I used to blog a lot about innovation in the association environment. I used to think a lot about the subject, I helped write a white paper on the subject, helped launch a regional conference focused on it, and have tried to move my association on to a more innovative footing. All that attention and all those experiments were reflected in the posts put up on this blog.

Lately; not so much.

But recently, I and a group of my staff attended the latest iteration of that regional conference I helped launch, and when we got back I asked everyone to share their major takeaways from the presentations they listened to and the discussions they participated in. And a common theme I heard emerge from that conversation was the need to push partially developed products and services out to our members, and then to refine them based on the feedback received from the very users that the products and services are intended for. 80% is good enough, one of my staff members said. And, another added, you probably can't really get to 100% without the interaction with the marketplace.

It reminded me of the topics I used to post frequently about on this blog. As evidenced by posts like "Who's Your Lead User Community?" "We Can Only See the Destination by Moving Towards It," and especially "Putting Something Unfinished Out There," there was a time when I was writing regularly on this subject. And the theme I often returned to was how difficult this was, how there often seemed to be organizational forces aligned against the idea of "putting something unfinished out there." Indeed, in the post by that title, I did the best I could to call those forces out onto the carpet.

How to combat it? Then, as now, my advice is simple. Start small. Find a member who likes to tinker and may want to try something new. Then...

Get together and talk about something that isn't working in the organization and solicit their help in addressing it. Whatever they say, find a way to do it. Not in a big way, not plastered on the front page of your magazine, but in a small way, a guerrilla way, on your own, without help from anyone else. Maybe it's not even a program at that point. Maybe it's just a document--a document with a combination of words on it that no one has ever suggested before.

Then, share it with another member. Get their feedback on it. Adapt and advance the concept. Repeat and keep repeating.

If you do it consistently, you'll realize two things. First, the thing you're working on will never be finished. At some point it will turn into an actual program, but it will always be open to another interaction and another interpretation. And second, that's a good thing. Believe it or not, putting something unfinished out there will become not just less scary, but enjoyable and productive for everyone involved.

80% is good enough. But you're the one who has to bring that 80% to the table.

+ + +

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Image Source

Monday, November 13, 2017

Automation Is Not Always the Answer

I had an interesting conversation this week with a colleague on the subject of membership engagement tracking. It's not something that every association does, evidently, but it is something that my association does. We track many of the activities that our members participate in for the purpose of determining which are and are not highly engaged with our association.

We were talking about why some associations don't do it, and she mentioned her belief that some shy away because of how complicated the task can be, and how difficult it can be to find an automated solution for it. Their AMS (association management software) system may not have that capability, she said, and trying to build it where it doesn't already exist could be time and cost prohibitive.

Well sure, I replied, that may certainly be a case. Our tracking system, after all, is not incorporated into our AMS. It's essentially a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, updated a few times a year by a designated staff person, who, admittedly, has to pull information from a variety of different people and places in our organization to do it. It's time-consuming, but it gives us the information we're looking for, and we've used it to good effect in our organization -- reaching out to engage those less engaged, and adjusting our marketing strategies to better target them.

And that's when something else hit me. Automating our process within our AMS -- basically re-programming it to scour what would have to be a variety of different participation databases (some already digital, but others currently analog, which would have to be made digital) so that all the right ones and zeros could be put into the right fields, and then formatting a report that could be run at the touch of a button -- doing all of that, is utterly out of the question for an association of our size and budget. No question.

But that didn't stop us from creating our own, workable process for membership engagement tracking.

Too often, I've found, a desire for automated processes stops important work from getting done inside an association, and this struck me as one of those cases. An automated process can return tremendous economies of scale once the investment has been made to create it, but just because that initial investment is too much for an association to contemplate does not mean that the process can't be conducted via other means.

Specifically with regard to our process of membership engagement tracking, the knowledge we've gained from our efforts is valuable enough that, dare I say, even if we didn't have access to Microsoft Excel, we'd still be tracking what we could in a drawer full of three by five index cards.

Sometimes, doing it old school is not just the only option, it is, in fact, the best one.

+ + +

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Image Source

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Man at Work by Klaus Turk

The Eckhart G. Grohmann Museum of Industrial Art is an impressive building of art on the campus of the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As a native of Milwaukee and as someone with several professional connections to MSOE, I have been inside the building many times and have always enjoyed the minutes I have spent perusing and contemplating its art collection.

Man at Work is a coffee-table sized book that showcases and describes the museum’s collection in some detail. Its subtitle, 400 Years in Paintings and Bronzes: Labor and the Evolution of Industry Art, gives you some sense of the scope of what is ready to confront the casual viewer who visits the museum. As I have described to many a friend and colleague, it’s generally not until you move onto the museum’s third floor that you begin to appreciate how deep this tradition is in the history or art -- this depiction of man at work -- and how illuminating this collection is on that penetrating subject.

The book, however, is a bit of a disappointment. Not in its colorful reproductions of this wonderful collection, but in what it has to say about it.

Here’s an example -- the reproduction, with the author commentary that accompanies it.

Unknown: Large Hydraulic Forge Press With Workers, oil on canvas, 39x31 in., signed

A hydraulic six-post forging press is shown. It is capable of producing force of up to 30 tons on workpieces. In the operation illustrated in this painting, large blocks formed in the steel mill casting house are initially heated to a glowing state and forged at the ends to form two end supports, or plugs. Each end plug is hung from a chain loop as seen in the painting. Then the rough workpiece between the end plugs is lengthened to a six-sided shaft with continual pressing in the forge, guided by transverse movements of two overhead cranes and the turning of the piece. The turning of the forge piece is accomplished by the chain loop at each end. The worker in the foreground supervises the lengthening process with a measuring stick.

There are literally hundreds of pages like this. Colorful and abstract renderings of heavy industry processes and the men who skillfully carry them out -- accompanied by commentary that penetrates no deeper than a surface level description of the work being depicted. Exploration of such artistic concepts as composition and color are almost entirely absent, as is any illumination regarding artistic intent or sociological significance.

Typically, the only places where these concepts get any play is in the short introductions that head each thematic section of artwork. But even here, the intense artistic motivations that drove the creation of these wonderful pieces seem to be recognized as subservient to the much more useful role of these paintings and sculptures as accurate records of historical significance.

Metal Processing

After melting, forging and rolling, the finished metal becomes raw material for the metalworking industry. This is a widely diversified industry which produces a variety of both capital equipment and consumer products. Artists have not found the metal processing industry to be as appealing a theme as mining and ore processing. The spectacles of fire and smoke are diminished in metal processing, providing less drama. The symbolic confrontation between work and the power of nature is also less of a factor.

In spite of this, art history comprises a considerable number of visual pieces featuring the metalworking sector, including examples in the Eckhart G. Grohmann Collection. These examples range across the spectrum from allegorical works … to portrayals of grinding and polishing, wire drawing, construction projects, the building of industrial installations, machining and shipbuilding. All these pieces afford a view of the intermediate production and work processes. They combine machines and tools with human effort, mostly performed in large manufacturing plants. The technologies they portray are not always historically accurate, but they generally reflect the working atmosphere of industrial production.

As such, they are not primarily historical technical documents, but rather reflect an artistic impression of the complex system of industrial production, including a sociological view of the work environment in which the workers spend a great deal of their lives.

It was a pity for this reader, who is much more interested in the “artistic impression of the complex system of industrial production,” than in “historical technical documents.”

In service of that former interest, here are the few examples that really stood out for me.

Gärtner, Fritz [German, 1882-1958]: Bread and Iron, oil on canvas, 29x43 in., signed

Both allegorical paintings by Fritz Gärtner reflect a cultural view common in the period between 1900 and 1945. Agriculture and iron production are combined in the same scene to emphasize both sources of national wealth. Implicit in the scene is mining, which makes the production possible. Gärtner’s style yields an idealized and romanticized picture. A grain field in the foreground has been harvested and the sheaves set up to form stock. The industrial complex looms in the background along the banks of a river. A bridge, heavy with traffic, spans the river symbolizing triumph over nature. From the right bank of the river a new expressway bridge is under construction, its cantilever projecting over the water. Two blast furnaces at the center release a fiery glow and a pair of recuperators occupies the right side. A forest of smoke stacks dominates the entire scene, the resulting fumes nearly eclipsing the sun.

Gärtner, Fritz [German, 1882-1958]: Fire and Grain Sheaves, oil on cardboard, 27.5x39 in., 1914, signed

The [second] painting stresses a romantic view through its nocturnal version with a combination of royal blue and gold colors. It also emphasizes the unceasing power of production, in contrast to the interrupted farming in the foreground.

Looking at these paintings with my modern eye, the last thing I thought the artist intended was a positive message about national strength. To me, the juxtaposition of the by-products of heavy industrial production with the output of human agrarian effort more easily lends itself to a mournful interpretation. One age passing to the next. And the visual similarity of Gärtner’s Fire and Grain Sheaves and Van Gogh’s Starry Night is too obvious not to receive a comment.

The sociological meaning of this next one is too important to keep even the author of this work from providing its context.

The construction of the Autobahn, or German national highway system, was driven by the Third Reich and based partly on earlier plans from the 1920s. It not only created employment for a large number of the unemployed and demonstrated the increasing power of the Third Reich, but also created a major military transportation asset. As with other major projects of the Hitler regime, the workers were subjected to enormous propaganda. Many artists were commissioned to document the construction activities. … Bridges are the favorite subject of those who paint Autobahn construction scenes. In a special way, bridges embody the art of engineering, the productivity of construction, and the resulting accomplishment.

Mercker, Erich [German, 1891-1973]: Teufelstal Autobahn Bridge Between Jena and Gera, Germany, oil on cardboard, 16x20 in., signed

Here Mercker intentionally presents a more impressionistic rather than a technical documentary view of a large Autobahn bridge construction. The power of the construction is emphasized by the view from below. The goldlike color of the bridge, together with the brilliant blue sky, results in an edification of the project normally seen only in religious structures. The “Bridges of the Führer” became the symbols of the new Nazi rulers.

In these few examples, we see that these paintings contain a richer tradition than simply that of documenting industrial processes and construction projects. A more enjoyable book would have been one that explored both with equal rigor.

+ + +

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, November 6, 2017

A New Kind of 80/20 Rule

Most people are familiar with the 80/20 rule. If not, Google it, which, oddly in my browser, consistently provides the definition from Wikipedia in a box at the very top of the search results. Maybe I should cut out the middle man and just start searching for things on Wikipedia? But I digress. Here's the definition given: "The Pareto principle (also known as the 80/20 rule, the law of the vital few, or the principle of factor sparsity) states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes."

In the association world, I've heard this principle cited for many phenomena, appropriately or otherwise. 80% of the volunteer positions are filled by 20% of the members. 80% of the revenue generated by the association is based on the activities of 20% of the members. You probably have your own examples. Well, I'd like to propose a very specific 80/20 rule in the realm of association education activities.

Spend 20% of the time delivering information from the podium, and let the participants spend 80% of the time discussing and contextualizing the information to their individual situations.

I've recently returned from another association education conference where I wish the organizers would have adhered to this rule. By my count, I spent 315 minutes listening to people speak from the podium, and 45 minutes in structured discussion sessions with my fellow participants. That's the opposite of my new 80/20 rule. 88% of my time spent listening ad 12% of my time spent discussing.

I feel strongly about this. Why? Because, as my most recent experience showed once again, the hard, tangible value that I received from the conference came not from the 315 minutes I spent listening to other people talk, but from the 45 minutes I spent trying to applying new information to my real situations and the real situations of my peers. Now, almost a week later, I remember very little of the information presented to me from the podium. I do remember, however, what we talked about in our 45-minute discussion session, and I have a concrete takeaway from that discussion that I plan to use in my work.

So, please, if you're in charge of planning an association education conference, give my new 80/20 rule a try. There is a place for podium presentations -- especially for the new ideas or new perspectives that they can effectively introduce to us. But if you expect me to do something with that information, if you expect me to actually change my behavior, then you'd better give me time to hash out the details with my peers. They, more than any outside speaker you can find, can help me problem solve around the issues that are really holding that change in behavior back.

+ + +

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Image Source

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Joy of Membership Interview

I was recently interviewed by Joy Duling of The Joy of Membership blog, for The Movement Summit, an online event she is creating and hosting, which will be happening live next week, November 6-10, 2017. Click on either of the links above if you're interested in learning more or perhaps participating.

My interview, along with many others that Joy is collecting for the event, is on the often thorny problem of member engagement. In it, I elaborate on some of the related themes that I've explored on this blog.

For example, the importance of defining the rules of engagement:

You really have to define the rules of engagement with your members. In a very professional, but very transparent and above-board kind of way. Member engagement is a term that means a lot of different things to a lot of different people and so you have to be really clear about it. Are you talking about increasing attendance rates at your conference? Are you talking about increasing the number of members that serve in your leadership structure, either on committees or on task forces? Those are two very different kinds of things.

My own focus is primarily on that leadership angle. Trying to get more of our members involved in the different aspects of our committees or our task forces or, yes, even on our board of directors. In that space, it's really important for you to be, again, above-board and transparent with the member that you're bringing in, about what job it is that you're asking them to do. What is the time commitment involved? What are the expected outcomes that their involvement are going to have? They have to understand what they're getting into from the very beginning.

And the value of interpersonal connections:

I've come to rely more heavily on the value of interpersonal connections. There is no limit to amount of email you can send to a member. There is a limit to how many emails a member is going to choose to read. Those are two dynamics that often work at cross purposes in the larger objective of  increasing the level of engagement with your association. It's kind of like fundraising. If you want somebody to give money, you have to ask them to give money. You have to reach out with a personal appeal and see if you can connect them into an engagement opportunity. It's important for you to be a face rather than just an email or a text message coming through. 

But, this powerful tool also has a limitation to it, because you can only ask a member to do so many things. Like most associations, our association has at least dozens of opportunities, whether they're leadership opportunities or member programmatic opportunities, for people to get engaged. And, to pretend that someone's going to get engaged in more than three or four of those things is probably unrealistic in a lot of ways. And yet, again, many of our structures are designed to blast messages out to everybody. Even those who are already engaged with this laundry list of things that people can get engaged in. I've just not seen a lot of success driving up engagement numbers with that kind of broad approach.

And the fear that many associations have of trying something new:

In a lot of the associations that I've had experiences with there is a hesitation to experiment with either a new program or a new twist on an existing program because there is a fear of losing face in front of the members. This is a half-baked idea, and we're not sure how people are going to react to it, and it's important for us to maintain the reputation of this association, so we better not do that. I just feel the opposite. That, in most of my experiences when you do attempt something new or unique or innovative or different, yes, it's not always going to resonate with people, but, almost always, the people that you're pitching it to appreciate the creativity and the effort that went into it. And that helps build bridges to further conversations and new opportunities to find a project that actually will work for them.

It's a great conversation and I had a good time recording it. I hope you'll give the interview a listen and let me know what you think.

+ + +

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Saturday, October 28, 2017

The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha

I took a class in college on the Bible as literature, and this edition of the Bible was the recommended text for that course. Indeed, my copy still has the price stamp from the college bookstore on its first blank page -- $27.95.

Now, years later, when I had set out to read the entire thing, I knew that, unlike many of the books I read, I had no intention of composing a long and detailed review of my experience for the pages of this blog. That would require far more effort than I was willing to offer this experience. And indeed, after the first seven hundred pages or so, the reading became so tedious that I purposely moved onto other books, simply trying to knock off ten more pages of the Bible every day I could. With the books of the Apocrypha included in this volume, the total page count topped out at just over 1,900.

Why? Simply so that I could say whenever asked that I had, in fact, read the Bible. Yes. The whole damn thing.

Of all the things I could cite, therefore, let me reference only three. First, this early paragraph in this edition’s preface, which, to me, serves as a more than adequate warning against believing that you have achieved any true understanding on the words printed on these pages.

The first English version of the Scriptures made by direct translation from the original Hebrew and Greek, and the first to be printed, was the work of William Tyndale. He met bitter opposition. He was accused of willfully perverting the meaning of the Scriptures, and his New Testaments were ordered to be burned as “untrue translations.” He was finally betrayed into the hands of his enemies, and in October 1536, was publicly executed and burned at the stake.

We know that the meaning of the words we read in the Bible have been argued and fought over for centuries. But contemplate for a second that, regardless of the English edition, we’re not even reading them in their original human language. Which, of course, presupposes the idea than any human language can adequately contain the transcendental truth of the omnipotent, timeless creator of the universe. Any way you slice it, keeping your focus on the cultural influence of these words, and not their literal meaning, is the only reasonable way to approach them.

Second, this excerpt from the editor’s introduction to the Book of Philemon, which contains one of the most shocking apologetics for human slavery that I’ve encountered. Here’s the situation:

What should be done when a runaway slave who has robbed his master repents of his misdeeds and becomes a Christian? The Letter to Philemon, a resident of Colossae in Phrygia, is a model of Christian tactfulness in seeking to effect reconciliation between Onesimus, the runaway slave, and his master, who according to Roman law had absolute authority over the person and life of his slave.

And here’s what the editor have to say about it:

When it is realized that in the ancient world slavery was regarded as a legitimate and necessary segment of the social order, and that severe laws punished those who interfered with the rights of slave-owners, it is not surprising that neither Jesus nor any of the apostles attacked the institution of slavery as such.

Stop. Read that sentence again. Only this time, in place of “the ancient world”, insert “1850s America”. Now, is the first half any less true? And is it or is it not surprising that neither Jesus nor any of the apostles attacked the institution of slavery as such? Okay. Let’s keep reading.

At the same time, Jesus’ teaching of the essential worth of every human soul … and the church’s recognition of the brotherhood of all Christian believers … were destined to reorganize society. This Letter to Philemon reveals yet another side of the apostle Paul. In a situation which involved no doctrinal or ecclesiastical dispute, he writes with a delicate appreciation of the legal rights of Philemon, while inculcating at the same time a principle … which would soften the harshness of slavery and eventually operate to banish it altogether.

So in other words, slavery in the ancient world was okay because Christianity, through a series of tepid and deferential entreaties to slave owners, eventually accreted enough human sympathy to banish it as an institution. Well great. I guess all the uncounted millions who lived lives of abject suffering pale in comparison to such models of Christian tactfulness.

But this really shouldn’t surprise any critical reader of this text. Slavery may be the most visceral example of the dynamic of gods who care almost nothing for human suffering, but the Bible is littered with other less obvious examples. In fact, as I came to understand, when you dismiss the editorial frame that the prefaces and book introductions attempt to impose, and when you approach the flawed English text directly, you find a surprising number of examples of a very impersonal god. Here’s my third citation, from the great Book of Job:

But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind. Does not the ear try words as the palate tastes food? Wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days. With God are wisdom and might; he has counsel and understanding. If he tears down, none can rebuild; if he shuts a man in, none can open. If he withholds the waters, they dry up; if he sends them out, they overwhelm the land. With him are strength and wisdom; the deceived and the deceiver are his. He leads counselors away stripped, and judges he makes fools. He looses the bonds of kings, and binds a waistcloth on their loins. He leads priests away stripped, and overthrows the mighty. He deprives of speech those who are trusted, and takes away the discernment of the elders. He pours contempt on princes, and looses the belt of the strong, He uncovers the deeps out of darkness, and brings deep darkness to light. He makes nations great, and he destroys them: he enlarges nations, and leads them away. He takes away understanding from the chiefs of the people of the earth, and makes them wander in a pathless waste. They grope in the dark without light; and he makes them stagger like a drunken man.

So impersonal, in fact, to be almost entirely absent. Because here, as in many other places, all the things that God is said to be able to do can alternatively be seen not as the exertions of an all-powerful agent, but as the inscrutable whims of an infinitely complex system.

+ + +

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at