[Stephan Pastis, Pearls Before Swine, 8/16/09]
What? Abolish tenure? Am I — long-tenured professor and one-time university administrator — really saying that?
Well, no. Not regarding academic tenure. I’m thinking of a completely different category of tenure: the tenure the New York Times bestows on its columnists.
Growing up, I knew something was wrong. I would read one Arthur Krock column after another and never figure out why he kept filling space. Then there was Flora Lewis. And now? Yes, once again, it’s time to complain about David Brooks. (See here and here and here and here and here.) What’s with that guy anyway? He’s so totally full of you-know-what.
Two days ago, in his now-famous The Follower Problem, Brooks offered his latest take on what’s wrong with the rest of us. Only by reading it in its entirety can you properly appreciate how dickish Brooks is. Here’s a sample (emphasis mine).
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. 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.
In his memoir, “At Ease,” Eisenhower delivered the following advice: “Always try to associate yourself with and learn as much as you can from those who know more than you do, who do better than you, who see more clearly than you.” Ike slowly mastered the art of leadership by becoming a superb apprentice.
To have good leaders you have to have good followers — able to recognize just authority, admire it, be grateful for it and emulate it. Those skills are required for good monument building, too.
I am so so grateful for our leaders. Where do I begin? Let’s see. There was LBJ. He sent thousands to Vietnam to die in order to look strong. And Nixon. He said he would bring them home, but sent more, and bombed the crap out of Hanoi for no good reason on the eve of a peace agreement. Should I go on? Well, let’s jump ahead a few decades. Bush led us into war on lies so he could one-up his father. Obama kills selected lucky duckies — US citizens aren’t exempt — in countries we’re not at war with because, well, I suppose because he’s extraordinary and we trust his discretion. Oh, and what about all those leaders of financial institutions who destroyed the economy? Extraordinary as well.
I must have an attitude problem. Good thing Brooks is on the case.
Without naming names, Brooks’ neighbor down the NYT hallway, Paul Krugman, slipped in a comment today. Writing a blog post about a Bloomberg article with the title “Hungary Lauds Hitler Ally Horthy As Orban Fails To Stop Hatred,” Krugman concludes: “But remember, the big problem is that the public isn’t showing enough deference to the elite.”
Does the NYT have a tenure review process? If not they certainly should. If so, time to set it in motion. And when they’re done with Brooks, they can turn to Tom “suck-on-this” Friedman.
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.