THIS time of the year is when we look back at everything that transpired over the past 12 months, usually to reflect on lessons learned and insights gained, and to look ahead to the next 12 months to come.
As I cast my eyes back on 2019, the key learning that I can pick out is one on decency. Not so much maybe as the presence of it, but the lack thereof, in many areas of life, and in sectors both private and public.
It’s very difficult to find a place to start, however, as it seems that the word decency has lost its place, even lost its meaning altogether in the year just passed. And so, rather than start in any sort of order of importance or chronology, I will just recount some examples that come to mind as I write this piece, to reinforce my contention that 2019 may be the year that decency lost its pride of place in human affairs.
Whenever we talk of governance, and especially that which takes place in the more advanced democracies, we usually take it for granted that this takes place in an atmosphere that is beyond reproach. Most of the tales that are told of great statesmen—whether these be of Washington, Lincoln, Churchill or Mandela—all seem to have a common thread that holds them all together. Not only were they all able leaders of their nations and people, above everything else they were exemplary humans, whose virtues were worthy of emulation, and whose lives are examples for the rest of us to follow.
And yet, what we saw of our leaders in 2019 was anything but worthy. Think back to the person who is the de facto elder statesman of the world, the leader of the most esteemed democratic nation on earth. Earning the unwanted distinction of being only the third president of the United States to be impeached by Congress, one would be hard pressed to recall anything exemplary among the actions and behaviors he showed to the world. Anything that anyone ever associated as conduct unbecoming of a leader of the free world he displayed, changing forever the world’s impression of what the occupant of the White House ought to be like. I am not an American, but from the outside looking in, it is not too difficult to associate “Trumpian” behavior with that of a mafia don, rather than a president of the United States of America.
The thing is, when America sneezes, the world catches a cold. The president’s behavior—good or bad—becomes the gold standard by which the actions of the leaders of lesser nations are measured. And guess what, by lowering the bar so much, Trump has started a worldwide contagion of bad leadership that will be extremely difficult to cure.
Even the age-old institution of the British monarchy, governed by its strict rules of conduct, could not escape the “Trumpian” contagion. A senior member of the royal family was this year stripped of his official duties, owing to his association with a convicted pedophile. Prior to Trump, the royal’s behavior would have seemed wildly aberrant, but through the lens of Donald Trump, it was almost tame by comparison.
And so, what’s in store for governance in 2020? Believe it or not, its saving grace may lie in the recklessness of youth.
When I say reckless, I don’t mean it in the negative sense, but only in the context of acting without thought of risk or consequence.
Think about Greta Thunberg, the teenage activist who put leaders of the world’s industrialized economies to shame by calling them out for being soft on climate change. Or Sanna Marin, Finnish Prime Minister who at 34 is the world’s youngest sitting leader. Or the many young candidates who wish to prevent a second Trump presidency.
What do they have in common? Recklessness of youth.
Unlike Trump who cannot think beyond his own self-interest, they think not so much of themselves, but of the world around them. And this mindset, dare I say, is the one saving grace we can all look forward to with hope in 2020.