Tuesday, October 7, 2008

A Moment of Mediocrities: Serious Reflections on the Dearth of American Leaders

As the day goes on: an article at today’s Huffington Post website demands serious attention—Steven Weber’s “We Are in Danger” (www.huffingtonpost.com/steven-weber/we-are-in-danger_b_132654.html). Weber takes on the overt hate-mongering to which the McCain-Palin ticket is now stooping.

As he notes, if we let this happen and sit on the fence, if we let the hate pour out and do nothing, we are in real danger as a nation. Allowing a small group of citizens to incite hatred, while the rest of us stand by in silence, is a preliminary to fascism.

It perturbs me more than I can say that McCain and Palin have not only allowed people at their rallies to shout that Obama is a terrorist while they have done nothing to quell such hate speech, but that they have actively egged this rhetoric on. But even more disturbing to me is Sarah Palin’s absolute silence when someone at one of her rallies recently shouted that Obama should be killed.

As this goes on, where are the Christian leaders who tell us we should vote on the basis of candidates’ stands about life issues? I’m not hearing a peep—not even from the Catholic bishops, who have (many of them) done about everything but stand on their heads to instruct us to vote for the “pro-life” candidates.

Our own silence speaks volumes about us as a nation—our refusal to raise our voices in protest when we are offered morally vacuous leaders who are caricatures of everything authentic leadership stands for. As Matt Taibbi recently noted, "The scariest thing about John McCain's running mate isn't how unqualified she is -- it's what her candidacy says about America" ("Mad Dog Palin," www.alternet.org/election08/100551/mad_dog_palin).

And as Bob Herbert observes, "This is such a serious moment in American history that it’s hard to believe that someone with Ms. Palin’s limited skills could possibly be playing a leadership role" (Bob Herbert, "Palin's Alternate Universe," www.nytimes.com/2008/10/04/opinion/04herbert.html). Arianna Huffington was absolutely right when she noted last Sunday, “When it comes to leadership, this last week proved we are living in a moment of mediocrities—a long moment” (www.huffingtonpost.com/arianna-huffington/sunday-roundup_b_131827.html).

A moment of mediocrities: one in which there is no possibility of looking to areas outside the political arena, like higher education or the churches, for viable models of alternative leadership. In a column on the role of the Catholic bishops in the current election in the National Catholic Reporter today, theologian Fr. Richard McBrien notes that in the long papal reign of John Paul II, the unchecked power of the papacy resulted in a crop of non-leaders appointed not because of their leadership skills or strength of character, but for their willingness to say yes to the man at top (http://ncronline3.org/drupal/?q=node/2089):

In a question and answer period, on a different subject, he asked the audience to imagine a scenario in which President Bush “were in office for life and that he had the authority to make appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court and throughout the federal court system at will, without even a U.S. Senate to hold hearings and vote on the nominees.”

“That's exactly what Pope John Paul II -- or any other pope for that matter -- was able to do in his long term of office, and that is why the Catholic church finds itself today -- and especially during the height of the sexual-abuse crisis in the priesthood -- with such a dearth of pastoral leadership.”

McBrien said John Paul’s greatest failing, as pope, were the bishops he named. “Men were appointed bishops or promoted within the hierarchy on the basis of loyalty to the Holy See rather than on the basis of pastoral aptitude, theological sophistication and leadership skills.”

The willingness to say yes to those who give us orders, rather than pastoral aptitude and leadership skills: I think that if any aspect of my contact with some conspicuously bad leaders in academic life has given me most reason to ask what I consider good leadership to be, it has been the moral bankruptcy of some of the church-affiliated academic “leaders” I know. The lack of character. The willingness to lie. The willingness to treat other human beings as things to be moved around on a game board rather than flesh and blood persons with real lives and real emotions. The belief that, in the final analysis, only I and my feelings count, that only I have rights, and that if I can get away with it, then it must be right—especially when the object of my scorn is already a member of a despised group that has no legal rights.

Character: it’s absolutely essential to sound leadership. And it begins with us. Until we demand it first in ourselves, and then in those who lead us, we’ll keep being offered the kind of “leaders” who are now inching us towards total dissolution as a viable democratic society. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for: when we expect more of ourselves, then perhaps we’ll be offered leaders who reflect that heightened expectation.