Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Brooks and The Followers Dilemna

Warning:  op-ed Steanso political/social rambling to follow.  Please ignore if this sort of thing bugs you!

Amy read this David Brooks op-ed piece from the New York Times about what he sees as a "followership" problem in contemporary American culture and told me that she thought it was interesting and might be a blogworthy topic.  I like Brooks.  I frequently disagree with his political views, but I typically find him to be thoughtful, and he usually raises some interesting points.
This particular column began with a discussion of our historical monuments and examined the question of why some of our older monuments are so well loved (e.g., the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials), while some of our newer monuments have been more roundly criticized and, in some cases, been considered flat out failures (e.g., the Martin Luther King memorial has been criticized for not only its inscriptions, but its failure to adequately capture the man depicted; the FDR memorial has been said to inadequately capture the cunning and intellect of a great man and instead depicts him as a kindly, grandfatherly figure).  It's somewhat important to note that Brooks seems to be criticizing not only the reception that the newer monuments have received by the public, but also the failure of the sculptors and creators in failing to capture the power, strength, and greatness of the leaders themselves as enshrined in these new memorials.

Brooks sees the success of our older monuments as opposed to the relative failure of the newer monuments as a symptom of something that he describes as a "followership" problem in contemporary American society.
Modern memorials fail to properly capture the stature, power, and leadership strength of our historical figures, he argues, because Americans have, by and large, become distrustful of authority and leadership itself, even when such authority is just and exercised in an ethical manner.
He describes a culture of mass adversarial cynicism in which the public believes that people in the elite are always hiding something, public servants are in it for themselves, and every individual feels like they are as smart, well-informed, and capable of making important decisions as our political leaders.  Americans, in Brooks' estimation, from the Occupy protesters to the Tea Partiers, feel as if their leaders have no special qualities that truly set them apart. 
We're incapable of following. 
In this sort of culture, he reasons, we don't develop the sort of healthy respect for authority and leadership that allows us to properly infuse our memorials with greatness and to properly iconize our leaders.

My feelings on this Brooks piece were mixed.

His position seems to boil down to a few key components.
First, our historical monuments aren't as grand, powerful, and inspiring as they should be because we have a followership problem.
Second, our followership problem is a result of a stubborn egalitarian tendency in our population in which we refuse to recognize that other people are "immeasurably superior" to themselves.
Third, people won't acknowledge the superiority of their leaders because of a culture in which everyone is self involved and self satisfied ("Those people at the top are nowhere near as smart or as wonderful as pure and all-knowing Me."). 
Fourth, if you want to have great leaders you need to have great followers. 

For starters, let me say that I think that I agree that America probably does have a followership problem.  I think that Brooks is probably right on track to point that out.  I would also agree with some of his description regarding a sort of arrogance and self centered thinking as contributing to that problem.

But I also think that Brooks brings up some of his points in weird ways.  For starters, I'm not sure that I would hold up our difficulty with creating popular monuments as the most salient example of our followership problem.  I mean, I really like the Jefferson memorial and the Lincoln memorial and the Washington monument, like just about everyone else.  I'm also aware that I'm probably viewing these leaders in many ways not as the men that they actually were so much as I'm fond of them because of the sort of interpretation and myth creation that now surrounds them as I look back on them.  They were probably great men, but also most certainly very human.  Great monuments typically don't reflect the weaknesses and failings in our leaders.  Great monuments turn normal men into legends by romanticizing positive, powerful traits while glossing over weaknesses and failings.
Of course, the ability to overcome weaknesses and failings is part of what actually makes great leaders great, but this truth isn't reflected in the grandness of our monuments.
And here's another thing:  Saddam Hussein littered Baghdad with statues of himself;  Gaddafi built statues not only depicting his own visage, but also with images of his fist crushing NATO jets;  there are some pretty big Kim Jong-Il statues in North Korea. 
I'm okay with building monuments and statues and memorials to great people, but I'm also aware that greatness is often in the eye of the beholder.  The people who created those Kim Jon-Il statues were every bit as determined to capture the "greatness" of their leader as were the creators of the Lincoln memorial.  I don't have any big ol' point here other than to state that I think it's sort of weird for Brooks to bring up America's "followership" problem in the context of historical memorials.  Many such memorials have been employed by foreign despots and dictators who were striving to create mindless cults of personality that would support the actions of immoral and cruel regimes.  Such nations have a followership problem that bends toward a different end of the spectrum.  America might be a nation of arrogant, independent minded malcontents, but other countries suffer from issues with citizens who are too willing to fall in line behind their leaders without questioning their decisions.
Of course, it's best to strive for some sort of happy medium (which is why I think I sort of agree with Brooks' key points about our followership problem), but it's important to keep in mind that having a population that's too submissive has its own perils and pitfalls.
I also take issue a bit with Brooks about the roots of the followership problem.
I'll agree that Americans have become increasingly self impressed, self absorbed, and unsympathetic to opposing points of view.  There are probably a lots of reasons for that.  The internet breeds this sort of thinking through social media and self publishing (says the blogger as he spews another unsolicited, overly opinionated collection of ones and zeros into cyberspace).  We live in a culture of marketing and advertising that constantly bombards us with messages about our own "uniqueness" and "specialness", all the while shepherding us toward the logical conclusion being that we're extremely important people who deserve to be pampered with top notch goods and services.  Our access to information feels like it's at an all time high, creating the illusion that we have access to the exact same information that our leaders might have (even if our knowledge is typically coming to us by way of a commericially driven Google search engine).
I agree that we have a followership problem.  We throw internet hissy fits and fail to support people with good ideas.  More critically, we refuse to compromise and work together for the common good.  We pick sides, only avail ourselves of information sources that confirm our biases, and we refuse to acknowledge and respect legitimate points that are held by people who don't share our views.

All of this being said, I'm a little understanding if Americans have a bit of a followership problem.  And I guess I feel like Brooks doesn't have enough sympathy for the fact that it's hard to divorce our leadership problems from our followership problems. 
From relatively recent memory most all of us can conjure up recollections of scandals, boondoggles, and unethical behavior that we would barely put up with from friends or family, but which we are expected to accept as a matter of course when occurring with our elected officials.  From at least the time of Watergate, modern Americans have been a little gun shy when it comes to our leadership, right?  The criminal trials of Ted Stevens, John Edwards, and Tom Delay are fresh in our consciousness. Sex scandals have been almost too prolific to mention (just off the top of my head, Bill Clinton had a famous sex scandal involving Monica Lewinsky, Mark Foley had a scandal involving young pages, Newt Gingrich had affairs, Clarence Thomas was accused of sexual harassment, Mark Sanford abandoned his gubernatorial post to take a vacation with a mistress, and so on and so forth).  Even things considered legal within the political realm are hard to stomach as ethical these days.  Lobbying efforts on the part of corporations and special interests runs rampant, and following the Citizens United opinion, wealthy individuals and companies have almost unfettered power to buy and sell campaigns.  We question whether our leaders have even been honest with us when they've stood on the floor of the U.N. and reported solid intelligence regarding the presence of weapons of mass destruction.
In short, we might have a followership problem and feel a stubborn need to question our authority figures, but how much of this tendency is derived from practical experience and common sense?  Not all of our skepticism is derived simply by virtue of the fact that we live in the age of the internet and cable TV.  I agree with Brooks that we probably have some societal problems in terms of having a knee jerk, anti-authoritarian stance, but questioning our leadership isn't a practice that we've come by entirely through arrogance and self centeredness.  Equally problematic is the apathy and mistrust that's bred by a government that seems to live in perpetual deadlock- partisan opponents constantly arguing, but seeming to accomplish very little.
Even the most humble among us might suffer from some followership problems, but those problems don't always stem from believing that the follower can do better- sometimes they stem from a distrust about whether our leaders truly have our best interests at heart.

Brooks also takes issues with our notions of equality, stating that "It’s hard in this frame of mind to define and celebrate greatness, to hold up others who are immeasurably superior to ourselves."
I'm definitely not claiming that we're a generation of geniuses, but we do have access to unprecedented amounts of information.  News outlets spend more time than ever reporting back on every move that every politician makes, and from every conceivable angle.  Controversy and criticism create an audience, and in the pursuit of ratings, news sources are more than happy to skewer politicians with every possible misstep.  In this sort of environment, a world where we're constantly fed facts that are meant to help fuel partisan bickering and breed scandal, it's hard to reach a point where we see any political leader as "immeasurably superior to ourselves."  In fact, hearing Brooks pine for such a situation almost makes me feel a little sorry for a man who's just nostalgic for a bygone age.  I'm not sure whether he's longing for glory days that actually once existed (did prior generations genuinely have such feelings for their leaders, or do we really only look upon these figures so favorably through the rosier lens of history?) or whether he's longing for a more innocent and youthful perspective that naturally fades as we age a bit and begin to recognize flaws that were less apparent to younger eyes.
For a public that genuinely understands its leaders and all of their human failings, respect and admiration might need to arise in appreciation of their accomplishments- achievements that they obtained by overcoming their human failings.  In a more media heavy modern age, it's just always going to be hard to get the public to admire our leaders simply because they are "immeasurably superior to ourselves".  In fact, I think the modern public (okay, maybe I'm projecting my own beliefs) finds leaders a lot more inspiring when we can relate to them on a sort of personal level.  I find it incredibly moving when I watch a person struggle to overcome personal problems and failings and public difficulties and then rise above them to make changes that alter the course of history.  I would acknowledge that some leaders might make decisions with a greater sense of justice, application of ethical principles, and moral reasoning than I might be capable of, but if you set a person on a pedestal or otherwise separate them from you by seeing them as "immeasurably superior", where does the inspiration come in?  Having worked in the justice system for a long time, I'm a pretty big believer in the notion that our moral successes and failings don't come from a misunderstanding of the proper course of action nearly as often as they rise and fall on having the willpower to follow through on doing "the right thing". If we're holding up our leaders as "immeasurably superior" to ourselves in regard to the way that they've made moral decisions, I'm not sure that's healthy.  We need heroes- not gods. 

But on a lot of points, I still think Brooks is right.  We have a followership problem.  But we have a very American followership problem.
People who simply submissively follow in awe of their leaders often develop followership tendencies that support leaders who do bad things, but mostly that's an un-American problem, and it's not the situation we're dealing with.
Right now we have the opposite problem.  We're hopelessly divided and can't find any unifying leaders to follow at all.  We're not really in danger of becoming mindless sheep.  We're in danger of becoming a fractious, unruly, ungovernable mob.
So Brooks has points that I'm quite in agreement with.
We do have a followership problem.  We are having difficulty uniting behind figures who want us to all move in the same direction for the common good.  We need to learn that we don't need to agree on every single detail in order to make progress.  We need to be more open minded and willing to compromise.
We need to realize that leaders are the focal points behind which everything gets done, and we need keep in mind that even when our leaders 100% perfect we need to be willing to trust them and support them when we believe that they have some good ideas and are genuinely trying to work in our best interests.  
I also agree that we need better followers if we're going to get better leaders.  So long as we have a divided, apoplectic followership that requires ideological purity and obstinacy from our respective leadership groups, we're going to fail to make progress as a nation.  When we demand litmus tests and vote everyone out of office who's willing to compromise, we're not making for very good followers.
Good followers focus on getting things done that make our lives better.  They don't just focus on imposing their will and winning.
Brooks is right.
We have a followership problem.


The League said...

I would only add: I'm not sure politicians are acting as able leaders, but I am always amazed at how people do "follow" TV and radio personalities when it comes to discourse of government. I'm just not sure that "the common good" is what the media personalities have in mind so much as making sweet advertising money and the bizarre gamesmanship of swaying public opinion through repetition and having a bigger megaphone than the next guy.

J.S. said...

Well, I'm aware that we have people out there who are doing some following. I guess I think our followership problem lies in who we decide to follow. Like I said, being hyperpartisan and requiring purity tests from leaders instead of trying to support pragmatic people who can actually get things done (which usually still requires compromise in this country) falls under what I'm talking about when I refer to our followership problem.