Who's in Charge?

People talk about a lack of leadership—but leadership seems to be everywhere
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Illustration by Greg Clarke

Not long ago, during a trip to Albuquerque, I had the chance to attend a basketball game at the University of New Mexico's fabled underground arena, The Pit. I was in the company of my fourteen-year-old son, Tim, and as the Lobos had their shoot-around before the game, Tim pointed out a certain player and gave me a brief history of his run-ins with the National Collegiate Athletic Association, an entity often described as "the governing body of college sport." This led to a more generalized philippic against the uneven justice and perceived hypocrisy of the NCAA on such matters as recruiting and eligibility. I noticed that the phrase "the governing body of college sport" began to be used with a distinctly ironic inflection.

As the commentary continued, the University of New Mexico Spirit Group—that is, the cheerleaders—skipped onto the floor. Some schools (Alabama, Georgia State, Jacksonville State) offer scholarships for cheerleading, and I couldn't help wondering whether cheerleaders run into the kinds of issues that basketball players do. Are they lured to particular schools with dubious incentives? Are any of them performing at the college level despite a previous stint in the pros? Do other students write their term papers?

Apparently not, I eventually learned. But cheerleaders do have a governing body of their own: the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Advisors. And the AACCA has laid down strict rules. "Toe pitch, leg pitch or walk-in and 'smoosh' front and back flips are prohibited." "Single based split catches are prohibited." The AACCA provides a toll-free number to call "if you have any questions regarding the legality of a specific skill."

This is not, clearly, a governing body to be trifled with.

Human beings first learned to walk on two feet; then they mastered fire; after that, anthropologists tell us, they invented bylaws and elected a recording secretary. By now governing bodies are the most abundant institutions we have—they are the junk DNA of social organization. Every day brings word of their doings. In November the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers—the governing body that oversees domain names—voted to introduce seven new suffixes, including .info, .biz, and .pro. In January the Book-of-the-Month Club revealed that it would soon bring back to life its famous panel of literary judges. At the White House a new entity, with the unrevealing name Office of Strategic Initiatives, headed by Karl Rove, is likely to become the governing body for the Bush Administration's political machinations all across the land.

By definition, many governing bodies are occupied with the tasks of government. The old names roll across the tongue like poetry: althing, majlis, junta, durbar, duma, cortes, divan, troika, witan. Some are never seen in public without an adjectival aide-de-camp. The papal curia, the governing body of the Holy See, is always "inscrutable" or "impenetrable." The Komiteh, which enforces Islamic regulations in Iran, is always "the fearsome Komiteh." Ethiopia was long ruled by something called the Derg, generally referred to in conjunction with "shadowy." The very sound of the name "Derg" suggests that if ever called before it, you would look in vain in your Amharic phrasebook for the words "due process." The collapse of communism has brought the demise of many government organs ("the ruling politburo"), but some totalitarian bodies persist—for example, the condo association.

Alexis de Tocqueville observed that Americans can't resist bringing the procedures of government into their private affairs. Livestock branding, boiler inspecting, kosher labeling, roller-blading, movie rating, body piercing, standardized testing—there seems to be a governing body for everything. Even the Jehovah's Witnesses, long resistant to traditional forms of church hierarchy, have a governing body (it's called, appropriately, The Governing Body). The federal government, of course, remains our largest single repository of governing bodies. Utter a place name, and you're under the purview of the United States Board on Geographic Names, the group responsible for a near total official ban on apostrophes. ("Martha's Vineyard" is one of only four exceptions.) Employ a ramp or curb cut, and you're under the purview of the federal Access Board. But the fastest growth of governing bodies is in the private sector, and it affects everyone. The computer typefaces that most of us use derive from an in-house group at Microsoft, which developed a governing body of Character Design Standards. An educational body called the Incoming Calls Management Institute serves, in effect, as the procedural arbiter of the "call center" industry. That is, it promotes standards for the people who answer the phones whenever a customer-service number is dialed. (The institute's Web site includes a glossary in which the definition of the term "Average Speed of Answer" begins with the words "Also called Average Delay.")

Governing bodies acquire heightened mystique when their names conceal the influence they wield. For years the real power in Boston was said to be held by a corporate cabal known as The Vault. Dancers in the movie Strictly Ballroom look over their shoulders at the omnipotent and vaguely menacing entity called The Federation. A low-profile group in New York, the Color Association of the United States, turns out to be the de facto arbiter of color choices from season to season in the fashion industry. The name of the Texas Railroad Commission gives no hint of its control over the oil, gas, and mining industries in the state; nor is it obvious that the Congregation of the Index, now disbanded, was the censorship arm of the inscrutable papal curia. The Trilateral Commission is believed by some on the fringe to be secretly ruling the world. Who would ever have guessed it from the unprepossessing name?

Lawlessness and subterfuge may elude conventional regulation, but they, too, demand order. The governing body of the Sicilian mafia is the cupola. The analogue in America is "the commission." In Russia it's bratsky krug, the "circle of brothers." (The Russian underworld has promulgated its own distinctive code of ethics. Rule No. 3: "A Thief is forbidden to work; a Thief must live off the fruits of criminal activity only." Rule No. 11: "A Thief must not enter a card game if he does not have the money to pay.") James Bond frequently confronted SPECTRE, the governing body of international mayhem, whose acronym stands for Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion. (Colonel Rosa Klebb, the woman with the poisonous blade in her orthopedic shoe, was SPECTRE's Agent 3; she had previously worked for SMERSH, where she headed the Second Department, the governing authority for "operations and executions.") Even an enterprise committed to chaos may require a certain amount of practical direction. G. K. Chesterton's novella The Man Who Was Thursday introduces the Central Anarchist Council, which has convened to elect a new member.

"What do you call this tremendous President of yours?"
"We generally call him Sunday," replied Gregory with simplicity. "You see, there are seven members of the Central Anarchist Council, and they are named after days of the week. He is called Sunday, by some of his admirers Bloody Sunday."

And then there are those immaterial governing bodies that regulate the most intimate forms of personal behavior. Freud postulated the existence of the id, the ego, and the superego—a constitutional system with an American-style separation of powers. An older notion goes by the name personal conscience—"consciousness of an interior court of justice," as Immanuel Kant defined it. Conscience can be a wise and discerning tribunal, but it is also one in which the powers to prosecute and pardon have been lodged in a single magistrate.

If every facet of the world's business is presided over by some sort of governing body, why doesn't the world work better than it does? One explanation is that some governing bodies don't function very well. Another is that governing bodies often act at cross-purposes. But a third explanation may be that many governing bodies have been given the wrong things to govern. It's not hard to imagine how a little switching around could produce some improvements.

For instance, the Incoming Calls Management Institute currently helps businesses handle difficult phone calls from consumers. Wouldn't it be better if the institute instead helped consumers to handle annoying calls from businesses? (It's the Access Board that should be running those customer-service phone banks.) Character Design Standards may be great for typefaces, but something with the same name might better be applied to candidates for public office. College athletics is long overdue for a change of governance; putting SPECTRE in charge could well be the answer. To be sure, counterintelligence, terrorism, revenge, and extortion account for only a portion of the college-sports industry, but SPECTRE's reputation for evenhanded enforcement of the rules would be welcome. (The notion of "elimination" in tournament play would also acquire added interest.) Finally, I think we can all agree that the authority of conscience is too frequently undermined by hypocrisy or lassitude. The operations of conscience would surely be improved if they were enforced by the shadowy Derg.

Needless to say, that suggestion is meant to apply to the governance of other people's consciences. As to my own, I'd like one of those emergency AACCA toll-free numbers for "questions regarding the legality" of a specific act. And as for institutional oversight, the Central Anarchist Council might work just fine.

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Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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