Failures of Leadership

I don’t like generational sniping. First of all, there’s no contest to win Greatest Generation, pace Tom Brokaw. Second, I think it obscures complexity and makes it easier for us to fetishize the good old days while dismissing the contributions of the young (and thereby letting the young off the hook in the process), butthere’s something in this otherwise messy piece that I’ve talked about a lot:

We looked to Washington to lead us after September 11th. I remember telling my college roommates, in a spate of emotion, that I was thinking of enlisting in the military in the days after the attacks. I expected legions of us — at the orders of our leader — to do the same. But nobody asked us. Instead we were told togo shopping.

The times following September 11th called for leadership, not reckless, gluttonous tax cuts. But our leaders then, as now, seemed more concerned with flattery. Then -House Majority Leader and now-convicted felon Tom Delay told us, “nothing is more important in the face of a war than cutting taxes.”Not exactly Churchillian stuff.

Those of us who did enlist were ordered into Iraq on the promise of being “greeted as liberators,” in the words of our then-vice president. Several thousand of us are dead from that false promise.

We looked for leadership from our churches, and were told to fight not poverty or injustice, but gay marriage. In the Catholic Church, we were told to blame the media, not the abusive priests, not the bishops, not the Vatican, for making us feel that our church has failed us in its sex abuse scandal and cover-up.

I can see where you’d read that and say, look, don’t wait for a leader, just be one, it’s not magic. I think a lot of our problems have come from the idea that we have to sit around and wait until just the right, perfect, sinless person comes along and THEN we’ll get off the couch. THEN it won’t be a risk of any kind to do what we’ve known for years we should do, which is fight for the powerless against the great. Just get off your entitled ass already, Generation X/Y/Whatever.

This is speaking to something else, though, and it’s how the leaders we do have underestimated us at a critical point in our history. They took people who were, by and large, willing to do just about anything after 9/11. Those who weren’t taking the opportunity to be bigoted assholes and burn down Pakistani-owned gas stations were as ready as anyone sitting by the radio listening to FDR to be called upon to serve. And when no such moment came, the adrenaline and energy went directionless, turned inward, became exhaustion and fear and despair.

We fear asking great things of others because we’re afraid we’ll lose them. If you grab your pennant and jump on your horse and yell, “This way!” and no one follows you, you’ll look like an asshole, right? Better to mill around in the field with everybody else. I think, and I know how ridiculous this sounds because how much power do these people have, that they’re actually afraid tolead. Look at the way Democrats always back down, at the first sign of opposition. “Ooh, it’s about to go bad, better cut our losses now.” Even look at the way Republicans always run back to the safest parts of their orthodoxy, to old ideas that even they know won’t accomplish a fraction of what they say they want.

And it’s HORSESHIT. You never lose people because you ask too much of them. You lose people because you ask too little. Eventually everybody’s going to get sick of camp food and sleeping outside in the rain and go home, if nobody says, “this way!” and sounds the call to arms.

Hell, if nobody follows you at leastyou’re going somewhere.


8 thoughts on “Failures of Leadership

  1. At the time, I saved a rant by one of my favorite bloggers, the better to remember that time and how it was :
    But they never were our leaders.
    They told us to be afraid, and they turned us on each other,
    and they gave away our money to their friends
    and killed our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters,
    mothers and fathers, husbands and wives.
    They sniped and they snarled, but they never did lead us.
    They never brought us an inch above ourselves,
    or a millimeter closer together.
    For all their blithering about restoring honor and dignity,
    for all the lofty words that come from their speechwriters’ offices,
    they are small men, and their vision only extends to power, not poetry.
    They don’t understand what service to your country means;
    look at their service records.
    They don’t understand what respect that should entail;
    look what they did to Max Cleland, to John Kerry.
    They don’t understand anything except
    how to step hardest on somebody’s fingers
    on their way up the stairs.
    They got to the top, and had no idea where they were,
    or why. And the mountain’s crashing down on them now,
    so I say again, what exactly did you think was going to happen?
    Small Men
    Posted by Athenae on Wednesday, October 26
    I’m sorry the link no longer works.

  2. I’ve said it before, we don’t need to be told what to do or what the right thing is. We need our leaders/representatives to do their effing job. It’s so hard to affect change from the bottom up, all it takes is one vote from a Ben Nelson or a Lindsey Graham to undo all the work of the 69,456,897 votes for Obama.
    And it’s near impossible for a “leader” to do it on their own, but when you have a mass of people Occupying so many places, then, some leadership working with the people can achieve so much.
    If only we had that leadership, in the Cities, and in the State Legislatures, and in Congress. It’s time for them to stand up, and not be a Mayor Quan or a Mayor Daley and stab the people in the back in order to preserve the orderliness of some little plaza or urban lunch area using the guise of some meaningless city ordinances.
    The Occupation is going to be hard pressed to correct some of the injustices the banksters and the 1% elitists have perpetrated on the rest of us without the cooperation or coincidental concurrence from the putative elected leadership/representatives. We need no more repeats of the Ned Lamont betrayal, and hopefully the widespread and gritty nature of the Occupations will give the left pause to do what’s right this time around.

  3. This is speaking to something else, though, and it’s how the leaders we do have underestimated us at a critical point in our history.
    And the fear you describe – the pennant on the horse – is real and palpable. Sometimes it goes so deep, it isn’t even fear anymore; it just is.
    But what made them start thinking that way in the first place? Our entire unsustainable national economy is based on the idea that people prefer to run away from problems and uncomfortable situations when they have the means (or credit) to do so. Our entire unsustainable political culture is based on the idea that no one needs to change anyone’s mind, ever, and the focus is always getting more people who already agree with you to the voting booth. At such a point, the “leadership” calculus will always come back to making the safe play, the least uncomfortable policy, the thing that requires the least from the most people in the hopes they will continue to ignore what is really going on.
    The good news is, there are plenty of times in the past where “leaders” have failed in similar ways. This isn’t anything new. That’s why we hold real leaders, heroes, and heroines with such high regard.

  4. I pretty much have stopped following leaders around. Now I follow people like Athenae around (metaphorically, on the internet, not stalker-wise) because they’re interesting and funny and neat folks. Meanwhile I can work on my own science-y projects and yell at the rest of you idiots on the internet for doing stuff wrong, and I can hope to make a bit of a difference each day and have a good time doing it more often than not. Sometimes it even works out.
    Thanks once again for a great essay, A.

  5. We weren’t asked to serve after 9/11 because Bush & his supporters don’t believe in public service. It’s certainly not something THEY aspire to. Spending money, bolstering corporations, now that’s something they can get behind.
    Plus they hate and fear any sort of mass action. Movements have a way of building momentum, deciding their own direction and they’re not polite about it.

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