Even the casual observer of local and global events would have to admit that these are strange times. In rapid succession, a new event or devastation draws the attention of the world, replacing a previous calamity just fading from the scene. The Cold War is over and many countries are turning to democracy and taking aggressive steps toward developing their economies. But there are still wars within our own borders.
Many economists report that the income gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen. Inadequate education, unemployment and high rates of incarceration and homicide are common characteristics of our urban centers. These problems are compounded by an apparent crisis in political leadership, media inattention to the issues that matter most, and a lack of spirituality in leadership overall. It is evident there is a need for new methods of attacking the society’s problems, a need to critique the role major media outlets play in reporting and discoursing on politics and society and a need for leaders with integrity who are willing to struggle for a cause greater than themselves.
Most people would liken the current political state of affairs to a spectator sport or, even worse, a war without bloodshed. Election campaigns are conducted as a combination of television ads, polls and personal attacks. They are not issues-oriented information campaigns where voters can have true participation in the democracy. Within the local political arena, many of our leaders have been elevated to stratospheric celebrity-status. In many instances, sustaining power in the form of fame-and-fortune seems to be the goal as opposed to using power to empower and bring about change for the common good of the people. Cornel West is referring to a crisis in Black leadership specifically, but would have been accurate if he was referring to leadership in general, when he writes, …most present-day black political leaders appear too hungry for status to be angry, too eager for acceptance to be bold, too self-invested in advancement to be defiant…
Look at the campaigns currently unfolding in New York State. The Lieutenant Governor makes a Aduring the term@ party switch, changes Apolitical parties instead of changing her principles, then announces she is going to run as a Democrat against her former Republican running mate, and current boss, Governor Pataki. Although she is backed by a huge financial war chest, her backing from Democratic party leaders is tepid. Even more spectator sport is the upcoming Rumble in the Jungle Part II, with at least three Democratic heavyweights lining up to deliver the knock out punch to Republican Senator Al D’Amato. Some of the candidates have already pledged to avoid the low-blows many witnessed in the 1992 campaign, a race in which some of the present candidates were involved.
Besides observing the intrigue of the campaign, there is not much in the current political environment to motivate an individual to become engaged in public life. Is it realistic to expect more thought provoking discourse? Or is it more accurate to describe our culture as The Argument Culture, as the title of a new book by Deborah Tannen suggests? People want answers to their questions and solutions to their myriad problems. By voting, citizens entrust democratic institutions and individuals with the responsibility to solve national and international problems. There is much doubt, however, about many of our leaders’ commitment and abilities to improve society’s ills. Even those who maintain such faith have to have some degree of dissatisfaction over the current political state of affairs, and for good reason.
William Greider, in Who Will Tell the People (Simon & Schuster), says, Athe citizens’ attitudes and actions powerfully confirm that the political system we call democracy has lost substantive meaning. They can testify from experiences to all the many elements of decay that have been identified as the realities of power. Now is a crucial time to have citizens who play an active role in the fate of our country. Leaving the serious affairs of the world to our elected officials will not work.
In fact, the political dilemma can be solved in part by not placing the burden of solving problems on the politician. Citizens have to defeat their own cynicism and apathy and have to find ways to become involved at some level. The politician also has to create dialogue with the citizen (town meetings, meeting with community groups, community leaders) in order to demystify the legislative process. There also has to be a realization that the gains we can make in improving the society through the political system alone are limited. For example, community business leaders often do not receive nearly the degree of attention that politicians receive, yet they share an equal, if not greater, role in the struggle. Historically, small businesses have played a major role in the growth of the nation. Small businesses can also play a major role in the growth of our communities today.
We also need individuals and organizations that observe and become involved with the political system to assure that legislation passed is not detrimental to our community and benefits most Americans, not just the financial elite individuals and special interests groups. A great deal of this role is fulfilled by nonpartisan advocacy groups, which engage in dialogue with politicians around a wide range of on-going, significant issues. Politics in this democratic capitalist society, is fueled by economics. Those with the economic means (foreign powers, big businesses, etc.) can hire lobbyists to fight on behalf of what is in the best interests of their survival.
We need individuals and nonpartisan advocacy groups that speak on behalf of byist. An example is Marion Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund, who provides a clear, strong voice on behalf of the nation’s children.
In addition to politics, another substantial concern is the increasing corporate control of media. Corporate conglomerates place a high priority on what sells newspapers and magazines, not necessarily on disseminating fair and accurate information. Hype and sensationalism generated by the media, adds to the confusion of the political dilemma. There is a sacrifice of the relevant, in favor of the ridiculous. For example, the possible sexual improprieties of the President are given more thorough attention, examination and coverage than the recent standoff in Iraq, the decline of the American people’s standard of living, increasing global competition and other economic concerns. The issues that matter most to the masses of people are hardly discussed in the media.
There are many social ideas and political options that never reach the public view, because the media chooses the sensational, the tantalizing, the profitable, over the relevant.
The African-American community faces as many challenges as any other group, but the spate of the recent articles on black politics focuses more on personalities than on methods of progress. This past January, New York Magazine posed a rhetorical question to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., AWhom Would You Choose, Dr. King? Dr. King’s was asked to choose (hypothetically) between The Reverend Al Sharpton and The Reverend Calvin Butts. In addition to the arrogance of presuming to think for Dr. King, this article follows a historical tendency of creating binary conflicts between major black leadership. The mainstream media continues attempts to force us to face the same, Aeither/or proposition as Booker T. or W.E.B; King or X; Jesse or Farrakhan. All of these situations the media drums up are merely distractions.
It is a valid point that there are significant disagreements amongst our leadership at local, national and international levels. Such is a reality of human beings in interaction with each other. But communities of color cannot afford to have dialogue stifled by media machinations and exaggerations.
The individual who is serious about seeing communities rebuilt has to be critical about the information received from our most common media sources. We have to give greater support to our local periodicals, such as The New York Amsterdam News, The Daily Challenge, The Beacon, Our Time Press, among others. In these papers, relevant issues which have local, national and international implications (from school board concerns to U.S. relations with Africa), and which the major media outlets appear to ignore or hide, are often brought to light. It is only when such periodicals struggle or become defunct, as happened with the City Sun, that we realize how relevant they really are. Giving a great deal of support to these various information outlets will expose and reduce the hold media conglomerates have on the flow of information and control of political debate.
The crisis of politics and media power, are not the only dilemmas we face. What is also increasingly evident is the dilemma of spiritual deterioration. This deterioration manifests itself in the form of selfishness, prioritizing our own advancement at the expense of the masses, and measuring our goals and successes in the forms of fame and fortune. The current major political parties, economic system, and media reporting are parts of the problem rather than the solution.
Solving the spiritual dilemma begins with spiritual leaders radically changing present human relationships and bringing people together who are willing to struggle for freedom, justice and equality for all of humankind. The movement that aims to change human relationships along these lines can lead to the beginning of the transformation process of our governments, ideologies, and even our religions and is our only chance of achieving world peace. We desperately need such leaders with integrity who are willing to inject a dose of spirituality into the veins of our society. By spiritual leader I do not necessarily mean religious leader, clergy or anything of that sort. Spirituality refers to a willingness to serve on behalf of others, setting aside material interests and tending to the needs of the least among us. It is insufficient and useless to think any longer in terms of the commonly used labels of Democrat, Republican, Liberal and Conservative.
Spiritual leadership requires working towards a cause higher than self, party or ideological orientation. The higher cause, improving the human condition, must be the canon which we use to decide which ideas are discussed further and which are abandoned. Then the dialogue and debate will be able to be civil and conducted by rational and reasonable minds. It is also insufficient to think in terms of giving our allegiance or voting based on the color of their skin. (It is indeed difficult to not think of power through racial lenses when we were held powerless for so long based on race.) The focus still has to be on spiritual leadership with integrity.
Why shouldn’t leaders be evaluated based on race? If we evaluate merely on race there is a greater risk of approving leaders who do not have the desire or ability to progressively lead the people. The basic needs and wants in our society, and the anxieties that result from not having those needs and wants met is common to blacks, Whites and others. Poor people, the Have-nots, suffer anxiety to secure or maintain a job in order to maintain the basic needs to survive (food, clothing and shelter). The main difference between blacks and Whites is the inordinae amount of blacks amongst society’s have-nots.
The type of leadership we need from individuls and institutions is spiritual leadership with integrity, free of addictions to materialism, not driven by quests for the accumulation and consumption of things and attaining power for self- aggrandizement. The process of democracy from government Aof, by, and for the people has been transformed into a power grab by lobbyists, lawyers and legislators. We have to find daring leaders and institutions (churches, mosques, synagogues, NAACP, Urban League, Million Man March local organizing committees, etc.), who will use their unique positions to devalue monetary wealth, materialism, and the quest for power as the values we strive for.
Once we begin to study the leaders on which the media has focused lately and attempt to understand their motivations, one thing becomes obvious: although their approaches, friends, and enemies vary drastically, many of their goals and motivations are very similar. The questions we have to ask ourselves are: What are the issues? What is at stake? What are the principles these leaders have dedicated themselves to fighting for? Where can we find the new leadership? We need institution builders such as Booker T. Washington, Rev. Flake, those who recognize the sins of the power structure such as Rev. Sharpton and Min. Farrakhan, intellectuals in the mold of W.E.B. Dubois and Cornel West. We need brilliant politicians such as Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and Ronald Dellums, and those who can negotiate within the power structure such as the late Ron Brown, Vernon Jordan and William Parsons. The most effective leadership is in such a collective, with serious leaders galvanized around the higher cause of improving the human condition. Unity is vital because no one person has all of the traits necessary. It emanates from the common, unifying theme of the higher cause.
Although we do need unity, we do not need, and can never attain, uniformity. What is the difference? Unity implies that we are one in our purpose and goals, improving the human condition, increasing world peace, ending human suffering and misery. Uniformity implies that there should be a monolithic group- that we should think alike and behave alike. Uniformity is something black communities are measured by, but something that no family, church, community or society can ever achieve. Unity is possible once the group defines and articulates its values and objectives. Allowing unity without uniformity is necessary, yet it will not emerge from politics as we know it today. This theme of unity was recently echoed by the great Civil Rights and Pan Africanist leader Kwame Toure at an event celebrating his life and legacy. Mr. Toure said, AWe must have unity in our community, and we must understand that we can have unity in the widest diversity. We have a responsibility to insure this unity. The challenge for our political leaders today is to lift the veil of partisan postures. The cause has to be bigger than the interests of the party, winning the next election or arguing our ideologies. Neglecting to define, articulate and commit to a higher cause is what produces selfishness and erosion of civility amongst our leaders. This same condition eventually gives rise to the loss of faith, in our leaders and institutions, and cynicism amongst the electorate. It also represses that certain part of each of us that yearns to connect and contribute to a whole, greater than ourselves. The talented leader might be apprehensive about dedicating themselves to public service. The intelligent, concerned citizen might not feel compelled to go to the voting booths on election day.
The higher cause can only emerge from and be sustained by honoring the capacity that is unique to each of us as individuals. If our priorities continue to be commitment to self and partisan interests, rather than the interests of the community, we will lose touch with the best elements of our humanity- the capacity to contribute our unique thoughts, creations and discoveries. We will be deprived of the potential leader=s capacity to think of new economic concepts, to discover new political paradigms and to ponder new possibilities. We will be deprived of a golden opportunity to improve the human condition. We will be deprived of a chance to achieve victory against what Peter Drucker calls Athe turbulences, the transformations, the sudden upsets, which have made this century one of the meanest, cruelest, bloodiest in human history. Some would describe all of this talk of spiritual leaders, new relationships, new politics as empty rhetoric, idealistic and impossible. I would respond by asking them what alternatives do you propose? It is necessary to analyze, to dialogue and to debate. But more than anything this is the time, the precious present, to begin creating the bright future that we all desire. This is a time for men and women of action.
The only alternative is to continue on our current chaotic path. We would do so at our peril.