Gordon Brown, Reputation, and Civility

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My fellow Correspondents blogger Wendy Kaminer sees the fuss about Gordon Brown's alleged bullying as another worrisome reflection of the "therapeutic culture." 

To me it's just another case of what my friend the sociologist Gary Fine has called reputational entrepreneurship, the editing of incidents from public figures' supposed behavior by friends and foes to create personas, like Tricky Dick and Slick Willy, to quote one of Fine's titles.

My favorite commentary on anger and the politics of modern reputation is by Deborah Orr in the Guardian:

[Here] we are, appalled that the prime minister is not a patrician, and that the people around him are not either. Yet wasn't the dumping of emotional ­repression, hypocrisy, the idea that our leaders are somehow better than us, what we wanted all along? If Gordon Brown is angry, why shouldn't he show it? Why shouldn't he let it all hang out?

Many commentators have made the point that successful leaders often ­display their anger, citing Winston Churchill and ­Margaret Thatcher as examples. At the Daily Mail, where ­ferocious dressing-downs are dispensed by editor Paul Dacre, there has been particular disgust at wimpish ­disapproval of boss-class fury. Yet the reason Brown's outbursts have not ­remained secret is ­because his more positive ­qualities are clearly not enough to inspire widespread loyalty. It's not Brown's ­anger that is the problem. It's the lack of enough of the positive character traits that might help him, and others, to put his anger in perspective.

To this, Gary Fine adds in an e-mail that some private spaces like restaurant ktichens and political conference rooms have evaded the growing Western taboo against public expression of anger; he calls them "obscenity factories." He recommends the recent British film 'In the Loop' as a fictional exploration of this theme. 

As Rahm Emanuel has also recently discovered, the public doesn't really want to know what goes on in the obscenity factory, but only as long as it continues to deliver the meals, profits, or legislation it's supposed to be producing.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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