“A Followership Problem”

I have talked before about people who are smart enough that they should know better than to say something ridiculously stupid and yet say something ridiculously stupid anyway. Well, this time around, the person is David Brooks. He has written for The New York Times, Washington Times, The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek. He seems like he ought to be a pretty smart fellow. Maybe not.

At The New York Times website is a David Brooks column in which he complains that “our fervent devotion to equality” makes difficult “to hold up others who are immeasurably superior to ourselves.” No, I am not kidding.

He starts out complaining that modern memorials “say nothing about just authority.” Then he explains why modern memorial designers fail.

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.

Got that? Forget stories about the civil rights struggle. We need more memorials that remind us all that our betters are “immeasurably superior.” No, seriously. Mr. Brooks thinks this is a significant problem because it is, apparently, a symptom of the problem of people not knowing their place.

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.

I don’t know if America has a leadership problem; it certainly has a followership problem. Vast majorities of Americans don’t trust their institutions. That’s not mostly because our institutions perform much worse than they did in 1925 and 1955, when they were widely trusted. It’s mostly because more people are cynical and like to pretend that they are better than everything else around them. Vanity has more to do with rising distrust than anything else.

So basically, it is okay for leaders to believe they are better and superior to everyone else, but you lesser folk need to learn your place and just do what authority tells you to do. I wonder if he has paid attention to the flow of his thoughts here. He complains that leaders are not idolized enough and that the average citizen is vain for questioning government.

In the opinion piece, Mr. Brooks also says this:

You end up with movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Parties that try to dispense with authority altogether. They reject hierarchies and leaders because they don’t believe in the concepts. The whole world should be like the Internet — a disbursed semianarchy in which authority is suspect and each individual is king.

And that is bad because…?

Over at The Agitator, Radley Balko has a scathing criticism of David Brook’s column. It is well worth reading in its entirety, but here are a few snippets:

You know, 1925-1955. The good ole’ days. Back when we still had important institutions like segregation. And lynching. When our elites gave us alcohol prohibition. And when we banned marijuana because the pillars of American society warned us that the drug was helping black jazz musicians take sexual liberties with white women. It was a time when we still sterilized society’s undesirables, when we imprisoned Americans of Asian descent simply because of their heritage. Those were also the days when the U.S. government conducted covert medical experiments and biological warfare testing on its own citizens. Yes, it’s good we were less willing to question our government back then.

[...]

In this particular column Brooks specifically calls for allegiance to our political leaders. This makes me wonder if Brooks owns a television or regularly reads a newspaper. Our politicians are clownish, ridiculous people. Even if you’re the die-hardest of die-hard blue- or red-staters, in your most honest moments you have to concede that Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner are absurd human beings. If they didn’t hold positions of power, you’d want nothing to do with these people.

[...]

So those of us who question authority do so not because we’re vain or think we’re better than everyone else. On the contrary. We question authority because we recognize that human beings, ourselves included, are flawed. And we’ll always be flawed. Which means that we will build flawed institutions and produce flawed leaders. We question authority because we recognize that not only is authority (another word for power) inherently corrupting, but also because we recognize the perverse values, priorities, and notions of merit upon which authority is generally granted.

I could not have said it better myself.

How separated from reality does one have to become to believe that the problem in the U.S. is that we question political authority too much? And that doing so is arrogant?

One Response to ““A Followership Problem””

  1. Not to belittle or over simplify the cited articles, but this is what happens (and will continue to happen) when the generation where everyone gets/got a trophy grows to voting age.

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