Blind by Design

Reality is hard, and we don’t like it. So we blind ourselves, and others blind us, to the truth, to the real world.

I work in Northern Virginia (NOVA) outside of Washington DC, a bustling metropolis of steel and glass, American history, and Federal workers, from janitors to the President. For decades, this area has been a stronghold of Democratic politics, with Republicans having nary a chance at the ballot box. I am also taking tap dancing lessons in NOVA, and the fine arts in America are another area in which you are more likely to get kicked by a Donkey than trampled by an Elephant. Last week, America endured a bitter presidential election, and waited days for the results.[1] So, I was unsurprised when I heard exclamations of joy and sighs of relief from class members.

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As We Think

Directing our emotions, our thoughts, our words, and our actions…to be who we were created to be.

The Economist is no fan of Donald Trump. The October 27 to November 2, 2018 issue featured a column by the editor Lexington describing the foreign policy failures and successes of the President. It was accompanied by the picture noted here, which shows Trump as an archer rejoicing over a single bulls-eye while quivers of arrows are far off the mark. He seems to be ignoring his many failures and raising his arms in triumph over one, perhaps random, success. Maybe Lexington sees Trump as an incompetent egomaniac who sometimes gets lucky. Certainly, other people do. While catchy, this illustration is a snowflake in an avalanche of political cartoons criticizing the US leader.

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Communication Conflicts

Assumptions, Emotions, Perceptions, Conditions, and Facts color our communication with ourselves and others. We must learn to manage them.

A wise man once said that the hardest thing about communication is the illusion that it has occurred. I have been involved in hundreds of medical, military, and public safety operations, and the after-action reviews of each one cite communication as a problem. Whether in business, relationships, or anywhere else, avalanches of academic papers and mountains of media articles bemoan our inability to effectively talk to each other, and propose ways of fixing it.

Several factors are present in every communication event, including assumptions, emotions, perceptions, conditions, and facts. They change the communication, often without the participants realizing it.

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The Long Shadow – How to Follow a Superstar

We may pity the person following someone who is widely acclaimed in their field. But they are doing really important work, and we should thank them. 

A Tennessee democrat who was firmly committed to the Union, Andrew Johnson had a distinguished career as congressman, senator and governor of his state. Hoping to send a message of reconciliation to the rebellious South, Lincoln chose Johnson as his vice president in 1864. Johnson’s debut on the national stage went poorly, with a rambling and perhaps drunken speech when he assumed office in March 1865. Lincoln followed with a masterpiece, his Second Inaugural Address. Little did anyone know that in only six weeks, at one of the most crucial times in American history, the rambler would be President.

A Missouri democrat who came to national prominence investigating fraud, waste and abuse on the Committee of Military Affairs during the Second World War, Harry Truman had earlier served as farmer, haberdasher, judge and US senator. With President Franklin Roosevelt in declining health and many expecting that he would not survive his fourth term, the party looked for a vice president who could succeed in the top job. Eighty-two days after the Inauguration, Roosevelt lay dead, and Truman took the top job.

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How Much Do Leaders Care?

It is true that no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care

  • A husband and father earns the right to lead his family by caring for his wife and children.
  • A minister earns the right to preach by caring for his congregation.
  • A physician earns the right to teach medical students and residents by caring for them, and the right to influence and even direct his patients by caring for them.
  • A commander earns the right to command by caring for his soldiers.
  • A manager earns the right to lead by caring for his employees.
  • A teacher earns the right to teach by caring for his students.
  • A king earns the right to rule and a prime minister or president earns the right to preside (exercise authority or control) by caring for his citizens.

Caring is not merely feeling benevolent emotions.  Actually, since emotions are merely a side effect of thoughts and actions, benevolent emotions are an outgrowth, not a cause or a definition, or caring.  Leaders who care do the following for those who follow them:

  • Learn about them
  • Pray for them
  • Encourage them
  • Talk to them
  • Listen to them
  • Rebuke them
  • Mentor them
  • Teach them
  • Be accountable to them

President’s Day – Christians and the President

American Presidents are extraordinary, and they are ordinary. We should value, and can learn from, them all. 

This President’s Day, it is reasonable for Americans who follow Jesus to consider the President of the United States, the man and the office, and to commit ourselves to praying for him, for the rest of our government at every level, and for our nation.

“The conclusion of a brief speech made by Gen. Garfield at a mass meeting in front of the Merchants’ Exchange in New York City, April 15, 1865, the day of President Lincoln’s death. The excited throng was demanding vengeance upon certain newspapers for utterances considered treasonable; two men lay dying in the street for exulting in assassination, and telegrams from Washington gave intimations of other probable victims of a general conspiracy. At this critical moment, a man known to but few stepped forward, and, beckoning to the crowd with a small flag, spoke these words in a clear and impressive voice:

‘Fellow-citizens,—Clouds and darkness are round about Him. His pavilion is dark waters and thick clouds of the skies. Justice and judgment are the establishment of his throne. Mercy and truth shall go before his face. God reigns, and the government at Washington still lives.’
The effect was instantaneous. The crowd listened, and became calm, and the meeting afterwards was quietly dissolved (http://www.bartleby.com/344/187.html).”

The Power of the President

The President of the United States is considered the most powerful man in the world; primarily because the United States is the most powerful nation in the world. He has command of a military of over 3,000,000 and influences a federal budget of nearly $4 trillion dollars. There are over 310 million Americans, almost 5% of the world’s population, and the US gross domestic product is over $15 trillion, over double that of China, who has the second biggest economy. For the brief time that he is in office, the man who is the President is the personification of America. His may be the most recognizable face on the planet, with people everywhere seeing his face on television, on the Internet, in magazines, and in a thousand other venues.

Within the United States, the power of the President is unequaled. He has what Theodore Roosevelt called a “bully pulpit”, the ability to be heard, but not necessarily agreed with, nationwide on any issue of his choosing. The president will always be more popular than Congress or the Supreme Court because, unless he is an idiot or a sadist, it is always easier to like and harder to dislike an individual than an organization. From 1975 to 2010, Congress’ job approval rating averaged about 35% (http://www.gallup.com/poll/145238/Congress-Job-Approval-Rating-Worst-Gallup-History.aspx) while the President’s, though much more variable, has most often been in the 40-50% range (http://www.gallup.com/poll/124922/Presidential-Approval-Center.aspx). The president has the power to unilaterally modify legislation through signing statements and Federal rulemaking, and can move the executive branch through executive orders. He can also decide to enforce certain laws and disregard others. Congress and the Supreme Court can do little except by consensus and the courts can decide on only what comes to them.

The Demands on the President

We have had good presidents and we have had poor presidents, but regardless of the qualities of the man the American people, and many others throughout the world, put great faith in him. Making the world safer in an age of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, encouraging the equitable distribution of scarce resources, protecting the Earth’s climate, and helping safeguard human rights for all is a nearly impossible task, but we expect our president to do all of these things. Simultaneously he needs to laugh when we laugh, cry when we cry, and grow angry when we are angry. Americans expect the president to inspire them when they are discouraged and point the way to a brighter future. It is a burden no man can fully bear, but the best among us can handle for a time.

No one who has never been president understands the diamond-crushing pressure, the microscopic scrutiny, the impossible expectations, and the gravity of the decisions inherent to the office. When Truman was sworn in as the 33rd president of the United States after the death of Franklin Roosevelt in Warm Springs, Georgia in April 1945, he famously asked Eleanor Roosevelt what he could do for her. Eleanor replied “Is there anything that we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now.”

The Limitations of the President

Though presidents have tremendous power and control an impressive array of resources, people, money and expertise, they are not able to do whatever they wish. The Founders specifically limited the power of the presidency to prevent tyranny. Government was and is limited, and the citizens of America have a vital interest in keeping it that way. This is because government is comprised of people, and we all have the same corrupt nature. James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers:

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”

Unlike more autocratic nations, the United States has multiple centers of power which limit the president. Corporations and other organizations can and do vigorously oppose him at times. Citizens vote every four years to keep or replace the president, and the 22nd Amendment to the US Constitution ensures that no one can ever be president more than 10 years.

Putting Hope in the President

Too many people put too much hope in a president. For reasons good and bad, his power is always limited. Presidents and other political figures, no matter how good they are, will always disappoint. Presidential satisfaction levels are nearly always high when he first takes office, and drop off significantly thereafter. Presidents are men, and even the best, like Lincoln or Washington, sometimes failed. King David, one of the best leaders in history, failed spectacularly. And as noted in the introduction, presidents die. Through natural processes, accidents or the hands of others, the Great Equalizer strikes down even the most capable, the most likeable, and the most powerful.

What should Christians Do?

As Christians, we must pray for the president, both the office and the man. We must pray for Congress, the Supreme Court, and all of the other executives and legislative bodies that govern our land. Shortly before the 2012 Presidential Election, a woman in my church told me in passing that she was praying for the presidency, but not the president, with whom she vehemently disagreed. Though that opinion might sound good to some Christians, to whom Barack Obama’s policies are anathema, Jesus would have vehemently disagreed. He commanded His followers to “pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44).” The Apostle Paul wrote “Bless those who persecute you (Romans 12:14).” No U.S. President in history can compare to Herod or Nero.

Believers in Christ should be active in all aspects of life, including politics, to try to “form a more perfect union.” If governments at all levels in the United States are truly governments of the people, by the people and for the people, such governments are not our enemy. When they do wrong, however, the Church must oppose them, as Friedrich Martin Niemoller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer did against Hitler.

But we must never place our hope in a man or in any group of men. Psalms 146:3-4 reminds us “Put not your trust in princes, [nor] in the son of man, in whom [there is] no help. His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.” Though governments seem to have so much power, God still reigns (Psalm 2). When Pontius Pilate, the appointed governor of Judea in the Roman Empire, told Jesus that he had the power to free Him or condemn Him, Jesus replied “you would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above (John 19:11).”

James Garfield, on that somber day in April 1865, got it exactly right: “God reigns, and the government at Washington still lives.”

The 2012 Presidential Debates

We have one television at home and generally watch only videos on it, because we have no cable, no satellite, and not even an antenna. With rare exceptions, we have lived without TV for over a decade. This year, however, with the Olympics in July and the presidential race in the fall we opted to buy an inexpensive cable package. One of the things that I anticipated watching was the series of presidential debates.

Elections are always a bizarre mix of truth and error, exaggeration and understatement, and bluster and bombast. Presidential elections are the most extreme. With little trust for the professional media, people seem to like debates because they feel that debates are the only unscripted and unstaged events in politics. Political conventions used to be raucous affairs with the outcome in doubt until the last ballot; now they are primarily pep rallies with the choice of candidate a foregone conclusion. Stump speeches and other events have more of the ring of a Hollywood production than of a chance to get to know the real candidate.

Stated another way, everything we know comes from our experience or the experience (and subsequent testimony) of others. We have ample personal experience with friends and family to feel that we truly know them. In the past, citizens roamed the White House and Capitol and interacted personally with their leaders. With the massive increase in the size and power of the Federal government in the past century, the US population growth, and the increase in security threats, this ended. People still feel like they should know governmental leaders but this has become impossible. Since we have little or no personal experience with the candidates, we rely on the statements of others about them. Unfortunately, those making the statements either have no experience of their own or largely turn these men into caricatures; so bad or so good as to belie the truth. Debates seem to provide a small but genuine personal interaction to each viewer.

I do not claim to be an undecided voter, but I hoped the first debate would be informative and civil. With modern attention spans measured in the minutes, not hours, I was not expecting a replay of Lincoln-Douglas (1858), though I would love to have seen it (yes, even the ridiculous portions, which have been around since before Cicero ran for Roman consul in 64 BC). The debate was a bit of a letdown, since it is hard to argue a point in a two minute long strings of sound bites, but I thought that each candidate performed well enough.

The next morning on the drive to work, the satellite radio channels erupted with exuberance (if the speaker was Republican) and drowned in despair (if the speaker was a Democrat). Apparently the commentators and focus groups felt that Republican challenger Mitt Romney had crushed Democratic Incumbent Barak Obama. Both sides reviled Obama for being “aloof”, “diffident”, and “weak”. President Obama explained that he had been too polite and promised to do better the next time.

If watching the first presidential debate was a bit of a letdown, watching the vice presidential debate was wearisome. This debate received our household prize for rudest and most arrogant of the year. My wife and I skipped the second presidential debate, recording it for my son, who wanted to watch it later. The next day he judged it “nothing but bickering and talking points”, summarizing that it was “not worth watching.” The thin, smile laden veneer failed to conceal the acrimony. Afterwards my son and I watched a clip from the Nixon-Kennedy presidential debates of 1960 and the Reagan Mondale debate from 1984. He asked “Dad, why can’t we have debates like that today?”

Radio commentators and focus groups, however, seemed to be quite satisfied. Many believed that the president and vice president made up for lost ground, showing “commitment” and “strength”. Democrats labeled the Republicans “wonkish” or “weak”. Behavior that would not have been tolerated in our home was lauded on satellite radio. Do we really think that such cacophony demonstrates strength? Is this behavior really useful in tense international negotiations? Is this how Nixon opened China, or what Eisenhower did at Panmunjom? By the third presidential debate my wife and I had regained our tolerance for 90 minutes of televised argument and rudeness, so we watched. My daughter, home from college, was fed up after 45 minutes. Nonetheless we persevered. On the whole, I found it better than the others.

Were these debates really what the American people wanted? They must have been what the media wanted because they droned on for hours with commentary and analysis. Perhaps election coverage is to the media what the Works Progress Administration was to workers in the 1930s; a source of some useful and much meaningless labor. The debates were clearly what some of the viewers wanted, as indicated by the recorded comments and the tenor of some of the social media coverage. If people wanted conflict, they got it, just like spectators at the Coliseum in Rome. Were the debates what the candidates wanted? One suspects that they were at least what they needed, because these ambitious and articulate men subjected themselves to this process. Perhaps that is why George Bush infamously checked his watch in the 1992 presidential debates; he had to perform but hated doing so. It is easy to conclude that many Americans got what they wanted in the debates.

People want their leaders to be successful and to care enough about them to help make them successful. People want their leaders to be enough like them to understand their problems and enough unlike them to solve the problems that they cannot. They want strong leaders to stand up to threats at home and abroad, and sensitive leaders who are touched at the sight of a mother grieving her fallen warrior son. They want a man who can deftly manage a civil war in Syria and equally manage the workplace rights of a breastfeeding mother. It is a tall order, and no one on earth can do it perfectly. The entire election process is the best that we, or anyone else, has devised to pick the man who can do it the best. The American style of government, republican democracy, is messy. But given the inherent corruption of man, it is the best possible government for providing the most good for the most people. The election process, including the wearisome debates, gives Americans a glimpse not just into the candidates, but into the glories, and absurdities, of republican democracy.

One last note, as citizens of the world, Christians must help shape the world to reflect the goodness of the One who created it. Justice matters, and believers in Christ should be the first to fight for it, just as the American Abolitionists, largely Christian, did 200 years ago. However as citizens of heaven, we must never put our hope in the world. God alone is sovereign, and regardless of the outcomes of elections, or any other event on earth, He is in control. Our ultimate trust must always be in Him.

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