Our Tame Leaders

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When I was young and inexperienced, with no money and no career, I nonetheless made a firm assumption about people who’d made it, who’d risen to the top of their fields. They were daring individuals, I thought, outspoken and candid, willing to go against the crowd. These were people with a skeptical eye on the conventional wisdom, ever ready to challenge and dispute whenever they sensed a stale assertion of it.

When I worked for Dana Gioia at the National Endowment for the Arts, he told me once that when he was in advertising his team would meet at the end of the year to review themselves, and they spent five times as many minutes discussing what they did wrong as they spent on what they did right. That was the kind of toughness I imagined happened in every elite circle.

Look at the leaders of institutions, today, however, and you witness a pageant of conformity and timidity, guardedness ever present, the most powerful people in politics, education, entertainment, media, and business speaking in well-rehearsed terms, mouthing standard pieties with an air of solemnity that is one millimeter thick. Political correctness has turned them into cliche machines.

Did you notice the apology written recently by Mike Richards, the man who was to replace the late Alex Trebek as host of “Jeopardy!”? Richards is a big deal in the game show world, the executive producer of “Jeopardy!” and of “Wheel of Fortune,” winner of three Emmy Awards, too. But after he was selected as “Jeopardy!”‘s new host, some comments that he’d made on his 2013–14 podcast surfaced and set him up for what is now a familiar ritual: the high-profile cancellation. The ritual meant the loss of his post, and also a confession/contrition/plea on the accused’s part that is painful to read—not because of the sentiments themselves, however, but because of their dispiritingly banal expression.

Richards might have said, “Yeah, I made some dumb remarks just trying to get a laugh—I don’t regard them as cause for termination eight years later, though—let’s ease up, okay.”

No, instead we got the nauseatingly customary script:

“It is humbling to confront a terribly embarrassing moment of misjudgment, thoughtlessness, and insensitivity from nearly a decade ago,” he said.

It sounded like every other public apology we’ve heard in recent years, with studied humility and sober drama of self-confrontation. The words follow with all the formulaic layout of an algebraic equation. We have the expected family invocation as well, and role model talk: “My responsibilities today as a father, husband, and public personality who speaks to many people through my role on television means I have substantial and serious obligations as a role model, and I intend to live up to them.”

I don’t blame Richards for this, though. It’s the environment he’s in, a tiresome and phony place that the rest of America recognizes instantly for its mendacity. These declarations sound so sincere, but we know how calculating they are. To the material loss suffered by the penitent one, we have the pain of self-emasculation added in the most predictable language. Can’t any of these people think for themselves? Richards’ public career is over, at least for the near future and maybe the far. What does he have to lose? Why go official and betray his own heart (which is precisely what a man who adopts the idiom of his executioners is doing), even when you know it won’t save you?

Again, these are not people beaten down by life, their egos crushed by poverty and disappointment.  They have all the trappings of self-determination—money, education, worldliness, competitiveness, achievement—and yet the working-class guy and gal show a heckuva lot more independent spirit than Mr. Success ever does.

I think that this conformist atmosphere among the elite has played a significant role in the rise of populist anger in America. The contempt that the elite feel for the non-elite in our country is on display every day in the opinion pages and the liberal cable news shows. Just the recently, while driving through the South and listening to NPR, I heard the host introduce interviewee Robin D’Angelo with the question, “Why is it so hard for white people to talk about racism?” The willingness to cast an entire racial group as deficient in some way used to be called “stereotyping,” and enlightened folk universally rejected it. Here, however, it was offered as an enlightening observation. The condescension was thick and gleeful. The host wasn’t aware of how smug she sounded, but ordinary Americans have seen and heard such sentiments over and over, and they discern the contempt more acutely than elites realize.

How irritating it is, then, for these judgmental elites to appear so weak and obedient and cookie-cut at times that call for bold presentation. They’re avid about their superiority, but feeble in their individuality. They profess to be the best and the brightest, but they sink into stupid politically correct truisms when the pressure’s on. Liberalism claims to honor the individual voice, the lone dissenter, but never does a prominent 21st-century liberal wish to fall out of step with his fellows. The guns of cancellation are always primed, and he knows it.

A country whose leadership class is fearful and wary is in trouble. Insecurity makes for bad decisions, and for bad symbolism, too. A leader who stands up and apologizes for the “systemic” sins of the institution he leads doesn’t come off as properly sensitive and constructively progressive. He’s just weak. The celebrity who gets down on his knees and apologizes for some “phobic” remark made years earlier on the internet isn’t rightly repentant and newly enlightened. He’s just humiliating himself. Ordinary Americans draw a pat conclusion: These figureheads make a lot of money and they’re awfully full of themselves and down on us, but when you get down to it, they’re not so great, not at all.

This is the end of a great American tradition of rebelliousness. Ben Franklin ran away from Boston and struck out on his own as a mere teenager. Emerson praised self-reliance as the essence of genius. Thoreau headed to the woods because he couldn’t stand the copycat mentality of fellow citizens. Huck at the end aims to light out for the territory, knowing he’ll never fit in with civilized society. Those figures are the opposite of today’s Americans aspiring to the realms of the elite. Ambitious ones sense at an early age that climbing the ladder means fitting in and filtering impulses. The pipeline has sensors attuned to pick up the maverick spirit and mark it as suspect. Our leaders are tame souls whose wills are triggered mainly by the appearance of a rogue in their midst.

Therein lies the aversion to Donald Trump. It wasn’t Trump’s politics or policies that disturbed the elite. It was, instead, his headstrong personality and outspoken words. The content of his thought and speech they might have opposed in the normal political ways, but the character of the man couldn’t be handled that way. His performances could be received by them only as an admonishment. He spoke his mind, they didn’t, and that made them feel bad about themselves—as it should. Let us hope that more untamed figures surface and do the same thing.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein is an emeritus professor of English at Emory University. His work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Washington Post, the TLS, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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