21 February 2006
20 February 2006
A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor
I started working on this article several weeks ago, but a column in today’s New York Times is timely: Paul Krugman argues for “The Mensch Gap,” and draws on this Yiddish word to go after America’s political leadership; a mensch, Krugman writes, is an “upstanding person who takes responsibility for his actions” – something that certainly has not happened much in the administration of President George W. Bush. But what is missing from American discourse – political and otherwise – is so much more than just an ability to acknowledge and accept one’s mistakes (crucial though that is). People expect a number of things from their leaders, including a sense of vision – how the community might look to the future – a moral compass, and an inherent belief in their community and its values.
Seen in that light, America should be in good shape. Our communities are filled with people who talk about vision, morals, and the underlying strength of the people ad nauseum. Politicians and business executives lead the charge, and even in communities facing difficult straights – such as Detroit, and the surrounding swath of cities and states affected by the mismanagement at General Motors and Ford – there is no lack of praise for the hard working men and women who live there, or their deeply-held, church-going values. Similarly, leaders of charities note the generosity of the American people, who give of their time and money to support the struggle against hunger or homelessness or breast cancer. And then there are arts and culture organizations, which have enjoyed a massive boom in the last three decades, and where just about any person anywhere is willing to stand up and publicly proclaim the creativity of their organization and the people who support it, and how valuable it is to the community. We can’t get enough.
Excuse my cynicism, but does anyone take all this talk seriously anymore? Forget the philosophy texts, one’s Locke or Smith or Lao Tsu, or even the New Testament gospels and the story of Jesus of Nazareth; if there’s one philosopher left who matters, it would have to be Machiavelli. Look at what seems to matter most as part of leadership in America: nothingness. Nothingness beyond even the horrors of pandering, beyond corruption or the undue influence of lobbyists or pathetically-obvious cronyism. Somehow Americans have lost their understanding of what leadership means. Instead, what we value most are those who project themselves as leaders while doing the most to serve themselves above all, as transparently and obliviously as possible. How truly American!
In national politics, the opportunities are ripe for this kind of behavior. President George W. Bush often acts as though he understands ideas of leadership: he acts assertive, he has lead us into war (always a sign of great leadership, yes?), and he invokes broad moral frameworks whenever he speaks. But these are constructs so broad as to be utterly useless. America under President Bush values democracy the same way it did under Ronald Reagan: as rhetoric. We don’t really mean it, nor do we really care; which is why we: support faux-democratic dictatorships like Egypt’s; have fights with struggling democracies like Venezuela; can’t see the obvious reality of the Palestinian Authority’s “democracy,” so our Secretary of State winds up surprised at Hamas’ rather democratic electoral victory in occupied Palestine; and all the while democracy at home is undermined by attacks on Constitutional rights, such as the 4th Amendment protection against unreasonable searches. All in the name of (what else) democracy.
This is a bi-partisan problem, too, no question about that. Molly Ivins recently summarized her objections to Hillary Clinton as presidential candidate, writing “Enough triangulation, calculation and equivocation.” No kidding! Howard Dean, where are you? Oh, right – you’re out there leading the Democratic Party, not fighting to lead a democracy; too bad those aren’t the same thing! Clinton and Dean can both get pretty good with words when they want to, but since none of the words are backed up with action – how about new legislation to address health care or retirement challenges? maybe something designed to protect our civil liberties, or to close down that illegal jail on our occupied part of Cuba – it is hard to see that it makes any difference anyway. What really matters to Dean, and Clinton, and others of their ilk is greater glory to themselves. To paraphrase John Lennon, it’s all about “Power to my people.”
Politics is almost too easy a target, though. Alas, our charitable culture is too much the same. I’m not even talking about the endless mounds of solicitation letters that arrive each day, the sense that for every dollar given to a museum or a homeless shelter or a university, they’ll tell you another five are needed. No doubt the “needs” are real – but I think many of these organizations have lost touch with the role they should play in their communities, serving not just their own audiences but standing up for the values that are supposed to be embedded in their institution.
Look at two terrific examples from the New York arts scene. In 1999, the Brooklyn Museum of Art put up what many considered to be a questionable exhibition of contemporary art, called “Sensation.” Questionable or not (on aesthetic or financial grounds), when the Museum was attacked by local politicians because of some of the art included in the show, it fought back – it stood up for what it believed were the free speech values embedded in its artistic enterprise, and argued effectively that those values are as important to all of New York as to any one person who chooses to patronize the “Sensation” exhibition. It was messy, but in the Museum’s victory, the real winners were New Yorkers whose fundamental right to a range of points of view – a range entirely in keeping with the city’s equally diverse population – was preserved. Contrast that with the collapse, six years later, of the Drawing Center’s plan to be included in the cultural development plan for the World Trade Center site. When attacked by their fellow Americans (and supported by some muckraking journalists) on the grounds that even the mere prospect of challenging art is too challenging by far to be included on such holy land, the Drawing Center buckled. With nary a peep, all things considered. Perhaps this was for the best; the Center got a significant buy-out, a pay-off to walk away quietly and find a new space elsewhere; it is likely to lead to the strengthening of this quiet-but-important organization. Yet the real loser here – consistent with the whole premise of missing American leadership – is not the Drawing Center, which got something, but New Yorkers, who are left holding the bag on a dismal, discouraging plan to rebuild at Ground Zero. We now have the worst of both worlds: dullard architecture combined with a vigorous plan for embedding in the site the very best of Bush-and-Pataki anti-intellectual anti-culture. Bravo. Now that’s leadership!
The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC is currently showing an exhibition called Dada, a major survey of the art movement by the same name. I just saw the exhibition, which is artistically stimulating – and is so thoroughly relevant to contemporary American culture and politics that it should be required viewing for high school kids in the DC-Maryland-Virginia region. Image after image exploring the connections between man and machine in the era of World War I, as mechanized prosthetic limbs became more common. (Sound familiar? The Times just did a big series on the costs of war to life and limb.) Word after word of nonsense, recordings exploring the impact of authoritatively-spoken strings of consonants and vowels, early silent films, including one with a cannon’s eye view out onto a city, as a shell is loaded into the muzzle. Over and over, room after room, the connections between art, politics, and life are intertwined; for the artists of the Dada movement, they seemed inextricable and so, what we are left with decades later, is a thorough record of an artistic movement haunted by a world gone horribly wrong.
It makes me wonder what we will be left with, and what generations after us will see and think of us and the world we live in. As Walt Kelly wrote for Pogo, “we have met the enemy and he is us.”
12 February 2006
Nonetheless, more food-for-thought is on the way. Coming soon will be:
1) An article on environmental issues, and whether we're kidding ourselves about it all.
2) More on feminism (etc.), with a review of Wendy Shalit's A Return To Modesty.
3) Some musings on the value, and delusions, of leadership. Or maybe that's "leadership."
Thanks for being patient!