Comment on This: David Brooks

Administrator’s Note: We’ve been evaluating some of our regular spots and ‘Comment on This’ and ‘A Name Worth Remembering’ will be looking a bit different from here forward. For one thing, you may have noticed Comment on This did not go up yesterday morning. Both Comment on This and A Name Worth Remembering will alternate Wednesday afternoons. Secondly, instead of just a long quote with no commentary, Comment on This will start to be a little more expanded. Here’s the first edition. We continue to be excited for what’s happening and what’s coming; make sure to check back and see some of the other changes taking place.

Last week there was an Op-Ed in the New York Times titled, “The Follower Problem,” that I found incredibly interesting. In his article, David Brooks, in light of the criticism surrounding the proposed Eisenhower monument, compares monuments of famous leaders built today (FDR, Martin Luther King, etc.) with the great monuments of yesterday that so many of us love (Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson), and more importantly, comments on the way these contrasting monument styles illustrate our society’s changing view of leadership.

He writes:

If you go to the Lincoln or Jefferson memorials in Washington, you are invited to look up in admiration. Lincoln and Jefferson are presented as the embodiments of just authority. They are strong and powerful but also humanized. Jefferson is a graceful aristocratic democrat. Lincoln is sober and enduring. Both used power in the service of higher ideas, which are engraved nearby on the walls.

The monuments that get built these days are mostly duds. That’s because they say nothing about just authority. The World War II memorial is a nullity. It tells you nothing about the war or why American power was mobilized to fight it. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. memorial brutally simplifies its subject’s nuanced and biblical understanding of power. It gives him an imperious and self-enclosed character completely out of keeping with his complex nature.

As Michael J. Lewis of Williams College has noted, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial transforms a jaunty cavalier into a “differently abled and rather prim nonsmoker.” Instead of a crafty wielder of supreme power, Roosevelt is a kindly grandpa you would want to put your arm around for a vacation photo.

The proposed Eisenhower memorial shifts attention from his moments of power to his moments of innocent boyhood. The design has been widely criticized, and last week the commission in charge agreed to push back the approval hearing until September.

Even the more successful recent monuments evade the thorny subjects of strength and power. The Vietnam memorial is about tragedy. The Korean memorial is about vulnerability.

“Why can’t today’s memorial designers think straight about just authority?” he asks.

Brooks’s answer:

[. . .] the main problem is our inability to think properly about how power should be used to bind and build. Legitimate power is built on a series of paradoxes: that leaders have to wield power while knowing they are corrupted by it; that great leaders are superior to their followers while also being of them; that the higher they rise, the more they feel like instruments in larger designs. The Lincoln and Jefferson memorials are about how to navigate those paradoxes.

These days many Americans seem incapable of thinking about these paradoxes. Those “Question Authority” bumper stickers no longer symbolize an attempt to distinguish just and unjust authority. They symbolize an attitude of opposing authority.

Brooks continues by discussing our relatively new culture of mass cynicism that constantly assumes the elite are hiding things, that public servants aren’t in it for the public, and that hierarchy should be abandoned. After all, it’s the age of the internet, and authority should be dispersed amongst all people. Brooks notes the formation of groups like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. Then he concludes:

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.

Tell us what you think. Do you agree with Brooks’s assessment that as a society we have lost the ability to recognize and respect just authority? Have we really just fallen into cynicism for no other reason than our own vanity?

What is your view of leadership today? What is your view of one’s role as a follower? How should we view our elected officials?

Make sure to read Brooks’s editorial in full, and leave your comments below.

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