Monday, May 28, 2018

Millennials Are Lazy?

Here's a rare post on the subject of generations in the workplace.

Recent readers of this blog may not be aware that I cut my blogging teeth on the subject when I hosted (with Jamie Notter) The Hourglass Blog from 2009 to 2012. There, the focus was primarily on Generation X, and our investigative question was primarily on whether and how members of that generation would step into positions of leadership in our society and its organizations as the swelled ranks of Boomers began leaving the workplace.

The Hourglass Blog came to an end for a variety of reasons, but one was clearly how, even in 2012, the focus of all generational conversations in the workplace was increasingly on the Millennials. Indeed, as an Xer myself, I have to admit that I grew a bit frustrated with the never-ending focus on the new slacker generation, especially when questions of leadership of organizations came up. How to deal with those crazy (and lazy) Millennials in the workplace was fair game (to my way of thinking, at least), since they were infiltrating the workforce in greater and greater numbers. But even when questions of leadership came up, the popular conversation seemed to center on whether or not Millenials had (or would ever have) the chops to fill the shoes of all those departing Boomers. As if there wasn't another generation standing between the Boomers and the Millennials that was, in fact, ready to lead -- albeit in a slightly different direction.

Enough. I put that hobby horse to bed in 2012, but now, in 2018, it seems that not much has changed. In a recent business book I read the subject was explored, and again, when it came to searching for people to lead our organizations into the future, the author chose to focus almost entirely on the Millennial generation.

And whenever Millennials are talked about, one particular adjective seems to always be correlated. Lazy. Millennials are lazy.

Are they? I have several Millennials on my small staff of eleven people, and they are far from lazy. In fact, they are among the hardest working people on my team. I have found them to be not just hard-working, but creative, self-starting, ambitious professionals. They want to make a difference for themselves and for the organization they work for. I find myself pulling them back much more frequently than pushing them forward.

So why does this myth of laziness persist? Do older generations still think of Xers as slackers (assuming they think of Xers at all)? That was how Generation X got branded when we first entered the workforce, but I can't imagine that we're still thought of that way. At some point, probably when we starting moving into leadership positions -- that is, when we became bosses instead of an older boss's employee -- the myth of Xers being slackers went away.

Is that what it's going to take for Millennials to lose the reflexive association with laziness? On The Hourglass Blog I wrote a lot about how Generation X was different from Baby Boomers and how those differences would lead to differences in our organizations and our society as Xers moved into leadership positions. I see something similar happening with Millennials.

Are they different from Xers and Boomers? Of course they are. They have a different set of life experiences, and therefore look at things differently and may even define success as something different than their older colleagues. And as they move into positions of leadership, those differences will become more and more normalized. Our organizations will stop viewing Millennials and their sensibilities as the lazy outliers, but rather as the status quo.

And then I personally can't wait to hear what the Millenials think of Generation Z.

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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, May 26, 2018

Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Democracy by Robert V. Remini

This is Volume 3 of a three volume biography of Andrew Jackson. I read the first volume in August 2012 and the second volume about five years later. I decided not to let as much time pass before getting through the third volume, and I’m glad I didn’t. Like the first two volumes, each of which held my attention as a result of a deep investigative interest, I found myself on a similar and enjoyable journey in Volume 3.

In Volume 1, the question was “Can I trust this biographer to present an unbiased portrait of Andrew Jackson?” I could. In Volume 2, the question was “Can the history of political parties in the United States be accurately seen as an ongoing struggle between the conflicting desires for liberty and power?” It could. In Volume 3, the question, bluntly put, was “Did Andrew Jackson break the Constitution?”

He did.

Andrew Jackson Was a Hothead

But before I go there, let me deal with something else, something that seems to re-open my investigative interest in the first volume. Namely, can I trust this biographer to present an unbiased portrait of Andrew Jackson?

Again and again in the text, Remini will make mention of Jackson’s notorious temper. And seemingly every time he does, he goes out of his way to stress that Jackson never let this notorious temper affect his judgment or subsequent actions. Here’s an example:

News of the action of the Nullification Convention shot up to Washington and around the country with record speed. The defiance shocked and infuriated the President. As he prowled the corridors of the White House, he uttered all kinds of savage threats, but at no time did he allow his feelings to color his judgment or influence his actions. In moments of crisis he exercised absolute control over his normally volatile emotions.

After a while, these statements began to ring hollow with me. This episode regarding South Carolina’s Nullification Convention is as good an example as any. It seems very much to me like Andrew Jackson is precisely letting his feelings color his judgment and influence his actions. The Nullification “Crisis”, as it is often called, began when South Carolina passed an ordinance of nullification, declaring the Federal tariffs of 1828 and 1832 null and void within the borders of South Carolina. When informed of this action by a sympathizing unionist, Remini reports that Jackson was in full agreement with the man, who “reassured the President of the loyalty and dependability of the union men in South Carolina.”

“We would rather die,” he wrote, “than submit to the tyranny of such an oligarchy as J. C. Calhoun, James Hamilton, Robt. Y. Hayne and [George] McDuffie and we implore our sister states and the federal govt. To rescue us from these lawless and reckless men.”

Jackson responded immediately. “I fully concur with you in your views of Nullification. … It leads directly to civil war and bloodshed and deserves the execration of every friend of the country.”

Civil war and bloodshed. And Jackson wasn’t kidding. He had already taken several actions that would make such an outcome possible.

Five hundred stand of muskets, for example, with “corresponding equipments,” had been ordered to Castle Pinckney, and a sloop of war with a smaller vessel had been dispatched to Charleston and would reach the city momentarily. General Winfield Scott had been directed to take command of the entire operation. In addition, the commanding officer at Castle Pinckney would be instructed by the secretary of war to deliver the arms to the unionists in the state. Should circumstances so dictate, additional ordnance would be provided.

Now, Remini stresses that in all of this, Jackson acted carefully within the limits of the law, and then uses that fact to praise him again for his tempered restraint. But that is not the only way to look at Jackson’s actions. Just because he acted within his constitutional powers does not mean that he wasn’t letting his feelings color his judgment and influence his actions. The current President, by way of extreme example, has the constitutional power to order bombing strikes against any nation or actor he perceives as an imminent threat against the United States, but that doesn’t mean that every time he orders such an action he is acting with caution and tempered restraint.

The bigger question, to my way of thinking, is why is the current President dropping bombs, and why is Jackson preparing the federal army for war against one of the nation’s states. After all, isn’t nullification something states in the 1830s were allowed to do?

That’s a deep question, and I’m not sure I know the answer to it. Jackson, clearly, didn’t think so.

“The Union must be preserved,” Jackson reiterated, “and its laws duly executed, but by proper means.” We must act, he went on, as “the instruments of the law.” [His sympathizer] was to tell the unionists “that perpetuity is stamped upon the constitution by the blood of our Fathers.” Nothing could dissolve the Union. Nothing. Constitutional amendment was the process provided to secure needed changes or improve “our system of free Government.” For this reason a state may not secede, much less “hazard” the Union. “Nullification therefore means insurrection and war; and the other states have a right to put it down.”

But it seems clear that, in 1832, the people of South Carolina thought they had the power to nullify federal actions.

Events in South Carolina then began to move at a frightening clip toward confrontation with the federal government and possible civil war. The people of the state seemed to accept the Ordinance of Nullification with no perceptible concern. The union party, though respectable in character, was overwhelmed in the fall elections by an “immense, an almost silencing majority,” completely sympathetic to the nullifiers. Robert Y. Hayne resigned as United States senator and John C. Calhoun resigned as Vice President of the United States. Hayne was elected to succeed James Hamilton, Jr., as governor. A new legislature, composed mainly of nullifiers, elected Calhoun to take Hayne’s seat in the United States Senate and then proceeded to pass the necessary legislation to carry the Ordinance into practical effect.

The rhetoric, indeed, got heated on the South Carolinian side of the debate, but Remini doesn’t go out of his way to point out that, dare I use the term, constitutionalists like John C. Calhoun never let his feelings color his judgment and influence his actions, and that every action he took was in strict accordance with the law and the legitimate powers of his office.

But that, of course, is not how Jackson saw him.

John C. Calhoun: the spoiler, the agitator, the traitor. That was how President Jackson saw the South Carolinian. That was how Jackson’s advisors and closest friends also saw him. They spoke of the former Vice President as “the most wicked and the most despicable of American statesmen.” They reckoned his nullification theory and his conspiracy to disrupt the Union as the consequences of a disappointed ambition. “He strove, schemed, dreamed, lived, only for the presidency,” they contended. And when he failed to attain that office by “honorable means,” he scrambled to rise upon the ruins of his country. That was Jackson’s final judgment of the tormented southerner. He “lived and died in this opinion.” On his deathbed, Jackson expressed his regret that he had not executed Calhoun from treason. “My country,” he said, “would have sustained me in the act, and his fate would have been a warning to traitors in all time to come.”

Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. There is another explanation for Calhoun’s actions, and for the actions of the majority of the voters in South Carolina, who clearly thought they were well within their rights to elect their own representatives who would, when necessary, nullify federal actions. That explanation is that the United States of America were, at that time, properly understood as a confederation of sovereign states, who created a federal government for their mutual benefit that was subservient, not ascendant, to their sovereignty.

Andrew Jackson had a different set of ideas, ideas that were quite revolutionary in 1832 but which most take for granted today. Including, clearly, his biographer Remini. His text is written through the anachronistic lens of today’s understanding of the American nation. Jackson assumed many of the modern powers of the president and the federal government, but those in Jackson’s time who opposed those assumed powers are not properly viewed as rebels or traitors. Jackson did. And, to a certain extent, Remini appears to as well. But as I read the words and represented thoughts of President Jackson on the page, I can’t help but think that he, far from being motivated by a reasoned and dispassionate view of the constitution, was much more swayed by a new understanding of himself as the sole representative of the American people.

Andrew Jackson Is the Will of the People

Very early in the volume, on page 16 no less, Remini clearly lays out both Jackson’s understanding of the American nation and, surprisingly, admits that it is flawed. In the context of the possible secession of states from the Union, he writes:

Andrew Jackson had an absolutely clear conception of his position on this question. It was simple, direct, and logical. It may not have been historically accurate, but he sincerely believed it to be so. Most important, it proceeded from his commitment to democratic principles. The federal government, he said, was “based on a confederation of perpetual union” by an act of the people. A state may never secede, and that was final. Moreover, the people, not the states, granted sovereignty to the federal government through the Constitution. They called the Union into existence, they created the federal government, and they granted federal power. These actions, he insisted, were taken by the people at conventions that ratified the Constitution. And in ratifying the Constitution the people automatically amended their state constitutions to accord with the new arrangement.

This understanding, to use Remini’s own words, is historically inaccurate. It was contested vigorously in Jackson’s time, not because his opponents were disloyal to the Union, but because what Jackson was championing was not part of the Union that they understood. And, when challenged, what evidence did Jackson offer to defend his radical views. Again, Remini provides the relevant phrase. None. He just sincerely believed them to be so.

Remini heaps praise on Jackson for his proclamation in response to the Nullification Crisis, calling it “a major statement in constitutional law,” and Jackson “a statesman of the first rank.” But little in it rests on any precedent other than Jackson’s invented understanding of the U.S. government.

The people of the United States, Jackson went on, formed the Constitution, acting through their respective states. “We are one people in the choice of President and Vice President.” The people, he declared, not the states, are represented in the executive branch.

The electoral college, appointed by state legislatures, be damned, I guess.

This assertion culminated Jackson’s efforts to redefine the presidency and the relation of the American people to their government. It was another appeal for recognition that it was the presidential office -- not the legislature, no matter what Webster or Clay or Calhoun argued -- that embodies all the people. The President is the representative of the American electorate and directly responsible to them. By his actions and words he articulates and executes their will.

This “assertion” culminated Jackson’s efforts to “redefine” the presidency and the relation of the American people to their government. The italicized words are crucially important to my point of view. This was an assertion, not a constitutional argument, and Jackson was attempting to redefine, not support the existing definition of the American president.

Many in his inner circle publicly agreed with him, but privately staked out lines of dispute and uncertainty.

Martin Van Buren quite agreed with the President’s argument as well as the position he had taken, but he questioned whether the mere passage of nullification laws constituted an act of treason that would authorize presidential action. “You will say I am on my old track -- caution -- caution,” Van Buren counseled; “but my Dr Sir, I have always thought, that considering our respective temperaments, there was no way perhaps in which I could better render you that service which I owe you.” What Van Buren did not fully appreciate was that Jackson allowed his words to freight his emotional intensity; his actions carried nothing but restraint.

That last line is priceless. Essentially, what Remini wants me to believe is that Martin Van Buren, living at the same time and working in close consultation with Andrew Jackson, did not realize what his biographer, reading 150-year-old scraps of paper, clearly understood. Andrew Jackson was a hothead.

Meanwhile, ugly signs mushroomed all over Charleston. Palmetto cockades were sported on hats and lapels, and it was reported that volunteer regiments of nullifiers adopted a red flag with a black lone star in the center as its ensign. The American flag appeared on public and private buildings and on steamboats flying upside down. (When Jackson heard about the steamboats he burst out in a stream of expletives. “For this indignity to the flag of the country,” he reputedly said, “she ought to have been instantly sunk, no matter who owned or commanded her.”) General Winfield Scott, in charge of military preparations, reportedly wrote to the secretary of war “saying that blood would be shed and that he did not believe any thing could prevent it.”

No. Not, I suppose, with such a bloviating president in the White House, one taken to bursting out in streams of expletives.

But why? It’s fun to pick these holes in Remini’s supposedly objective account, but the larger and more important question is why did Jackson take this view, this view that the president alone represents the will of the American people. Why was it so important to him? Well, to understand that, I think you have to first recognize that is was not the president, per se, that Jackson believed represented the will of the people. It was Jackson himself.

Remini will not agree with me on this subject. He sees Jackson as a “statesman of the first rank,” someone whose motivations are noble, whose actions are premeditated and prescient.

President Jackson marks an important break with the past. He is the first and only statesman of the early national period to deny publicly the right of secession. Secession was a doctrine no longer in keeping with a democratic society, no longer congenial to the idea of “a Federal Union founded upon the great principle of popular representation.” Whether at some point in time it had any validity no longer mattered. It was a dead issue as far as Old Hickory was concerned, annihilated by the historical evolution of a democratic society.

Jackson, in this telling, and despite being “the first and only statesman of the early national period to deny publicly the right of secession,” is, like most pivotal historical figures, representative of a new wave of cultural and socio-economic forces. He argued that America “had been formed by the sovereignty of the people, not the sovereignty of the states. It was not a confederation, not a banding together of individual states, but a permanent welding of the people.”

Thus, by his words and deeds, Jackson continued to recast attitudes and perceptions of this nation and its operation. Republicanism was giving way to democracy, and Andrew Jackson was an important instrument in that change. Republicanism, with its emphasis on liberty, preached the need for strong states as a counterweight to the central government, but by the mid-1830s that philosophy could not accommodate the dynamics of an emerging industrial society. Protecting freedom in the modern world required a strong national government. Besides, the way to minimize the danger to individual rights was to fashion a government elected by all the people. In short, majority rule best protected freedom -- not the states, and certainly not a hobbled or enfeebled central government.

It’s often difficult to tell, like in these last few sentences, whether Remini in speaking in his own voice, or only paraphrasing the views and perspective of his subject. But either way, they strike me more as assertions than arguments. If there is some evidence that a strong national government is needed to minimize the danger to individual rights, in either Jackson’s or the more modern world, I would like to be presented with it. And the idea that popular elections are the best way to protect the rights of the individual is almost laughable.

Again and again, Remini will comment on how Jackson, in assuming more power for president, was doing it not for his own selfish reasons, but as the embodiment of some great cultural change taking place in American society. Here’s another example:

Jackson was the first President to hit the problem head on. He believed that all officials of the executive office fell totally and completely under his authority. They were to obey him, not the Congress. Here again Jackson established a new dimension of presidential power. He assumed total authority to remove all cabinet officers without notifying Congress, much less obtaining its consent. Today the power seems obvious. Not so in the early nineteenth century -- not until Jackson decided it once and for all.

And why did Jackson do this? To satisfy his own ego and secure his own authority? No.

This was another example of the small but important actions Jackson took that added to the power of the presidential office. His success in undermining the equal but separate doctrine of the Founding Fathers and tilting power more toward the executive was the result of the changes that had taken place in the American system of government and American society since the beginning of the century. An expanding economy had produced a rising democracy and, as a consequence, the American electorate demanded a greater say in the operation of the government. Since Jackson had become their spokesman and symbol, they were quite prepared to accept him as their representative at the seat of government. What was happening, therefore, was something that everyone sensed and accepted, even if they could not describe or define it, namely, the slow, continuing evolution of the nation from a republic to a democracy. Jackson by his conduct as President and his relations to the American people was asserting his role as the tribune of the people. And the electorate genuinely saw him as their representative. Their will was now being exercised through him, not through the legislature as was true in the past. The government had always been based on consent, right from the beginning of the American experiment, but consent was indirectly given through the legislature. Now, under Jackson, it was being expressed through the executive in a very direct manner.

Andrew Jackson, in other words, is not just the President of the United States. He is the will of the people.

Andrew Jackson Broke the Constitution

But is Remini right? Was “the electorate” “quite prepared to accept him as their representative at the seat of government”? Was this something that “everyone sensed and accepted”?

On May 6, 1833, President Andrew Jackson, accompanied by some members of his cabinet and Major Donelson, embarked on the steamboat Cygnet for Fredericksburg, Virginia, where the President was scheduled to lay the cornerstone of a monument in honor of the mother of George Washington. Then it happened. At Alexandria, where the steamboat made berth, Jackson retired to a cabin and had seated himself in a chair wedged between a long table (being set for dinner) and a berth. … Jackson was reading a newspaper and smoking his pipe with his right elbow on the berth and his left arm resting on the table. … “Thus confined, and thus situated,” he was interrupted by Robert B. Randolph, a former lieutenant in the navy, who had been dismissed for theft at Jackson’s specific direction. “In a plain & supplicating tone,” Randolph inquired if Jackson was the President. Old Hickory looked up from his newspaper and answered affirmatively. “Excuse my rising, sir,” he said. “I have a pain in my side which makes it distressing for me to rise.”

Randolph said nothing but pressed forward … pulling off the glove on his right hand as he moved. “Believing that he had a wish to shake hands with me, which is so common,” Jackson later recounted, “I said to him, do not draw your glove.”

“You have injured me,” Randolph responded “in a soft tone” of voice.

“How?” asked the President.

And with that, Randolph “dashed his hand” into Jackson’s face.

“What Sir. What Sir,” cried the President.

Randolph attempted to strike again but [a companion of Jackson’s] seized him and pulled him away. A scuffle ensued and the table was overturned. Several of Randolph’s friends, who had accompanied him aboard the vessel, grabbed him and rushed him off the boat. Poor Jackson had been so trapped behind the table that he could not rise with ease, nor seize his cane in time to defend himself. “Had I been apprised that Randolph stood before me,” he said, “I should have been prepared for him, and I could have defended myself. No villain has ever escaped me before; and he would not, had it not been for my confined situation.”

Evidently not. At least in the case of Robert B. Randolph, Jackson’s usurpation of power prompted him not to accept Jackson as his representative at the seat of government, but to find the president and punch the miscreant in the nose.

That, of course, is not the way Remini views it. In commenting on this first-ever physical attack on a sitting president, Remini makes two observations.

That Andrew Jackson should be the first President to be criminally assaulted is very suggestive. For one thing it says something about Jackson himself, the kind of man he was and the emotional passions he aroused in some people. But for another, and far more important, it says something about the age. It was a sign -- one ugly and frightening -- that the country was undergoing disturbing changes in its character, mood, and behavior. In forty and more years of the presidency, nothing like this had happened before. Regrettably, assaulting Presidents became a terrible fact of American life. And the thing that Jackson dreaded the most came about, namely the necessity of placing “a military guard around the President.”

Was Randolph a man with a grudge? Probably. But in googling him I found an interesting letter from Randolph to ex-President James Madison, seeking Madison’s assistance in restoring his reputation and career, and dated a fortnight before the attack on May 6. In that letter we find the following sentences.

“I consider the administration of Andrew Jackson as subversive of constiutional liberty at least; and utterly guided by feeling and passion; and altho my degredation and ruin have been long ago plotted by his malicious, invidious and utterly dishonest official subalterns, it has been his pride to connive at it all, and to make me the victim of their base and heartless injustice.”

Remini blames the attack, at least in part, to the increasing coarseness of American society -- which sounds suspiciously to me like the clarion call of some modern-day conservatives. (Clearly criminals are motivated by base and evil desires. What other explanation could there be?) And although Remini allows that perhaps Jackson’s tendency to arouse “emotional passions” in “some people” may be a complicating factor, there is no mention of what it is that Jackson does to arouse those passions. In this respect, I think the words of Randolph’s correspondence to Madison are relevant. Not only did Randolph think that the administration of Andrew Jackson was “subversive of constiutional (sic) liberty,” he ascribed those actions not to “absolute control over his normally volatile emotions,” but rather saw them as “utterly guided by feeling and passion.”

Remini will offer this same perspective when dealing with the episode of an actual assassination attempt on President Jackson -- again the first in U.S. history.

It was the first time a President had been attacked with intent to kill. Unhappily, it was also another sign that something powerful and frightening was operating in the country and which was changing its character and mood. The nation had come through forty years without such an experience. Six Presidents had administered the country during periods of stress and calm, through war and peace. Still nothing like this had ever happened before. Never had an American citizen dared to approach the chief executive and attempt to alter the course of history by pointing a loaded pistol at him and firing it.

Again, short mention of Jackson’s “forceful personality,” and then a long discussion of the changing socioeconomic strata of the country.

No doubt the forceful personality of Jackson did indeed attract lunatics everywhere. But as some suspected at the time, a deeper and more troublesome factor may have been involved. American society itself was undoubtedly at fault. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century the American way of life had changed dramatically -- sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. The industrial revolution, the transportation revolution, the increased migration westward, the steady rise of the standard of living, the increased momentum in the democratization of political institutions, and the social and economic mobility that visitors instantly noticed -- all these had produced marvelous improvements in the quality of life in America. But they also produced hideous side effects. Poverty, urban crime and violence, blatant and vulgar materialism, the disparity of wealth and privilege spawned by the industrial revolution, racial and religious bigotry -- there, too, increased. Social conditions fell to such a depth that reform movements had already begun. These were organized attempts to change and better American society, to extirpate materialism, to raise the quality of education, to advance the rights of women, to free the slaves, to ameliorate working conditions, to improve penal and mental institutions, and to establish temperance as a national virtue. The assassination attempt, therefore, was only one more indication that something was terribly amiss with American life and needed attention and healing. It was “a sign of the times,” editorialize the New York Evening Post on February 4, 1835.

The would-be assassin, Richard Lawrence, whose pistol misfired twice at the public funeral of Representative Warren R. Davis of South Carolina, was, as Remini mentions, thought to be insane. If so, that would seem, from my point of view, undercut the socioeconomic argument Remini is otherwise making. (Unless, of course, he wants to add a rise in insanity to his list of societal effects.) But reading the account, I can’t help but wonder if there wasn’t more than one lunatic at the funeral that day.

Immediately after the attempted assassination, there was a general rush to get the President to safety. “Boiling with rage,” the General kept trying to club the young man but was finally hustled to a carriage and sped to the White House. Once away from the rotunda, Jackson quickly regained his composure. He acted as though nothing had happened. Indeed, his outward calm in moments of crisis always amazed his friends. Martin Van Buren, who followed him to the White House and expected to witness an outpouring of Jacksonian wrath, was stupefied to find Old Hickory “sitting with one of Major Donelson’s children on his lap and conversing with General Scott, himself apparently the least disturbed person in the room.” Outside the White House a sudden thunderstorm broke, booming and raging and threatening; inside the house an old man quietly played with a child and shrugged off the seriousness of what had happened to him.

Excuse me. In the moment of crisis, Jackson was not showing outward calm. In the moment of crisis, he was trying to club the young man with his cane. Imagine the scene. Old Hickory -- sixty-eight years old with his shock of white hair and flaming eyes -- savagely swinging his cane like a cudgel, while a group of younger men sought to restrain and remove him from the scene. It was only after the crisis had passed, in the calm seclusion of his executive mansion, did the schizophrenic-in-chief show the outward calm he was evidently so selectively famous for. There is a reason, I contend, that Martin Van Buren was “stupefied” to find Jackson not boiling with rage, and it isn’t because the President was skilled at mastering his emotions.

And then, there is the judgment of the other statesmen of his day.

To men like Clay, Webster, Adams, Calhoun, and others, Andrew Jackson represented in American government the same sort of arbitrary authority that was associated in Britain with the crown. In their minds, Jackson presumed monarchical powers, powers that were unconstitutional and abhorrent to the American experiment in liberty.

I don’t see how Remini can escape this conclusion himself. And to be fair, he doesn’t escape it. There are times, in fact, when he states it quite clearly. But whenever he does, he seems to excuse it, appealing to a kind of progressive reading of history that verges on the same excesses as Manifest Destiny.

Jackson’s constitutional views proved untenable, but they were genuinely democratic. What he did, of course, was further subvert the doctrines of republicanism. Central to the constitutional system was the notion of checks and balances, but Jackson made a shambles of that notion by insisting on his primacy as President in interpreting and executing the law because he -- and he alone -- represented the people. Andrew Jackson was the great advocate of democracy. Majoritarian rule was the only thing that mattered in his thinking about the operation of government. But the democracy he practiced reduced to near ruin the kind of republic conceived by the Founding Fathers. He tilted the tripartite system in favor of the executive. In circumventing the Supreme Court, in thwarting the will of Congress and insisting on his right to direct legislation, and in riding roughshod over the claim of any state to assert its sovereignty against the collective rights of the nation, he shaped the constitutional system into something more appropriate to a modern, democratic state, which requires strong executive leadership.

In other words, Andrew Jackson broke the Constitution. But that’s okay, because it needed to be broken so we could be the great democratic country we were meant to be.

Final Thought

To be fair, Remini does not heap mindless praise on Jackson, and appropriately calls out his crimes and flaws when it is necessary to do so. But in his preface, Remini seems to offer this absolution to his biographical subject.

However, what needs to be taken into account in any final evaluation of General Jackson is that he loved the Union with a passion and that he sought to preserve it from those who would deliberately or unwittingly destroy it.

After delving deeply into this three-volume biography of the man, I’m left with the decided opinion that it was Andrew Jackson, not his political enemies, who deliberately or unwittingly destroyed the Union he supposedly loved so passionately.

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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, May 21, 2018

Step Four: Discussing the Strategic Implications, Part 3

Four weeks ago, in Step Four: Discussing the Strategic Implications, Part 2, I continued a description of a Scenario Planning exercise my Board chair and I decided to conduct at our most recently completed Board meeting. I ended the previous post with a comment that we needed to resolve some unexpected problems with the structure of the exercise as we prepared to complete it at our upcoming meeting in June 2018.

One problem was the number of indicators we had created to describe our four scenarios, and the methodology that we would use to assess them and determine which of the scenarios, if any, were coming true for our industry. As my Board chair and I have worked to prepare the agenda for our upcoming meeting we've made a couple of decisions that, even if they don't solve that problem, will at least kick it further down the road.

Our first decision was to prioritize the indicators. This seemed like an obvious choice once we dug into the content of the indicators and examined them from the perspective that we would be using them to help us determine which future scenario was coming true. The way they are written, it seems clear that some will have more predictive power today and others won't achieve predictive power until much later.

Here's an example, using the indicators we have developed to predict a future in which our industry benefits from our technology integrating successfully with Internet of Things (IoT) technologies. These are the indicators, in the order they were originally created:

1. IoT Products: The growth of fluid power products with IoT connectivity has kept up with or outpaced that of competing technologies.
2. New Applications: As a result of its integration with IoT technologies, fluid power has entered new applications and markets.
3. OEM Demand: OEMs have driven increased demand for fluid power products with embedded IoT technologies.
4. Workforce: Fluid power companies have increased their investment in the IoT skill sets of their workforce.
5. IoT R&D: Fluid power companies have increased their R&D budgets related to IoT technologies.
6. Standards: There are international standards that support the use of IoT technologies in fluid power products.
7. IoT Platforms: Major fluid power players have developed full IoT platforms and are offering subscription sales to those platforms.
8. NFPA Membership: IoT technology providers are engaged as members of NFPA.
9. IoT Retrofit Kits: IoT retrofit kits are available and in use by the fluid power industry.
10. Non-IoT Equipment: As a result of its integration with IoT technologies, non-IoT enabled equipment that is reliant on fluid power has been retired.

Reading carefully through that list seems to make it clear that indicators like #3, #4 and #5 have to come true before any of the other ones will. If OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers, i.e., customers, from the point of view of our members) aren't increasing their demand for fluid power products with embedded IoT technologies, then why would fluid power companies increase either their workforce investments or R&D budgets in favor of those developments? And if fluid power companies don't make those investments, how could indicators like #1 or #7 come true? They're going to launch IoT-enabled products and platforms without investing in the necessary research or workforce talent?

Using logical inferences like this, we were able to sort our original list of IoT indicators into the following three broad categories:

3. OEM Demand: OEMs have driven increased demand for fluid power products with embedded IoT technologies.
5. IoT R&D: Fluid power companies have increased their R&D budgets related to IoT technologies.
4. Workforce: Fluid power companies have increased their investment in the IoT skill sets of their workforce.

8. NFPA Membership: IoT technology providers are engaged as members of NFPA.
6. Standards: There are international standards that support the use of IoT technologies in fluid power products.
9. IoT Retrofit Kits: IoT retrofit kits are available and in use by the fluid power industry.

7. IoT Platforms: Major fluid power players have developed full IoT platforms and are offering subscription sales to those platforms.
1. IoT Products: The growth of fluid power products with IoT connectivity has kept up with or outpaced that of competing technologies.
2. New Applications: As a result of its integration with IoT technologies, fluid power has entered new applications and markets.
10. Non-IoT Equipment: As a result of its integration with IoT technologies, non-IoT enabled equipment that is reliant on fluid power has been retired.

Remember that the context of this exercise has us looking five years into the future. As such, we should be able to say that indicators labelled above as “EARLY” will have more predictive power in the early stages of the next five years, those labelled “MIDDLE” will have more predictive power in the middle stages, and those labelled “LATE” will have more predictive power in the late stages.

And this should give us better guidance for what signs to look for in the marketplace to help us understand which possible scenario is coming true. Rather than looking at all ten of these issues, today, the most important thing to determine is if our EARLY indicators are true.

That's one decision we made to help us focus our discussion at our upcoming Board meeting. I'll reveal and describe the second in a future post.

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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, May 14, 2018

Adopting the Point of View of Your Members

Kudos to Amanda Kaiser and her Smooth the Path blog for her post, "Our Point of View is Not Our Members’ Point of View." In it, she reminds all of us association staff that what we think about the value of our membership benefits is often not what our members think of it. And maybe it was the coincidence that my association's last Annual Conference was in Orlando that made the following passage from her post really jump out at me:

Everyone will want to come to Orlando to see our great speakers and enjoy the new reception, we think. Members see three precious days out of the office, away from their families.

Ouch. That one hits a little too close to home. Take a look at all the marketing copy from our last conference and you will find a lot of words about speakers and receptions and very few words about the problems that our members may be looking to solve by attending the conference.

And, as I'm sure Kaiser would agree, at the end of the day it needs to be about the association solving the member's problem, or at least providing the venue in which the problem can be solved.

To help us better adopt the point of view of our members we recently tried to recast the way we talk about our association and what it offers so that it better connects with what we have come to call our members' "pain points" -- the problems they are trying to solve. After a fair amount of brainstorming and then sorting, we boiled things down to the following six primary pain points:

  • Enhance my brand
  • Understand the market
  • Increase my sales
  • Reduce my costs
  • Find technical or engineering staff
  • Educate me and my team

We're a trade association, remember, and our members are companies generally looking to grow and expand. Undoubtedly, they have other problems that they are trying to solve (i.e., other pain points), but what's special about this list is that these are all problems that our programs can provide solutions to. Our association, you could say, is therefore biased towards these six problems.

But, we realized, we almost never talk about them with our members. We always, always talk about our programs and their features (the speakers and the receptions) but never, never (it seems) about the problems that those programs could solve.

And we need to. If we're going to connect with our members in a way that is meaningful we need to adopt their point of view and speak their language. Don't come to our conference to hear our speakers. Come to our conference better understand the market, or to educate you and your leadership team, or to enhance your brand (we have sponsorship packages for that last one).

The marketing copy is already more compelling.

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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, May 12, 2018

Youth and the Bright Medusa by Willa Cather

Another collection of short stories by Willa Cather, and another volume in which at least one story has appeared elsewhere. The overlap of stories in the three Cather short story collections that I’ve now read prompted me to go to Wikipedia and try to figure out how many stories Cather had published and in which volumes they appeared, originally or in reproduction. Imagine my surprise when my search returned a total of 55 short stories written by Cather -- many not published in books but it literary magazines in the early 1900s.

Note to self: Collecting original copies of the magazines in which Cather’s stories appear could be my next literary affectation. What a delightful quest that would be!

But more directly for the purposes of this post, let me try to summarize what I’ve learned about Cather’s publication chronology of short story collections.

First came The Troll Garden in 1905, which I have not read. It included:
1. “Flavia and Her Artists”
2. “The Sculptor's Funeral”
3. “A Death in the Desert”
4. “The Garden Lodge”
5. “The Marriage of Phaedra”
6. “A Wagner Matinee”
7. “Paul's Case”

Next came Youth and the Bright Medusa in 1920, which I just finished. It included, using the same numbers from above to show the ones republished:
8. “Coming, Aphrodite!”
9. “The Diamond Mine”
10. “A Gold Slipper”
11. “Scandal”
7. “Paul's Case”
6. “A Wagner Matinee”
2. “The Sculptor's Funeral”
3. “A Death in the Desert”

Next came Obscure Destinies in 1932, which I have not read. It had three “new” stories:
12. “Neighbour Rosicky”
13. “Old Mrs. Harris”
14. “Two Friends”

Next came The Old Beauty and Others in 1948, which I read in August 2013. It also had three “new” stories:
15. “The Old Beauty”
16. “The Best Years”
17. “Before Breakfast”

And finally came Five Stories in 1956, after Cather’s death, and which I read in June 2014. It included, using the same numbers from above to show the ones republished:
18. “The Enchanted Bluff”
19. “Tom Outland's Story”
12. “Neighbour Rosicky”
16. “The Best Years”
7. “Paul's Case”

So, in other words, only 19 of Cather’s 55 stories were published in these five books, two of which I have not read. If I want the other 36 stories (and I do) I’ll have to dig them out of dusty corners of the Internet.

It’s also interesting that among the stories that have been republished in different collections, “Paul’s Case” is the only one to be included three times -- first in The Troll Garden, then in Youth and the Bright Medusa, and finally in Five Stories. It’s a story that made a deep impression on me when I first read it in Five Stories, but, frankly, less so when I read it again in Youth and the Bright Medusa.

A more compelling question for me in reading the other stories -- other than “Paul’s Case”, all new to me -- was trying to figure out what they had to do with each other. Did they all explore some kind of underlying theme? And, weirdly, did that theme have anything to do with what I take to be the strange and cryptic title of Youth and the Bright Medusa?

The Bright Medusa

Trying to figure out what The Bright Medusa of Cather’s title means or represents led me down one of the Internet’s many rabbit holes. Most search results on “The Bright Medusa” resulted in links to Cather’s own book or descriptions thereof, none that I read containing any information about the origin of the collection’s title. Farther down I found a poem of the same title by Sir Henry Newbolt, and then a story of the same title by the same author in a collection called The Book of the Blue Sea. Both the poem and the story seem to be about an old wooden British warship, The Medusa, with the story clarifying that the Bright Medusa refers to the gilded figurehead on its prow.

What any of that has to do with Cather’s short stories is beyond me. If I stretch my imagination, I I can maybe see a juxtaposition between youth, the first part of Cather’s title, and the disillusionment of the artist who comes to realize that her work can be used most perversely by the mercantile and imperial forces of her society, something like the glittering sculpture on the front of a warship. And although Cather’s stories are almost certainly about the madness of art (more on that later), interpreting the title in this fashion feels like I’m grasping at straws.

One of the things that makes me doubt this interpretation is that the epigraph for Youth and the Bright Medusa is not from Newbolt’s poem, but from another poem, by Christina Rossetti, called “Goblin Market”.

“We must not look at Goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits;
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry, thirsty roots?”

The Internet tells me that “Goblin Market” is a famous poem, sustaining many different interpretations since first published in 1862. The one that seems most relevant to Cather and her fiction, and the one best embodied in the epigraphed stanza, is that art is a wonderful but dangerous thing. The excerpted words are spoken by one sister to another, warning her not to indulge in the luscious fruits of the Goblin men. The woman ignores her sister’s advice, indulging deep in their fruitful delights, only to begin a slow withering towards death as she tries to live the rest of her life without them.

From my read, the characters in Cather’s stories all wrestle with something similar -- perhaps Paul in “Paul’s Case” as the most famous example. His world is bleak and uninteresting. But he becomes intoxicated by the bright and gilded world of the theater and, once exposed, finds the outside world not just bleak and uninteresting, but insufferable.

The Madness of Art

So this brings me to the theme I think I see in all the stories in Youth and the Bright Medusa.

In “Coming, Aphrodite!”, Don Hedger, a painter, is intoxicated by his artistic vision of the ideal woman, which, he believes, has moved in next door to his studio apartment in the person of Eden Bower, an aspiring actress.

Eden Bower, by the way, is the name of a poem by Christina Rossetti’s brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, in which the Eden in question is the Garden of Eden, and Eden’s Bower is the location of the Talmudic myth of Lilith, Adam’s consort prior to Eve, who refuses to submit to his authority and who, in Rossetti’s poem, manipulates the snake into tempting Eve and orchestrating the fall of Man.

Prior Cather’s Eden Bower moving in, Hedger’s understanding of women was rather limited. He’s an orphan, raised primarily by a well-intentioned Catholic priest, who encouraged his artistic explorations.

Women had come and gone in Hedger’s life. Not having a mother to begin with, his relations with them, whether amorous or friendly, had been casual. He got on well with janitresses and wash-women, with Indians and with the peasant women of foreign countries. He had friends among the silk-skirt factory girls who came to eat their lunch in Washington Square, and he sometimes took a model for a day in the country. He felt an unreasoning antipathy toward the well-dressed women he saw coming out of big shops, or driving in the Park. If, on his way to the Art Museum, he noticed a pretty girl standing on the steps of one of the houses on upper Fifth Avenue, he frowned at her and went by with his shoulders hunched up as if he were cold. He had never known such girls, or heard them talk, or seen the inside of the houses in which they lived; but he believed them all to be artificial and, in an aesthetic sense, perverted. He saw them enslaved by desire of merchandise and manufactured articles, effective only in making life complicated and insincere and in embroidering it with ugly and meaningless trivialities. They were enough, he thought, to make one almost forget woman as she existed in art, in thought, and in the universe.

Okay, before going any farther, I have to comment on “He saw them enslaved by desire of merchandise and manufactured articles, effective only in making life complicated and insincere and in embroidering it with ugly and meaningless trivialities.” Simple and uncomplicated, it is prose like that that keeps me reading Cather again and again.

But back to Hedger. His world -- at least the world in thematic question here, the world of “woman as she existed in art, in thought, and in the universe” -- is bleak and uninteresting. But then, through an accidently discovered peephole in the back of his closet, he sees Miss Bower in her most natural state.

Yonder, in a pool of sunlight, stood his new neighbour, wholly unclad, doing exercises of some sort before a long gilt mirror. Hedger did not happen to think how unpardonable it was of him to watch her. Nudity was not improper to any one who had worked so much from the figure, and he continued to look, simply because he had never seen a woman’s body as beautiful as this one, -- positively glorious in action. As she swung her arms and changed from one pivot of motion to another, muscular energy seemed to flow through her from her toes to her finger-tips. The soft flush of exercise and the gold of afternoon sun played over her flesh together, enveloped her in a luminous mist which, as she turned and twisted, made now an arm, now a shoulder, now a thigh, dissolve in pure light and instantly recover its outline with the next gesture. Hedger’s fingers curved as if he were holding a crayon; mentally he was doing the whole figure in a single running line, and the charcoal seemed to explode in his hand at the point where the energy of each gesture was discharged into the whirling disc of light, from a foot or shoulder, from the up-thrust chin or the lifted breasts.

And this experience changes him. His lodging, always mean but once livable, is now unbearable to him. It is slovenly, disordered, a prison. He returns again and again to the closet peephole, anxious, obsessed, desperate to re-experience this pure vision of his feminine ideal. And, tellingly, he is aware that this is where his obsession resides.

He had no desire to know the woman who had, for the time at least, so broken up his life, -- no curiosity about her every-day personality. He shunned any revelation of it, and he listened for Miss Bower’s coming and going, not to encounter, but to avoid her. He wished that the girl who wore shirt-waists and got letters from Chicago would keep out of his way, that she did not exist. With her he had naught to make. But in a room full of sun, before an old mirror, on a little enchanted rug of sleeping colours, he had seen a woman who emerged naked through a door, and disappeared naked. He thought of that body as never having been clad, or as having worn the stuffs and dyes of all the centuries but his own. And for him she had no geographical associations; unless with Crete, or Alexandria, or Veronese’s Venice. She was the immortal conception, the perennial theme.

He doesn’t want to know Eden Bower, the person whose form he has so idolized. He only wants to commune with the beauty that she represents. It is a madness.

The Burden of Ordinary Existence

Next in the collection comes “The Diamond Mine,” which seems to be very much about the burdens that artists have to bear to pursue the thing that brings them joy. Even the most successful artist, like the story’s Cressida Garnet, whose success has created the diamond mine of the story’s title for all the bleak and uninteresting characters that surround her, even that artist can’t escape the need to fill their lives with the insufferable details of being.

Two Worlds in Collision

In “A Gold Slipper”, Cather seems to be contrasting the two worlds of the larger theme -- the one governed by the artistic sensibility with the one ignorant and hostile to it. Kitty Ayrshire is a famous singer and Marshall McKann is a businessman dragged to one of Kitty’s performances by his socialite wife. He did find some enjoyment at the performance, bewitched more by Kitty’s feminine form and mannerisms than by her art, but seems intent on souring the experience with his own understanding of himself.

The minx herself was well enough, but it was absurd in his fellow-townsmen to look owlish and uplifted about her. He had no rooted dislike for pretty women; he even didn’t deny that gay girls had their place in the world, but they ought to be kept in their place. He was born a Presbyterian, just as he was born a McKann. He sat in his pew in the First Church every Sunday, and he never missed a presbytery meeting when he was in town. His religion was not very spiritual, certainly, but it was substantial and concrete, made up of good, hard convictions and opinions. It had something to do with citizenship, with whom one ought to marry, with the coal business (in which his own name was powerful), with the Republican party, and with all majorities and established precedents. He was hostile to fads, to enthusiasms, to individualism, to all changes except in mining machinery and in methods of transportation.

But through a simple twist of fiction, McKann finds himself on the same train to New York as Kitty Ayrshire. The conversation they share is a playground for Cather to toy with the conflicting sensibilities of those who consider themselves artists and those who consider themselves more serious-minded.

“I’m a hard-headed business man,” [McKann] said evasively, “and I don’t much believe in any of you fluffy-ruffles people. I have a sort of natural distrust of them all, the men more than the women.”

[Kitty] looked thoughtful. “Artists, you mean?” drawing her words slowly. “What is your business?”


“I don’t feel any natural distrust of business men, and I know ever so many. I don’t know any coal-men, but I think I could become very much interested in coal. Am I larger-minded than you?”

McKann laughed. “I don’t think you know when you are interested or when you are not. I don’t believe you know what it feels like to be really interested. There is so much fake about your profession. It’s an affectation on both sides. I know a great many of the people who went to hear you tonight, and I know that most of them neither know nor care anything about music. They imagine they do, because it’s supposed to be the proper thing.”

When reading their dialogue, it’s important for the reader to understand that Cather is having them speak not just as characters in a story, but as archetypes in a cultural milieu. McKann, the serious-minded, has strong opinions about things he knows very little about, things he has been culturally conditioned to distrust and avoid. And Kitty calls him on it.

“But isn’t that so in everything?” she cried. “How many of your clerks are honest because of a fine, individual sense of honour? They are honest because it is the accepted rule of good conduct in business. Do you know” -- she looked at him squarely -- “I thought you would have something quite definite to say to me; but this is funny-paper stuff, the sort of objection I’d expect from your office-boy.”

“Then you don’t think it silly for a lot of people to get together and pretend to enjoy something they know nothing about?”

“Of course I think it silly, but that’s the way God made audiences. Don’t people go to church in exactly the same way? If there were a spiritual-pressure test-machine at the door, I suspect not many of you would get to your pews.”

Kitty, remember, is the artist, and her archetypal job is to expose the hypocrisies of the serious-minded for what they are. Later in the dialogue, Kitty offers as pure a statement of the artistic ethic as is possible in the bounds of Cather’s fiction.

“I can’t understand your equivocal scheme of ethics. Now I can understand Count Tolstoy’s, perfectly. I had a long talk with him once, about his book ‘What is Art?’ As nearly as I could get it, he believes that we are a race who can exist only by gratifying appetites; the appetites are evil, and the existence they carry on is evil. We were always sad, he says, without knowing why; even in the Stone Age. In some miraculous way a divine ideal was disclosed to us, directly at variance with our appetites. It gave us a new craving, which we could only satisfy by starving all the other hungers in us. Happiness lies in ceasing to be and to cause being, because the thing revealed to us is dearer than any existence our appetites can ever get for us. I can understand that. It’s something one often feels in art. It is even the subject of the greatest of all operas, which, because I can never hope to sing it, I love more than all the others.”

There it is. Art feeds the soul like nothing else. And McKann, the serious-minded? What’s his response to all of this?

Kitty pulled herself up. “Perhaps you agree with Tolstoy?” she added languidly.

“No; I think he’s a crank,” said McKann, cheerfully.

Of course he does. To McKann, the path to happiness doesn’t lead away from the evil appetites, but from the ever increasing indulgence in them.

The Path of the Artist

In “Scandal” Kitty Ayrshire appears again, this time vexed by a story a friend tells her about a woman masquerading as her in the social circles of Manhattan. Angered that men could mistake the imposter for her, she bursts out with this delightful indignation:

“Why do we ever take the trouble to look like anything for any of you? I could count on my four fingers” -- she held them up and shook them at him -- “the men I’ve known who had the least perception of what any woman really looked like, and they were all dressmakers. Even painters … never get more than one type through their thick heads; they try to make all women look like some wife or mistress. You are all the same; you never see our real faces. What you do see, is some cheap conception of prettiness you got from a coloured supplement when you were adolescents. It’s too discouraging. I’d rather take vows and veil my face for ever from such abominable eyes. In the kingdom of the blind any petticoat is a queen.”

But the story has a dark turn, for the provocateur behind the imposter is Siegmund Stein, a wealthy businessman who wishes to don the trappings of artistic refinement and patronage -- not for the elevation of the arts but for his own prestige and social advancement. When he has derived all the advantage he can out of the imposter, a young woman named Ruby, he has risen far enough in wealth and position that he can hire the real Kitty Ayrshire to serve as a coach and mentor for another up-and-coming singer, a young man named Peppo Amoretti. But even that is a ruse, as Kitty herself relays in a discussion with her friend, Pierce Tevis.

“A week later Peppo came to me in a rage, with a paper called The American Gentleman, and showed me a page devoted to three photographs: Mr. and Mrs. Siegmund Stein, lately married in New York City, and Kitty Ayrshire, operatic soprano, who sang at their housewarming. Mrs. Stein and I were grinning our best, looked frantic with delight, and Siegmund frowned inscrutably between us. Poor Peppo wasn’t mentioned. Stein has a publicity sense.”

Tevis rose.

“And you have enormous publicity value and no discretion. It was just like you to fall for such a plot, Kitty. You’d be sure to.”

“What’s the use of discretion?” She murmured behind her hand. “If the Steins want to adopt you into their family circle, they’ll get you in the end. That’s why I don’t feel compassionate about your Ruby. She and I are in the same boat. We are both the victims of circumstance, and in New York so many of the circumstances are Steins.”

The path of the artist, in other words, not just the righteous man, is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men.

A Silence of Thirty Years

The purest exploration of the theme I’m proposing seems to be “A Wagner Matinee”, which, if truth be told, is frankly more just an exploration of that theme than it is a story. The story part of it is simple. A young man, Clark, welcomes his aging aunt, Georgiana, to Boston, and takes her to a matinee performance of the symphony, featuring compositions by Richard Wagner. But there’s an important backstory.

My Aunt Georgiana had been a music teacher at the Boston Conservatory, somewhere back in the latter sixties. One summer, while visiting in the little village among the Green Mountains where her ancestors had dwelt for generations, she had kindled the callow fancy of my uncle, Howard Carpenter, then an idle, shiftless boy of twenty-one. When she returned to her duties in Boston, Howard followed her, and the upshot of this infatuation was that she eloped with him, eluding the reproaches of her family and the criticisms of her friends by going with him to the Nebraska frontier. Carpenter, who, of course, had no money, took up a homestead in Red Willow County, fifty miles from the railroad. There they had measured off their land themselves, driving across the prairie in a wagon, to the wheel of which they had tied a red cotton handkerchief, and counting its revolutions. They built a dug-out in the red hillside, one of those cave dwellings whose inmates so often reverted to primitive conditions.

And there Georgiana did exactly that, reverted to the primitive conditions of the prairie, removed from the music and culture that she had loved so much in Boston. Our narrator, Clark, lived with his aunt and uncle for a time, and remembers not only the time fondly, but the aching absence that had been left in his aunt’s heart.

During the years when I was riding herd for my uncle, my aunt, after cooking the three meals -- the first of which was ready at six o’clock in the morning -- and putting the six children to bed, would often stand until midnight at her ironing-board, with me at the kitchen table beside her, hearing me recite Latin declensions and conjugations, gently shaking me when my drowsy head sank down over a page of irregular verbs. It was to her, at her ironing or mending, that I read my first Shakespeare, and her old text-book on mythology was the first that ever came into my empty hands. She taught me my scales and exercises on the little parlour organ which her husband had bought her after fifteen years during which she had no so much as seen a musical instrument. She would sit beside me by the hour, darning and counting, while I struggled with the “Joyous Farmer.” She seldom talked to me about music, and I understood why. Once when I had been doggedly beating out some easy passages from and old score of Euryanthe I found among her music books, she came up to me and, putting her hands over my eyes, gently drew my head back upon her shoulder, saying tremulously, “Don’t love it so well, Clark, or it may be taken from you.”

Music had been taken from Georgiana, obviously through the contrived circumstance of fiction, but it is in capturing this sense of loss, not in its structural form, that “A Wagner Matinee” shines. For in this telling, so much more so than in “Paul’s Case” or elsewhere, the juxtaposed world without music is about as bleak and insufferable as they come.

At first, Georgiana even has a hard time leaving it behind.

At two o’clock the Symphony Orchestra was to give a Wagner program, and I intended to take my aunt; though, as I conversed with her, I grew doubtful about her enjoyment of it. I suggested our visiting the Conservatory and the Common before lunch, but she seemed altogether too timid to wish to venture out. She questioned me absently about various changes in the city, but she was chiefly concerned that she had forgotten to leave instructions about feeding half-skimmed milk to a certain weakling calf, “old Maggie’s calf, you know, Clark,” she explained, evidently having forgotten how long I had been away. She was further troubled because she had neglected to tell her daughter about the freshly-opened kit of mackerel in the cellar, which would spoil if it were not used directly.

But the colorful world of the orchestra seduces her, just as Cather’s colorful prose seduces us.

The matinee audience was made up chiefly of women. One lost the contour of faces and figures, indeed any effect of line whatever, and there was only the colour of bodices past counting, the shimmer of fabrics soft and firm, silky and sheer; red, mauve, pink, blue, lilac, purple, ecru, rose, yellow, cream, and white, all the colours that an impressionist finds in a sunlit landscape, with here and there the dead shadow of a frock coat. My Aunt Georgiana regarded them as though they had been so many daubs of tube-paint on a palette.

And suddenly she -- and Clark -- are reminded of all that they have missed.

When the musicians came out and took their places, she gave a little stir of anticipation, and looked with quickening interest down over the rail at the invariable grouping, perhaps the first wholly familiar thing that had greeted her eye since she had left old Maggie and her weakling calf. I could feel how all those details sank into her soul, for I had not forgotten how they had sunk into mine when I came fresh from ploughing forever and forever between green aisles of corn, where, as in a treadmill, one might walk from daybreak to dusk without perceiving a shadow of change. The clean profiles of the musicians, the gloss of their linen, the dull black of their coats, the beloved shapes of the instruments, the patches of yellow light on the smooth, varnished bellies of the ‘cellos and the bass viols in the rear, the restless, wind-tossed forest of fiddle necks and bows -- I recalled how, in the first orchestra I ever heard, those long bow-strokes seemed to draw the heart out of me, as a conjurer’s stick reels out yards of paper ribbon from a hat.

And, as I said, it is the juxtaposition, the juxtaposition between the glory and aural color of the Boston orchestra and the earthy grime and blackness of the Nebraska prairie, that more than anything allows Cather’s theme to rise to its fullest height.

The first number was the Tannhauser overture. When the horns drew out the first strain of the Pilgrim’s chorus, Aunt Georgiana clutched my coat sleeve. Then it was I first realized that for her this broke a silence of thirty years. With the battle between two motives, with the frenzy of the Venusberg theme and its ripping of strings, there came to me an overwhelming sense of the waste and wear we are so powerless to combat; and I saw again the tall, naked house on the prairie, black and grim as a wooden fortress; the black pond where I learned to swim, its margin pitted with sun-dried cattle tracks; the rain gullied clay banks about the naked house, the four dwarf ash seedlings where the dish-cloths were always hung to dry before the kitchen door. The world there was the flat world of the ancients; to the east, a cornfield that stretched to daybreak; to the west, a corral that reached to sunset; between, the conquests of peace, dearer-bought than those of war.

This Borderland Between Ruffianism and Civilization

In “The Sculptor’s Funeral,” the tension between the artistic and the non-artistic becomes even more profound. In this story, the non-artistic is not just a burden that the artistic has to carry, it is an obstacle that the artistic has to overcome -- and, too frequently, doesn’t.

Just then the door leading into the parlour rattled loudly and every one started involuntarily, looking relieved only when Jim Laird came out. The Grand Army man ducked his head when he saw the spark in his blue, blood-shot eye. They were all afraid of Jim; he was a drunkard, but he could twist the law to suit his client’s needs as no other man in all western Kansas could do, and there were many who tried. The lawyer closed the door behind him, leaned back against it and folded his arms, cocking his head a little to one side. When he assumed this attitude in the court-room, ears were always pricked up, as it usually foretold a flood of withering sarcasm.

Here’s the situation. A famous sculptor, Harvey Merrick, a native of the small Kansas town of Sand City, has died, and a understudy of his, unfamiliar with the town, has escorted his body home. The understudy has just listened to the small-minded townsfolk passive-aggressively deride the sculptor, both for his success, and for his willingness to abandon the town that gave him birth.

“I’ve been with you gentlemen before,” [Jim] began in a dry, even tone, “when you’ve sat by the coffins of boys born and raised in this town; and, if I remember rightly, you were never any too satisfied when you checked them up. What’s the matter anyhow? Why is it that reputable young men are as scarce as millionaires in Sand City? It might almost seem to a stranger that there was some way something the matter with your progressive town. Why did Ruben Sayer, the brightest young lawyer you ever turned out, after he had come home from the university as straight as a die, take to drinking and forge a check and shoot himself? Why did Bill Merrit’s son die of the shakes in a saloon in Omaha? Why was Mr. Thomas’s son, here, shot in a gambling-house? Why did young Adams burn his mill to beat the insurance companies and go to the pen?

Something, evidently, is rotten in the state of Denmark. And Jim Laird knows what it is.

The lawyer paused and unfolded his arms, laying one clenched fist quietly on the table. “I’ll tell you why. Because you drummed nothing but money and knavery into their ears from the time they wore knickerbockers; because you carped away at them as you’ve been carping here tonight, holding our friends Phelps and Elder up to them for their models, as our grandfathers held up George Washington and John Adams. But the boys were young, and raw at the business you put them to, and how could they match coppers with such artists as Phelps and Elder? You wanted them to be successful rascals; they were only unsuccessful ones -- that’s all the difference. There was only one boy ever raised in this borderland between ruffianism and civilization who didn’t come to grief, and you hated Harvey Merrick more for winning out than you hated all the other boys who got under the wheels. Lord, Lord, how you did hate him! Phelps, here, is fond of saying that he could buy and sell us all out any time he’s a mind to; but he knew Harve wouldn’t have given a tinker’s damn for his bank and all his cattlefarms put together; and a lack of appreciation, that way, goes hard with Phelps.”

Old Jim keeps calling the hypocrites out, but we come quickly to understand that this is more than just abstract justice for Jim. This is personal.

The lawyer paused a moment, squared his heavy shoulders, and went on: “Harvey Merrick and I went to school together, back East. We were dead in earnest, and we wanted you all to be proud of us some day. We meant to be great men. Even I, and I haven’t lost my sense of humour, gentlemen, I meant to be a great man. I came back here to practise, and I found you didn’t in the least want me to be a great man. You wanted me to be a shrewd lawyer -- oh yes! Our veteran here wanted me to get him an increase of pension, because he had dyspepsia; Phelps wanted a new county survey that would put the widow Wilson’s little bottom farm inside his south line; Elder wanted to lend money at 5 per cent. a month, and get it collected; and Stark here wanted to wheedle old women up in Vermont into investing their annuities in real-estate mortgages that are not worth the paper they are written on. Oh, you needed me hard enough, and you’ll go on needing me!

Jim is beaten, but victorious, much, as I imagine, Cather herself must have felt at times, alternating between the crushing defeat and the soaring triumphs of her artistic soul.

“Well, I came back here and became the damned shyster you wanted me to be. You pretend to have some sort of respect for me; and yet you’ll stand up and throw mud at Harvey Merrick, whose soul you couldn’t dirty and whose hands you couldn’t tie. Oh, you’re a discriminating lot of Christians! There have been times when the sight of Harvey’s name in some Eastern paper has made me hang my head like a whipped dog; and, again, times when I liked to think of him off there in the world, away from all this hog-wallow, climbing the big, clean upgrade he’d set for himself.

Because, of course, in “The Sculptor’s Funeral,” Cather is both Jim Laird and Harvey Merrick, the shyster and the sculptor, one crying out in defeat for the victory of the other.

“And we? Now that we’ve fought and lied and sweated and stolen, and hated as only the disappointed strugglers in a bitter, dead little Western town know how to do, what have we got to show for it? Harvey Merrick wouldn’t have given one sunset over your marshes for all you’ve got put together, and you know it. It’s not for me to say why, in the inscrutable wisdom of God, a genius should ever have been called from this place of hatred and bitter water; but I want this Boston man to know that the drivel he’s been hearing here tonight is the only tribute any truly great man could have from such a lot of sick, side-tracked, burnt-dog, land-poor sharks as the here-present financiers of Sand City -- upon which town may God have mercy!”

The Thing Keats Called Hell

Finally, in “A Death in the Desert,” Cather sets her focus not just on the glory of the artistic embrace, but also on the painful reality of its ultimate absence. Katharine Gaylord is a singer, a former protege of an artistic master, now ill with what I take to be consumption.

“She was a great woman, as you say, and she didn’t come of a great family. She had to fight her own way from the first. She got to Chicago, and then to New York, and then to Europe, and got a taste for it all; and now she’s dying here like a rat in a hole, out of her own world, and she can’t fall back into ours. We’ve grown apart, some way -- miles and miles apart -- and I’m afraid she’s fearfully unhappy.”

That’s Katharine’s brother Charley speaking, and he’s describing her to Everett Hilgarde, a man Katharine had known years ago as a young admirer when she trained as an understudy to Everett’s famous brother Adriance. But more than that, focus on the words Cather places in Charley’s mouth. Katharine is “out of her own world, and she can’t fall back into hers.” Like I’ve been saying from the very beginning, she once lived in the golden and gilded world of art, and has now fallen back into our reality, where she is dying “like a rat in a hole.”

And her only lifeline, it seems, is Everett, whose striking resemblance to his brother reminds her of the joy she once beheld and enjoyed.

Day by day [Everett] felt [Katharine’s] need for him grow more acute and positive; and day by day he felt that in his peculiar relation to her, his own individuality played a smaller part. His power to minister to her comfort lay solely in his link with his brother’s life. He knew that she sat by him always watching for some trick of gesture, some familiar play of expression, some illusion of light and shadow, in which he should seem wholly Adriance. He knew that she lived upon this, and that in the exhaustion which followed this turmoil of her dying senses, she slept deep and sweet, and dreamed of youth and art and days in a certain of Florentine garden, and not of bitterness and death.

But the true artist in this story is not Katharine Gaylord; it is Adriance Hilgarde, a character the reader never encounters but through the remembrances of Katharine and Everett. And that distance, of course, only serves to heighten the otherworldliness of the artist and his climes. At one point, Everett contacts his brother and asks him to write a letter to his former protege, the dying Katharine.

The letter was from Granada, written in the Alhambra, as he sat by the fountain of the Patio di Lindaraxa. The air was heavy with the warm fragrance of the South and full of the sound of splashing, running water, as it had been in a certain old garden in Florence, long ago. The sky was one great turquoise, heated until it glowed. The wonderful Moorish arches threw graceful blue shadows all about him. He had sketched an outline of them on the margin of his note-paper. The letter was full of confidences about his work, and delicate allusions to their old happy days of study and comradeship.

As Everett folded it he felt that Adriance has divined the things needed and he risen to it in his own wonderful way. The letter was consistently egotistical, and seemed to him even a trifle patronizing, yet it was just what she had wanted. A strong realization of his brother’s charm and intensity and power came over him; he felt the breath of that whirlwind of flame in which Adriance passed, consuming all in his path, and himself even more resolutely than he consumed others.

“That whirlwind of flame in which Adriance passed, consuming all in his path; and himself even more resolutely than he consumed others.” It is the fevered, throbbing, pulsation of the artistic life, felt even in a letter from the artist himself. It is amoral, pursuing its own esoteric interests to the detriment of any, including the artist, who draw too close, like the radioactive decay of a sizzling mass. And what is Everett’s and Katharine’s reaction to this refresher of Adriance’s power and condescension?

Then [Everett] looked down at this white, burnt-out brand that lay before him.

“Like him, isn’t it?” [Katharine] said, quietly. “I think I can scarcely answer his letter, but when you see him next you can do that for me. I want you to tell him many things for me, yet they can all be summed up in this: I want him to grow wholly into his best and greatest self, even at the cost of what is half his charm to you and me. Do you understand me?”

“I know perfectly well what you mean,” answered Everett, thoughtfully. “And yet it’s difficult to prescribe for those fellows; so little makes, so little mars.”

Katharine raised herself upon her elbow, and her face flushed with feverish earnestness. “Ah, but it is the waste of himself that I mean; his lashing himself out on stupid and uncomprehending people until they take him at their own estimate.”

They want to encourage him. Be more alien. Service your muse, not the stupid and uncomprehending people around you. What you are, what you create; that is the highest and most important thing. In its presence, even the lives of those who love you can wither and die.

Everett next plays a composition that Adriance has enclosed with the letter.

He sat down at the piano and began playing the first movement, which was indeed the voice of Adriance, his proper speech. The sonata was the most ambitious work he had done up to that time, and marked the transition from his early lyric vein to a deeper and nobler style. Everett played intelligently and with that sympathetic comprehension which seems peculiar to a certain lovable class of men who never accomplish anything in particular. When he finished he turned to Katharine.

“How he has grown!” she cried. “What the three last years have done for him! He used to write only the tragedies of passion; but this is the tragedy of effort and failure, the thing Keats called hell. This is my tragedy, as I lie here, listening to the feet of the runners as they pass me -- ah, God! the swift feet of the runners!”

Is this, perhaps, the highest and most sublime manifestation of Cather’s larger theme (or at least the theme I would like to see in Cather’s work)? It is one thing to experience art and then to subsist in the barren and bleak world of its absence. It is quite another to be the artist herself, to be capable of creating such tremulous joy in others in in one’s own heart, and to fall short of the attempt at transcendence.


In the end, after reading and now reviewing the stories in Youth and the Bright Medusa, I find myself feeling much like Clark’s Aunt Georgiana at the end of “A Wagner Matinee.”

The concert was over; the people filed out of the hall chattering and laughing, glad to relax and find the living level again, but my kinswoman made no effort to rise. The harpist slipped the green felt cover over his instrument; the flute-players shook the water from their mouthpieces; the men of the orchestra went out one by one, leaving the stage to the chairs and music stands, empty as a winter cornfield.

I spoke to my aunt. She burst into tears and sobbed pleadingly. “I don’t want to go, Clark, I don’t want to go!”

I understood. For her, just outside the concert hall, lay the black pond with the cattle-tracked bluffs; the tall, unpainted house, with weather-curled boards, naked as a tower; the crook-backed ash seedlings where the dishcloths hung to dry; the gaunt, moulting turkeys picking up refuse about the kitchen door.

These stories have surprising power. All the more so when you take the double meaning of Cather, who wrote so movingly of characters on the bleak Nebraska prairie, choosing to juxtapose the vibrancy of art with the bleakness of its absence through these twin metaphors of a symphony and the black and cattle-tracked setting of her own fiction. Is she saying something, I wonder, not just about that setting, but about the works themselves? The works and the price that their artist had to pay in giving them birth?

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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, May 7, 2018

Who Is In and Who Is Out of Your Association?

I participated in a SURGE Spring 2018 session on co-creation. Don't know what SURGE Spring 2018 is? It's an online, virtual conference put on by Association Success. Sessions were recorded and were broadcast May 2-4, 2018. While each session was being broadcast, the speakers were present in the chatroom to interact with participants and answer their questions. Go here for more info.

Don't know what co-creation is? You're not alone. In planning for our session my fellow speakers and I decided that we needed to start with a definition of the term -- and then discovered that we all had a slightly different one.

Here's mine. Co-creation is when an association and its members work together to create something that has value to both the association and its members.

The session was a fairly free-wheeling discussion of that topic. I think it was a good one, but I won't try to recap it here. What I'm doing instead over a series of posts is highlighting some the the new thoughts that occurred to me as I listened to the comments of my fellow speakers.

I already talked about two:
The Process is the Product
Design Constraints Make Innovation Happen

Here's another. Who is in and who is out of your association?

I have to phrase this one as a question because, frankly, I don't know how to resolve it. It was left unanswered during our session recording and it was asked and left unanswered again during the live chat that we engaged in during the session's broadcast.

Here's how I would break it down. Co-creation itself implies a separation between two entities that I don't think actually exists in the association space. There is the company and the customer, some with a more for-profit mindset may say, and the best companies are the ones that figure out how to co-create its products with their customers.

The natural parallel for associations is that the association co-creates its programs and services with its members. But the members are not outside the association in the way that customers are outside the company whose products they buy. At its very foundation the members, in fact, ARE THE ASSOCIATION. The staff, the Board, the committees -- the things that we sometimes think of as the association, in fact, are only bodies and structures that the members have put in place to represent their interests.

And so, co-creation becomes a meaningless term. Associations don't co-create programs with their members. Associations are members, and the members create their own programs.

Some people push back against this phraseology and, I'll admit, the terms implicit in our traditional jargon are insufficient to describe the distinctions that need to be drawn in order to understand the point. That's probably why the question winds up going unanswered. We have the words necessary to ask the question, but we don't have the words necessary to answer it.

But frequently, the people pushing back seem to be intent on preserving some separation between their association and the members it was formed (by the members) to serve. Like many in the association space the separation seems natural because the people running the association (i.e., the staff) have no idea what the people belonging to the association (i.e., the members) want or need.

If that's the case, then maybe co-creation is a concept that really should embraced, despite its conceptual redundancy with the association model. In other words, any association worth the name is already "co-creating" its programs with its "members." If it's not, then I would suggest that it isn't, in fact, an association. Instead, it's a business with tax-exempt status, and the only way to become a true association is to start "co-creating" with its members.

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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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