David Brooks to indivualists: Kneel before Zod

I remember watching Superman II and hearing the line “Kneel before Zod”.  Maybe it’s just me, but that’s kind of the vibe I got from David Brooks in his uber creepy column earlier this week.  By now, there are about a thousand different posts regarding Brooks’ column, but we here at United Liberty are just too awesome to not put our own thoughts on it.

Now, to be fair, much of the point of Brooks’ column is lamenting what he perceives as a lack of powerful monuments to our “Dear Leaders”.  However, along the way, he also does the best job of boot-licking politicians I’ve seen that wasn’t intended as satire.

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.

First, I can’t remember the last time I actually saw a bumper sticker that said “Question authority”, but that’s neither here nor there.  However, Brooks seems to miss a basic concept of our governmental system.  It’s one that actually serves us well.  That is the idea that not only are we allowed to question authority, but it’s actually expected of us.

Brooks, as a columnist, is probably a fan of Freedom of the Press.  As a newspaper publisher myself, I am too.  The thing is, Freedom of the Press wasn’t codified in the Constitution because the Founding Fathers wanted newspapers to serve as the propaganda arm of those in power.  They wanted the press to question everything, to voice dissent, and give voices to those who had none on their own.

Second, “authority” has done horrible things.  “Authority” decided to exterminate the jewish people in Germany.  “Authority” thought that white people and black people should be kept seperate.  “Authority” gets us involved in wars and creates injustice here at home.

However, Brooks seems to feel bad that our leaders don’t have followers worthy of them.  So be it.  Great things aren’t done by followers, but by individuals.  I would rather be an individual and risk total failure than to simply be a “follower” and just wait for the crumbs to fall to me from my betters’ table.

Brooks would have us kneel before those who truly think themselves superior to the rest of us, and he would have us believe that they really are. Is it vanity on our parts to not accept that?  No, Mr. Brooks.  It’s not vanity, it’s realism.  It’s beyond time you get used to that.

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