BOW DOWN BEFORE THE ONE YOU SERVE, YOU'RE GONNA GET WHAT YOU DESERVE
In response to the latest David Brooks column, DougJ says everything I would have wanted to say about why Americans don't respect authorities as much as they did decades ago -- it's not because we're immoral little narcissists, as Brooks argues; it's because we've been shafted (economically and otherwise) by the people in power for decades, and we're sick of it.
But I want to address the argument Brooks makes about narcissism. He says we like ourselves too much to respect great leaders -- the evidence being that new monuments built to those leaders are not to his taste:
Why can't today's memorial designers think straight about just authority?
... 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.
... The old adversary culture of the intellectuals has turned into a mass adversarial cynicism. The common assumption is that elites are always hiding something. Public servants are in it for themselves. Those people at the top are nowhere near as smart or as wonderful as pure and all-knowing Me.
... The whole world should be like the Internet -- a disbursed semianarchy in which authority is suspect and each individual is king.
Maybe before we can build great monuments to leaders we have to relearn the art of following....
I don't know if America has a leadership problem; it certainly has a followership problem.
What annoys me about this is the same thing that annoys me about the acclaim given to that recent David McCullough Jr. "You're not special" commencement speech: It's just assumed that we're infusing Americans with an excess of self-esteem, because, I guess, we stage events for kids in which every kid gets a trophy. I've been hearing complaints about that sort of thing for ten or fifteen years now, often with assumptions that self-esteem-building is a liberal plot.
But here's the thing: I work with a lot of people in their twenties. By now, the twentysomethings are kids who've come through this supposedly horrible culture of self-esteem.
And they're not narcissists. They're not egocentric jerks. Yes, they seem much more self-possessed than I was at their age (or am now, for that matter), and they seem bafflingly cheerful and optimistic, but they don't think they're the be-all and end-all.
Why would they? Maybe as kids they all got trophies at various events. But eventually they competed like crazy -- to get into schools, to get internships, to get jobs. The ones I don't meet compete for venture capital or good slots at SXSW or whatever. Their world is much more competitive than mine was at their age.
They know life has hierarchies. They know some people do better than others. They know some people are better than others.
And, getting back to Brooks, where is his evidence that people today are incapable of feeling respect for leaders? Just in this century, I've seen all sorts of people lining up to be followers of Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, Ron Paul, and Hillary Clinton. I see Bill Clinton lavished with praise in some circles, Ronald Reagan in others, Jack and Bobby Kennedy in others.
If we don't seem to be in a heroic age, it's because (a) many of these people let their followers down, (b) others aren't as special as their followers believe, (c) others (Ron Paul, Hillary) failed to reach the pinnacle, (d) others are heroes to some people and villains to the rest. And (e) the system still sucks because none of these heroes have slowed America's decline.
It's the leaders who got small.
ALSO SEE: Charlie Pierce, who's even sharper than usual in response to Brooks.