Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Leadership And Its Discontents

Shortly after the financial crisis, Wall Street apologists floated a bunch of trial balloons to defend what their banker heroes did. One of my favorites, still bounced around by ‘serious’ writers whose paychecks depend on it, goes like this: We can’t blame the bankers for what went wrong. They are just super smart guys who invented these amazingly complicated financial instruments and lost control of them. They’re just victims of their own brilliance, like a ten year old prodigy who blows up the house while trying to build a chemistry set. It may be gratifying to paint them as villains, but that would be childish and unproductive. Move on.

It’s the same brand of rationalization that’s become the official narrative of the Iraq invasion. A bunch of well-intentioned smart people embarked on a noble enterprise, but a series of unforeseeable problems mucked it all up. There were inter-departmental disagreements — Defense and State just couldn’t get on the same page. They had conflicting “visions” about the postwar landscape.

And then there were individual differences as well: Colin Powell didn’t get along with Dick Cheney, Dick Cheney didn’t get along with Condoleeza Rice, Condoleeza Rice was busy buying shoes, and Christian Gentleman Bush was torn between them all, and on and on down the line. Wolfowitz preferred scrambled eggs, Rummy liked them poached, and Bush claimed they had a way of making them down in Texas called “sunny side up” that was better than all the rest. Everyone fell to arguing about how real men ate their eggs, and it got so heated nobody remembered to send out the order to gas up the tanks. Innocent human error, you see.

It was all very regrettable and unfortunate, but in the long run it didn’t matter because the Iraqis weren’t ready for democracy anyway. All’s well that ends well. Log it in the history books and move on.

We hear a lot of blather about leadership and integrity, courage, responsibility, and other such lofty sentiments, but the fact is American leaders are models of immoral cowardice. Genuine virtue is as foreign to them as a rain forest is to an Eskimo. They behave like greedy jackals and when their schemes blow up in everyone else’s face, they shrug their shoulders and say, “Don’t blame us!”

It’s getting really old, and it also has a corrosive effect. I work part-time at a school, and the students are exposed to a fusillade of propaganda about leadership and honesty, about stepping up to the plate and the setting the right example, stuff like that. There are posters all over that say “Integrity Means Doing The Right Thing When Nobody Is Looking,” and so on. I object to the rah-rah team spirit way they are presented, but the sentiments themselves are decent enough. At any rate, it doesn’t do any harm to try and instill them in the youth. The problem is that so many adults in this country don’t bother to live up to them.

The students know this. They see through it with laser-like sharpness. The sign at school says “Be Good,” but almost every other sign in the culture tells them in bright flashing colors to do the exact opposite: lie, cheat, steal, and then slither away with the loot. If you wipe up the slime trail well enough you might not get caught, but even if you do, hey, no worries, just blame someone else and move on.

I’m a staunch advocate of cynicism, but only when it’s coupled with a fairly accurate appraisal of what’s going on. It must be seasoned with a bit of knowledge and wisdom. It must be informed, otherwise it becomes dangerous. A sixteen year old can’t articulate why things smell so rotten, they just know things do. So they call bullshit and mentally drop out, which in America means succumbing to mindless consumerism.

It’s worse when you consider that the high-tech gadgets that dominate their lives are effectively weeding out literacy. Thus they’re being deprived of the one tool that might help them discover an alternative to things and mount an intelligent resistance, or, at the very least, show them a healthy way to cope. Their eyes and minds are being digitally plucked out.

And that’s exactly where demagogues who promise to bring back $2.50 a gallon gasoline want them to be. Then again, we might already be there.

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