Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Noble lies (kind of) for the 21st century?

Sometimes you read a piece by an intellectual you admire, and you feel like you have uncovered a hidden vice in someone you considered a soul mate. This is more or less how I felt when I came upon Christine Rosen’s Commentary column “In Praise of Sheryl Sandberg.” What does Rosen praise Mark Zuckerberg’s second-in-command for? For recognizing that women have mostly themselves to blame for their collective inability to climb the corporate ladder, so they should stop whining about male oppression and crippling stereotypes (even if Sandberg herself recognizes that some stereotypes do persist).

In my naivete, I thought the socioeconomic Matrix was the problem, with its harsh demand for all-out, aggressive personal investment in the “rat race”– something from which many women (and fewer men) rightfully shrink. Rosen’s take on this is a lot more sanguine. In her carefully chosen words, “achievement at the highest level requires trade-offs, whether you are male or female, and Sandberg’s candor in describing her own only makes the force of her argument more challenging to the feminist notion that the problem can never be attributed to us (the women), but them (the men, the institutions they run, the government).”

Rosen also praises Sanberg for advising a degree of Machiavellianism in the corridors of corporate power. She asks rhetorically: “Is this fair in an existential sense?” And provides the obvious answer: “Of course not. But who said life is fair? How many men in the workplace feign an interest in golf or pretend to appreciate their boss’s sense of humor in order to get ahead?” Really, who in their right mind could really expect fairness in the socioeconomic competition for power, wealth, lifestyle options, and status?

Let’s say these are understandable personal biases for a female business leader and an intellectual fellow traveler (or a stealth neo-conservative?). But Rosen’s article contains one glaring factual misrepresentation which is less excusable. She says “Sandberg’s Lean In stands as a necessary corrective to a feminist movement that has migrated away from the pursuit of concrete political goals toward the pursuit of gauzier things like self-actualization.” How can this be if Sandberg herself proposes no significant changes to institutional rules and norms in the corporate world or in the larger society, and doesn’t even touch upon issues of fairness, rich rewards for socially unhelpful “achievement,” and excessive inequality? My guess is – it cannot. As Rosen does acknowledge in her concluding paragraph, Sandberg mostly “reminds us that women can do a great deal to improve their own lives at the individual level” – and they both seem to have few qualms about doing this at the expense of others, or perhaps the proverbial “social fabric.”

In that final paragraph, Rosen also draws a comparison that is so outlandish I am at a loss of words to give it its full due: “Sheryl Sandberg, in her charmingly stoic way, is telling us what we know but won’t admit. In this, her advice echoes that of a more traditional (and ancient) Stoic who was also a wise leader. In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius advised: “Don’t go on discussing what a good person should be. Just be one.”