The Scorner's Seat: An Address

Wriston, Walter B.


Some of the most perceptive comments on our society are embedded not only in the poetry taught in the ivy-covered halls, but may be found in the common doggerel we learned as children. Such a line is my text tonight: "I would not sit in the scorner's seat and hurl the cynic's band." Today, the scorners' seats are as full as the stands at a Red Sox game, and the cynics' bands play the background music every night on the seven o'clock news.

In our society today, it sometimes seems as if there were more critics, seers and commentators than there are doers and leaders. And yet it is the latter who move the world forward, who take the risks, assume the responsibility and give vitality to our society.

This proposition is so self-evident one wonders why so few of our number bother to vote. Why have we become numb in the face of a constant barrage of negativism which in the end leads us to throw up our hands and say a pox on both your houses? Why have we appeared to lose the traditional American belief that tomorrow will surely be better than today? That strength of conviction is today denigrated by the critics who spend more time wondering if the President's hair is dyed than about a budget out of control. If we are to recover our faith we must shift the balance back a little from the negative to the positive. A character in a play by St. John Ervine spoke of a person with "enthusiasm and brains, a combination of qualities that is rare and becoming rarer. All the enthusiasts of my acquaintance have no brains and all the brainy people have no enthusiasm, we are dying of hot heads and cold feet." Like many good epigrams, this may overstate our situation, but not by much.

The leader is by definition a risk taker, a person who would lead in a direction when no proof exists that the goal will be there, let alone won. A brilliant writer who died before his time, William Bolitho, captured the essence of a leader and adventurer when he wrote: "The first adventurer was a nuisance; he left the tribal barricade open to the risk of the community when he left to find out what made that noise in the night. I am sure he acted against his mother's, his wife's and the council of old men's strict orders, when he did it. But it was he that found where the mammoths die and where after a thousand years of use there was still enough ivory to equip the whole tribe with weapons, such is the ultimate outline of the adventurer; society's benefactor as well as pest."

This describes the kind of mentality that caused the Winthrops, Dudleys, Bradstreets and the other colonists to board the vessel "Arbella," which today would be deemed unsafe in any sea, let alone the Atlantic. Their leaders were as flawed as ours, but they had faith in themselves and their future in a wild and hostile land.

Today, we seem to have developed what John Gardner has called "an anti-leadership vaccine that is absorbed from the air..." Since democracy is an idea, its workings require an act of faith on the part of all of us who must justify our freedom by the use we make of it. We have to work to make the idea become a reality. And yet today, we seem to have lost, or at least mislaid, the fundamental optimism that tomorrow will be better than today.

That can be seen by contrasting the mood of America now to that at the turn of the century, not quite three generations ago.

No time is without its problems and the turn of the century was no exception. To the people who lived then, events seemed as turbulent as they do now. Celebrated muckrakers, like Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens, directed a withering stream of criticism at the corruption of big city political machines and at the economic power of industry and finance. This criticism helped to move America forward, and, indeed, formed an important part of the democratic process. Populism pitted the midwestern farmer against the robber barons in the east, and labor-management strife frequently resulted in tragic violence beyond anything seen in our own lifetimes.

All these, and others, were intense conflicts, passionately waged by zealous partisans on each side. The stakes seemed greater than they had ever been.

Nonetheless, beneath the turmoil the mood of the nation was optimistic, confident and filled with exuberant hope. There was a common purpose--achieving the promise of the future. It was not a question of , but .

That spirit was articulated in the characteristic rhetoric of the era by Senator Chauncey Depew of New York. He hailed the new century, not too grammatically, in these words:

There is not a man here who does not feel 400 percent bigger in 1900....bigger intellectually, bigger hopefully, bigger patriotically....from the fact that he is a citizen of a country that has become a world power for peace, for civilization and from the expansion of its industries and the products of its labors.

Making allowance for the fact that Senator Depew was a politician indulging in the hyperbole that very occasionally accompanies his profession, he nevertheless spoke for his time.

The men and women of 1900 saw themselves as participants in an exciting future, not despairing victims of a present they could not cope with. What they quarreled about was the shape of that future, not its possibility.

Today, by contrast the critics are having a field day with Herman Kahn's new book because he suggests that not only will the future arrive but that it will be much better than anything we have ever known. To a generation raised on the club of Rome it constitutes thinking the unthinkable.

To make that American dream come true we need leaders. And leaders to be effective must be allowed some semblance of privacy. The way we now depict our leaders is most dramatically illustrated by the pictures we all saw of Franklin D. Roosevelt when he was President. I don't remember ever seeing his picture on the front page of a newspaper printed in such a way as one could tell that he was confined to a wheelchair. Conversely, I can't remember a picture of George Wallace where the wheelchair was not much in evidence. In today's electronic world of total exposure, one wonders if George Washington, not the most articulate of men, could make it past the New Hampshire primary.

Since all of us are human, and therefore flawed, it follows that no official is, or can be, perfect. Abraham Maslow warns us: "If you demand a perfect leader or a perfect society, you thereby give up choosing between better and worse. If the imperfect is defined as evil, then everything becomes evil, since everything is imperfect." That is what John F. Kennedy meant when, as President, he once observed that "the perfect is the enemy of the good." You cannot lead if the critics can create a nationwide perception that only human perfection--as they define it--is acceptable. Even the old Sears, Roebuck catalog used to offer us, for almost every item, a choice of "best, better, or good," at three different prices.

The fundamental difference between better and worse has not changed over the years. What has changed is the manner in which the better is ignored and the worse emphasized incessantly. Only the worse is newsworthy.

The late Lionel Trilling coined the phrase "adversary culture" to describe this malaise. Trilling, an eminent literary critic, noted it first in contemporary literature, in the widespread bias against history and in the transformation of philosophy from the pursuit of wisdom to a mathematical exercise. John W. Gardner, a decade later, spoke of our adversary bias as "fashionable alienation," and more recently, Irving Kristol observed that the adversary culture is now so familiar that we take it for granted. Kristol comments:

It is not uncommon that a culture will be critical of the civilization that sustains it--and always critical of the failure of this civilization to realize perfectly the ideals that it claims as inspiration. Such criticism is implicit or explicit in Aristophanes and Euripides, Dante and Shakespeare. But to take an adversary posture toward the ideals themselves? That is unprecedented.

It is also unworkable--because it makes it impossible for a leader to perform his most essential function--to speak to the best in us.

Real leadership requires vision. And vision, by definition, is a view of the future that cannot be proved at the moment of utterance. That makes it no less important. The Scriptures tell us: "Where there is no vision, the people perish."

This is not to say that leaders should be immune from criticism, or that crime, duplicity, or stupidity should not be exposed. Far from it. No leader, in a democratic society, should ever be spared responsible criticism of his or her policies and actions. Indeed, Edmund Burke summed up the true democratic process when he wrote: "He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves and sharpens our skills." Like many things, it was the Greeks who invented the concept of criticism, made it legitimate and built it into the learning process. Paul Johnson has described it as one of history's most important events "since it allowed man to put to use whole new areas of his intellect and personality..."

There is, however, a valid distinction between criticism and guerrilla warfare. The reason that senators, even in bitter debate, address each other formally, is to preserve the civility required to keep a debate from becoming a shouting match. The social critic performs a valuable service in identifying needs, in bringing light to murky issues, in focusing on specifics and in mobilizing support to achieve necessary reforms. The responsible critic exposes the failings of his culture because he seeks to improve it, not destroy it.

Some of the media seers and commentators purport to be responsible critics, but others might with some justification consider them to be in the business of guerrilla warfare against every institution in our society not protected by the First Amendment. Whichever view is right, there is little doubt that, like a convex mirror, they reflect all of society's faults and magnify them in the process. No one who loves liberty should denigrate the part played by the media in revealing the mess that went by the rubric of Watergate. But this does not mean that whenever a veil of secrecy is thrown over an act of government it is to hide dark motivations. Not all secrets are evil. The framing of sensible policies requires candid speech because only in this way can leaders fully explore various alternatives. Confidentiality is often essential to candor. Indeed we are told reporters must not reveal their sources, but must keep them secret lest men and women be afraid to talk. Recently the policy makers who assisted President Kennedy in the Cuban missile crisis drew some lessons from that experience. They said: "...Americans should always respect the need for a period of confidential and careful deliberation in dealing with a major international crisis."

The framing of our own Constitution illustrates the point. Not only was the press barred entirely from all the meetings, but each delegate was required to pledge to preserve the confidentiality of the discussion. Without obedience to that fundamental rule the great compromises, which lie at the heart of the Constitution's success, never could have been achieved. Once agreement was reached, public disclosure of the document and debate properly followed. If the public debate had been simultaneous with the Constitutional Convention it is doubtful that we would have our Constitution. By contrast, the concept of open covenants openly arrived at that Woodrow Wilson espoused turned the Versailles Peace Conference into a non-stop press conference and in the end we ratified no treaty at all. In those days, the national leaders--the Big Four--each used his national press to support his country's position. Today, there has been almost a reversal of that support for a President. It is the staff person who loses the argument to his boss who leaks his brilliant memo, which is printed to cite the venality of the decision maker who arrived at a different conclusion.

This trend toward the total destruction of privacy reached its fictional apex in George Orwell's , where all society was monitored by a "telescreen" that transmitted every sight and sound. You had to live, said Orwell, "in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every move was scrutinized." Infrared cameras have now taken care of darkness, so even that avenue is closed.

Justice Brandeis might have been thinking about that possibility in an essay written in 1890. With remarkable foresight, he also predicted the day when "personal gossip attains the dignity of print and crowds the space available to matters of real interest." He reverted to the same theme in the Olmstead case where he spoke of the right to be let alone as "the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized man."

There were few leaders in history more savaged by his critics than Abraham Lincoln. The technique of criticism in Lincoln's time was very different than that employed today. He was described by a leading New York newspaper as possessing "the soul of Uriah heep in the casing of a baboon." But that was an editorial opinion, read by a few hundred people, and ignored.

What happens now is much more subtle. Today, the front page treatment of "leaks" from the Oval Office might recall how Lincoln failed to show up for his own wedding when the ceremony was first scheduled. That revelation could then serve as the subject of a prime time special with Dr. Joyce Brothers. Such a bizarre lapse of memory, combined with a documentary about his behavior upon the death of his early sweetheart, Ann Rutledge, when he wandered in the wilderness for days, would supply more ammunition than was used to dump Senator Eagleton from the Democratic ticket in 1972.

Yet none of those factors had any bearing on the quality of Lincoln's leadership. He framed the great issues in a way that vindicated the Union and freed the slaves. Reasonable people who love liberty can well ask: Has the cacophony of the critic accompanied by flash bulbs of the paparazzi left us so naked that leadership wanes for lack of candidates? If it is true that no man is a hero to his valet, and TV has become the political valet of every public figure, can we regain our faith in tomorrow? Are we making ourselves ungovernable by the total exposure of all human frailties, exacerbated by constant repetition of things which often turn out to be fundamentally irrelevant to the conduct of leadership?

When responsible criticism by individuals turns into an all pervasive adversarial bias to everything. Effective leadership suffers.

Almost imperceptibly, it seems to me, we seem to have been shifting not only the responsibility for solutions to someone else but the blame for the problems themselves. All of our troubles, we are told, are caused by the government or by institutions, which are somehow separate and apart from you and me as individuals. This is a distinction that cannot be made, because it is you and I and millions more who make up our society.

Can we really impose fewer and fewer restrictions on our own conduct as individuals, asserting everyone's right to a personal life style, while simultaneously imposing harsher, and increasingly irrational, restrictions on all of our institutions? We seem to feel that if we demand less of ourselves, the balance can be maintained by requiring more of academic, corporate and government entities--a sort of moral equivalent to the law of compensating forces. If there are going to be fewer restrictions on my own life-style, then more restrictions will have to be laid on someone else.

People's assertion of the right to live as they please has been accompanied by the growing conviction that there are no righteous men and women left in the world. Since no one can now be to have principles, we conclude that no one does. Acting on that assumption, congress passed the ethics in government act, which requires a listing of the income from any source and any conflict of interest, real or imagined, now or in the future. The only office in the United States Government that now can be filled from a profession schooled in the appropriate discipline, without attracting comments about conflicts of interest is that of the Attorney General. Perhaps this is so because lawyers write the conflict-of-interest laws and only lawyers become Attorney Generals, though there is no provision in the Constitution requiring him to be learned in the law. As a matter of fact, there is no provision in the Constitution at all for a cabinet. Wisely, it is silent, leaving the chief executive the flexibility to govern as he deems best, subject to the approval of the voters. Today, no one who knows as much about energy as the Attorney General is supposed to know about law would be allowed to run the department of energy. All this is done in the name of trying to assure ourselves that our institutions and our leaders will display standards of morality higher than those we set for ourselves.

Most of the people present at the secret proceedings of our Constitutional Convention were well-to-do, land-owning, educated men with strong individual perspectives and regional orientations. Yet they forged a document that balanced the power between various sections of the country and the society in a way that has stood the test of time. Had they been obliged to pass today's conflict-of-interest test, it is doubtful that many of them could have walked through the door.

Perhaps it is time to examine this phenomenon--not the law so much as the philosophy that has created it.

I deeply believe that there is still time for the men and women of America to recapture the self-confidence and optimism, the faith in their ability to determine their own future, that our forebears had. But it may require a shift to intelligent criticism in place of adversarial nihilism. It requires giving our leaders the benefit of the doubt, and perhaps a little encouragement, until we decide to replace them. And it requires faith in the democratic process. The people have never lost this faith. In the middle of the worst of the Nazi Blitz of London, the cockney with his thumb up revealed more understanding of the stakes involved than the base appeasement of Neville Chamberlain.

It is time for the reassertion of a deep faith in tomorrow, in the democratic process, and a new emphasis on the role of the individual in society to whom our forefathers gave rights even against the state. It is time to measure the distance we have come as well as the difficulty of the road ahead.

James Gould Cozzens' character, Judge Coates, said: "Don't be cynical...nobody promises you a good time or an easy time...In the present, every day is a miracle. The world gets up in the morning and is fed and goes to work, and in the evening it comes home and is fed again...To make that possible, so much has to be done by so many people, that, on the face of it, it is impossible. Well, every day we do it; and every day, come hell, come high water, we're going to have to go on doing it as well as we can... We just want you," Judge Coates said, "to do the impossible."

This was the advice our forefathers took--it is still valid for our generation.

  • The document was created from the speech, "The Scorner's Seat: An Address," written by Walter B. Wriston for the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy on 30 September 1982. The original speech is located in MS134.001.005.00005.
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