Thursday, March 21, 2013

Goals and 300 (the film)

Voting is a lifeless objective...

My nieces are too young to see the film Pan’s Labyrinth and so we saw 300, the one where the Spartans fight to hold a pass against the host of the mighty Persian Empire. I explained that had the Greeks not sacrificed themselves at that battle, and earlier at Marathon, we would likely not have democracy today.

“Really, Uncle?” Yes. The Greek city-states set democracy as their national goal. Over time that goal exerted power and magic: it determined not only their physical actions but also their very hearts and minds.

The Spartans added a second national goal: excellence in battle. Spartan girls would run to school to strengthen their bodies to be mothers of warriors. Spartan boys, in school barracks, would be underfed to encourage them to learn how to forage on campaign. And they were forbidden to get caught. The adults in Spartan society eventually came to talk not fluently, like their artistic fellow Greeks, but tersely, like soldiers do. “Sparta” is the Roman name; the actual Greek name was “Lacedaemon.” Hence our term for terse speech: laconic.

A digression:
I am still chuckling over the third episode of Angel, by Douglas Petrie, where Angel enters and finds that Oz has shown up in LA. Instead of loud lengthy surprise you get:
Angel: Hi guys. Oz”
Oz: “Angel”
Angel: “Nice surprise”
Oz: Thanks”
Angel: Staying long?”
Oz: “Few days.”
Doyle: “They always like this?”
Oz: No, we’re usually laconic.”

According to legend a Spartan schoolboy who was out foraging trapped a fox just before some men came around the corner. The lad hid the fox under his cloak. As the adults questioned him he kept a straight face even as the fox was gnawing out his stomach! The boy died a hero.

Such bravery is commonplace among the soldiers in 300. Sometimes they wear nothing but a cloak, sometimes no clothing at all. The Greeks did not have our modern modesty taboo. I told my nieces the Greek word “Gymn” means naked, and “asium” means place for.

It was in a gymnasium that I learned about goals. I was a new recreation therapist rushing to set up programs for sports and leisure classes. My boss stopped me from going too fast.

“Goals first,” he said.

“But I thought we would just do it,” I replied.

“No,” he said, “for I have found that if you don’t have goals for something to happen, then somehow… Nothing Happens.” (Even though you are still having a game)

Down the years I have come to see how right my boss was as I have delved into management theory. This theory states that goals—often abstract and hard to measure—are critical and must precede objectives. Of course goals such as “nurture democracy” or “the participants shall cooperate” may be disturbingly hard to measure. That’s OK. Leave it to the board of directors since their mission is to see that the objectives are congruent with their goals.  Disturbed people can take comfort from concrete objectives (stepping stones to the goals) where one can clearly, objectively, measure success or failure.

For example, the U.S. army officers in South Vietnam pursued such measurable objectives as enemy “body count” and how many villages had yet not gone communist, i.e. “percentage of pacified hamlets.” And of course the officers just worshipped their objective nice pretty paperwork. Unfortunately not only did their war college goals of “duty, honor, country” get left behind in the States but they also did not create appropriate goals for Vietnam. The goal “counter-insurgency” is just meaningless noise, not a guiding concept, when all the captains blindly assume it means battling all the bad guys. The boys in Nam fought bloody hard but without proper goals… Nothing Happened.

So the Republic of South Vietnam is gone. And Iraq? I know this for sure: voting is a lifeless objective. Voting is an earthen pot, dry and dusty, until filled with the sparkling goal of democracy.

Goals have power. A young idealist named George S. Patton set a personal goal of becoming a true soldier. As a white haired General he led the Third Army into history. I hope my nieces choose worthy goals in worthy communities. There is a delightful lengthy passage in Snow Falling on Cedars where an island community becomes quiet, perhaps reflective, because of the hush needed at night for small boat fishing. Goals have magic.

I alerted my nieces as to how in 300 the Persian lord wants the Spartans to bow down. But the Persians found how goals have consequences: Having a national goal of democracy, a Greek considered himself the equal of any man. He would never bow, never kneel. Even if a mighty god from mount Olympus appeared a Greek hero would remain standing, looking eye to eye. At the same time, the gods were often haughty and the hero ran the risk of being blasted for insolence.

The ancient Greeks would approve of the saying from the Spanish civil war: “Better to die on your feet than live on your knees.” The republicans said this while fighting against the fascists in the 1930s. When my nieces are old enough to see Pan’s labyrinth, about that war, I shall point out the fascist supper scene where a smug priest sits by a rich man next to a haughty captain who declares the masses deserve to be kept in their lowly station and ruled by their betters… And that is what everyone believed in the huge Persian Empire. This included Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and the oriental lands beside Greece.

(Surrounded in space and time)
As Sir Edward Creasy described things in 1851:
Quote “…A monotonous uniformity pervades the histories of nearly all Oriental empires, from the most ancient down to the most recent times. …It is also a striking fact that the governments of all the great Asiatic empires have in all ages been absolute despotisms. And Hereen is right in connecting this with another great fact, which is… (quoting Hereen) ‘polygamy: where that custom exists, a good political constitution is impossible. Fathers, being converted into domestic despots, are ready to pay the same abject obedience to their sovereign which they exact from their family and dependents in their domestic economy.’(unquoting Hereen)

We should bear in mind, also, the inseparable connection between the state religion and all legislation which has always prevailed…stereotyping the lines in which literature and science must move, and limiting the extent to which it shall be lawful for the human mind to prosecute its inquiries.” Unquote

Creasy points out that there was little west of Greece: only a few Greek colonies along the Mediterranean Sea and the weak city of Rome. They too would have fallen to Persia (modern day Iran). So if Greece had been snuffed out that would have been the end of freedom of thought. Gone with the wind. Generations would have lived and died not even knowing they were missing anything (yes, I’ve read Nineteen Eighty-four).

When finally a generation came along to invent movies they would have made dreck like they did during the cold war in the Soviet Union. I wonder if that movie about Mel Gibson’s family during an invasion, Signs, was ever dubbed into Arabic. What can Arab extremists make of the scene where the danger is so close that Mel’s family may be having their last supper on earth? Remember what Mel decides? He lets his family vote on what to do. Arabs must be baffled.

Recently I was told that most of the world’s building cranes have gone to the Middle Orient, the lands of the former Persian Empire. Yes, today the people of the Middle East have all the measurable "concrete" objectives of a modern state. They have skyscrapers, highways, even schools for computer technology…yet, except for Israel, something … is Not Happening. Until the people grasp the goal of democracy…greatness will forever elude them.

Sean Crawford
from April 2011.38
re-posted March 2013

~Everything I know about goals not being measurable is from Boards that Make a Difference, John Carver's book with the Jossey-Bass publishers, 1991. I have just today sent away for his expensive revised third edition "with a 100,000 copies sold."

~What the army could have done in Nam, or in the near east today, is learn to see the culture as the terrain.

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