16 October 2010

A People So Good They Don't Need Good Leaders

Without fuel, as they say, the engine won't run. No amount of even the most American hope or optimism is likely ever to change that. And so I keep marveling at all the various things human optimists think we can do without - or even throw out the window - and still be a more or less healthy society.

For one thing, on the whole I'm much too pessimistic about human nature to believe even we Americans can manage things well without fundamentally decent people occupying our political and business leadership. And here I mean an almost tenderly human, ungimmicked, unpretentious kind of decency. One that isn't just humble, or considerate, or conscientious, but all these things combined, even to the point of the closest self-examination. And even, on occasion, to the point of self-distrust. And not just in private relationships - as in being faithful to and caring of one's spouse, but also in public affairs - as in being faithful to and caring of one's constituents and clients. Including, if I may add, those among them who aren't all that well-connected, or up-and-coming, or ideologically of your own persuasion. After all they're your voters and your customers too. But above all, I mean a kind of elementary decency that adamantly refuses to look down on, or string along, or otherwise take advantage of, your average man or woman - no matter how miserably either may fail to live up to your most exalted American expectations.

"Excuse me?" you gasp, mildly appalled. "Average?" Why yes, you know - the kind who aren't quite so politically astute or well-informed, or ambitious for power and influence, or bold and entrepreneurially-minded, as our obviously more enlightened leaders in politics and business. The fact that certain people seem more stupid than you or I (they may simply be more worn-out, or broken-down, or just plain confused and discouraged) is no excuse for either of us taking them to the cleaners. I keep thinking it was Chesterton(?) who wrote - in so many words - that a society which believes its chief moral function is to punish slowness and stupidity will soon find itself rewarding the most accelerated, arrogant and ultimately destructive forms of stupidity. In any case, superior initiative doesn't give you or me rights of ownership or exploitation over anyone - any more than the Biblical Cain, hard-working and enterprising as he was, had the right to take things out on his, let us say, more contemplative brother Abel, simply because his own honest efforts weren't getting the Divine recognition he knew they deserved. And if you think Cain overcame a bad start to finish up a roaring success, just consider how things played out over the next twelve generations (Genesis 4: 23-24; 6: 5-7). In fact, much like nowadays, the time-tested Cainite method of global management was to put only the must ruthless and unscrupulous people in charge of affairs (Genesis 6: 12-13). It must have seemed like a wonderful idea at the start. But I doubt if that was any great help or consolation to the bulk of mankind once a certain unprecedented - and alarmingly steady - rainfall began. And let's not forget that even now there are floods in human affairs that have nothing to do with water. My own best guess is we've been through at least four or five of this latter kind over just the past decade.

And speaking of the past decade, I'm aware that certain unique cultural pressures of our time (c. 1995 - present) are making the averageness of the average man or woman harder than ever to recognize. Indeed, I suspect the recent bent of our culture has been inclining more and more average people to pretend to be - or even worse, to become - far more politically aroused, and socially ambitious, and entrepreneurially aggressive than they are by nature. Or would be by nature, if allowed to follow a bent that was more natural and less culturally obligatory. But even our new self-assertiveness might prove rather a good thing if only these same folks were becoming more activist, ambitious, entrepreneurial, etc, in ways that were intelligent rather than just arrogant, and more considerate and respectful of the needs of others, rather than largely snide and mean-spirited and opportunistic. And even, on occasion, back-stabbing. In short, many of us have been doing our literal damnedest to imitate our political and economic leaders. And not because we've suddenly fallen in love with the rat race, but simply to keep our heads above (flood)water. And that, more than anything else so far, is what continues to amaze me: The extraordinary things we everyday folks are prepared to resort - or stoop? - to, when led to believe that not just our financial well-being but our economic survival is at stake. Like, for instance, taking out mortgages on homes we can't afford (I know, I know, "Where's your vision, man? Where's your optimism?").

But still more amazing to me is the next thing that happens. Because even when we average folks do embrace these "extreme" survival tactics, that in itself is no guarantee of greater respect from our public leaders. Indeed, if anything our leaders may feel all the more at liberty, and even morally justified, in "putting one over" on us. As in "Who cares how much the average jerk gets ripped off, or led down the primrose path? I mean, look at the way he lives. He's just a jerk anyway, right?"

Nor do I believe, even today, that our "newly assertive" average Joes are specially qualified to speak for all the rest of us. Even in these strenuous times, there will always be plenty of us regular folks who don't choose - or who fail miserably - to "better" ourselves in these demanding modern ways. And in that case my original question remains: Just who are even the smartest, most gifted, most driven politicians and businesspeople to step on the rest of us, or push us around, or hoodwink and sell us down the river? I mean, aren't they human too? And don't they therefore also have human - and by implication damnable - souls?

Next, of course, you'll be telling me:
"Why, eternal salvation's got nothing to do with it - that's just the way the real world operates! And all of us, without exception, must needs adapt or die."

But in that case you must admit, the real world has been really running itself into the ground of late. And then what becomes of the poor earthly souls who must needs both adapt and die? Who must needs risk losing not only their souls in the next life, but their shirts - if not their very skins - in this one?

And yes, I'm fully aware that, for at least three decades now, the supreme maxim of our American culture has been "Hey, you snooze you lose." But now really, think about it: Haven't our most energetic, aggressive, enterprising souls been losing enough sleep already? And hasn't their insomnia already produced quite enough loss to go around for one generation? If not for our children? and our children's children?

Finally, there will always be those who argue that, our country having chosen a bad path - and I believe with all my heart we have - we deserve all we get down the road, and worse. But that in turn only makes me wonder: If a fundamentally sick public culture deserves only the sickest, most conscienceless public leaders, how's it ever going to get well?

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