Anne Snyder: The Petraeus scandal has revealed some hollowness in the social rulebook governing our elites’ ways and means.
The current issue of The Aspen Idea sits innocently atop my magazine pile, enticing a flip-through with its happy banners framing the nation’s best and brightest as they participate in the annual Ideas Festival. Former General Stanley McChrystal stares up from the cover with earnest gestures overlaid by the text, “A Call for National Leadership.” A sort of American summer camp for the Davos crowd, the Aspen invitation is an honor badge for any professional, and its scrapbook provides a representative portrait of the Who’s Who of our time. The roster is impressive, deep and varied, and normally I’m just interested in learning more about the experts and the debates they’re waging.
Today, though, in the wake of the Petraeus-Broadwell scandal, I am struck by an odd naiveté woven into the manners of this very successful class, perhaps the same naiveté of a broader achievement culture that idolizes its winners out of impatience with a quieter glory. The surface story of these smiling, accomplished, at ease yet earnest men and women seems admirable according to contemporary formulas for the good life: Work hard, attend a prestigious school, diversify your experiences, be altruistic, persevere through all odds, bulldoze if you must to attain what you must, praise others and accept praise, surround yourself with stimulating people, marry well and expand opportunity for your kids. And of course, depending on application, these tropes are fine and endearingly American, some even virtuous. But looking now at Aspen’s photos of Paula Broadwell sipping champagne with other participants and hearing her Petraeus biography praised by Michael O’Hanlon during a festival interview (not to mention the lavish blurbs on the back cover), I am disquieted by the knowledge of darker secrets hid at the very moment of public celebration.
For the naiveté I observe is a moral one, selective as it is toward who gets judged and what counts for virtue. Media coverage of the Petraeus scandal has hardly paused to revisit old ideals that honored the quieter habits of submission, spousal faithfulness among them. That’s the boring non-story. I admit some disheartened offense at this callous nonchalance from both left and right (with middle-aged men taking up most of that vocal space, I can’t help but note). A “been there, seen that” dismissal of adultery seems so foolishly arrogant, reductive and cheap. But beyond my bias toward relational commitment lies a bewilderment that a smart, sophisticated group of people is relying on a set of guideposts for worth often anchored no deeper than the opinions of the mutual admiration societies into which they give and take.
This is not a danger exclusive to elites. Human nature is one of those deliciously indiscriminate agents, and no amount of careful breeding, self-awareness or even hard knocks can quite staunch the flush of another’s praise. Our social needs hardly weaken the closer we get to distinction! (Indeed, it’s plausible that General Petraeus chose to unzip a life of accumulated treasure in the heat of wanting a still more intimate admiration.) But, to stake security and one’s aspirational compass only in the smooth topsoil of like-minded, like-educated folks seems awfully fast and loose, especially for a group whose discoveries, decisions and collective progress impact circles far beyond its immediate orbit. There is often a soft clubbiness that belies the weight of their offices, and I wonder if the country wouldn’t be better served by some rude interruption of the parochial warm and fuzzies, or at least a few more words of honest questioning between members of this tier.
I don’t mean to tirade against etiquette and its pleasantries—they can keep the world spinning even as they lend a shared language for each tribe that appropriates its own set of manners. These are goods in our tricky age, and for all people, compliments usher in cooperative spirits necessary for larger problem-solving and encouragement, when sincere and deserved, is ever salutary. But somehow, more recently, as society’s moral domain has contracted to accommodate our individual preferences amid diversity and transience, the framework for any kind of rigorous accountability has been re-jiggered, rending the fabric open for a fuzzier set of “shared values” to patch up our social governance. And it is in the achievement class that these values come off as the most vague, even as they’re coated with a hypersensitivity to political incorrectness or personal offense. This combination is unsustainable.
I’d love to see some social historians map out the development behind the current morass. For now I’ll guess that part of the answer is located on the training grounds for today’s leaders: parents who filled the toolbox for their kids to succeed but omitted the counteracting lessons in humility and fear of one’s own temptations; college campuses squelching voices from certain quarters; cloistered networks now technologically capable of feeding consumers data points that sooth their own impulses. Somewhere along the path toward a steady status was a little too much of a compartmentalizing, organized achievement ethos, and a little too little of a rounder, friction-laden virtue ethos.
It’s impossible to know what could have paused the choices of General Petraeus and Paula Broadwell as they triggered their public disgrace with private disorder, just as it would be for any of us who do and will fall. But I can’t help but wonder if our society wouldn’t be healthier if reticence were to make a cultural comeback. If we were a little slower to fawn and a lot shyer to peacock ourselves around, so that praise, when voiced, could be more fully legitimate, more properly an encouragement toward the good life in all its shades. Then we might experience a social trust confined less to one class of people, one more broadly dispersed and honestly earned. Genuineness has a timbre most people recognize after all, and it sticks.