The two major national party conventions trotted out this year’s brightest and best as if they were displaying prize pigs at a county fair. Highlights included Clint Eastwood haranguing an empty chair and Obama getting a character reference from the most noted perjurer and adulterer ever to occupy the White House.
Whichever candidate wins, billions will have been spent getting him there. Voters will again comfort themselves that they voted for the lesser evil. The beat will go on to ruin: continued economic collapse, demographic implosion, war abroad, and social, cultural, and moral decay at home—with neither party able nor willing to combat the evils from which they benefit.
Grim as the picture appears at the national level, state and local politics are as bad or worse. My own undead Governor Brown, Chicago’s now mercifully retired Daley, Jr., and Philadelphia’s gutless wonder, Frank Rizzo, Jr. are all samples of once-great political dynasties gone to bad seed.
On some deeply instinctual level, most of us—regardless of political views—have a feeling that something, some life force, has gone out of public and private life.
What is that force? Leadership. When I was a boy, the world was filled with leaders—reigning or recently retired—who epitomized their countries. De Gaulle, Churchill, Adenauer, De Gasperi, Chiang Kai-shek, Franco, Salazar, De Valera, Pinochet, Sato, Perón, Menzies, Diefenbaker, and even the UN’s Hammarskjöld. Whether in office through the ballot box or a coup, these lads guided their lands through perilous times. In my time, the closest we came on a national level was Ronald Reagan, a giant among the pygmies of late-20th-century presidents. All these leaders were able and memorable.
There are several reasons why neither ballot boxes nor military coups create such folk today. The first is our culture’s abandonment of the aristocratic principle. With the exception of Reagan (who nevertheless could play the part), all of these men came from the higher ranks of society. By itself that means nothing, or Paris Hilton would make a fine president. But in the period which produced these leaders, the strata from which they sprung held up certain ideals to its members: chivalry, noblesse oblige, gentlemanly behavior, courtesy, and self-sacrifice—phrases which now are held to be laughable slogans with which the rich of old covered their greed.
Another problem is education. Westerners today of all classes are incredibly ignorant. Because of the Internet, this should be the great age of the autodidact. But without the skills acquired from a decent education, and with no real will to learn, we usually comfort ourselves with our favorite blogs and profit little from what is easily available.
Although most people ignore the world’s great digitized libraries, at least they love Internet gossip. Imagine if such stuff had existed during World War II. Winnie’s background and peccadilloes would have bounced him out of the running for Downing Street as soon as TMZ got ahold of them. Evils are often exposed in this manner, but good is frequently stifled as well. After the media laughed itself silly over Prince Harry’s naked posterior, the Prince has gone on to risk said posterior in Afghanistan, where some of the locals are looking to give him a special welcome. Few of the media (save field reporters) would take such chances with their own precious skins.
Despite all the resources now at our command, we do not wish to be informed. Jefferson saw that our system would fail without an educated electorate. We take the media as gospel, or at least those parts that reinforce our greatness in our own minds. We despise all traditional fonts of authority, preferring the flattery of demagogues.
Classical education, while doubtless sexist, racist, and speciesist, imparted its graduates with more than knowledge of Latin and Greek. It taught critical thinking, lent historical and literary depth to one’s judgment, and gave one the mental discipline and desire to learn other things—which is the reason college graduation is called “commencement.” With those tools, such folk who went into government, the military, and any other endeavor requiring leadership tended to have stamina and adaptability.
Compounding our problems is the almost universal confusion of authority with power. Authority is the right, based upon legitimacy, to say what ought to be done, while power is the ability to make things happen. Traditionally, those in power had to at least pay lip service to the wielder of authority for the right to exercise that power. A shadow of this remains in constitutional monarchies today.
But in modern republics such as our own, the source of authority is “the people” as expressed in the ballot box—a source so diffuse as to be meaningless. Where even Tony Blair had to pretend to humble himself by kissing hands (an action the far more talented Churchill was proud to do), the mob’s attendant adulation upon a candidate’s election reinforces his usually delusional sense of excellence. Power becomes authority, and the ruler is free to alter anything he chooses within his purview—even the nature of marriage or the definition of “human being.” But if the ruler bases his policies on his own mental constructs without regard to reality, it shall crush both him and his people.
We moderns reject aristocracy, insisting that our rulers reflect our ignorant selves, whereas 19th-century workmen dressed elegantly even while digging ditches. The more casual our elites appear, the more we like them, which frees them further from doing anything uncomfortable.
People of any ability today tend to pursue anything other than public service. Perhaps some economic, political, or medical catastrophe will fire up the peoples of the West to demand better leadership. Or it may be that sociological pessimists such as Spengler were right: This is what happens to old civilizations, and ours is dying. But if Spengler is to be proved wrong, leaders and led alike must see that full bellies, sated gonads, and endless entertainment are not enough. The codependency of mediocrity between rulers and ruled must be broken. Otherwise the dour comment of Proverbs will be fulfilled once more: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Regardless of how leaders ascend to rule, even those with vision are useless if their people do not share it.
Image of abandoned throne courtesy of Shutterstock
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