If you were to ask me what is the greatest crisis facing the modern world — apart from the failure of education — I would say the lack and perversion of leadership. On the one hand, we have the strongmen — Donald J. Trump, Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Mohammed bin Salman, Nicolas Maduro and Rodrigo Duterte. On the other, the besieged rationalists — Emmanuel Macron, Justin Trudeau and Angela Merkel.
To Merkel, we must add a number of other female leaders who’ve emerged on the world stage — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, playing a tricky hand brilliantly through the government shutdown-showdown, her encounters with her fractious caucus, the disheartening release of the Mueller report and now the latest attack on Obamacare; New Zealand’s Jacinda Adhern, who’s been a magnificent example of grace in the face of the white supremacist attack on the Muslims of her nation; Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon, a steadying hand on the till as she guides her country through the rough waters of Brexit; and now Slovakiia’s first woman president, Zuzana Čaputová, who ran on the platform “Stand Up to Evil.”
In the March 31 edition of The New York Times, Tina Brown wonders if women might not be better leaders than men. She is not unmindful that Theresa May has only added to the cluster muck that is Brexit. But, Brown writes:
“… the 13 Tory grandees — all male, all white — who descended on Chequers to browbeat Mrs. May yet again this month were described by a bitter London Remainer friend of mine as ‘bogus patriots in crumpled suits and yesterday’s underpants, loving the sound of their own voices.’ Plus Mrs. May found herself in No. 10 Downing Street only because these same feckless upper-class men decided to kiss off the European Union without a clue how to achieve it.
“At a minimum, we can at least argue that women are afflicted by what Hillary Clinton, who has spent a lifetime with someone who lacks it, once called ‘the responsibility gene.’ I can bet a bucket of Bitcoins that we’ll never learn that any of the four married women plausibly seeking the Democratic presidential nomination are secretly sexting pictures of parts of their anatomy to a boyfriend.”
No, but we’ve already had the spectacle of New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand having to tap dance hard after she barely disciplined an aide who was accused of sexual harassment when she was so hard on former Minnesota senator Al Franken for what seemed like a lesser offense. Women are still capable of getting into plenty of trouble, particularly when they rely on men, the generally more risk-taking of these two genders. Still, Brown presses on:
“But there is a deep lesson here. During thousands of years of civilization, women have evolved to deal with the intractable perplexities of life and find means of peaceful coexistence where men have traditionally found roads to conflict.”
That is certainly true. But what I gleaned from the Donmar Warehouse’s excellent all-female production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” that aired on PBS’ “Great Performances” March 29 — in which I forgot I was watching women play the mostly male roles, which was in part the point — was that the will and thrill to power are universal. Power’s perks are immune to gender — and so are its pitfalls.
I hope Brown is right, though. I think the reason we’re seeing more women on the world stage is because people have lost confidence in today’s leadership and male leadership in particular. (It reminds me of the joke from the time Barack Obama was elected president: America was now screwed up enough to be run by a black man. The world is now screwed up enough that women in power can do no worse).
But there is also a more troubling loss of confidence in the system, the culture that put men in positions of power. And the loss of confidence in society as a whole is a dangerous thing. Witness the Maya, the people who dominated parts of Mexico and Central America from 2,000 B.C. to the time of the Spanish conquest in 16th century. The classic Mayan period (200-950) was one of high culture, with the most sophisticated pre-Columbian writing system, fabulous art and stone architecture and a complex understanding of math, astronomy, politics and religion.
And then it all went to hell in a hand basket. There are a number of theories as to why, from war to environmental catastrophe, but whatever the cause, the people abandoned the stunning civilization they had built and walked back into the jungles in the ninth century, although the culture staggered on for centuries, ripe for the Spanish plucking. Whatever happened, one thing is clear: The people lost faith in their leaders, and they lost faith in the system.
I don’t think we are in danger of a collapse of Mayan magnitude. But I do think we are in need — particularly in the United States and the United Kingdom — of leadership that combines the charisma that some, emphasis on the word “some,” have found in the strongmen and the rationalism and compassion evinced by many of the emerging women leaders.
Will we get it? A final decision on Brexit is due April 12. The Mueller report is due to Congress around then.
And April, as we know T.S. Eliot said, is the cruelest month.