|OK, I expect this article will be controversial. Please understand I love Americans, I just hate your leaders. And I am very sympathetic with the plight of politically, socially and economically disenfranchised Americans, and this article is an expression of my sympathy and feelings of solidarity with you. Conservatives will call it anti-American; it is not.
One thing that seems to differentiate US culture from that of any other affluent country is the cult status of its leaders — especially political and business leaders. Unlike in Canada or Europe, disagreement or criticism of one’s boss in the US is treated as sacrilege — a career-limiting move. And while Canadian and European television programs and cartoonists savagely ridicule and caricature their political leaders, and Canadian and European media go out of their way to unnerve and challenge these leaders, their US counterparts seem to treat their ‘leaders’ with deference bordering on hero-worship. While Tony Blair is portrayed in the British press as an inept and clueless Bush lapdog (and worse), the mainstream US media seem unwilling to portray Bush as a spoiled, psychopathic illiterate coddled and protected from real facts by his secretive and fanatical neocon ‘managers’ (despite overwhelming evidence that that’s what he is).
American business leaders are treated with similar deference and wild adulation, as if they were direct descendants from God. Autobiographical business books ghost-written for insanely overpaid CEOs, pontificating on how to be a successful leader, sell like hotcakes. Case in point: The platitudinous blatherings of Rudolph Giuliani in his book Leadership, featuring chapters on The Importance of the Morning Meeting, Preparing Relentlessly, Making Everyone Accountable, Surrounding Yourself with Great People, Reflecting, then Deciding and on and on. Common sense that any five-year-old would know, sold with enormous success for $25.95 a copy.
Many studies have shown that leadership has little to do with organizational success — successful leaders, for the most part, just happened to be in the right place at the right time with a good group of people already working ‘for’ them (and when they move on to their next overpaid position, usually fail dismally to live up to expectations). No matter — with a high 7-figure annual income, they can retire after one serendipitous success and spare themselves and their adulators the embarrassment of their inability to repeat their divine performance.
Arrogant rock stars who write warmed over nursery rhymes, drug-addled sports celebrities pushing $200 sneakers made in Asian sweatshops, no-talent actors and actresses brainwashed by lunatic cults — whole programs are devoted to following the every move of these pathetic and egomaniacal clowns. MTV reportedly even has a program that just lists new celebrity endorsements. One of the newest terms in rap culture is ‘cross-dressing’, meaning the scandal of wearing more than one cult hero’s endorsed brand names at a time.
Why do Americans, uniquely, worship their leaders this way?
Peter Block, one of the founders of Organizational Development, thinks that, in business at least, it’s absurd:
ìLeadershipî is a well-developed misconception. The dominant belief is that the task of leadership is to set a vision, enroll others in it and hold people accountable through measurements and rewards. Itís a patriarchal system used to create high performance through centralization of power. Most leadership training focuses on how to be a good parent. We teach how to ìdevelopî people, as if they were ours to develop. We do a lot to create the notion that bosses are responsible for their people. All that parenting has the unintended side effect of creating deep entitlement and having employees stay frozen in their own development. Most management techniques are ways of controlling people so they feel good about being controlled.
These are the most common questions I get from my clients. ìHow do I get people to Öî and you can fill in the blank after that. My favorite is, ìHow do I get people on board with my ideas/visions/whatever.î My response is, ìHow do you know youíre in the boat?î These are the wrong questions. Theyíre the questions of a parent about recalcitrant children. As soon as
Block understands the essence of complex systems: No one is in control. What gets done (for better or worse) gets done as a result of the staggeringly complex interactions and personal decisions of everyone. Even in the most hierarchical organizations, far more energy is expended finding workarounds for incompetent management decisions and policies (without offending management, of course) than is spent implementing the odd intelligent insight that management, with all the resources at its disposal, ‘manages’ to come up with. Employees, and customers (who are often treated only slightly less paternalistically than employees), actually have almost all the good ideas that would be needed to make any organization much more successful, but it is taboo to listen to them, to even be accessible to them. That would make the leaders look weak, as if perhaps they don’t have all the answers. And that, of course, is unthinkable.
The same thing applies in the political and entertainment arenas. Politicians want you to believe they are in control, that they have all the answers, that you needn’t worry your pretty little head about anything. When something like Katrina or Iraq blows up in their face, and shows this to be a farce, they will immediately assign blame to someone else (ideally another leader). And the media, which make their living propagating these lies, working in close partnership with political leaders (who regulate their business) and business leaders (who pay their salaries with their ads), are not about to blow the whistle on the whole fraud. So whatever moronic gang of gangsters is sponsored by one of the big sportswear companies to grunt their juvenile drivel to the top of the charts, gets treated like royalty, interviewed and promoted as if they were leaders of their whole generation, even asked for their opinion on current events.
Sports stars who are, briefly, marginally better than their peers in one specific sport get paid thousands of times what those peers are paid and fawned over by the media as if they were the Second Coming. A tiny handful of actors who are bought starring roles by their rich parents or who serendipitously catch the eye of some movie mogul get paid thousands of times what their peers (and betters) are paid for ‘supporting’ roles, independent productions, and for providing the real talent — writing the words that the ‘stars’ merely spout (often amateurishly). Americans adulate newscasters, mouthpieces who don’t even have to act!
The conspiracy between absurdly overvalued, overrated and overcompensated ‘leaders’ and their masses of fawning followers, in business, in politics, in sports and entertainment (what used to be called ‘the arts’) just keeps rolling on with the media helping it along and keeping score.
This conspiracy could not continue without the complicity of the American people. Why do they put up with it? Americans are not stupid and, until recently, were no less informed than people in other affluent nations. Complexity is all about emergence, and about complicity, and as tempting as it may be there is no root cause, no group ‘to blame’ for what has led to this unwarranted gross inequality. And Americans have a history of skepticism. So what can account for this needless and unwarranted resignation of so many to low-class status in their own country?
My theory is that Americans (and perhaps the people of some struggling nations, like Iraq) have been domesticated. The word domesticated means, literally, ‘made property of the house’. The dogs that we (mostly) love today were domesticated over thousands of years from wolves. Anthropologists tell us that, in the early days of civilization, when people began settling in villages, wolves were attracted by the smell of their food, and started hovering around (the same thing is occurring today with polar bears). At first, villagers would drive them off with stones (or, presumably, kill them for food or fur). But the villagers had a soft spot for the young pups, and didn’t kill them (at least until they got older and had already bred). Evolution thus bred a successful offshoot of the wolf — the dog, which looked and acted eternally young and helpless, and so lived on at the pleasure of civilized humans, to the point now that there are too many dogs, and a scarcity of wolves, on our planet. Even old dogs have mostly floppy ears and a placid disposition, unlike their wolf contemporaries.
Many dogs, even in America, are, of course, mistreated (though much less so than in struggling nations like China where they are still semi-wild, eaten and killed for their fur in the millions — if that faux fur you bought comes from China, chances are the fur isn’t faux, at least not in the way you thought — don’t click this link if you’re squeamish). So what happens if a domestic dog, for whatever reason, rational to us or not, decides it doesn’t want to be ‘property of the house’? If it bites back, or flees, it is probably doomed to die — domestication was a one-way trip for dogs. There are some places where feral, ‘un-domesticated’ dogs exist, but it is a constant struggle against humans determined to exterminate them. The same is true for wild pigs and other once-domesticated feral creatures.
A notable exception, an animal that is domesticated and yet still wild, is the cat. Feral cats fare much better in the wild than most other domesticated creatures that have lost their independence from humans. It is not clear why the evolutionary path for cats left open a return to the wild. It may be that cats never really trusted humans in the first place (and those that did died young) so that the knack and the drive to return to the wild and keep the instincts and capabilities of independence alive was selected for.
Although the analogy is a bit tenuous, it seems to me that Americans are more trusting of their leaders, of those (way) higher up than they are in the pecking order, and hence, like the domestic dog, have given up much of their independence of thought and action for the creature comforts of the American Dream. This is more than a little ironic, of course, given the way in which the American republic began (with the leader-endorsed slaughter of the natives and then a revolutionary war against the leaders of the day). But for the last two centuries or more paternalistic leadership has been the American norm. They are, after all, called the founding fathers, and despite their propensity for slave ownership and other evils, are revered by most Americans to almost religious levels.
Why haven’t Europeans and Canadians become similarly domesticated? Perhaps because they have more recently had reason to distrust their ‘leaders’. Brutal despotism and imperialistic tendencies have a much longer and much more recent history in Europe than in America. Much of European history is the story of uprisings against arrogant, overprivileged and tyrannical ‘leaders’, and that continued in the 20th century.
Canadians have a much more peaceful history, but we have been threatened many times (and are threatened again today) by our mighty, arrogant, imperialistic neighbour to the South. We look at their leaders with great distrust. Our Canadian leaders, if we were to be honest, don’t matter much — if the US wants our resources and our people, they will just take them, and we haven’t the capacity to resist (though we might well try). Many Canadians have also witnessed the arrogance of American bosses who are worshiped in the US, who clearly see their Canadian ‘property’ as nothing more than a cheap way to generate profits for repatriation to the American fatherland, and who treat their more independent-minded Canadian staff as ill-mannered children. So as a result, I think, Canadians tend towards more of a European, skeptical attitude towards ‘leaders’.
Canadians and Europeans are a bit more like cats, then, and Americans a bit more like dogs, in the continuum of human domesticity. The constant undercurrent of separatism in Europe and Canada is a constant reminder that, for the most part, we don’t like or trust those in charge. The cute fridge magnet reminds us of the difference: Dogs have masters, cats have staff. We are still ‘wild’ enough to believe our leaders work for us.
So what is a patriotic American to do, when if he leaves because he no longer wants to live as property of the privileged class he is called a traitor, a coward. If you don’t like it, change it, don’t run away, he’s told. It’s easy for a cat to tell a dog to stop putting up with abuse from its ‘owner’, to just leave. The poor dog no longer has it in his genes to be feral. He has trusted the master too much, and for too long, to change now. He must respect and obey his ‘leaders’. That is the only life he knows.
Charts adapted from Fire & Ice: The US, Canada and the Myth of Converging Values, by Michael Adams
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