Once upon a time, flexibility was seen as a strength | Whale’s Tales

I have always considered it a strength, not a weakness, to consult with people with whom we vehemently disagree.

Palm trees and suspension bridges.

Been doing a lot of thinking about both lately.

Palm trees? Suspension bridges? What’s that about? I’ll get to that by way of a seeming roundabout. But first, I want to talk about a few things that matter to me when I vote.

We know our founders intensely disliked factionalism and political parties. As men of The Enlightenment, Mr. Thomas Jefferson, Mr. John Adams et. al, were keenly aware that in the lives of nations, loyalty to a party had too often trumped loyalty to one’s country — to their downfall.

Look around. We are, as Abraham Lincoln said in his speech at Dickinson College in the wake of the Dred Scott decision in 1858, “a House divided against itself…”

Today, the United States is riven by an ideological rigidity that declares treasonous the slightest straying from a strict party line. And woe to any presumptuous pol who even considers crossing the political aisle and working with the hated enemy to enact workable legislation that benefits all Americans.

I have always considered it a strength, not a weakness, to consult with people with whom we vehemently disagree — and, if circumstances warrant, or contrary information presents itself, change course. That is, to do what our founders expected we would do: compromise.

I once heard someone contrast President Abraham Lincoln’s leadership style to that of a more charge straight ahead guy, likening it to the difference between a suspension bridge and a fixed-beam bridge. Both designs are capable of carrying their great weight, but the suspension bridge offers some advantages.

In a science article I read on Scott Miker@scottmiker.com, Miker noted that when materials and circumstances are the same, suspension bridges can span longer distances than simple beam bridges.

Seems obvious enough. What really intrigued Miker, however, was that suspension bridges use a “creative, systematic solution” that many linear-thinking strategies would miss.

Suspension bridges, Miker noted, tackle a key leverage point in the system of bridges — the rigidity. By tackling this, they change the way we approach bridges. In the case of earthquakes, we don’t make bridges stronger and less flexible so they can withstand the movement; we create a system that allows for movement. We change rigidity to flexibility.

I ask myself, whom do I want in power during an existential crisis? A rigid person who snaps on the ideological blinders and charges ahead? Or a person who is strong but flexible, who is capable of gathering divergent viewpoints, sifting them, and accepting, rejecting or combining them before deciding?

That was Lincoln’s way, as he demonstrated in the fraught lead-up to his issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, when he consulted with all sorts of people and his cabinet and took the measure of the nation’s divided electorate.

Lincoln wanted to issue his proclamation months earlier than he did, but at a critical moment. Secretary of State William Seward suggested he wait until the Union had achieved a military victory in the field, lest the act appear, Seward said, as “the last shriek on the retreat” of a defeated government.

Lincoln had not considered that before, and he agreed. And waited. Although the outcome of the bloody battle of Antietam in September 1862 was no great victory for the North, the president decided it would have to do.

Nearly 100 years later, President John F. Kennedy stood up to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, notably warhawks like General Curtis LeMay, who wanted to drop nuclear bombs on Cuba. In the end, diplomacy prevailed. A enraged LeMay griped afterward that “we lost.” That is not the consensus of history.

As Winston Churchill once said of diplomacy: “Jaw jaw is better than war war.”

So here at last is why I’ve been rattling on about palm trees.

Think about the last time you watched a hurricane broadcast on TV, blowing with such powerful winds that it bent trees so they almost touched the ground, and saw buildings lose their structural integrity once the winds had reached such speeds that the buildings were no longer strong enough to stay in place and push against the force of the winds.

Like the palm, Miker noted, many smaller trees withstand these strong winds by flexing. They move with the wind. Instead of being so strong and rigid that they fight against the winds, they go with the winds.

Many larger, stronger trees can’t withstand the pressure and snap right in half. If they had been of the flexible variety, such as a palm tree, they would have likely moved with the winds instead of holding firm and resisting.

If we think we need to meet strength with strength, this should not be. Wind should should rip apart the small, fragile trees instead of the strong, firm ones. But that doesn’t always happen.

Bridge builders started to realize that they too have to think differently about strength. By building flexibility into the bridge, they can have a bridge that withstands more wind, or the vibrations of an earthquake, better than a rigid bridge, Miker wrote.

But today too many of us consider a politician who holds his or her position regardless as strong. Being inflexible is seen as strength, and a politician who changes his or her perspective based on new information is a wimp.

We see strength as those willing to stand firm and stand up against others. Rigidity and strength have almost become synonyms despite the fact that change is a constant and we are always gaining new insights. In constant change, we have to be better prepared to adapt.

Considering some of the candidates running in this critical election year, my ears have been ringing with an old Stealers Wheel tune: “Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right. Here I am, stuck in the middle with you.”

I have no problem with clowns or jokers, but as representatives, they tend to suck.

To the left and right, I note a lot of the red noses, floppy shoes and squirting daisies of rigid ideologues courting my vote.

The suspension bridge is a great example of using flexibility to overcome force. Instead of looking to rigidity for more strength, we saw that we can accomplish our goals and withstand even more force with a little flexibility.

When we are crafting our own systems, I think about this. A better system might be one that accounts for some variation and can handle change with flexibility instead of holding firm.

Robert Whale can be reached at robert.whale@auburn-reporter.com.