The Argument Gun Rights Supporters Can’t Respond To

There’s no principled distinction between a gun and a magic death-button.

Opponents of gun rights frequently make unpersuasive arguments. They focus on the intent of the Second Amendment or the unique horror of “assault” weapons. They overstate the extent to which federal gun control measures can be effective, and understate the extent to which they can result in draconian policing practices that disproportionately harm racial minorities. They get mired in pointless speculative arguments over what the Founding Founders would have wanted.

In so doing, they end up losing sight of the fundamental issue regarding guns. They forget to demand that gun rights supporters answer an important foundational question, which can be summarized as follows:

Is there a principled difference between having a gun and just having a button that when pressed kills the person standing in front of you?

Let’s imagine a new app. It operates very simply. It shows you pictures of the people standing within a 50-foot vicinity of you. As each one is displayed, you must decide whether the person should live or die. Swipe left to let live, swipe right to strike dead. The moment you swipe, the person is instantly sapped of life.

The concept of the death-app is disturbing. In fact, it’s a dystopian horror. If people could simply kill whomever they pleased from their smartphones at any moment, nobody could ever dare to offend another for fear of inducing them to swipe right. Even if murder remained illegal, the idea of giving impulsive and irrational human beings access to such an easy, mundane means of taking life seems profoundly troubling.

Yet there is no principled difference whatsoever between the death app and a gun. Each allows anyone to kill anyone at the touch of a button. Each confers upon the individual a kind of “magic wand” that can disappear another human being with a mere touch. The pull of a trigger, the swipe of a screen. Guns are like Tinder for death instead of sex.

If gun rights supporters are committed to their principle, then, they should be willing to state that they would have no problem with the insta-kill app. If they would have a problem with the death app, they should explain what the relevant differences between it and a gun are. Otherwise, each of them should be willing to state flatly that their definition of freedom is: “I should be permitted to carry around a button that allows me to strike you dead whenever I please.” This is the argument that is being made.

The death-button idea exposes something about guns: it’s only because guns have been normalized over time that we aren’t more disturbed by them. It’s strange how much the instincts on the gun and button differ so strongly given how few the differences between their capacities are. You’re giving the individual precisely the same power to decide whether or not to take life. There is no objection that can be made to permitting the death button that can’t be made to the gun. Yet one is viscerally disturbing, and the other is considered a perfectly sensible thing for a human being to want to own. If someone had a button on his desk with a skull and crossbones on it, that could instantly vaporize anyone in the room, that person would probably be thought of as deranged. And yet if an executive keeps a gun in his desk, he is treated as legitimately exercising his right to self-defense.


Several objections will inevitably be made.

First, we will hear the usual argument that there is no difference between the possession of a gun and the possession of a knife. Each gives the individual the capacity to take a life. Each makes murder easy. Yet knife control is a ludicrous concept, one that would unreasonably impede ordinary life-functions like eating. If guns and the death button are so horrible, why aren’t knives?

The knife argument has always been strange, though. The capacity to inflict harm is on an entirely different scale. Would the Orlando incident have been possible with a carving-knife? Would Norway? The Bataclan? (Attempts at mass murder by knife end up with somewhat lower fatality counts.) But the act required to kill is also somewhat different. When I wish to murder an acquaintance with a knife, I must plunge the knife into his body. Ripping apart a human body using a tool is not quite so mundane an act as pressing a button. It requires a bit of a stronger stomach (perhaps why only 1.8% of people who commit suicide do so by cutting themselves as opposed to by firearm, despite the easier availability of sharp objects; also why murders by gun so drastically outnumber murders by sharp object). What guns do, then, is adjust the ratio of “capacity to commit harm” to “barriers to impulsively committing it.” The capacity increases, and the barriers decrease. The thought of stabbing someone might repulse me, while the thought of clicking “please make this person go away” on my phone requires me to overcome much less instinctive resistance. (The same argument will be made with cars. But since the level of deliberate car-homicides is extremely low, that method, too, seems to involve a depravity that makes it unpalatable to many. That’s partially because it tends to require premeditation and strategy. The problem with guns and the app is that they make it so easy to murder without premeditation and strategy.)

Second, it will be argued that while guns are justified for self-defense reasons, no such reasons apply to our insta-kill app. Our hypothetical can easily solve that, though. Our app is simply rebranded “Threat Eliminator” and people are told only to ever use it in cases where killing someone would be legally justified. Or our death-button comes with a label that says “must only be used in self-defense.” Is this all that was missing to make this device perfectly acceptable, and purchasable by every good American? Guns, it should be noted, do not have such labels on them; they, like the death button, are neutral as to what you should do with them.

I have been given other, even less compelling objections to the death-app comparison. A gun does not have a 100% chance of killing its target (alright then, our app only kills people 50% of the time. You need to swipe a couple of times if you’d like to be sure of success.) Firing a gun involves more than simply pressing a button (hardly, since even a toddler can do it, and anyone making this argument should be willing to explain the ways in which guns should be made more difficult to use). A gun is more obviously a weapon than a phone (it’s certainly not obvious to someone whom you sneak up on, and it’s unclear why we care about the appearance of a thing rather than the ability it confers). People will use the death button/app indiscriminately (tell the 10,000 people who die from guns annually that this does not already occur). The Death App is not one of the “arms” covered by the Second Amendment (but why shouldn’t it be, if it performs precisely the same function with only superficial differences?)

One final argument is that the death app would make killing even more mundane and normalized than guns do. But the person making this argument needs to explain why two things with the same power (actually, the death app is probably less powerful) should be distinguished because of a minute difference in ease. Why is that difference the one at which we intervene?  Why does the mundaneness and normality of the app trouble them, but not that associated with a device that allows murders to become an almost ordinary and ineradicable part of life?

Sketching the outer limits of the Second Amendment right to bear arms is something gun right supporters are very weak on, yet gun control supporters do not press their advantage. Even the NRA would presumably be uncomfortable vesting an individual with the ability to, say, end all human life on earth. The personal possession of nuclear weapons that can obliterate entire cities is (again presumably) not something a gun rights advocate would defend. But if that’s the case, then they must believe the Second Amendment has limits, that it is necessary to draw a line between acceptable and unacceptable weapons. But gun rights supporters will never say where that line is, or what the principle is in drawing it. The reason we would not allow a person to have the ability to kill all human beings on earth is because a person should not have that kind of capacity to kill. But what kind of capacity to kill should a person possess? How much firepower are we entitled to? The NRA and its intellectual enablers have never given a satisfactory answer to this question. (Justice Scalia, when pressed for an answer, mumbled something about how “bearing” arms means they need to be hand-held. Handheld city-destroying weapons, according to this principle, would be protected by the Second Amendment.)

As technologies improve, this question will taken on increasing relevance. What will the possibilities for handheld weaponry look like in 50 years? 100 years? It’s already the case that a gun is no different from a magic killing wand or a death app. As the decades and centuries advance, and we approach the point at which death will be but a swipe away, nobody who supports gun rights will have any principled reason to object.

When Public Schools Disappear

Regardless of student performance, charter schools and vouchers may have other worrying consequences…

With last year’s 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, media coverage of New Orleans’ recovery also revived the debate over the city’s controversial all-charter school district. After the storm, New Orleans schools were entirely revamped, with 7,000 local teachers laid off, and the business of school administration turned over to private non-profits. The resulting system is unlike any other in the country, with traditional public schools having entirely disappeared.

Anyone looking to fair-mindedly assess the results of the New Orleans charter program faces a difficult task, since views of the experiment are strongly colored by partisanship. Conservatives think it is a wonder, a model of innovation and entrepreneurship that ought to be replicated across the country. George W. Bush hailed the New Orleans program as “amazing” and the Wall Street Journal said it proved that “disaster can be an opportunity.” Those on the left are more inclined to be skeptical, with an In These Times investigation deeming the program a “failure” that continues to produce low overall performance.

Some things are not in doubt. The graduation rates in New Orleans have jumped and the school system has gone from basically non-functional to basically functional. But it’s also true that the gains were extremely costly and have some troubling aspects: large amounts of outside money needed to be funneled in, and there are allegations that during early phases a lot of disabled and difficult students were excluded by dubious means, with the remaining public schools serving as “dumping grounds” for those who would drag down the reputation of the charters. Thus critics of the New Orleans system suggest that the numbers are misleading, that many children are being left out of the metrics.

It is common for debates over charters to focus on issues like these, examining whether the schools fulfill their stated promise. Do they in fact boost student performance significantly, or is this a bit of statistical sleight-of-hand? Much depends on how outcomes are measured, and while some make the case that charters work wonders, others see their impact as anything from neutral to catastrophic.

But discussions of performance are inevitably narrow. Even if there may be good reason to believe that charter performance is frequently mediocre or even poor, it’s important to also recognize that schools have functions and consequences beyond graduation rates. The welfare of students can be improved even as the welfare of teachers, parents, and communities is damaged.

Assessing charters properly requires assessing all costs, and when we do so, privatization looks worrying indeed. Crucially, charter proponents have spectacularly failed to deal with one of the most serious likely long-term consequences of education reform policies: the destruction of teaching as a viable middle-class profession. Jonathan Chait, in New York magazine, praised the New Orleans model for “break[ing] the traditional union model of teacher compensation,” eliminating job security guarantees that were not tied to measures of job performance. Chait blames “inflexible contracts” for the fact that the hiring process for teachers is less competitive than in other fields, and that American teachers tend to graduate lower in their college classes than their counterparts around the world. This rhetoric, that teacher tenure is killing the schools, has become one of the reformers’ most repeated clichés.

Yet there is a strange contradiction in this logic. After all, if teaching isn’t a competitive profession as it stands currently, how can reducing job security and benefits possibly make it more attractive? Education reformers want to rein in what they see as luxurious excesses in teacher compensation, yet speak in the same breath of attracting a talented pool of applicants. The two goals are in direct economic conflict; lower compensation means worse applicants, and there are already strong arguments that low teacher pay partially explains the talent deficit Chait laments. Thus the real likely outcome of education reform’s changes is that teaching will simply cease to be a realistic potential career; only inexperienced recent college graduates will be able to afford to live on teaching’s poverty-level salaries. The hardiest might stick it out for a few years, but as they begin to desire homeownership and a family, being a teacher will no longer remain an option. Indeed, in New Orleans, charter teachers burn out quickly; the punishing hours and workloads mean that few can hope to sustain a career, and many laugh at the idea of having children of their own while remaining a teacher. (This has contributed to the erosion of racial diversity among New Orleans teachers; during the city’s charterization, a majority-black workforce was thrown out and replaced with a majority-white one. The new model favors hiring young, white, wealthy recent college graduates on two-year stints, and retaining teachers of color is difficult once job security has been eliminated.)

Some education reformers remain optimistic that talent can still be attracted on this model. But the reasons they highlight are bleak. Neerav Kingsland, the former CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, was one of the prime movers behind the city’s charter experiment. He has written for the American Enterprise Institute that as more and more middle-class jobs are destroyed in the years to come, there will be plenty of highly skilled unemployed people. The unlivable low salaries therefore will not prevent the recruitment of excellent teachers, since higher pay simply won’t be available in any other sector. What’s striking is that this is the best answer education reformers have to the question of how to sustain the teaching profession. It’s a model predicated on misery: it’s true that teaching will offer guaranteed poverty, but fortunately mass unemployment will ensure that good people will be desperate enough to do it anyway.

That such an argument is seriously made in education reform circles should cause some deep reflection on the movement’s social implications. One of the other major oversights of education reform is its failure to consider the risks of spinning off government functions into unaccountable private entities. Chait describes this by saying that charters are controversial because “their structure cuts crossways through the liberal ideal of governance.” By this he means that liberals think public policy should be transparent and voted on democratically, but charters take major decision-making abilities away from the electoral sphere. Hence the complaints by New Orleans parents that even as school performance has improved, they feel totally shut out, tossed about by forces they cannot control.

Charter proponents know how wary people are of allowing standards to be determined privately rather than by voters. This is why a large controversy exists over whether to call charters “public” or “private,” with charter supporters insisting that the schools are public. But the label certainly adopts an unusual definition of the word; if entities that are both owned and managed privately are nevertheless public, so are all government contractors. The National Review said that charter schools are public because they are “paid for by the taxpayers,” but by this standard, so are Lockheed Martin and Princeton University.

Branding issues aside, it’s clear that the risks of private management are quite high. Amy Baral of the Roosevelt Institute has written about the way that charters enable the blurring between corporate and community interests. In Michigan, for example, 80% of charters are run for profit, meaning that students can expected to be treated and educated well solely to the extent that doing so makes money. And in both for-profit and non-profit charter schools, the incentive to meet standards by any means necessary can come at the expense of both teachers’ and students’ ultimate well-being. The competitive pressure explains why many charter schools adopt brutal and inflexible disciplinary policies, with students punished heavily for everything from coughing too much to wearing the wrong-colored shoes, and constantly being expelled to keep outcomes and budgets up. “Every kid is money,” as one New Orleans principal put it.

It’s also true that education reformers seem worryingly uninterested in meaningful community control. Kingsland of New Schools for New Orleans is scathing of those who believe in an autonomous and participatory model of schooling. “The future is not autonomy,” he writes. “The future is trust, risk, freedom, and accountability.” Kingsland is cynical about giving teachers increased flexibility, scoffing at the belief that “the magical moment is when you give an educator the chance to pick her math curriculum.” So much education reform rhetoric carries these authoritarian undertones, whether it is the emphasis on discipline or the suggestion that democracy is a mere inefficiency.

But there is a final major danger to education reform plans, one seldom noted, which is that even as it injects money into the school systems it touches, it ultimately clears political space for funding reductions that hurt poor children. It does this by strengthening the consensus that education should operate more like a marketplace and less like a basic universal guarantee. As the education reform movement has built power, it has emphasized the primacy of choice, which comes in the form of either charters or school vouchers, both of which are intended to create a miniature market where schools compete over students. The ultimate aim is to remove government entirely, what Jeb Bush called “total voucherization,” and proponents are open about wanting to “move from a government-operated school system to a nonprofit-operated school system.” This would not only change the way schools themselves operate, but would also change the way political conversations about schools operate.

Take the case of school vouchers. In their function, school vouchers are logically indistinguishable from food stamps. They are an in-kind benefit for the poor, redistributing wealth downward and subsidizing a basic good. Food stamps allow poor people to go to a grocery store and purchase food, school vouchers allow them to go to an educational institution and purchase learning. The two operate in precisely the same way. That might be a perfectly legitimate way to ensure a basic educational standard. But there will inevitably be political ramifications to the change. Food stamps themselves are highly controversial, because conservatives see them as an unearned subsidy to the poor. Last spring, congressional Republicans announced that they would be pushing hard to roll back food stamp benefits, on the grounds that they undermine the “dignity” that comes in “taking care of yourself.” Others spoke out against those who haven’t “contributed quite as much to society” being fed for free.

There’s no reason why this dynamic would not immediately replicate itself if education operated similarly. If food subsidies shouldn’t be guaranteed, why should educational ones? In fact, “education stamps” might be even more vulnerable to attack than their nutritional counterpart. Food is a more essential necessity of life than education, thus if conservatives reject arguments that food should be guaranteed on necessity grounds, they are even more likely to reject such arguments when deployed in favor of a right to schooling.

In fact, it’s easy to suspect that conservatives are not really in favor of vouchers, and that once public schools were fully abolished, the vouchers would be next to go. Milton Friedman even said something similar in his original proposal for school privatization. Though he strongly supported vouchers, Friedman was clear that the vouchers were only a way of getting the public to sign on to a fully-privatized system: “Vouchers are not an end in themselves; they are a means to make a transition from a government to a market system…” Friedman was perfectly honest about what the ends were, saying that ultimately “the privatization of schooling would produce a new, highly active and profitable private industry.” Friedman spoke of the advantages that businesses would get from a whole new crop of customers, and the wondrous efficiencies that would be introduced to education by a complete surrender to market forces.

A nightmare scenario is easy to picture. When education operates like food stamps, there will be pressure to cut spending on the grounds that they are a handout from the taxpayer (which they are). Just as conservatives consistently want to attach work requirements to other forms of welfare, a series of onerous conditions would be placed on poor people’s receipt of vouchers. The current system, with its absolute guarantee of schooling as a fundamental unconditional right, will quickly erode. In this situation, poor students would have to take the schooling they could afford. Most of the cheap or subsidized schools would probably be rudimentary job training centers, which only offered education in exchange for a student’s agreement to permanently indenture themselves to the school’s parent company. If this scenario seems far-fetched, remember that it’s exactly what already exists for other basic resources such as food and healthcare.

In assessing the school choice movement, it’s important to recognize both the successes of some charter schools and the dangerous, antidemocratic risks that they carry. The real worrying aspect of districts like New Orleans is less what they are right now than what they make possible for the near future. If charters run like their brochures say they do, and are decentralized, varied, open to all, then community-centered liberals should be fully in favor of them regardless of how they are classified. And it’s certainly exciting to see college preparatory programs blossoming in a city whose schools had traditionally been known for sitting firmly at the bottom of nearly every available ranking. But the gains in performance and graduation rates come with costs as well. They may well sacrifice the long-term viability of the teaching profession, and they risk destroying community control and opening education up to the same cost-slashing political pressure that food stamps are under. Before transplanting the New Orleans model nationwide, education reformers should contemplate the dark potential consequences of their political success.

The Unendurable Horrors of Leadership Camp

Our correspondent is subjected to one of the most agonizing torments known to humankind: a weeklong corporate leadership training seminar…

As a professor of law, I am accustomed to leisurely mornings. “There is nothing worth doing,” we indolent law professors often say, “that cannot be done better after 11 a.m.” Late starts are one of the highlights of a career as a teacher of law (the main lowlight being that you are occasionally forced to teach the law). So I was in a doubly wretched condition when I found myself, in the earliest hours of a Monday morning, arriving at 1 Leadership Place.

1 Leadership Place is home to the Center for Creative Leadership, and I had been dispatched there at my new employer’s behest. I was to participate in a five-day “Leadership Development Program” intended to hone my leadership abilities (of which I admittedly have none). This was treated as a great perk of my new job, though given a choice I might have opted to use my time differently (perhaps a week in a Siberian prison camp, or having a series of my organs removed without anesthesia). According to the publicity materials, I would be learning to “think and act systemically,” “create buy-in,” and “leverage multiple life roles.” I did not (and, spoiler, still do not) know what any of these things mean. But I supposed it would be better to be systemic than not systemic, better to leverage the life roles than not leverage them. I therefore insist that I approached the whole thing with an open mind.

As it turns out, sending academics to leadership camp is not an aberration. As the leadership industry has grown over the last three decades, it has roped in all kinds of institutions, convincing them to shell out exorbitant sums for training programs. In a 1993 investigation for Harper’s entitled “Choice Academic Pork,” Benjamin DeMott traces the expansion of leadership education from business to universities:

The current leadership boom has at least one root in an early 1980s pop phenomenon—best-selling business manuals such as Management Secrets of Attila the Hun, The One-Minute Manager, and A Passion for Excellence, by Tom Peters and Nancy K. Austin. Leadership theory then trickled down (or up) into the universities and the public sector.

DeMott documents how this vast and profitable industry, which resembles a cult in its language and culture, managed to obtain substantial funding from government agencies to conduct endless seminars of dubious value. They have successfully persuaded people in an array of different sectors that leadership training is useful, even necessary. They have, uh, “created buy-in,” so to speak.

In the weeks leading up to my internment, I was asked to complete a battery of online “assessment instruments,” glorified pop-psych personality tests not unlike the ones people often post on Facebook. There were questions about how I relate to others (badly), how often I embrace new things (seldom to never), my attitude toward work (hate it), and how I solve complex problems (I do not. They fester.)

Many of the questions seemed like they could not possibly yield informative answers, e.g.:

“Tradition is valuable. 1. Always 2. Usually 3. Sometimes 4. Rarely 5. Never.”

“Surely,” I thought, “that would depend on the tradition. Bluegrass music? Noodle kugel? The UNC-Duke rivalry? All valuable traditions. But racism? Gefilte fish? Singing the Star Spangled Banner before every sports event? Not so much.

The tests were ostensibly designed to reveal my leadership style. Instead they revealed that Leadership Camp was going to be a tedious waste of time and money. A lot of money ($7,000), in fact, which fortunately wasn’t my own.

Leadership Place itself turned out to be a driveway leading to a stone-and-glass building set amidst several wooded acres alongside a lake. The triangular building surrounds a courtyard with flowing water, abundant greenery, and several sculptures, resembling discarded bits of plumbing, labeled “Leadership,” “Learning,” and “Life.” The tranquil and tasteful setting could pass for an upscale rehab facility, of the type populated with affluenza-afflicted wayward teens. The company eagerly cultivates an academic aura, and the facility is referred to as its “campus.” The campus bookstore sells dozens of business books, of the kind ubiquitous in airport newsstands. Typical selections included The World’s Most Powerful Leadership Principle: How to Become a Servant Leader (featuring a jacket blurb from the Senior Vice President of Operations for Chik-fil-a) and Leading with Soul: An Uncommon Journey of Spirit. Alas, they did not have my favorite managerial tome of all time, If Harry Potter Ran General Electric: Leadership Wisdom from the World Of Wizards, which is a genuine, honest-to-God book that you can look up and purchase.

Directed to the meeting room, I took an open seat at a table occupied by what looked like the cast from a community theater production of The Office. I soon learned that the group consisted of:

  • Don, from an industrial plastics company in Reading, PA.
  • Graham, district manager for a retail cosmetics chain.
  • Greg, electronic controls
  • Derwin, fibre optic cable manufacturer
  • Paul, medical devices at Big Pharma Corporation
  • John, health insurance
  • Tom, dental insurance

I am sure that at some point in human history, a more flavorless collection of white collar bores has been assembled, but I think you would have to search far and wide to find it.

The program began with a PowerPoint intended to provide an overview of the coming week. Even for a PowerPoint presentation on a leadership campus, it was remarkable for its vacuity.

We would receive feedback from executive coaches about our leadership challenges and “gift areas.” We were urged to practice active listening. We were given learning journals in which we were to record our “learnings.” We would be empowered as change agents armed with best practices for leading change.

The presenter, who was like a whiter Mister Rogers, then had us stand in circles, with each participant offering their definition of leadership, their personal leadership challenge, and three words their friends would use to describe you. The answers were obvious:

1. An ideological construct deployed to legitimize power and domination in the state and the labor process. 2. Avoiding any situation calling for leadership. 3. “Can’t stand bullshit.”

And bullshit it truly was. Leadership education has its own unique jargon, which is related to, but distinct from, business jargon. “Learnings” is not just a quirk of the Center for Creative Leadership, it’s one of the terms of the trade. Leadership studies is a whole field, with leaders categorized as exercising “transactional leadership” or “transformative leadership” (even “toxic leadership” if you screw up). Everything comes with its convoluted diagrams, and its elaborately developed theories, each with “7 Stages” or “5 Types.”

The week dragged on through endless further self-reflections, as well as team-building exercises. We stood in opposite rows of three people on a side, attempting to lower a six-foot pole to the ground while keeping it level. I suggested we just count to three and all let go at the same time. There, pole lowered. The others insisted my strategy would be cheating. This, I concluded, was because they were not practicing innovative leadership and creative problem-solving.

We built bridges out of popsicle sticks. Of the available tasks, I opted to hot-glue the sticks together, a job that entailed the least interaction with anyone else. I remain proud of the hot gluing I did there, and of the skillful manner in which I pinned the resulting bridge collapse on Derwin the fiber optics guy. (A true leader, I reasoned, is an expert in foisting responsibility.)

We arranged ourselves in various corners of the room, based on our leadership styles. I found myself all alone in the corner labeled “visionary.” The others in my group expressed admiration. “Yep,” I said, “that’s me. A visionary. Like David Koresh.” This did not appear to amuse them. But, I reasoned, a truly visionary leader does not care what does or does not amuse the herd.

Koresh actually isn’t a bad parallel, though. Leadership education is distinctly religious in its feel; it’s full of recitations and rituals. Dozens of arbitrary dogmas are accepted as revealed truth; God help you if you raise your hand and say that the “9 Stages of Empowered Decisionmaking” (or whatever) seem like a bunch of opaque redundancies. Of course, that means it’s not training for leadership at all; it’s training for conformity. “Leadership” just means “being in management,” since the sorts of people who actually make leaders don’t memorize multi-step diagrams on how to lead.

One of the strange things about the business world is the extent to which its jargon is euphemistic. When we talk about leaders, we’re talking about bosses. Yet for some reason bosses don’t like to admit what it is they do. That’s why employees become “team members,” why firing becomes “letting go.” In a way, it suggests that people’s human instincts are that capitalism is something rotten; the more you describe it with precision, the more horrendous it sounds. At the level of uplifting abstractions, derived from self-help culture, everything can be pleasant and neutral. It’s only when you hack through the forest of buzzwords that you can understand what is actually being discussed.

At the end of the week, each participant received a one-on-one “effective coaching” session, which was almost certainly modeled after Maoist self-criticism. I met with my coach in a small room, where I was seated on a stool. It began with the coach offering bits of feedback based on my performance during the week. According to the instructions, I was to regard each comment as a “gift” and accept it by saying only “thank you.” “Ok, whatever,” I thought. “Thank you,” I said.

“During the bridge-building activity, you stuck to hot-gluing sticks together the whole time. The others on your team thought that showed a lacked of engagement.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Fucking snitches,” I thought.

“You made a joke about being like David Koresh. One of your teammates found that hostile.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Screw him,” I thought.

“You said you ‘can’t stand bullshit.’ This projected negativity to your team.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Bullshit,” I thought.

“I think you would benefit from some executive coaching. We offer follow-up sessions.” “Thank you,” I said. “Fuck that,” I thought.

That evening, there was a group dinner and closing ceremony. Unforgivably, the meal included no alcohol, but did include a series of peppy recitations of our leadership principles by the coaches. If there is a number beyond “umpteenth,” it would describe the amount of times I heard the word “paradigm” in a single week. After eating, we had to go around the room (we were always Going Around the Room) so that everyone could “share your learnings from the week.” Of course, what I’d learned was that I really can’t stand bullshit, and that leadership camp is truly bullshit of the highest order. “What I learned,” I said, “is that I am a visionary leader and that I’m very good with a hot-glue gun. Thank you.” They seemed satisfied enough.

Illustration by Lewis Rossignol