The Darkest Metaphor Imaginable: America Is Becoming the New York Knicks

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang reacts at the Democratic presidential debate in Houston, Texas, September 12, 2019. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang is likely to create a stir in the greater New York area with his assertion that the abysmal decisions of New York Knicks owner James Dolan are symptomatic of an arrogant, dismissive, and incompetent brand of leadership flourishing in American life:

You have a leadership that can’t get out of it’s own way and then, when a legend like Charles Oakley comes back, or when a fan criticizes Dolan, he literally kicks them out of (Madison Square Garden) or bans them for life or does something that to me is the opposite of what you’d want a manager or leader to do. And so if you look at this and you’re a fan of the team, you’re like, ‘Wait a minute, I’m giving this team my energy and emotional investment and the owner clearly doesn’t care about me or my opinion.’

This, to me, is an emblem of what Americans feel about various institutions in different walks of life. If you look at our trust in the press, or Congress, or unfortunately even schools and hospitals, they’re all at multi-decade lows.

The man has a point. America has a lot of big institutions with important responsibilities that we want to trust. We wish we could have faith in the leaders and cultures of these important institutions — but we can’t, because leaders of those institutions have betrayed that faith far too often recent years and decades.

You may love the Catholic Church, but do you feel like it’s been well run lately? Do you trust it to hold its own leaders accountable for serious wrongdoing?

You no doubt have great respect for our armed forces. But large-scale contracting scandals are becoming depressingly common, the problem of sexual assaults within the ranks is apparently getting worse instead of better,  and the reports about failing to maintain good order and discipline in the Navy SEALs and other special operations are deeply ominous.

We want to trust the cops. When we’re in a dangerous situation, they’re the ones we call. But each story about unjustifiable shootings, botched raids ending in fatalities, widespread abuse of overtime shifts, sleeping with prostitutes, running brothels (!) and exonerations of convicted criminals makes us worry that when we call 911, we might not get one of the good ones.

The people who run America’s businesses certainly figured out how to make money and sell products; we would like to believe we’re getting a good product at a good price. Yet GM made cars that could kill people if the key chain was too heavy while getting bailed out by taxpayers, Boeing ignored warnings about the 737 Max, Theranos built a $9 billion company on a medical device that didn’t work, and at WeWork, the CEO who ran the place into the ground is getting a $1.7 billion payout while the workers face layoffs.

And that’s before we get to recent scandals in higher education, or major news organizations, or professional sports, or Hollywood, or scam PACs, any other big institution that people put their faith in — to say nothing of our faith in government at all levels.

(To pick one more example, New York Jets fans were assured the whole offseason that Adam Gase is an offensive genius, and that his mediocre-at-best record with the Miami Dolphins was not a red flag — yet on almost every single drive our first play is to run Le’Veon Bell up the middle for no gain, the team keeps committing penalties left and right suggesting they’re undisciplined and not mentally focused, the line can never seem to pick up blitzers, the play calls never have the receivers run past the first down marker . . . okay, maybe the leadership problems of the New York Jets bother me more than most other people.)

Obviously, not all leaders in all our institutions are bad. But there are far too many high-profile examples of leaders believing the rules, ethics, and laws don’t apply to them, of covering up problems instead of addressing them, of refusing to deviate from approaches that aren’t working, and of trying to shut up critics (both internal and external) instead of listening to them.

As one of my Twitter followers observed about Yang, his comparison of the country’s leadership problems to the Knicks “clearly comes from both a place of knowledge (i.e., not a line a handler fed him) and a place of ordinary experience that non-PhDs can relate to. Warren, e.g., is smart but also a wonk who comes off as lecturing know-it-all.” He’s probably not going to be the next president and not all of his ideas are terrific, but he’s the kind of figure and voice that is good to have in public life.

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