1. Rick Perlstein’s oft-cited “The Long Con” is sobering reading. For years, American conservatism has had parts which are less “ideological” and more concerned with fleecing people. When Perlstein signed up for e-mails from campaigns and conservative publications, he quickly found himself deluged with other e-mails advertising miracle cures for cancer, once-in-a-lifetime investment opportunities, hysterical descriptions of the opposition. Regarding that last statement, Trump is the rule rather than the exception: for a few dollars, you can “indict” Hillary, because losing the election is obviously the same thing as a criminal indictment.
Still, as sharp as Perlstein’s piece is, there’s a problem. You can read his piece, and if you don’t know better, come away with the impression that there is nothing of the sort on the American Left. That there aren’t people preaching “awareness alone can solve all problems” or trying to sell New Age or hemp-based cures. I don’t want to be drawn into the trap of saying there is a perfect balance – right now, one part of America is clearly very problematic – but a little bit of attempted balance in this case opens a larger question. Does political life in general depend on something like conspiracy theory?
2. Blogging is dead, they say. I can’t remember the last time I responded to another blogger; that needs to change. What makes opinions important are their earnestness, their attempt to get at the truth, their articulation of value. When I went looking for that poem of Tu Fu I blogged about yesterday, I stumbled upon a post of Leonard Durso’s, entitled “on leadership” (sic). His thoughts merit a closer look; here’s the excerpt I’d like to focus on:
A true leader is one who is at times self-reflective so that they can see whatever faults they possess that might be the cause of the problems of the people they lead.
To point fingers and blame others is the easiest and least effective way of solving any problem and of leading the people in their care.
A leader “so full of themselves” as my grandmother would say is in fact doing more harm than good for a business, a nation, a religion, a community, an institution, any group of people they are chosen to lead. One needs to look inside first before looking outside because all problems tend to have their roots within.
None of us will disagree with his claims, as we have high expectations for leaders. Let’s list those claims one-by-one:
- There are times a leader has to be self-reflective and recognize their faults as the problem.
- Demonizing others is easy, the “least effective” way of solving problems, does not show concern for the ruled.
- If you’re “full of yourself,” you do more harm than good.
Again, none of us are going to disagree with this; it speaks to our higher aims and can describe some amazing people at particular times. Some of us are going to jump ahead and mount a defense of these claims, knowing full well that it will be said that bad people have been very effective leaders, creating great goods for a people out of great evils. Our defense is going to be that if we don’t set high expectations – if we pretend expectations don’t matter – we won’t get any sort of humane leadership at all. Bad people doing good things, on that note, is the exception rather than the rule.
3. The trouble with this argument is how ridiculously circular it is. We’ve already arrived at the point where expectations are being used to defend other expectations. “If you don’t expect higher, you don’t get better behavior” is an assumption. It’s an assumption to which I’m partial, but it’s still an assumption.
Rule is not about self-reflection, unfortunately. Caesar was probably the greatest general ever. Plutarch depicts this behavior before he crosses the Rubicon:
When he came to the river which separates Cisalpine Gaul from the rest of Italy (it is called the Rubicon), and began to reflect, now that he drew nearer to the fearful step and was agitated by the magnitude of his ventures, he checked his speed. Then, halting in his course, he communed with himself a long time in silence as his resolution wavered back and forth, and his purpose then suffered change after change. For a long time, too, he discussed his perplexities with his friends who were present, among whom was Asinius Pollio, estimating the great evils for all mankind which would follow their passage of the river, and the wide fame of it which they would leave to posterity. But finally, with a sort of passion, as if abandoning calculation and casting himself upon the future, and uttering the phrase with which men usually prelude their plunge into desperate and daring fortunes, “Let the die be cast,” he hastened to cross the river; and going at full speed now for the rest of the time, before daybreak he dashed into Ariminum and took possession of it. It is said, moreover, that on the night before he crossed the river he had an unnatural dream; he thought, namely, that he was having incestuous intercourse with his own mother.
Plutarch has no patience for the mockery Caesar makes of self-reflection. Yes, Caesar “began to reflect,” “communed with himself a long time in silence,” “discussed his perplexities.” But then he said “Let the die be cast,” and invaded his own homeland in order to install himself as tyrant, ending the republic. Hence, Plutarch adds the tasteful detail that Caesar dreamed he had sex with his own mom.
One might say Caesar was a terrible ruler, only concerned with his own fame and aggrandizement. That’s correct. He also pacified Gaul and extended Roman influence into Britain. Only if you are willing to say “good leaders aren’t particularly good at winning wars, in fact, they might lose them” can you argue that self-reflection matters more than sheer ambition. Good leaders are a double-edged sword. In my mind, Lincoln is our greatest President. The pictures of carnage from the Civil War could make anyone nauseous.
4. We Americans are relearning that unity is a virtue and not to be taken for granted. I cannot say I am displeased that unity is taken seriously. But partisanship is not necessarily a vice. In the case of some leaders, the majority has spoken through legitimate party governance. If the whole point of a democratic system is to make sure most people get what they have lawfully affirmed they want, how do we find any sympathy for minorities? It would seem rulers have a moral imperative to cater to their constituency, affirming the sanctity of an election and continuing to reject what the voters rejected.
The case for affirming minority rights depends on pointing out that a majority can be wrong, that those in the majority can be minorities at times too, that partisan politics is not as important as our shared humanity. This is most achievable when the end has already been achieved. If one is struggling to keep power or get one’s agenda passed, one needs to be more saint than leader in order act properly. Fighting for power, it turns out, is what you are obligated to do as a partisan.
5. Recently, a two-bit tyrant who is indeed “full of himself” has become all too visible. The case against him is specific. His larger aims are a disgrace, but we can condemn him based on what we have seen from his tenure so far. Attacking people’s freedoms, attacking his own people as they protest, enriching himself and his party at the expense of everyone else, harassing and marginalizing the political opposition through extra-legal measures.
When speaking generally of leaders, though, they do tend to be full of themselves, partisan to a fault, and not terribly reflective. They have been tasked with getting things done, and the assumption underlying most of their behavior is that they are expressing the values of the system. Caesar’s authoritarianism didn’t emerge in a vacuum: an accomplished general who gave Rome dominance, he appealed to the people for his power. The big lies stem from uncomfortable truths. Our expectations create a need for people to exercise power, and then we wonder why they don’t exercise that power exactly the way we would. The conspiracy theory governing notions of rule is that they’re just as moral as they are useful. On the contrary, our demand for utility is insatiable, showing morality itself a basis for power. The only way to create a genuine space for reflection is to appeal to something beyond politics, beyond the everyday. We need to force ourselves to be better, and I would not underestimate how difficult an undertaking that actually is.