“I have seen the enemy and he is us”
Posted: March 20th, 2012
A resident of the Okefenokee Swamp in the state of Georgia, many people forget that he was also a reluctant candidate for US President in both 1952 and 1956. What’s even more remarkable is that he was – wait for it – an opossum. Not an ordinary opossum, but a cartoon one. His name was Pogo and he sprang from the mind of a genius named Walt Kelly, Jr., an ex-Disney animator who had worked on Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and other renowned Disney productions. Pogo ran in North American newspapers from 1949 until Kelly’s death in 1973. Ah, I still miss him. I can only imagine what he would have to say about the current state of the world. He was brilliant!
But I digress. In my last post several weeks ago I began by quoting another remarkable character, not of the cartoon type, Herb Kelleher, the co-founder and former CEO of Southwest Airlines. Kelleher had said, “There is a difference between what features customers say they want and what customers are willing to pay for.” And then, of course, I went off on a tangent about Kelleher instead of getting to the point.
So between Kelleher and Pogo, perhaps you are starting to see what I am getting at. It’s fundamental that people always want more than they are willing to pay for. As recent history has shown, if they are allowed to get what they want but are unwilling to pay for it there can be dire consequences. Ask the Greeks. For that matter there are a lot of other people you could ask today, too. Ask the Americans whose federal government is currently spending $1.40 for every $1.00 it takes in. But of course, we haven’t reached the denouement of that story yet.
There are two primary defenses against this law of human nature. The first is the lenders, sometimes called the ‘bond vigilantes’. Usually, the bond vigilantes call a halt to excess self-gratification by companies and countries. But somehow, this normally dependable watchdog went to sleep in the era of cheap money and the “end of economic cycles as we know them”, etc. Only America’s unique position as a so-called safe haven keeps the vigilantes at bay, for now.
The second defense is even less consistently present today. It is responsible political leadership. It’s not like nothing has been written about leadership. Google the word and you will get 492,000,000 results. Search on Amazon and you’ll get 87,920 books. So I’m not sure I have anything new to say about leadership. But the absence of true political leadership today, in many Western democracies, is frustrating. Part of my frustration also comes from the current state of democracy, no doubt caused in part by the lack of true leadership. But the people need to take some responsibility too.
All western developed nations consider themselves to be democratic. From time to time we all pat ourselves on the back in some sort of superior way to congratulate ourselves on being democracies. But I’m not sure we’re in a position to be so self-congratulatory.
“…it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried…” For the last 65 years people have used those words of Winston Churchill’s as some sort of uncritical, simplistic mantra to justify democracy as the best form of government, apparently regardless of how it is conducted.
But read his words more carefully and it sounds a lot less like the ringing endorsement everyone assumes. As someone once said, “democracy is advanced citizenship”. But people are only capable of advanced citizenship if great leadership inspires them.
Leadership requires wisdom and the intellectual rigor and honesty to chart a wise vision. Leadership requires eloquence and authenticity because the ultimate quality of a democratic leader is persuasion. True leaders tell people what they need to know, not what they want to hear. Without true leadership people fall back into tribalism and short-term self-interest, often at their own long-term cost.
Winston Churchill became Prime Minister of Great Britain on May 10, 1940. Hitler was preparing to invade. On May 13, 1940 Churchill went to the House of Commons to ask for a vote of confidence. What did he say? He didn’t say “everything is going to be ok”. He didn’t say, “I have the answer.” He didn’t say, “trust me.” That’s for sure.
He said, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat… We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realised; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal. But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, “come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.”
He won his vote.
The world is in a tough place right now and there are no easy solutions. But we are not Great Britain in the spring of 1940. We’re a lot better off than then.
But where are the Churchills today?
You can hear part of Churchill’s actual address to the House Commons here: