Why are prophets without honor in their hometowns?

Moral leadership means persuading people to do things they don’t want to do. So you can’t measure moral leadership by popularity; when someone is exercising it, he’s doing things that make him less popular.

The New York Times website chose to post a clip from my Bloggingheads.tv “diavlog” with Daniel Schultz about moral leadership. The clip has me defending the claim that Barack Obama is a great moral leader, in particular in teaching his own supporters the virtues of patience and compromise.  Without rehearsing the details of the argument, I’d like to generalize a bit.

If a moral leader is someone who calls on people to change their minds about right and wrong or to act in ways they would prefer not to act on behalf of the values they already profess, then it is true almost by definition that moral leaders aren’t popular with the people over whom they’re exercising moral leadership:  it’s very rare for people to actually like being asked to do the things they don’t want to do. As Robert Townsend said about corporate management, any idea that’s immediately popular is certainly trivial and almost certainly wrong.

We often celebrate moral leadership in retrospect, or when it’s being exercised over other people. Martin Luther King was a great moral leader, but the consensus on that point emerged only after his death. While he lived, many Northern whites greatly admired the leadership he exercised over Southern whites in confronting them with the inconsistency of Jim Crow with American values, and the moral leadership he exercised over blacks in keeping the Second Reconstruction mostly non-violent from the black side. But Southern whites didn’t tihnk of him as a hero, and neither did the younger generation of black leaders who took over SNCC. (And neither did lots of Northern whites, when it came their turn to have his prophetic eye turned on their racial attitudes and practices.)

So when R. Jeshua bar Miriam said that “a prophet is not without honor, but* in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house,” he was making a profound sociological observation, to which I would only add “and in his own time.”

The other thing to consider, in responding to Daniel’s point that the people progressives think of as moral leaders aren’t the people running the party, is that the prophetic office and the kingly office are necessarily distinct.  Machiavelli’s “armed prophet” is necessarily an ex-prophet; moral leadership does not grow out of the barrel of a gun.  Political leaders use coercion, and they trade in material interests – the “who gets what, when, and how” of politics – as well as in moral reasoning and rhetoric. Sometimes a great moral leader is catapulted to political power and insists on maintaining his prophetic stance and his clean hands. Vaclav Havel tried it, which is why (1) there’s no longer a country called Czechoslovakia; and (2) the politics of the Czech Republic have been dominated by the odious Vaclav Klaus.

The best you can hope for from a politician in office is an ear open to the prophetic voice. The pure gold of moral truth is too soft to make a sceptre out of; you need some base-metal alloy, or the thing won’t hold up in use.

Now I wish that Barack Obama had chosen to try to exercise more moral leadership on the question of torture. But notice that wouldn’t have been moral leadership over his core followers:  we’re already sold. He would have been trying to lead the people who mostly didn’t vote for him. And he might well have failed. Certainly, that would have been morally more admirable than not trying.

* But = except

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

20 thoughts on “Why are prophets without honor in their hometowns?”

  1. A more interesting possible exception is Abraham Lincoln. On slavery itself, he was a follower not a leader; his unique contribution lay in re-framing the conflict as defence of the Union and democracy. Even in retrospect this achievement is ambiguous: since the path to (incomplete) reconciliation with Southern whites lay as things turned out, and not by his fault, through Jim Crow. So he wasn't IMHO a moral authority in Mark's sense. You still have to place him with Wlliam the Silent and possibly Cyrus the Great and Asoka in the very small company of successful political leaders who were also admirable human beings.

  2. Oh, please. Politicians are typically so lousy when it comes to morality, that we have a whole different scale for judging them. (You acknowledge this towards the end of the post.) We scarcely blink when they violate campaign promises it was entirely within their power to fulfill, for instance. A politician with real morality in today's America would be a freakish thing, hated and despised by his fellows, and probably viewed as some kind of nutcase by the media.

    Obama, the Chicago machine politician, sure as hell isn't that freak. He's merely the beneficiary of a huge amount of gaze averting on the part of his supporters. I needn't detail his moral failings, you can think of them yourself if you bother to try. You've been aware enough of them to make excuses, after all…

  3. And it also would have been nice if Obama hadn't lied to his supporters about ending torture. Or did I just imagine that he said that?

  4. I was really heartened by your bloggingheads conversation, especially in relation to Pres. Obama. In the first year of his presidency, I noticed that family & friends on the Left seemed almost eager to point out their disagreements and quick to feel disappointment, a kind of set-point we'd grown used to.

    Also, though I searched, I could find little substantial coverage by the press of substance, covering, for examplt, the reinvestment act or health proposals, etc. I noticed right away that the health act covers people whose income is 400% of the poverty rate (I think you discussed this, too!). Not only mothers of children, but everyone in that low-income bracket. I realized then that Obama had not forgotten what he'd seen as a community organizer. This alone will better the lives of millions.

    But, dainu!, substantial investments in green energy, nondiscrimination in wages for women, huge investments in education, not one but two women for the supreme court, pushing back on settlement policy while supporting Israel, pacts to lower the number of nuclear warheads, miranda warnings to accused terrorists (yes, this is still an area of concern). And I haven't heard that there is now torture, as another emailer has written.

    This is what we on the Left have asked for. Yes, I yearn that our vision of the future would materialize now, but I see Obama as principled, as wanting to address the concerns of all the citizenry, and having a long view, doing the work with deliberation. Has the Left been wandering in the desert for so long, that we've forgotten how to celebrate the realization of at least some of our wishes and those who signed them into law?

    Thank you and best.

  5. In case anyone is not aware of what arbitrista is referring to, the BBC has confirmed that Obama is operating a secret torture prison: http://www.theatlanticwire.com/opinions/view/opin…. Sadly, this is not viewed as shocking and will be ignored by the mainstream media and politicians; there will be no calls for impeachment, as the President is above the law.

  6. "Now I wish that Barack Obama had chosen to try to exercise more moral leadership on the question of torture."

    MORE moral leadership? How about ANY moral leadership. On this issue, his stature as a moral leader seems quite on a par with that of George W. Bush. Both want to, but haven't, closed Guantanamo. Both ran other torture camps at Bagram. Both have stated numerous times that it is not the policy of the US to engage in torture, and both have "banned" it within their administrations. Both have worked to avoid trying detainees suspected of being tortured by the US in civilian courts. Both have relied on a national security based wall of secrecy to hide what's been done. And neither of them believes that we should adhere to the requirements of the Convention Against Torture that we investigate credible allegations of government officials' complicity in torture. The result of this "moral leadership" has been that about half of the US population approves of torture, unchanged since the last presidential election. So, are we looking forward to a post about GWB as a moral leader in the near future? If you think of Obama as a principled man, it better not be because of his record on torture.

  7. It seems that the reason that Obama will not prosecute Bush's war crimes is that to do so would be to risk prosecution himself for committing the same crimes. His wanting to "look forward" excuse was never credible, because prosecutions do look forward by deterring future commissions of the same crime.

    What I cannot understand is why Obama wants to torture. Unlike Bush, he seems intelligent, so he must know that torturing serves no purpose but to create animosity against the United States.

    By the way, we must assume that Obama is responsible for the torture at the secret prison. If he were not, then he would acknowledge it, condemn it, and prosecute those responsible for it.

  8. I've grown somewhat disillusioned with Obama as well. I can (almost) understand that he wants to keep options open on miltary torture by maintaining a black site on the US military base at Bagram, without Red Cross visitation. One of the litmus tests on the extent he values moral leadership as opposed to pragmatic Machiavelli politics may come soon, if he reverses the official US position on the banning of land mines. 156 countries have signed it. When he was in the Senate, he was categorical on the subject and voted to sign the ban, but as President he has been less than sympathetic; and has ordered only an official review.

  9. Mark, I greatly appreciate your outspoken thoughtfulness. You do good. Thank you.

  10. You're aware, I hope, that there are at least two New Testament citations for literally the same text: Mark 6:4 and Luke 4:24. This observation really did sink in with the ancients of Helenistic Judea. The important thing about prophets is not that they were moral leaders. In fact, it's quite the opposite–prophets might have delivered moralizing messages, but these messages had nothing to do with their own behavior. In fact, one reason for the transition from Prophets to Kings in Ancient Israel has been lack of moral authority by the Prophets. Sure, they had divine authority, but divine authority is not moral–the freedom of choice is gone. Divine authority is absolute. Royal authority is absolute in a very different sense–a king leads by his own example. This leadership may be "moral" only metaphorically–the king, in private, may well be guilty of quite immoral behavior. But the image of the king that is conveyed to the populace is that of the paragon of moral judgment. The flip-side of this is that one cannot be both a king and a prophet. This made for an interesting conflict in Christianity in the Middle Ages and led to the split of the theological and sovereign authority, with each posing to reinforce the other but resulting in perpetual struggle for power between the two. The only thing that ended the strife was the rise of the secular civilian authority that was separate both from the Church and from monarchy. But the civilian authority had no part of the moral authority that the monarchy and the Church were trying to divide.

    Based on all this, one should not expect the President to exercise moral authority in the same sense. He is not meant to lead by example, nor is he expected to lead by fiat. He is expected to balance the moral choices against the pragmatics of State. And this is exactly what Obama has been doing–one can argue, of course, that he has not been doing it very effectively, but accusing him of lack of moral direction is exactly the wrong thing to do in this analysis. Remember the last President who pretended to lead from moral authority? Yeah, the one who wanted to start an anti-Taliban crusade. Do we really need more of that?

  11. "A politician with real morality in today’s America would be a freakish thing, hated and despised by his fellows, and probably viewed as some kind of nutcase by the media."

    Al Gore. I suppose the eye-rolling responses I expect to get (oh, please! What about . . .) potentially prove the point.

    The post is right, but the problem with torture is it's an absolute. It's hard to tell the pro-lifers to take a pragmatic view and support the policy with the best outcomes, because for them it's a stance for good or evil. That's how we feel about torture — something went permanently wrong when it even became thinkable to condone it — but in our case the pragmatic position also fits the moral position. The only problem is appeasing the depraved idiots (likely a majority) who want torture to continue and imagine it "works."

  12. Now I wish that Barack Obama had chosen to try to exercise more moral leadership on the question of torture. But notice that wouldn’t have been moral leadership over his core followers: we’re already sold. He would have been trying to lead the people who mostly didn’t vote for him. And he might well have failed. Certainly, that would have been morally more admirable than not trying.

    What that does not consider it that a President only has a limited amount of power he can use at any given time to accomplish things. Obama's top priorities were clearly the economy and health care, and health care was a near thing. Richard E. Neustadt wrote that in his famous book "Presidential Power and the modern Presidents" and I have seen it repeatedly confirmed since the early 60's.

    "Less that morally admirable" is one thing. Losing what is really important is another. I'd say that Jimmy Carter was a morally admirable President. Barack Obama headed off the Great Depression II and handed America a major step towards getting a modern health care system. I'll take Obama over Carter every time. Obama is the more effective of the two.

  13. One thing I like about the President is that he himself doesn't want to claim prophet status, and instead wants the rest of us to increase our level of involvement and virtue.

    This is relevant to healthcare, for example, because the overall weakness of the DP, and the poor understanding of the public of this issue, meant that if he'd held out for the logical option – a Medicare single payer system – we possibly might have gotten nothing at all.

    I say this is much more the fault of ourselves, and not of our Star. As for torture, well I don't understand why he'd go along with it. Maybe he doesn't want to anger the CIA just yet? I hope it will turn out that article is wrong. Mostly I want out of these wars, it seems clear to me we are accomplishing nothing good.

  14. I just read that Atlanticwire piece.

    It certainly needs to be followed with more investigation. And under no circs should we hand over those prisoners to Karzai!

    But I have a question – did we as a country ever get to an agreement on what torture is? I honestly don't remember if sleep deprivation counted. Does anyone here know? (I'm not saying I think it's okay, just that I really don't know exactly where I would put that line. I guess I would like to ask a bunch of FBI investigator people what they think works, since they seem to have a lot of experience getting info out of people without beating them.)

  15. My personal opinion, as somebody who has experienced some degree of sleep deprivation, though not under coercive circumstances, is this: While lack of sleep is not itself torture, but 'merely' intended to deprive the victim of sufficient mental coherence to resist interrogation, the techniques necessary to accomplish that deprivation are, unambiguously, torture. The longer you go without sleep, the more extreme the stimuli needed to keep you awake, after all. To get any useful degree of mental disintegration, you're going to have to resort to torture to keep the person awake.

  16. Any use of pain to coerce a prisoner to provide information is torture by definition. Isn't that obvious?

  17. NCG says:

    "But I have a question – did we as a country ever get to an agreement on what torture is?"

    NCG, this has been hashed out repeatedly in federal courts: torture is something to be considered in granting asylum, torture is one of the aggravating factors in allowing death sentences, and (IIRC) torture might be grounds for deportation. People have been put on trial for torturing US prisoners of war (that one really looks more like victors' justice now, even if it was also true justice).

    I'm sorry if you are honestly asking this question but:

    this is not the first time that the US legal system has dealt with torture;

    torture was not invented on 9/12/2001.

  18. In case I wasn't clear, I was not asking whether torture is wrong.

    I was asking if we ever came to any consensus as a nation as to what *specific* acts constitute torture. Since as a country we don't agree on much else, and we seem incapable of in-depth discourse, my guess is "no."

    I would certainly put the line well short of, for example, the pain of organ failure or waterboarding. I'm not quite so sure about sleep deprivation (though Brett makes a good point). Though I do wonder if it would even be necessary to a skilled interrogator, which is why it is too bad there are no FBI agents reading this blog. I tend not to believe the people on tv who say that torture "works," and that is has prevented x, y, and z attacks (that they never want to talk about). But does that just make me a liberal? I thought the point of this blog was to be fact-based (mostly).

  19. Sleep deprivation can be torture, after a certain point. Many of the discussion about ambiguities concerning whether something is or is not torture are the exact equivalent of discussions about ambiguities concerning whether or not smoking cigarettes causes cancer. Nothing personal here, NCG, but the question you pose is often asked in bad faith. And that you feel you have to ask it shows the success of prior acts of bad faith.

    Does torture work? Of course it does. If you want to get someone to confess to having signed their name in the devil's own book, flown on a broomstick from Boston to Salem, and killed Goody Wilson's old mare while flying by, you can totally torture them that. If you torture someone to find out whther there's a ticking time bomb somewhere, you'll find out that there is one. Or at least you'll be told there is one. When historians are able to examine the totality of the interrogation of Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Husayn, and the actions undertaken in reliance on that interrogation, our time will look astonishingly ugly.

    Even if particular episodes of SD might not be torture sufficient to support a criminal conviction, you still might end up getting ridiculously unreliable evidence, and/or tainting legal proceedings. The case of Fouad al Rabia is an example of this. (Read the actual opinion — light on legal mumbo jumbo, heavy on demonstrating with actual facts the moral bankruptcy of the whole system.)

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