Wednesday, February 17, 2010


I've been thinking about greatness. My eye was caught by a headline in last Saturday's NY Times Arts section, "Their Goal: To Regain Oscar's Old Luster." And I wondered if that would ever be really possible again. Is it just me, or are even the movie stars smaller than they used to be? Do Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and Leonardo di Caprio have the stature of a Cary Grant, a Bette Davis, a Humphrey Bogart? I ask myself whether this is simply the nostalgia of one who looks back at the past and sees everything to be bigger--and better. Or whether there is indeed something about our culture that resists, even despises greatness? Is there something about us that refuses to acknowledge any other person to be greater than ourselves? Do we suffer from a need to bring everyone down to our scale?

I've been thinking, in this context, about Barack Obama and FDR. The system of government we have created in recent decades seems to have made it impossible for a President to achieve great things; everything must be done in small increments, with a fight at every step along the way. No grand gestures, no imperial posturing. If Obama has greatness in him, I see him in his current predicament as a Gulliver tied to the ground by a million frightened Lilliputians. And I'm unable to determine where the fault lies--whether it's some weakness in our President, or the power system we have enabled to oppose him. I'm inclined to think the latter, because I see it in every aspect of our lives: great men and women made small by the envy and pusillanimity of those around them. I'm inclined to see it as an unfortunate aspect of a culture that worships the individual--and, by extension, the self.

We have become so self-important, all of us. We see little beyond our own restricted horizons, what I need, what's best for me. And we scale our leaders down to fit into that world picture in which the "I" assumes centrality. They are no better than ourselves, we do not trust them to know more than we do (which is, in too many cases, little!) and will not allow them to act in any significant way. We thwart them, for fear that their power will overpower our own. The result is the paralysis we see in Washington today, where every Senator has become his or her own President, and every Congress member a righteous promulgator of his or her own immutable and indisputable truth.

It takes not only "leadership" to make a leader, but also a significant number of people willing to be led. To be willing to be led requires not only the inspiration of a "leader", but also a readiness to sacrifice some part of one's own sense of how things should be done. We are always eager to point to the inadequacies of others; we are slow, however, to recognize, still less acknowledge, and yet still less remedy our own. So we remain mired in the pettiness that hobbles us, and shake our fists in anger and frustration at those hobbled by that pettiness. What a sad and foolish irony, for a nation that fosters the illusion of its "greatness"!


mandt said...

"Do Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and Leonardo di Caprio have the stature of a Cary Grant, a Bette Davis, a Humphrey Bogart?" No, but Sean Penn, Glen Close, and Merill Streep do...
Obama is a brilliant orator---probably the greatest since Daniel Webster, but, sadly, he is a media invention---an empty box and will never rise to greatness. He is Clinton redo.

PeterAtLarge said...

Here's one on which we see things a bit differently. I like to believe there's something in that box, and that it will emerge in time if our political culture does not manage to stifle it. To expect more, in my view, in so short a time after inheriting so disastrous a mess in every conceivable aspect of this country's life, is beyond the bounds of reason. And a part of that inherited mess is a political system which has cornered itself into a chronic inability to provide the needed action. I personally don't believe that Obama is a media invention. A reading of his two books is enough to persuade me otherwise. They convey an authentic vision, a compassionate world view, a substantial depth of experience. They validate the voice you hear in his speeches as being something other than hot air and fine rhetoric. When I read the books, I see a man of intellectual breadth and depth, a man, for all his youth, of unusual understanding. They are both, in my view, essential reading.