"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Question Authority? Always!

A month ago David Brooks wrote an article for the New York Times (6.11.12)http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/12/opinion/brooks-the-follower-problem.html in which he described what he felt was an ambivalence concerning authority, and he gives as an iconic example the monuments that have been constructed to honor past American leaders:

If you go to the Lincoln or Jefferson memorials in Washington, you are invited to look up in admiration. Lincoln and Jefferson are presented as the embodiments of just authority. They are strong and powerful but also humanized. Jefferson is a graceful aristocratic democrat. Lincoln is sober and enduring. Both used power in the service of higher ideas, which are engraved nearby on the walls.

The monuments that get built these days are mostly duds. That’s because they say nothing about just authority. The World War II memorial is a nullity. It tells you nothing about the war or why American power was mobilized to fight it. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. memorial brutally simplifies its subject’s nuanced and biblical understanding of power. It gives him an imperious and self-enclosed character completely out of keeping with his complex nature.

Instead of celebrating the power and authority that these men used to great ends, we diminish them by celebrating aspects of their life, character, and personality that had little to do with leadership.

As Michael J. Lewis of Williams College has noted, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial transforms a jaunty cavalier into a “differently abled and rather prim nonsmoker.” Instead of a crafty wielder of supreme power, Roosevelt is a kindly grandpa you would want to put your arm around for a vacation photo.

The proposed Eisenhower memorial shifts attention from his moments of power to his moments of innocent boyhood. The design has been widely criticized, and last week the commission in charge agreed to push back the approval hearing until September.

Even the more successful recent monuments evade the thorny subjects of strength and power. The Vietnam memorial is about tragedy. The Korean memorial is about vulnerability.

We are in an era where because of misplaced ideas of populism.  Both the Occupy and Tea Party movements have demanded popular rule over the rule of the elite and a return to rugged individualism and a citizen-run state.  The power rests with the people more than ever, the devotees of these popular uprisings insist, and that a trust in, let alone obeisance to privileged public and private authority is unthinkable.

Why are we in such a state?  Brooks first plucks the low-hanging fruit:

Some of the reasons are well-known. We live in a culture that finds it easier to assign moral status to victims of power than to those who wield power. Most of the stories we tell ourselves are about victims who have endured oppression, racism and cruelty.

Then there is our fervent devotion to equality, to the notion that all people are equal and deserve equal recognition and respect. It’s hard in this frame of mind to define and celebrate greatness, to hold up others who are immeasurably superior to ourselves.

This may in fact be true.  The signs of this so-called ‘equality’ are seen from the classroom to the boardroom.  Inclusivity, cooperation, and participatory behavior are the buzzwords of today.  Excellence, superiority, talent, and strength are not only not recognized, but demeaned in misplaced notions of social fairness.  But this does not really answer the question of why we are so mistrustful of power and authority:

But the main problem is our inability to think properly about how power should be used to bind and build. Legitimate power is built on a series of paradoxes: that leaders have to wield power while knowing they are corrupted by it; that great leaders are superior to their followers while also being of them; that the higher they rise, the more they feel like instruments in larger designs. The Lincoln and Jefferson memorials are about how to navigate those paradoxes.

This passage gets at important issues – the nature of power and leadership and its relationship between the governing and the governed.  However, history provides illustrative lessons that challenge some of Brooks’ assumptions.  It is questionable whether leaders wielding power are aware that they are being corrupted by it.  Shakespeare’s works tell us a lot about the nature of power and its use; and in no cases in his Histories, from King John to Henry VIII, do the kings reflect on their progressive corruption. While many reflect on what it means to be king (especially Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, and Henry VI) and to be isolated and a constant prey, all are consumed by the need to accede to power, to secure it, to defend it, and to extend its perimeters.  While Henry IV famously opined “Heavy hangs the head that wears the crown”, he was as ambitious in his quest for power as any, reflective as it was of the self-protective and acquisitive nature of Man, and necessary for survival. 

Regarding Brooks’ reflection on the dilemma of rulers – being of the people but ruling over them – Shakespeare has perhaps the most eloquent example.  Henry V in a number of well-known passages admits that he is only a man, and that without ‘ceremony’ – the pomp, dress, and court of a king – he would be no different from any commoner. Disguised, he sits with common soldiers from the working class and expecting to receive adulation, hears criticism.  Why, for a tenuous claim to the French throne, did he subject so many to death and mutilation?  Although Henry considers this, he goes on to his most heroic battle, Agincourt, winning against five-to-one odds and losing only 25 men to the French 10,000.  In other words, in Shakespeare’s mind, these more humble considerations are nothing compared to his singular quest for triumph.  

Brooks’ final suggestion, that the higher rulers rise, the more they consider themselves instruments of some higher power, is obvious.  Everyone from Napoleon to John Edwards has been guilty of this hubris – and just about every leader before, between, and certainly afterwards, are guilty of this. 

What Brooks ignores is the self-justification that goes on in the minds of rulers.  Henry V went through a torturous examination of lineage and international history to come up with the flimsiest reasons for him to take the French throne.  George Bush, Jr. had already made up his mind to invade Iraq and sought every possible excuse to justify it.  Everyone does it, and it is part of the arrogation of power that comes with power.

Brooks concludes with the following:

Maybe before we can build great monuments to leaders we have to relearn the art of following. Democratic followership is also built on a series of paradoxes: that we are all created equal but that we also elevate those who are extraordinary; that we choose our leaders but also have to defer to them and trust their discretion; that we’re proud individuals but only really thrive as a group, organized and led by just authority.

This is wrong-headed.  The responsibility of every citizen is to suspect, challenge, and doubt all leaders.  The President may be one of us, but because he has had the often blind ambition to see that office, and the venality and self-serving manipulation of others to get it, he is most definitely not ours.  There is no leadership problem, says Brooks, there is a ‘followership” problem.  Whereas he is right to question the ability of the common man to study the question of leadership, to assimilate the many lessons of history, and to reflect on the wisdom of the ancient Greeks; he is wrong to suggest that the populist sentiments of both the Left and the Right have no place in the debate.

In a recent article in The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf takes exception to Brooks http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/06/excessive-deference-to-leaders-corrupts-them/259164/

What cannot be squared, in my mind, is the insight that leader worship makes it harder for people in power to behave honorably, and the simultaneous argument that we need to be more admiring of our leaders. I do not mean that we should be disrespectful or them, nor of any other human being.  We ought to be skeptical of their intentions, knowing that power corrupts; and we ought to challenge them, for if having worshipful sycophants inflates one's self-importance, what better corrective than dissenters confident enough to convey that the leader has erred in his or her judgment? More than anything else, we ought to constrain the power leaders wield.

Gene Healy in a book called The Cult of the Presidency, agrees that we are ambivalent about the power of our leaders, but feels not because our conviction that power corrupts absolutely, but that we citizens have ascribed to them such a wide array of responsibilities and personae – without identifying the most important – that it is becoming harder and harder to bring them to task:

The chief executive of the United States is no longer a mere constitutional officer charged with faithful execution of the laws. He is a soul nourisher, a hope giver, a living American talisman against hurricanes, terrorism, economic downturns, and spiritual malaise. He--or she--is the one who answers the phone at 3 a.m. to keep our children safe from harm. The modern president is America's shrink, a social worker, our very own national talk show host. He's also the Supreme Warlord of the Earth. This messianic campaign rhetoric merely reflects what the office has evolved into after decades of public clamoring.

It's difficult for 21st-century Americans to imagine things any other way. The United States appears stuck with an imperial presidency, an office that concentrates enormous power in the hands of whichever professional politician manages to claw his way to the top. Americans appear deeply ambivalent about the results, alternately cursing the king and pining for Camelot. But executive power will continue to grow, and threats to civil liberties increase, until citizens reconsider the incentives we have given to a post that started out so humble (quote by Healy in The Atlantic article)

In conclusion, all three writers are partially right.  Brooks is accurate when he describes the popularization of power and the promotion of diluted, flaccid notions of participatory governance; and right when he looks back to the days of the Founding Fathers who had in mind limited government and a strong, independent citizenry as an ideal; but wrong in assuming that the same rules apply.  Government is huge, Presidential power grandiose, and the outcries of the citizenry limited by special interests; and the need to suspect all in power has never been greater.

Healy is accurate in the grab-bag vision of the Presidency held by most Americans; and our lack of the discerning ability to select the most important; and Friedersdorf is right when he concludes that regardless of the analytical ability of American voters, challenge to authority is always a good thing.  The all miss the central issue – that both leaders and followers have lost sight of the essential values inherent in good governance – fairness, justice, honor, valor, and respect.

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