Saturday, April 29, 2017

A Primate’s Memoir by Robert M. Sapolsky

I was 128 pages into this one when I realized something horrible, and 183 pages in when I decided to do something about it.

What was the horrible thing? It was that this book, billed to me on NPR and in its jacket copy as “an exhilarating account of Sapolsky’s twenty-one-year study of a troop of rambunctious baboons in Kenya,” was, in fact, not very much about baboons at all.

And what did I decide to do about it? I decided to go back and count the pages that actually talk about the behavior of baboons. There are 61 out of 304, or 20%. That’s not very much information about baboons in a book that is supposed to be about baboons.

So what else is here? What fills the 243 pages or 80% of the book that is not about baboons? The most prevalent subject, it turns out, is not Sapolsky’s baboons, but Sapolsky himself. Sapolsky and his supposedly wacky adventures in Africa. Evidently the titular primate is not a papio cynocephalus but a homo sapien.

Except his wacky adventures don’t seem exactly wacky to me.

One child does not accompany him, however, as that one got some sort of fever and encephalitis during his first rainy season, so far as I can reconstruct, and was left a hydrocephalic monster with the neurological reflexes of a newborn. Rhoda and her husband spent god knows how many months’ salary to buy an absurd, poignant British perambulator, circa 1940, that now sits in the mud and cow-dung house, the swaddled bug-eyed head of the kid peering out from it, moaning chronically.

Rhoda and her husband are people, and evidently so is their “hydrocephalic monster” child, but you wouldn’t know that from reading Sapolsky’s account of them. He seems so intent on presenting himself as an aloof observer, dispensing snark in equal portion to all comers, that he manages to dehumanize everyone he comes into contact with and himself in the bargain.

Here, he talks about the sights one is likely to see on the streets of war-torn Nairobi.

Around noon, I discovered the current disadvantages of being a naked man in Nairobi. The place had always had a disproportionate share of naked people in the streets--it had always struck me that when people in Nairobi who were not that many generations (or even years) removed from the bush had their occasional psychotic breaks, the first addled thing they would do was toss off all their Western clothes. (Years later, my clinical psychologist wife, in her conversations with Kenyan colleagues, would confirm my impression that this was indeed a common event.) So Nairobi had always had more than its share of ranting and raving naked men and had treated them with a certain aplomb. Now it meant trouble. Many of the air force rebels had taken refuge in Nairobi buildings and alleyways, when their triumph had come up short. The lucky ones would find someone to waylay--kill the guy, steal his civilian clothes, and slip into the crowd with his identity card in their teeth. Those not so fortunate were all independently reaching the same odd conclusion--dump the air force clothes and make a run for it naked. Every few hours an air force desperado would make his nude run and be gunned down by an army unit, and it was around noon that I got to see my first street execution. Army flatbed trucks intermittently rumbled through with naked corpses. They stopped for traffic lights in a way that was both incongruous and calming, leading to an odd air of normalcy.

I really struggled with his tone. I couldn’t figure it out, and eventually came to resent it and him. Does nothing rattle this guy? Did it bother him to see these horrific things? If not in the affected now of his writing desk, then at least at the time when the raw and ruthlessness of it all rubbed up against him? It was impossible to tell, so intent as he seemed to be in maintaining his pose of the smart-aleck American, of Bill Murray playing John Winger in Stripes.

Every once in a great while, the feeling human being that Sapolsky must have been comes peeking through, like in this paragraph at the end of a particularly harrowing experience when he is more or less kidnapped and starved by a group of Somali truckers, and then rescued by a Ugandan with fresh fruit tucked under his seat.

I may live to be a very old man someday, a lifetime filled with thoughts and emotions and sensations. But no matter how many of those experiences pile up, I will always look back with incredible pleasure and gratitude for the next instant. I bit into the mango, tasted the juice, and my eyes filled with tears, as I felt safe for the first time in many days.

But these tastes of humanity are “not earned,” as my college Creative Writing professor would have explained. Sprinkled like fresh ground pepper on the salad of condescension and forced witticism he is otherwise serving, they don’t make a lasting impression on one’s literary palate.

Finally, after a while, it seemed like Sapolsky was deliberately tormenting me.

I was in a real crappy mood. It had started off as a fabulous morning with the baboons. Young Daniel [Sapolsky has given most of the baboons he studied biblical names], prematurely in the alpha position because of the ongoing instability in the troop’s hierarchy, was being pushed around badly by huge Nathanial, and I thought this was the morning that their ranks were going to switch, that Nathanial would finally make his decisive move. This is a big deal to a primatologist, actually seeing the transition from one alpha male to another--witness to history. Daniel had spent the morning ostentatiously repositioning himself each time Nathanial came near, so as not to have to see him, presumably trying to will him out of existence. Nat, meanwhile, was inching in closer and closer, threat-yawning all over the place. Showdown was in the air, and I was avidly waiting to see if Daniel was going to fold and simply give a subordinate gesture, signaling the transition, or if it was going to take a decisive fight in which he’d be trashed.

Right when things were getting pretty exciting I had to leave. It was time to drive to the tourist lodge, to meet the supply lorry from Nairobi, as it was carrying an essential shipment of the dry ice that I needed to keep my blood samples frozen. So I had to miss all the fun.

Sapolsky’s disappointment here had truly become mine. I was much more interested in the baboons than in his endlessly sardonic stories about all the nutjobs that he was meeting in Africa.

Driving out of the lodge through thorn bushes, I get my third puncture of the week. This is always a misery. First you go to the guy who repairs punctures. Instead of being on the job at the lodge’s gas station, he is back in the staff quarters somewhere, sleeping. Head back there, go through the same interchange with the twenty different people you run into, namely first exchanging news with each about the health of their parents and my then reiterating that, no, actually I can’t give you my hiking shoes, as I need them. Tire repair guy is located, and after ninety minutes of easily distracted labor, he has fixed the puncture. He gives me a stub, which I take to the cashier at the other end of the lodge, who fills out a note saying “1 puncture, 40 shillings,” which the other man signs, which allows me to pay the cashier--all a procedure to keep the mechanic from repairing things under the table and pocketing the money. The cashier goes on a search for scrap paper to calculate that I get 10 shillings back from my 50 shilling note, and I’m ready for the next step: taking the tire to the other end of camp, to find the man who operates the air hose. He, naturally, is drunk in the bar at 11:00 A.M. and, with some effort, explains that he would be happy to fill the tire, but his brother has the key to the shed in which the hose is kept, and he is on leave this week. Bad luck. I express profound regret at the apparent need for me to now live in the lodge’s gas station for the next week, and the man, seeing his cue, says maybe, just maybe, he could find another key, but why don’t I sell him my watch at the good American price? We settle for his receiving a button that says “Hollywood Bowl,” and, satisfied, he turns his prodigious energies toward filling my tire, completing the task in a mere half hour. The man with the pressure gauge to determine whether the tire is filled properly is found easily, and quickly does the job, making me feel as if there might be some hope. The tire is underfilled, however. Fed up, I decide to go with that, rather than track down Bwana Airhose again, he no doubt back at the bar trying to flog his Hollywood Bowl button for a drink.

But no, they’re not really nutjobs, are they? They are, I realize at about this point in Sapolsky’s narrative, products of a culture foreign to our author, judged and marginalized by his overtly American and privileged lens, and twisted into stereotypes perpetuated by colonialists since the beginning of time. They are shiftless and lazy, aren’t they, Sapolsky?

Our author comes across as a jerk, and might very well be racist. Frankly, I liked the baboons better.

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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, April 24, 2017

Prioritizing Sends a Message

We're beginning to rev up for our annual strategic board retreat. In our process, this is a major pivot point for the organization, when we bring one operational plan to a close, and revise or refresh the strategy agenda around which the next operational plan will be built.

Not sure what I mean by those terms? Check out these previous posts on our Strategy Agenda and our Operational Plan. As a quick summary, the Strategy Agenda is how the board defines the expected outcomes of the organization, and the Operational Plan is how the staff defines the activities we will pursue in order to achieve them.

Anyway, as part of this "revving up" process, I and my senior staff are looking at the sucess of this year's goals and discussing a proposed set of goals for next year. It's opening up a number of great conversations about what we're here to do and how we should and should not go about accomplishing it.

Here's one.

Choosing where to set stretch goals and where to set maintenance goals can communicate a set of priorities throughout the organization.

Ours is an organization with a large number of goals, existing at multiple strategic and programmatic levels of the organization. There are goals aligned with our high-level success indicators, and goals associated with our tactical program objectives. They all need to be defined at the start of each year, because the rest of the operational plan depends on them.

So, deciding which goals are going to be stretch goals (that is, difficult to achieve) and which goals are going to be maintenance goals (that is, in comparison to the stretch goals, relatively easy to achieve), can actually communicate quite a bit about the priorities of the organization in the year ahead.

It's important to keep that in mind. In an environment like ours, where numerous initiatives have to keep steadily advancing for the year to be considered a success, making a handful of goals much more difficult than the others will help give those few areas the special emphasis you may think they deserve.

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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

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Monday, April 17, 2017

The Psychology of Trade Shows

I recently attended my association's trade show. It's a major event for our industry, taking place only once every three years and co-located with the much larger trade show of one of our industry's key customer markets.

Our association staffs its own exhibit booth in the middle of the show floor. It's a large island space, designed with plenty of cushioned carpet and comfy chairs to provide a refuge for our members who are staffing their corporate exhibit booths all around us. It's a great set-up for getting into all kinds of conversations with our members.

And those conversations inevitably include eveyone's favorite subject -- the quantity and the quality of exhibit hall traffic. Our exhibitors expect our show to pass both tests. They want leads and plenty of them. A busy exhibit hall adds to the positive buzz everybody wants to feel. But at each booth, a steady and well-spaced stream of people who have come to do business is far preferable to an onslaught that have come to scoop of the pens, bags, and other exhibit giveaways.

However, when it comes to studying human psychology, nothing beats the observations and discussions surrounding the exhibit hours and the length of the show.

Let me go out on a limb in make a prediction about the trade show you are familiar with. It's too long. The last day, or the last afternoon, or the last few hours are absolutely dead. Every attendee who is looking to do business has already been through the hall, and all that are left are a tiny handful of the people who have come to grab souvenirs.

How do I know this? Because human psychology makes it true of every trade show in the world. "Get in early" is a basic human drive, but even more so is "get out early." The show goes through Saturday, but I can get a flight home on Friday and still have my weekend. The show goes to five o'clock, but I can get a flight home at two o'clock and still have dinner with my family. Everyone at these shows front-loads their schedule. No one plans to come only for Saturday, or only for two to five in the afternoon.

Which leads to all the questions in our association booth about why the show is so long. Same thing every cycle, there's no one there on Saturday and most of Friday. Why are we open? Maybe the show should close on Friday? Or even Thursday?

To that, I typically offer caution. Shortening the show won't change the basic human psychology of the situation. If the show closes on Friday, then Friday will be dead. If it closes on Thursday, then Thursday will be dead. People, even those who have come to do business, will still be motivated by the desire to "get out early."

Truth is, you have to scale the length of your show to the number of people who want to do business at the show and how much time they need to conduct that business. And since the goal is always to increase the number of those people, you have to make your show longer than the number of business-oriented attendees you experienced at the last show. In other words, a show with two good days and one slow day is probably the right length for its audience. Trim off that last slow day and you risk packing too many quality leads into too short a time, and your exhibitors will be frustrated that they couldn't get to them all.

Standing around with no one to talk to is part of everyone's trade show experience. It may also be a necessary experience if you are to be sure that you got all the value you could out of the show.

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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

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Saturday, April 15, 2017

Sapphira and the Slave Girl by Willa Cather

I very much enjoyed the warning printed under the copyright notice of my battered copy of what I take to be a first edition of Sapphira and the Slave Girl.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review to be printed in a magazine or newspaper.

Hopefully, what I’m doing on this blog will qualify as a modern-day equivalent.

Let’s start here.

Ever since she could remember, she had seen her mother show shades of kindness and cruelty which seemed to her purely whimsical.

It might be a throwaway line (although one of the things I like best about Cather’s fiction is the disciplined lack of throwaway lines it contains) but it nicely summarizes the main themes of the novel. It comes from late in the narrative. “She” is Rachel Blake and “her mother” is Sapphira Dodderidge Colbert, and the context the slavery. Rachel’s mother, the titular Sapphira, shows shades of kindness and cruelty which seem purely whimsical to Rachel. And in the same respect, slavery is an institution that shows both kindness and cruelty, in ways that are generally indecipherable, even to the people, black and white, whose lives are bound up with it.

This theme comes together powerfully in a scene from much earlier in the novel, one that follows the funeral of an old slave woman named Jezebel.

That night there was a big supper in the kitchen for the Colbert negroes and all the visitors; a first and second sitting at table. The darkies were always gay after a funeral, and this funeral had pleased everyone. “Miss Sapphy sho’ly give Jezebel a beautiful laying away,” they all agreed.

Washington, serving his master and mistress in the big house, noticed that they, too, were more animated than usual, expressing their satisfaction that things had gone so well and that Jezebel’s young kinsmen had been able to come and carry her. The Master sat long at table; had two helpings of pudding and drank four cups of tea. When at last he rose, his wife said persuasively:

“Surely you don’t mean to go back to the mill tonight, Henry, with your good clothes on.”

Henry, we are told in the opening pages of the novel, sleeps not in the house with his wife, but by himself in a small room in his flour mill. Apparently, this situation is related to the seriousness and commitment that he has for his business.

“Yes I think I must. I have been away all day. I want to speak to those boys from town and give them a little money. They will be starting back late tonight. Good night, Sapphira. I expect you are tired, and I hope you sleep well.”

But Sapphira, his wife, has other suspicions.

“The same to you,” she said with a placid smile, which changed to an expression of annoyance while her eyes followed him to the door. As she sat there alone, her face grew hard and bitter. A few hours ago, when she was being carried out of the graveyard after the burial…

Sapphira suffers from dropsy, which has left her mostly crippled.

...she had seen something which greatly disturbed her. Behind the dark cedars just outside the stone wall, her husband and Nancy stood in deep conversation.

Nancy is the “slave girl” of the book’s title. Old Jezebel, who has just died, is Nancy’s grandmother, and her mother, Till, is Sapphira’s body servant. Nancy is about sixteen and very attractive. Who her father is, apart from definitely being a white man, is a matter of household gossip.

The girl was in an attitude of dejection, her head hanging down, her hands clasped together, and the Master, whatever he was saying, was speaking very earnestly, with affectionate solicitude. Sapphira had put her handkerchief to her eyes, afraid that her face might show her indignation. Never before had she seen him expose himself like that. Whatever he was pressing upon that girl, he was not speaking as master to servant; there was nothing to suggest that special sort of kindliness permissible under such circumstances. He was not uttering condolences. It was personal. He had forgotten himself. Now, as she sat at the table, opposite his empty chair, she felt her anger rising. She rang the bell for the old butler.

Sapphira suspects her husband of conducting a sexually-intimate relationship with Nancy, and while that suspected outrage certainly angers her, we see here that it is his impropriety of revealing such a secret that truly infuriates her. Such relationships, after all, are actually quite commonplace in their society--Nancy herself being the product of one. But the same society that allows them is absolutely dependent on them not being publicly acknowledged.

“Washington, you may take me to my room. Send Till to me.”

Till got Mrs. Colbert into her ruffled nightgown, and stood brushing out her heavy hair. She felt there was something wrong. She began to talk soothingly about the old days at Chestnut Hill. The Mistress scarcely heard her. As she walked toward her bed on Till’s arm, she paused at the window, drew aside the long chintz curtains, and looked out toward the mill. There was a red patch in the darkness down there; the lights in the miller’s room were burning.

Cather uses this visual allegory to good effect. It is light in the darkness--by which Sapphira Colbert no doubt thinks her husband is doing evil, but by which he, in fact, typically reads the Good Book, trying his humble best to discern God’s intentions in our fallen world. More on that later.

She let the curtain fall and continued her way to the wide four-post bed. Till said good-night, blew out the candles, and went away.

Left alone, the Mistress could not go to sleep. Her training and her own good sense had schooled her to know that there are very few situations in life worth getting wrought up about. But tonight she was angry. She was hurt -- and remorseful. Because she was hurt, her mind kept going back to Chestnut Hill and her father. She wished she had been kinder to him in the years when he was crippled and often in pain. She wished she had shown him a little tenderness. His eyes used to ask for it sometimes, she remembered. She had been solicitous and resolutely cheerful; kept him up to the mark, saw that his body servant neglected nothing. But she knew there was something he wanted more than he wanted clean linen every morning, or to have his tea just as he liked it. She had never given in to him, never humoured his weakness. In those days she had not known the meaning of illness. To be crippled and incapacitated, not to come and go at will, to be left out of things as if one were in one’s dotage -- she had no realization of what that felt like, none at all. Invalids were to be kept clean and comfortable, greeted cheerily; that was their life.

A sad and lonely portrait, yes, but it also communicates something more. As she treated her father, now is she being treated. It’s a cycle of norms and expectations. Invalids, all of stripes, and in denial of the humanity that lives and pulses within them, are treated just as society determines they are to be treated. No more and no less. Kindness and cruelty.

The longer she lay awake thinking of those things in the far past, the more lonely and wretched and injured she felt herself to be tonight. Her usual fortitude seemed to break up altogether. She reached for it, but it was not there. Strange alarms and suspicions began to race through her mind. How far could she be deceived and mocked by her own servants in her own house? What was the meaning of that intimate conversation which had gone on under her very eyes this afternoon?

In the darkness of her room and her mind, Sapphira contemplates the biggest fear of them all--not just of her but of her whole society. That the illusionary decorum of slavery--the separation between slaves and masters on which everything depends--is understood and mocked by the very people that the institution holds in bondage.

Unable to lie still any longer, she got cautiously out of bed, reaching for her cane and her armchair. Pushing the chair along beside her, she got to the window and again held back the curtain. The ruddy square of light still burned in the dark mill. She sat down in the chair a reflected. Hours ago she had heard Nancy put her straw tick outside the door.

Some time ago, suspicious of the intimacy developing between Nancy and her husband, Sapphira had commanded the slave girl to sleep on a straw mattress placed immediately outside Sapphira’s bedroom door.

But was she there now? Perhaps she did not always sleep there. A substitute? -- There were four young coloured girls, not counting Bluebell, who might easily take Nancy’s place on that pallet. Very likely they did take her place, and everyone knew it. Could Till, even, be trusted? Besides, Till went early to her cabin -- she would be the last to know.

She has succumbed to outright paranoia.

The Mistress sat still, scarcely breathing, overcome by dread. The thought of being befooled, hoodwinked in any way, was unendurable to her. There were candles on her dressing-table, but she had no way to light them. Her throat was dry and seemed closed up. She felt afraid to call aloud, afraid to take a full breath. A faintness was coming over her. She put out her hand and resolutely rang her clapper bell.

The chamber door open, and someone staggered in.

“Yes mam, yes mam! Whassa matter, Missy?”

Nancy’s sleepy, startled voice. Mrs. Colbert dropped back in her chair and drew a long, slow breath. It was over. Her shattered, treacherous house stood safe about her again. She was in her own room, wakened out of a dream of disaster.

The double meaning here is deeply poetic. Her house is shattered and treacherous both in her paranoid fears and, of course, in the savage and inhuman realities of slavery. And only one meaning can be so easily dismissed with the ringing of a clapper bell.

But she must see it through, what he had begun.

The subterfuge, at all costs, must be preserved.

“Nancy, I’m taken bad. Run out to the kitchen and blow up the coals and put the kettle on. Then go for your mother. I must get my feet into hot water.”

Nancy scurried down the long hall and out to the kitchen. She was wide awake now, and alarmed. She wasn’t a girl to hold a grudge.

Till came, sooner than her mistress would have thought possible. Nancy brought the foot-tub and the big iron teakettle. Till sat on the floor rhythmically stroking her mistress’s swollen ankles and knees, murmuring: “It’s all right, Missy. They is no worse than common. It’s just a chill you caught, waitin’ out there by the graveside.”

When the Mistress was again put to bed, Till begged to stay with her. But Mrs. Colbert, comforted by the promptness and sympathy of her servants, thanked them both, said the pain was gone now, and she would sleep better alone. As they helped her from her chair she had looked once more from her window: the miller’s lights were still burning in the west room of the mill.

What are her suspicions now?

Was the man worrying over some lawsuit he had never told her about, she wondered? Or was he, perhaps, reading his religious books? She knew he pondered at times upon how we are saved or lost. That was the disadvantage of having been raised a Lutheran. In her Church all those things had been decided long ago by heads much wiser than Henry’s. She had married the only Colbert who had a conscience, and she sometimes wished he hadn’t quite so much.

No worry any longer about darkly suspected pecadillos with his young and beautiful slave, the veil of propriety and understanding has once again fallen over Sapphira’s eyes. She is even able to conjure up a tinge of condescension for her husband and his imprecise religion.

Sapphira, and the world she represents, is fascinating and expertly drawn, but Henry, and his meaning in the story, is even more compelling.

The metaphor of the miller is not lost on me. Like in the paintings by the old Dutch masters, the mill is the spindle on which the world turns, and the work that goes on within, preoccupied as it is with the provender that makes earthly life possible, makes it a difficult place to decipher divine meaning on a cosmic scale. There are two struggles--a bodily one, necessary to keep the mill stone turning--and a spiritual one, necessary to discern wisdom from the inexorable procession of heavenly justice. The miller in our tale, Henry Colbert, embodies them both.

Behind the square of candlelight down there, the miller, in his mill clothes, was sitting with his Bible open on the table before him, but he was no longer reading. Jezebel’s life, as Mr. Fairhead had summed it up, seemed a strange instance of predestination. For her, certainly, her capture had been a deliverance. Yet he hated the whole system of slavery. His father had never owned a slave. The Quakers who came down from Pennsylvania believed that slavery would one day be abolished. In the North there were many people who called themselves abolishers.

That is the opinion of men, one that Henry and others shared, but its justice was not so obvious, was it?

Henry Colbert knew he had a legal right to manumit any of his wife’s negroes; but that would be an outrage to her feelings, and an injustice to the slaves themselves. Where would they go? How would they live? They had never learned to take care of themselves or to provide for tomorrow. They were a part of the Dodderidge property and the Dodderidge household. Of all the negro men on the place, Sampson, his head millhand, was the only one who might be able to get work and make a living out in the world. He was a tall, straight mulatto with a good countenance, thoughtful, intelligent. His head was full behind the ears, shaped more like a melon lying down than a peanut standing on end. Colbert trusted Sampson’s judgment, and believed he could get a place for him among the Quaker mills in Philadelphia. He had considered buying Sampson from Sapphira and sending him to Pennsylvania a free man.

What could be wrong with that?

Three years ago he had called Sampson into his room one night, and proposed this plan to him. Sampson did not interrupt; he stood in his manly, responsible way, listening intently to his master. But when it was his turn to speak, he broke down. This was his home. Here he knew everybody. He didn’t want to go out among strangers. Besides, Belle, his wife, was a slack worker, and his children were little. He could never keep them in a city as well off as they were here. What ever had put such a notion in Mister Henry’s head? Wasn’t he real smart about his work? Belle, he know, wasn’t much account to help down at the house, but she was good to the chillun, an’ she didn’t do no harm. Anyhow, he’d a’most sooner leave the chillun than leave the mill, when they’d got everything fixed up so nice and could bolt finer white flour than you could buy in town.

“I guess I’d miss you more than you’d miss the mill, Sampson. We’ll say no more about it, if that’s how you feel,” said the miller, rising and putting his hand on Sampson’s shoulder. There it ended. Sampson never afterward referred to this proposal, nor did his master.

What else could he say? A slave who preferred comfortable bondage to hard freedom. So the opinions of man are stymied by the very fellows those opinions seek to help. But what of the opinion of God? Where does divine truth come down in the matter of slavery?

On this night after Jezebel’s burial, Henry Colbert had been reading over certain marked passages in the Book he accepted as a complete guide to human life. He had turned to all the verses marked with a large S. Joseph, Daniel, and the prophets had been slaves in foreign lands, and had brought good out of their captivity. Nowhere in his Bible had he ever been able to find a clear condemnation of slavery. There were injunctions of kindness to slaves, mercy and tolerance. Remember them in bonds as bound with them. Yes, but nowhere did his Bible say that there should be no one in bonds, no one at all. -- And Henry had often asked himself, were we not all in bonds? If Lizzie, the cook, was in bonds to Sapphira, was she not almost equally in bonds to Lizzie?

That’s not so clear either, is it?

The miller knew the hour must be getting late. His big silver watch he had left up at the house, on his wife’s dressing-table. But he and the negroes could tell time by the stars. At this season of the year, if the Big Dipper had set under the dark spruce-clad hills behind Rachel’s house, it would be past midnight. He opened his north window and looked out. Yes, the Dipper had gone down. The air of the soft, still, spring night came in at the window. There was no sound but the creek, pouring steadily over its rocky bottom. As he stood there, he repeated to himself some verses of his favourite hymn:

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill,
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.

But that’s okay. God, after all, moves in mysterious ways. And while a miller works to develop an understanding, beside him his mill stone keeps turning, grinding seed into flour, and outside the creek keeps flowing, turning his mill wheel, and above it all the celestial lights keep revolving on their heavenly course. Now and forever.

We must rest, he told himself, on our confidence in His design. Design was clear enough in the stars, the seasons, in the woods and fields. But in human affairs -- ? Perhaps our bewilderment came from a fault in our perceptions; we could never see what was behind the next turn of the road. Whenever he went to Winchester, he called upon a wise old Quaker. This man, though now seventy, firmly believed that in his own lifetime he would see one of those great designs accomplished; that the Lord has already chosen His heralds and His captains, and a morning would break when all the black slaves would be free.

Such musings certainly helped Henry Colbert sleep at night. But Nancy, the slave girl, does not have the luxury of such philosophical repose. In the course of the narrative she is set upon by Henry’s nephew Martin, a Southern blueblood with a rakish reputation, intent on deflowering her, with or without her consent.

Martin had gone to the kitchen to complain that Nancy had not done his room, and Bluebell told him Nancy was out picking cherries. There never was a finer morning for picking cherries or anything else, he was thinking, as he went out to the kitchen garden and round the stables. …

“Good morning, Nancy,” he called up to her as he stood at the foot of the tree. “Cherries are ripe, eh? Do you know that song? Can you sing, like Bluebell?”

“No, sir. I can’t sing. I got not singin’ voice.”

“Neither have I, but I sing anyhow. Can’t help it on a morning like this. Come now, you’re going to give me something, Nancy.”

His tone was coaxing, but careless. She somehow didn’t feel scared of him as he stood down there, with his head thrown back. His eyes were clear this morning, and jolly. He didn’t look wicked. Maybe he only meant to tease her anyhow, and she just didn’t know how young men behaved over in the racing counties.

“Aren’t you going to give me something on such a pretty day? Let’s be friends.” He held up his hand as if to help her down.

She didn’t move, but she laughed a soft darky laugh and dropped a bunch of cherries down to him.

“I don’t want cherries. They’re sour, and I want something sweet.”

“No, Mr. Martin. The sour cherries is all gone. These is blackhearts.”

“Stop talking about cherries. You look awful pretty, sitting up there.”

Nancy giggled nervously. Martin was smiling all the time. Maybe he was just young and foolish like, not bad.

“Who’s your beau, anyhow, Nancy Till?”

“Ain’t got none.”

“You goin’ to be a sour old maid?”

“I reckon I is.”

“Now who in the world is that scarecrow, comin’ on us?”

Nancy followed his eyes and looked back over her shoulder. The instant her head was turned Martin stepped lightly on the chair, caught her bare ankles, and drew her two legs about his cheeks like a frame. Nancy dropped her basket and almost fell out of the tree herself. She caught at the branch above her and clung to it.

“Oh, please get down, Mr. Martin! Do, please! Somebody’ll come along, an’ you’ll git me into trouble.”

Martin laughed. “Get you into trouble? Just this? This is nothin’ but to cure toothache.”

The girl had gone pale. She was frightened now, but she couldn’t move, couldn’t pull herself up with him holding her so hard. Everything had changed in a flash. He had changed, and she couldn’t collect her wits.

“Please, Mr. Martin, please let me git down.”

Martin framed his face closer and shut his eyes. “Pretty soon. -- This is just nice. -- Something smells sweet -- like May apples.” He seemed murmuring to himself, not to her, but all the time his face came closer. Her throat felt tight shut, but she knew she must scream, and she did.

“Pappy! Oh, Pappy! Come quick!”

The menace of this scene is palpable, draped, as it is, in slavery’s horrid and beastly sexual intimidation. And what happens next is even more horrific, as Nancy’s would-be protectors, Sampson and Old Jeff (Till’s husband, who had adopted Nancy as his own child, even though she wasn’t), and Nancy herself, are forced by convention to excuse and cover-up Martin’s crime.

The moment she screamed, Martin stepped down from the chair. Old Jeff came running round the end of the smokehouse, up to the foot of the tree where Nancy sat, still holding on to the limb above her. “Whassa matter, chile? Whassa matter?”

Sampson followed more deliberately, looking about him, -- looking at Martin Colbert, which it was not his place to do.

Nancy said she was “took giddy like” in the tree, and was afraid she would faint and fall. Sampson got on the chair and lifted her down, but before he did so he took it in that there were already wet boot tracks on the seat. Martin, standing by, remarked that if the girl had had any sense, he would have helped her get out of the tree.

“Co’se you would, Mr. Martin,” Jeff jabbered. “Young girls has dese sick spells come on ‘em, an’ den dey ain’t got no haid. Come along, honey, you kin walk, Pappy’ll he’p you.”

Sampson picked up the chair and carried it back to the smokehouse. Martin strolled down the path, muttering to himself. “God, I’d rather it had been any other nigger on the place! That mill-hand don’t know where he belongs. If ever he looks me in the face like that again, I’ll break his head for him. The niggers here don’t know their place, not one of ‘em.”

Sampson does more than just look Martin Colbert in the face. He reports the instance to Martin’s uncle, Henry. And when confronted with these ugly facts about his relative, which are not wholly unknown to him, it awakens in him a deeper and uglier understanding of the world, which, apparently, has been.

The miller closed his book and began to move slowly about the room. In a flash he realized that from the first he had distrusted his nephew, though he had never thought of him in connection with Nancy. To him Nancy was scarcely more than a child. It was his habit to refer to her in that way. In reality, of course, she was a young woman. His three daughters had married when they were younger than Nancy was now. Wrath flamed up in him as he paced the floor; against his nephew and the father who begot him, against all his brothers and the Colbert blood. His own father he could hold in reverence; he was an honest man, and the woman who shared his laborious and thrifty life was a good woman, but there must have been bad blood in the Colberts back on the other side of the water, and it had come to light in his three brothers and their sons. He knew the family inheritance well enough. He had his share of it. But since his marriage he had never let it get the better of him. He had kept his marriage vows as he would keep any other contract.

The miller got very little sleep that night. When the first blush of the early summer dawn showed above the mountain, he rose, put on his long white cotton milling coat, and went to bathe in the shallow pool that always lay under the big mill-wheel. This was his custom, after the hot, close nights which often made sleep unrefreshing in summer. The chill of the water, and the rays of gold which soon touched the distant hills before the sun appeared, restored his feeling of physical vigour. He came back to his room, leaving wet footprints on the floury floor behind him. Having dressed and shaved, he put on his hat and walked down along the mill-race toward the dam. He did not know why, but he felt strongly disinclined to see Nancy this morning. He did not wish to be there when she came to the mill; it would not be the same as yesterday. Something disturbing had come between them since then.

For years, ever since she was a child, Nancy had seemed to him more like an influence than a person. She came in and out of the mill like a soft spring breeze; a shy, devoted creature who touched everything so lightly. Never before had anyone divined all his little whims and preferences, and been eager to gratify them. And it was for love, from dutiful affection. She had nothing to gain beyond the pleasure of seeing him pleased.

Now that he must see her as a woman, enticing to men, he shrank from seeing her at all. Something was lost out of that sweet companionship; for companionship it has been, though it was but a smile and a glance, a greeting in the fresh morning hours.

The paternal relationship of master to slave that Henry has teased out his Bible simply cannot survive this sexual awakening. It is revealed as a sham, a dressing draped over a more urgent reality--something the miller is all his studies was not able to see, but which had been inflaming everyone else in his household.

One person who wants to help Nancy is the Colberts’s daughter Rachel Blake. Let’s return to the passage I started this post with.

Ever since she could remember, she had seen her mother show shades of kindness and cruelty which seemed to her purely whimsical. At this moment Mrs. Blake could not for the life of her say whether Mrs. Colbert had invited this scapegrace to her house with the deliberate purpose of bringing harm to Nancy, or whether she had asked him merely for the sake of his company, and was now ready to tolerate anything that might amuse him and thus prolong his stay. This was quite possible, since Mrs. Colbert, though often generous, was entirely self-centered and thought of other people only in their relation to herself. She was born that way, and had been brought up that way.

Rachel is a counterbalancing character in Cather’s story. Grown and widowed with two young girls, she is a kind of self-taught country doctor, tending to the sick and injured in her parents’s household as well as throughout the county. She is traveled and educated in her way, and brings a skeptical analysis and piercing understanding to everything she does. She the daughter of her mother and her father, but she is not like them, almost opposite them in many important ways.

Having posed to herself this question--is her mother being intentional vicious to Nancy or forlornly hospitable to Martin--she must analyze whatever evidence she can bring to bear.

Yet one must admit inconsistencies. There was her singular indulgence with Tansy Dave, her real affection for Till and old Jezebel, her patience with Sampson’s lazy wife. Even now, from her chair, she took some part in all the celebrations that darkies love. She liked to see them happy. On Christmas morning she sat in the long hall and had all the men on the place come in to get their presents and their Christmas drink. She served each man a strong toddy in one of the big glass tumblers that had been her father’s. When Tap, the mill boy, smacked his lips and said: “Miss Sapphy, if my mammy’s titty had a-tasted like that, I never would a-got weaned,” she laughed as if she had never heard the old joke before.

When the darkies were sick, she doctored them, sent linen for the new babies and had them brought for her to see as soon as the mother was up and about.

And her conclusion?

Recalling these things and trying to be fair to her mother, Mrs. Blake suddenly rose from her chair and said aloud:

“No, it ain’t put on; she believes in it, and they believe in it. But it ain’t right.”

Spot on--as usual. Both about her mother and the institutional that shaped her. It is believed in. But it ain’t right.

And is it significant, therefore, that it is Rachel who can see what is wrong and what must be done when neither her gentrified mother nor her biblical father cannot.

Once at the mill, she went to the north window of her father’s room. He was within, sitting at his table; not reading, but gazing moodily at the floor.

“Can I come in, Father?” she asked quietly.

“Is that you, Rachel? Wait a minute.” He came out to the platform where the wagons were unloaded, took her hand, and led her through the dark passage to his room. When he closed to door he shot the bolt.

Mrs. Blake sat down and drew a long breath. “Well, Father, I’ve come over to have a talk with you. I blame myself I didn’t come before this. I reckon you know what it’s about.”

She looked to him for recognition, but he sat frowning at the floor. It tried her that he gave her no encouragement, when he certainly must know what was on her mind. She was tired, and the road round by the creek had seemed long.

“Father,” she broke out indignantly, “are you going to stand by and see a good girl brought to ruin without lifting a finger?”

The miller crossed the room and shut down the open window. His face had flushed red, and so had Mrs. Blake’s. She went on with some heat.

“You surely know that rake Mart Colbert is after Nancy day and night. He’ll have her, in the end. She’s a good girl, but the Colbert men never let anything get away. He’ll catch her somewhere, and force her.”

Her father clenched his two powerful fists. “No he won’t! It’s only by the mercy of God I haven’t strangled the life out of him before now.”

“Then why don’t you do something to save her?”

He made no reply. His daughter sat watching him in astonishment. His darkly flushed face, his clenched hands gave her no clue to what was going on in his mind; struggle of some sort. Certainly. She had always known him quick to act, had never seen him like this before.

“I may be overstepping my duty,” she said at last, “but I couldn’t sit with my hands folded and see what’s going on here. She’s come to me for help, and I couldn’t hold back. I’m a-going to get Nancy away from her and on the road to freedom.”

The mercy of God. Sitting with folded hands. The allusions are clear. I believe Cather is saying, here and throughout the novel, that, as often lauded as it is, religion would not and could not end slavery. Like Henry Colbert, it clouds the minds of its followers with conflicting aphorisms and a morality that seems to exclude some people from the common humanity we all share. In the end, it is Rachel who gets Nancy to safety, and it is her mother and father who do nothing but comfort and reassure themselves that they did all that they could.

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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, April 10, 2017

Changing Strategy and Member Engagement

A few weeks ago I wrote about the presentation I gave at my association's Annual Conference, communicating our overall strategy and the progress we're making on it to our membership. I said then that I was pleased with how little our strategy had changed in the year since my presentation at the previous Annual Conference. I also said that showed how good we were getting at reaching a strategic consensus at our Board table and at steadily investing our resources into multi-year action plans to achieve our goals.

That's still all true, but there is one area of our strategy agenda that underwent a fairly major change in direction at the Board meeting held in conjunction with that Annual Conference those weeks ago. The course we were on was proving to be unsustainable, given the resources we have at our disposal, and it was necessary to make a course correction, trying to reach the same destination by a different path.

I've spent the weeks since that decision in communications mode, trading emails and talking on the phone with a sizable number of our association members who are directly impacted by the change in direction. Depending on the member company's level of involvement in the old direction, some of these conversations have been easy (the member supporting the change in direction) and some of these conversations have been difficult (the member supporting the existing way of doing things).

But whether easy or difficult, it occurred to me this week that all of these conversations have been beneficial. In each I have had the opportunity to discuss the high-level strategy of my association with our most engaged and supportive members.

Increasingly, I realized, those opportunities are becoming few and far between. No matter the time it takes out of my already busy schedule, the chance to discuss what the association is doing and why with these members is invaluable. For those that support the direction, that support is solidified. For those that don't, the dialogue and feedback received helps strengthen future strategy decisions and keep the member engaged in the broader picture of membership and leadership.

Changing your strategy can sometimes be a challenging time. But the opportunity it presents for member engagement is not to be missed.

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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

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Monday, April 3, 2017

The Glamourous Life

Those of you who are seasoned travelers, you might want to skip this one.

I've been traveling on business since I started my career in association management -- twenty-four years now. In fact, my first flight on an airplane was the first time I traveled on business. It was Atlanta, if memory serves. The purpose of the trip? That was long ago lost in the fog.

My most recent trip was to Nashville. I found out I needed to go there about two weeks ahead of the travel date. There was an hour-long meeting in a hotel there that I needed to be at. Getting back and forth between Milwaukee and Nashville on the same day was a challenge given the meeting time and flight schedules, so I booked it as an overnight. Fly down, attend the meeting, work out of the hotel room, grab dinner, get some sleep, fly back. Thay was my plan. I've done it a dozen or more times before.

Then I found out that a friend of mine was going to be in Nashville over the same dates for an entirely different reason. We thought that was great. I had a free night, and he might be able to break away from the event he was attending. We'd get dinner. Find a honkey tonk. Sample the local brews.

It didn't work out that way. Through a stream of texts we figured out that he couldn't break away from his commitments as easily as he thought. He was there on business. There were functions he had to be present at. I understood. I've been in his position more times than I can count.

Here's the thing. Being alone in another city is not a strange experience for me. But being alone in another city, knowing that a friend from my hometown was six blocks away; that was a strange experience. The displacement felt more surreal than normal.

Even with all my experience, there's part of me that still marvels at the idea that I so frequently wake up in one city and go to sleep in another. One morning I'm having a room service breakfast and that evening I'm having a home cooked dinner with my family. And the most remarkable thing is how normal it all seems. It’s not anything to crow about. It's just the way our crazy world works.

I know people who don't travel much who frequently comment on how glamourous my life must be, always jetting off to another destination, staying in all these fancy hotels. But the reality is that it's not glamourous at all. Some of the perks and places are certainly nice, but the whole adventure isn't glamourous. It's normal. It's expected. It's just the way the work gets done.

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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

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Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Marketing of Evil by David Kupelian

Picked this one up at the local library’s book sale, purely on the dark comedic appeal of the title and its subtitle: “How Radicals, Elitists, and Pseudo-Experts Sell Us Corruption Disguised As Freedom.” I had no idea who David Kupelian was or what kind of following he might have. But always entertained by extreme points of view, I simply thought it would be a fun read. And I was not disappointed.

Kupelian comes out swinging. Here’s his opening paragraph.

As Americans, we’ve come to tolerate, embrace, and even champion many things that would have horrified our parents’ generation. Things like abortion-on-demand virtually up to the moment of birth, judges banning the Ten Commandments from public places, a national explosion of middle-school sex, the slow starvation of the disabled, thousands of homosexuals openly flouting the law and getting “married,” and online porn creating late-night sex addicts in millions of middle-class homes.

And why does Kupelian think these horrors have occurred? Let’s turn to the second paragraph.

At the same time, our courts have scrubbed America’s schoolrooms surgically clean of every vestige of the religion on which this nation was founded--Christianity.

I made notations on no fewer than 115 of the book’s 256 pages, but it literally never gets any more complicated than that. America has turned away from Christianity and now it’s going to hell. And why did America turn away? Check the title. Because it was sold a fake bill of goods by the “Marketers of Evil.”

Just who are these “Marketers of Evil?” That was one of the honest questions whose answer I tried to tease out of the text. I never did find a definitive answer, Kupelian swinging freely from one Christian conservative boogeyman to the next. But I did find something remarkable at the end of his chapter on the degrading effects of pop culture.

Today’s youth rebellion is not only against failing parents but against the entire adult society--against the children of the 1960s cultural revolution who grew up to become their parents. Unfortunately, many of us never shook off the transforming effects of that national trauma, which birthed the “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” youth counterculture, the leftist hate-America movement, the women’s liberation movement, and overriding all, of course, the sexual revolution.

So we grew up to elect one of our own--a traumatized, amoral baby boomer named Bill Clinton. If you don’t think Clinton’s escapades with Monica Lewinsky--covered by the media like the Super Bowl--had everything to do with the explosion of middle-school sexual adventures across America, then open your eyes. We, the parents of this generation, along with the degrading entertainment media, the biased news media, the lying politicians, the brainwashing government school system, and the rest of society’s once-great institutions whose degradation we have tolerated, are responsible.

No wonder our children are rebelling. And today’s insane Sodom-and-Gomorrah culture, which we have allowed and in many ways created, stands waiting in the wings to welcome then with open arms.

Yes, in true Christian fashion, the person responsible for all of this is you. You poor, miserable sinner.

In his ten chapters, Kupelian dissects nine evils confronting today’s America--gay rights, church-state separation, pop culture, multiculturalism, divorce, sexual liberation, public education, the media, and abortion. (He saves his tenth chapter for the prescription that will eradicate all of these horrors--a return to the right kind of Christianity.) I’m not going to dissect everything he says that’s wrong about all of these issues. Instead, let me try to tease out some common themes I found myself encountering again and again.

“They” Did “This” to “Us”

This is actually the thesis of the entire book, embodied in its very title. And in every chapter, this base narrative comes shining through. Here it rears its ugly head in the chapter about public education.

John Taylor Gatto, one of America’s most celebrated public school teachers (he was voted both New York City and New York State teacher of the year) describes what happened to America’s schools in the late nineteenth century. In The Underground History of American Education, Gatto tells how “progressive educational leaders” hijacked America’s school system and recreated it according to strange new philosophies--all with the apparent best of intentions, believing they were doing the great work of advancing civilization.

You’ll encounter accusations like this in every chapter; Kupelian calling out the very Marketers of Evil who have created all our problems, sometimes inadvertently but usually not, seducing right-thinking America into sin, despair and debauchery. They did this to us.

America Was Designed As A Christian Nation

This is probably the second most prevalent of Kupelian’s erroneous themes. References to this idea, and tortured conclusions based on it, are almost too numerous to count. Here’s a prime example, from the chapter on church-state separation.

In other words, faith was out as a basis for governing our lives or country. In light of this zeitgeist among America’s elite--and believe me, Supreme Court justices live among the elite--is it any wonder that genuine respect for a Constitution and Bill of Rights that were largely the result of a Christian world view would drastically diminish?

Let’s skip over the Constitution for a second--a document about as secular as they come, laying out not much more than the forms and functions of the federal government. Let’s, for the sake of this example, look instead as the Bill of Rights, or the first ten amendments to the Constitution. It’s often said that they guarantee a number of freedoms to the American people by restricting the actions of the government in several key areas. If you’ll forgive a bit of oversimplification, reading through them, one could draw up the following list:

1. Freedom to practice religion, to speak freely, of the press, to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for the redress of grievances.
2. Freedom to keep and bear arms.
3. Freedom from having soldiers quartered in your home.
4. Freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures.
5. Freedom from indictment by anything but a Grand Jury, from being tried twice for the same crime, from being forced to serve as a witness against oneself, and from losing life, liberty, or property without due process of law.
6. Right to a speedy trial, to face one’s accusers, and to assistance of counsel in one’s defense.
7. Right to a jury trial.
8. Freedom from excessive bail and from cruel or unusual punishments.
9. Clarity that the rights expressed in the Constitution and its amendments are not the only ones retained by the people.
10. Clarity that rights or powers not given to the federal government in the Constitution and its amendments are retained by the States or by the people.

These are “largely the result of a Christian world view”? Exactly how? Because Kupelian says so? I’d argue that even the one (and mind you, there is only one) that mentions any kind of religion actually expresses a singularly un-Christian sentiment, since it entertains the heretical idea that there are other religions that people have the right to practice. But, from an even wider historical perspective, the rights and freedoms described in the Bill of Rights are almost entirely counters to the excesses and abuses American colonists experienced under the tyranny of the British king--a man and a form of government, remember, that used the divine right of kings to justify its actions and oppressions. King George, in other words, was a Christian leader, not just a political one, and the rights and freedoms expressed in the Bill of Rights are, by definition, un-Christian, perhaps even anti-Christian, as a result.

Us Real Americans

Isn’t it about time we face the painful truth--that we Americans have had our Constitution, and therefore the very reins of power, stolen from us while we were busy going to work, raising our kids, paying the bills, and watching Jeopardy?

This sentiment is also expressed so many times in Kupelian’s text we might as well call it his leitmotif. In his mind, Kupelian clearly believes his point of view represents the sacred truth of America, and that his audience comprises that vanishing and beleaguered species, the Real American.

In the passage above, Kupelian is bemoaning the Supreme Court’s “wall of separation” interpretation of the First Amendment, believing and angry that it has resulted in significant reductions of public expressions of Christian faith. It’s okay for him to be angry about that. To be fair, I think some of the points he makes in that chapter about the original intent of the Founding Fathers in this area are not entirely wrong (although some are real whoppers). What bothers me is the way that he demonizes the people on the other side of his argument, who, if truth must be told, actually won this argument decades ago and keep on winning it every time it finds its way into a courthouse. Are they not Americans, too? Do they not also represent American views and principles?

What we’re witnessing is the official, ever-so-gradual squeezing out of everything that’s really precious to America. It’s as though we’re throwing away something so valuable that it goes almost beyond the ability of words to convey it. We’re taking the finest life has to offer, like the most precious memories of our children, of their birth, of their accomplishments--and we’re taking the sacrifices of our soldiers, of our patriots, our nation’s martyrs--and we’re junking them.

Think of the Puritans who braved the two-month sea voyage to an unknown land and lost one-half of their number during that first, brutal winter. And the loyal patriot soldiers with George Washington at Valley Forge, shivering shoeless and miserable in the snow. Think of the deaths and suffering of the millions of Americans lost or maimed in war during the last two centuries. Ponder as well the tremendous sacrifices of their families. Now think of the sustaining role God, faith, prayer, and the Bible had in the lives of all of these people.

No, evidently they don’t. In Kupelian’s America, there are no atheists, dissenters or conscientious objectors. The only inheritors of the sacred flame of freedom are the God-fearing descendants of those forever enshrined in our national myths.

Evil Is As Evil Does

People working towards evil goals are obviously evil themselves. That’s another of the book’s apparent axioms. Of course, if Kupelian is wrong about the goal in question, if the goal his depicted “demons” are working towards is, in fact, not evil, then their evil plots to destroy America are actually nothing of the kind. There are, in essence, political advocacy for a cause.

The best example is probably the chapter on “selling gay rights to America,” which Kupelian blames primarily on two activists names Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen.

Kirk and Madsen were not the kind of drooling activists that would burst into churches and throw condoms into the air. They were smart guys--very smart. Kirk, a Harvard-educated researcher in neuropsychiatry, worked with the Johns Hopkins Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth and designed aptitude tests for adults with 200+ IQs. Madsen, with a doctorate in politics from Harvard, was an expert on public persuasion tactics and social marketing. Together they wrote After the Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the ‘90s.

“As cynical as it may seem,” they explained at the outset, “AIDS gives us a chance, however brief, to establish ourselves as a victimized minority legitimately deserving of America’s special protection and care. At the same time,” they warned, “it generates mass hysteria of precisely the sort that has brought about public stonings and leper colonies since the Dark Ages and before. … How can we maximize the sympathy and minimize the fear? How, given the horrid hand that AIDS has dealt us, can we best play it?”

And that’s all Kupelian needs to hear. It’s a plot. They are not political activists trying to bring about social change. They are the Marketers of Evil, in this case, trying to sell gay rights (a term Kupelian can’t seem to write without putting it in quotes or italicizing it) to straight America. The larger point, of course, is that the plot is only evil if the cause is evil. The same tactics, for example, employed to sell “Christian sacraments” (turnabout is fair play) to secular America, would unlikely seem evil to Kupelian.


As aggravating as those first four themes could be, this next one actually made my brain hurt.

One of the first times I remember feeling the foundations of America tremble was in 1964 during my ninth-grade civics class. A girl--I don’t remember her name, but I think she was from Tennessee, and she had a very thick southern accent--answered a question from the teacher by mentioning something about God.

“How do you know there is a God?” the teacher shot back.

It was like an earth tremor--just a faint quiver really, a precursor to the tidal waves to come a few years later--a smiling, casual, offhanded swipe at the world as we knew it.

How did the little southern girl know there was a God? Clearly taken aback, she answered the teacher earnestly, incredulously, her voice breaking: “Because...there is!” She had, quite naturally, offered up the best answer anyone could possibly give.

Wait a minute. That’s the “best answer anyone could possibly give”? Did I miss something? From where I sit, that’s about the worst answer anyone could possibly give, forming an argument somewhere in the neighborhood of a playground taunt. I know you are, but what am I?

But here’s the key paragraph.

The teacher had questioned the unquestionable, injecting doubt into a room of impressionable young boys and girls. It was one of those moments you remember forty years later because it created a spark, a momentary contact with another dimension--that alien dimension of cynicism and disbelief.

This is fundamental to understanding Kupelian’s view on things, and in explaining why it is so difficult to win arguments against people of similar perspectives. They have “unquestionables”, things that can’t be challenged. They believe them; no matter what. And it makes them uncomfortable to encounter someone whose logic isn’t so constrained, brushing up another dimension all right, the one of free inquiry.

Here’s a pristine example of how having an unquestionable--in this case, the “unquestionable” belief that same-sex marriage is wrong--can tie someone in so many knots that they don’t know which end is up.

Imagine you’re participating in a televised one-on-one debate. You’re defending traditional marriage. Facing off against you is a lesbian. But not just any lesbian. An attractive, young, eloquent, educated, sensitive, well-dressed lesbian--and to all appearances a fine human being.

Love the implication there. To all appearances. We all know that a lesbian couldn’t possibly be a fine human being.

She looks you in the eye and says, in a disarmingly mainstream and reasonable tone: “I love my country, I obey its laws and I pay my taxes. I’m an American, and have all the same rights you do. In fact, I’ve served my country in the military and have put my life on the line. I’ve lived monogamously with my partner for eighteen years. We truly love each other and want nothing more than to be married and to live out our lives in peace and happiness--just like you. What’s the matter with that? Why shouldn’t we be allowed to be married? How does it hurt you?”

You have thirty seconds to respond before the commercial break.

How can you neutralize the powerful, positive emotions your opponent has skillfully evoked? Will you offer up a statement about the dangers of altering the traditional definition of marriage? Will you point out that children do better with both a mother and father? Will you say the Bible clearly condemns homosexual acts?

Or will you admit that you might be wrong? Oops. Can’t do that.

The debate will be won by whoever conjures up the strongest emotions of sympathy in the audience.

Therefore, unless you’re an extraordinarily gifted and charismatic debater--you lose.

Because evidently you have to be an extraordinarily gifted and charismatic debater to win even when unquestionable truth is on your side.

And when you lose, millions of people out in TV land are pulled a few inches further away from commonsense values and a few inches closer to embracing, or at least resigning themselves to accepting, same-sex marriage.

The lesbian debater appeals to Americans’ basic traits of tolerance, inclusiveness, fair-mindedness, and honor toward veterans. Every statement she makes tends to create in the viewer positive feelings, not toward same-sex marriage per se, but toward her. Yet it’s the viewers’ attitudes toward same-sex marriage that will change.

Each hidden persuasion is like money accruing in the emotional bank account of the listener--and when there are enough funds (strong feelings of sympathy) in the listener’s account, he or she has been “persuaded” of the justness of these two women being married. Or if not persuaded, at least neutralized in terms of offering any effective opposition to same-sex marriage.

You see. It’s a trick! She’s manipulating us. She’s a “Marketer of Evil!”

Watch how the feelings accumulate in the listener’s bank account until they reach critical mass: “I love my country” (patriotism--cha-ching). “I obey its laws and I pay my taxes” (responsible citizen--cha-ching). I’m an American, and have all the same rights you do” (appeal to fairness--cha-ching). “I’ve served my country in the military and have put my life on the line” (she’s a veteran!--double cha-ching). “I’ve lived monogamously with my partner for eighteen years” (loyalty--cha-ching). “We truly love each other and want nothing more than to be married and to live out our lives in peace and happiness--just like you” (true love--cha-ching). “Why shouldn’t we be allowed to be married? How does it hurt you?” (personal intimidation--cha-ching).

Am I the only one who finds that last cha-ching about personal intimidation to be out of place? I thought the evil lesbian was manipulating my positive feelings about tolerance and fairness?

Now imagine how the television viewers are reacting to this debate.

Many in the audience find our feelings have been stirred by the lesbian’s touching appeal.

Right. Until she started intimidating us?

We like her. We want her to be happy. Our positive feelings toward her start to subtly eat away at our long-held conviction that same-sex marriage is wrong.

At our unquestionable.

Those warm emotions give rise to a stream of thought whispers that orbit our minds at light-speed: Maybe I’ve judged these people too harshly just because they’re different. ...Maybe they could make each other happy if they were married. ...After all, heterosexual married couples have lots of problems, and half of them get divorced--so what difference does it really make?

That’s it. Now you’re brushing up against that alien dimension of free inquiry. Keep going.

We start to doubt our prior beliefs, wondering if they’re as hallowed as we’ve thought, or rather just some antiquated religious notions about sex and sin that don’t really apply in today’s world. Then the thought occurs to us, as though from divine revelation: Don’t we all long to love and be loved? ...Maybe that is the ultimate truth. ...She’s right, it doesn’t hurt anyone else for her to be married to her partner. ...It’s mean-spirited to deny other human beings their happiness. ...I like her. ...I want her to be happy.

There you go. It’s an bonafide epiphany! Maybe love is the ultimate truth. Doesn’t it even say that somewhere in the Bible?

Besides, I don’t want anyone to call me a bigot.

Seduction complete.

And there, like a door slamming, Kupelian takes us irrevocably back to his interpretation of the evil seducer, trying to woo us away from our unquestionable truth.

If we were anchored in the Judeo-Christian moral standards that are responsible for the singular success of the Western world, all this emotional persuasion would be for naught. We’d easily discern the truth of the debate and just be amused at the feeble attempts at manipulating our feelings. But after several decades of public education that reflects not the values of the nation’s founders but those of ‘60s radicals and reformers, millions of Americans are just plain confused.

Or maybe they’ve just changed their minds, persuaded by their own logic and free inquiry that this particular unquestionable truth is hogwash. As frightening as it must be for Kupelian to contemplate the evil conspiracy of his own creation, how much more frightening must it be for him to entertain the idea that one of his unquestionables isn’t any such thing?

Black and White

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, there is no in-between in Kupelian’s worldview. Things are either good or evil. There is no middle ground, no nuance. And this view colors his comments on so many of the issues he tries to tackle throughout the book.

In today’s polarized climate, however, it seems most of us either condemn homosexuals as evil corrupters of society or we fawn over them as noble victims and cultural heroes.

Sentences like these really jumped off the page at me because they are so patently untrue. No, most of us do not either condemn homosexuals or fawn over them. Most straight people, in fact, don’t really think much about homosexuals at all. Sentences like these set-up a series of false dichotomies throughout Kupelian’s work. Dichotomies that are easily pierced, but which are absolutely essential to his overall argument.

Just Plain Wrong

Then there are the sentences that reveal just how little Kupelian actually understands about the basic elements of the world we all live in. Elements like...

Human rights. Describing their battle from the get-go as one over “rights” implies homosexuals are being denied the basic freedoms of citizenship that others enjoy. Aren’t they?

The First Amendment. Madison explains that “he apprehended the meaning of the words to be, that Congress should not establish a religion, and enforce legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any manner contrary to their conscience.” Like having the Ten Commandments inscribed on the walls of the Supreme Court?

Divorce and...government power? For an out-of-control, ever-expanding government such as America’s, divorce represents a hard-to-resist growth opportunity. “Once the father is eliminated,” [author and professor of political science Stephen] Baskerville explained, “the state functionally replaces him as protector and provider. By removing the father, the state also creates a host of problems for itself to solve: child poverty, child abuse, juvenile crime, and other problems associated with single-parent homes. In this way, the divorce machinery is self-perpetuating and self-expanding. Involuntary divorce is a marvelous tool that allows for infinite expansion of government power.” What the hell is he talking about?

Women. At the extreme edges of dysfunctionality, women can become so angry at the men who have failed them--whether fathers, husbands, boyfriends, or strangers--that they look to other women for companionship and love. Hence the major increase in lesbianism today, which is the not-too-well-hidden secret side of radical feminism. Yes. Men really suck. I think I’ll try sleeping with women.

Public education. You’d never guess it from the way today’s government learning centers have been surgically scrubbed clean of any vestige of Christian influence, but America’s earliest schools were originally established to ensure biblical literacy. The Puritan founders of New England saw their settlement as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to create a biblically based society free of the corrupting influences of the Old World. Sorry. The Puritan founders of New England did not create America in the 1630s, so whatever they did, they were not “America’s earliest schools.”

Human relationships. If there is no awareness of God, truth becomes relative, socialism becomes attractive, immorality becomes acceptable, and philosophies become bizarre. Human relationships are no longer based on mutual honor for another child of God, but rather on exploitation and domination, either obvious or subtle. You try to string that many non-sequiturs together into two seemingly coherent sentences. I’ll bet you can’t.

And, believe it or not, Christianity.

No matter what kind of person you are, a form of Christianity has evolved just for you. There’s a politically liberal Christianity and a politically conservative Christianity. There’s an acutely activist Christianity and an utterly apolitical Christianity, a Christianity that holds up a high standard of ethical behavior and service, and a Christianity for which both personal ethics and good works are irrelevant. There’s a raucous, intensely emotional Christianity drenched in high-voltage music, and there’s a quiet, contemplative Christianity. There’s a loving Christianity and a hateful, racist Christianity, a Christianity that honors Jews as God’s chosen people and a Christianity that maligns Jews as Satan’s children.

Kupelian will go on to argue that there is only true form of Christianity and it is, of course, the one that he personally subscribes to. The problem is that every one of the other “false” Christianities can and do create a legitimate claim to being the true Christianity by cherry picking verses out of the Bible. One example should suffice, albeit it is the one that has historically created an awful lot of divergent doctrines and Christianities.

For by grace are ye saved through faith…not of works. —Ephesians 2:8,9

Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. —James 2:24

Which is it, Kupelian? Or perhaps I should ask Martin Luther? Are we saved by faith alone, or by faith combined with works?

Famous Smart People Believed in God

This is one of the most juvenile of Kupelian’s major themes. Whenever he wants to appeal to non-believers or Christians of a more secular stripe, he trots out quotes by famous smart people to try and prove the point at hand. Here he employs the trick in arguing for creation over evolution.

Looking in every direction, we humans beheld not only fantastic complexity, diversity and order, but also the supreme intelligence behind creation, as brashly evident and unavoidable as the noonday sun. This ubiquitous natural wonderland caused man to acknowledge and honor the Creator of creation, as Nicolaus Copernicus did when he wrote, “[The world] has been built for us by the Best and Most Orderly Workman of all.” Or as Galileo wrote, “God is Nature in His works and by doctrine in His revealed word.” Or as Louis Pasteur confessed, “The more I study nature, the more I stand amazed at the work of the Creator.” Or Isaac Newton: “When I look at the solar system, I see the earth at the right distance from the sun to receive the proper amounts of heat and light. This did not happen by chance.”

So, by association, Kupelian is trying to convince us that when all these famous smart people said these things, they were all obviously talking about the Christian god. Except they weren’t. By and large, in the quotes most often chosen by the Kupelians of the world, the famous smart people in question are talking about nature’s god, a theological metaphor for the orderly clockwork our human perspective sees in the universe. And Copernicus, I know, wasn’t even talking about that. Remember that he famously wrote “Mathematics are for mathematicians” in the foreword to his book describing his heliocentric conception of the solar system. It was a work he was afraid to publish for much of his life, fearful of what the Catholic Church would do to him for these blasphemous ideas. When finally convinced to publish, he was careful to explain that just because the math worked better when you put the sun at the center of the solar system, that didn’t automatically mean that’s where the sun actually was. Scientists should only use his formula, in other words, to more accurately describe God’s fine-tuned universe, not, he repeats not, to overturn Catholic dogma. After all, we all know that the world “has been built by the Best and Most Orderly Workman of all.” Right?

It’s Odd and Revealing What Tweaks Kupelian Out

This one might be gratuitous, but reading some sentences, I couldn’t help but at times wonder how far that stick had been shoved up Kupelian’s ass.

Cohabitation. When our kids are exposed to the same influences, without much supervision, and are generally not guided to interpret their circumstances and opportunities in light of biblical principles, it’s no wonder that they grow up to be just as involved in gambling, adultery, divorce, cohabitation, excessive drinking and other unbiblical behaviors as everyone else.

Earrings. But what happens when the youth leader’s strategy of going tie-less turns into his dressing like a rap singer, talking jive, and wearing earrings?

Body piercings. It has progressed from traditional earrings for females, to earrings for males (eager to display their “feminine side” with the ‘60s “cultural revolution” sold them), to multiple piercings for both males and females in literally every part of the body--the tongue, nose, eyebrow, lip, cheek, navel, breasts, genitals--again, things you don’t really want to know.

No, come on, Kupelian. Tell us.

But why stop with conventional piercing and tattooing? Ritual scarification and 3D-art implants are big. So are genital beading, stretching and cutting, transdermal implants, scrotal implants, tooth art, and facial sculpture.

These things are “big”? Scrotal implants are “big”? I Googled it (can’t wait to see what those cookies do for the online ads I see) and found mostly medical sites talking about it as a reconstructive effort after cancer or other surgeries. I’m assuming those aren’t the implants that tweak Kupelian out.

Rock and roll. Then there was the rock music invasion from England. What started with the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and other groups immediately exerted a powerful hold on America’s youth and soon introduced and sugarcoated the psychedelic drug subculture--”Turn on, tune in, drop out”--which was, in turn, energized and unified by opposition to the Vietnam War.

Just plain old sex. Sex has always been a war zone. Sexual purity--living within certain behavioral confines deemed wholesome and moral, even if it means denying or delaying gratification of one’s own powerful drives--has always been a major dividing line between those attempting to obey God’s laws and those rebelling against them (or denying they exist).

This hang-up around sex, I think, is the most revealing one of all, as it seems to form a principle underlying so many of Kupelian’s opinions. It has three basic premises: (1) There is only one moral way to engage in sexual activity; (2) That way was ordained by the Christian god; and (3) It is responsible for the success of Western society.

Think I’m kidding?

This chasm between Judeo-Christian sexual morality and, basically, the rest of the world becomes stunningly clear in Dennis Prager’s award-winning essay, “Judaism, Homosexuality and Civilization”:

“When Judaism demanded that all sexual activity be channeled into marriage, it changed the world.

“It is not overstated to say that the Torah’s prohibition of non-marital sex made the creation of Western civilization possible. Societies that did not place boundaries around sexuality were stymied in their development. The subsequent dominance of the Western world can largely be attributed to the sexual revolution by Judaism, and later carried forward by Christianity.

“The revolution consisted of forcing the sexual genie into the marital bottle. It ensured that sex no longer dominated society, heightened male-female love and sexuality (and thereby almost alone created the possibility of love and eroticism within marriage), and began the arduous task of elevating the status of women.”

Okay. I seriously can’t go any farther than that. If Kupelian is going to argue that the sexual morality of the Bible elevates the status of women, there’s no point in even engaging in a dialogue with him.

Well, maybe just one more paragraph from Kupelian’s quoted essay.

“Human sexuality, especially male sexuality, is utterly wild. Men have had sex with women and with men; with little girls and young boys; with a single partner and in large groups; with total strangers and immediate family members; and with a variety of domesticated animals. There is little, animate or inanimate, that has not excited some men sexually.”

Yes. I’d probably dispute the use of the words “utterly wild,” but yes, some men have been sexually excited by these things. But the colossal point that Kupelian misses is that, contrary to his unquestionable belief, Judeo-Christian marriage has done absolutely nothing to contain or curtail these activities. Not in his beloved 1950s.

Divorce was rare, abortion and homosexuality were “in the closet” and out of view of polite society.

Where they evidently belong. Not absent. Just out of sight. And not even among men who have entered into the holy sacrament of Christian marriage.

Specifically, [sex researcher Alfred] Kinsey claimed [in 1948] that 85 percent of males had intercourse prior to marriage, nearly 70 percent had sex with prostitutes, and 30-45 percent of husbands had extramarital affairs. Moreover, from 10 to 37 percent of men had engaged in homosexual acts...

So, what is this talk about “sexual purity” really about? Because it certainly isn’t about actual practice. If anything, the sexual repression demanded by some religions results in more, not less, “aberrant” sexual activity. Talking about sexual purity is really just another sexual fetish, not wholly dissimilar from the “abominations” described in Kupelian’s text. Yes, some men indeed do get off thinking about sex with women, with men, with children, with groups, with total strangers, with family members, or with animals. But let’s not forget that other men get off thinking about sexual purity.

And, wonderfully, the chapter in which Kupelian unintentionally shares this sexual identity of his, is titled, no kidding, “Obsessed with Sex.” I guess today’s sermon was taken from the Book of Irony.

The Prescription

I’ve got to end this somewhere, so let me try to do that here.

What we need is that missing ingredient--the spirit of humility and honesty that invites self-understanding and repentance, which will faithfully guide our true understanding of the Scriptures. Ask yourself, Is stealing wrong because the Bible says it’s wrong, or does the Bible say stealing is wrong because it is wrong? Which came first? What about murder? Was murder wrong before God gave Moses the Ten Commandments? When Cain slew Abel, there was no Bible and no Ten Commandments. Yet God held Cain accountable and set a curse upon him. But why should Cain have known killing his brother was wrong if there was no law?

Kupelian’s solution to the evils he documents is, of course, Christianity. But not just any Christianity. A kind of fuzzy, extra-biblical Christianity that I’m not sure even Kupelian fully understands. Does he understand that when he says that things are wrong, not because the Bible says they are wrong, but because they contain some higher, intrinsic sense of wrongness, he is effectively telling people not to read the Bible, but to listen to their hearts?

The truth, of course, as the Bible makes clear in Romans 1, is that God’s living law, the inborn ability to discern right from wrong, was written in Cain’s heart, as it is in every human being who has ever lived. The word conscience literally means “with knowing.” We all know. We all know, deep down, right from wrong. We’re self-contained truth machines if only we’d pay attention. It’s only our pride, our willfulness to have our own way, to be the god of our own lives, to rationalize our compulsions and sins--and the inevitable denial of truth that follows--that disconnects us from it.

Yes, evidently he does. But isn’t that where his argument starts to fall apart? Different people’s hearts tell them different things about what is right and what is wrong--not only when terms like “right” and “wrong” are mapped onto silly things like body piercings and rock music, but also around more significant issues like homosexuality and abortion. Their hearts tell them different things. They disagree. And it isn’t because some of them have remained faithful to the revealed truth written by God in their hearts and others are prideful, or want their own way, or want to be the god of their own lives, or are rationalizing their compulsions and sins, or have been duped by the Marketers of Evil. They disagree because right and wrong aren’t always black and white--as any casual perusal through the Bible will easily show you.

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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