If you sit in a humanities class and listen to a lecture about the great ideas of our civilization, you hear about such notions as humanism and individualism. You hear about such seminal documents as the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence, and you hear about such institutions as the School of Athens and the United Nations. However, in many ways, one innovation has done far more to change society than any of these grandiose ideas and institutions: the assembly line. When Henry Ford found a way to mechanize labor and turn workers into individual automatons, the age-old battle between capital and labor came to an end. Social critics and artists alike did their best to decry this trend, with just some of the notable examples including Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis and Paddy Chayefsky’s film Network. While Metropolis was a silent film, Network had Arthur Jensen, a shadowy executive who delivered this eulogy on idealism: “There are no nations. There are no peoples.[There is] [o]ne vast and ecumenical holding company for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock. All necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized” (Network, 1976). This is a view that Peter Stockmann from An Enemy of the People shares, as he proclaims that “the individual really must subordinate himself to the overall, orto the authorities who are in charge of the general welfare” (I.i.). While Peter’s role is different than Arthur Jensen, acting as the mayor, the idea that the individual is a factor to be dealt with rather than to be served by government is an idea that both men would share.
When Peter Stockmann describes his brother Tom as a man of ideas, he is not paying him a compliment. Stockmann asserts that bringing ideas into fruition requires “another kind of man” (I.i.) The implication here is that ideas are a matter of leisure rather than true significance. This is, in some ways, a false dichotomy that nonetheless has worked its way into the popular consciousness from time immemorial. People who complained about George W. Bush’s haste in barging into Iraq for a search for “weapons of mass destruction” that turned out to be an illusion were excited about a more measured approach to foreign policy when Barack Obama succeeded him in office. In fact, this causes such a worldwide reaction that President Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize largely as the result of what people thought he would do, rather than things he had actually accomplished. Now that President Obama has been in office for eight years, his measured and philosophical response to such issues as the bloody civil war in Syria and the advancement of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) across the power vacuum in the Middle East has caused a great deal of frustration, both on the Right and the Left in some cases. There are some leaders in whom both thought and action appear to coincide, as in the case of Abraham Lincoln’s management of the American Civil War and the Roman emperor Constantine’s decision to transform Christianity from an outlawed cult into the official religion of the Roman Empire. However, when matters reach a crisis point, too often those who want to act at all costs burst forward without thinking, and the outcome is a loss of credibility on the part of the entity carrying out the action.
In some ways, Stockmann’s analysis makes sense. There are some leaders who don’t appear to put a whole lot of thought into their actions, and there are some leaders who sit and dither, never daring to act, instead watching as opportunity after opportunity slips away. This was the major criticism leveled against Union general George McClellan. Because of the industrial advantages that the Union enjoyed, the Confederacy had no business making the conflict competitive, but early advances had Southern troops running rampant as far north as Pennsylvania. McClellan kept dithering rather than putting together a comprehensive plan of attack to knock out the South. It wasn’t until Lincoln put Ulysses S. Grant in charge of the Union armies that matters changed and the North began to put a chokehold on the Confederacy. However, there are few signs that jumping right into action without any thought ahead of time produces any better results. Early in the Second World War, Adolf Hitler looked like he would have no problem conquering Western Europe. With Spain and Switzerland ostensibly neutral but heeling to the Fuehrer’s edicts about harboring the Jews, and with Italy a forced “ally,” the rest of the continent seemed about to go easily, and it looked like the United Kingdom would be next. Hitler had signed a non-aggression treaty with the Soviet Union, which meant that Stalin would leave him alone (a wise idea, given that Stalin was busy conducting mass killings of his own). However, Hitler impulsively decided to invade the Soviet Union once he felt confident with his grip on Europe, and having to fight on two fronts made Germany vulnerable to attacks across the Mediterranean Sea, and the Germans were unable to keep the effort up, eventually falling. That impulsive decision, in many ways, cost the Germans dearly.
One argument in favor of being prudent before acting suggests that a leader should have the majority of the people on his side before making a major commitment. On one side of this argument, the reason why people elect leaders is to make decisions for the good of their citizens, and leaders who follow the polls before making any decisions aren’t really doing any leading at all. Another view suggests that leaders should build a consensus before making any major decisions. There are different situations that call for different responses to this dilemma. For example, at the end of the Second World War, President Truman had to decide whether or not to use atomic weapons against Japan. He calculated the cost of such massive destruction on a city, including the loss of civilian life, against the cost of the lives of the American servicemen that would be lost in the invasion of the Japanese mainland, as the Japanese Empire had promised not to surrender as long as one soldier remained. The power of the atomic weaponry, though, changed the government’s mind after two cities were largely reduced to rubble. The president is elected to make those sorts of decisions, and in the interests of time, he can’t always seek the will of the people. However, in such cases as the current debate about the use of “fracking” to extract oil and natural gas out of the ground, business interests are trying to lobby state governments to prohibit cities from banning the practice, even though some sources indicate that it is polluting the groundwater and causing earthquakes. In cases like this, the will of the majority should be heard, because the public health is a consideration. In political leadership, people like Tom and Peter are both necessary to provide ideas and action together.
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