Fauci, Cuomo and Postmodern Leadership

About a decade ago my wife, two-year-old daughter and I attended a birthday party in the Hollywood Hills. A thirty-something actress with some credits to her name was throwing a bash for her two-year-old daughter complete with petting zoo, two bouncy houses, and the characters from a popular children’s TV program. I suspect that we were invited in the interest of diversity because we were normal people with normal jobs.

The crowd was largely comprised of actors, agents, producers, and other Hollywood types, the types of people with whom I had grown somewhat accustomed to having lived and worked in Hollywood for 20 years. It was at this party, however, where an idea crystallized in my mind.

There were several cast members from Grey’s Anatomy, and one drew my attention. He was an actor in his early thirties who played a surgeon in the medical drama. He seemed particularly surly and shallow, even for an actor. The character he played on television was a person of great accomplishment, a doctor, a surgeon, someone who had spent years studying and sacrificing for his calling. But here, at the party, was a vapid shell of a man who made a fortune pretending to be a person he was not.

What struck me was how deferential people were to this actor, and actors like him, whose main accomplishment was the ability to pretend they were someone else. It was obvious that actors are often, almost always, afforded more respect than the people whom they portray. 

Some eight years later, my family and I traveled back to the west coast for a relative’s wedding and found ourselves with a similar mix of people. My cousin and I were standing in line to have our photos taken when he tapped the shoulder of the woman in front of us who happened to be an Academy award-winning actress. He took the opportunity to tell her how much he appreciated and admired her work. It was striking how deferential, almost obsequious his praise was as if the actress had achieved something greater than pretending to be someone else. To her credit, she was gracious and thanked him for his kind words.

Until the beginning of the twentieth century, actors and other entertainers were viewed with suspicion and were excluded from polite society. In Western civilization, going back at least as far as the third century BC, actors were viewed as ignominious. Plato held that it was dishonorable for a person to assume the honor of another person without any of the associated sacrifices and responsibilities, and for more than two thousand years this was the prevailing view.

It wasn’t until mass media and the resulting mass market that this attitude changed. The shift in how we view entertainers drastically changed with the formation of newspaper syndicates, radio, television, the motion picture industry and, now, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. An immeasurably important aspect of this shift is how we view leadership.

In philosopher Alisdair McIntyre’s 1981 classic After Virtue, the author describes how leadership in the postmodern world has ceased to be judged by excellence, or even effectiveness, and has come to be measured by how the politician fulfills the role emotionally. We do not judge our leaders by what they accomplish, or how they accomplish, but rather how they conduct themselves in the role of leadership. Do they meet our expectations of how we would like our leaders to appear and how they make us feel about ourselves? In short, our political and administrative leaders are actors appealing to our emotional wants and needs.

One need look no further than the Emmy award bestowed upon Andrew Cuomo for his daily performance as the governor of New York. The fact that his state had more deaths per capita than any other was not the metric by which he was judged. Nor was he held accountable for his policies returning elderly COVID positive patients to nursing homes, thereby condemning thousands of our most vulnerable citizens to death.

Instead, his forceful performance in demanding more ventilators, temporary hospitals, and even a hospital ship was universally received as a portrait of leadership, never mind that these resources, secured at federal taxpayer expense, were never significantly utilized. Tens of millions of dollars and valuable resources were expended because of his daily broadcast. Some would agree that an Emmy award makes it all worthwhile.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the face of the federal government’s response to COVID, has also been lauded by the media. His face has graced the cover of magazines and he has been a frequent guest on cable and broadcast programs, where he is honored and esteemed. He is treated as the avuncular physician who has our best interests at heart. None of the fawning reporters or TV hosts dares ask Dr. Fauci about the cost of the draconian policies he has advocated. 

In one of the more memorable of the hundreds of interviews Dr. Fauci has given, he was asked whether Tinder hookups were a good idea in the time of COVID to which the Good Doctor responded that individuals should do their own risk assessment. The pandemic notwithstanding, it is hard to imagine a public health official, particularly one specializing in contagious diseases, taking a neutral stance on casual sex.

Dr. Fauci is also the same expert in communicable diseases who has strongly advocated for an end to the western tradition of the handshake as a form of greeting. Are we to assume that the Tinder hookup should be considered in a risk-benefit analysis, presumably factoring in the desirability of the prospective partner, but we should abandon the ancient and time-tested custom of shaking hands?

In a December broadcast video conference featuring Governor Cuomo and Dr. Fauci, Cuomo suggested to Fauci that they team up to produce videos promoting vaccination. “We’re like the modern-day De Niro and Pacino,” the governor excitedly proclaimed. It is hard to see clearly in this imagined house of mirrors but, to begin, one would have to focus on the concepts of De Niro and Pacino.

In the context of the governor’s suggestion, De Niro and Pacino are concepts, not real people. It is safe to say that Cuomo was referring to characters that the actors had portrayed and not the actors themselves because we do not identify with the actors as they truly are, rather as we know them through the characters they portray. This leaves us with two individuals who portray seasoned bureaucrats portraying two actors, who in turn are portraying political leaders. Nowhere in this endless loop is there accountability. It is all entertainment.

The question remains: What is it in our culture that compels us to exalt actors, politicians, and bureaucrats, not based on the virtues they may or may not possess, not based on the contribution of the work they do, but rather on how we feel about them? McIntyre warns that this emotivism leads to a dead end. It seems, looking back at 2020, that it leads to a train wreck. 

IMAGE: Fauci and Cuomo think they're De Niro and Pacino. Twitter screengrab.