Friday, March 26, 2010

On David Foster Wallace and Leadership

I'm requiring that all readers of this blog love the late writer David Foster Wallace.  If you can read through his essays in Harper's and the commencement speech he gave Kenyon College, and not want to go on and read his books, Infinite Jest in particular, you probably need to humble yourself and open your heart.  I'm not going to blaspheme and give you Moroni's promise here, but let me just say that I think the pure in heart will love his writing.  I know it's trendy to love DFW's writing right now, so sue me.  I love it.

So I was surprised that I had missed his article in Rolling Stone back in 2000 when he followed the McCain campaign around for a week.  He spends the last section of the article about leadership, which he defines as:
A real leader is somebody who, because of his own particular power and charisma and example, is able to inspire people, with "inspire" being used here in a serious and non-cliché way. A real leader can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do but usually can't get ourselves to do on our own.
He then makes the point that we are less susceptible to real leadership today, as compared to JFK's presidency:
True, JFK's audience was more "innocent" than we are: Vietnam hadn't happened yet, or Watergate, or the Savings and Loan scandal, etc. But there's also something else. The science of sales and marketing was still in its drooling infancy in 1961 when Kennedy was saying "Ask not..." The young people he inspired had not been skillfully marketed to all their lives. They knew nothing of Spin. They were not totally, terribly familiar with salesmen.
          . . .
But if you're subjected to enough great salesmen and salespitches and marketing concepts for long enough — like from your earliest Saturday-morning cartoons, let's say — it is only a matter of time before you start believing deep down that everything is sales and marketing, and that whenever somebody seems like they care about you or about some noble idea or cause, that person is a salesman and really ultimately doesn't give a [I'll edit this, it is a Mormon blog, so use your imagination] about you or some cause but really just wants something for himself.
I really can't recommend this article enough.  It's long, but worth every minute you spend reading.  DFW wanted to believe that McCain was a leader, not a salesman, but admitted that making the distinction is very personal and by no means simple.  McCain, for him, had credibility as a leader because he actually sacrificed something, his time as a POW in Vietnam.  Other similar examples might be Joseph Smith, Martin Luther King Jr., and Ghandi.  But most people who we view as potential leaders are much more difficult to label.

Which is all to say that the question of whether or not Barack Obama is a leader or salesman is perhaps the most hotly debated in American politics right now.  Some on the left were genuinely inspired by his candidacy, as witnessed by the volunteer network of millions and the unprecedented ability to reach young voters.  They believe, for example, that health care reform is painful but necessary and that his vision and leadership can guide us through a legitimately difficult period in our history.  Some on the right believe that Barack Obama is a salesman, that he has duped the fawning millions, that he is all rhetoric and no substance.  They simply cannot understand how so many seemingly intelligent people could be so blinded.

Now, you don't care whether I think Pres. Obama is more of a leader than a salesman and I truthfully don't care where you stand.  This is personal.  Probably 99% of the people that would read this blog believe that Joseph Smith was a true leader, in every sense of the word, but we have to admit that many people think he was a salesman.  That he lied for personal gain and was very successful.  It doesn't change the fact that we are inspired to live better lives and make hard choices because of his leadership.

It is important, though, to think about this sort of thing explicitly, and to be as objective as possible.  The thing I hate most is when someone blithely dismisses another person's source of leadership because they disagree with the underlying ideology.  If you are genuinely inspired, as DFW says "in a serious and non-cliché way," then who am I to question that?  Don't we want a nation of people, or a religion of people, or community of people, who are inspired?  Isn't that better than apathy and cynicism?  If we're inspired to do things differently, at least we're engaged and having a real conversation and pulling people into the process that otherwise would not involve themselves, and are therefore more likely to find good solutions to problems.

So don't insult me by telling me that the leader that inspires me has me duped, just be glad I'm inspired, I'll be glad you're inspired, and we'll show mutual respect.


Anonymous said...


Jacob S. said...

Care to expand on that thought, anon? In particular point you find silly?

Jacob S. said...

I don't know what is going on, anon, but I'm deleting all the strangeness.

Mitch said...

Jacob, I have used the term "silly" quite a few times on The Spirit of the Law blog so your anonymous is one of their people.

Jacob S. said...

I suppose it wouldn't do any good to try to figure out what this has to do with me. Thanks, though, for helping clear that up.