Flags and Firecrackers

Here in my parents’ neighborhood, United States flags wave many days of the year, not just on Memorial Day, Flag Day, the 4th of July, Labor Day, and Veterans’ Day, but more days of the year than not.  The flags fly from flagpoles at stores and on houses, and they’re also optimistically poked into the ground at what seems like every turn.  They signal a certain kind of patriotism, glowing with the certainty of the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and crackling with a blithe ignorance about how many people over the centuries have been prohibited from exercising that very right.  It is worth listening to James Earl Jones read Frederick Douglass’s 4th of July speech, in which Douglass stated: “I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you this day rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me.”

The evolution of the symbolism of the U.S. flag reveals a reflexive patriotism that, as Lindy West so eloquently addresses in this The New York Times opinion piece (7-1-17), promotes freedom of expression for some, but certainly not for all.  In fact, West makes clear that those most fervently promoting freedom of expression are often the ones threatening (or in fact using) violence to silence others.  This post takes a look at United States culture and critiques how we let leaders choose themselves.

I am reminded of the Colin Kaepernick protest against the national anthem (“…gave proof, through the night, that our flag was still there…”).  It opened up a real conversation about what the flag means and for whom.  A quick search of Kaepernick news links reveals the degree to which some news outlets wanted to declare Kaepernick’s protest (and the player himself) a failure (e.g. New York Daily News; National Review; Chicago Tribune). I am reminded, too, of writing with a colleague about sexual assault and Title IX protections and then receiving a voice mail telling us “little ladies” to shut the hell up and what would happen if we didn’t.  Nevertheless, the kind of protest that opens up conversation about equal rights for all matters now more than ever.  Real patriotism might even have us agree that solid educational foundation, critical thinking skills, and welcome debate are the way forward.  History gives us many examples of the dangers of blind patriotism.

Today is the 4th of July and so I’m thinking about fraught founding fathers, fireworks, and the fine mess our nation is in.  I think about our nation’s leader running the government as if we were all contestants on “Survivor” or “The Apprentice” and as if North Korea were simply a little plastic piece on a Monopoly, Risk, or Stratego board.  Our “leader” is self-appointed and self-anointed, propped up by foreign dictatorships and a political party full of opportunistic, spineless slime. I know I’m supposed to use other rhetoric, and in many other posts I have been more measured and patient, but I don’t know how else to say that we have already put up with far too much from our current “leader.” In addition to the race and immigrant rights issues I have addressed in other posts, I will add here that the current leader’s Commerce Department has removed gender and sexual identity from their Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) statement.  His Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights closed a Title IX investigation at Liberty University and then confirmed that Liberty University President Jerry L. Falwell, Jr., “would be a part of a task force …that will look at possible changes in higher-education regulations.”  This United States “leader” is moving us alarmingly backwards, and we’re letting him.

Over two decades ago, a man about five years my junior declared to me that he wanted to “become a leader in education administration.”  I raised my eyes slightly, struck by the person’s youth, self-confidence, and stark articulation of such a goal.  The man was Quaker, and his assertion broke a certain stereotype I had about collective and consensus-oriented forms of leadership in the Quaker tradition.  My instinct back then (and maybe a little bit now) was to distrust self-declared leaders.  It was a weird catechism–“And God said, ‘Let there be leaders in education administration,’ and there were leaders in education administration.”  Back then, I thought of leaders as people who just shut up about leading and led.  They got the job done, consistently well, and, in so doing, led the way.  They didn’t brag, didn’t claim positions that weren’t yet theirs, and didn’t establish unjust labor hierarchies.  They were in the trenches, understanding what that kind of work is, and appreciating it.  It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in naming people to posts and having them do administrative or managerial jobs; it was just that I found it odd when the people themselves named themselves to those posts.  It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized what a luxury it is for some both to view themselves as natural leaders and to be able to declare themselves such.  The young man with whom I had spoken was indeed a competent teacher and solid person, and so maybe his direction and ambition ensured that he would realize his ambition, and maybe (I don’t know) he became an outstanding leader in education administration.  (See this 6-24-17 The New York Times opinion piece to see more about gender and how it can affect our understanding of being right.)

Frank Bruni says of Trump and Christie: “Bold nonconformity can be the self-indulgent egotist’s drag” (The New York Times, 7-5-17).

Even the razor ad that serves as the thumbnail image on this blog post shows who the (self-)anointed ones were (in the portraits on the wall), are (the white man coming to bestow the new job on one candidate), and are about to be (the shaven-head white man who knows he’s the chosen one).  Our media are clearly not being very bold or innovative in their concept of leadership.

Two decades after my conversation with that young man, I am finally accustomed to the term ‘leader’ and to the existence of ‘leadership studies,’ primarily because both came into vogue in the early aughts and because I work in higher education (and because I just live in this world).  Is it not the case that, the more leaders we have, the more followers we need?  Do people need to learn to follow and to discern the moments when it’s best not to follow to be successful leaders?  Is there still merit to working the way up the ladder?  Can we even conceive of different metaphors for the workplace that aren’t so baldly vertical?  Can we set the ladder on its side and work left to right or right to left?  In this interview, Spanish graphic artist, writer, and cultural critic Miguel Brieva tells of his new book, La gran aventura humana, in which he underscores the concept of “the individualism of the masses,” a narcissistic banalization of our ambitions and behaviors, stemming in part from the lack of creative education in our schools.  Alexis de Tocqueville’s 19th-century essay on United States democracy warns of such an end for a culture so focused on the individual and, as stated in this internet summary, so ironically freedom-loving while still waging genocide against Native Americans and enslaving human beings.

One of the themes I write about in Gender Shrapnel in the Workplace is the need for stronger leaders who are honest and generous, but Brieva’s work makes clear that “creative” should be on this list.  We need a new kind of leader in all realms—the arts, business, education, government, labor unions, law, medicine, politics, sports.  Honesty in leadership means setting an example of how you want the work to get done.  Honest leaders do not surrender to superficial branding (as we have seen at the national level and in so many of our colleges and universities), and they do acknowledge their own and the institution’s strengths and weaknesses.  Leaders who share institutional shortcomings and a plan to address them show they’re not afraid of a challenge, and they’re not afraid of the truth. They understand when others’ experiences and talents supersede their own. Generous leaders understand backgrounds and points beyond their own.  They open up opportunities to a greater cross-section of the workforce, share credit for good work, and recognize mistakes and apologize for them.  Creative leaders generate networks of people who discuss vision, collaborate, and think more concretely about the common good.  And they turn the ladders onto their sides.

Frederick Douglass concluded his 1852 Independence Day address with these stirring words, which still speak to us today: “At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could reach the nation’s ear, I would, today, pour forth a stream, a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and the crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.”  Perhaps what we need is not the flag , but the firecracker, from the top on down, from the bottom to the top, and from side to side.

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