Reading notes: On leadership and Brecht and writing

From a commentary on the “leadership industry” in the 2/29/16 New Yorker, by Joshua Rothman:

“Crises of leadership are the order of the day at the beginning of the twenty-first century,” Elizabeth Samet writes, in the introduction to “Leadership: Essential Writings by Our Greatest Thinkers” (Norton). “If we live in a world of crisis,” she continues, “we also live in a world that romanticizes crisis—that finds in it fodder for an addiction to the twenty-four-hour news cycle, multiple information streams, and constant stimulation.” Samet believes that our growing addiction to the narrative of crisis has gone hand in hand with an increasing veneration of leadership—a veneration that leaves us vulnerable to “the false prophets, the smooth operators, the gangsters, and the demagogues” who say they can save us. She quotes John Adams, who suggested, in a letter to a friend, that there was something both undemocratic and unwise in the lionization of leadership. The country won’t improve, Adams wrote, until the people begin to “consider themselves as the fountain of power.” He went on, “They must be taught to reverence themselves, instead of adoring their servants, their generals, admirals, bishops, and statesmen.” It can be dangerous to decide that you need to be led.

And yet there’s clearly another side to the matter. We learn by following; we entrust decisions to leaders because we either can’t or don’t want to face constant meetings and collective votes; we’re habit-bound and depend on those who are more inventive and adventurous to discover new ways.

Bertolt Brecht, the crafty devil, encapsulated the whole dilemma in an exchange in his play Life of Galileo, which I immediately thought of when I read the passage above. An online synopsis of the play, which is excerpted from work by Martin Esslin, conveys it:

June 22, 1633: Galileo’s pupils, among them Andrea Sarti, grown to manhood, refuse to believe that Galileo will recant his teaching. The tolling of the bells announces that he has recanted. He enters, a broken man. Andrea cries out: “Pity the country that has no heroes!” Galileo replies: “No. Pity the country that needs heroes!”

Who’s right? All I’ll say here is that, from the standpoint of the craft of writing, both are. As Friedrich Hebbel reportedly said (this is widely quoted but seldom attributed in detail), “In a good play, everyone is right.” One will be hard-pressed to write a didactic play or story while following that rule. Laurie Penny, who has lately expanded from social and political commentary into science fiction, illustrated the problem in her story “The Killing Jar,” published in Motherboard’s Terraform series in January; I felt at the end that justice had been served, and yet I also felt, at least partly, that a straw man had been set up and knocked down. But this is matter for another day.

To return to the original subject—leadership, especially in its political dimension—one further note is in order. In 2008, Andrew Bacevich, a former Army officer who now teaches at Boston University, published a book called The Limits of Power, which, to judge from an Economist review (which oddly neglected to give the book’s title), takes a critical stance on the “veneration of leadership” that’s reminiscent of the passage with which I began. I’ve thought of the following remark more than once when looking at the front pages lately:

[Bacevich] is an acidulous critic of the incumbent administration and its military servants. Yet he does not comfort himself with the idea that the election of a new president would easily change things for the better. “No doubt the race for the presidency matters. It just doesn’t matter as much as the media’s obsessive coverage suggests.”


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