Sunday, September 07, 2014

Optics and theater

"Part of this job is also the theater of it," Obama said in reference to the presidency on Meet The Press.  “Well, it’s not something that always comes naturally to me. But it matters. And I’m mindful of that.”  This all in reference to the "optics"--I presume a technical term for how the public or the media would be inclined to interpret certain juxtapositions of facts and ideas--of the president having a press conference about the circumstances surrounding journalist James Foley's brutal murder right before going out for a round of golf.

To be honest, he's right about the theater, at least to a degree.  If nothing else, sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander; Dubya was made fun of for flippant remarks about the War on Terror in the middle of his backswing, and I'm glad to see that there's not a lot of "Bush did it!" noise being made.

More to the point, there's an aspect of morale to leadership, of setting an example and displaying comportment that respects the dignity of a leader's charges and the weight of his responsibilities.  People, bearing their own inherent dignity and those pesky things we call feelings, need to be led and respected as whole humans so that they can appreciate what their leaders ask of them and so that they can see they are appreciated by their leaders.

This is true in different ways for different situations.   I worked for one company where the subliminal message from management was "you're a lousy excuse for a human being and you better be grateful for the charity I show you every payday, and every day that you come to work."  It wasn't entirely ineffective because even people who don't respond well to insults recognize the implicit threat of unemployment and were motivated to stay off the radar of the more destructive managers.  I worked for another that seemed autistic by comparison but had pretty much the same dynamic; they didn't care if you had a good reason for not wanting to do something (whether it was telling somebody at three o'clock that they would have to stay until ten pm that night for a special project they decided had to be run on the second shift, or telling a rep from Quality to sign off on bad product so they could ship it), they just saw "people who help get product out the door, who help the company make its numbers, who help the company stay in business" and "people who make decisions that cost the company money."  To say this view of the world is two-dimensional would be overly generous, but it wasn't entirely ineffective because moving product is the nuts and bolts of business, whether or not anything else matters.  Even in the military, where complaining about your feelings getting hurt would be seen as even more preposterous than the nominal leaders I've personally experienced, there is some effort to instill in soldiers a sense of loyalty--of mutual loyalty--and an appreciation for what soldiers do and for what they are asked to sacrifice for their country.

Okay, I'm going off track a little.  I want to come back to Obama focusing more on his contrition for bad theater than for that just being a symptom of bad leadership.  I've had this sense for a while, especially with his presidency but on and off throughout politics for as long as I can remember, that politics is known to politicians as just the art of managing expectations and appearances, of getting people to think what you want while you go off to do something else that you want.  And again, that's true to a degree; it's difficult to do your job when it's scrutinized so closely, and especially when there's so much going on with a job like that that even today there's too much misinformation for real transparency.  But it reminds me of a line from the Bard:

If we shadows have offended,
 Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not
If you pardon we will mend.
Else the Puck a liar call.
Give me your hands, if we be friends, 
And Robin shall restore amends.

Is this where we are?  Is this how bad things are, that when the president errs, he need only apologize for providing stale bread or a circus with a lousy trapeze act, and we're content to ignore his other malfeasances?  

I didn't think we were.  I thought part of the increased hostility between the reds and the blues was that they speak different languages, indeed use language for different reasons, not so much to communicate but to persuade and manipulate.  Hence comments like "I was for the war before I was against it" or "I didn't inhale" as if no explanation for a change of opinion or position were needed once the politician had so charitably thrown a bone of empathy to voters across the aisle, or campaigning on buzzwords like "hope" and "change" instead of a platform consisting of at least a few relatively concrete ideas we would get to learn about and discuss before getting some omnibus bill railroaded through Congress.

My examples are admittedly one-sided, because I am not entirely without bias, but it takes more people than either party has to maintain a facade of this magnitude for this long, so I'm not trying to play favorites.  

I just want to know:  have we gotten this bad as a society that it's sufficient to us for our leaders to keep up appearances, and then apologize for not doing so when we fail, with little concern being paid to accomplishing things worth accomplishing?

Maybe so.  Maybe this goes hand in hand with being a society that has evolved to where it wrings its hands over straight white men acknowledging attraction to pretty women in public, whereas not two hundred years ago the same were killing natives like varmints.  Maybe we don't have Washingtons or Churchills anymore because we don't take the serious things seriously anymore.  We're still the biggest actor on the world stage, at least for now, but we don't have the stomach to win another world war and we don't have the leaders who could steel us to do it.  

I mean, yeah, before Churchill there was Chamberlain, but....