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Zirpoli: America longs for trustworthy leaders | COMMENTARY

Most people don’t understand the differences between bacteria and viruses, or an epidemic from a pandemic. While we may not know what we don’t know, most of us know enough of what we don’t know to seek the advice of experts to fill in the blanks. Thus, we go to a dentist when we have a sore tooth or a dermatologist when we have a rash.

Americans appreciate others who are honest about what they know, especially when they share their knowledge. We appreciate straight-shooting medical doctors who don’t always have good news, but who don’t try to hide important information from us. Over time, their honesty builds trust and the combination of their knowledge and honesty builds respect.

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During this pandemic, political leaders around the world and at all levels of government have shared their knowledge and information with their citizens through the expertise of their governments. Those who have been honest about the challenges, present, and future, have earned the appreciation and respect of their citizens by telling us what we need to know, not necessarily what we want to hear. Because of their honesty and straight-shooting communication, they have earned the respect and admiration of a majority of their constituents.

In times of crisis, we ask for leaders to keep us together and guide us to safety. These leaders may be a supervisor at work, a state governor, or a national leader. Mature people know that we don’t know it all, but we are willing to allow others to fill in the blanks. And we look to our leaders, and our government, to fill in the blanks.

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There are exceptions. There are those who think they know it all and have nothing to learn. These people will always be among us, but they do not represent the majority. Some don’t understand the philosophy of working together for the common good. Like wearing a mask during a pandemic. They have not learned the concept of being stronger together, as a team, working towards a common goal.

Roger Cohen wrote in The New York Times about German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who once stated, “The nation-state alone does not have a future.” She was referring to leaders who believe that they can go it alone, that partnerships are not important or necessary. They fail to grasp the concept of being stronger together and reject institutions like NATO, the World Bank, and the World Health Organization.

In the early days of the pandemic, when the United States was presented with an effective COVID-19 test developed in Germany with genetic data collected from China by the World Health Organization, America refused it, choosing to develop our own tests and to go it alone. That decision significantly delayed the development and distribution of an effective test here and cost tens of thousands of American lives.

As Cohen pointed out, “Nationalism … is not working out too well at this time in history.” The leadership style of those pushing nationalism vs. globalism has “been devastating for their citizens” as demonstrated by the COVID-19 data today. These leaders were initially dishonest with their citizens about the seriousness of COVID-19, with disastrous long-term consequences. Their lies lead their citizens into the abyss they face today.

Merkel took a different approach. She shared Germany’s tests with other nations. She worked with President Emmanuel Macron of France and other European nations to develop a joint recovery program for their citizens. They understood that together they would be stronger and be able to offer more assistance to their citizens than if they acted alone. Merkel understands that because of our interdependence when one nation is weak, it weakens us all.

America tried to go it alone, only to discover that over 80 percent of the supplies and medicines we needed to fight the pandemic are manufactured in other countries. We wanted to have it both ways: Import what we needed from China while blaming them and others for our own poor response.

The autocrats will continue, as described by Cohen, to try to deceive their citizens, replacing truth and knowledge with “fear, misery, resentment, and lies.” These are their weapons to hold on to power. Cohen writes that, in China, “whistle-blowers die or disappear after speaking out.” In the United States, inspectors general are fired after speaking out. The results are the same.

Americans understand when someone is not being honest. Over time, we tend to lose trust and confidence in those people. Eventually, we find another doctor or a new leader.

Tom Zirpoli is the program coordinator of the Human Services Management graduate program at McDaniel College. He writes from Westminster. His column appears on Wednesdays. Email him at tzirpoli@mcdaniel.edu.

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