Yesterday David Brooks wrote a scathing and wicked caricature of David Brooks. Except of course he was serious. At least I think he was serious. Is David Brooks ever not serious?
Anyway, the column is really something to behold.
Those “Question Authority” bumper stickers no longer symbolize an attempt to distinguish just and unjust authority. They symbolize an attitude of opposing authority.
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.
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.
Maybe before we can build great monuments to leaders we have to relearn the art of following.
Then it gets really good.
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.
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.
None of these ideas—the contempt for individualism, the deference to authority, the yearning for mass conformity in pursuit of some Great Cause, the Internet as warning of our coming dystopia, the unabashed elitism—are particularly new from Brooks. But he isn’t generally so comically explicit about them. Here’s his closer:
To have good leaders you have to have good followers — able to recognize just authority, admire it, be grateful for it and emulate it.
I’m going to treat this nonsense with far more respect than it deserves.
Let’s set aside Brooks’ contempt for individualism for a moment. Let’s just look at his fondness for elites and “just authority.” Both of these assume that our elites and political leaders get to become elites and political leaders because of merit. For Brooks, this rises out a Burkean fondness for tradition and institutions—we should defer to the elites our institutions produce because our institutions were built and shaped by the wisdom and experience of those who came before us.
The problem of course is that it’s far from given that those who came before us were all that wise. There’s a reason why we’ve abandoned institutions like the divine right of kings, slavery, Jim Crow, colonialism, and the subjugation of women. The people who came before us also built into our modern institutions perverse incentives that make “questioning authority” not only permissible, but obligatory.
Brooks himself, for example, recently wrote that anyone who has read the New Yorker story on Cameron Todd Willingham should question the wisdom of the death penalty. But if the criminal justice system—an institution we’ve been shaping and molding since the birth of the country, and one that (allegedly) rests on the pretty fundamental values of fairness and equality before the law—can still produce such unjust results, after 236 years of opportunity for fine-tuning, and in the very cases where one would think it would be most cautious; if it continues to produce leadership like the district attorneys who keep pursuing these cases, and who keep fighting to keep exonorees in prison—these would all be strong indications that maybe this particular institution and those like it ought to be questioned. As should the leaders it produces. Why is it that prosecutors are rewarded for putting people in prison, but rarely punished for abusing their authority? Why do even the “good” cops lie and cover up for the bad ones? It’s rather absurd to think that institutions loaded with bad incentives and that produce bad outcomes far too often for comfort will somehow also produce good leaders that needn’t be scrutinzed.
And that’s merely the institution with which I’m most familiar. We could also look to our religious institutions. There’s Catholicism, the largest religion in the world—and also the one where the church’s leaders and elites spent decades covering up the sexual abuse of tens of thousands of children, despicable acts also committed . . . by the church’s leadership. We could look to the never-ending scandals on the protestant side, from religious leaders stealing from their flocks, to the perennial virulently anti-gay church leader caught with his pants down. I’m not attacking any particular religion or religion in general, here. I’m just pointing out the absurdity of Brooks’ notion that we should defer to elites and authority figures simply by virtue of the fact that they are elites and authority figures.
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.
Politics—the quest for power because you’re sure that you, more than others, know what’s best for everyone else—has always been a profession worth ridiculing, going back to the satirists who found plenty to ridicule in the earliest democratic institutions in Rome and Greece. But here in America we have a political process—another institution subject to 236 years of fine-tuning—that’s particularly cartoonish. The set of skills it takes to get elected and achieve success in politics are not only the sorts of traits you’d never want in the people who govern you, they’re actually character flaws. They’re the sorts of traits decent people try to teach out of their children. To be successful at politics, you need to be deceitful, manipulative, conniving, and mostly devoid of principle. (Principled politicians are rarely remembered as “great legislators.” And historians bestow greatness on the presidents most willing to wage war, accumulate power, and exceed their constitutional authority.) The most successful politicians sell voters on their strong convictions and principles, and then, once elected, they do as they’re told, in order to accumulate power and status within the party.
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.
People like David Brooks think people rise to positions of power and status because they’re better, wiser, or otherwise more meritorious than the rest of us—they’re “Great Men” touched by the hand of God. (But only if we get out of their way!) He thinks people achieve political power because they exemplify the best in us. We “bad followers” recognize that they usually embody the worst. We don’t buy the idea that people who have the power to tell other people what to do are inherently worth obeying simply because they’ve managed to get themselves into a position where they get to tell other people what to do. In fact, we think there’s good reason to believe the institutions that confer telling-people-what-to-do authority grant that authority to all the wrong people, and for all the wrong reasons.
Individualism is of course worth embracing and championing for its own sake. But celebrating and promoting individualism is as much about recognizing, fearing, and guarding against the corruption of power as it is about preserving the right to do your own thing. When a flawed individual (and that would be all of us) makes mistakes, he affects only himself and the people who associate with him. When a flawed political leader (and that would be all of them) makes mistakes, we’re all affected, whether we chose to associate with that leader or not. And the more we conform, follow, and entrust our political leaders with power, the more susceptible and vulnerable we are to their flaws and mistakes.