Reflection 60: The (Not So) Mysterious Absence of Public Role Models

If we hope to craft more effective change strategies, we need to come to grips with the dynamism of the predominant culture. A marvelously intricate and evolving system, it perpetuates and entrenches itself in so many ways.

Some of these processes are obvious: The aggressive, bullying, and self-aggrandizing attitudes and behaviors that pervade our culture. But many others are hidden and subtle, and we need to come to grips with these processes as well. Why? Because failing to do so, they operate unseen and without restraint in our lives, defeating by indirection our efforts to create a more decent life and world.

A number of these phenomena are discussed in earlier Reflections: # 8, Why We Aren’t Good Students; Why It Matters (the decline of critical thinking); # 22, Consumerism – and the Passivity it Breeds, #29, Losing Our Communal Roots; # 31, Perfectionism; and #51, Monumental Self-Absorption (our culturally distorted view of history).

In this Reflection, I discuss another of these processes: The ways in which we are deprived of public role models to guide and inspire us. In this area, as in so many others, there are multiple, mutually reinforcing cultural forces that lead to this result. Key aspects of this phenomenon are discussed below.

  1. Disqualifying potential leaders and role models.

This process flows directly out of the fact that we live in a culture permeated by a competitive, win/lose mindset: If someone else is up, I must be down.

Because we habitually view the world from this perspective – because we are in competition with everyone else – we reflexively judge others, looking for weaknesses and shortcomings. See Reflection 16, Mainstream Thinking – The Tyranny of Opinion and Judgment. As a result, we are experts, not at identifying and nurturing leaders, but at tearing them down.

When a person emerges as a potential leader, the mainstream media’s coverage is not saturated with stories that explore his or her strengths. Instead the hunt is on for disqualifying flaws and “gotcha” moments: Sarah Palin’s “I can see Russia from my front porch;” Howard Dean’s scream; Bill Clinton’s sex life; Dan Quayle’s “you’re no John Kennedy” moment; Gary Hart’s illicit romp on the Monkey Business; Edmund Muskie’s tears in the snows of New Hampshire; and so on.

The result of this process is a debasement of the entire process of finding leaders and role models. Many of our best people avoid the public arena entirely. And those who don’t – and survive this cultural witch hunt – are, typically, cautious and deeply conventional people who have long since learned to hide, rather than share, their true humanity; hardly the sort of people who are capable of leading and inspiring by their example.

  1. Our confused understanding of the leaders we do have.

A second reason for the absence of inspiring role models lies in our confusion about the qualities we are looking for. We may think that we are seeking wise and decent leaders, but the truth is far more complicated. Over the last 40 years, a number of Presidents were seemingly decent men attempting to make thoughtful and responsible decisions including, for example, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush.

The fact that Ford, Carter, and the elder Bush each failed to get re-elected is not, it seems to me, a coincidence. Why? Because, in a culture that puts its highest priority on winning, moderation, reflection, and decency are associated with weakness and the lack of a killer instinct. The result? We have visceral doubts about leaders who exhibit these qualities.

Note, importantly, that the need to feel like a winner – and, with it, the tendency to associate decency with weakness – deeply infiltrates the worldview even of people who view themselves as progressive. It is not just conservatives who view Jimmy Carter as a failed President. And the reason, I think, has less to do with what he did or didn’t do and more to do with the fact that he “lost.”

Progressives may say they want leaders and role models who transcend the mainstream culture’s values. But, then, they judge our leaders by the very win/lose values they purport to condemn. So, for example, Obama was negatively judged for persisting in his efforts to nurture a fruitful dialogue during the budget crises that have marked his years in office. Why? Because he dominate, control, and “win.” And yet – granting that the compromises he agreed to had real consequences – isn’t the pursuit of a civil dialogue as, or more, important than Congress’ vote on the issue du jour?

Progressives seemed far more comfortable with Bill Clinton who “won” by triangulating the opposition – code for embracing dismantling the welfare system and financial deregulation. Thus, while he may have given away the store substantively, he allowed mainstream progressives feel like “winners” in their competition against the right.

  1. Domesticating and marginalizing our heroes.

When a leader who is the real deal does actually emerge, the mainstream culture’s first line of defense is the tearing down process described above. But when that fails, a more subtle process takes hold. The leader is “embraced” by the mainstream culture but is, in the process, transformed into a pale, domesticated version of himself. Over time, as increasingly mainstream stories are told and re-told about him, he is absorbed into a larger cultural narrative that supports and reinforces the very mainstream ways of operating he worked so hard to change.

The most vivid, recent example is Martin Luther King. Here is a man who was committed to fundamental change. He fought against inequity and injustice wherever he saw it; fearlessly risking his life and freedom for the cause; dying as he lived, working to bring economic justice to Memphis’ sanitation workers. His activism, tireless organizing, and nonviolent tactics offered a vivid roadmap for more effectively confronting entrenched privilege and power.

But, now, 40 years after his death, we are left with a safely domesticated, hollowed out version of the man. In our collective, mainstream memory he is remembered, and celebrated, as the leader of the movement – now a fading historical artifact – to end de jure segregation in the South.

De-emphasized to the point of invisibility are the broader, more enduring aspects of his legacy: His campaigns against systemic racism, economic injustice, and American imperialism, as well as his legacy of activism, organizing, and nonviolent confrontation. In other words, the culture has obscured the very things that could make him a vital role model for those of us who long to create a better world.

Historically, the most significant example of this domestication process is Jesus. In The First Coming, a book that exhaustively teases out the known details of his life, the philosopher, Thomas Sheehan, describes a man who was wholly committed to challenging power and fundamentally changing the world in which he lived. But Sheehan then describes a process that, within 60 years of his death, relegated his radical “here and now” vision to the relative margins of the movement, created in his name.

In Sheehan’s telling, as each gospel was written, Jesus was progressively transformed into a messiah who, instead of challenging us to create God’s kingdom in this world, promised salvation in the next. And so, for the last two thousand years, his presence in our lives as an role model for activism and change has been largely superseded by the vision of a transcendent, other worldly messiah who, solely by his grace, bestows salvation; a vision that – not at all accidentally – condones and encourages passivity in the face of systemic injustice.


Radical Decency offers a roadmap that, by counteracting the processes described above, can support us in naming and reclaiming our role models and heroes.

It supports us in viewing others with respect, understanding, and empathy. And, as that mindset becomes habitual, we will become far more curious about what our leaders have to offer and far less willing to engage in the mainstream culture’s “gotcha” game of judgment and dismissal.

In addition, our ability to identify worthy leaders will increase as we evaluate them according Radical Decency’s values, asking over and over: Are they are actively looking for ways to be decent to themselves, others, and the world? Doing so, we will be much less susceptible to seduction by leaders who “talk the talk” but, then, compromise their goals – and ours – in order to provide the mainstream drug of “winning.”

Finally, Radical Decency will support us in the continuing the effort to reclaim the public stories of Jesus, Martin Luther King, and other authentic heroes, past and present, infusing them with the vision, activism, commitment, and fearlessness that made them great; reclaiming them as teachers and vital sources of inspiration.