Tuesday, June 12, 2012


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.


Carol Ann said...

Of course, in this age of the internet, heroes feet of mud have been on display a lot faster, and it makes it harder to idolize them. PLUS most heroes have been manly men, who are much less interesting nowadays (except maybe firefighters, who, you know, are women too). In fact, maybe the real issue is that men are not being revered as much as they once were, so the idolizing of warfare, brutality, narcissism, greed and power are gradually fading away. And not a minute too soon.

Victor said...

I don't want to make a habit of this, but it took me so damn long to write, that I'm going to copy the rant I just left at maha's:

Every time I go to read a Bobo column, I ask myself the same questions:
1. What the hell is this feckin’ idjit babbling on about now?
2. What, never mind country, WHAT UNIVERSE, does he live in?
3. Why is he whining about the results of policies he supported in the past, still supports now, and will support in the future? This countries becoming a sh*thole because s*theads like him support the still richer and more powerful sh*theads who want this country to get sh*ttier, all for their own profit and amusement.
4. Why does he still have a job that pays him enough to buy a $4 million mansion?
5. Where do I sign-up to get a great paying job with benefits like his? Do I go on the intertubes and search for “Useful-Idjits.com?”

And let’s look once more at what Lil’ Davey wants us untermenschen to relearn:
“Democratic followership is also built on a series of paradoxes:”
- and I guess he ain’t talkin’ ’bout Drs. Seuss & Spock.

“…that we are all created equal but that we also elevate those who are extraordinary;”
-hmm… have anyone in mind, besides yourself, oh learned and exceptional one?
And isn’t this close to the old line, ‘we’re all created equal, it’s just that some are created more equal than others?” And isn’t THAT perilously close to the fundamental belief of Conservatives – that they themselves, and their ideas, are superior to all others?

“… that we choose our leaders…
-How quaint! Did he not read or at least hear about Citizens United? Davey, WE, as in people like ME, don’t choose our leaders anymore – billionaires and corporations do now – by brainwashing us untermencshen to the point of drowning us in advertizing . And if they drop the ball, then the voting machines can be rigged. And if all else fails, the Supreme Court’s been known to lift it’s robe and show the citizens it’s ass.

“… but also have to defer to them and trust their discretion;”
-Yes, because that worked out so well for the rest of us from 2001 to 2009.
Oh, and how come now that we got ourselves our first Democratic Darkie as President, you and your cronies ain’t doin’ no defferin’ ‘n trustin’ of HIM and his administration? Quite the opposite, in fact.

“… that we’re proud individuals but only really thrive as a group, organized and led by just authority.”
-And ain’t them the problems, Davey, me boy?
That the very proud individuals in your digital Rolodex, and amongst your set of cocktail-party pals, are only truly happy when they’re able to punish the group(s) beneath them, and treat them like a herd of diseased cattle to be led to slaughter?
And that the problem with you and your pals, Davey, me boy, is that you ARE organized and led by just authority – and by that, I mean, JUST authority?


Improbable Joe said...

Decades of people like Brooks and his Republican heroes telling us that the government is the problem, and then politicians (All Republicans and many Democrats) reinforcing that view though obstruction and shutdown threats and incompetence... and we're not supposed to look down on the people who run the government and the clowns in the media who enable them? THEY TOLD US THAT THEY ARE SHITTY! Now Brooks is having a sad that we're finally agreeing with them?

Ten Bears said...

It has long been my contention the Y2K nuts had it right, they just didn't quite get their fingeers wrapped around it. With the appointment by an ideologically stacked activist court of an incompetent dynastic frat boy to the highest office in the land historians will mark 2000 the effective End of America. As evidence I offer: David Brooks, "aristocrat".

Tom Shefchik said...

We must give Bobo a break. He is in awe of the millions, the billions, the many billions of people who are immeasurably superior to himself. And I think he should build each one a statue.

He whines how we normal people honor others just because they overcame oppression, overcame great odds, overcame entrenched bigotry and fear. How ridiculous. We should listen to Teh Bobo. Honor the rich and powerful for not needing to do a damn thing to help anyone other than themselves and their peers.

Stellours said...

I took it to mean that he was talking about the Occupy Wall Street crowd - and why can't they just follow along like their betters want them to?
If that's the case, I further applaud OCW. I don't think anyone should just follow along without a little critical thinking beforehand.