Wednesday, August 20, 2014


According to Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State and likely presidential candidate, "Great nations need organizing principles, and 'Don't do stupid stuff' is not an organizing principle."  We may agree with her assessment, yet as we look around at the nations of the world, it would seem that paying attention to this prohibition should be a necessity for good government and that it is too often ignored.
Why do people in authority do stupid stuff?  This question has often come to my mind as I watch the daily news programs.  It seems that quite often those who should be leaders in their nations and communities fail to exercise anything that resembles good leadership.  I'm not thinking especially of immoral acts, but of acts and behaviors that appear to be contrary to the best interests, not only of those led, but of those very leaders.

Hosni Mubarak is deposed as dictator in Egypt; rather than giving ear to the complaints of his people, he attempted to violently suppress all protest, which ultimately resulted in his overthrow.  Even when it was apparent that his methods of suppression weren't working, he continued on the same course.  Mohammed Morsi was then elected as Prime Minister of Egypt in a fair election and when protests arose, he followed the same methods of oppression as his predecessor.  And he too suffered the same fate.  Now we have a third leader in Egypt who seems to be following the same course.

We could name more middle eastern dictators and wannabe dictators, who continue to follow non-workable government policies which get them thrown out of office or killed, or even worse, destroy their nations:  Assad in Syria, Maliki in Iraq.

But we don't need to go halfway around the world to witness these strange behaviors.  The actions of the police in Ferguson, Missouri come to mind.  Attempts to quell legitimate protest with militarized force only lead to more and more violence.

Don't these guys ever learn?  Don't they watch the news?  Can't they see that their methods don't work?  That they are counter-productive?

The above examples all demonstrate that force is not only ineffective but actually contrary to the best interests of all parties.  The use of force, however, is only one way in which those in leadership can act contrary even to their own best interests.

Having been involved in church "politics" for many years, as both a pastor and a layman, I can verify that this behavior is as often the rule as the exception.  I've also seen it among engineers and educators.

Browsing through the sale rack at the Half Price Bookstore, I came across a copy of The March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman.  I am always delighted to find a book I haven't read but have wanted to for years.  Though the book is 30 years old it was still in great shape and at three dollars  I felt I couldn't afford to pass it up.  The book deals with the very question that had bothered me and it is a fascinating read.

Tuchman's first chapter sets the stage for the whole book.  She is concerned about "misgovernment" which she sees as being "of four kinds, often in combination ... :  1) tyranny or oppression ...; 2) excessive ambition ...; 3) incompetence or decadence ... and finally 4) folly or perversity" (page 5).  She tells us, "This book is concerned with the last, in a specific manifestation; that is the pursuit of policy contrary to the self-interest of the constituency or state involved."  "To qualify as folly" she continues, a policy "must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time."  Also "a feasible alternative course of action must have been available. ... a third criterion" she says, "must be that the policy in question should be that of a group, not an individual ruler."

She cites examples from many different periods of history, but for purposes of her book homes in on just four, which make up the major sections of the book:
·       "Prototype:  The Trojans Take the Wooden Horse Within Their Walls"
·       "The Renaissance Popes Provoke the Protestant Secession 1470-1530"
·       "The British Lose America"
·       "America Betrays Herself in Vietnam"

The book is full of historical details which are usually ignored by many.  After all, I've been taught the Reformation from the view of the Reformers and the American Revolution from the American point of view without much consideration of what brought these on, from the "losers'" point of view.

But what fascinates is her comments and observations on the folly as demonstrated in the details.  She shows the various aspects of folly.  As I read I kept my iridescent yellow pen handy for every mention of the word "folly."

What we observe on our evening news then, is nothing new.  The pursuit by governments and lesser leaders of policies contrary to the interests of both governors and governed has been going on since the dawn of history; some of the earliest being Rehoboam's loss of 10 tribes and the reduction of the nation of Israel as well as the Trojan horse.

In the Epilogue Tuchman concludes, "If pursuing disadvantage after the disadvantage has become obvious is irrational, then rejection of reason is the prime characteristic of folly" (page 380).  She does not offer much hope of change but sees a need for an educated electorate "that will recognize and reward integrity of character and ... reject the ersatz" (page 387).

Tuchman does not write as a Christian but more as a pragmatist.  She does address matters, such as greed and the lust for power, but less from a moral position than a pragmatic one.  And yet as a Christian I find myself agreeing with her.  The moral position is often the practical one.  Greed, self-aggrandizement, the failure to consider what is best for one's neighbor; refusal to face the truth about one's actions -- these could all be recognized as sin.  And of course sin is ultimately self-destructive.

The Bible is full of stories similar to those found in this book.  In fact, the history of the nation of Israel as recorded in the Old Testament in a continual repetition of the book's themes:  actions taken for which there were better alternatives; refusal to heed warnings -- in most cases the prophets.  And these actions ultimately brought down the nation.

Of course, we could go clear back to the Garden of Eden, to Eve's and Adam's partaking of the forbidden fruit, which got the ball rolling.  We've been following their precedent every since.

How often have we -- have I -- taken actions that were not only sinful but destructive, not only to me but to those I am responsible for?  Forgive me Lord and help me to heed your warnings.


KenMullins said...

Thanks, Bill I always appreciate your insight and especially enjoyed this article.
Poverty has fascinated me for the last several years of my life -- specifically what causes poverty and what is the "best" way to eliminate the root causes of poverty. In the US I frequently see people making bad choices--often leading to lack of resources. Does Barbara Tuchman address the "folly" that leads to poverty? i.e. dropping out of school, drugs etc...

Bill Ball said...

Ken, In this book she is only concerned with the folly exercised by those in power.

KenMullins said...

We expect more from those in power. Sadly we are often disappointed.

Sherry Ball Schoenfeldt said...

Sometimes it is the folly of the leaders that leads to systemic poverty.