For several weeks now, I have been writing and giving interviews about why so many best-selling “thought leader”-type authors are falling from grace all at once. My thesis is that they all tend to be held up not uniquely by merit, but by a consolidated media environment that confers authority on them, often to the exclusion of many other voices. Moreover, the ascent of decreasingly rigorous thought leaders is likely due in part to our psychological dependence on authority figures in times of fearful uncertainty – the kind we have had since Dot Com One imploded, 9/11 occured, and the financial system nearly self-destructed in 2008.
In the following piece, I’d like to take the reader through the last few decades of intellectual life from my unusual point of view as an author trying to make it in the “thought leader” world, as a professional analyst serving executives in business and government, and as a resident of Washington DC during this signifcant and often disturbing transition.
I am taking a Gladwellian trip down memory lane here to show a narrative you may not have considered. (Ironic, I know.) Unlike some of the people recently crucified, I’m not here to call this definitively true, complete or scientifically proveable. Unlike some of our recent fallen authority figures, I’m not going to pretend that a few pages of narrative and anecdote is enough to digest the psychology of authority in the last few decades. But I think when you see the business of author-speaker-TV personality in the context of a decade rife with psychological trauma and sheer incompetence, the sudden defenestration of a certain class of experts makes much more sense.
Far beyond the story of a few overpaid writers jeopardizing their gigs in the media, we are at a turning point in American culture in which we collectively move past a painful loss of innocence and regain our ability to critically evaluate our future and who should lead it. This story arcs from naiveté, to disillusionment, to maturity. America lost the exuberant bloom that came from decades of economic success and cultural preeminence in a rapid turn of events that saw self-confidence and a sense of safety ripped away from its people. To regain that confidence, the people turned to false authority figures in a vain attempt to regain what was lost. But don’t worry – it may all have a happy ending.
The sudden collapse of well-manicured authority figures
It was the Bob Dylan quote forgery heard ‘round the world. Jonah Lehrer, a best-selling author for his books explaining the implications of neuroscience research to regular folks, fell from grace in a few short weeks as two scandals emerged in rapid succession. First was the charge that he was recycling his own old material from other publications in his new column at The New Yorker. This was really a matter for his publisher and the few avid readers who noticed the redundancy, but it was followed quickly by the revelation of his invented quote from Bob Dylan. Now, Lehrer was brought to task by every journalist, editor and intellectual worker with an Internet connection. His resignation from The New Yorker followed, leaving people to scratch their heads in wonder about how somebody with so much caché could fall from grace so quickly by such obvious professional failings.
This of course was not the end for mediagenic thought leaders falling into disrepute. Fareed Zakaria was discovered to be either lifting quotes from a Harvard professor, or employing a ghostwriter who did the same. Not long after his suspension, Zakaria was soon joined by his colleague Niall Ferguson, British historian, TV host, and Harvard professor, who starred on the cover of Newsweek with an essay pleading for the replacement of Barack Obama using selective quotes from the Congressional Budget Office and statistics that surreptitiously blamed the president for job losses that began in earnest under his predecessor. The Scottish historian (curiously referring to the U.S. Republican party as “his team” despite not being a citizen eligible to vote) was pilloried in various publications, not so much for his political views, but for reasoning and prose so poor he would likely give it a failing grade if he received it from one of his students.
For my part, I wrote an essay entitled, “Jonah Lehrer, Malcolm Gladwell and our thirst for non-threatening answers” which went on to be picked up around the Web, engendering quite a bit of conversation. The essay ultimately encouraged a group of PhD scientists to seize on the moment and take Gladwell to task for cheapening the rigor of their profession in the quest for book sales. This surprisingly motivated Gladwell to actually defend himself in the comments section of the blog, revealing some pent-up animosity between the world-famous science writer and the people in the real trenches of scientific research who feel that their discipline is given short shrift in his brand of publishing.
All of this happened within a few weeks. What the blue blazes is going on here? Why is such skepticism bubbling to the surface so quickly?
The thought leadership game in the post-Soviet era
To put these events into context, we should take a broader view of the business of thought leadership – that is, selling books and giving speeches for money. By way of caveat, this is my business model as well, so I beg the reader to scour every one of my assertions for jealousy and sour grapes. One cannot be in the business of asking for rigorous analysis without expecting it heaped on oneself.
So then, let us go back all the way to the 1990s. Grunge bands roamed the Earth, The Internet was considered strange by all but a few computer nerds, and Europe had sixteen different currencies. China was still a place “that Nixon opened up,” and we had barely stopped seeing Japan as the economic powerhouse of tomorrow. This period of technological innovation and economic expansion was really marked by the peaceable end of the Cold War, and America’s ascendance to hegemonic power.
The United States had been counterbalanced in terms of its economic system and political philosophy all around the world by Russian communism. Plenty of nations, from Cuba to Czechoslovakia to Vietnam chose (or were coerced into) the Soviet communist system, in stark contrast to the beliefs and techniques of Western business and government. And lest ye forget that communism didn’t ever work out, have a gander at one of my favorite books on futurism, To the Year 2000, written by a Western German economist in 1960 who forecast that capitalism might lose to communism by the turn of the millennium because the Soviet Union had markedly better machine tools, which were the reason for its success. For a while there, communism appeared to be giving Western capitalism a run for its money, in economic success if not individual freedom. So when the Commies melted down in 1991, it was a huge victory over an ideological foe which only looks inevitable in retrospect.
This created a boom market for American business ideas. For consultancies, life could not have been any better. Entire countries were paying U.S. consulting firms to come in and show them how generally accepted accounting principles might function in a place where you put the cash from the till in your pocket at the end of every night. Places that had centrally-planned economies were thirsty for the American managerial techniques of marketing, a strange sorcery by which you asked people what they wanted, and then made some credible plan to give it to them. But how to give it to them with some degree of quality? America exported lessons learned during its long history of manufacturing, not to mention its innovative quality assurance methods such as Motorola’s Six Sigma. America’s robust business in thought leadership could be summed up by “Hey guys, this is how we got so rich – want to learn how to do it yourselves?”
Let us look at the kinds of books that flourished in such an environment. The majority of best-sellers were fairly simple explanations of management techniques that worked. Why were these authoritative? Because the theories and applications in the books were derived from existing success stories which could be easily verified. Take the 1994 book Built to Last, by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras. It described why some companies did great and others did less great. You read the book and you learn how Proctor & Gamble out competed Colgate, why Motorola bested Zenith and other examples that you verify by looking at the companies’ annual reports. These are the big winners in a country full of winners – want to know how they do it? Here. And so titles of this sort filled up business book stores from New York to Bratislava, from Johannesburg to Shanghai, translating American “best practices” into dozens of languages.
Back in those days you had mega-sellers like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (1990). Effective Hungarian chefs? Effective Mongolian horsemen? Effective Indian yogis? No, dude – effective American executives. Who are stinking rich while your whole country has only four working air conditioning units at any given time, and has a currency backed by lumps of tungsten that depreciates 9% every eight hours. Effective = American business guys and the habits that have made them rich.
Other mega-titles of the era include The E-Myth (1985), which tears apart the techniques of the artisan one-man shop in favor of franchising. In your little town, you have some guy who makes great pizza – so what? He works sixteen hours a day and never takes a vacation. We have Domino’s and Pizza Hut, and the guys who own those franchises spent their days feeding polo ponies, not slaving over some stove. We’ll show you how to get your dream into every mini-mall in whatever country it is you come from. (You do have mini-malls, right?) What’s our proof it works? Just look at America, dude!
You can go on and on looking at titles from the 1980s and 90s that show how to do things. From accounting to human resources, any author who could explain the fine points of American bureaucracy was due a decent book advance, a few royalty checks, and a shot at opening a consultancy that could bring these proven techniques to the parts of the world that had not received such wisdom, whether Tuscaloosa or Timbuktu. Your insights did not need to be earth-shattering since the American system itself was plenty impressive on its own.
The end of the party
By the end of the 1990s, the era of failsafe American business practices was about to come to a screeching halt. Sure, by the late nineties, things were positively thrumming thoughout the economic world. We were enjoying a full decade of the Soviet menace slowly decomposing without a single nuclear exchange – a pleasant surprise in a world were empires do not usually go quietly or peacefully. China was opening up, spurring American execs to wonder aloud “if we could only get 2% of their market!” Europe was reintegrating the states it lost to the Iron Curtain. Wonder of wonders, even Vietnam and Cambodia were re-entering the world system. And Americans, clever innovators they were, looked to capitalize on past successes with this thing called The Internet and all that it enabled. Times were good.
As the 1990s went on, the manic excitement about American business practices led to some unusual decisions. Since the Reagan Era, businesses were clamoring for the government to take supposedly onerous regulation off their backs. We’re doing so well, imagine if we could really unleash our ideas on the world without meddlesome functionaries always asking for paperwork and proof of meeting arbitrary standards. Curiously, this mindset thundered ahead well after the Reagan and Bush White Houses. Critically, there was ample pressure to lower the artificial barriers keeping media companies from consolidating into empires. Lobbyists wheedled and cajoled so that single companies could roll up radio, newspapers, record labels, publishing houses and TV from coast to coast and around the world. More on that later.
Finance saw another great push to relax the rules of the game which had been, ironically, serving America extremely well for decades. A couple of Bill Clinton’s apparatchiks, Larry Summers and Robert Rubin, took aim at legislation such as Glass-Steagall, which kept risk-seeking investment banks and stability-promising commercial banks from repeating the antics of the Great Depression. Also in the sight of these economic luminaries who split their time between Wall Street and Washington was the goal of removing government oversight from a new “innovative” American financial instrument, derivatives, which include strangely-named products such as credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations.
Deregulation was a done deal. After all, how could the bulletproof set of American “best practices” steer us wrong. If it’s Americans doing it, clearly it’s the best.
Or the bust. After a few years of what Ayn Randian monetarist Alan Greenspan insufficiently dubbed “irrational exurberance,” all hell broke loose in American business. We believed so much in our vaunted capital allocation practices on Wall Street that investors everywhere credulously poured money into ePetWalkers.com, SpatulaWarehouse.net, not to mention PickABuzzwordAndHaveAnIPO.com. These innovators were “still searching for a business model,” but the analysts – the ones down the hall from the guys who sold you the stock – believed that these companies could possibly break out, Pets.com style!
At the same moment, business magazines were all aflutter over the hard-business side of the Dot Com Era, an innovative powerhouse called Enron. Whereas your company perhaps did trifling Old Economy things such as buy products at a low price and sell them at a higher price, Enron was way, way more sophisticated. It created markets, and created efficiencies and wheeled energy futures, or something – but it was based in Texas, where everyone in the company, from Ken Lay on down, made scads of loot and owned fancy cars.
It turned out, that while America exported its successful model of finance and accounting to the rest of the world, it kept, um, innovating at home, creating brand new practices that were based on wishful thinking at best, and utter fraud at worst. A huge portion of the Nasdaq was declared worthless, with only a few deserving candidates such as Amazon and EBay escaping the bloodbath. And the genius financiers at Enron were of course discovered to have been keeping their books solvent only by loaning money to fictional companies in long-forgotten Caribbean islands and calling it “revenue.” The American model of business management, for the first time in a long time, was under threat from internal failings rather than external enemies. This was a blow to the entire American psyche, and it was a foreign feeling.
The rise of alternate theories in an alternate universe
Just prior to the end of Dot Com exuberance came a new sort of book emanating from a thoughtful and eloquent journalist from the Washington Post and The New Yorker by the name of Malcolm Gladwell. Rather than rehash received wisdom from successful functionaries, Gladwell turned to unusual explanations for chaotic-seeming events. He wrote a book called The Tipping Point which went on to a phenomenal success for describing an alternate vision of how phenomena appear in complex societies, which mimicked, say, viruses in complex biological ecosystems rather than turgid, linear corporate mechanistics. Gladwell’s explanations were far from rigorous or complete, but they offered a glimmer of hope that if you could understand chaos; perhaps you could control it, or at least use it to your advantage. You couldn’t learn about marketing products in the Internet age through something like like a marketing textbook, but maybe you stood a shot at learning how to be a maven or a connector.
This, it turned out, was perfectly timed for an era in which conventional explanations seemed to offer little comfort. After all, American business assumptions were under threat. And little did we know that all of our assumptions were soon to follow.
So much has been said already about the implications of that gorgeous fall day on the East Coast of the United States, September the 11th, 2001. Not enough has been said about the psychological implications.
The immediate aftermath was one centered around practicality. The United States set itself to excavating the crater in lower Manhattan and covering the gigantic hole in the Pentagon, along with clearing debris in Pennsyvania from a fallen aircraft. The names of the dead were tallied. In places like the New York metropolitan area, hundreds upon hundreds of funerals needed to be scheduled in a staggered pattern, so that people who knew multiple of the slain in a single company at the World Trade Center could pay their respects with individual attention.
After the initial shock wore off, the dead buried, and the damage cleared, there was the matter of what do we do next? And this is where life changed permanently, for America and for the world. The people of the United States were fundamentally without a compass, having had the comforting assumptions of their own competence ripped away, and they sought authority wherever they could find it. Before, success came with its own built-in authority. Now, the authority Americans so desperately missed had to be imposed from the top down. Serendipitously, the occupants of the White House, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, were all too pleased to project that very authority from the institution they currently occupied. First they told Americans to go shopping. Naturally, they had other plans, too.
America went to war. Americans knew that if one thing was still left functioning, it was their well-funded military machine. The U.S. intelligence community had traced the terrorist operation back to the nation-state of Afghanistan, whose rogue Taliban government had been housing the group which appeared to be responsible for the attacks. They were religious extremists, which really came as no surprise to American intelligence, which had been paying them for that exact reason to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan just a few decades earlier. But clearly this group had metastasized into a threat to the U.S. homeland. For those watching the horrific antics of the Taliban prior to September 11 – stoning women to death, hanging televisions (?) and firing missiles at millennia-old statues of the Buddha – it seemed rational to send the US military to deal with the situation. All parts of the military, from active duty branches to the CIA received hundreds of thousands of enlistees looking to take part in this new national project. The national narrative was still quite coherent.
The alternate universe began in earnest on January 29, 2002 with George W. Bush’s State of the Union speech. America was anxious to hear an update on its military action in Afghanistan, but heard so much more. This speech was a harbinger of what was to become of American intellectual culture. President Bush informed the American people not only of its military victory over the Afghan regime, but of its much broader plan for what it would call “security.” Bush trumpeted that the enemies we captured in Afghanistan were now in a place called “Guantanamo Bay,” a small base America “possessed” in the country of Cuba, of all places. He gave ample warning about the future intentions of America’s military machine with a description of North Korean, Iranian, and Iraqi regimes as an “axis of evil” bent on, among other things, threatening the world with weapons of mass destruction, a phrase that would feature prominently in the years to come. America was being told that this new plan for its security had leapt over from the mission to destroy the al-Qaeda network, to direct aggression against nation-states with unfriendly regimes. Moreover, the mission now seemed to have a totally global focus, securing all countries everywhere against “thousands” of trained killers. While these ideas did not necessarily follow, America had come to rely on the authority of its military, intelligence and executive branch in these matters and put up relatively little resistence.
In the sixteen months that followed, the Bush Administration capitalized on its position to make one of the great authoritarian sales jobs in history. It is now common knowledge (though poorly publicized) that Bush and his cohort had planned for the United States to decapitate the Iraqi regime well before September 11th. Newly-public documents from the National Security Archive show that Bush, Rumsfeld and Cheney had long since decided to invade Iraq, the question was how to justify the action with a plausible casus belli. They carefully weighed which arguments would play best with Americans and the world: arms inspections, human rights, threats to Saddam’s neighbors – whatever works. Of course, September 11th changed all that, and made “security threats to Americans” the winning argument. Saddam Hussein was no closer to hitting Mars with weapons of mass destruction than he was Cleveland, but it sounded plausible enough to a post-traumatic American mind. Controlled by a handful of ideologues at the top of the government, the Bush Administration began to beat the drums of war for Iraq.
The official news media worked hand in hand with the Bush Administration to make the case to the American people and the world. Lots of serious, gray-haired “military analysts” began making appearances on television to explain the role of “rogue states” such as those in the “axis of evil” – especially Iraq. As the year progressed more and more information about the threat from the nation-state of Iraq spilled out from government officials who claimed to have access to “top secret intelligence” about its renewed capacity to strike the American homeland with “weapons of mass destruction.” This gathered steam through the summer, though it crescendoed that fall because, as former corporate executive Andy Card, the President’s Chief of Staff noted, “From a marketing perspective, you don’t introduce a new product in August.” So as predicted, the real theater began in earnest, with many stern-faced interviews from authority figures Dick Cheney and Condoleeza Rice about how Iraq had “connections” with al Qaeda and “may” have “nuclear” “ambitions.” No doubt, throughout the halls of Langley, Virginia, in the State Department, or wherever knowledgeable Iraq analysts were seated, there were shocked guffaws of “how could those dudes have more than a few firecrackers after the military isolation and bombing of the Clinton years?” Also, “You mean to say a guy who hates religious extremists as much as Saddam Hussein would arm Al Qaeda? Are you kidding me?” But the authorities on the TeeVee box had spoken. The Government Has Top Secret Intelligence That Says Saddam Hussein Is Stockpiling Weapons And Plans To Use Them On Us Imminently!
From my personal perspective, I was a strategic analyst working in Washington at the time. My friends and colleagues worked in a variety of organizations around DC, many in a place to know about threats to the homeland. These people came down generally into two camps. One group might shake their head and say, “Well, Iraq was not high on the threat matrix before September 11th, so I’m just not sure what they are talking about.” The other group took a decidedly darker tone. “Are you going to be with us or against us? We’re at war.” I would often expose some skepticism, saying that it was surprising that such an imminent threat wasn’t on the radar, say, a few months ago. Then the tone would go authoritarian. “Look man, you don’t have Top Secret clearance. I do. I’ve seen the intel. This is the right thing to do, and you’re ignorant.” My favorite: “Dude, I thought you were a Republican.” The discussion wasn’t about whether invading a nation-state with a sixth-rate military 4000 miles from the United States was a reasonable course of action to provide security against non-state terrorist actors. It was about whether you were on the team and whether you believed what authorities told you, when they told you.
The United States, the United Kingdom and Australia went to war March 20, 2003 and stayed at war for the rest of the decade. Hundreds of thousands dead in Iraq. National Guard units pulled from around the country. Thousands of U.S. soldiers killed, tens of thousands wounded, many grievously. Weapons of mass destruction were never discovered. The six months of active battle predicted by Donald Rumsfeld turned out to be tragically insufficient. But we needed to stay the course. As the inexplicably-preeminent foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman kept telling America, “six more months.” We know what we’re doing here. We’ll turn the corner in six more months. Yes, your cousin from the Vermont National Guard is doing his third tour, but we need six more months. We have the intel, you do not. We know what we’re doing. We are professionals. We have been doing this a long time. We are authorities on these matters.
Business management in the decade of trauma
If the story of national security in America in the early days of the millennium was a sad one, the economic situation was no more comforting. GDP growth flatlined in the year 2000, and the uncertainty of the days following September 11th caused chaos in the markets and a drop in demand. Businesses laid off workers left and right, shooting unemployment to nearly 6.0%. American leadership provided no credible narrative as to the future of economic growth, save for the Bush Administration’s constant demand for “rebates” straight from the federal treasury and reducing the estate taxes which existed to keep America from turning into a European entity with hereditary land and title. Outside of the odd check for $300 straight from Uncle Sam for no reason, it wasn’t clear what our plan for economic revitalization was.
Yet magically, a solution appeared. America had long-since doubled down on its auto-suburb-retail complex, but now it was time to triple down. Capital began to sluice from Wall Street banks to all parts of the country, especially to new home construction, home equity loans, conversions from simple ranches to McMansions, condo conversions, and anything else with a six-figure loan that locked the buyer in for twenty to thirty years. You too could be part of the exciting action!
You may have asked yourself, as I did, why the hell is the price of real estate going up in an an economy with flat GDP that keeps sending jobs to Asia? Why would the Case-Shiller Price Index double inside of five years when it stayed within 10-20% fluctuations for a century? And the answer that came back, from business magazines to stock analysts to weird new real estate TV programs like “HOUSE FLIPPERZ!” to Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke was “Because that’s the way it is now. You don’t want to miss out on the action, do you? Because your rent’s going up no matter what, sucker.” It’s not like every banker in America could be wrong. It’s not like Wall Street banks would loan out forty bucks for every dollar of assets. It’s not like they would create a quadrillion in derivatives based on some pseudo-scientific math formula to “manage” all the risk. It’s not like Ben Bernanke or Jim Cramer – authorities on these matters! – could be wrong over and over again, is it? Because that would be our entire system of authority collapsing all at once, practically.
This event is close enough that it doesn’t require as much historical detail. We’re living in the aftermath of this final insult to American expertise. And as for the Obama presidency, which we are to judge at the polls in a few weeks, it can be summed up as a desperate attempt to put the same authority figures back into place. We set Wall Street up as Too Bigger To Fail Banks. We reappointed Noted Experts such as…Larry Summers! back to positions of high economic authority in the White House. Obama SEIZED THE REINS of his incredible mandate to make an economic plan for America’s future by appointing fresh new voices to his administration, such as Jeffrey Immelt, the CEO of General Electric who eliminated 34,000 employees in the United States while hiring 36,000 abroad, to head up the jobs council.
Not to worry. They are all authorities on such matters.
Intellectual authorities flourishing in a world of failed expertise
It would be positively idiotic to somehow blame Messieurs Lehrer, Gladwell, Zakaria, Ferguson and others like them for the hot mess of American leadership over the last couple decades. However, their brand of “thought leadership,” it must be said, did wonderfully in a world of authority for its own sake. People still needed to feel as if they were talking to somebody who knew what was going on, lest they sink into a horrific depression realizing that nearly all sectors of American leadership failed catastrophically all at once. Media properties were looking for towering figures who could stand up across a wide variety of platforms, as billions of dollars of content sales were now concentrated into the hands of a few companies: Disney, Time Warner, News Corp, CBS, and others who owned publishers, TV, radio and more. Speaking agencies had to fill keynote spots for the billions of dollars of conferences held every year, and having superstars is a way easier sale than actually finding the right speaker for each occasion. (You want to talk international security? Great, here’s Thomas Friedman. You want to talk international business competition? Great, here’s Thomas Friedman. You want to talk about renewing American potential? Have you heard of Thomas Friedman? He’s very influential, you know. Only $50,000, too.)
If you notice the career arcs of those who attained success against the teeth-gritting backdrop of constant leadership failures, you’ll notice that none of these high-minded intellectuals tend to rock the boat too much. Gladwell, for example, has been pre-eminent in the world of publishing for more than a decade, a period of time covering all of the collapse of character and values I have described above. Can you name a single controversial opinion the man has taken? Has he ever gotten up in the grill of anyone who might hesitate before shelling out his $75,000 speaking fee? I actually think Gladwell is a good writer, but as far as the paragon of intellectual virtue in the Western world for the last decade, shouldn’t some part of the last decade’s clusterfuck have struck him as worthy of spending a little built-up credibility and inspired him to call some people out on the carpet? I don’t mean a Network/Howard Beale cri-de-coeur, I mean maybe some minor article recognizing the dramatic drop in results from our leadership, something in tune with the times. Lord knows he could have always regained some ground with a nice book on how people get successful. Fear of starvation was not holding him back.
The defenestration of all these media darlings at once isn’t about venal journalists so arrogant that they think they can fake quotes from a Baby Boomer icon in a world of Baby Boomers. The new wave of skepticism is not about a CNN talk show host who is unwilling to admit that most people of his stature have a fawning staff of a dozen go-getters willing to assign their work over to him for a shot at climbing the pyramid themselves one day – if there still is one. Lord knows we’re not in a tizzy because some visiting Harvard professor has written a shoddy article about politics in a country of which he is not a citizen. This is about a decade of utter failure, and a culture that is finally starting to ask why leaders all over this country – and the world – are offered as standard bearers of intellectual virtue, paid lavishly, and yet are held to low standards. Only authoritarian regimes create powerful figures and tell you to believe their myths no matter what – ask a Cuban who has been forced to listen to multi-hour lectures from Fidel Castro. Democracies built on the notion of meritocracy, however, are supposed to subject those figures to skepticism and relentless checks and balances. Perhaps, scared and traumatized throughout the decade, we could not bring ourselves to this high standard. I think we are now rediscovering that we can do better – much better. The real question is where we go from here.
America may finally shed its reputation as an adolescent culture
Europeans and Asians are sometimes taken with calling the United States an “adolescent” nation. The metaphor fits. Lacking the wisdom that comes with age, America has tended to create new things with vigor, and also recreate the classic blunders of history. It hadn’t had much appreciation for the perspective of its older peers because it hadn’t lost innocence yet. Historians many years from now may look upon the early days of the 21st century as the turning point when that began to change. Like the callow youth that gets some experience by living through a few major failures, America no longer has cause to believe in its own invincibility. It has learned that fate can have its way with the country, no matter how bulletproof it felt in younger days. And just as with the adolescent who takes the large, painful step into maturity, it may soon come to realize that things will not be perfect, but life will go on. The two-dimensional myths of youth – in our national case, an unshakeable sense of eternal competence and the belief that bad things only happen to other nations – are being replaced by a more realistic, nuanced view of the world.
As myths change, so shall the men and women who rise to embody them. In recent days, we have picked imperfect vessels to carry outdated beliefs. And we seem to be consigning them to the dustbin of history all at once these days. It is my hope that the next figures to rise will be representative of the needs of the future, not the past. These people could express what we will need to carry us forward – discipline, humility, authenticity, and perspective, among other values suited to a world full of shades of gray.
I can’t prove any of this. It’s just a story from my point of view. I am no authority figure to whom you should listen because of position, title or mass popularity. Think for yourself as to what all this means. That’s the whole point.