We wandered over to Netflix and clicked on “The Center Will Not Hold,” the 2017 Joan Didion documentary directed by her nephew Griffin Dunne. I don’t watch a lot of documentaries. But this was great – and led me to spend the next day reading a handful of Didion’s essays.
Didion’s first article for Vogue, “On Self-Respect,” resonated in a surprising way.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the decisions I’ve made over the last 20 years of work. Not decisions around vision or strategy. Those, relatively speaking, are easy. Instead, I find myself thinking about how I worked with people, how I treated people.
“Although to be driven back upon oneself is an uneasy affair at best,” Didion wrote in that Vogue essay, “rather like trying to cross a border with borrowed credentials, it seems to me now the one condition necessary to the beginnings of real self-respect.” As many of you know, I avoid the uneasy affair of self-reflection. In fact, a Meyers-Briggs test once told me I was an emotionally incompetent manager — which my colleagues found infinitely amusing and not very surprising.
I am not saying I am a good leader. (Honestly, I am skeptical of anyone who anoints themselves as a “leader.”) There were too many times I didn’t listen, I rushed, I didn’t always treat people with respect. I don’t think I was a complete asshole. But there are certainly instances – accumulated over time into memories without specifics – where I wish I had been more trusting, more aware.
I read Didion’s unpacking of self-respect as the foundation of leadership. Because, as she wrote, “People with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes. They know the price of things.” It reinforced my realization that leadership isn’t about vision. You don’t make mistakes having a vision. You make mistakes in your treatment of people. There is a clarity to the way you act towards other people. And you learn from that clarity.
People with self-respect exhibit, Didion wrote, “A kind of moral nerve; they display what was once called character, a quality which, although approved in the abstract, sometimes loses ground to other, more instantly negotiable virtues. … Nonetheless, character—the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life—is the source from which self-respect springs.”
The Act of Tolerating
Over the years, funders, policy makers, advocates would always tell me, “The immigration movement should learn from the fight for gay marriage.” It was, to be honest, irritating. The issues could not be more different.
Immigration is perceived in the global context of the mass movement of people across borders; LGBTQ families and communities are already here. The harsh rhetoric of immigration opponents creates a powerful, deeply emotional, toxic stew of race, class and culture. Same sex marriage proponents built their movement around a cultural debate devoid of race and class. And, finally, the federal right to same sex marriage was granted through a legal case, not a political, legislative, process.
I am not saying the long fight for LGBTQ rights has been harder or easier than immigration. But it has been different.
Yet, because the compromise around religious liberty was so significant, there is a lot to learn from Senate passage of the Respect for Marriage Act, carefully negotiated by Senators Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Collins (R-Maine).
Carl Esbeck wrote in Christianity Today, “RMA is a modest but good day’s work. It shows that religious liberty champions and LGBT advocates can work together for the common good.” In the Deseret News, Hal Boyd offered “the Respect for Marriage Act could serve as the vehicle for codifying into federal law some of the more robust federal religious freedom protections in recent decades.”
If you are interested in the full scope of the debate among conservatives, I recommend David French’s Open Letter to Those Who Think I’ve Lost My Christian Faith.
John Inazu, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, broke the debate for RFMA into four camps:
- Progressives who seek adding antidiscrimination protections without any religious liberty protections.
- Progressives and conservatives who seek both antidiscrimination and religious liberty protections.
- Conservatives who oppose any antidiscrimination protections involving sexual orientation or gender identity.
- Conservatives who oppose any antidiscrimination protections involving sexual orientation or gender identity and also oppose legal recognition of same-sex marriage.
I would put myself in squarely in camp two. This tension is what makes our nation so special. The fact progressives made this sort of compromise should not be overlooked.
“Real pluralism requires political compromise and living with those whose words and actions offend your sensibilities even when—especially when—the politics might favor your views. Pluralism can’t just be the last refuge of political losers—it requires give and take from all of us.”
Republican Senator Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming said, “For the sake of our nation today and it’s survival we do well by taking this step. Not embracing or validating each other’s devoutly held views, but by the simple act of tolerating them.”
This is a good sign for our democracy.
Progressive and Extremists
This has gotten longer than I expected, so two quick pieces worthy of your time.
Earlier this year, The Intercept published “Elephant in the Zoom,” documenting debates raging within progressive organizations. The article has ricocheted around funder and organizational circles for months.
Rather than debating what was reported, Maurice Mitchell, national director of The Working Families Party, offered an incredibly powerful analysis on “Building Resilient Organizations” over at The Forge. For one of the nation’s leading progressives to challenge the ranks of progressive America in such a respectful way, to circle back to Didion, takes, well, moral nerve.
At some point I thought I would write a piece on Ye and the awfulness he has unleashed. (Although I would recommend the Netflix documentary “jeen-yuhs” – the first episode alone is worth it.)
Instead, I’ll just point to Ron Brownstein’s most recent piece in The Atlantic, “The GOP Can’t Hide From Extremism,” where he says, “The role of extremist white nationalists in the GOP may be approaching an inflection point.”
I could not agree more and would argue that compromises like the Respect for Marriage Act are the types of efforts that increase the likelihood of the American experiment hanging together.
Finally, I am really enjoying Welcome to Chippendales.
I am a huge Kumail Nanjiani fan and the show captures the immigrant experience, 1970s Los Angeles and what it means to pursue dreams at all costs so well. I am three episodes in and I have already liked and disliked each character.
Plus, reminds me I really need to do more sit-ups.