The March of Folly

Human endeavor down through the ages has been full of folly. People do not always act in their own best interest, and certainly when people form together in groups, rather than becoming smarter, we often become dumber. Rather than pooling our collective wisdom we are often manipulated by sound bites and demagoguery and we embrace easy answers, rather than thoroughly examining options, thinking rationally and seeking difficult solutions to complicated problems. A celebrated historian, Barbara Tuckman, in 1984 published an outstanding study of our human tendency to choose courses of action that are contrary to our own self-interest – the March of Folly.

The story of the Tower of Babel was the Hebrew story teller’s offering of insight into our human capacity for folly. First, I would like to point out that the Tower of Babel story has roots in the Sumerian culture of Mesopotamia. The Sumerians moved into the land between the two rivers from the North bringing the cultivation of grain to the rich soil of the Tigris and Euphrates River Valleys about 4,000 years before Christ. As an expression of their worship the Sumerians built Ziggurats, a kind of mud brick pyramid like structure topped with a temple, where their cult sacrifices were conducted. Human beings have often worshipped on high places in the belief that being up high is somehow closer to the gods.

Energy and wealth were invested in the construction of these Ziggurats in order to satisfy the gods of fertility and agriculture to insure the harvest, the accumulation of wealth, and the stability of the state. These Ziggurats were so ancient that by the time Abraham was leaving Mesopotamia on his hike across the Fertile Crescent to the land of Canaan, these mountains of mud brick had been abandoned for over a thousand years, and they were eroding in the sun, rain and wind. Perhaps we can see the parallels between the history of Sumer and the Biblical Story. The Hebrew Story Teller saw the eroding Ziggurats as a symbol of the folly of human pride: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

Pride, hubris, can be a personal issue as well as a corporate problem. I think we all struggle with pride. I know a minister who asks his wife not to comment on his sermons for at least 24 hours after they are preached to give him time to get perspective. One time he made the mistake of saying to his wife, “today, I out did myself my sermon was brilliant. You know how many truly brilliant preachers there are in America today?”

And his wife piped up and said, “One less than you think there are!”

We all struggle with the problem of pride and overreaching. The Darwin awards often feature prideful miscalculations that lead to disaster. The more treacherous overlooks in the Grand Canyon, for instance, are protected by fences and signs. All of these overlooks are spectacular. Some have small plateaus that tourists toss coins onto, like dry wishing wells.

One entrepreneur who wished for financial success saw right there in front of him a means to his end. He had a brilliant, an obvious, idea. No stranger to danger, the man climbed over the fence with a bag, leapt to one of the precarious, coin-covered perches, and filled the bag with booty. Harvest time!

But, when he tried to leap back to the safe side, he went head to head with physics. Specifically, F = mg. Our entrepreneur had increased his mass, and the force required to lift himself against the pull of gravity was now greater.

The heavy bag of coins arrested his jump, and the birds were treated to a view of his long plunge to the valley floor below — brilliant idea fatal flaw in the execution. Gravity. More than a good idea, it’s the Law.

As tragic as individual pride can be, corporate hubris can result in folly that damages the populations of whole nations even continents and the world. Barbara Tuckman was the author of the Guns of August an important historical treatment of the miscalculations and wooden-headedness that led up to World War I, and that war is one of the examples she uses in her book the March of Folly. Everyone thought it would be a short war of triumphant conquest. When War was declared, people in several European capitals celebrated in the streets, sending young men off to war and glory. Six years later after thirty-seven million casualties, practically a whole generation of young men wiped out, Russia in the hands of the Bolsheviks, and the European Powers facing bankruptcy, no one could quite remember why they had gone to war in the first place – human folly on a grand scale.

Now I understand when we look back at the courses of action of those governments 100 years ago we may all be able to come to agreement about labeling those policies folly. How could they have been so stupid? But when we turn our gaze to the actions of governments and politicians closer in time and closer to home, we may disagree, even violently, because our own self-interest and political prejudices become involved. But it is desperately important we learn what drives us as groups and nations to behave recklessly, for the quickening pace of modern life seems to multiply our opportunities to join the march of folly.

Let me venture a couple of examples of folly closer to home that might not get me into trouble – maybe. First let us consider the promotion of sub-prime mortgages that began with changes in the Community Reinvestment Act in 1994. Since home equity is the single most valuable asset for most families, our government acted to ease credit restrictions to allow more people to enter into home ownership. The easing of credit restrictions was based upon two assumptions. First, real estate prices will always go up. And at that moment in time it seemed like a reasonable assumption. And the second assumption was that people would use credit wisely and that creditors would not take undue risk. During the real estate bubble some people began using their homes like ATM machines, and some creditors helped along by fraudulent mortgage brokers, who would do anything to earn a commission started making loans that on the face of them the debtors would never be able to pay. Then the bubble broke, and the first assumption that real estate prices would always go up evaporated. Faulty assumptions complicated by human greed that is a powerful combination for disaster.

One other example of folly that affected many of our lives was the dot.com stock bubble that burst in 2000. Many investment analysts warned against the incredible run up in stock prices, based on mere speculation about the worth of those internet start-ups. How could companies with no profit be worth hundreds of dollars per share? And the assumption, deadly assumption that was sold to unwary investors was that “this time is different.” “This time is different,” can fuel the march of folly right over the cliff.

Our scripture can help us to understand that the March of Folly is not just a political problem it is a spiritual issue. Pride is a spiritual problem with which we all struggle. Most of us learn humility slowly and later in life – we grow old too soon and too smart too late. Group pride, however, can be deceptive and more difficult to overcome. If everyone in the group thinks the same thing, we can become the captives of group think. In 1972 the social psychologist Irving Janis defined group think: Groupthink occurs when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of “mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment.  Groups affected by groupthink ignore alternatives and tend to take irrational actions that dehumanize other groups. This is an almost classic definition of what happens when nations go off to war. Sometimes, maybe war is inevitable, but too often our national pride takes over and we go forth to war even when it is not in our own self-interest.

So what insight can we gain spiritually that can help us to avoid joining the March of Folly? All of us in a democracy bear a burden of responsibility for the decisions we make as a nation. So we need to recognize that national pride is a double edged sword. We love our homeland. During the Olympic Games we root for our team. We take pride in the accomplishments of our fellow citizens. But we need to be suspect of sound bites like “we are the greatest nation on earth,” “American Century,” “Pax Americana,” “World’s Sole Super Power.” Overweening group pride is the root of the undoing in the Tower of Babel story: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” Almost as soon as we embrace national hubris we are insuring our own demise, because we begin using ourselves as the measure of all things. And unlike the Tower of Babel Story God does not have to punish us. The prophet Amos had a profound vision. Amos saw God standing in the midst of the people of Israel holding a plumb line. And the nation did not measure up to the plumb line.

Now let me ask you, if a wall, or a tower does not measure up to the plumb line, what will happen? The structure will fall of its own weight. A nation that does not measure up to God’s standard of justice will fall of its own weight. Gravity, it’s not just a good idea, it’s the law. Justice it’s not just a good idea, it is God’s law.

We can also relearn from Barbara Tuckman the truism that power corrupts. We all know, from unending repetitions of Lord Acton’s dictum, that power corrupts. We are less aware that it breeds folly; that the power to command frequently causes failure to think; that the responsibility of power often fades as its exercise augments. The overall responsibility of power is to govern as reasonably as possible in the interest of the state and its citizens. A duty in that process is to keep well-informed, to heed information, to keep mind and judgment open and to resist the insidious spell of wooden-headedness. .

Chief among the forces affecting political folly is lust for power, named by Tacitus as “the most flagrant of all the passions.” Because it can only be satisfied by power over others, government is its favorite field of exercise. . . Government remains the paramount area of folly, because it is there that men seek power over others – only to lose it over themselves.”

People seek power over others – only to lose it over themselves – great argument for term limits — in any organization. We have an obligation in a democracy to insist upon more than sound bites in our national discussion, to demand civility in our political process, and to insist that office holders work for the common good rather than narrow political interests or their own self interest. As a nation we are not the measure of all things, rather we will be held accountable to God’s measure.

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