We’re living a comedy of errors – but they are overwhelmingly and repeatedly errors of omission, rather than commission. That’s why there is a broad consensus about a crisis of leadership – across all sectors of civil society. Yes, the best lack all conviction. Yes, the worst are full of passionate intensity. But neither of them actually does anything, much.
Where and why did this start? One candidate would be 9/11. Whatever else the collapse of the Twin Towers did, it froze us in place. Obviously, we undertook a charade of active response in Afghanistan and Iraq – but we didn’t really commit to those (certainly not broadly). We avoided plans that would produce large-scale American casualities. Mostly, it’s been pouring money down the toilet – and money seemed funny, not tangible. Even now, in the midst of the deepest recession since the 1930s, we can’t get our mind around economic choices.
America has been a deer in the headlights in the face of terrorism – it has essentially stopped most trajectories of building, investment, social progress. In Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum’s new book, That Used to Be Us, they identify five “pillars of prosperity,” long-term behaviors that were key to America’s past success – all of which have taken a nose-dive since 9/11: 1) support for broad education up to the potential of the latest technology; 2) building of critical infrastructure; 3) government support of research and development; 4) support for immigration; and 5) the rule of law to ensure well functioning markets. Whatever you think of Friedman, or his list, it serves as a not-bad index of long-term governmental/societal/commercial trajectories. Pick any list you like, the pattern is the same. America has just sort of stopped. (So, of course, has Europe.)
Confronted with planet-scale, complex-system challenges, we are flummoxed, and we’re standing before them, blinking. Of course, China, India, Brazil et al. aren’t standing still – they’re charging ahead, fueled by historically unprecedented growth. So maybe this is just another example of one dying species having reached the end of its reign, and the new one sprinting to take over.
Or maybe it’s something deeper than that. Maybe those emerging-market sprinters don’t really have a long runway ahead of them. Maybe sooner rather than later they’re going to bump up against the same global complexity, and stand before it in something like the same perplexity.
Or, to be more hopeful, maybe there’s a genuine new frame working its way through the birth canal, underneath this surface combination of frenetic activity and static depression (in both senses). Maybe a new generation of global citizens is feeling its way toward different ways of making decisions, toward more collaborative ways of working, toward a more whole-systems mode of thought, toward a post-corporate form of capitalism and a post-nation-state form of polis. It’s not out of the question. Nobody in the 14th century, when the Renaissance was moving from gleam-in-eye to toddler, would have been able to predict its revolutionary impact just a couple of hundred years down the road… nor could the Medicis have figured out how the Renaissance would help spawn the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution.
At the moment, though, Obama may be the perfect emblem of our culture and our politics. Maybe we can only elect a George Segal statue of Chauncey Gardner.