June 12, 2012 · 4 Comments
By Marie Burns:
Now that New York Times columnist David Brooks has bought himself a mansion in Washington, D.C., he is nearer to the sights of the city. He came, he saw, he detested. Ergo, Brooks takes a turn as art critic today, devoting the first part of his column to critiquing the newer monuments on the National Mall and thereabouts, including one that is planned for former President Dwight Eisenhower. Although I also dislike one of the monuments Brooks criticizes, my view is different from Brooks’. I won’t bore you with my own artistic sensibilities about public monuments, which are more in line with, but still different from, those expressed by Michael Lewis, a professor of art whose essay on “The Decline of American Monuments and Memorials” Brooks cites (and is worth a read). Art is in the eyes of the beholder.
Art also is quintessentially metaphorical, and that is the use to which Brooks puts the newest national monuments. “Why,” he asks, “can’t today’s memorial designers think straight about just authority?” The question is rhetorical. The answer is pure Brooks: it’s our decrepit, effete culture that values the oppressed over the oppressors and equality over greatness. These may seem like credible assumptions to you, but that is because you don’t understand “the paradoxes of power.” Allow Brooks to explain:
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 horror of all this questioning of authority is, according to Brooks, that “You end up with movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Parties that try to dispense with authority altogether.” Here Brooks must not be writing of the major “Tea Parties” because they are typical corporate top-down organizations funded by moneyed interests like the Koch Brothers and enough secret donors to make sure one “grass-roots” Tea Party leader – Dick Armey – takes home $500,000 a year and travels first class [with companions]. Oh, yes, these “Tea Parties” have authoritative leaders who set their policies and agendas. Anyway, the problem with leadership, in Brooks view, is not with Dick Armey and his secret backers but with you people. If you don’t understand the paradoxes of leadership, you also don’t get “the paradoxes of followership.” As Brooks explains it,
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…. To have good leaders you have to have good followers – able to recognize just authority, admire it, be grateful for it and emulate it.
In our understanding of democratic principles – and under our Constitution – there is no such thing as “democratic followership,” and there would not be even if “followership” were a real word. Every schoolchild – except perhaps little Davey Brooks – learns how democracy works. In a representative democracy – the “leaders” serve at the will of the people. We are the monarchs. Louis XIV of France may (or may not) have said, “L’État, c’est moi,” but we can say with confidence, “We, the people, are the state.” Louis’ form of government – the most common one, at least until modern times – is, like Dick Armey’s group – a top-down organization. The monarch may delegate, but he is the ultimate decider. Such monarchs usually invoke divine authority – “the divine right of kings” – an acceptable theory of governance for millennia, enshrined in such tracts as Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. A democracy, by contrast – and it is a stark contrast – is a bottom-up organization. In a democracy, no matter what its precise constitutional form, voters are the princes, and as such, we all have a responsibility to “lead” in whatever ways we are able. Conversely, we have a duty not to follow, as Brooks bids us to do. Our representatives are “leaders” only insofar as they follow us.
Brooks is dismayed that Americans trusted their government representatives in 1925 and 1955 but do not trust our so-called leaders today. That trust differential reflects a number of factors, but the biggest is this: the government today appears to be less successful than it seemed in 1925 and 1955. In 1925 and 1955, the U.S. was experiencing economic booms, even if the boom of 1925 would soon go bust. The boom of 1955 would likely still be ongoing, to a large degree, if Brooks’ conservative friends had not been so successful in dismantling the governmental structures that made it possible. (But let us not pretend that all was well in 1925 or 1955. Or ever.)
There are two aspects of Brooks column that are alarming. The first is that Brooks is pushing a view of “just authority” that is biblical in its demand for public acquiescence to the status quo. Brooks doesn’t question our “leaders”: “I don’t know if America has a leadership problem,” he writes. He assumes that what he calls “just authority” – that is, duly-elected representatives – acts “justly.” That assumption isn’t naïve; it’s perverse. The second is even more insidious: Brooks asks us not only to take government as it is, but to like it. Citizenship as masochism, government by Stockholm syndrome. Brooks argues that we should trust, admire, thank and emulate the people who hold this “just authority.” The entire concept of “public servant” is lost on Brooks. Brooks not only wants to turn the tables on democracy and make the people the servants of the powerful, he also wants us to turn the damned tables ourselves.
In his column, Brooks praises the memorials to Presidents Jefferson and Lincoln. It is too bad he was more impressed with the art than with the substance of these monuments. Brooks apparently missed the inscription on the Jefferson Memorial that cites the Declaration of Independence: “all men are created equal.” And he did not take note of this fine print carved into the Lincoln Memorial – the final words of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address: “… government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” David Brooks wants you to forget the democratic principles inscribed on the monuments and concentrate instead on idealized representations of the men who wrote those words. Brooks’ column is not about building better monuments to democracy. It is about gutting the institutions of democracy and filling them instead with big, handsome statues – iconic idols to whom the people bow in awe.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com