Now Bobo has turned into an art critic. In “The Follower Problem” he gurgles that some of our more recent national memorials expose a modern inability to describe and proclaim an authority that is just. Mr. Nocera has a question in “How Not to Solve a Problem:” Wasn’t Europe paying attention when Lehman Brothers imploded? The response to the euro-zone crisis makes you wonder. Mr. Bruni, in “An Election Half Empty,” says the 2012 presidential race isn’t about how to soar but how not to slide. Here’s Bobo:
If you go to the Lincoln or Jefferson memorials in Washington, you are invited to look up in admiration. Lincoln and Jefferson are presented as the embodiments of just authority. They are strong and powerful but also humanized. Jefferson is a graceful aristocratic democrat. Lincoln is sober and enduring. Both used power in the service of higher ideas, which are engraved nearby on the walls.
The monuments that get built these days are mostly duds. That’s because they say nothing about just authority. The World War II memorial is a nullity. It tells you nothing about the war or why American power was mobilized to fight it. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. memorial brutally simplifies its subject’s nuanced and biblical understanding of power. It gives him an imperious and self-enclosed character completely out of keeping with his complex nature.
As Michael J. Lewis of Williams College has noted, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial transforms a jaunty cavalier into a “differently abled and rather prim nonsmoker.” Instead of a crafty wielder of supreme power, Roosevelt is a kindly grandpa you would want to put your arm around for a vacation photo.
The proposed Eisenhower memorial shifts attention from his moments of power to his moments of innocent boyhood. The design has been widely criticized, and last week the commission in charge agreed to push back the approval hearing until September.
Even the more successful recent monuments evade the thorny subjects of strength and power. The Vietnam memorial is about tragedy. The Korean memorial is about vulnerability.
Why can’t today’s memorial designers think straight about just authority?
Some of the reasons are well-known. We live in a culture that finds it easier to assign moral status to victims of power than to those who wield power. Most of the stories we tell ourselves are about victims who have endured oppression, racism and cruelty.
Then there is our fervent devotion to equality, to the notion that all people are equal and deserve equal recognition and respect. It’s hard in this frame of mind to define and celebrate greatness, to hold up others who are immeasurably superior to ourselves.
But the main problem is our inability to think properly about how power should be used to bind and build. Legitimate power is built on a series of paradoxes: that leaders have to wield power while knowing they are corrupted by it; that great leaders are superior to their followers while also being of them; that the higher they rise, the more they feel like instruments in larger designs. The Lincoln and Jefferson memorials are about how to navigate those paradoxes.
These days many Americans seem incapable of thinking about these paradoxes. Those “Question Authority” bumper stickers no longer symbolize an attempt to distinguish just and unjust authority. They symbolize an attitude of opposing authority.
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’m sure Bobo would love to have everyone turn into good, obedient little followers so he and the MOTU in his neighborhood can tell us how to behave and what to believe in. Fuckers. Here’s Mr. Nocera:
There is a delicious moment in the HBO film “Too Big to Fail” when Christine Lagarde, then France’s minister of finance, calls Hank Paulson, the U.S. Treasury secretary. It’s September 2008, and Lehman Brothers has just imploded after the government refused to bail it out. Panic is in the air.
“Hank,” she scolds him. “How could you let Lehman fail? What on earth were you thinking?” She pleads with him to save A.I.G., which appears to be the next domino poised to fall. “This is not just an American problem,” she concludes. (Note: I served as a consultant on the movie.)
Oh, the irony! Here we are, more than three-and-a-half years later, during which time the euro zone has repeatedly flirted with financial catastrophe. Lagarde now leads the International Monetary Fund, which exists, in large part, to help countries survive such catastrophes. Yet neither she nor anyone else in Europe has been willing or able to do more than use Band-Aids to stanch the bleeding.
A euro-zone meltdown, if it comes to that, would be devastating to the already battered economies of Europe, leading to widespread credit contraction, mass unemployment and depressed economies across the Continent. But it would undoubtedly take a toll on our economy as well — and it would be a huge blow to President Obama’s re-election prospects. To paraphrase Lagarde, this is not just a European problem.
The American and European responses to their respective financial crises are studies in contrast. The Bush administration and the Federal Reserve took an “all-hands-on-deck” approach: not just saving A.I.G. and recapitalizing the banks, but buying billions of dollars worth of subprime mortgages that were poisoning the banking system, and guaranteeing virtually all bank debt. Say what you will about the moral hazard that comes with bailing out too-big-to-fail banks, the strategy worked. By announcing to the world that it would serve as the lender of last resort, the federal government prevented a banking collapse, and, quite possibly, a depression.
In the euro zone, there is no lender of last resort. Germany, which has the money and the clout to play that role, refuses to. The European Central Bank is constrained by politics and its own narrow sense of mission. Just last week, it declined to lower interest rates — in no small part, said its president, Mario Draghi, because “I don’t think it would be right for monetary policy to fill other institutions’ lack of action.”
Throughout the euro crisis, the response of Europe’s political leaders has been tepid, reluctant and unconvincing. They are willing to kick the can — and no more. The decision over the weekend to lend Spain $125 billion to shore up its tottering banking system is typical. For one thing, it’s unlikely to be enough. For another, it will do very little to improve Spain’s underlying problems — including 25 percent unemployment, an economy in steep decline and a growing federal deficit that may require its own bailout. You wonder why people are already speculating that Italy will be next? Because there is no investor confidence that the problem has been solved. Why would there be? It hasn’t been.
One critical difference between America and the euro zone is that we have one government and they have 17. For all our fractious politics, in September 2008, our government’s financial officials spoke with one voice. In Europe, the politicians and finance ministers in each of the 17 countries that make up the euro zone have to deal with their own nations’ political dynamics.
The Germans are sick of being asked to save what they see as the ne’er-do-well Greeks. The Greeks are just as sick of the austerity programs that the Germans have imposed on them. On Sunday, Greece will go to the polls and could well elect a government that will renege on the deals it cut to get bailouts and exit the euro zone. France’s new president, Françoise Hollande, said during his campaign that he would reopen the fiscal treaty that European governments agreed to in March because it didn’t do enough to promote growth.
And on and on. It is often said that Europe needs tighter political and fiscal integration to save the euro, but there is no political will for that, and likely never will be. Sovereign governments, it turns out, do not willingly cede their own sovereignty. If the euro zone is to be saved, Europe’s voters will have to save it. Everything they’ve done in the past year suggests that they would rather risk financial disaster than be wedded to countries with mores and politics very different from their own. The reason Europe lacks a lender of last resort is that its citizens don’t want one.
As for us, all we can do is watch and wait and hope for the best. But don’t be too surprised if President Obama calls Angela Merkel someday soon and asks: “How could you let the euro fail? What on earth were you thinking?”
I hope you have found yourself a comfy spot in the handbasket… Here’s Mr. Bruni:
It was a statement of such unqualified certainty that Jeb Bush made it pretty much in passing, as if it required no elaboration, accommodated no dissent and was the obvious starting point from which all political discussion should flow.
“We’re in decline,” he said. Boom. Just like that. Meaning America. And suggesting that other D words — dip, downturn, even depression — didn’t sufficiently reflect reality, perhaps because they connote temporary fluctuations instead of an inexorable arc.
Bush, the former governor of Florida, was speaking on Monday morning to journalists at a Bloomberg View breakfast in Manhattan, and he was displaying the kind of candor you seldom get from someone still in, or angling for, elective office.
He almost certainly doesn’t harbor any secret desire to be the Republicans’ vice-presidential nominee. If he did, he wouldn’t have slammed the no-compromises orthodoxies of his own party. (He added that Democrats are comparably rigid.) He wouldn’t have spoken up for the occasional wisdom of tax increases or for an approach to immigration more progressive than the one Mitt Romney has proposed.
And he wouldn’t have rendered such an unequivocal verdict on the country’s situation.
“We’re in very difficult times right now, very different times than we’ve been,” he told us, sounding at first like any other politician, then segueing to a darker place. “We’re in decline.” He added that “that distinguishes us — where we are” from past moments in history.
I can’t imagine Romney or President Obama uttering a statement so unforgiving. But I do get the sense that they, along with much of the electorate, feel at least somewhat the same way.
And I think that Bush opened a window into the most striking aspect of the 2012 presidential election: the degree to which pessimism has supplanted optimism in a country usually inclined toward the latter and predisposed toward politicians fluent in the language of uplift.
Where’s the uplift this time around?
Romney’s not deft at it, and is largely content to frame the entire contest in terms of President Obama’s economic stewardship and whether voters dare wager four more years on it. That approach preys on anxiety more than it plays to aspirations, and some of his fellow Republicans rightly question the wisdom of it.
“I don’t think we win if it’s just about a referendum on Barack Obama,” said Scott Walker, the Wisconsin governor, on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday. He articulated the wish that Romney “goes big and he goes bold” from here on out.
On “Fox News Sunday,” Mitch Daniels, the Indiana governor, said: “The American people, I think, will rightly demand to know something more than he’s not President Obama.”
“He better have an affirmative, constructive message, one of hope,” Daniels added.
These bits of advice for Romney amounted to Republicans’ gentler version of the upbraiding that Democrats gave President Obama a few weeks ago, when his campaign seemed poised to be all Bain all the time, a steady blast of negativity from a president who once positioned himself as a transformational figure — and a transcendent one.
Now he finds himself mired in a tedious, dispiriting back-and-forth. Romney charges that the economy is worse than Obama is willing to acknowledge; Obama says it’s not as bad as Romney maintains and a whole lot better than it might have been.
They squabble over pejoratives. They tussle over gradations of distress. And while they pay too little attention to grand visions, their aides work overtime on gaffe patrol. Pettiness is pessimism’s flower.
Both Obama and Romney are held back by budgetary and political dynamics that stand in the way of many sweeping initiatives. And both understand that there are very real limits to America’s agency in its own short-term economic fate, limits that Jeb Bush, liberated from the calculations of a candidacy, described bluntly Monday morning.
“I think we’re in a period here for the next year of pretty slow growth,” he said. “I don’t see how we get out, notwithstanding who’s president.”
Although many others might have, he assigned no culpability to the previous occupant of the White House, his older brother. And he added, “We’ve got major headwinds with Europe and a slowdown for Asia as well.”
Right now there’s a haplessness to the country’s station. Combine the size of our debt with the scope of our problems and it’s hard not to conclude that we’ve turned some corner or hit some inflection point or arrived at some crossroads: choose your phrase. It’s definitely not morning in America.
And no one should lie to us about that. We’re in these dusky straits because we ignored hard truths.
But a certain measure of optimism isn’t foolish. It sustains and rallies people. It charts the path toward solutions. It’s what a leader must find and persuasively project. And there’s a scary dearth of it in this campaign.