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I trust leaders who earn my trust


When I moved to San Francisco in the winter of 1979-1980 to go to grad school, it was with the highest of high hopes. I was 33 years old, and in the process of putting the Sixties and Seventies behind me. The drugs and partying, the alternative hippie lifestyle no longer seemed suitable as I approached middle age. Put aside childish things, Heimoff, I told myself, and grow up.

With Reagan’s election, the mood of the country changed overnight. Now it was all about moving up the career ladder. Making money was suddenly “in,” after the idealism of the previous years. Everybody I met seemed to be an M.B.A., or to want to be one. I enrolled in the Educational Technology Department at San Francisco State University, got myself a job on campus, cut my hair and brought myself some decent clothes. It was no longer fashionable to be broke; it was a drag. Besides, living in San Francisco was expensive. I needed to make more money just to stay even.

I was also very naïve, as you’ll see in a moment. My on-campus jobs were clerical: I worked for a while in the School of Education checking transcripts, then as secretary of the Film Department. From there, it was a step up to secretary of the Career Center. That was a big, busy place, always bustling with students looking for jobs or counseling. It was located in the administration building, the locus of power on campus. On a functional level, I ran the place: controlled access to the Director and handled the budget and the computers. I was very ambitious. In my mind, this was America, the land of opportunity. If you worked hard and played by the rules, you moved up the ladder, to increasing wealth and status. I worked very, very hard, and was very good at what I did.

One day, the Dean of Student Services—my boss’s boss—called me to his office. I was nervous as heck: what could he possibly want? He said that his chief assistant, Tony, would shortly be leaving. He, the Dean, had been watching me, and was impressed. He wanted me to take Tony’s place when the time came.

That was awesome. It meant a significant rise in salary. Things were working out just as I’d assumed they would. The American Dream was alive and well! Soon, I’d be chief assistant to one of the most powerful men on campus. From there, who knew? Maybe someday I’d take the Dean’s job. (That’s what I meant by saying how naïve I was.)

But I never heard back from the Dean. Months went by; I remained secretary of the Career Center. I asked for a meeting with the Dean. What happened, I asked. He acted like he didn’t know what I was talking about, like it had never happened. Stunned and resentful, I began to realize I’d been a sucker. Just because you work hard doesn’t mean jack shit. Even powerful men, like the Dean, lie. That’s when a big dose of cynicism hit me.  This American Dream is pure crap. There is no moving up. It’s the law of the jungle out there.

In a way, my experience with the Dean reinforced an attitude I’d had since childhood: distrust of authority. I believe I was born with a certain devotional strain, by which I mean if I had ever found a leader who didn’t let me down, I would have been the most ardent disciple. I always sought such leaders; but they always let me down. The gods I devoted myself to turned out to have feet of clay. There’s nothing more disconcerting than discovering that someone you’d truly admired was in actuality deeply flawed.

After my run-in with the Dean, I never again fully trusted an authority figure. Of course, since I had to work for a living, I always had “bosses.” But while I was a very competent worker on a professional basis, on a personal basis I didn’t respect my bosses (except for one: Rick Tigner, at Jackson Family Wines). Always I saw in them the same sad traits: bullying, lying, double standards, favoritism, hypocrisy, greed, meanness, stupidity. In a word, Injustice. I suppose, as a Jew, inculcated into my DNA was the notion of justice. Justice, justice you shall pursue…Let justice roll on like a river, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Surely it wasn’t too much to expect men in whom power over others had been vested to treat those under them with respect and fairness. But somehow, this seldom proved to be the case.

Still, in my dotage, I’m not entirely cynical. I believe in the ideals of the Democratic Party (which doesn’t mean I think all Democratic politicians are brilliant!). I believe Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are trying to save the country from collapse. I trust my doctors. I trust my banker, and I trust the climate scientists who warn us about global warming. In fact, there are plenty of people I trust–as long as I don’t have to work for them!

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