A Non-Countercultural Thesis on the Subject of Change

"It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory." W. Edwards Deming, who you’ve likely never heard of, said that. He was a statistician and an engineer, and after World War II he proceeded to turn the Japanese auto … Read More

By / December 2, 2008

"It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory."

W. Edwards Deming, who you’ve likely never heard of, said that. He was a statistician and an engineer, and after World War II he proceeded to turn the Japanese auto industry into the titan it is today. If you’re an isolationist American royally annoyed at the utter subjugation of Detroit by Toyota & Friends, feel free to blame this son of Iowa, if only for the irony.

(As an aside, look this guy up. He died a decade and a half ago, but not before setting up an entire system of profound knowledge. He called it the "Deming System of Profound Knowledge," within which he included his Fourteen Points — a sort of Ten Commandments-plus for business — and his own variation on the Seven Deadly Sins.)

The subject of change is all the rage these days, and I’m a fan. I voted for change, for Barack Obama and his lofty rhetoric, but when asked one day recently how quickly I expected our new leader to change things, I found myself answering in a most unexpected fashion:

"As a Jew…"

What came next was surprising, even to me. It’s not as if I rarely think "as a Jew," but I’d sustained an entire electoral calendar without once linking my Jewish brain with the buzzword of the season. I don’t know why, but it wasn’t until after the election, after I picked up a book that has sat unread on my shelf for a couple of years now, that I began to link concepts into the daisy chain that poured out of my mouth in response to an innocuous question.

As a Jew, began the thought, I have a tendency to look at things over a very long span of time. As a Jew, I am an institutionalist. I believe in systems, rules, and the power of organizations working incrementally. I believe in the words of Max Weber — immortalized by Aaron Sorkin in The West Wing but originally from Politics as a Vocation — that politics is the "strong and slow boring of hard boards." I believe that Weber’s description of politics is no less appropriate a description of life in general.

Which is to say I don’t know how long Obama will need to match his lofty rhetoric with real progress in governance, but I won’t be terribly disappointed if it takes him longer than a few weeks, months, or even years. I take the long view, as I think everyone should, but especially every Jew. That’s the core of Judaism, the capacity to change the world. Eventually.

I’ve never, in all my life, been much impressed by those individuals — nor the movements they’ve inspired — who claim our culture can be changed so radically by so small a set of actions. To his credit, the president-elect has said as much, that change can be achieved but that it will take monumental effort. The implication is that such effort will take time as well, which is why I’m more than willing to let him use the full 60 minutes.

The book I mentioned, the one that sat unread on my shelf, is entitled Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture. It argues, convincingly if repetitively, that the premise of countercultural thought is so far off the charts wrong that it’s not merely ineffective at achieving its goals, but dangerous to efforts for social progress. That it sat on my shelf next to a copy of Counterculture Through the Ages: From Abraham to Acid House is all the more depressing, since that book ascribes to our Jewish forefather a primal countercultural impulse.

Am I the only one who finds it peculiar to paint Abraham as a countercultural maverick? He broke his father’s idols, which I’ve seen read as a criticism of middle management, but this was also the man who pledged his fidelity to a monotheistic belief system. He affirmed G-d, and in so doing, I was always struck by his retort to the father:

"How then canst thou serve these idols in whom there is no power to do anything?"

What is it to repudiate idol worship? It is, in Abraham’s words, a repudiation of willful impotence. Idol worship is the devotion to powerlessness, not just ascribing to an object power it never had, but abdicating our own ability and effort to that object. You have to skim pretty close to the surface to read Abraham as a counterculture guru knocking the system. If you look at it with any modicum of depth you see a man deeply committed to the idea that actions could be taken, effort mattered, and the mission of a single G-d with a discernible will was of more value than any collection of sculpture. Abraham embraced the ultimate system.

The idea that we could play a hand in the evolution of our world from one that broken and incomplete into one that was whole and just begins at Abraham, and the centuries over which that notion has evolved testifies to the Jewish understanding that the reparation of the world — let’s call it change — is a long, arduous process. It is Weber’s "hard board." We must keep slowly boring into it.

I will try hard now to bring this back to Dr. Deming, and his quote about survival and change. He was talking about business, about the necessity of companies to evolve as the times change, if for no other reason than failure to do so would end their existence. The world changes, ergo survival requires we change.

But the quote struck me, because my Jewish thought remains absolutely wedded to a thin paperback titled Why Should Jews Survive? written by Michael Goldberg. My ham-handed simplification of his thesis is, Jews must have a purpose. To exist merely because they have existed is an inadequate justification, and so the Jewish people must search constantly to hang on to their purpose, and that purpose is the completion of the world. Not just to change with the times, but to effect change.

Obama is just a blip. There’ll be plenty of work after he’s done. My hope is that my generation of Jews embraces that work, the slow boring of the hard board, and in the process forges their link in the chain. If, instead, they see disillusion in the slow increments and find more enthusiasm in brand-bashing and retail iconoclasm, well then… G-d.

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