Can We Socialize Courage?

05/21/2015 08:19 am ET | Updated May 21, 2016

As Salman Rushdie said in a recent New York Times commentary, "We find it easier, in these confused times, to admire physical bravery than moral courage."

Indeed, the growing failure of American leaders -- political, nonprofit, academic, philanthropic, journalistic and corporate -- to display more than an iota of moral and political courage is leading many of us to question whether this country is capable of generating a new crop of young leaders with the ethics, strength, and determination to solve our most urgent national and societal problems.

Gone are the times when politicians were willing to take risks, vote their conscience and exhibit a degree of moral courage. Our current President talks a good game but hasn't so far been willing or able to exercise the moral or political leadership that we should expect of a President. Could John F. Kennedy write his book, Profiles in Courage, today?

For some hard to define reason, elected officials irrationally believe that the most important thing they can do for their country or state is to be re-elected, regardless of the issues involved or whether they are serving the public interest. Their notion of public service has been twisted into an ego-serving exercise. Beholden to big money, or in many cases very little money, they have increasingly abandoned principles for their own narrow self-interest, thereby setting a horrible example of leadership for our younger generations.

The latest round of political cowardice came at the expense of mothers and fathers who had lost their children in frightening scenes of gun violence. Even the most moderate of the gun control measures considered by the Senate -- the effort to expand background checks on gun buyers -- went down in defeat, as four key democrats voted "no." Afraid of the National Rifle Association and upcoming elections, three of them rejected a common sense bill that was favored by a large majority of Americans. The fourth, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, had just won her election to a six-year term, yet was still afraid to go against the gun lobby. In a display of unmatched gutlessness and pure cynicism, Senator Max Baucus, facing re-election in Montana in the fall, voted "no," knowing he was going to back out of the Senate race.

Effective government, and indeed our social contract, is based on the notion that key parts of our economy -- industry, agriculture and consumer products -- need to be regulated to protect the safety of our citizens and workers. In practice, we learn that things don't quite work out that way. There is a continual drumbeat of regulatory violations that endanger our environment, our food products, our health, our manufacturing ventures and our lives. Neither our politicians and government officials, nor the public in general, seem capable of maintaining some semblance of the rules and regulations we have established. They are either scared to hold violators in check or bought off by the lure of money. Where are the Senator Proxmires today when we need them? Why aren't there more Ralph Naders speaking out on these issues?

Our nonprofit leaders, with relatively few exceptions, appear no more courageous than their political and governmental colleagues. Many seem too preoccupied with boosting their own careers and growing compensation to take strong stands on major public policy issues at the risk of alienating constituencies and colleagues. When scandals rocked American University and the Nature Conservancy, no heads of universities or major environmental groups had the courage to denounce publicly these violations of institutional integrity.

Few nonprofit executives are willing to fight on behalf of poor, minority and other disadvantaged communities that are being neglected by elected officials and an administration more concerned with the fate of the middle class. Consumed by a self-serving drive to maintain the current charitable deduction at all costs -- a minor issue in the grand scheme of things -- many charity officials seem afraid to tackle the broader problems that affect the lives of their clients and the public, such as gun control, budget priorities, environmental crises or corruption of the political processes.

Few are willing to write or speak out on the problems and challenges of the sector. Rarely do they have the courage to go on the record when interviewed by the media. As one journalist noted, "Heck, many nonprofit officials aren't even willing to speak off-the-record."

Watchdog groups are increasingly a rare breed in our society. So are whistleblowers, who are given short shrift by both governments and nonprofits. If anything, such groups and individuals have found themselves on an even tighter leash during the past few years by our institutions and leaders who resent their probing investigations and sense of independence.

Only a few organizations and individuals have the stomach to challenge abuses of power and authority. Instead of praising and encouraging their temerity and devotion to democratic values -- freedom of information, the notion of public accountability, etc. -- we have tended to view them as "outsiders," unworthy of our support.

Nervous foundations, as well as individual philanthropists, shy away from underwriting these "risky" organizations. Yet wealthy donors like Bill Gates, Eli Broad and the Walton family can hide behind a veil of opaqueness, masking their lack of transparency and public accountability, preferring to conduct their activities outside the purview of public discussion and the political process. Our pliant politicians and regulators permit them to do so. No one seems to be questioning whether their enormous wealth and power is a threat to our democracy.

One might have thought that universities and colleges were the repository of strong moral values and ethical behavior. Not today's institutions of higher learning. To a large extent, they have become corporate entities as devoted, if not more so, to corporate values -- the bottom line, top down management and excessive executive compensation -- as they are to the mission of educating our children.

Their chancellors and presidents are essentially fundraisers, not academic or moral leaders. Many currently receive over $1 million in compensation, not to mention other lucrative perks of the job; their salaries are increasing at a far higher rate than that of the faculty. Few enjoy deep roots in their communities or close relationships to their students.

Universities and colleges are becoming increasingly dysfunctional institutions. Tuitions have skyrocketed in recent years, leaving needy students at sea, while the amount of university budgets devoted to teaching has noticeably decreased. Their endowments, which have greatly appreciated in value in recent times, nevertheless have not been used to substantially lower tuition rates. Despite their alleged budget crunches, many institutions seem to have plenty of money, pouring huge amounts into real estate deals, new buildings, fancy dorms, student centers and large athletic facilities. Highly paid, often unnecessary, administrators have multiplied, adding an unwanted layer of bureaucracy.

Few CEOs and top administrators have demonstrated any courage in combating these debilitating trends. Only a handful have attempted to keep tuitions low and tempered their institution's bricks and mortar mania. Only a few have fought to provide their adjunct faculty with decent wages, benefits and academic rights. And, with a couple of exceptions, they have failed to institute a living wage for the over 1.3 million low wage workers that keep our campuses running throughout the country. Not more than a sprinkling of large university CEOs have had the temerity to refuse support of huge athletic programs and million dollar coaches' salaries. And when do we see university and college heads engaged in the frontlines of public debate and action on national issues, other than on their own self-serving financial interests, as they were several decades ago?

No wonder our younger generations are not inspired to exercise moral and political courage in their lives and future jobs. Their college presidents, and I daresay most of their professors, are inappropriate role models for a world that requires vision, risk-taking and some spine.

Nor does journalism provide the fervor and doggedness as a defender of public morals and accountability that it once did. The old publishers who believed that newspapers had an obligation to truth-telling and educating the American public are gone. In their place are publishers who are mainly interested in the bottom line, more attuned to Wall Street than investigating the news. Many daily newspapers have gone out of business or severely trimmed their operations, thereby greatly reducing the number of our investigative reporters and editors. Neither alternative newspapers nor the Internet have proved to be an effective substitute for the loss of a hard-hitting press.

The major television news channels today are controlled by corporate America, their anchors merely shadows of some of the old broadcasters who often commanded a moral voice on some of the major issues of the day. Television news no longer covers what's going on in this country and the world, nor gives us a sense of the tough moral choices that we face as citizens and as a country.

The recent revelation that Apple has avoided paying an enormous amount of taxes to our government by placing their earnings in low-taxed overseas accounts should have sent shock waves throughout the country. But corporate cheating on taxes -- refusing to be good citizens -- is so universal that the news doesn't surprise many people any more. At a recent hearing, a Democratic Senator, speaking to the chair of Apple about corporate cheating, couldn't help but blurt out that "she just loved Apple." That corporate America is permitted to get away with widespread abuses not only of tax cheating but of other violations of ethical practices is another dagger into the heart of the country's moral standards.

Sports serve as a training ground for physical courage. But there is no equivalent activity or experience that provides training ground for moral and political courage. Occasional youth movements like the anti-sweat shop organizing efforts, "Occupy Wall Street," or, more recently, the activism of young immigrants, arouse the passion, outrage and involvement of young people protesting economic and social injustices, but these tend to be limited and short-lived, not intense or prolonged enough to shape our collective DNA. A few courageous political figures and nonprofit leaders serve as examples of moral leadership that our youth can emulate, but they are scarce and, often, not nationally known. Courage seems to be confined to local environments.

So what can we do to develop a new generation of young people with moral and political courage? "How can we socialize courage?" is a question that our universities and nonprofits, as well as other civic groups, must ask. Thus far, nobody seems to have an answer.

College and nonprofit leadership development courses could be of some assistance, but their results appear to have had little impact. Too focused on management concerns and staff relations, they rarely confront the issue of courage head-on.

A promising avenue for colleges is the appointment of practitioners to their faculty, people who have run successful programs, made tough decisions and taken risks. They may not have PhDs -- a real hang-up for universities -- but they have the life experiences to be effective mentors for students who are looking for role models.

Both governments and nonprofits need to implement more effective whistleblower protections, demonstrating to the public that challenging corruption and abuses of authority is an acceptable and courageous activity. Federal shield laws and other protections for journalists who have the temerity to write and speak out would also set the tone for a more tolerant society.

Yet none of these approaches provide a satisfactory answer to the question of how we as a nation can systematically develop the moral and political courage we so desperately need. Perhaps the severity of our national crises and challenges will produce previously unheralded men and women who can exercise strong and ethical leadership. Thus far, our universities and nonprofits have failed to do so. So have the other sectors of our civil society.

Unless our top political officials, including our president and key Congressmen, as well as out civic executives, somehow transcend their current trajectories, it is unlikely that the state of our collective moral backbone will improve significantly in the coming decade. Let us hope that Mr. Rushdie's cynical observation will not prove prophetic over the long run.