Sunday, November 07, 2010

Taking the Lead

After reading a post on Corrente and having some email exchanges with Lambert (who deserves great thanks for his patience and reasonableness when confronted by crabby bloggers), I'm going to have to call bullshit on the claim that Girl Scouts are rejecting leadership because of endemic lying (and that this is a valid political stance) for a number of reasons. My reasons break into two sets: the structure of the argument itself is fatally flawed and the substance of the argument is tripe.

Let's talk about structure first.

One of my criticisms is the use of adorable children to make an argument about adult actions. Any time someone makes an appeal to the innocence of children and their use as some kind of truth tellers in our society (the Girl Scouts know that leaders are liars!), I will counter back that children are not innocent little darlings (Lord of the Flies anyone?) and that they all too easily influenced to say back what they know the adults around them want to hear. Why? Because they are vulnerable and clever and know that pleasing people with control over their physical well being is a smart thing to do. They are, after all, human. They are susceptible to being influenced, they have wild imaginations, they can misjudge, they can go along to get along. They are particularly likely to behave in a certain way when they have been schooled to provide certain responses. If they've heard an adult in a position of authority repeatedly say something (Blacks are dumb, Jews are greedy, politicians are liars, it is better to give than to receive, Jesus is Lord, etc.), then they are likely to echo that sentiment back to the authority. It's not that they are lying or misrepresenting their own thoughts as much as they may not have a clear opinion and so see nothing wrong with being agreeable to the person in authority.

One of my next criticisms is due to my gender alarm going off. Why is it the GIRL Scouts who are handing back the line that leaders are liars and that they don't want to be compromised by being one? Why is the answer they give back to eschew power rather than sully their purity. Why not say "And I intend to bring my ethical convictions into that area and clean it up!" or "And when I am there I will not stand for that kind of behavior!" or something that involves engagement and change? One of the cultural tropes used to discourage women from advancing into positions of authority is that decision-making, authority-wielding positions are "dirty", compromised, nasty places that nice girls don't want to be. It will make you "hard", "bitter", "ruthless", and other character traits that are acceptable for men who are facing the "hard choices" but anathema for women. Are Boy Scouts similarly disinclined to pursue such leadership positions, for example? How do they respond to the idea that leaders are liars? How much of our response to this claim is coming out of our own gendered expectations of appropriate female behavior?

Next, I criticize the gullibility of the readers. Did you read about Girl Scouts saying they don't want to be leaders? No, you read that the CEO of the Girl Scouts is claiming that the girls don't want to be leaders because they feel their principles are being compromised. This sounds like what the Incomparable One calls a novel, an interpretation of some facts (some of which may actually have occurred) in a way to fit a preexisting narrative. The facts are marshaled to defend the narrative. I'm doubly suspicious of this claim as it is being made in a blanket way and rests on statements we are asked to believe have been made and that, if they were made, are not responses to leading questions (see objection #1).

These three objections come together pretty simply. Our sentimental attachment to the alleged innocence of the Girl Scouts is being played to make us accept at face value this is in fact what "Girl Scouts" believe. These wonderful young ladies are on to the corrupt venality of the adult world and will have nothing to do with it, no sirree!

Segue to my second reason which is that the entire argument is unrelieved crap from one end to another. Oh noes, our "leaders" are "liars"! Somebody alert the media!

One of the challenges of moving from childhood to adulthood, and one of the reasons why adolescence is a time for decrying the hypocrites (Good old Holden trying to catch the children in the rye...) (I myself always preferred the novel Red Sky at Morning as a more subtle and less narcissistic account of that psychological and emotional passage, but I digress), is learning how to navigate conditions of moral and ethical ambiguity, not the least of which is coming to confront your own ability to perform acts of complex and even conflicting outcomes. If you pay attention, you come to understand there are things which are beyond compromise, such as human rights, and other things which are purely a matter of taste. What lies in the middle is politics. This may be government or it may be office politics or simply finding accord within a family or neighborhood. Politics is the act of resolving the ambiguities and conflicts over allocation of social goods.

Translating the abstract (honor, integrity, honesty, courage, patriotism) into the tangible is not a simple thing to do. One of the things adults do, one of the reasons why you have a political system for negotiations, is to resolve situations where there is not obvious answer, but abstention is not an option. You can have equally valid competing claims that cannot all be satisfied. You can have equally unsatisfactory choices and must select a path to move past the choice. You can have a complex resolution to address a systemic or institutional issue that contains provisions which are antithetical to the overall resolution. You may face quid pro quo situations. You may have made a promise to deliver this or that good and find out that you cannot fulfill that promise without unacceptable compromises.

The mark of a leader (and not just in politics) is someone who will make consistently reasonable decisions when faced with intractable problems. You can have people in leadership positions who use the power to enrich themselves and their cronies and screw everyone else. You can have people who decide in good faith but who make shitty choices and do great damage. You can have someone who is unobjectionable and ineffectual, leading to governance drift. In a complex organization, you can (and usually do) have all of these leadership types operating in tandem and at cross-purposes, mucking up each other's efforts and accidentally helping each other achieve goals.

What you don't have is the option "No leaders because they are all liars". You don't have a choice of none of the above because there is no scenario in which you can have a complex modern society without political leaders. If you are confronted with thoroughgoing corruption (and I think we are facing that throughout different social institutions), then you will need to replace the leaders and probably reform the institutions. This is the way it has always been. We are not in an historically unique situation in that regard.

The thread I am trying to tease out here amidst the grand hoohaw over how beyond hope our current national condition has become is the difference between declaring "Our present leadership is a bunch of sad-sack-of-shit liars and we have to figure out how to oust them," and declaring "I won't bother with the public thing because to be a leader is to be a liar." The first is a normal and healthy response and the only way (short of societal implosion which I really don't want to see happen as Afghanistan is not my idea of a peachy place to be) to redress corruption. The second is handing off too damn much power to the corruption de jour.

What I am also fed up with is the fucked up "clean hands" crap from too much of the Left who can't bring themselves to vote for a candidate or support a platform or get engaged in some way because there is something hypocritical or inconsistent in the mix. You may opt out of the situation by abstaining from the participation allowed, but you will not be able to change the system into anything except a more favorable arrangement of compromises, half-measures, and negotiations if you wish to remain within the liberal democratic model. (Note - I'm using the formal political theory concept of liberal democratic, which is distinct from liberal or democratic as ideological descriptors) I definitely do, mostly because I've studied the alternatives and don't have anything good to say about any of them. (Well, maybe city-state oligarchies, but that's just my soft spot for Machiavelli.) I reject Jacobin solutions, from the left or the right, because they are destructive of the institutional boundaries that provide protection against the corrosive effect of illiberal, anti-democratic actions, such as lying in politics.

Girl Scouts, by definition minors in the society, are not in a position to be leaders and thus their adolescent absolutism (if this is not simply a misrepresentation or unfaithful recasting of their alleged beliefs) can be treated for what it is - children negotiating the passage to adulthood. Those of us over 21 have no such excuse, though there is plenty juvenile behavior on display. Sturming-und-Dranging about the hopelessness of the current administration's malfeasance may provide emotional satisfaction, but it don't get shit done.

Political leadership is not about being moral. It's about being effective. The trick is how to hitch effectiveness to a sufficiently ethical model.



Anonymous said...

I would think the biggest obstacle to inspiring girls to becoming leaders in our society is the way women leaders and candidates get treated by the media.

Why would anyone want to go through the the sexist attacks Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin have gone through?

harpie said...

I'm sorry for the O/T, Anglachel. I thought you might be interested in this article from the Sunday NYT, and am sending it along, in case you hadn't seen it yet.
While Warning About Fat, U.S. Pushes Cheese Sales; Michael Moss; NYT; 11/6/10

Mikkel said...

This is a good post in calling out the phenomenon of hiding behind the innocent children, but what was amazing to me is that the CEO of a rahrah organization was so cynical herself. I was blown away by that (assuming it is accurate).

That said, I totally sympathize with what she's saying because the message was clear to me and I think you are missing it. I don't think we live in a liberal democratic society anymore, we live in a fully corporatist (in the most scholarly sense of the word) state in which politics is determined solely by various lobbies. Each of those lobbies has their own power dynamics but once you negotiate them you have direct access to the upper levels of government and largely set policy. Votes are almost just a formality at this point, as bills are literally sent to lobbyists for them to write "recommendations" that are in the final text -- not withstanding the claim by several members of Congress I respect such as Feingold that claim that no one actually reads the bills anymore.

The second point is that our society is extremely sociopathic to the point that no one gives a shit. If you don't keep your head down and someone in power (whatever level you're talking about) takes you out then you deserved it. If you keep your head down and still get taken out, well you probably still deserved it.

It's not just about finding compromise, you have to actively cheat and destroy other people to get ahead. You can reply that the things I've talked about have always been true but based on what people older than me have said, not nearly as much. And the stakes weren't nearly as great.

Whether it's Yves Smith talking about what the financial sector used to be or a mentor that has been on the inside and counseled me that "the purpose of corporations these days is to identify well educated but ignorant people to abuse their talents and dispose of them when needed" our society has fundamentally changed in its structure over the last few decades. And these changes are defended by the vast majority of those that have even a modicum of influence! It's not just the leaders, it's us.

When the top 10% of society controls 95% of the power (and the top 0.1% controls 60%) then you do have to be a liar in order to be a leader. I've given up on my goals and find directly helping people and developing small scale projects that people can use to help themselves to be much more worthwhile than striving for any "leadership." It's not wrong to feel that.

july4cat said...

Great analysis. I think the kind of sentiment you criticize is the left mirror image of the conservatives' familiar line that you either love it or leave it. They both deliberately ignore the complex and fluid nature of social reality. They both promote disengagement from the formal political process as the rational or morally right thing to do. And they both frame our options in a way that would end up helping defend the status quo. After all, you have to get your hands dirty if you want to clean up the house. You have to work with the evil system in some way if you want to make it less evil. I'd prefer a politician that lies but delivers something over a saint that brings nothing.