Ideas October 2002

Lions and Foxes

Different times call for different virtues

Let us return, you and I, to an era long ago and a culture far away: the late 1990s. It was a time when Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon.com, was named Time magazine's person of the year, and when a Web site named drkoop.com had a market valuation of more than $1 billion (it was sold in July for $186,000). It was a time when Silicon Valley was the epicenter of hubris. "We are at that very point in time when a 400-year-old age is dying and another is struggling to be born," Dee Ward Hock, one of the quintessential management gurus of that era, declared. Technology was going to drive us into a glorious new future. The old ways of doing things were irrelevant. "Experience is out," one of the founders of Fast Company magazine announced. "Inexperience is in." John Koa, at the time a professor at the Harvard Business School, instructed, "You must ruthlessly trash outmoded obstructions to creativity: standard operating procedures, protocols, norms of behavior." Bernard Arnault, the chairman of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, caught the meme: "I'm not interested in anything else but the youngest, the brightest, and the very, very talented," he said.

Technomarxism was the ideology of the day. History was being propelled by ineluctable forces, unprecedented alignments, earth-shaking innovations and breakthroughs. Distance was dead. Hierarchy was finished. Those who didn't think outside the box would be consigned to the ash heap of history. Everyone had to be a rebel, a radical, or a visionary, or at least to talk like one. "Destruction is cool!" the management giant Tom Peters roared. "Think revolution, not evolution," a senior vicepresident of Home Depot advised. Apple Computer proclaimed itself the company for "The crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers." Lucent Technology adopted the slogan "Born to Be Wild." Burger King's ads announced, "Sometimes You've Gotta Break the Rules."

As it turned out, some executives at Enron and elsewhere were doing just that.

What's clear, looking back, is that most of the people who led the information revolution were endearing ignoramuses. They were fired by hopes and dreams of a golden future—a "Long Boom," as Wired magazine prophesied. Their dreams motivated them to work harder, invest daringly, and create more, and thus were useful. The breakthroughs and the wealth generated during the 1990s weren't a mirage. There were real productivity gains, and we benefit from them today. (If you want to go back to a world not awash in cell phones, personal computers, laptops, or CDs, a world in which the Dow is at 3000, you are welcome to.) But there were aspects of human nature that the technogeeks knew nothing about. Distance was never going to be dead. Humanity was never going to be united by the all-encompassing embrace of the Internet. Evil, greed, and sin were not going to be magically expunged.

It wasn't just the technogeeks who misjudged matters. In hindsight, it's clear that the whole culture of America, and maybe of the Western world, was profoundly influenced by the boom psychology. Rising prosperity made the universe seem harmonious and beneficent. Bad behavior seemed to produce no bad consequences, because everything worked out in the age of accelerating profits. A President could demean his office, and nothing terrible happened. Foreign policy could be good or bad, but nothing disturbed the peace. The country just kept rolling along.

It came to seem that harmony and perpetual progress toward a limitless future were the natural order. Conflicts were coming to an end. The Cold War was freshly over. Peace was being created in Ireland, South Africa, and the Middle East (or so it seemed). The only remaining wars were in historical backwaters such as the Balkans and Central Africa.

As a result, defense spending could be reduced, and warnings from such experts as Gary Hart, Warren Rudman, and Sam Nunn about our vulnerability to terrorism could be ignored. The cruel dilemmas of power politics could be regarded as optional. Political thinkers focused their attention instead on civil society and communitarianism, the hot topics of the 1990s. They argued that society's needs could be met by reviving voluntary organizations and compassionate and often faith-based local associations. We indulged in a fantasy of politics without power and strife. Meanwhile, partisans of all political persuasions came to see certain law-enforcement agencies more as menaces than as protectors. Conservatives turned on the FBI after Waco and Ruby Ridge. Liberals depicted New York cops as a bunch of racist thugs.

At first it seemed that September 11 had brought all that to a close. But by now it's clear that there has been a continuing series of hinge moments: the Enron collapse, the crisis in the Catholic Church, scandals in the financial markets. All these events have one thing in common: predators. People with some specific power—a weapon, the robes of authority, insider knowledge—used that power to kill, molest, or cheat the less powerful. So much for the age of harmony.

The key concept in the age we are entering now—a less technologically smitten but more historical-minded age—is authority. Gone is the dream of decentralized power. Less persuasive is the notion that information technology will weaken central institutions and empower individuals. In the 1990s organic thinking prevailed: the world was seen as a complex ecosystem, filled with an infinite array of feedback loops that all contributed to a sort of dynamic equilibrium. That world view has to make room for a little physics. If strong forces of evil are going to attack the weak, then good people have to organize some equal and opposite strong forces.

Presented by

David Brooks, an Atlantic correspondent, is also contributing editor of Newsweek, a senior editor of The Weekly Standard, and a political analyst for The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.

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