Monday, September 29, 2008

Bread and Circuses: Reflections on the Chicanery of Threatened "Leaders"

Pundits are already speculating on some of the “October surprise” tricks that may soon be employed to try to convince us to re-elect those now in power, come November (see As with previous elections, a sudden drop in the price of gasoline? New terrorist threats?

The blatant chicanery of some of these maneuvers in the recent past has me thinking about what leaders are. Or, more to the point, what they aren’t. As someone who has worked in middle management in academic life (not to mention as a human being who tries to use his head), I’ve had the opportunity to see similar maneuvers first-hand. And to be surprised at the boldness of them, and their implication that educated folks are too unintelligent to see that they are being manipulated.

As I watch the election process unfold, I’m watching for the following typical tricks of “leaders” who are in over their heads, but unwilling to admit this—leaders who lack the moral force and depth of conviction and intelligence to command respect because of who they are, and not because of their ability to play games:

1. When the going gets rough, change the subject. When you’re questioned about the real problem, invent another one and respond to that question, rather than to the one you’ve been asked.

2. Simply ignore questions. Create a shield around yourself when you’re asked to answer questions. Characterize those asking questions as disrespectful. Make yourself inaccessible. Speak through mouthpieces.

3. Reassert your right to rule. Use God, if necessary, to back up that right.

4. Go on the attack and vilify those asking you to be accountable, transparent, thoughtful, respectful. Turn the tables. Claim that they are the problem, not you. Become the offended party even when you yourself have doled out misery to those asking you to account for your injustice and cruelty.

5. Cook the books. Make it look as if you are doing a bang-up job. If necessary, transfer money all over the place to show a huge increase in income.

6. Cook up lots of nifty colored charts with bright lines showing increases in good areas and decreases in negative ones. Provide so much clever paperwork for those who supervise you or for the electorate that they will be transfixed by the paperwork and will not likely ask inconvenient questions.

7. For meetings at which you are to answer questions from your supervisors or the electorate, engineer things such that any subordinate who might be inclined to speak truth or to say more than the canned speech you have provided him/her will not be present.

8. Circulate disinformation (aka lies) about critics, to disempower them in advance of any meeting at which you have to account for your leadership to a governing body or the electorate.

9. Seek to manipulate media coverage, especially through a flurry of disinformation pieces about the bang-up job you’ve been doing, right before a meeting of your supervisors or an election.

10. Give gifts. Make promises, lavish ones, even when it’s obvious to anyone with a brain that you can never fulfill these. Bread and circuses are always useful at distracting folks’ attention.

I’ve seen “leaders” of various sorts—in churches, in the academy, in political life—employ all of these cheap tricks. Some “leaders” do so routinely when the heat is on, right before an evaluation process, a meeting at which they have to account to those with supervisory authority over them, or an election.

The shock is that these “leaders” apparently think we can’t see how we’re being grossly manipulated. And even more shocking, perhaps they’re right, after all. If they weren’t right, then how could these bogus “leaders” continue in power?

Bread and circuses worked wondrously well for the Roman emperors. Which says as much about those they ruled as it does about the emperors employing such cheap tricks.

The fact that bread and circuses seem to work well for us today—and that we tolerate "leaders" as ill-suited to lead as many Roman emperors were—says a great deal about the state to which we have brought ourselves through our lack of critical acumen, our willingness to be manipulated by those claiming to represent God, our cravenness, and, perhaps most of all, our sheer indolent greed. We do ultimately get the leaders we deserve.