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The Trade-In Society

David Blatt, formerly head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers Erik Drost/Flickr

Let’s ask a question: Why was David Blatt fired as coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers? The man who fired him said it was a matter of “a lack of fit with our personnel and our vision.” Possibly true. But it would be more useful to say this: David Blatt got fired because Chip Kelly got fired before him, and Jose Mourinho before him, and Kevin McHale before him, and so on nearly ad infinitum.

That is to say: firing coaches is how professional sports franchises deal with conflict. And athletes know that this is how professional sports franchises deal with conflict: so when a team hits a bad patch, and the players are underperforming, and the coach is getting angry with them, and relationships are fraying… why bother stitching them up? Why bother salving the wounds? If everyone knows where the situation is headed — sacking the manager — then isn’t there rather a strong incentive to make things worse, in order to hasten the inevitable, put an end to the frustrations, start afresh, get a do-over? Of course there is.

And precisely the same tendencies are at work in many of the key institutions of American social life. This is one of the chief reasons why so many marriages end quickly; this is why so many Christians church-hop, to the point that pastors will tell you that church discipline is simply impossible: if you challenge or rebuke a church member for bad behavior, he or she will simply be at another church the next week, or at no church at all.

It seems that we — and I’m using “we” advisedly here, as you’ll see in a moment — are becoming habituated to making the nuclear option the first option, or very close to the first option, when we can. Trying to come to terms with a difficult person, or a difficult situation, is an endeavor fraught with uncertainty: it might work, but it might not, and even if it does work, I could end up paying a big emotional price. Why not just bail out and start over?

I know at least some of these temptations well. Not all of them: I am deeply grateful that I went into my marriage, 35 years ago, sharing with my beloved the bone-deep conviction that, except in the most tragic circumstances, Christian marriage is indissoluble. Bailing out has never been an option for either of us, and since we are very different people with very different responses to the world, that’s been invaluable for us. We’ve had a lot of work to do, but it has been good work, rewarding work.

But in the three decades that I lived in Wheaton, Illinois, I was a member of three different churches, and I often wonder what I might have learned — what wisdom I might have gained, what benefits of character I might have reaped, what good I might have done for others, what I might have been taught by fellow parishioners — if I had never left the first one. I can’t manage to wish I had stayed, but that may be because all I know is what went wrong there, what made me frustrated and unhappy. Any benefits I (or others) might have received through persistent faithfulness are unknown to me, a matter of speculation.

Looking back on my decision to leave that first church, I realize that I did so because I was confident that, whatever good things might have come to me at that church, those good things, or very similar ones, would be available to me elsewhere. It seems to me that if there’s one thing that our current version of advertising-based capitalism teaches us all it’s that everything is replaceable: everything can be reproduced, or traded in for a new and improved model. And that applies to coaches, to churches, to spouses. We live in a trade-in society.

This belief breeds impatience with everything, and that impatience in turn breeds immense frustration with any situation that doesn’t lend itself to the discard-and-replace approach. I think even our recent university-campus controversies can be explained in these terms. Students don’t want to deal with administrators who don’t see things their way, or speakers who say things they find offensive, but they realize that an immediate opt-out isn’t possible. You can’t walk away from Oberlin on a Friday and show up for class at Carleton on Monday morning. At least for a time, you’re stuck. But what if you’re stuck in a situation and have never been taught how to negotiate, how to work things out, how to be patient in the midst of conflict? Well, then, you make demands. You are very insistent that “These are demands and not suggestions”. And often those demands are that administrators or faculty be fired — like football coaches who haven’t won enough, basketball coaches who manifest “a lack of fit with our personnel and our vision” — because that, they think, can be done right now.

What most troubles me about these pathologies is that I don’t see any way back from the current level of impatience and the inability — indeed, refusal — to persist through difficulties. You can always point to marriages that have survived struggles and come to thrive; or workplace enemies who became mutually-valued collaborators; or sports franchises, like the San Antonio Spurs, that have succeeded through a commitment to continuity. But in a trade-in society, those situations look like black swans: unpredictable, inexplicable. (And will the Spurs continue to prize continuity when Tim Duncan, one of the best players ever, and Gregg Popovich, one of the best coaches ever, retire? Or will the pressure towards immediate action prove too much for their institutional culture to resist?)

The president of Oberlin, Marvin Krislov, has published an open letter in response to the protestors in which he says “I will not respond directly to any document that explicitly rejects the notion of collaborative engagement,” in part because “many of its demands contravene principles of shared governance.” That is, the students are demanding that the college president dictate changes that he doesn’t actually have the power to do, according to the by-laws and written procedures of the college. Similarly, when students at public universities demand the punishment or prohibition of “hate speech,” they can be reminded that the First Amendment makes no exception for hate speech. So in increasing numbers Americans, especially younger Americans, support the repeal of the First Amendment. It turns out that many people are profoundly unhappy with social and political structures that prevent the immediate implementation of their desires, and are willing to discard them — without pausing to reflect that the people who share their desires may not always be in the majority. You can’t remove those breaks for yourself without simultaneously removing them for your political and social enemies. (Though Lord knows people try.)

The impatience that people feel with manifest injustice is understandable, and more than understandable. In perhaps the most powerful passage in his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. answers white moderates’ counsel of patience with a long litany of everyday abuse and affliction, and concludes: “There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.” And all God’s people say Amen.

But it’s worth noting that those white moderates wanted King and his fellow protestors to do nothing: simply to wait and trust that time would somehow naturally bring about justice. And it is also worth noting that it’s socially unhealthy when people exhibit impatience far beyond Dr. King’s when confronted by injustices that are far less massive — or when faced by mere inconveniences or strictly personal discomforts. People want to be able to trade in old models of anything and everything, and profoundly resent any social or political structures that inhibit instantaneous action.

In such an environment, it’s no wonder that a great many people applaud a Presidential candidate who believes that he can “see Bill Gates” about “closing up that internet.” (The old internet is messed up — let’s trade it in for another one.) I suspect they overlap pretty significantly with the folks who demand, after every losing streak, that their favorite team’s coach be fired; and with the more aggressive of the student protestors. Trump supporters may not seem to have much in common with people demanding that racially insensitive university administrators be fired, but there’s a deep temperamental affinity. They’re all enthusiastic adherents of the trade-in society.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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