This morning I got an e-mail from a colleague who’s working with the American Dream Movement. Said friend is all-in with the goals and values of the project, but is stepping cautiously where Van Jones, the movement’s leader, is concerned. It’s nothing against Jones personally, I don’t think – my friend seems to admire him a great deal and thinks he’s exceptionally bright and committed. Instead, it’s more a case of the current boyfriend paying for the sins of the last boyfriend. We all know how that goes. Your last boyfriend – let’s call him “Barry” – promised you the sun, the moon and the stars and then he hopped in bed with all the mean girls in the school. How can you ever trust a boy again?
Political leaders can be that way, and right now, all across America, lots and lots of folks are reeling at the brazenness of Barry’s betrayal. So it’s only natural that the next time a smooth-talker comes around pressing all the right buttons, they’re going to be leery.
My friend doesn’t need my advice, exactly. Just needed to air out some thoughts, wanted a sounding board, knows that I don’t really have anything new to say. So I tried to respond to the general nature of the dynamic, reinforcing, emphasizing certain themes, etc. Here’s roughly what I said.
Cults of personality are going to get us nowhere. So if I were you, I’d be playing out scenarios. What will happen if this person betrays us? Will we move on, forging ahead in the right direction because we have been emboldened, or will we jump off a cliff in despair? Or worse, will we continue to follow him, making excuses for bad behavior, lying to ourselves about who he really is, telling ourselves he’s doing the best he can do under the circumstances? Will we immure ourselves behind walls of cognitive dissonance?
And what is the probability that he will betray us? What evidence, hard evidence, do we have that might help us predict his future actions? Past performance is no guarantee of future success, but it correlates strongly. Past performance tells us who you are, and you’ll stay who you are up until something significant (and usually observable) changes you. I mean, now that we look back on it, you’re not the first girl Barry cheated on.
It’s imperative that we begin from a position of … well, maybe suspicion isn’t the right word, but certainly we should proceed with a healthy measure of reserve when it comes to those who seek power or around whom power seems to accumulate. Whatever trust we accord them MUST be trust they have earned through their deeds. If we trust them only because of their words and the force of their personalities we deserve what happens to us.
This doesn’t mean we can’t work with them, but it means that our efforts have to be aimed at empowering the values and the goals of the movement, not the leader’s personal brand. That is, we have to be doing things that will endure in the absence of the individual. If he drives off a cliff. If he is caught in bed with someone unsanctioned by the reactionary morality of our opponents. If he, like Barry, betrays us.
Finally, the leader in question should be smart enough to recognize all of this. He should get that we’re not working for him, we’re working with him and for the good of the American people. Not only should he or she be okay with it, he or she should applaud and encourage it. If this doesn’t happen, then we will know that his/her goals are personal, not pro-social. And when the chips are down, leaders who are in it for themselves can be counted on to act in their best interests first, last and always.
None of this is a comment on Van Jones. In truth, I know next to nothing about him and am only beginning to get an intro-level handle on the American Dream Movement. At a glance there’s much to like, and I hope that as it gains momentum I find more and more to like. And America could certainly use a leader who is what Jones appears to be and professes to be, so I hope for the best.
I think my friend already knew all this. You probably did, too.
Corey, Vernon, Muzz and Will are four gentlemen who by gods understand it, so we’ll let them sing us out. Happy Saturday.